Category Archives: Presidents

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White

Another in a series of books attempting to restore the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant into proper historical perspective. Undoubtedly the most popular man in America at the time of his death in 1885, his reputation has taken a beating in the years since the end of Reconstruction. Due to a combination of Northern exhaustion after 15 years of Civil War and Reconstruction, and a purposeful campaign by Southern historians and heritage groups looking to recast the war as anything other than a fight to retain the institution of slavery, many myths about Grant have taken hold in popular imagination.

Ronald C. White, in American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, has given us a very accessible, and personal, biography of Grant that puts to rest many of the myths about him that have gained a foothold in popular memory since his death. He also provides what I consider to be one of the best reviews of Grant’s Presidency that has so far been published; one that puts it into proper historical context given the many challenges he faced after the disastrous Johnson years.

At the moment of his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most revered man in America. He had shepherded the Union war effort to ultimate victory, had completed two terms as President, which, if not spectacularly successful in hindsight, had done little to diminish his popularity, and he had riveted the nation with his heroic struggle against time, as he raced to complete his memoirs before the ravages of throat cancer took his life. Those memoirs, completed only five days before his death, are the widely acknowledged gold standard among military autobiographies, and their popularity restored the Grant family fortune. The country went into deep and prolonged mourning after his death, with 1.5 million people attending his New York funeral. Despite this though, By the end of the 19th century, Grant’s reputation had undergone a large, and largely negative, change.

Ask the average person today what they know about Ulysses S. Grant and you are as likely to hear that he was a “butcher” and a “drunk,” as you are to hear he was the preeminent military figure of the Civil war whose skill and strategic genius saved the union. As with most myths however, the truth is far more complicated. And in the case of Grant, they are almost universally incorrect. White does a very good job of separating fact from fiction with regards to these myths.

One of the most pernicious of these myths surrounds Grant’s alleged drinking problem. It is supposedly the cause of his forced resignation from the Army, and was at the root of any setback he experienced throughout the war. Grant didn’t discipline his troops after the initial victory at Belmont, so he must have been drinking. Grant wasn’t prepared for Albert Sidney Johnston’s attach at Shiloh, so he must have been drinking. Grant unwisely ordered a last assault at Cold Harbor, so he must have been drinking. And on and on and on…

Politics too played a part. Rumors that Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 because of his drinking allowed rival Generals, usually those annoyed that Grant’s success was getting in the way of their glory, to raise the specter that he had fallen off the wagon and should be replaced, with the usual recommendation being that the replacement should be the one making the charge.

White deals with these rumors in a very effective way. Rather than devoting a whole chapter on the topic, which to me has the effect of elevating their credibility, he simply deals with them within the timeline of the narrative. He does not assert Grant did not drink – he clearly did – he simply notes there is no convincing evidence that Grant routinely drank to excess, or that his drinking had any effect on his military performance. Contemporary evidence, other than repeated rumors, are almost non-existent. Every person sent to Grant’s command to investigate these rumors, reported back they had no basis in fact. So the reality then, as White shows, is that while Grant was not a teetotaler, he did not have a serious drinking problem. And there is not a scrap of evidence drinking ever had an effect on his performance during the war.

Another persistent myth about Grant relates to his military skill. Southerners, eager to elevate their participation in the war as a heroic struggle against a marauding north intent on trampling rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, had to come up with ways to explain their defeat that didn’t involve admitting any fault with their (lost) cause. From this sprang first, the assertion that Southern soldiers were superior to the northern counterparts. Whereas they portrayed themselves as selfless warriors merely looking to defend hearth and home, Northern troops were depicted as the lackeys of money grubbers looking to strip the South of its wealth, or, as so eloquently put by Shelby Foote, Confederates believed “one Southern soldier was worth ten Yankee hirelings.” Ironically, an argument could persuasively be made that the reality was exactly the opposite. Confederate soldiers were fighting so the landed gentry could maintain their way of life, one that depended on slavery. It was the North that was fighting for a concept – “Union.”

The second, and possibly the most important part of this effort to recast the war, was the importance of demonstrating the superiority of Confederate Generals. The post war south wanted heroes to latch on to. They had to be portrayed as honorable men, fighting for a righteous cause. They also had to find an explanation for their defeat other than the superiority of their northern counterparts. This was particularly true with their most idolized figure – Robert E. Lee.
Southerners dealt with these needs in two ways. First, they asserted the only way the North could have defeated the South was through brute force and overwhelming numbers. At no point, they asserted, were southern generals outmatched, or southern troops outfought. They simply lacked the resources needed to win. Secondly, in order to elevate the character of their hero Lee, they had to deflate that of the man who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.

White doesn’t deal extensively in what ifs related to the manpower argument. The South certainly had the resources it needed to win the war had it employed an effective strategy. It didn’t. He does debunk the notion that Grant was victorious solely through the application of overwhelming force. After all, the North had that same advantage from the beginning of the war, and were not able to defeat Lee. Only when an able General, one who understood the strategies needed to overwhelm Lee, took command, were they able to win. The fact is, as White shows, northern troops were equally as brave and skilled as their southern counterparts; and Grant was superior to Lee, particularly as a strategic thinker. Lee was myopically focused on the eastern theater, while Grant viewed the conflict as a nationwide one. Where Lee cared little for what happened in the west, Grant realized that success there made victory in the east more attainable.

White does a very effective job debunking most of the negative assertions about Grants military ability. He does not do this by ignoring Grant’s failures (e.g. Cold Harbor), or by denigrating the ability of Robert E. Lee. He presents an effective, though not ground breaking review of Grant’s efforts up to his elevation as General in Chief, and provides a very fair analysis of events after that point.

The only conclusion that can plausibly be drawn from available evidence is that Grant, far from being a butcher of men, was in fact a skilled tactician and strategist, who made effective use of his resources. He put in place an effective strategy for winning the war, and executed it with considerable skill. Robert E. Lee did present the toughest resistance Grant had come up against during the war, but Grant was more than equal to the task. His casualty rates during the Overland Campaign were appalling of course, but that was the expected result of the type of fighting needed to bludgeon the South into submission. Always on the attack Grant was guaranteed to suffer more casualties. But as a percentage of his Army they were no worse than Lee’s. And if one looks at the entire war, Grant lost considerably fewer men while in command than Lee did.

Following Lee’s surrender, Grant’s role changed. He entered the political realm, first as General in Chief under the volatile Andrew Johnson, then as interim Secretary of War, and finally as President. White provides an excellent review of this time, far better than most biographies of Grant which tend to rush through this period.

For many years, Grant has ranked near the bottom of the list of effective Presidents. But in recent years, as historians have begun to take a more dispassionate look at his two terms, that ranking has improved. White does what many biographers have not, examined his Presidency in the context of the challenges he faced.

As President, after two year of conflict under Andrew Johnson who aided the South as it tried to reassert white dominance, Grant faced a daunting task. Not only was he trying to repair the country, he was trying to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Ambivalent about slavery before the war, Grant became a staunch supporter of full citizenship for former slaves after it.

He made significant progress pushing back the Ku Klux Klan, and successfully navigated the rough political waters that went along with military reconstruction in the South. Many assert, including I think the author, that Grant should be considered the first Civil Rights President. Strong evidence for this includes the views of Frederick Douglass, who had a tepid opinion of Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of blacks, but strongly support Grant’s. The support of Jewish leaders as well, who were insulted by Grant’s infamous General Order #11 in 1862 that singled out Jewish traders for condemnation, but who came around to view him as an ally, is another piece of evidence in favor of that view. And not only was he a proponent of full rights for African Americans, but he tried to install a liberal policy regarding Native Americans, believing the government had trampled on their rights.

As events eventually overtook the country, and weariness after 15 years of war and the conflict of Reconstruction set in, much of what Grant did and tried to do, was rolled back by subsequent administrations. It would be nearly a century before blacks were able to get restored to them anything close to their full rights again. But, Grant’s efforts here were noble, and were for a time successful. He deserves credit for that.

Grant also had to deal with several economic issues during his administration. Early in his first term, wealthy speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market. Grant intervened to stop them just in time, the result of which was Black Friday, a panic that led to months of financial devastation. White argues Grant’s quick action should be credited. While that is true, I think he goes too far in absolving Grant here. He either didn’t realize or didn’t want to realize, that he was being used by Gould and Fisk. Had he been more diligent, he might have been able to terminate their machinations without the subsequent panic.

White also gives Grant too much credit for the way he dealt with the depression of 1873. The crisis, which was the result of over speculation in railroad stock, led Grant to further contract the money supply in order to prevent over inflation. White implies this was the correct move in that it kept inflation from getting out of hand. However, at the same time it caused interest rates to rise, which hurt those in debt (as Grant acknowledged and agonized over), and severely limited the amount of money available to companies with growth plans. Those actions probably prolonged the downturn.

White compares Grant’s steady, no nonsense reaction to the crisis to Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s, as he tried to cheer lead the economy into action, which White implies was a less effective strategy. This is not a good comparison. Grant’s reaction was to the immediate crisis as it occurred, while FDR’s was to an economy that had been in depression for three years, and which had sapped the countries will. A more apt comparison would have been to Hoover, whose reaction was much the same as Grant’s, a refusal to apply stimulus, thus prolonging the crisis.

White also deals effectively with the numerous scandals that occurred during Grant’s two terms. Seemingly unable to believe anyone he had known and trusted could act duplicitously, he was slow to remove corrupt officials, and remained loyal to those taking advantage of their relationship with him for far too long. Grant was personally incorruptible, but was seemingly blind to corruption around him until it instigated a crisis. This is the reason Grant is ranked as a middling President rather than an above average one.

Overall I think anyone with an interest in Ulysses S. Grant would enjoy this book immensely. It is generally fair (with the exceptions I noted), and effectively deals with the many myths surrounding Grant and his career. He does a nice job of tying Grant’s life as a boy and student at West Point to his later action as General and President. He does a nice job of recounting Grant’s career, and his service in both Mexico and in the Civil War. He provides a very lucid account of Grant’s Presidency that puts it into the context of the challenges he faced. He also gives a great account of Grant’s world tour after his White House years, and a very moving one of his final death struggle.

Most importantly, it is very well written

There are flaws, some of which I noted. He was at times quick to give Grant the benefit of the doubt in cases where there was an equally plausible counter argument. He also seemed to take great pains to portray Grant as a devout Christian. He was a believer of course, but I don’t think religion played a particularly important role in his life. And finally I think he gave Grant too much credit for his reactions to the gold crisis in 1869 and the depression of 1873.

Still, highly recommended!

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Virtually every issue we deal with as a country is, at its base, influenced by our view of national identity, and the nature of citizenship. Many authors have looked at this topic from a number of different perspectives. Gary Gilroy in Black Atlantic gave us a transnational view of black identity which transcended the borders of the nation-state.  Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism talks about imagined communities bound together by limited borders and a belief in shared experience.  Prasenjit Duara in Historicizing National Identity challenges us to look at nationalism using alternate views of time and space. Lizbeth Cohen in A Consumers’ Republic looks at the evolution of American national identity with consumerism as the central focus.  Aiwha Ong in Flexible Citizenship takes a critical look at the view Americans have of what constitutes good citizenship and how that manifests itself in the way instruments of governmentality interacts with new immigrants, and Gary Gerstle, in the book I will be reviewing here, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, views civic and racial nationalism as the defining paradigm with which to look at the evolution of American citizenship.

Policies aimed at Immigration and social policy, drug and law enforcement, affirmative action, welfare policy, foreign policy and many other issues all can be traced to the ways we view citizenship and the struggle to maintain a uniquely American identity. Gary Gerstle has given us a uniquely valuable tool for looking at American nationalism and the meaning of citizenship, encompassing many of the theories proposed by the above authors, but looking at it through the dual lens of racial and civic nationalism. Gerstle structures his book using well known historical figures to illustrate his point, particularly in the person former president Theodore Roosevelt. In Gerstle’s narrative it is from this point that subsequent events can be referenced.

For Gerstle civic nationalism is ably represented by the views of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who, endorsing Israel Zangwill’s view of America as “God’s Crucible, where all races of Europe are melting and reforming!” (Gerstle, 3), relocated this transformative power not in God, “but in the nations core political ideals, in the American belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.” (Gerstle, 4) Since these principles were enshrined in the founding documents Gerstle notes that Schlesinger and others have “argued that they have marked something distinctive about the American people and their polity.” (Gerstle, 4) Mitigating the benefits of civic nationalism in Gerstle’s view is a racial nationalism that “conceives of America in ethno-racial terms, as people held together, as people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.” (Gerstle, 4) Gerstle notes that like civic nationalism, racial nationalism was also inscribed in our founding documents, particularly in the Constitution, which acknowledged the enslavement of Africans through its extension of the transatlantic slave trade, and definition of slaves as less than fully human via the 3/5 clause.

The mixture of these two types of nationalism has driven American governmental policy from 1890 through to the present. By looking at the inherent tensions between these two views in the lives of significant American leaders, from Theodore Roosevelt through to Bill Clinton, Gerstle is able to personalize and focus his analysis of how the intermixture of the two resulted in a surprisingly strong and uniquely American national identity. This identity, in his view, lasted until the 1960s when the civil rights movement and Vietnam War began the disintegration of this “imagined community,” into more granular identities of ethnicity, gender and class. Overlapping this is the effect of immigration policy and war on this mix mixture of racial and civic nationalism.

Gerstle identifies Theodore Roosevelt as the embodiment of this tension between civic and racial nationalism, the mixture of which allowed him to pursue progressive social and economic policies that benefited a significant portion of the population. Throughout the book Gerstle uses TR as the point of reference in his analysis of later developments. This is an effective device that gives the reader an easily understandable base to return to in order to put later events into context. At times he is a little over enthusiastic, as when he offers an opinion as to what Roosevelt would have thought of later developments. I’m not a fan of this kind of hypothetical speculation. While understand the purpose is to personalize the comparison in order to make it more easily accessible to the reader, I think a think a simple comparison to Roosevelt’s views and actions would have been more effective.

Theodore Roosevelt’s views as to what would make the American archetype had two components. First was his idealization of the rugged individualist; he idolized the Indian fighter, the frontiersman, and the cowboy. “The harsh wilderness,” he believed, “stripped people of their Old World ranks and privileges.” (Gerstle, 24) The harsh environment of the frontier produced conditions of rough equality and mutual dependence, and from this “a democratic ethos emerged.” (Gerstle, 24) Echoing Aiwha Ong’s views on the American view of an ideal citizen, Roosevelt believed that “self-reliance was perhaps the most important ingredient of success.” (Gerstle, 24)

The second component of Roosevelt’s idealized American archetype involved his view on racial hybridity. Theodore Roosevelt believed a controlled mixing of races would produce this ideal. “For Roosevelt the explanation for the rise of democracy…rested ultimately on the racial superiority of the English-speaking peoples.” (Gerstle, 24) He excluded non-Europeans from this mixture, believing that certain racial groups – eastern and southern European, Asian, and African – did not have the ability to function in a democratic society. Later on however, he began to soften his objection to the inclusion of eastern and southern Europeans, deciding they were a worthy addition to the mixture Roosevelt also came to respect the Japanese people and believed they too could be included.

In addition to his views on racial mixing and the importance of rugged individualism, Roosevelt was passionately devoted to civic nationalism. Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Gerstle describes Roosevelt as “someone who imagined the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”  (Gerstle, 45) This at times produced contradictions between his actions and statements. Most notable was the way he treated the reputation of black cavalryman who had fought in the Spanish-American War. Immediately after the war he was effusive in his praise for their valor, but as time went by he began to denigrate and downplay their contribution. Thus, for all practical purposes “Roosevelt’s national community was open to anyone would could claim European origins or ancestry.” (Gerstle, 45) It certainly excluded African-Americans. In this and other examples, Roosevelt’s notions of the superiority of European racial stock conflicted with his views on civic nationalism. It was this type of conflict that Gerstle argues, has characterized American national identity since then.

Gerstle’s admiration for Theodore Roosevelt is clear. He concludes his analysis by noting that Roosevelt’s “civic nationalism was capacious and democratic.” (Gerstle, 79) He notes that Roosevelt wanted to open the country to all European immigrants, “even those who had come from the ‘inferior’ peoples of southern and eastern Europe.” (Gerstle, 79) He also notes that Roosevelt’s views on the role of government in the economy changed; abandoning the notion that individuals could, through simple hard work and dedication raise themselves out of poverty, he embraced the need for an activist government that protected the rights of disadvantaged peoples. The only price for this was that immigrants had to “jettison their Old World cultures and assimilate fully into American life.” (Gerstle, 79) Though these views would not carry him to the White House in 1912, Gerstle notes, his “program became the template upon which the twentieth-century liberalism took shape.” (Gerstle, 79)

Chapters four through six in many ways are the most interesting in this book. In them, Gerstle explores how the tensions between racial and civic nationalism manifest themselves in governmental policy. In particular, Gerstle focuses on immigration policy and war as the areas where this tension is seen most clearly. In this view war offers a way for the country to test itself, and to fight for its most important values. It also, as Theodore Roosevelt believed, reinvigorated the racial mixing he believed was necessary to keeping the nation vital. Immigration policy on the other hand, made visible who should and should not be eligible for citizenship. Thus, while Woodrow Wilson’s “peace without victory” policy flowed from civic nationalism, the military was still segregated. After the “war to end all wars,” America went through a period of severe immigration restriction, effectively barring southern and eastern Europeans and Asians, based on the belief that people from those regions were not fit to become American citizens. In the case of the Japanese the fear was the opposite, with many believing they were equal and possibly superior to Americans of strictly European descent. Since they could “be neither assimilated nor made subservient, they had to be excluded altogether from America.” (Gerstle, 112) Gerstle argues these restrictive immigration policies had the effect of stabilizing racial tensions in the country to the point that when Franklin Roosevelt assumed office there was very little attention paid to this aspect of nationalism. It was assumed most immigrants had achieved the desired “American-ness.” It also goes without saying, while racial tensions subsided as a public issue, it did not mean that racism and inequality were no longer a problem. In many ways this calm interim made later conflict more inevitable, and more violent.

More important however, was FDR’s reaction to the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Instead of merely restoring the morale of the nation after assuming office, he undertook an “experiment in state building without precedent.” (Gerstle, 128) Gerstle speculates that FDR was able to enact much of what Theodore Roosevelt had attempted because of the lessening of the tensions between civic and racial nationalistic impulses. Most important was the massive government intervention in the economy, which TR believed was necessary to secure the “social rights” of all citizens. Gerstle argues that FDR was successful in this. FDR also shared TR’s views on racial hybridity, though without the animus for supposedly inferior racial groups. And, like TR, Franklin Roosevelt was a “fervent nationalist who conceived of the nation as an entity nobler than any particular class, region, or interest.” (Gerstle, 132) With American entry into World War II civic nationalism reached an acme that has not been repeated since, even during the cold war. In a reaction to racial purity as practiced by the Nazi’s, America reveled in their diversity. But, as with the aftermath of World War I, racial nationalism rose from its pre-war slumber. Restrictions were again placed on immigration allegedly due to the number of refugees entering America, and with the segregation again of African American troops, the conflict between racial and civic nationalism was again on display.

Gerstle sees the cold war years that followed World War II as the last period in which the tension between racial and civic nationalism as maintaining the American “imagined community.” The threat of communism and fear of home-grown radicals served as the pretext for an increase of civic nationalism, even though in this case it served to deny some civil liberties. The U.S. again severely restricted immigration as Italian and Jewish immigrants were particularly discriminated against.

Finally he documents the deconstruction of “Rooseveltian Nationalism” with the start of the civil rights movement, and with America’s humiliation in Vietnam. Gerstle argues that racial groups who had once strived to achieve “whiteness,” were now abandoning an American nationalism in favor of ethnic or class identification. “The nationalist crisis occurred primarily in the realm of ideology, culture, and institutions. Many people who resided in America no longer imagined that they belonged to the same national community of that they shared a common set of ideals. The bonds of nationhood had weakened, and the Rooseveltian program of nation building that had created those bonds in the first place had been repudiated. A nationalist era that had begun in the early decades of the twentieth century had come to a stunning end.” (Gerstle, 345) He ends with speculation on how civic nationalism could be revived without the baggage that racial nationalism brought with it. In this he is skeptical, believing America will either opt for the “resurgence of a strong, solidaristic, and exclusionary national identity of the sort that has existed in the past; or, in the interests of tolerance and diversity, we will continue to opt for a weaker identity.” (Gerstle, 373)

In the end, Gerstle is fearful we will never recapture our civic nationalism without the baggage of racial nationalism, or we will become so tolerant and diverse that our national unity will be permanently weakened. In this I disagree. In my opinion it is not racial nationalism we need fear, but rather a religious one. In my experience racial identity, spawned by discrimination and racism, does not entirely divorce those adopting it from a desire for civic nationalism. The tolerance Gerstle fears, will not permanently result in a country of separate tribal identities, rather, it will reduce the need for division based on them. Tolerance and diversity implies an acceptance of differences that is the opposite of racism. Since it is that racism that spawned this racial tribalism in the first place, as the racism ebbs, so will the perceived need to identify more strongly by race than by nationality. My real fear is we are moving toward a religious nationalism, one that induces people to identify more strongly with a religious identification than a national one. Can anyone see what has been going on in Kentucky the last several weeks and not wonder if this is the case?

Increasingly, we see public policy, and the worth of public officials, being judged based upon their adherence to a religious credo. Over the last twenty years we have seen attempts to modify the constitution to discriminate against gays, to codify a religious view of how women control their bodies, to guarantee prayer in the schools, to codify expressions of religious belief in our national oaths, and to submit scientific curriculums to religious interpretations. All of this testifies to this fear. Our political campaigns have become dominated by this as well. As a presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would not influence public policy. Forty-four years later, in 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would influence public policy, particularly in relation to reproductive rights. Things have only accelerated since then with candidates increasingly asserting religious law comes before civil law.

While I disagree with his fear of racial identity, in terms of format and style I have rarely had such a pleasant read. Gerstle’s narrative is lively and flows easily from topic to topic. His use of well-known historical figures (TR, FDR, Wilson etc.) as touchpoints is very effective. He made very good use of his sources, though at times neglected to cite statements made that clearly required it. Also, as I mentioned earlier, projecting what dead people would think about specific modern events was unnecessary.







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Robert Remini’s goal for his work Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars are stated simply, “to explain what happened and why.” He prefaces this however, by saying, “that it is not my intention to excuse of exonerate Andrew Jackson for the role he played in the removal of Native Americans west of the Mississippi River.” He goes on to note that it is important for Americans to view history through the eyes of those living through it. It is easy to make judgements about motivation through a modern lens, but in order to truly understand, one must comprehend the mood and attitude which were prevalent at the time. He used the internment of the Japanese during World War II as an example of this. Clearly, this internment was morally wrong, but at the same time there was little objection to it because of the atmosphere of fear and mistrust of Japanese citizens following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Similarly, he notes, there was support for the removal of the Indians for a number of reasons, among them the fear of white populations living proximate to Indian lands.

While Remini’s stated goal is to simply tell us what happened, it is just as clear that he wants to place the reader in that place and time in order to convey an accurate sense of the mood of the American public. In that way he believes we can understand more fully the motivations driving Andrew Jackson in his relations with the Indians. I also believe, despite his protestations to the contrary, that Remini would like the reader to take a gentler view of Andrew Jackson’s role in causing the suffering to the Indian population during and after removal.

Unlike others who have taken a more comprehensive look at Indian policy during this era, such as Ronald Satz in American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era, Remini, in order to achieve his stated goal concentrates his narrative on Andrew Jackson and his relationship with American Indians. By taking us through his early experiences during the Revolutionary War in South Carolina where his brother was killed, in all likelihood by Indians, Remini is trying to get the read to understand the events that shaped Jackson’s early views of Indians, and to explain his legendary determination and ruthlessness. He goes into detailed descriptions of Jackson’s experiences as an Indian fighter, his role in the Creek War and subsequent negotiations, his role in the seizure of Florida, his elevation to the Presidency and his policy towards the Indians during his two terms in the White House.

Remini has produced a very compelling narrative. His descriptions of Jackson’s relationship with the Indians prior to becoming President are particularly riveting. He uses Jackson’s experiences dealing with Indians, particularly during the Creek wars and the seizure of Florida to explore Jackson’s later attitudes towards the Indians. He doesn’t shy away from Jackson’s dark side. He admits that Jackson, like any frontiersman of the day, viewed the Indian as inferior both culturally and intellectually. This is evidenced by Jackson’s paternalistic attitudes toward them during the treaty negotiations that ended the Creek War, and later, in his communications to the Indians, trying to induce them to accept the treaties that would result in their removal west. It also partially explains, along with his experiences during the Revolution, his often brutal savagery towards his Indian opponents during the War of 1812

As Ronald Satz points out however, Remini takes great pains to get the reader to take a more benign view of Jackson’s actual attitude towards the Indians, and in particular, his later actions during the removal process. Remini points out that Jackson adopted an Indian orphan, that he counted many Indians among his friends, that he often expressed a desire to help the downtrodden among the various tribes and that many Indians expressed appreciation for this attitude, and in the end, argues Jackson’s attempts to remove the Indians was done primarily to benefit their people.

Remini attempts almost no analysis of the bureaucratic and political factors influencing Indian policy. In fact, the first twelve chapters are devoted entirely to events occurring before Andrew Jackson became president. Only with the onset of the Jackson administration do we get any discussion of the politics surrounding Indian removal or of its implementation. The book ends with the termination of the Jackson administration.

Remini clearly has sympathy for Jackson. In my opinion, he bends back a bit too far to get the reader to view Jackson’ role in removal as a quest to do what was best for the Indian. In this I agree with Satz, Jackson’s motivations for advocating Indian removal was based on his adherence to a traditional states rights view, and his fervent nationalism. Jackson also desired Indian removal as a security measure, making the argument that having Indians and Whites in close proximity was sure to end in bloodshed. To this I would add he was under strong political pressure, particularly from southern governors, who themselves were being pressured by white settlers desiring more land. I don’t believe Jackson had any particular animosity towards the Indians, but their well-being was secondary to the other pressures impelling removal.

I am also of the opinion that Remini is a bit too uncritical of Jackson’s statements defending removal. In fact, inconsistencies can be found in the context of this book. On page 237 Remini makes the statement that Jackson’s “noble desire to give the Indians a free choice between staying and removing, one devoid of coercion, was disregarded by land-greedy state and federal officials…” This statement conflicts with Remini’s own accounts of Jackson’s actions in trying to get the Indians to accept removal. In a letter to William B. Lewis, Jackson, complaining about the decision of the Cherokees and Choctaws not to attend a meeting with him, writes, “I leave the poor deluded Creeks and Cherokees to their fate, and their annihilation.” Remini also notes the many times that Jackson encouraged treaty negotiators to use the Indian fear of mistreatment by whites as a negotiating tactic. During the negotiations of the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek following the Indians’ initial rejection of the government’s treaty terms, negotiators John H. Eaton and John Coffee threatened the Indians, warning them “if they refused to enter into a treaty…the President…would march an army into their country, build forts in all parts of their hunting grounds, expand the authority and laws of the United States over the Choctaw territory…” Lastly, Jackson’s attitude towards the Cherokee Indians also casts doubt on his allegedly noble attempts to give them a free choice on whether to accept removal or not. Jackson completely dismissed the strides made by Cherokees to adopt a “white” way of life. He fought as hard, or harder, for the removal of them, as he did for any of the other tribes. Had he truly been willing to allow for cultural change, he would not have done that.

In summary, I think Remini’s views on Andrew Jackson and Indian removal is a valuable counterpoint to the standard view of Jackson’s antipathy towards the Indians. Through the use of lucid and, at times, compelling arguments, Remini is able to effectively argue for a more benign view of Jackson’s role in removal. He ably describes the events that formed Jackson’s later attitudes towards the Indians. As I noted above however, I feel he is going too far in trying to exonerate Jackson for some of the blame for the horrors inflicted on the Indians as the result of his removal policy.



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One of the least discussed, and most misunderstood aspects of George Washington’s life, was his relationship to the institution slavery in general, and to his own slaves in particular. For those inclined to a sympathetic view, the portrayal of Washington as a man who treated his slaves better than most and who eventually freed them at his death, is all they need to know. For those inclined to the opposite view, the fact that Washington never emancipated his slaves during his lifetime, was not above the use of corporal punishment to “correct” their behavior, and that he sold slaves solely for disciplinary reasons, provides more than enough justification for this view. Henry Wiencek in his excellent book An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, looks at Washington and slavery from both sides, chastising or praising Washington’s behavior where the evidence warrants. Wiencek’s driving theme however, is the process by which Washington moved from an attitude of relative indifference to slavery and its effects, to viewing it with repugnance by his death. He asserts that on the issue of slavery, the founding fathers perhaps ought to be judged not on a modern standard of morality that would surely condemn all, but on the example set by Washington. The overall effect of the book therefore, is to lead one to a more positive image of Washington relative to his ownership of slaves. Finally, Wiencek looks at two controversies involving Washington’s family and their actual and potential slave family members. Organizationally the book is roughly chronological, looking at Washington’s interactions with slavery throughout his life, at how the Virginia gentry handled the increasingly complicated definition of race, and how they decided who would remain in servitude and who wouldn’t. With his obvious passion for both George Washington and against the evils of slavery, Wiencek is prone in some places to make sweeping assertions that are not necessarily supported by the evidence.

Wiencek begins with a fairly standard look at Washington’s early life, his tumultuous relationship with his mother, his attempt to join the British Navy, and his early military career. More importantly, he describes the nature of the society in which Washington was raised; a society where “the keys to prosperity were the tobacco leaf and the deed of land.” (Wiencek, 27) Compared to Massachusetts where land access was controlled by the middling rank, in Virginia, it was controlled by an “elite who employed it to maintain their own hegemony.” (Wiencek, 28) Within this system, the institution of slavery thrived to the point that by the time Washington came of age, it “had taken over the colony to the degree that…’to live in Virginia without slaves is morally impossible’.” (Wiencek, 45) He recounts the success Washington’s enjoyed in this system, combining a knack for land speculation with a talent for marrying above their station. Washington not only emulated his ancestors, but exceeded them in wealth and influence. It was in this context that Washington began his journey from someone who viewed slavery primarily in economic terms, to one who became opposed to it on both economic and moral grounds.

For most in Americans today the face of slavery in the eighteenth century is a wholly black one. However, as Wiencek shows in an excellent chapter entitled “On the Borderland,” the reality of slavery was far more complicated. Racial mixing forced colonial leaders to enact laws with contorted definitions of who was considered a slave and who wasn’t. Depending on the situation of the mother, the circumstances at child birth,  the nature of the birth, or whether the offspring of slaves or indentured servants, a child was determined to be free, slave, or indentured. Ferreting out mixed race children became an obsession for officials trying to maintain the economic viability of the institution. George Washington became a participant in this obsession when he was appointed a justice of Fairfax County in 1764, a position from which he participated in decisions that today seem unusually cruel, including the forcible removal of children from their mothers, and corporal punishment of poor and destitute women.

Wiencek explores this further using three vignettes involving George and Martha Washington and their families. The first, in a chapter dedicated to Martha Washington and her eventual marriage to George Washington, the implications of race mixing, legally and culturally, are explored. John Custis, the father of Martha’s first husband Daniel Parke Custis, fathered a child by one of his slaves. Instead of trying to hide the child Custis embraced him and declared publicly his relationship. At one point John Custis threatened to rewrite his will, leaving “Black” Jack Custis as his only heir. Jack Custis was eventually emancipated in his father’s will and given land and a horse, extraordinary gestures for someone born into a state of slavery. It was this type of “boundary crossing,” from slave to free, that disturbed Virginia’s elite leaders. In order to preserve slavery, explicit definitions of what constituted slavery had to be maintained. John Custis’ efforts on behalf of his son Jack crossed that line.

After his father’s death, and not long before his own, Jack Custis’ half-brother Daniel Parke Custis was married to Martha Dandridge who eventually had two children. Not long after, when their children were still very young Daniel Parke Custis died, leaving a very large estate to Martha. In 1759, the Widow Custis married George Washington, who thus added the property of Daniel Parke Custis to his own, making him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. A large part of this wealth were the slaves he held, which had nearly doubled as the result of his marriage. One of the slaves who eventually inhabited Mount Vernon was one Ann Dandridge, the illegitimate daughter of John Dandridge and a slave of mixed African and Cherokee heritage, and Martha Washington’s half-sister. This illustrates vividly, even in the first family of America, the strange nature of slavery in Virginia. Martha Washington owned her half-sister. In a further twist, Wiencek presents convincing evidence that Martha’s son Jacky Custis fathered a child by Ann Dandridge. Thus, the child of this union was not only Martha Washington’s grandchild, but her niece as well, and was also owned by Martha Washington. It throws into very stark relief the blurring racial lines in Virginia, and particularly the powerlessness slave women had over their own bodies.

In a third vignette, Wiencek delves into the persistent claims of some that George Washington fathered a child – West Ford – by a slave woman named Venus. Wiencek does a good job plowing through the evidence, particularly the wills of George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington and his wife Hannah Bushrod Washington, showing fairly persuasively that the circumstances were such that it is plausible George Washington was West Ford’s father. However, he also does a good job presenting evidence this could not have been the case including the possibility George Washington was sterile due to the bout of small pox he suffered as a young man, and that Washington’s legendary emphasis on self-control would preclude the possibility. Wiencek concludes it is more likely Ford was the son of one of John Augustine’s sons. DNA evidence would probably be needed to make a reasonable determination, something that is unlikely to happen. Wiencek handles this chapter with great skill, avoiding the temptation to make definitive claims not supported by a reasonable interpretation of the evidence.

Where Wiencek does not avoid making claims unsupported by evidence is in the discussion of the root causes of Washington’s change of heart regarding slavery. In a chapter entitled “A Scheme in Williamsburg,” Wiencek makes the case that Washington’s experiences in Williamsburg as a member of the House of Burgesses started him on “a long moral transfiguration that concluded in the writing of his will – his indictment of the laws, the country, and the people that enacted events that, to him, had the feeling of death.” (Wiencek, 188) Specifically, Wiencek cites Washington’s involvement in a raffle in which slaves would be awarded to the winner. This raffle, designed to liquidate the assets of Bernard Moore in payment for his debts, Wiencek argues, along with the slave auctions Washington surely witnessed, started him on this path. His evidence for this is scant. He cites the fact that it was about this time that Washington began to show a reluctance for separating slave families, and the reaction of modern day tourists to a mock auction, as support for this contention. In my opinion this is pretty slim evidence on which to make a claim of this magnitude. While it is certainly possible he is correct, Wiencek’s assertion here doesn’t rise to the plausibility standard one expects of research historians.

In a more persuasive chapter on his Revolutionary War experiences, Wiencek details Washington’s evolution with regards to enrolling blacks into the Continental Army. Utterly opposed to it at first Washington, by degrees, lessened his opposition to the point where by the end of the war a significant portion of the army was comprised of black soldiers. In fact, as Wiencek points out, the Continental Army was the most integrated American army until the Vietnam War. Washington also shows some support for schemes devised by Alexander Hamilton, Henry Laurens and Lafayette, to enroll slaves with the promise of freedom. There can be no doubt that Washington witnessed numerous acts of courage on the part of these soldiers, evidenced by his trust in a majority black regiment from Rhode Island to spear head the attack on one of two redoubts, the capture of which was vital to the eventual American triumph at Yorktown. These soldiers performed their duty flawlessly, a fact that could not have been lost on Washington.

Here again however, Wiencek engages in a bit of hyperbole to make his point. He argues the failure of efforts by Henry Laurens and his father to enroll slaves into the Continental Army in South Carolina, resulted in the disastrous loss of Charleston in 1780. In fact the reason for the defeat were far more complex than that, and are more directly attributable to poor leadership. He later makes the claim that were it not for the timely action of his slave, George Washington’s cousin William Washington would have been killed pursuing Colonel Banastre Tarelton at Cowpens, thus putting the victory in jeopardy. While it is true Washington’s life was probably saved by his slave William Ball, and that losing Washington’s services would have been a blow to the southern army, it is quite a stretch to say this one incident saved the battle for the Americans. By that time most of Tarleton’s forces had been either killed or captured.

Finally, Wiencek guides us through Washington’s views on slavery from the end of the war to the end of his life. As he ably demonstrates, Washington’s progression to the ultimate emancipation of his slaves was not smooth. He was dishonest in his attempts to retrieve Martha’s runaway slave Ona Judge, and in the schemes he devised to make sure slaves accompanying him to Philadelphia while he was President were not set free after six months, as provided for by Pennsylvania law. However, Wiencek skillfully describes attempts by Washington to formulate a plan for emancipation of his slaves while President, pointing out that he was willing to take a significant financial hit in order to do so. That these attempts did not pan out does not cast a shadow on the effort. Wiencek also does an excellent job of describing the day-to-day life of the slaves on Washington’s farms, Washington’s frustration at their work ethic, and the ways in which he meted out punishment. He does not spare Washington’s reputation here, pointing where Washington was cruel in meting out punishment, as when he blithely sent a recalcitrant slave to sure death in the West Indies. He is also critical of Washington for the way he threatened slaves with harsh punishment or separation from their families, to get more work out of them. He is unsparing in his criticism of the quarters slaves were housed in, which, at best were barely adequate, and at worst, were squalid. Finally, citing Washington’s will as evidence, Wiencek makes a persuasive claim that Washington, in contrast to Jefferson, was not a racist in the strict sense of the word. In providing for the education of parentless minors, Washington demonstrated his view that slaves were not inherently inferior to whites, but that their servitude had made them that way.

Once again however, in describing Washington’s efforts at emancipating his slaves, both while he was President, and later in his will, Wiencek makes a claim that does not seem entirely supported by evidence. In this case it is a lack of evidence he finds persuasive, specifically that there is no record of Martha Washington aiding in these efforts. This, combined with Martha’s obsession with getting Ona Judge returned to her, even when it became apparent that any overt effort to do so would harm her husband politically, is cited by Wiencek for his contention that a wide rift had grown between George and Martha Washington over the emancipation of his slaves. I did not find this persuasive, particularly since there is little extant correspondence between the two, and none on this topic.

Overall I was quite impressed. I think Wiencek makes a good case for using Washington’s evolution on slavery as a good yardstick other slave owning founders could be judged by. He was after all, the only one to free his slaves, and while at many times his behavior towards his slaves was not admirable, his ability to evolve his thinking and to act on it was fairly astounding for the time.



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Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser

Part of the appeal of studying American history for me, has always been in looking for ways to apply lessons learned about our past to today’s issues. Partly for that reason my favorite form of historical reading is the biographical. It helps personalize history, and allows me, when trying to think about issues facing us today, to ask the question; “What would (fill in the blank) do?” At the top of the list for me is imagining how George Washington would have dealt with issues of prime importance to us today, but little thought of or non-existent in the eighteenth century such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration reform, and globalism. I have no idea really what his position would be on these issues, but it helps me frame my thinking and I derive inspiration from the struggles he went through to arrive at solutions for the problems he had to grapple with. Richard Brookhiser, in his book Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington attempts to look at the life of our first president in this light; “to shape the minds and hearts of those who read it…by showing how a great man navigated politics and life as a public figure.” (Brookhiser, 12) With that as his goal, Brookhiser candidly admits he is not attempting a comprehensive biography of Washington, but instead is looking at his experiences and those who influenced him in order to develop a character portrait. The result is a lightly sources book that explores three aspects of Washington and his life. First, he looks at Washington’s career during the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and his Presidency. Second, he attempts an exploration of Washington’s character in which he posits the co-dependence of nature, morals and ideas as an explanation for his success. And third, he looks at Washington’s subsequent role, after his death, as “Founding Father.”

While my conviction that it is vitally important we look at our history to help derive lessons useful for dealing with modern issues is unshaken, I have noted (as have many others), a disturbing trend in our modern media driven culture; the attempt by some groups to appropriate the legacy of our national figures for narrow ideological or partisan purposes. I am not naïve enough to claim this is a particularly new trend, after all, both North and South claimed inspiration from Washington at the outset of the Civil War. But, I do believe, spurred by multimillion dollar advertising campaigns, and a lazy, disinterested media, this trend is worsening. One only needs to look at the reliance of some media outlets on pseudo-historian David Barton for confirmation of this trend. In my mind this is a dangerous attempt to exclude those who do not hoe to a strict set of cultural and religious ideals, from the historical legacy of our country. This of course, if not checked, will only exacerbate the political divisions our country is currently experiencing.

It was this fear that came to mind when I began reading this book. I am familiar with Mr. Brookhiser’s work as a commentator and columnist for among other publications, the right leaning weekly magazine, The National Review. And while I think he is a very good writer and expositor of his views, in the interests of full candor I must say that I cannot recall a single instance where I agreed with anything written by him. I feared this book would be nothing but another attempt to claim the legacy of Washington in support of what I consider a narrow ideological agenda. I came away with mixed feelings. On one hand I found his use of Washington as a character study to be a refreshing change in the standard biological form (as much as I enjoy those). This freed him from the necessities of extensive sourcing, and allowed him to look at Washington not from a chronological point of view, but by looking at different aspects of his life, out of sequence, in support of a “character” point of view. In other words, different facets of Washington’s character drove the narrative, and Brookhiser was able to take pieces of Washington’s life out of sequence to support his thesis. On the other hand he could not help but injecting modern conservative views into parts of his narrative, and I had the feeling that the entire study was subtly designed to lead readers to that point of view. He seemed to skip over events in Washington’s life that contradicted his thesis, and those negative aspects he could not ignore he often attempted to re-orient as positive. The whole book for me had the feel of a preordained conclusion in search of evidence to support it. I also found it interesting that most of the reviews that were chosen for the cover of the book were from conservative leaning publications.

Brookhiser’s strongest chapters look at Washington’s career as soldier, president of the Constitutional Convention, and as President of the United States. The overarching theme of these chapters, though not explicitly stated, is that Washington was able to succeed not through brilliant intellect (though he was clearly a very intelligent man), but through the force of his character and personality. A primary aspect of this was Washington’s ability to master his passions where he needed to in order to achieve his desired outcome. Brookhiser effectively cites incidents from Washington’s career that bolster this point, especially in the way he cites Washington’s Revolutionary War strategy, which he deftly sums up by noting that by 1778 Washington “had not won the war…[but] had made it unwinnable for the enemy.” (Brookhiser, 25) In adopting this strategy, avoiding defeat in order to demoralize the enemy, Washington was going against his normally aggressive inclinations. So, as Brookhiser points out, while Washington lost all but two battles in the north (Trenton and Princeton), and Greene lost all but one battle in the south (Cowpens), he was, with the assistance of the French, able to finally force Britain to submit.

Brookhiser cites other examples that demonstrate the unique qualities of Washington’s character, including his resistance to entreaties that he become King, the way he was able to dampen enthusiasm for a rebellion among his officers in Newburgh, NY in 1783 by appealing to their respect for him and by making common cause with them, by the example of “moderation and political cordiality” he set while presiding over the heated debates surrounding the adoption of a new constitution, and the fortitude he demonstrated as President, setting precedents of conduct that are followed to this day.

As he does throughout the book, Brookhiser tends to ignore or downplay incidents in Washington’s life he believes would tend to diminish respect for Washington’s character. He minimizes the relationship between Washington and Sally Fairfax, and most seriously, only lightly brushes over Washington’s military career prior to the Revolution. He nearly completely ignores the Jumonville affair (mentioning it obliquely in Part 2) and Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity. He makes no mention of Washington’s constant angling for advancement in the British army, his petulant arguments with Governor Dinwiddie, and his self-serving attempt to convince British General Forbes to use the Braddock Road in their final advance on Fort Duquesne in order to, in part, protect his land interests. Instead, Brookhiser only mentions Washington’s fame following the failed Braddock expedition. In my opinion ignoring an event as momentous as this in Washington’s life somewhat undercuts Brookhiser’s character thesis.

In Part 2, Brookhiser more explicitly focuses on Washington’s character, positing a theory that his success rests on a tripod of nature, morals, and ideas. Here in my opinion Brookhiser is less convincing, particularly relating to his evaluation of the importance of Washington’s physical appearance to his success. While Washington’s appearance – primarily his height and bearing, which at 6′ 3″ was imposing – was clearly important, particularly in eliciting a good first impression on those he met, I do not believe, as Brookhiser claims, that it was necessary for Washington’s success. In making his point, Brookhiser cites the “primal importance of the body,” for Americans when choosing their leaders. (Brookhiser, 114) He cites the sixteen Pressed who he believes passed the “ultimate physical test” in battle, two Presidents who were college athletes, and Roosevelt’s struggles against polio as examples of this. While there is no doubt military experience was crucial for the electoral prospects of a number of these men, particularly Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, T. Roosevelt and Eisenhower, I know of no analysis which has cited the physical aspect of military experience as being important. And, I have no recollection of Fords or Reagan’s experiences as college athletes even being mentioned in the context of their political campaigns. In fact, Ford’s legendary “klutziness” received far more attention than his college football days. In addition, one can think of numerous highly successful leaders who had neither military success or great physical stature; John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter spring to mind. It also, in my opinion, lessens the perceived importance of Washington’s intellectual attributes, which were considerable. Overall I am left with the impression that Brookhiser thinks if Washington was 5’6″ rather than 6’3″ he would not have been as successful. I just do not find that argument convincing. In the interests of full disclosure however, when I made this assertion in his class, one of my graduate professors, renowned Washington scholar Dr. Peter Henriques flat out told me I was wrong.

Brookhiser does a better job exploring Washington’s temperament, noting Washington had a notoriously thin skin but his fits of anger left as quickly as they came. It was Washington’s ability to suppress this part of his personality that is the important point. Brookhiser does a good job here again, of showing how Washington was able to master his passions when he needed to. The argument would have been more powerful had he explored Washington’s behavior during the French and Indian War more thoroughly, which would have revealed a man of increasing maturity and who was better able to master his passions.

In a short section on morals Brookhiser cites Washington’s adherence to the Rules of Civility and evidence that he drew inspiration from L’Estrange’s Seneca’s Morals and Addison’s Cato, as a factor in Washington’s cultivation and protection of his reputation, and as an explanation for Washington’s legendary stoicism. Here again Brookhiser would have been on surer ground had he not ignored Washington’s early career. As part of his discussion of the Rules of Civility, he makes the point that Rule #32 is nominally about who gets the best bed, but ends “by announcing a principle of accepting honor only with reluctance and modesty, which Washington was t o follow when he became Commander in Chief, president of the Constitutional Convention, and President of the United States.” (Brookhiser, 129) Again Brookhiser undercuts his argument by ignoring Washington’s early career. In attempting to advance his prospect during that time, Washington was anything but “reluctant and modest.” Brookhiser appears to fear what an honest appraisal of those years would mean for Washington’s reputation. He need not fear it. In fact, in my opinion, it would have bolstered Brookhiser’s character analysis as it demonstrates growth and a strength of will many others lack.

Earlier I noted that the fear I had with this book was that it would turn out to be yet another attempt to co-opt the legacy of George Washington in service of a narrow ideological agenda. Up to this point my fears were largely, though not completely, allayed. However, in the section entitled “Ideas,” my fears were again stoked. Brookhiser starts well enough, noting Washington was better read than most have given him credit for, and that while the intellectual foundation for the Revolution did not originate with him in any way, he grasped their nature and importance very quickly. However, during a discussion of Washington’s proposals for a national university and his view that “right ideas were a necessary attainment of public men,” Brookhiser launches what can only be characterized as a sweeping and unnecessary attack on modern public education. (Brookhiser, 142 – 143) He argues, lamely in my opinion, that because the government, through its investment in public education is “interested chiefly in scientific research, in theories and techniques that might benefit the economy or the military,” educators – read liberal educators – are left to “pursue what interests them.” (Brookhiser, 143) He opines that the only ones interested in instilling a theory of public order are the “apostles of diversity,” whose only goal is to carve a place for one’s own group and not in the service of human rights. “Conservatives,” he says, “who profess loyalty to the intentions of the founders,” as if liberals do not, “have such a deep suspicion of the intentions of modern educators that most of them want the public education establishment broken up…and who, considering what educators teach, can blame them?” (Brookhiser, 143) In one paragraph, Brookhiser confirmed my fears about his true intentions. Unable to contain himself he succeeded in injecting modern conservative dogma into a discussion of George Washington’s character. By implying that modern liberals are not interested in the original intentions of the founders, as they interpret them, Brookhiser is attempting to appropriate their legacy in service to his point of view. This is a dangerous road to follow as it can only lead to further division.

Brookhiser goes on to discuss the influence of Christian belief and Freemasonry in Washington’s life. He proffers the view that Washington was a believer in God as an “Active agent and force.” (Brookhiser, 146) While less blatant than the above examples, this too appears to be an attempt at appropriating Washington’s legacy in support of modern conservative dogma. To his credit Brookhiser does note Washington’s tolerance of other beliefs and notes his willingness to bend biblical teaching to political ends. However I believe he misses the mark trying to shoehorn Washington’s beliefs into a modern fundamentalist mold. It doesn’t fit. Washington rarely appealed to a divine being other than in rather oblique terms, is not known to have prayed or attended church regularly, and in no instance did he make mention of Jesus in any of his wartime correspondence. Dr. Henriques has described him as a “warm Deist,” one who didn’t believe the supreme being was actively involved in the daily concerns of men but one Washington felt a deeper connection with than the “celestial watchmaker” typical of Deist thinking. I know of no serious historian who would characterize Washington as a valid inspiration for modern fundamentalist dogma. However, because my reading on Washington’s religious views is not comprehensive I will not comment further on Brookhiser’s motivation other than to register my suspicion.

Brookhiser concludes with a discussion of Washington as the founding father, looking at how that legacy came about, how Washington himself viewed that “fatherhood,” and noting the irony that the father of our country was himself childless and had been left fatherless at an early age. Again here, however, Brookhiser cannot help but inject more conservative thought into his analysis. IN juxtaposing Washington’s position as the father of our country, Brookhiser notes the “contemporary failure of fatherhood.” (Brookhiser, 12) Given what I know about Brookhiser’s views I read this as a subtle swipe at modern secular (liberal) society and its alleged devaluing of traditional institutions such as marriage. A deeper analysis would of course look at poverty, class division, and the effects of capitalism as contributing causes for the breakdown of marriage. Brookhiser includes none of this of course, as it would make his analogy to Washington even more ridiculous.

Despite my deep reservations about the motivation of Mr. Brookhiser in pursuing an analysis of Washington’s character, I actually enjoyed the book. It was well written, and in many places, particularly his analysis of the effect of Washington’s character on the outcome of the Revolutionary War, quite insightful. As I noted above I believe his decision to give scant attention to Washington’s early military career was a huge mistake, which served to undermine the strength of his argument. And of course his penchant for injecting modern conservative dogma into his analysis I find very disturbing.

It is always good to read history from a perspective at odds with your own, but it is important to read works that are serious in their intent rather than naked attempts to advance a partisan political agenda. While I do believe Brookhiser is trying to appropriate Washington’s legacy to serve an ideology, I think the attempt is a sincere, if misguided , one, hence my recommendation of this book.





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Mantle of Command

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the subject of innumerable biographies, in fact I would venture to guess no President save Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of more. Yet with so many available there seem to be precious few that take a truly in depth look at his role as Commander in Chief. Happily, renowned historian and biographer Nigel Hamilton has rectified that situation with the publication in 2014 of The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942. A practically flawless work, I was disappointed  it only covered part of FDR’s time as Commander in Chief. I truly wish he would take on the rest of FDR’s tenure, but fear that task will have to be left for another.

The Mantle of Command takes us from FDR’s initial meetings with Winston Churchill in 1941 that resulted in the Atlantic Charter, through to the landings of American and British troops in French northwest Africa (Morocco and Tunisia) as part of operation Torch in November of 1942. Hamilton quotes copiously from letters, diaries and other primary sources to give us a very thorough, chronological look at this period of FDR’s tenure as Commander in Chief. Though detailed, the prose is never boring.

A number of things struck me as I read this; far to many to go through in a short review, though four stood out. First, the overall take away is that this period represented the ascendancy of the United States as the dominant world power, while at the same time it heralded the end of  Great Britain as an empire. Both FDR and Winston Churchill recognized this (though Churchill took a bit longer), and played their roles accordingly. Second, Hamilton is clearly impressed with FDR’s abilities as Commander in Chief. Time after time, whether he was dealing with prima donnas such as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur over command responsibilities, or with opposition from his military chiefs and Secretary of War over Operation Torch, FDR, in Hamilton’s view, knew exactly how much pressure to apply and when to apply it. Third, in contrast to his positive view of FDR’s military leadership, Hamilton (a British subject himself), is surprisingly hard on Churchill’s judgement, faulting him for serious British setbacks early in the war, and for his hard headed attitude towards Indian Independence.  And lastly, I was particularly pleased with the extensive use of German and Japanese primary sources, including diaries and letters. It really provided a great juxtaposition to accounts of Allied opinion during this period.

Prior to its entry into WWII the United States was essentially isolationist. After World War I it had drawn down its armed forces to the point where it’s army was approximately the size of Portugal’s. The United States Congress was in many ways  dominated by an isolationist sentiment, and men as prominent as Charles Lindbergh were promoting a xenophobic isolationism even as it became obvious United States entry into the growing conflict was going to be required. FDR, who understood earlier than most that the United States would be drawn into war, recognized and adapted to this reality. As Hamilton portrays it Roosevelt’s political instincts were so spot on he knew exactly how far the country would be willing to go and when. He also knew how to present increased U.S. involvement in a way the public could understand and support. One example of this of course, was the Lend Lease program the U.S. initiated in March 1941 (prior to the events recounted in this book). Roosevelt, recognizing Britain, Free France, and China could not hope to hold out against Germany and Japan without aid, but cognizant of the country’s isolationist mood, devised a way to deliver that aid without it appearing as though it was entering the war. He was able to present it as a defensive measure; by loaning military equipment to those who were fighting our enemies the U.S. could stay out of the fighting. Once the crisis passed, intact equipment would be returned, and the U.S. would be reimbursed for equipment that had been destroyed. He sold this plan in a way every person could understand, by relating it to their own lives. In a December 1940 press conference Roosevelt used the following illustration to demonstrate why the country and Congress should support Lend Lease:

Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15–I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up–holes in it–during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.

A February 1941  Gallup poll showed Roosevelt’s campaign for passage had worked, with a Lend Lease proposal receiving the support of 54% of Americans, and it was passed by Congress a month later. Ten months later Lend Lease would would take its place as part of a larger American effort when the empire of Japan declared war on the United States.


President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, August 9, 1941

On August 7, 1941, four months before American entry into WWII,  a U.S. naval ship, the Northampton class heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta slipped into Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Aboard was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt there to meet in secret with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. Though they had met earlier during WWI, this was the first face to face meeting of the two. On August 9th, the H.M.S. Prince of Wales arrived with Churchill aboard. Each had different goals for this first meeting. Great Britain, having been the target of an intense and destructive air campaign  by the German Luftwaffe, was eager for the United States to enter the war as soon as possible. Roosevelt, recognizing the U.S. was not yet ready for this, nevertheless wanted to signal to the country that the United States sympathized with Britain’s plight and opposed Nazi Germany. Given these parameters, Roosevelt suggested development of a set of principles that would guide allied nations after the war. The “Atlantic Charter” agreed to by FDR and Churchill included pledges not to seek territorial gains, to seek lowering of international trade barriers, to work for establishment of global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare, for freedom of the seas, for the right of all nations to self determination, and to work toward a world free from want and fear. This agreement  became the basis for many subsequent agreements including establishment of the United Nations. Like Lend Lease, it was FDR’s way of moving the United States ever closer to a formal wartime alliance with Great Britain without actually crossing that line and incurring the wrath of politically powerful isolationists. For Great Britain it represented a step toward bringing the United States into the war as a full combatant, and for the Axis powers it signaled an escalation of the war; one they would regret encouraging.

On December 7th, 1941 airplanes of the empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Killing or wounding 5,381 Americans, this attack, and the declaration of war four days later by Germany on the United States, signaled the end of America’s role as a mere bit player on the world stage. From this time forward the U.S. would assume it’s position as the dominant economic and military power in the world, a position it has yet to relinquish. Britain on the other hand, would take its place as the junior partner in this alliance.

Due to poor leadership at all levels British forces were defeated in Malaya and Singapore, the latter surrendering without showing much resistance. Japanese Naval sorties into the Indian Ocean panicked the British, forcing them to move their fleet from Ceylon to Kenya, and although they had shown courage and grit during the Battle of Britain, they had not been able to mount any kind of effective counter to German expansion. Meanwhile after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippines, the United States achieved a strategic victory over the Japanese Navy at Coral Sea, and completed a decisive one at Midway Island, sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers. Domestically, it’s full productive capacity brought to bear, the U.S. was producing war materiel at an astounding rate, and the military services were rapidly adding manpower. Since it was providing the bulk of the men and materiel for the allied war effort (with the exception of the U.S.S.R.), it was understood the U.S. would be the dominant partner in this relationship. And to his credit, Winston Churchill understood and adapted to this reality, eventually. However, as Nigel Hamilton shows, Churchill’s leadership abilities were rightly called into question during this period.

Winston Churchill was an enigmatic man; courageous, stalwart and indefatigable. At the same time he could be stubborn, myopic, and a control freak. As Hamilton describes it, his admirable qualities kept Britain strong and defiant during the Battle of Britain. He was the rock around which the Allied effort eventually grew. But it was his less admirable qualities that were largely responsible for early British setbacks. His stubbornness in not recognizing the futility of trying to restore the British empire, and his poor choice of subordinates resulting in unnecessary tensions between British and American staff officers being two of the most important examples. As British defeats mounted in southeast Asia and North Africa and as the Japanese fleet moved into the Indian ocean fostering fears of an attack on India,  Churchill appeared stubbornly determined to preserve the prewar structure of the British Empire. As Japan moved into the Indian Ocean FDR encouraged Churchill to begin independence negotiations with Indian leaders. Aside from his belief that India deserved independence as a matter of right consistent with the Atlantic Charter, it would also secure a  Indian commitment to fighting off the Japanese. A delegation headed by Sir Stafford Cripps was dispatched to India to negotiate a devolution of power to Indian authorities in exchange for Indian Army support in the war. Churchill subordinates, probably acting with his tacit approval, purposely undermined the negotiations. Fortunately Japanese defeats at Coral Sea and Midway diverted their attention away from the Indian peninsula. Later, after the decision was made to mount the first joint offensive in North Africa rather than attempt a cross channel invasion of France, Churchill, acting on the advice of subordinates, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, mounted an ill conceived raid at Dieppe on the French coast. It was a disaster, with nearly half of  British troops engaged being killed, wounded or captured. With these setbacks, lapses in judgement, stubbornness, and reliance on poorly chosen subordinates, it was only Churchill’s willingness to accede to U.S. leadership, and his position as the face of resistance to Nazi Germany that allowed him to stave off attempts to bring down his government.

Hamilton devotes a significant portion of the book to the decision by Britain and America to make northwest Africa the site of its first offensive. As he presents it, the success of Operation Torch is most attributable to FDR’s political and strategic genius. Pressure on the United States and Britain to mount a cross channel offensive as soon as possible grew as 1941 ended. The U.S. Joint Chiefs including Chief of Staff  George Marshall along with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, were pressing for just such an attack. Winston Churchill realized early on this would be a monumental mistake. U.S. troops had yet to experience combat and would be unlikely to stand up to seasoned German troops, the allies had yet to mobilize the men and materiel they would need for such an attack, and the Germans had heavily fortified the most obvious points of attack at Caen and Cherbourg. FDR, after initially appearing to favor such an invasion, came around to Churchill’s view and advocated for French northwest Africa as the site of the first offensive.  Convincing his own staff to go along despite their convictions it would only divert needed materiel from an eventual cross channel attack, and would probably fail on its own merits, was a stellar example of FDR’s ability to know where and when to press an advantage. Allowing his subordinates to make their case freely, he held firm. Eventually, in frustration they advocated moving the primary theater of operations from Europe to the Pacific. Calling their bluff, FDR asked them to provide him the detailed plans they must have been relying on to make such a bold suggestion. Unable to do so since they had impetuously made the suggestion out of frustration, they eventually fell in line with the President. The invasion proceeded and Operation Torch was a success.

Finally, I was very impressed by Hamilton’s use of primary sources from Axis leaders. Most significant of these was the diary of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While many of his entries can be termed whistling past the graveyard, some were very incisive as to the mindset of Allied leaders, the potential success of an Allied invasion of the French coast, and as regards Operation Torch. It provided a very interesting counterpoint to the views of Allied leaders.

Overall I think this is one of the best FDR biographies I have every read. The detail was incredible, the arguments he makes regarding FDR’s skill as a political leader are detailed and very persuasive. The prose is well formed and extremely easy to follow despite the enormous amount of information being thrown at you, Other than my disappointment that it ends with 1942 and that it does not appear Hamilton will be producing another volume, I have nothing but praise for this book.



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A very slight biography of former General of the Army and President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Although its purpose is not to provide an in depth look at Grant’s life, this work barely succeeds in its mission of providing a basic overview of its subject. While some sections are more readable than others the overall impression is one of a barely competent college thesis. Among the many flaws in this work the two most notable for me are his use of  lazy shortcuts to describe various people, and blindingly obvious inaccuracies about Grant’s political career. He also displays a casual acceptance of gender and racial stereotypes that are inappropriate.

Falsely derided as a butcher and a drunk after the failure of reconstruction, Grant’s reputation has undergone a long overdue rehabilitation in recent years, and to its credit, this book does make an attempt at continuing that trend, at least as it relates to Grant’s military career. Other than that however, with so many better Grant biographies to choose from, I don’t really see any purpose for this book. It really provides little more than you would get from Grant’s Wikipedia entry, with some significant flaws.

There are a number of well worn and tiresome ways in which some historians will try and illuminate their subjects. Sadly, this book seems to make use of most of them, although I was happy to see the author didn’t, despite Grant’s well known attachment to horses, describe him as the “best horseman of his age.” I really hate that one! However he did include pointless and often insulting descriptions of several of the women he includes in his narrative, as well as unwarranted assumptions about the character and mood of people based on a single still life photograph or portrait.

The trend of including long-winded opinions on the relative attractiveness of historical figures (usually female), is one I particularly disdain. Unless it has a tangible and verifiable bearing on that person’s place in history or in how others related to them, I do not see the point. In this case the author goes to great pains to describe Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant, in insulting and sexist terms. Curiously I cannot recall a single instance where the author included such extensive descriptions of Grant or other males included in the narrative. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, he also includes a little dollop of racial stereotyping as well! Consider the following:

“Julia was, to put it kindly, “plain,” as even her nearest and dearest in the Dent family were obliged to admit. Indeed, “plain” seems like a generous description of Julia Dent. A photograph of her taken as a young woman…reveals a bumpy nose, a strong chin, and what appears to be a pronounced squint in one eye, or perhaps, as [William] McFeely suggests, strabismus, a weakening of the eye muscles combined with a squint (some people unkindly described her as walleyed), hair pulled back unflatteringly tight, and a compact, dumpy figure. The fashions of the times apparently do nothing to help her, and her expression in the photograph is severe, impatient, and unwelcoming. Although she was to come to think of herself as a Southern belle, as kind of a border state Scarlett O’Hara, Julia was by far the plainest member of the Dent family, and even the colored servants (slaves, of course) seem to have told her so.”

Yes, Mr. Korda, we get it, you think she is ugly…so ugly in fact even “the coloreds” think so. I have to say of the literally hundreds of biographies I have read this has got to be the most insulting passage I have ever seen. I really am at a loss as to why the author thought it was important to include it.

In addition to the above, in several places, the author makes unsupported assumptions about the demeanor, mood and even the character of people based on a single black and white photograph. This is another trend I really despise. I see no evidence that such concrete assertions about a person can be gleaned from a single image in this way. Consider again:

“He [Grant] looks careworn and miserably unhappy, as he surely was, and perhaps [was] in need of a stiff drink”

Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, VA - Summer, 1864

Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, VA – Summer, 1864

Now this description was applied to possibly the most famous photograph of Grant. He is at his City Point, Virginia headquarters, leaning rather jauntily against a tree in front of one of his headquarters tents. At this point in the war Grant is at the peak of his power, in complete charge of a war machine unprecedented up to that time in American history. Most observers, if they ascribe any demeanor to him at all, note the confidence in Grant’s face and the pose he chose to be photographed in. There is no evidence that I know of that backs up the author’s description of Grant’s demeanor in this photograph. It’s just a lazy way of psychoanalyzing a person without having to do any corroborating research.

Finally, the author makes some assertions about Grant’s career that are just not correct. In particular he completely misrepresents Grant’s Presidential record on civil rights. He dismisses Grants efforts, asserting that “Grant was unwilling…to use federal force to defend the rights of blacks or to challenge the South’s status quo – Grant had won the Civil War but had no interest in re-fighting it. He preferred to get the army out of there and leave the Southern states to their own devices…” This is simply untrue and betrays a lack of research inexcusable for a biographer. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether Korda was confusing Grant with Andrew Johnson, about whom this passage would be more accurate.

Grant’s efforts on behalf of the freedmen was nearly the opposite of what Korda asserts here. As H.W. Brands, a far more credible Grant biographer has noted, “he [Grant] strove mightily to ensure that African Americans received the civil rights and equal treatment they were supposedly accorded by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. He didn’t accomplish all he fought for: the overwhelming weight of public opinion was against him…[but the] Ku Klux Klan was shattered in the South by Grant’s bold and timely action.

There is no doubt, as Brands asserts, that Grant could not forever buck northern public opinion which, by the end of Grant’s presidency had grown tired of Reconstruction. In 1875 for example, Grant refused to send in additional federal troops to Mississippi to protect blacks against an increase in violent intimidation. As renowned Reconstruction expert Eric Foner has noted however, this action “reflected the broader Northern retreat from Reconstruction and its ideal of racial equality.” Though he doesn’t reference this incident specifically, Korda misleadingly implies actions such as this represent the entirety of Grant’s racial policy. That is simply, and spectacularly, wrong.

Korda’s views of Grant are perhaps shaped by the sources he has chosen to use. He highlights two works as being most helpful: Meet General Grant by W.E. Woodward published in 1928, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Grant, A Biography by William McFeely. It’s interesting, with so much great scholarship on Grant available, that the author chose these works. Meet General Grant, while well written, reflects views on reconstruction and race that are no longer accepted by historians. The author asserts for example, that slavery was actually more harmful to whites than blacks, and that blacks had been civilized by the institution “in a shorter time than any savage race was ever civilized before.”  McFeely’s work is of course, better researched, but is conspicuous for the consistently negative view it takes of Grant’s Presidency. That Korda chose these two works as his primary sources goes a long way to explaining his distorted view of Grant’s civil rights record.

The motto emblazoned on Grant’s tomb in New York City says simply “Let Us Have Peace.” In his far superior biography of Grant, author H.W. Brands correctly notes that this reflected not only Grant’s desire for a reunification of the country, but also his desire for the complete application of the war’s main aims, a restoration of the union and the full emancipation of the slaves.

Korda’s work reflects none of this. Given this and the other serious flaws noted above, I cannot recommend this book. There are many better Grant biographies to choose from.

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A very enjoyable book written by a Pulitzer Prize award winner. It explores the relationship – both professional and personal – between the two most important leaders of the twentieth century, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. This is not a full biography of either man, nor is it a history of WWII. While you will get elements of both in this book, the sole focus is their relationship.

Making heavy use of primary sources, including newly analyzed diaries of Lucy Mercer Rutherford and the papers of Pamela Harriman, Meacham paints a very vivid portrait of the two men and the nature of their relationship. In many ways they were very similar in their upbringing and outlook on the world. Both idolized their flawed and somewhat aloof fathers, both were born into privilege and were later accused of betraying their class, both were strong willed and were excellent communicators, both depended heavily on their spouses (though in different ways), and both viewed the future optimistically. Their relationship was intimate but complex, with each playing a role defined largely based on the political goal each needed to reach.

From the start Churchill was the suitor and Roosevelt the courted. While Britain held out against the Nazis alone for nearly an entire year Churchill worked to convince Roosevelt of the need for American help. As the leader of a country not in imminent danger, Roosevelt had to deal with the strongly isolationist sentiment dominant in the U.S. at this time.  As Churchill pushed him Roosevelt worked to get England the help it needed without getting too far ahead of public opinion; preparing the country for what he was convinced would be the necessity of American involvement. In both cases incredible political instincts and a talent for persuasiveness moved each towards their respective goal.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the U.S., Roosevelt and Churchill formed a relationship that became the most formidable alliance of two leaders in world history. In terms of their political relationship, Roosevelt continued to be the dominant partner. The United States had the men and material to wage the kind of fight that was going to be necessary to defeat the Axis powers. Churchill was still often in the position of having to woo Roosevelt to a course of action he believed most beneficial. While Churchill spent nearly 120 days in North America during the war, Roosevelt never visited England. On the other hand, Churchill was  the face of resistance to Naziism, his charisma and courage in the face of overwhelming odds focused attention on the dangers of a world dominated by despotism.

On a personal level , their relationship had developed into what some have called a “love affair,” with each having a deep affection and admiration for the other. It is this relationship that is the primary theme of this book and what is most riveting about it.

There is little new information presented, except the details provided Lucy Rutherford’s diaries and Pamela Harriman’s papers. It’s the focus on the relationship itself that is unique here. It is very easy to be cynical nowadays, with public expressions by politicians of friendship dismissed as smoke and mirrors. In this case however those expressions were genuine, and it was the relationship that developed that allowed this alliance to literally save the world from despotism!


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Bully Pulpit

Well, how can you go wrong with a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin? She is definitely one of the top writers and populizers of American History now working. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism is no further proof of that. Beautifully written as all of her books are, this provides a unique take on the lives of Roosevelt, Taft, and the role of the muckraking media on their careers.

Not a full blown biography of either man, but one that tracks their rise to power initially in a parallel fashion which merges during the Presidency of Roosevelt, and then flies apart during the Presidency of Taft. The two men; Roosevelt, the scion of a rich New York family, born a sickly child who by the sheer will of his personality transformed himself into the “rough rider” we are all familiar with, and Taft, whose father was a successful businessman and public servant, who seemed less driven than Roosevelt, but who possessed a highly developed sense of what was right and wrong, and whose intelligence propelled his successful career, formed an unlikely though deep friendship that turned into deep enmity during the Presidential campaign of 1912.

Both men were part of the progressive wing of the Republican party, willing to impose regulations on businesses that used their influence in a way detrimental to the public good (trust busting). They also took up the cause of the working man, proposing limits on the length of the work week, a raise in the minimum wage, and safety and health standards. Their eventual falling out came about as a result of the largely mistaken view on Roosevelt’s part that President Taft was not carrying on this progressive legacy. During their careers both were the beneficiaries and targets of a new style of journalism – one that used investigative reporting to advocate for reforms in business and government to root out endemic corruption. This came to be known as muckraking.

Goodwin traces the rise of muckraking journalism – not a negative term at the time – as it rose during the careers of Roosevelt and Taft. Some of America’s greatest journalists came out of this progressive tradition including most notably, Ida Tarbell. Focused largely on the journalists working at McClure’s Magazine, one of the first and most successful of the muckraking publications, Goodwin details the many ways in which both Roosevelt and Taft relied on the work these journalists were doing to provide the factual basis for the progressive policies they were pushing.This alliance produced some of the most progressive and far reaching reforms of the twentieth century. And it also propelled Roosevelt into the top rank of U.S. Presidents. However, it also set an impossibly high standard for Taft to reach while he was President who, despite the fact he had some notable successes during his administration, by comparison,  looked like a failure in the eyes of Roosevelt and the Muckrakers. Both turned on Taft with a vengeance in 1912.

I really enjoyed this book quite a bit. While many books have been written about Roosevelt and a fair number on Taft, there are few that have looked at them in tandem and that also looked at the important role played by the media on their careers. It’s an important aspect of the Progressive era that is usually overlooked.

Three things really struck me as I read this book. First, it really hits home how far the modern Republican Party has strayed from its roots. There have been, arguably, three Republican Presidents that are nearly universally acknowledged to be great – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower – none of whom would be welcome in today’s hyper-conservative party. Second, while Roosevelt deserves the acclaim he has received, he could also be petulant, hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight, and disloyal to formerly close friends, as evidenced by the way he turned on Taft. And last, I have a renewed respect for Taft who is caricatured in history as the bumbling fat man that squandered Roosevelt’s accomplishments. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was highly accomplished prior to his time in the White House, was a more successful President than is usually acknowledged, and had a very distinguished career as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court afterwards.

Highly Recommended!

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Don’t let the title fool you, while the focus of the book is the great 1927 flood (an event overlooked today), this is a book about the Mississippi River and man’s attempt to live with and in some cases tame it. Full of rich descriptions of men and women whose lives were shaped by the river and the 1927 flood, and of powerful men who tried to control and profit from it, including one who became President,  this book really grabs you from the outset.

Starting with early attempts to erect bridges over it, to map its courses and devise ways to keep it from hampering economic growth in the Mississippi Delta, through its role during the Civil War, and how it affected economics, culture and race relations in the south, the Mississippi River itself is a character in this story, with a personality all its own. This is expertly brought to life by Barry.

Most fascinating for me was the many ways in which the 1927 flood so profoundly changed the character of the deep south, and how in many ways it set back nascent progress on race relations. In order to combat the flood blacks were forced to work, shoring up levees, hauling supplies and digging trenches, all at gunpoint and without adequate food and shelter to sustain themselves. In many places (particularly Greenville, MS which in many ways was the epicenter of the flood), white leaders, aided and abetted by the Red Cross virtually re-instituted slavery. Prior to the flood, through the cooperation of local blacks and the relatively enlightened views of its leaders, particularly LeRoy Percy (a central figure in the latter half of the book), race relations had seen improvement. The flood, and the reaction of the white leadership to it nearly destroyed all that.

It also profoundly reshaped the labor system in the South. One reason why white leaders were so eager to keep blacks under foot during the crisis was to prevent them from leaving the Delta where they were the primary source of labor. However, once the waters had receded and it became apparent promises of restitution from local leaders and from the federal government were not going to be forthcoming, many blacks began migrating to the north. This caused a huge problem for large landowners who relied on the labor blacks provided, and from their percentage of income from sharecropper activities. It certainly helped hasten the transition to a de facto free labor system which had only existed in name only up until that time; a transition that continues to be a very painful one for the region.

Also interesting is the affect the flood had on presidential politics, and on the eventual shift in the relation between the federal government and her citizens that we saw under President Franklin Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge’s Commerce Secretary of Commerce was tasked to coordinate the government response to the flood. It was his work, and the positive press he received from it that propelled him to the White House.

Hoover was tasked by Coolidge to coordinate the efforts of mostly private organizations as they attempted to deal with the enormous human suffering that was the result of the flood. Coolidge himself refused to set what he considered a dangerous precedent by providing the type of government disaster relief we take for granted today. As a result he was the focus of extensive media and public criticism for what was viewed as a heartless reaction to the crisis. All the while Hoover was being  lionized in the press as the only member of the administration willing to do something about the crisis. Coolidge’s opposition to government relief, however, was a policy with which Hoover totally agreed. However, it also foreshadowed the disastrous way he reacted to the Great Depression.

In hindsight the resources brought to bear by Hoover were wholly inadequate, and in many case failed to provide even minimally  adequate relief. It was this same strategy that he used as President, to try and relieve the suffering experienced by so many during the Great Depression; a strategy that failed miserably and gave rise to FDR and the more active governmental role he implemented. It was also the beginning of the end of the alliance between African-Americans and the Republican Party.

I found very little to criticize in this book. Occasionally  Barry provided a bit more detail, particularly about financial matters, than was probably necessary to make his point, but that is a minor quibble. Overall highly valuable book, about a significant even in American history that is often overlooked. Highly recommended!!


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