Book Blog

  • Mayflower: a Story of Courage, Community, and War

    by Nathaniel Philbrick Year Published: 2006 History

    This book captures they journey and the personalities on the journey to the Puritan settlement on the East coast of the Americas.  Through painstaking detail, Philbrick captures not only the difficulty in establishing the voyage, but its danger and difficulties, as well.  He paints a very stark picture of just how hard the voyage was as well as how difficult it was for the 102 initial settlers.  For the newcomers, every vista was filled with danger and death - if not from the elements, than from disease and starvation, if not from the surviving natives, if not from the flora and fauna.

    As Philbrick's narrative evolves, one can quickly come to understand why the Puritans lived by such a strict behavioral code and work ethic - their very existence depended upon it.  Further, when it had seemed that their survival was ensured in perpetuity, one can also understand how they held on to their rigid codes, as they felt it was their unwavering faith in a very unforgiving God that saw them safely established in their New Eden.  Unfortunately, while the influence of Puritanism survive culturally today in our nation, the Puritans, themselves, do not - too rigid to evolve.

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  • American Colonies

    by Alan Taylor Year Published: 2001 History

    Difficulty: Average

    A broad, comprehensive - if not engaging, relative, and fascinating look at the colonization of chiefly North America. Included in this swatch are not only the traditional looks at Virginia and Massachusetts, but Canada, Mexico, the West Indies, and the West Coast of North America also get special attention. Great attention is paid to understanding the many different tribes of indigenous peoples and how they interacted differently with the European colonizers. Overall, this book shows the transformations that shaped and altered what we understand as "our" world beginning some 500 years ago from what was once a very different set of nations. Great book if you seek to understand our roots as a people more clearly

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  • First Emancipator

    by Andrew Levy Year Published: 2005 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    Amazing how this tale of the man who freed more slaves (his own!) than any other single person prior to Lincoln could fly below the radar! Only recently has any significant literature - let alone research - been done about this amazing character. Robert Carter was one of the single most wealthy people in all of the colonies and had much promise... he could have been a leader in the Revolutionary War, he could have dominated American economics after the War... but instead, he had a powerful religious experience and from that moment on felt slavery to be a grievous sin. To his own future economic and social devastation, he abandoned his life of wealth and privilege and gradually emancipated all of his nearly 500 slaves. Heartbreaking - but insightful into the realities concerning why white men REALLY chose to own Blacks... A great book, but a great deal of knowledge about colonial & Revolutionary era culture and politics is needed to fully understand all that went on...

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  • Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr

    by Nancy Isenberg Year Published: 2007 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    Terrific analysis of one of the most maligned members of the Founding Generation. This book poses the question, "Did Burr deserve to be so ill-treated?" In answering this question, Isenberg illustrates not only how vicious and spiteful the political process was around the turn of the 19th Century, but how the adage, "to the winner - the spoils" certainly applied in Burr's case. A brilliant man and brilliant mind against whom the Southern Planters and Northern Democratic-Republicans turned... who knows how different history would have been had things gone differently?

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  • Benjamin Franklin

    by Walter Isaacson Year Published: 2003 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    A very enjoyable and enlightening read about America's First Patriot, First Statesman, and perhaps... First Genius. Well told story that sheds so much new light upon a very familiar subject.

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  • Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician

    by Alyn Brodsky Year Published: 2004 Biography

    Benjamin Rush is notable for three things: his civic leadership in Philidelphia that led to his representation of Pennsylvania and signer of the Declaration of Independence; his leadership in the earely US as a physician, humanitarian, and educator; and his relationship to both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  While his leadership at the Continental Congress was not outstanding, he did raise a few eyebrows when he openly opposed both George Washington's leadership of the Continental Army and the Constitution that Philidelphia drafted shortly after the Declaration was signed.  

    His leadership as an American humanitarian and physician stand out much more prominantly.  He was an early proponent of mental health (he is considered the father of American psychiatry) and the cause of disease.  While some of his work in medicine was definitely "of its time" and seen today as egregiously erroneous, he was also ahead of some curves and definitely advanced the cause of studying medicine in the US (which wouldn't really take off until nearly a century after his death).  He was among the minority of vocal anti-slavery advocates as well as proponent of the belief that the US was "god's work" and that the US should have a solid dose of Christianity in its public and private life.  It is, perhaps, most from Rush that conservatives draw their philosophy of America being a Christian nation... since there is so little supporting evidence that Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, or Jefferson would have ever supported such an idea.

    He is also noteworthy for reuniting two former friends who had turned foe - Adams and Jefferson - through writing letters.  It was at Rush's insistence that both men rekindle the friendship that dreamed America into reality, a friendship that would outlive Rush, who died in 1813, and survive to the end of both Adams' and Jefferson's lives.

    Brodsky's book paints a fair view of Rush in the modern light, and rightfully holds up his enduring strengths while also indicating where Rush had fallen short of the mark without being apologetic.  He places Rush in his proper context within America's revolution and its history.  This is a terrific addition to the library of any amature scholar of the Founding Era.

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  • Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution

    by Charles Rappleye Year Published: 2007 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    A very thorough investigation into the life of one of the US' most relevant yet most forgotten Founders, Financier examines how the US, largely through the efforts of Robert Morris, was able to finance its Revolutionary War against England with no real currency or credit of its own. The book shows how this unheralded economic genius was able to knit together guns, food and uniforms for our underfunded army through international loans and business contacts at home and abroad - while putting his own reputation, credit, and fortune at stake.

    The book also examines how America was splitting at the seams even before they were sewn together. Morris' rise and subsequent tragic downfall due to his own insatiable quest for a better business deal after the US had won its independence gave rise to the split between the mercantile class in the North and the agrarian class in the South. The book illustrates how it was largely the Southern states, led by the Virginian Lee brothers who saw nothing but devious plots and schemes to enrich himself behind every one of Morris' moves... yet there is no record, not even the merest HINT of wrongdoing on Morris' behalf to finance our fight and subsequent birth as a nation.

    This book painstakingly details nearly every step of his life, and while I feel the author short-sheeted Morris' final years and decline, the reader nonetheless gains tremendous respect for the man's efforts and accomplishments, and therein feels tremendous remorse for what a tragic, self-inflicted fall from greatness he had at the end of his life.

    Morris was a close friend of Franklin's and Washington's - and without these three men, there would be no USA. It's sad that so little attention has been paid to this man - or his efforts - until very recently.

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  • Patrick Henry ~ Lion of Liberty

    by Harlow Giles Unger Year Published: 2010 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    I tell ya! Every American should have to read books by at LEAST 5 Founders before graduating high school! This book is thorough, comprehensive biography of the "Lion's" life. Most famous for his impassioned plea to rebellion, "Give me liberty or give me death!" - Henry, along with Samuel Adams, was one of the first to call for independence from England. Whereas some of our Founders were gifted with the pen, or talented in debate, or perhaps more skilled on the battlefield - Henry was early America's greatest ortator. This book highlights this skill of his and shows how a lawyer of middling talent (at best) could become profoundly successful - and moved to lead the colony (later state) of Virgina on the skill of his vocal delivery alone.

    This book also highlights one of the more complex issues surrounding our Founders... they are deeply complex, unique individuals who were as impassioned about what they wanted from the United States as they were about dissolving their bonds to England. They were not carved from granite; they changed, evolved, and transformed... sometimes by the logic and wisdom that age often brings, sometimes by the experience that trying times thrusts upon a people, sometimes by stubborn irrationality and illogic.

    All three apply in great proportion to Henry. He abhorred slavery (as did many of the Southern Founders, especially the Virginians like Jefferson and Washington) - but could not even conceive of granting slaves the liberty he wanted so dearly from England. The possibility of ending the Peculiar Institution by simply... ending it... and rationally developing a new, more capitalistically based economy based upon free labor never entered into his mindset.

    Further of interest was how hard he fought against tyranny and powerful centralized governments... yet, as governor of Virginia during the revolution, he repeatedly stepped out of bounds of his state's constitution to take and assume powers that were expressly not granted for the governor. Admittedly, if he hadn't done so, it is likely the American Revolution could have fizzled and died... but, still, his inability to see his own hypocrisy and, at the same time, shout down a new Constitutionally based government out of fearing what he, himself did, just numbs the mind. It seemed to me that Henry was incapable of trusting his fellow man of ruling with the same just principles he, himself, possessed in abundance.

    And that's the key point of learning about the Founders, I suppose... these were not men united in purpose and philosophy... they were highly divided and often antagonistic. The "United" States were separate culturally (often, citizens from one part of the nation couldn't even understand other state's citizens because of their accents), religiously, politically, economically, and philosophically. Truth be told, if it weren't for the fact that the fledgling USA was beset by THE major colonial powers of the world on all sides, eager to either reacquire their wayward possessions (like England) or expand their colonial possessions (like the Spanish and French... remember Napoleon!) - it's doubtful that the Founders would have chosen to put their many, many differences aside and unite. In the end, fear was what brought the country together...

    My only major point of dissatisfaction with this book was the epilogue, which was clearly written from a state's rights/southern apologist's perspective... clearly taking up the call that a strong, national government is a usurper of individual rights and liberties while states are their best defenders, this author clearly missed John Adams' famous criticism of states' rights advocates, "What is to keep a tyrannical state government from usurping the rights of its people?"... in truth, far more often than not, it has been the tyranny of state laws that has denied individuals their long promised liberties while the national government has defended them. Tisk tisk.

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  • Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution

    by Mark Puls Year Published: 2006 Biography

    As the first American on record calling for separation from Great Britain, Samuel Adams is the original Founding Father.  A fierce defender of individual liberty, his ideas fueled and inspired a great deal of pre-Revolutionary war protest... from the Sons of Liberty to the protest that led to the Boston "Massacre".  Author Mark Puls handily places Adams in the right context of the Founding era of US History without deifying him.  In fact, it was during the post-revolutionary debates for what kind of government the US should adopt that Adams lost a great deal of credibility and respect as a Founding Father, wanting only a government that would provide its citizens with the maximum amount of liberty possible with the minimum amount of government power, he couldn't reconcile how one couldn't exist without strength in the other... a flaw his cousin, John Adams, never failed to point out to him.

    A short read, this book nonetheless introduces the reader to an important Founder as well as the most ardent advocate for maximum liberty at the expense of small government.

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  • Infamous Scribblers

    by Eric Burns Year Published: 2006 History

    Difficulty: Average

    A terrific overview of the early history of the press in America (from the late 1600's to the early 1800's)... no matter what your politics are - you will be shocked at what used to pass for journalism... and more importantly the effect it had upon our country's revolution and subsequent development. Compare the present to the past and you will definitely see evolution and improvement! A terrific book told in a series of anecdotes that makes for quick "snippet" reading if you're a bed time historian.

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  • Inventing a Nation

    by Gore Vidal Year Published: 2003 History

    Difficulty: Average

    This short book, one of the last written by acclaimed author and auteur Gore Vidal, is an all too brief - but oh-so-brilliant examination of the invention of a new nation, the United States. Vidal specifically focuses on the three chief progenitors of the United States - Washington, Adams, and Jefferson - and looks at what their interests were in this new nation they had fought and sacrificed to create. It also looks at their short comings and even hypocrisies... Jefferson, the author of the Declaration and avowed, unapologetic slave-owner. Washington - the military leader embittered by the lack of respect the British military leaders accorded him, the plantation owner whose mounting debts to England gave him more than enough motivation to want to sever ties with the motherland. Adams, the ever contradictory logician for liberty who grew ever distrustful of the motivations and abilities of his fellow man. Vidal shows these men for as the complex and often contradictory people they were - and he shows how their contradictions became a part of the fledgling United States for better and for worse.

    While there are many Americans who believe it to be nothing short of a sin to show our Founding Fathers as anyone but human-deities, unblemished and perfect from birth to death. You don't have to be a historian to know the idiocy behind this notion, let alone the danger it can lead to. One of the greatest legacies these men bequeathed to every subsequent generation of Americans was the gift of free speech - to challenge and call out authority figures when they assume the appearance of wrong doing. It is therefore only just to show them - and criticize them - for where they fell short in history's records. Only then, do we approach the truth of who they were and who we are. Only then do we cultivate a greater depth of understanding of what America was, is, and can be.

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  • 1776

    by David McCullough Year Published: 2005 History

    Difficulty: Challenging

    A complex yet revealing look at the first year of the Revolutionary War. This was the year that was, truly, EVERYTHING as far as that war was concerned... and we came SO CLOSE to losing it all! The book gives great insight into Washington's leadership skills, as well as a thorough covering of all of his subordinates, as well as the British leaders. McCullough discusses battle strategies as much as he does colonial culture during that time. Very comprehensive. Some knowledge about the Revolutionary War, itself, will help.

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  • Founding Brothers

    by Joseph J Ellis Year Published: 2000 History

    Difficulty: Easy Reading

    This book, which ultimately was produced into a mini-series for the History Channel, focuses upon the intertwining relationships among the greatest generation of Americans. As opposed to straight biography, it focuses upon key moments among the Founders during and after the Revolutionary era, such as "The Duel" - the chapter which focuses upon the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel; "The Farewell", Washington's terms in office and his ultimate decision to step down from power after two; and "The Friendship" between Jefferson and Adams which became terse during each man's presidency, but was rekindled again right around the War of 1812 by Dr. Benjamin Rush and lasted literally until both men died on July 4th, 1826... 50 years to the day after the document that one man wrote and the other edited established the independence of the USA.

    If you're looking for a thorough, well fleshed-out biography of the men who were our Founders, this is not it. It only focuses upon those who were the "superiors among equals", the majority of the Founders barely register a mention. It also only focuses upon key moments in our - and their - history, so you also have to know much of each man's story before reading.

    By focusing on the moment as opposed to the man, the book gives life to the idea that sometimes, history IS in the moment - and those moments say and do as much for the men in them as they said and did for those of us who came after.

    A relatively easy read, if you have some background knowledge of the Founders. It's not enough to satisfy a truly lustful quest for history, but it is sweetly satisfying for the moment!

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  • American Gospel

    by John Meacham Year Published: 2006 History

    Difficulty: Average

    At times like these - when politicians and voters alike invoke the Founding Fathers and what they supposedly believed as the rationale to support one current political policy or another social policy, it surprises me to find how little people actually know about our Founders, let alone what they believed... let alone just how complex their beliefs were.

    Meacham's book gives the reader a thorough examination at the role religion played within our government - specifically within the founding of our government - and how that role has been played out since. From examining the Constitution to the Great Depression and even the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Meacham shows that, much like within our 50+ Founders - religion has played a complicated and constantly evolving role nationally.

    Take Thomas Jefferson, for instance; as one of our most deep-thinking and philosophical - if not idealistic - Founders, he deeply questioned religious dogma and the concept of his faith wavered from atheism to a profound admiration for the words of Christ (if ONLY for the words of Christ). Jefferson used religious reference to justify that "all men were created equal" - yet was canny enough to know that any would-be despot could use religion to not only aggrandize personal power, but shut competitors out, thus he authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom - the document that would become the basis for the separation clause within the First Amendment.

    This book is a quick and relatively easy read for those with a fairly functional understanding of basic US history, and while it doesn't paint a complete or totally satisfying picture of what religion in the US truly means and truly is - it gives the reader enough to inspire curiosity... and an open mind.

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  • The Faiths of the Founding Fathers

    by David L Holmes Year Published: 2006 History

    Difficulty: Average

    A very thorough examination of just what the Founding Fathers believed when it came to religion. Conservative and Liberal extremists have it wrong based upon this reading... What did they believe? Quite a bit, quite a lot, and quite surprising! Easy to read - but a bit of knowledge about the different sects of Christianity wouldn't hurt...

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  • The Faiths of Our Fathers

    by Alf J. Mapp Year Published: 2003 History

    Difficulty: Average

    Inspired by the curiosity that "American Gospel" had inspired in me, I picked up this book to learn more specifics concerning our Founders religious convictions. If you are looking for a book that clearly spells out what historical evidence indicates what Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Franklin, and about a dozen other Founders believed, look no further. This book provides a chapter on each Founder and details their theological evolution and what they had come to believe (at least, as clearly as evidence seems to indicate) by the establishment of the US.

    The answers may well surprise you... far from being the fervent evangelical Christian devotees that many contemporary politicians - especially those on the right wing of things - may profess, our Founders who were deeply complex people had deeply complex religious beliefs. Among our principle founders - Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin - we see a certain degree of wariness for the more religiously devoted. While men like Washington attended Church regularly - he never took communion. Many tended to believe more in the merit of the achievements of man as opposed a predisposed unfailing faith in God. One of our Founders was a Jew - Haym Solomon - thus instantly deflating the notion that this was a nation founded by Christian men. Catholics and Protestants, alike, participated in the Revolution and construction of the Constitution - despite their historical hatred and distrust inherited from their European roots.

    The chief reason we have the separation clause in the First Amendment is evident from the diversity of faiths and passions described in this book... they were all so different! The only way each could be assured that another would not encroach upon his religious liberty was to keep the power to regulate faith completely out of the hands of the government and solely within the hands of individuals.

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  • Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

    by John C. Miller Year Published: 1959 Biography

    An older biography, Miller's work nonetheless stands the test of time rather well.  He eschews making contemporary comparisons or efforts at understanding Hamilton within the context of the 1950's in lieu of painting as broad and detailed a portrait of the man that any reader could want.  As the title suggests, this book focuses upon the paradoxical qualities of Hamilton's character... he was, perhaps, one of the most brilliant of the Founders and the first "self-made" American.  A self-taught mathematical genius before he hit puberty, he rose from poverty working in his mother's dry goods store in the West Indies to become Washington's most treasured military advisor during the Revolutionary War.  As the first Secretary of Treasury, he had America well on the road to solvency and its currency accepted, if not respected, globally shortly after the US's economy had been all but ruined by first an improbable war and then reconstructing its government after its aborted first effort. 

    Hamilton arguably had the biggest ego of any of the Founders, rivaled only by Jefferson - whose abundance of wisdom helped him keep it in check while Hamilton's tended to rage in expansion.  His political feud with Jefferson and subsequent sexual dalliances (which his political enemies discovered) ruined his political career - and the early death of his son sent him into a depressive fit which ultimately cost him his life in a duel with another of America's Founders, Aaron Burr.  The reader can't help but wonder, if Hamilton had been tempered by some of the maturity and wisdom that surrounded him in his elders, like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, what kind of president he could have been.  The monarchical tyrant feared by Jefferson and later Madison?  Doubtful, as their own egos colored their impression of who Hamilton was.  Regardless, after reading this book, you will most likely feel as I did that the US only got a taste of Hamilton's genius.

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  • James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights

    by Richard Labunski Year Published: 2006 Biography

    This book examines the time in Madison's life revolving around the authoring of tthe Bill of Rights.  Initially, Madison was against the idea of adding such a piece to the Constitution, siding with Hamilton in that the Constitution already implied such rights.  The book delves into Madison's early line of thinking as well as his transformation into supporting the Bill and authoring it, highlighting his growing friendship with Jefferson along the way.  The book also steps back and examines the fight over the Bill that was occurring around the country, the states that would not join the union without such a Bill - and the work to produce the 10 rights that the original 13 states could all sign on with.

    An enjoyable read that fleshes out an important moment in the political development of our country's history, it works also as a nice companion piece to any biography on Madison, giving a magnifying glass's view to one of his, and the US's, most defining moment.

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  • The Pioneers

    by David McCullough Year Published: 2019 History

    Defying age and the incredible rigors of writing a piece of history, David McCullough is back, publishing another inspiring account of American history at the age of 85 (!!!).  While his books of late - The Pioneers, The Wright Brothers, The Greater Journey, for example - have fallen a bit short of the works he published in his prime (like Adams and Truman), his text is rich with thoroughly researched, gripping history.

    This time, McCullough takes us to the very beginnings of the United States of America and one of its governments first actions - even before the Constitution was written - the acquisition of the Ohio Territory.  Instead of delving into the politics behind the purchase or, for that matter, the larger historical tale Ohio was laying out at the very beginning of Manifest Destiny, McCullough did what he always does best... he finds the human stories inside this momentous piece of history and elevates them to the forefront.  Because history IS a human story and therefore nothing more should matter than the people who made the history.

    McCullough's book primarily focuses upon the first 50 years of the Ohio Valley and its settlement, and hist narrative tells the tale of the men who lobbied for its creation and labored to first settle it - Rufus Putnam and Colonel Sproat.  McCullough details dramatically the challenges and dangers of exploring and settling the territory, and despite its hardships, how the Valley and its subsequent states would grow and flourish through the tireless effort of its settlers.  True to his ability to take characters long dead - and often forgotten - and give them immediacy, McCullough paints vivid images of these settlers and fully humanizes them both as characters of history, as well as fully developed people with hopes and dreams, shortcomings and flaws, tragedies and triumphs.  In so doing, McCullough's book is as much about the triumph of "ordinary" Americans and the spirit of triumphalism that seemed to rise in the West as the US aged.

    Unfortunately, an equally significant group of Americans - the indigenous Americans - largely have no presence in this tale.  McCullough writes of them early on in their first friendly interactions with settlers, and then later with the violent attacks that went hand in hand with boundless white expansion into Native lands.  But McCullough does not devote the same attention toward fleshing these peoples out, their fears and concerns, and treatment at the hands of the usurpers.  They are largely seen as obstacles to American expansion and greatness... threats that are quickly dealt with and extricated with no analysis as to how and why this pattern of treatment grew, evolved, and defined right up to the modern era dominant and empowered white treatment of Native peoples.

    As a piece of historical work, this book does not stand side by side with the titans of McCullough's mind from the past... but then, few books by any author do that.  As a result, the reader gets an inspirational and detailed account of what it took to settle in the West and move the US into a new phase of its destiny, as well as a celebrated tale of the men and women who did just that.  This is not a comprehensive history of the settlement of Ohio because of whose story is largely left out... but it is a well written account of the attitude and drive that citizens NOT in seats of power had regarding themselves and their country's future - traits that would, in a much larger sense, define US citizens right up to the modern era.

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  • George Washington

    by Willard Sterne Randall Year Published: 1997 Biography

    This comprehensive biography is a terrific open window not only to the life of, perhaps, the US's most important Founder - but to the lives of the Founding generation.  Additionally, Randall does a terrific job of painting a picture of what life in the American colonies were like for Washington in order to help explain the path he chose.  This is a terrific book for any reader who wants to get to know more about the US's first president as well as those who are interested in the Founding era.  Be warned - it will lead you to a lot more reading!!!

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  • His Excellency

    by Joseph Ellis Year Published: 2004 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    An examination of George Washington's life principally through primary source documents, most prominantly - letters. While the text is somewhat cold and impersonal, a lot of light is shed about Washington, his values, his personality, and his strengths and weaknesses... no easy task, considering how thoroughly his estate burned his letters and correspondence (by his request) after his death.

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  • An Imperfect God: George Washington - His slaves and the Creation of America

    by Henry Wiencek Year Published: 2003 Biography

    From its title, the reader would expect this book to "poke some holes" in the mythology that surrounds Washington, and that would be fair.  However, the author's intent is not to knock Washington off his deserved shelf on the pantheon of the USA's greatest leaders; instead, it works to paint this great leader in his own proper light.

    While this is a fairly encompassing biography, Imperfect God seeks to most closely analyze the relationship between Washington and slavery... and relationship whose contradictions puzzled all of the Founding Fathers who knew quite well that the liberty and freedom that they fought against England for was not going to be endowed to many.  Washington was aware of this contradiction - but this piece was only one of a number factors that tugged at his conscience, and it was not often the strongest pull.

    Wiencek shows the reader how Washington's interests in being independently wealthy - independent from the British creditors who hounded him before the revolution and the debt that pursued him afterward, independed of the cotton and tobacco traps from which only a few lucky planters seemed to escape debt, and free from the "burden" of living up to the never-satisfied exepctations of his mother.  While Washington disliked slavery and the agricultural system which seemed to have him trapped into maintaining permanent servants - he couldn't see any way out of it that also didn't condemn he and his family to financial ruin.

    The more land he purchased - and after the revolutionary war, his interest in land in the Ohio Valley were laid plain - the more he needed his slaves to work it.  Perhaps it was the fact that he, himself, was childless (most likely infertility brought about by a severe illness during his adolescence) - and perhaps it was also the fact that his wife, Martha, was also financially independent that led him to free his slaves upon his death... only then could he free his conscience without damaging his family.  Wiencek examines these different threads to show us a man who figured out how to beat the vastly superior British Army, but could not solve the conundrum of America's early addiction to slave labor.

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  • Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's

    by Charles A. Cerami Year Published: 2008 History

    This delightful book charts, arguably, the most important dinner party in our nation's history... a small gathering or three people, to be precise: Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton.  The book opens by first exploring the conflicting, often inflammatory relationship between Jefferson and Madison on one side, and Hamilton on the other... both in the press and in Washington's cabinet.

    Their disagreement - specifically regarding the proper power balance between states and the national government - was the defining theme of our nation's beginning... going so far as to define our nation's first two political parties and ultimately one of the chief causes of the Civil War.  Jefferson, while highly opinionated on the matter, also understood the political expediency of compromise... so he arranged a dinner party to civilly settle the issue of how to pay the nation's debt from the Revolutionary War, where the permanent site for the US capital should be set, as well as the legality of a national bank.

    A great dinner was had (the book even provides recipes for all courses!), Hamilton's plan to have the national government assume the war debt and pay it off was achieved through the construction of the national bank, and the nation's capital was relocated in 1790 to Washington D.C. ... and the US survived its first political crisis!

    A page burner, as well as an appetite generator!

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  • John Adams

    by David McCullough Year Published: 2001 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    McCullough, in my estimation, is the preeminent historical writer. No one else comes close to his skill at turning the past into a well woven tale. His biography of John Adams is one of his best works. He paints a very vivid image of one of the least appreciated presidents from the post-colonial era. Adams wisdom, wit, and vanity all come through loud and clear. The amazing and loving relationship he and his wife shared, as well as his on again/off again deep friendship with Thomas and Jefferson are highlights. Geography and a superficial knowledge of world history during Adams' era wouldn't hurt - but aren't necessary.

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  • John Adams: Party of One

    by James Grant Year Published: 2005 Biography

    Grant's book had the bad fortune of being released shortly after David McCullough's multi-award winning, ground breaking HBO mini-series producing biography on the same subject came out, and more's the pity.  Without diminishing  McCullough's work - Grant does a tremendous job bringing the wit, temperment, and passion of one of the US's most important Founder's to light.  Without skimping on history, Grant perfectly captures Adams sense of humor, sarcasm, and cynicism toward the "bold new experiment" he and his fellow country men were engaging in.  He not only captures the many different hats that Adams had to wear in order to establish the US - philosopher, lawyer, executive, and even salesman - but also the struggles he went through reconciling his ambitions with each new task he undertook in service to his country.

    While it perhaps lacks the warmth and intimacy of McCullough's book - which also focuses a more attention upon Adams' relationship with his wife than does Grant's - it nonetheless provides the reader with a thorough understanding of who Adams was, what he did, why he did what he did, and - perhaps most significantly in Adams' mind at least - how he felt about what he was doing.   Well worth your time!

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  • My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams

    by Edited by Margaret A Hogan & James C Taylor Year Published: 2010 History

    Difficulty: Average

    There are numerous collections of these legendary letters out there, this is just one of the more recent sets. The editors interrupt the Adams' writings only periodically in order to paint the bigger historical picture in which the letters were set or to introduce an historical character or two that the reader may not be acquainted with, but they do so briefly and unobtrusively.

    What we're then left with is an amazing collection of letters which show a marriage about as amazing as any in American history. Every letter paints such a dazzling and complete picture of this marriage - partnership. What you see is the commitment these two people felt not just for each other, but for the nation that one would directly, dramatically influence - and the other indirectly so. Through trials and tribulations,triumphs and successes - their love never wanes and it's evident in how they communicate. While John was definitely the political master outside the house, Abigail tempered his emotions with reason and were it not for her ability to find away to soothe his otherwise boisterous temper, his career as a politician and leader might have ended before the Revolution began. Sadly, we are angered at Mr. Adams for not heeding his wife's advice in one of her letters to "remember the Ladies" as he went off to prepare and sign the Declaration of Independence with the other revolutionaries - because Abigail Adams makes it clear that Revolutionary-era women were just as, if not more than capable of handling independence as their men were.

    With the last few letters as John wrote his dearest friend (and sometimes political rival) Thomas Jefferson about his wife's death - we can see and feel his tears upon the parchment... as we can with Jefferson, a man so remote and emotionally locked (a perfect foil to Adams unashamed emotional outbursts of all natures) - we imagine Jefferson's heartbreak at the death of a woman, a person, he so admired to be more than sufficient to cause him to weep as he wrote.

    If patriotism begins at home, this is a good book to learn from.

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  • Adams vs. Jefferson - The Tumultuous Election of 1800

    by John Ferling Year Published: 2004 History

    Difficulty: Average

    Disgusted at modern politics? Sick of all the back-room dealings that seem to govern contemporary society? Distraught by the media's apparent lack of bias and fair, meaningful coverage? Read this book and you will gain an all NEW sense of respect for what we have in the modern age! This election prompted the creation of the 12th Amendment and no election since (perhaps not even Bush/Gore) has sparked as much controversy! The book is fairly comprehensive concerning the candidates - but a bit of knowledge about the Constitution and how the government works helps...

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  • Toussaint Louverture

    by Madison Smartt Bell Year Published: 2007 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    This is one of the first, if not better books, to bring the life, personality and events surrounding one of the most significant revolutionary leaders during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

    Shortly after the United States successfully separated from England and in the thick of France's own revolution, Louverture led a violent but successful slave revolt against their French masters on Haiti. Haiti was legendary at the time as the worst of all slave destinations. Between the brutal climate, virulent malaria and other tropical diseases, and the violence of the slave owners, themselves, the average slave had a one year life span on a Haitian plantation.

    Louverture - who died in a French cell - didn't live long enough to see his nation throw off its chains, but he was from that point on hailed as the savior of enslaved Blacks everywhere. Indeed, so terrified was the United States in the 1890's of what Haiti's independence meant - most slave-owning states began instituting draconian measures such as banning slave literacy, the death penalty even for suspicion of insurrection, and vast limitations upon the ability slaves had to get their freedom which would endure through the end of the Civil War. The US didn't interfere militarily because this was largely an internal French matter, and relations between the US and France had somewhat soured since the Revolution. Further, the more of a headache Haiti was for its new Emperor, Napoleon, the less likely he would be to march his armies up the Mississippi.

    A detailed and thoroughly researched book, Bell's work casts some long overdue light on a revolutionary hero significant in US history who has gone largely ignored by Americans. The fact that Haiti's economic and political blight have not improved much in 200 years is a further testament to the relationship we have - and didn't want - with our neighbor to the South.

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  • Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

    by Fawn M. Brodie Year Published: 1974 Biography

    A thorough examination of Jefferson from the inside out, Brodie first seeks to understand what went in to making the man, then understanding how those ingredients responded to the tumultuous era of the founding of the United States.  Brodie not only provides a great deal of analysis on Jefferson, the man, but provides a great deal of psychological examination - especially upon his defining relationships with his mother and wife.  Brodie uses evidence from these relationships to help the reader understand why he was the best spokesperson for our independence from England as well as for religious liberty.  His withdrawn demeanor and constant battle with migraines, as well as his relationship with Sally Hemmings are also brougth to light through this internal examination.  

    As a result, not only does Brodie provide an engaging examination of Jefferson and his accomplishments, but she also brings the reader a great deal closer to understanding this fairly enigmatic Founder.

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  • Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

    by Jon Meacham Year Published: 2012 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    While not a biography in the strictest sense, Meacham uses the narrative and evolution of Jefferson's life, and all of the tumultuous events within it, to frame a consistent view regarding how Jefferson approached power and government.

    Meacham is a very good historical writer who has tackled both Andrew Jackson and the issue of the religious beliefs and faiths of many of our nation's founders (both books are reviewed on this page). Therefore, it's no surprise that he tackles both the task of capturing Jefferson's life as well as using it to illustrate Jefferson's approach to wielding power very well. Additionally, he does so in a very user-friendly manner that invites historians of all abilities to read his book and consider his arguments. He is clear without pretension, and without "babying" his more learned readers, he isn't hard to follow for those who are merely acquainted with Jefferson and his life.

    Regarding his biographical sketch - that's really the best term to apply because Meacham isn't attempting to capture every individual nuance of Jefferson's life, rather he's looking for the formative moments that show either how Jefferson learned to wield power or how consistent his wielding of it was with his beliefs and philosophies.

    Meacham does a fair job rectifying one of Jefferson's biggest "flaws" that his critics have pointed out throughout history (beginning with John Adams) - that he was a man who spoke out against tyranny and despotism in others, but didn't shy away from behaving not unlike a tyrant, himself, when he had the opportunity. Meacham argues that Jefferson was a man of great will who sought to exercise control all that he could - early on over his own mind and development, and then over his home and family, eventually reaching into the colony of Virginia and its fate as war with England became more likely, and then eventually with regards to his own nation. Jefferson was a man of great vision when it came to the United States, and he would do all he could if it helped bring about that ideal of independent Republican-agrarianism he sought... including go outside of the bounds of the Constitution as President.

    This doesn't mean that Meacham is trying to paint Jefferson as a man without flaws. Time and again he shows the hypocrisy in being an architect for human freedom while maintaining dozens of slaves (who ultimately did the bulk of work regarding "exercising his will" over his own landscape at Monticello). He does, however, show Jefferson struggling with this issue - Jefferson knew that slavery would have to end and he had tried to help engineer its means, though only feebly and ultimately futilely. He was the pinnacle of white slave-owning society, yet he took a slave girl (Sally Hemmings) as his mistress (forced or otherwise...) and had several children by her, all of which became his property, not his progeny... despite a promise to his dying wife that there would never be another after her. Meacham does not shy away from Jefferson's complexities, he shows, instead how Jefferson tried to reconcile them with his considerable view of the world around him, but ultimately failed. In doing so, we are left with a very clear and well-rounded understanding of an American Titan who, in the end, was just as human as anyone else.

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  • The Louisiana Purchase

    by Thomas Fleming Year Published: 2003 History

    This short book gives the reader a detailed look at how America's great leap toward Manifest Destiny began.  Starting with the turbulent relationship with France after the XYZ affair, Fleming shows how Jefferson and his envoys (including future president James Monroe) first tested the waters about Louisiana, and then underwent the complex negotiations with Napoleon and the Marquis de Lafayette in order to acquire land that would expand the US's territory by 100%, all for a bargain of a price.

    Fleming also explores the extra-Constitutionality of this act, as the Constitution, itself, never clearly addressed the action of *acquiring* new land - only how new territory can become a state in the republic.  He shows both Jefferson's rationale as well as the criticism that was lobbed at him for exceeding his power (something Jefferson was always VERY quick to criticize in other presidents) in order to get Louisiana.

    A worthwhile read about the US starting down the road that would lead to both its greatness and its near downfall in the Civil War.

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  • The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

    by Noah Brooks Year Published: 2012 History

    Difficulty: Average

    This book was written in two different eras, actually... a great deal of it is taken directly from Lewis & Clark's journals, the rest is edited commentary from the author written in 1901. In essence, that makes this a "2 for 1" history book as you not only learn about the continent and early the early US from Lewis & Clark, but also the perspective on this monumental adventure from a writer who lived over a century earlier.

    The book is pretty much a straightforward chronological account of the journey across the continent and back again. The reader is given a pretty amazing glimpse at all the challenges the explorers faced: hunger, inclement weather, numerous native tribes who had not yet directly encountered whites, disease, plants, insects (mosquitos in clouds that could dim the sun!!!) and predatory animals, and of course the earth, itself, in the form of its mountains and rivers. A reader cannot help but be deeply impressed at the audacity and sheer strength of will this journey took - no American had ever made this journey and so much was unknown... courage unparalleled!

    The reader also gets a healthy dose of respect at how talented these adventurers were: they were hunters, river navigators, map makers, shelter constructors, diplomats and negotiators and traders, surveyors, clothiers, trappers, salt makers... not to mention journalists!!!

    The author offers more commentary and addendum as opposed to any bona fide historical interpretation in the modern sense - serving as a sort of editor in including the direct words (adjusted for spelling) of the expedition frequently meshed with the author's own summaries.

    Sacajawea is given lots of time in the book as her role in the success of this expedition was vital, to say the least. The author and the original documents illustrate how dependent upon many native tribes L & C were for everything from food to directions.

    This was a truly satisfying read and painted a vivid picture - if not a prophecy - of a continent on the verge of change as Unknown America would very soon become Known and Settled America. Any aficionado of America's history should pick this book up.

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  • James Madison

    by Garry Wills Year Published: 2002 Biography

    A concise biography that highlights the many key events in Madison's life and service to the United States.  While his wisdom and brilliance as a legislator shines through, it would have been nice to have more evaluation of his insight and decision making process during the War of 1812.  Regardless, Wills' book serves as a nice, intimate introduction to our fourth president.

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  • Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence

    by A.J. Langguth Year Published: 2006 History

    This book looks at the events leading up to and into the war of 1812 (Jefferson's disastrous embargo, British and French beligerence, unresolved issues from the "first" War for Independence), the events that transpired during the War (naval battles on the Great Lakes, burning of the White House, Battle of New Orleans, for example) how the War was won and what it's victory meant to the young US.

    In telling this story, Langguth focuses upon three people - President Madison, Admiral Perry, and General Andrew Jackson - and how their decisions affected the war, itself.  It was during the conflict, for example that Madison's lack of executive leadership became evident and Jackson's effective leadership would lead him straight to the White House a decade later.  The War of 1812 also enabled with unflinching certainty, the era of Manifest Destiny, which was to happen next.

    A good read and an important one about the US's least known and understood major war.  Well worth your time!

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  • James Monroe

    by Edwin P. Hoyt Year Published: 1968 Biography

    This abbreviated look at the presidency of the last of the Founders provides a concise overview of Monroe's life and service to the United States.  It gives the reader more of a fact-by-fact account of his work and accomplishments - from his career in the Continental Army, to foreign envoy to France who helped secure the Louisiana Purchase, to his service under Madison, to his presidency during the Era of Good Feeling.  Hoyt doesn't do much to get inside of Monroe's head and analyze his actions.  Nonetheless, he sheds a great deal of light upon the man whose presidency is often forgotten due to the lack of turbulence it experienced or overshadowed because of the very capable secretary of state, John Q. Adams, that served under him.

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  • John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life

    by Paul C. Nagel Year Published: 1997 Biography

    Nagel's biography cuts to the quick of his subject, a man who was forevor trying to live up to the impossibly high expectations his father had set - only to find a life beyond them once achieved.  Quincy Adams was arguably one of, if not the most inteligent president to ever hold the office.  His goals for America were far reaching and ahead of their time, envisioning both a bicoastal nation as well as a giant of science and industry well before either came to fruition.  His love for public life was evident in finding a home in the House of Representatives after his single term in the presidency - and therein he used his profound intelect to battle the rising tide and strength of the slave states and fight for his vision of a more just and egalitarian US.  

    Especially captured were his pivotal and influential years as Monroe's secretary of state (and drafting what would become the Monroe Doctrine) as well as his contentious race for office both times against Andrew Jackson - a fight that was wrongly portrayed as the Washington insider with prestige and power against the Everyman hero from the Battle of New Orleans.

    An enjoyable and engaging read that keeps the facts and information flying fast and furious but never at a pace to gag the reader.

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  • Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars

    by Robert Remini Year Published: 2001 History

    Difficulty: Average

    No president did more to remove Indians from their native territory than Jackson did - and this book focuses upon his methods and motivations. Very balanced and very thorough, I was surprised to learn how much of his motivations for removing the Native Amreicans had to deal with the very real threats that expanding whites posed to the tribes... Jackson wanted to remove them as much for their protection as he did for US expansion. Good book!

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  • American Lion

    by Jon Meacham Year Published: 2008 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    A terrific, if not brief, overview of the life, death, and most importantly - the Presidency - of Andrew Jackson. Jackson's importance as a national figure - as well as a trend and tradition setter are not missed, and this book is written in a great historical narative style that blends evidence, documentation, and dialogue seamlessly with the author's theses. Jackson's nickname as the Lion of America is not understated... read why!

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  • The Age of Jackson

    by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Year Published: 1945 History

    Difficulty: Challenging

    A very interesting read for many reasons... First, Schlesinger is somewhat of a legendary American statesman (an advisor to Kennedy's presidency) - so you're not just reading an "author", per se, but the words of a prominent American political advisory. Second, it's an "older" history book - written shortly after WWII, and therefore one who is used to reading more modern histories will easily notice the difference in voice and style.

    Schlesinger tells the tale of America during Jackson's years in prominence and power - roughly 1820 - 1840. His work focuses largely upon the Bank of the United States and the emerging industrial revolution in the northern U.S. His work is thorough and profoundly well researched. He attempts to paint more of a picture of the era and its characters as opposed to making a large collection of arguments (which are still present). This tale spends considerable time evaluating socialism's early development in the U.S. (the term "proletariat" was common among industrial reformers in the 1820's - almost 3 decades before Marx used it in his Manifesto). He examines the far reaching drama over Jackson's decision to revoke the Bank of the U.S.' charter, as well as its impacts upon Americans. He also spends considerable time unveiling the formation of the early Democratic party - and the early evolution of modern U.S. politics.

    This book is written at an exceptionally high level - one NEEDS to know Jackson and those of his era fairly well prior to starting this tome (I had read 3 books on Jackson before starting this - and still found it tough!) However, this book is VERY educational about topics most text books never even mention. It is a pretty definitive tome on this era in American History.

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  • The Petticoat Affair

    by John F. Marszalek Year Published: 1997 History

    Difficulty: Challenging

    A thorough recanting of how a woman who refused to conform to what 1820's and 30's culture THOUGHT was her role in society toppled Andrew Jackson's first cabinet - the most significant scandal in American political history up to that point. As good as the history is, this book is also very interesting for its content regarding gender politics and roles in early America.

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  • The Passions of Andrew Jackson

    by Andrew Bustein Year Published: 2003 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    More of a psychological profile than a biography, this book analyzes Jackson's behavior throughout his life to draw conclusions about how he ruled as president. Interesting and thorough - but not a complete biography nor history.

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  • The Trail of Tears: The Story of the American Indian Removals 1813-1855

    by Gloria Jahoda Year Published: 1975 History

    This book focuses upon one of the United States' great shames - the purposeful removal of thousands of indigenous people for the sole purpose of satiating white American's desire for land, gold, and greed.  While it examines the removal from many different perspectives - showing, for instance, how some Americans truly thought it was for the good of the Natives, that given the warlike behavior of whites (especially southern whites) whenever they felt threatened or the need to expand, many felt that if the natives were allowed to remain on their land, it would spell the death knell for their people.

    Trail of Tears discusses the many different removal movements, who was involved in each, as well as the impetus for breaking one treaty after another.  It also pulls no punches regarding how willing Americans were to remove even peaceful, English speaking, economically and culturally assimilating natives... simply because of the color of their skin.  A sad pattern throughout our nation's history, indeed.

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  • Martin Van Buren

    by Ted Widmer Year Published: 2005 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    A relatively short, yet broad biography of President #8. In roughly 170 pages, the book manages to give the reader a decent overview of Van Buren's life before and after office, his machinations toward creating the Democratic party and revolutionizing American politics, as well as his role in the Jacksonian Era and the age of Manifest Destiny.

    A relatively "light" bit of historical reading, but informative and interesting, nonetheless. Fills in a lot of gaps about an otherwise forgotten president.

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  • Mr. Jefferson's Hammer: William Henry Harrison

    by Robert M. Owens Year Published: 2011 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    Given that Harrison holds the dubious honor of serving the least amount of time of any President (all but one month) - this book focuses predominantly upon what brought him into the office of the President. Harrison's career as a military officer on the frontier is the focus - specifically his interactions, wars, and treaties with Native Americans in the North West. Also of focus is his impact upon the formation of the state of Indiana, his activity in the War of 1812 which earned him hero status, and his bid as a Whig for the presidency in 1840.

    An interesting book for learning about early America's interaction with its native inhabitants as well as the military and political landscape of the era.

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  • John Tyler: The Accidental President

    by Edward P. Crapol Year Published: 2006 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    Tyler's presidency is routinely minimized - if not criminalized because of his decision to support the Confederacy in the Civil War (the only President to have done so, although had Polk lived, I believe he would have joined Tyler). Tyler, nonetheless, contributed some very significant developments to American political history. As the first Vice President to assume office upon the death of the President, Tyler firmly and irrefutably set the precedent that in the event of the President's removal from office (by death or otherwise), the VP *becomes* the President. He also had a very firm hand in steering the U.S. toward annexing Texas and going to war with Mexico over land through California. Tyler also had a profound impact upon the Whig party - which was a rising star in the 1840's. His unexpected presidency derailed the Whig's attempts to unite the North and South along common economic ground. He also engaged in what was arguably the first covert operations of the U.S.' history - using secret service funds to try to politically influence and politically alter citizens' opinions. He is the "traitor president" - he sided with slavery and the disunionists, but he is interesting and vital in understanding the build up prior to the Civil War.

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  • What God Hath Wrought

    by Daniel Walker Howe Year Published: 2007 History

    Difficulty: Average

    This chapter in the Oxford American History Series reinforces the basic truth that there are no "boring" chapters in history - there are no eras in which little of import occurred. Nestled in between the American Revolution & establishment of our independence on one side with the Civil War on the other, the period between 1815-1848 often gets dismissed and overlooked (especially by our state standards) for its contributions to our history. Howe's 850+ page Pulitzer Prize winning work shows the reader that this period is as important as any other in our history. From the rise of abolitionism, to the expansion (legal and otherwise) of our nation via Manifest Destiny; the beginning of the women's rights & suffrage movement to the dramatic impact technological developments such as the telegraph and railroad unleashed; from the explosion of religious sentiment and denominations under the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, to the changing and evolving shape of what would become modern politics - What God Hath Wrought rightfully showers this period of American history with all the pomp, honor, and awe it deserves.

    While it is a very long and very, very dense book - it also takes care to thoroughly care for the amateur historian who has little background in reading this chapter of our past. Whether you use this book to start your investigation into early US history - or, like me, you have recently completed reading dozens of books on the topic and you use this book to endcap this part of your studies - What God Hath Wrought will illuminate, impress, and inspire.

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  • Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk

    by William Dusinberre Year Published: 2003 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    This book does not examine Polk as a traditional biography. Instead, it examines his life and political career (chiefly his time as President) from the perspective of his being a slaveholder. Polk is most commonly associated with being America's expansionist president - adding in territory in the South West through to the Pacific in the Mexican-American War, annexing Texas, going toe to toe with England over territorial boundaries in Oregon, and beginning the era of Imperial America by opening up contact with Japan, Hawaii and China. This book proposes that one of the chief motivating factors that Polk held, however, was his desire to see slavery spread. This book provides EXHAUSTIVE evidence and detail concerning the evolution of his plantations and their forced laborers. From the overwhelming dearth of data, it's hard to argue with some of the author's conclusions. Despite the fact that Polk had kept his dealings in slavery quite hush-hushed as President, he was using his presidential salary to buy more and more slaves (going from the mid-30's just prior to taking office to over 50 when he died just afterward). The author argues that in doing so, his politics were guided by this economic choice - whether it was his staunch disgust and thinly veiled threats concerning the Wilmot Proviso, or his unabashed desire to see slavery spread throughout all acquired territory in his expansionist efforts. The author even details Polk's business dealings with the Supreme Court Justice who, in 1857, would play a pivotal role in dealing a near-death blow to abolition in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. This book relies HEAVILY upon data - which is highly useful, but at times it is difficult to sort one fact from the large field of others the author provides. More narrative would have been useful - as well as more thoroughly presented conclusions.

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  • At the Edge of the Precipice

    by Robert V. Remini Year Published: 2010 History

    Difficulty: Average

    A decent story teller and thorough researcher (see my review on Remini's book - Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars), Remini falls a bit short in this examination of the events that surrounded and led to the creation of the 1850 Compromise - an important event as it would both delay the Civil War by a decade AND make it inevitable.

    I take responsibility for this, however; as I read through Polk and Taylor's biographies, I grew more and more fascinated with the machinery and politicking that went into carving this last great piece of legislation from the Triumvirate Era (Clay, Calhoun, Webster)... the book is very short - which is what I wanted due to the fact that it was a stray away from my current discipline of presidential biographies... and as such, it reads more like a Cliff Notes version of the Compromise's tale, a bit rushed, as it were.

    Nonetheless, it does a great job bringing Clay and his passion for compromise and unity to life and somewhat skillfully simplifies for the layman the VERY complex world of Congressional committees through which the Compromise navigated. Not a GREAT book for a thorough historian, but a decent, quick read for someone who wants just a bit of depth and overall breadth of the story of the antebellum US' last breath...

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  • Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest

    by K. Jack Bauer Year Published: 1985 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    If history should be a tale well told, this book - at best - is a thorough plot description without much attention to plot development. The author gives considerable attention to laying out Taylor's years from early service in the military prior to the war of 1812 through his death in office. The author also presents many arguments and conclusions about Taylor, his abilities, and his decision making.

    The problem is that the author uses purely narative to tell Taylor's story. Very little primary source material is directly quoted or intertwined into the book, even though source material is often referenced. While a great deal of Taylor's records were destroyed by unrestrained looting Union soldiers during the Civil War, that doesn't excuse why very little of his actual words are used in his own story.

    Overall, it's a bland tale - but it does describe an interesting point in US history... one in which the US begins evolving into a colonial power and the winds of Civil War were temporarily stilled.

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  • Millard Fillmore - Biography of a President

    by Robert J. Rayback Year Published: 1992 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    For a President that I freely admit I knew NEXT TO NOTHING about (heck, it wasn't until I started teaching US History that I even knew he was #13), I must confess at being very pleasantly surprised at how gripping a portrayal of Fillmore this book displayed. Contrary to the popular myth that the Chief Executives leading up to Lincoln were largely self-interested, if not corrupt and inept... Fillmore was a master politician and a skilled Parliamentarian. Largely self taught, this biography shows Fillmore for the self-made man (and success) that he was. He was loyal to the Union and the Constitution until the end - and up to the Civil War favored diplomatic means that would ensure both North and South not only remain in harmony with each other, but function along a continual compromise of give and take. Regrettably, at least for Fillmore's office and sake, the US was on a different course - splintered by factionalism and the very social and economic forces that helped create the country in the first place, there was arguably no other option BUT Civil War - despite the best (and quite impressive at that) efforts of master leaders like Fillmore.

    This book recounts a classic archetype of man against destiny... and sadly for some... destiny always wins.

    This was a pretty accessible book - and while having background knowledge of ante bellum politics certainly would help, it's not entirely necessary to understand this biographies main ideas and themes.

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  • The Remarkable Millard Fillmore

    by George Pendle Year Published: 2007 Comic Fiction

    Difficulty: Easy Reading

    I ordered this book off Amazon initially thinking it would make a valuable supplement to my other biography on Fillmore. I didn't read the description too deeply and didn't even bother to look at the cover! Had I done so and had seen a studious looking Fillmore mounted atop a UNICORN, I might not have ordered this book - since it is a parody/historical comedy... but I'm glad I did!

    This book is for the penultimate history nerd... no, Pendleton doesn't turn his Monty-Python-meets-Hitchhiker's-Guide wit toward a more commonly known and therefore easier to relate to President like Kennedy, Lincoln, Reagan or Washington... he parodies one of the least studied Presidents in our history! ... and he did so brilliantly!

    Pendleton casts Fillmore in a sort of "Forest Gump" role, stumbling and ambling about his period of history without much aim nor cause, but nonetheless either finds himself becoming the instigator of some of history's most significant events - or, at the very least, swirled up amidst them. From the conflict early Free Masons caused in his home state of New York to the Civil War, Pendleton intertwines deatailed, accurate historical minutae in with is flights of fancy about Fillmore's role in creating Zoro or his all-too-brief career as a sumo wrestler.

    The book is hilarious - IF you know the subject material and the details of the era of his life... in other words, IF you're a true history nerd. Otherwise this book and its rich comedy will go right over your head like Dennis Miller's comedy at a kindergarten day camp (complete with crickets chirping).

    I, nonetheless, loved it... because I'm a history nerd! :)

     

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  • The Peculiar Institution

    by Kenneth M. Stampp Year Published: 1956 History

    Difficulty: Average

    A landmark, important work - The Peculiar Institution, written in 1956 is absolutely on the must-read list for any person who wants to understand American history. This book is well researched given how much information and evidence about the practice of slavery has come to light since then. Stampp, in essence, proves that slavery as the form it took in colonial America and evolved into after the Revolutionary War was a choice, a decision made by the slave owning population of the United States... and the more they committed to it, the worse it became for them, the nations, and of course - the slaves. Most damnable of all is the allegation made throughout the book, but never stated in such explicit words, is the fact that slavery evolved because the class of colonial and US citizens who would become the slave owning aristocracy decided that it was far more preferable to profit off the labor of others than to work for their own daily bread, themselves.

    Stampp's book investigates the lifestyles of the slaves and thoroughly documents their daily lives, their diets, their labor regimen, their hopes, their leisur, their fears, and their (most often fruitless) pursuit of freedom. Stampp also effectively diffuses many of the myths and misconceptions about slavery - such as it was unprofitable for the slave owners, that slaves were more or less content in their status as chattel, that consistency existed in the practice of slaveholders. While some were distant, almost managerial overseers... others were guilt ridden and remorseful about the property they owned. Still others were violent and cruel, and seemed to revel in the fact that the human beings they owned had little rights and would all but never have a fair day in court were they abused, (over) beaten or raped by their owners.

    Perhaps worst of all, this book details how slavery was the breeding ground for the modern concept of racism by illustrating how aristocratic slave owners manipulated law and social norms to encourage poorer whites to see slaves as below their status... perhaps the poor whites who had neither property nor prospects never would be allowed a place at the table of the South's elite, but at least they weren't black, and at least they weren't slaves. The contempt the rich bred into the poor for slaves and, by default, Blacks, was born out of a fear of what their property would do should they ever become free en masse, and as a result, even after the Civil War ended and well into the 20th Century, most whites in the south labored to keep African Americans oppressed - and terrified of the consequences should they rise against the system which had imprisoned them in one way or another since the early 1600's.

    A powerful, but academic book that never sways from its purpose of showing what modern readers need to know about the institution which sent our nation tail spinning into Civil War, and then divided us for over a century afterward - this book should be read by all.

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  • Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son

    by Peter A. Wallner Year Published: 2004 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    Part 1 of a 2 part biography of, perhaps, one of history's most overlooked President (the last full length bio on Pierce was published some 80 years ago!) Wallner paints a very complete picture of Pierce's rise to power in politics and ends with his election to the presidency in 1852. In the process, Wallner also tells a compelling a tale of a nation who has grown past its roots, yearning to realize itself beyond the America that its founders knew.

    Pierce was our first President born in the 1800's - and as such was identified with a then new sweeping movement in politics known as "Young America" who was working to sweep away "Old Fogeyism". Pierce was a very talented lawyer and early in his career showed a talent for conciliation and uniting factions at a time when single and special issue politics was tearing the US apart.

    Pierce was able to reconcile his hatred for slavery with a logical means for keeping it out of the discourse of the Federal government; those calling for its abolition were doing so from a fundamentally biblical reference. Where Pierce saw this problem was within the First Amendment; were the United States to bend to the wishes of the religiously devout in this one instance - how far away would be the next demand and the next to make America more "Christly".

    This biography also highlights how our nation - at a time when we had, perhaps, some of the most talented Congressmen and compromisers ever - we sped headlong into Civil War. Politics had become big business by 1852, power had coalesced into two parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. Maintaining party loyalty and national cohesion was priority number one. This meant that elected leaders had moved away from defining platforms based upon what was best for the nation into platforms that were best for the Party (that is, platforms that would get them elected and reelected).

    Two *intended* side effects from the evolution into modern party politics were the rise and power of the media (newspaper and telegraph agencies) and the Spoils System as implemented first by Andrew Jackson. Media men made tremendous amounts of money promoting one candidate or slandering another; they truly were the mouth piece for politicians of the day - and were one to succeed in politics, one needed a bevy of newspapers on one's side. The Spoils System was devised in order to reward all those party members who aided in the election of candidates. For Pierce - that meant *** 18,000 *** appointments to Federal posts upon election. Through his success at bringing together multiple factions in the North and South, Pierce now had to "give the devil his due" and amply reward people from all factions with, among other positions, highly cherished cabinet posts... but what happens when each side resents and rejects any appointment from the other side? A political system awaiting collapse.

    Couple this with the fact that on his train trip to DC after winning the 1852 election, the train derailed and tragically, brutally killed his only son - sending his wife into a crippling depression.

    Pierce was a consensus builder who loved the Constitution, he was a melifluous speaker who could unify Free Soilers with radical secessionists in winning political office. But he would not have the administrative ability to appease these factions once in office... and after the death of his son, he would lack the will.

    Wallner's biography shows the tragedy and humanity in Pierce's rise to the presidency juxtaposed against the tragedy that is about to befall the US. I can't wait for part 2.

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  • Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union

    by Peter A. Wallner Year Published: 2004 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    This is the second part of a two-part biography of our 14th President. This volume focuses Pierces life from the point of when he took office in March of 1852 through his death in 1869. Wallner uses abundant primary sources to not only paint a vivid picture of the latter days of Pierce's life, but to also contend that he was not the inept, corrupt, ineffectual leader that past historians have claimed.

    In taking on both of these tasks, Wallner succeeds tremendously. Wallner weaves abundant evidence into his defensive portrait of Pierce as a gifted and honorable chief executive who drastically lowered the federal debt, adhered to a strict interpretation of the constitution in the ever contentious debate over slavery that would soon rupture the US, skillfully navigated sophisticated international diplomacy with Spain, France, Great Britain, and Mexico in upholding as well as leashing US territorial claims while avoiding war, and played politics as fairly as possible by making office appointments based upon ability and commitment to the union as opposed to the nepotistic tendencies of his predecessors. The failures during Pierce's single term in office (the only president in US History whose party only ran him for one term) were not necessarily his - they were the failures of a Congress ripe with corruption, its votes for sale to the highest bidder; his defense of the status quo and desire for true democracy to reign and let the law of the land be determined by the will of the majority; and the failures of extreme forces of division (slavery, anti-Catholicism, nativism) who sought to use God and invoke the nation to tear itself apart at the expense of those who loved the union.

    Pierce's wife, while she was alive and close by (which she was throughout the entirety of his political career) kept him from indulging in the one vice that would ultimately do him in - alcohol. While Pierce did give in to this addiction after Jane's death in the early 1860's, he led a very temperate life while she lived, despite the erroneous and exaggerated claims of his detractors. Indeed, it seems that much of the smear that surrounded Pierce and survives even to this day stemmed from him enemies - especially the radical Republicans, temperance advocates, and abolitionists - who saw Pierce's unwillingness to act upon their agendas at the expense of the rest of the Union as a sign that he was an evil, intemperate Northern man who had sided with the evils of the South. Since, in effect, these radicals won after the Civil War - history was left to their writings.

    Work, such as Wallner, serves not only to educate in an engaging manner about an important man who lived and worked during an important era of US History - it serves to warn us against only relying upon the tales told by one side of any interpretation.

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  • James Buchanan

    by Jean H. Baker Year Published: 2004 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    This is a brief, but comprehensive, overview of our 15th President, who is also arguably one of the worst our country ever had.

    Baker devotes a bit of the book to Buchanan's life before he became president, and he definitely seemed like he was groomed for the task. He had served over 2 decades in the legislature and had at that time unparalleled foreign service experience both as a diplomat to Russia as well as to England. He had served as Polk's Secretary of State and had even been considered for a position in the Supreme Court.

    While Buchanan claimed to be a very strict interpreter of the constitution who favored a limited, if not inactive Executive - Baker argues that quite the opposite was true. She shows how Buchanan, a Pennsylvania born and raised Northerner, developed a sound affectation for all things Southern, ESPECIALLY their views about the government's role in protecting its "peculiar institution". As President, Buchanan did more to protect slavery and Southern interests than any president before him - even those from the South! He remained docile and inactive when the north and its growing factions of abolitionists and Republicans pled for their rights to be recognized, but he never hesitated to actively step in and protect Southern claims. Buchanan did nothing to help maintain compromise, let alone peace and harmony in the union while he was president. His actions only sped the nation down the road to Civil War - and because of his lack of decisive action against an insurrectionist and seditious South (some of his own cabinet members conspired to secede while still serving the US!), he made Abraham Lincoln's job of defending federal property and keeping the peace all the more impossible.

    Baker shows Buchanan as a rather pathetic historical character. He was dependent upon popularity and friends and while he claimed to defend the Union and its Constitution, his acts as President betrayed both.

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  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Gi

    by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs Year Published: 2003 Autobiography

    Difficulty: Easy Reading

    These two autobiographies deliver a pretty solid education regarding what it meant to be a slave in the antebellum American South. I read both autobiographies within a collection and analysis of the two accounts specifically with the goal of understanding the condition of American slavery further - and what an education I received!

    Both Douglass and Jacobs render in graphic, chilling detail the constant fear, violence, deprivation, and depression that were infused in the lives of even the most "privileged and advantaged" slaves, although Jacobs' accounts of the sexual violence every slave woman faced is perhaps the more chilling of the two.

    Both Jacobs and Douglass fled slavery and escaped to the North - where their tales became cause celebre of the abolitionist movement, and both went on to great levels of fame and relative socio-political import during the Reconstruction Era, as well. Both escaped from the South well before the Civil War started - and as such, their accounts of their escape had to be somewhat foggy - as many of the people in the South who had helped them take flight would have been in immediate danger... further, even the names of their masters and family had to initially be changed out of not only a fear of violent reprisal upon their relations still in the south and in bondage, but out of a fear of their former masters utilizing fugitive slave laws to venture north and recapture them. After the Civil War, they not only provided missing details to their adventures, but many of those concerned in their writings came forth to testify to their writings' authenticity.

    What you have in these two books is a near-universal account and understanding of almost every initial African American experience in the United States. Once you read these two tales - you can't help just how terribly short changed Reconstruction left America's Black population, as well as why it would take another century and generations of other dedicated Black leaders who would complete the quest for political and legal equality for Black Americans. One cannot understand the story of Black America without first understanding where it began... and these two accounts will go a long way toward telling that tale.

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  • Abraham Lincoln

    by Benjamin P. Thomas Year Published: 1952 Biography

    Difficulty: Easy Reading

    It's tough to choose which Lincoln biography to read - there have been more than ** 10,000 ** written about our 16th president. For the person who reads only one book about the man - or the person who is looking for a general comprehension about his life & presidency, the more thorough volumes (like Gore Vidale's 2000+ page set) are daunting, but one does not necessarily want a "Cliff Notes" take on his life, either.

    As a happy compromise between story and content, I found Thomas' biography a fair choice. Written in 1952 - which is relatively old for the modern reader - I found the book a lot more narrative and linear than I expected. Many histories before this era read almost like a converstaion between the author and the reader, and in the interest of style, the author often sacrifices coherence.

    Not so with Thomas' book. Going back to Lincoln's grandfather, he gives the reader a clear, almost simplistic breakdown of Abraham Lincoln's lineage and takes you through the day that he was murdered, with a heavy emphasis upon his presidency during the Civil War. The book is pretty easy to follow given the complexity of issues that Lincoln's time in politics covered - which is a positive nod to Thomas' ability to break down rather complex political issues in pretty simple and clear language (showing, perhaps, Lincoln's influence upon him, no doubt).

    Unlike more modern historical analyses, however, there is little exception for the context of the time when Thomas wrote the biography. The significance of Lincoln's life and decisions upon Black Americans is largely sidestepped - almost as if the slaves and there descendents were a mere footnote in history. Written in 1952, this book barely predated Martin Luther King, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and the Civil Rights movement - yet nowhere does Thomas even connect Lincoln and the Republican's policies toward the surrendering South and the rise of the KKK and Jim Crow laws.

    The book focuses solely upon Lincoln's life and those with whom he worked and lived closely with... aside from cementing the union, little else about Lincoln's relevancy is discussed... which, in retrospect, can be seen in a positive light. Few presidents have impacted future generations the way Lincoln has; therefore, by avoding analyzing these effects, the author is much more able to focus on illustrating the man, alone.

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  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

    by Doris Kearns Goodwin Year Published: 2005 History

    A landmark history that serves double duty as a biography, Kearns book both explores the lives and personalities through biographical research of the five men who defined Lincoln's presidency (Seward, Chase, Stanton, Bates, and Lincoln, himself) but also shows how they came together to wage a successful, if not frustrating war against the Confederacy.  While her work here isn't sufficient enough to say that an historian need not bother reading any other biographies about any of this book's principal characters (a bit of background on them and the Civil War helps), she nonetheless not only mines these men's lives for the reader - but does so with the bent of showing how their rivalry turned into mutual respect and the teamwork that would provide the necessary leadership for the Union during our nation's darkest hour.

    Serving as the basis for Seward and Lincoln's relationship in the film Lincoln, Kearns does a phenomenal job showing how an outside with very little national experience was able to capture the Oval Office away from far better qualified candidates, including the man who would be his Secretary of State - and whom many thought would sit in the president's chair one day - William Seward.  She shows how, little by little, Lincoln's integrity, wit, intelligence, and ability to see very complex subjects in simple terms won over not only his competitors but many critics, as well... and then she shows how tragic this was in Lincoln's untimely assassination, just as the War had ended.

    A great book, entertaining, engaging, and educating.  An absolute must for anyone who wishes to learn about the key Union personalities during the Civil War.

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  • Reconstruction After the Civil War

    by John Hope Franklin Year Published: 1961 History

    Difficulty: Average

    While this is a short, and somewhat easy read to digest - it is nonetheless comprehensive in discussing the causes of the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction. First analyzing President Abraham Lincoln's incomplete and, albeit, untimely interrupted plans to restore the Union, Franklin is quick to point out that the groundwork for a speedy and highly lenient means of reintegrating the South lay with the President who would win the Civil War, himself. Franklin does not associate the era's failure as a peacetime reform with Lincoln, however, as did many other historians (especially those who wrote immediately if not soon after the War did). Lincoln's plans and thoughts occurred during the Civil War, itself, a time when just about any solutions to rob the South of its fighting vigor were considered.

    Rightfully so, he places much of the blame on the 17th President Andrew Johnson. One of America's more obstinate and solitary leaders - Johnson alienated the freedmen, the Republican Party, Northern leadership and Congress well before Lincoln's body had rested long in its grave. The more he alienated the factions responsible for winning different aspects of the Civil War, the more stubbornly he stood his ground and rushed back to the arms of the section of the country he abandoned during the Civil War's beginning... the South.

    Franklin captures the tragedy of this moment, coupled with the further harm done when Congress was factionalized and distracted by its battle with the president (thus launching our nation's first-ever impeachment trial) in the consequences of what really mattered - the fate of its 4 million+ freed men and women. As the government of the North grew increasingly combative with the Executive and within Congress, what efforts had begun to integrate blacks and whites together in the South politically and socially came to an abrupt halt. Franklin illustrates enough of the violence that the former Confederates unleashed upon Republicans and the freedmen (as well as anyone from the North who dared to assist in Blacks' transformation from enslaved to citizenry) - that he whets the reader's intellectual appetite for more.

    The corruption of the Grant administration as well as the North's desire to move onward and put the bloody chapter of the Civil War behind its consciousness (especially business owners who saw a fortune to be made in reuniting with the South) ultimately saw Reconstruction draw to an ignominious and humiliating close.

    While this book is not thorough enough to answer an historian's deeper questions as to how all of these forces colluded to make sure Reconstruction ONLY brought the Sought back into the US, it offers very little from the freedmen's perspective and doesn't clearly show beyond the rise of white violence how an why the efforts of these millions of people to integrate was so abruptly shot down. A good book, nonetheless, to start you down the path of learning about one of the most important and one of the most misunderstood chapters in US history.

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  • A Stillness at Appomattox

    by Bruce Catton Year Published: 1953 History

    Difficulty: Challenging

     

    When it comes to the Civil War - there is no shortage of books to learn from... tens of thousands of them, as a matter of fact. It's the single most written-about moment in American history. Of all the countless millions of pages written about this era, however, there are three giants: Bruce Catton, James McPherson, and Shelby Foote are the giants. I've already read and reviewed McPherson... sadly, Foote's 4-million+ word multi-volume set may have to wait until I retire!

     

    The McPherson book (Battle Cry for Freedom) in combination with this tome by Catton, however, work together to paint a pretty elaborate and comprehensive picture of all the War was and is. I do recommend, however, reading - if not McPherson's Battle Cry before - then a similar book that shows the overarching story of the Civil War. Catton's book thoroughly imbues the story of the Civil War in the one way McPherson's does not - with narrative... with the story from the soldier's point of view of the day by day fight.

     

    Whereas McPherson shows all angles of the war - the politics, economics and social factors that caused it, kept it raging, and ultimately brought it to conclusion - Catton wants to show you what it was like to march in the ranks, to interact with the grunts and the generals, to sweat, fight and die right up to the war's conclusion.

     

    This is both the strength and weakness of Catton's book. This book was written in the 1950's, and history up through this point was a tale told mostly through narrative, as if history were simply a novel... which it is not. Further, Stillness tells the tale of only one side of the Civil War - the North's side. Very little time and energy is spent upon the South's story - and, for the most part, they are treated as one big, grey mass of faceless troops. Only Lee gets any significant time, with all of the other important Confederate leaders barely earning a mention. This book also picks up the action in the War at the end of 1863. That was when the means of fighting the war significantly changed... Grant had finally taken hold of the Patomac and had begun his campaign of total war was just beginning with Sheridan in the Shenandoah, Sherman in the South, and the Army of the Patomac camped outside of Richmond. In short, you get a very small, limited perspective of the Civil War...

     

    But what a view it is. Limited tho' the tale is, Catton masterfully puts the reader right in the middle of right in the middle of the war, with Grant's troops marching through the Wilderness campaign and all the way up to the battle that didn't happen at Appomattox. You see the fight from the soldiers' perspective - often in graphic, jarring detail as those who didn't die were left with the image of so much death in their memory. You also get a great deal of insight from the perspective of the North's military leadership - what decisions they made and why they made them.

     

    You need a great deal of prior knowledge to understand the very in depth, detailed historical references. Catton describes the terrain with a microscopic eye for detail - and only one map provided in the book for reference. If you don't know your geography or have a working knowledge of the Civil War, you will get lost FAST... but if you DO have that background, if not more, this book is a rich reward. Catton weaves a beautiful narrative about one point of view in the last part of the Civil War that will change your perspective regarding why this moment in American history is so important, if not so special.

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  • Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction

    by Eric Foner Year Published: 2005 History

    Difficulty: Average

    Despite its size, this book is heavily sourced and referenced - which makes it a valuable tool to understanding the Reconstruction Era of our nation's history. Foner argues successfully that in order to understand why Reconstruction was such a failure in regard to the freed slaves, one must understand slavery (and, most importantly, the perceptions people then had of slaves) itself. The bulk of the book then analyzes the different stages of Reconstruction and how they each impacted the newly emancipated citizens of the US. His book concludes by investigating the far reaching effects of Reconstruction's failures - upon segregation and Jim Crow as well as the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's, through contemporary issues of inequality that beckon back to Reconstruction and before.

    Every step of the way, Mr. Foner uses thoroughly researched evidence and documentation to ultimately prove two things: one, that Blacks were quite active in pursuing their liberty - and once earned, in pursuing their equality. The enduring misconception that liberty and equality was a gift bestowed upon them by whites not only rings hollow in the face of his evidence, but smacks of the very racism that allowed such stereotypes to persist in the first place. Second, Foner shows how the greed and racism - equally prevalent in the South and in the North - were the chief foes that warriors for equality were sparring with. As Reconstruction was fading away, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing - and Americans were far more interested in exploiting immigrants and resources to be troubled with "the Black problem", especially because the Black quest for equality was seen as directly confrontational with the capitalist goal of profit.

    Further, in between every chapter Foner provides the reader with short but brilliant "visual essays" - segments that contain era-specific images - that add tremendous support for all of his arguments.

    This is a very important book that greatly aides in understanding one of America's most complex, forgotten, and misunderstood chapters. Further, as good history does, it makes multiple connections with our own conditions in the present.

    It would be difficult for a fresh reader to digest this book and not come away changed.

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  • Andrew Johnson - A Biography

    by Hans L. Trefousse Year Published: 1989 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    In many regards I view Andrew Johnson as a more complicated man - and certainly a more complicated politician - than Abraham Lincoln. Because of Lincoln's untimely death and martyrdom, his life can basically be measured in two halves - his strides to the White House and his struggle to win the Civil War. Because he died shortly after the war, we'll never know and therefore Lincoln's life will never be open to the scrutiny caused by ushering in the peace and its tone that followed.

    Johnson and Lincoln shared a lot in common... Like Lincoln, Johnson rose from abject poverty to become a successful tailor first, and then a local, state, and then national politician second. While he received no formal education, he had a quick hungry mind and a personality built for political combat.

    Ahead of his time in so many ways (he favored ending the electoral college, allowing for the direct election of senators over 60 years before that amendment passed and he authored the Homestead Act) - he was also a deeply flawed product of his time. Like so many antebellum southern politicians, he was a deep and unapologetic racist whose hatred and disrespect for the capacity of freedmen would ultimately spell calamity for Reconstruction.

    Trefousse's biography does a pretty thorough job of covering Johnson's life in a very chronological sense... but it does little to tie the man to the events around his life, let alone deeply analyze his personality and character.

    In many regards, Johnson was an incredibly consistent champion of the very people from whom he rose to prominence - the poor and struggling small business class... especially against the aristocratic southerners whom he came to detest almost as much as negro slaves. He did not trust the army, and was not a man of profound religion (he even introduced legislation to ban the daily opening prayer in Congress and to deny paying those pastors who would conduct the prayer in the US legislature)... but what is missing is a deeper analysis of the Southern Man who remained a staunch and loyal Unionist throughout the Civil War, the man who called for the execution of all the aristocrats engaged in rebelling against the US, the man who supported the end of slavery - yet, not a year after Lincoln had won the war - Johnson would lose the peace. For all his bravado against the conquered rebels, he pardoned almost all of them with nary a hanging (not even for Jefferson Davis). He lobbied hard to not only disenfranchise freed Blacks but also to readmit conquered Southern states with as little fuss and application as possible - thus turning states who were truly conquered and pliable to just about any stipulations the north would make into once more rebellious and fiercely contentious states in contrast to the power of the North. He destroyed any chance at reunifying and reconstructing the nation, yet the author does not offer any deep insight into why Johnson made such a switch between the Civil War and when he began outlining his reconstruction plans less than a year after the war's end.

    Because Johnson was a leader before, during, and after the Civil War, his story is more rounded and complete than Lincoln's... and sadly for the US, more tragic - as the opportunities that existed just after Appomattox now reside only in the realm of "What if..." His story deserved a broader, more expansive modern analysis and interpretation that I found somewhat lacking in this book.

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  • Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth Century Egalitarian

    by Hans L. Trefousse Year Published: 1997 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    This short, but thorough biographical history is a careful examination and vindication of the life and career of the man who would be called The Great Commoner. Arguably one of the strongest - if not most talented - members of the House of Representatives, Stevens would play a vital role in fighting for a direction for the United States after it's most darkest hour, the Civil War. Long an advocate for human equality, he detested slavery and labored throughout his political career to not only end it, but elevate bondsmen and women to a status of political and economic equality with whites. His politics would ultimately find a home with the blossoming of the Republican Party in the late 1850's, but even therein, his views (not limited to just race) were far ahead of their time, and within that party, he quickly became a leader of the more radical faction. It was because of his labors that not only was the Emancipation Proclamation feasible (which in comparison to Stevens' own views seemed like a pale compromise), but he also laid the groundwork for the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution - which, again, due to the reality of the fact that few others in Washington were even in the same ballpark as he during Reconstruction - were, themselves, just compromised versions of his true aims... political, social and economic equality between the races.

    Stevens other far-reaching views included economic reform behind a papered currency, abolishing the death penalty, and even a push for political equality for women. He was such a powerful speaker with both a penchant and a gift for sarcasm (see Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal in Lincoln to get a pretty accurate interpretation of his character) that most in Congress tended to either vote his way or at least be silent and not invite an open debate with the man, not merely for fear of losing to him, but for fear of losing in a truly humiliating manner. His enemies called him the Dictator of the House - which, while perhaps an accurate assessment of THEIR perception of his strength, power as a speaker, and ability to sway an audience, was not the truth of who he was politically. Given that so much of what he aimed for either failed in Congress or became a watered down compromise (like the Civil War Amendments), he was more than a force to be reckoned with - but he was no totalitarian.

    I bought and read this book for two chief reasons: first, I was drawing near to my end of my studies regarding Reconstruction and felt that my comprehension of the political forces within that period was wanting; and, second, I had just seen the Spielberg film, Lincoln, and - while impressed with much of its interpretation (largely from the book Team of Rivals) - I was so struck by Tommy Lee Jones, who depicted Stevens, that I had to find out just how spot-on Jones was... and he was pretty spot on!

    A working knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction would help in understanding Stevens' life more fully.

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  • Grant

    by Jean Edward Smith Year Published: 2001 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    Let's face it... when U."S." Grant is the subject (the "S" was a clerical error early in his military career that was never corrected and he never bothered to straighten out) - there are really only two things that concern even more obsessive historians: his leadership during the Civil War and his leadership as President. As with many of the US' significant leaders (aside from Lincoln, Grant was the only other president to win two terms of office since Andrew Jackson, some 50 years prior) - the more one learns about such a subject, the more one learns that it's impossible to capture all that one needs to know about him or her in just one book - no matter how large or in-depth it may be.

    At over 600 pages long, Grant is, indeed, long and in depth. It spends over 200 pages focusing solely on his career during the Civil War and over 150 pages focusing on his career in Washington. Much of Smith's writing about Grant's earlier life - the time up until he reported for duty at the outbreak of the Civil War - is intent upon establishing the personality traits that would serve him well - or conversely curse him, as his willingness to trust too easily and too far men who deserved no such consideration - in his career as a military leader and politician. As opposed to going in depth and exploring to significant length meaningful periods in Grant's youth and early adult years, Smith uses these points in time to illustrate the construction of Grant's character. The one exception was the exploration of the one incident during his early military service in the Pacific Northwest in which his drinking got him into trouble... and developed a reputation for him among his political foes which would smear his name to the present. Smith shows not only how the situation in question was blown out of proportion and could easily have been lightly reprimanded had Grant's commanding office not been a blowhard and had Grant not been so eager to leave military life behind (a bit prematurely, as it would seem) in the 1850's. Smith not only examines Grant's behavior periodically with regards to alcohol - but also carefully examines the character and motivation of those who were eager to give Grant the reputation of a fall-down drunk, and concludes that while Grant was no teetotaler, his drinking never interfered in his ability to lead nor did it lead him to make any decision that damaged the Union's Army or the US when he served as president.

    Smith's verbal portrait of Grant is one of a rather revolutionary man - a military leader who blazed his own trail and refused to play by established military expectations. His view of Grant as a president is surprisingly progressive. In the face of a Congress who had all but abandoned Reconstruction in favor of the exploding industrial revolution, Grant is shown to be the Freedmen's last hope and protector - and, as it turned out, the last person in power at that time who had a vested desire to see those freed and enfranchised after the Civil War protected in their persons, property and rights. That Reconstruction failed was the fault of many - white Southern resistance, a Congress without the moral certitude of the Radical Republicans, party politics... but it was not Grant's fault. He was progressive in foreign policy and relations, as well as in fiscal development and protecting the plight of the small farmer and businessman (of which he was both at one point in his life).

    A man who never minced words - who truly said what he meant and meant what he said... Grant was often mistaken for being a simpleton, even a brute, by his often highly (if not over-) educated peers in DC, but those who were close to him, those who were led by him, such as General Sherman, saw great wisdom and economy in his efficiency of words.

    Smith helps the modern reader understand the genius in Grant among his few faults - and he does so in remarkably clear arguments that are both engaging and easy to follow, as well as consistently referenced throughout this biography.

    My only chief complaint is Smith's use of frequent footnotes - a rather outdated and highly distracting mode of providing supplementary information about various indicated passages in the book. Edwards already used endnotes to indicate source citations. Reading the footnotes, at times, took away focus from the prose of the text. I would have preferred that Smith either incorporate the asides written in his footnotes and cited them at the end of the book, or done away with them altogether as they did interrupt the flow of an otherwise consistently engaging biography.

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  • Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President

    by Ari Hoogenboom Year Published: 1996 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    Rutherford "Rud" Hayes had all the makings of a great president-to-be. As a general in the Civil War, leading his men from his home town and state of Ohio - he not only faced death on several occasions, he was wounded FIVE TIMES(!) The men he served with respected him and the men he served under acknowledged that he was a valuable asset in the field. He had strong political views - including establishing free public education nation wide, but especially in the poverty-stricken south and especially for the newly found former bondsmen. He also firmly believed that the spoils system - enshrined by Jackson and Van Buren - had to go... Government needed to be cleaned up.

    But his one-term presidency was by most regards a bust. Not only did his goals for public education fail, but Reconstruction ended in what some alleged to be a devious backroom deal that gave him the popular vote in three southern states (whose own corruption and violent intimidation of Blacks and Republicans would have given them to the Democrats). His efforts to reform politics ended up dividing his party - and set most Republicans dead set against him. While most blame his one term as President on his own lack of accomplishment, he went into the White House firmly stating he would only hold office for one term. An even tempered, very rational man - he banned liquor from the White House (which delighted the blossoming Temperance Movement to no end) although he wasn't one to abstain. He saw how poorly behaved the nation's leaders were when they drank excessively and (correctly) believed that Americans couldn't hold their liquor like their European counterparts. In many ways, Hayes was way ahead of his time - including his disgust for the death penalty and his desire to reform both prisons and asylums. He even removed the head of the most crooked of all government patronage posts, the New York State customs house, who was a member of his own party (and would be the next vice president and the following president, Chester A. Arthur). So why did such a good man of high moral character and far reaching sight regarding the potential progress of mankind (let alone the US) become such a forgotten footnote in US History?

    Hoogenboom explores just that question... and the answer is, sadly, not much of a surprise given contemporary politics. Congress and machine politics. Reconstruction ended because there was more profit to be made milking our growing industrial revolution for every cent it was worth - and Republicans and Democrats, alike, pulled out their buckets and by 1876 were in full swing of draining the udders! The political scandals that marred Grant's two terms prior - both his appointments and his friends, were just precursors of what was to come. Hayes was chosen and elected by Republicans not for his ideals but because they thought he would win... and open the nation's coffers to their own party. That is why Reconstruction was sold out - the profits of abandoning it were far too large to turn away from.

    But turn away from them Hayes did after his time in office ended ingloriously. Hoogenboom's biography doesn't paint Hayes in a sympathetic light - rather, it paints him in full light. We see in Hayes at this time the limits of the presidency who could not fight the Democrats, the corrupt in his own party, and for the ideals he believed in at the same time. We empathize with Hayes, however, because Hoogenboom shows how he kept fighting nonetheless - with veto, with the press, and tirelessly after he got out of office.

    It's a great book about a great man who became a forgotten president... and, sadly, reminds us that it IS we who squash the dreamers and architects of visions among us in our own gluttonous pursuit for a short term gain with no view of the long term consequences. An engaging and enjoyable book about a man whom American history all but forgot.

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  • James A. Garfield: The Preacher President

    by William M. Thayer Year Published: 2001 (copyright renewed) Biography

    Difficulty: Easy Reading

    Originally thinking I was getting a concise biography of Garfield's life - I was initially quite disappointed to find out that this was, in fact, a biography written in 1880 and edited shortly after Garfield's assassination in order to tack his tragic ending onto the story.

    The chief reason I was dissatisfied with this book initially is because "old" histories differ quite a bit from their more contemporary counterparts of, say, the last 40 or 50 years. Current historians rely chiefly upon exhaustive research and use of scientific inquiry (posting a hypothesis, testing it against evidence, and publishing their findings) whereas older historians... well, the research was questionable at best, given the utter lack of any source citations.

    Indeed, the overwhelming portion of this book - nearly 200 of its 262 pages - focuses solely upon Garfield's youth to his early employ as a teacher and preacher. His service in the Civil War, which was noteworthy, covers only about 3 pages. His time in Congress up to his election to office (which was one of the most contested ever) barely musters a chapter.

    However, it was upon realizing that this book was published both as a forum to educate young (Christian students) - and also probably used as a publicity tool for his campaign in 1880 that it made sense. I wasn't simply reading a (poorly written) biography of Garfield, I was reading an historic document about how early biographies were written - and in this case, how they were intended to be used. It was never the author's intent to show how Garfield became president and what led to his assassination; it was his intent to show the "goodness" behind his character in order to make him beloved by Americans during an election year - as well as respected by Christians for his sturdy religious values.

    In that sense, the book is quite interesting. Most of it focuses upon his childhood and early adulthood - showing us the abject poverty from which he came; highlighting his hard work ethic, his dedication to his widowed mother and the values of thriftiness, sobriety, hard work, and a higher purpose she instilled in him. In short, this is a lesson in character for the young people of 1880.

    This also means that there is a lot of Garfield's history that is missing - no mention of his affair during his marriage, nor of his connection to some improper financial dealings with a railroad company while in the House... and in fairness to the author, these facts might not have been widely known or even available at the time this was written. However, the patronage and dirty dealing that was a hallmark of politics was utterly glossed over. The bitter feud between Conkling and Blaine which not only put Garfield in the presidency but also indirectly helped end his life prematurely barely garners a blurb. Instead, the author treats Garfield as an American ideal and martyr; an example to be emulated and a hero to be mourned.

    In this sense, this book is a valuable historical artifact because it not only gives us an impression of the late 20th president, it gives us an impression of what it meant to write about him some 130 years ago.

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  • Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James Garfield

    by Kenneth D. Ackerman Year Published: 2012 History

    Difficulty: Average

    Not so much a biography as an account of the tragic consequences which took Garfield's life just a few short months after his election in 1880, Ackerman paints a very vivid account of the situation that put Garfield in office - and how that same situation indirectly led to his assassination by deranged office-seeker Charles Guiteau.

    Ackerman focuses as much upon the rivalry between Stalwart Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling and Half-Breed Republican Senator James G. Blaine - going all the way back to their early terms in office right after the Civil War. Ackerman skillfully recounts how the rivalry between them helped to split the Republican Party down the middle - and how the control of the Senate and party patronage nearly cost them the 1776 election as well as the 1880 election.

    Patronage was the political theme of the day - it wasn't simply a part of politics, it WAS politics and few chose to think otherwise; Conkling took pride in how patronage made politics in the US run. However, when it came down to selecting the Republican candidate for president in 1880, neither side of the party could garner enough votes at the convention to let their candidate take the prize... and so Garfield became the compromise "dark horse" candidate... he wasn't even a prospective candidate for the office at any point before the convention - he was just well liked enough by all factions that no one could offer any reasonable dissenting opinion as to why he shouldn't be the party's candidate. It was understood, however, that Garfield would dish out the spoils of the office (thousands of government offices and positions) at the direction of the party.

    Garfield, however, had a mind of his own - and even though forces brought considerable power to sway him to do their bidding, he wouldn't budge. This split the Republican party even further as a new faction - the reformers - seemed to be gaining momentum (that had begun under prior president Hayes' term).

    Ackerman captures the reality of politics during the Gilded Age - capturing all the "backroom" negotiating, using tricks and influence in the legislature, and utilizing the press to slander and defame one another's enemies. So effective at this were Conkling and his associates (including Vice President Chester A. Arthur) at damaging Garfield's credibility within factions of his party - one man, Charles Guiteau, chose to do something about it. As one of a veritable sea of office seekers, Guiteau (who had his sights set on an ambassadorship to Europe) was barely qualified to hold down any job. Denied and bitter (and probably a touch schizophrenic), he took up a pistol and shot Garfield in a train station, thinking that with Arthur in the office, the nation will be back on track.

    Ackerman also traces the horrors of Garfield's wound - it took him several weeks to die from it, and thanks to Ackerman's research, Garfield most likely died from the brutal infections that the lack of medical knowledge had introduced into his body via doctors' unclean and clumsy attempts to probe.

    Ackerman finishes up with how Garfield's death was blamed upon the greed and corrupt lust for power, especially within the Senate and the Republican party. He illustrates enough of Arthur to inform that he was no great leader (he never wanted to be a politician, let alone president) - and he was firmly in Conkling's camp, if not his back pocket... however, after the assassination and upon assuming the office of the president, Arthur became a reformer, himself - and distanced himself from his supporters in the Republican Party.

    Perhaps the theme can best be summed up in that politics is all fun and games until someone loses their life... and when Garfield lost his, the wind (temporarily) left the Republican's sails and the nation got sick of politicking (for a bit) altogether.

    This is a well written, well researched book designed almost like a taut thriller that, by virtue of Garfield's death, becomes a tragedy. Well worth the read!

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  • Chester Alan Arthur

    by Zachary Karabell Year Published: 2004 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    This short survey of the life and presidency of Chester "Chet" Arthur dutifully filled in some of the blanks regarding his life and career that other histories about similar-era presidents (Garfield, Grant, Hayes) and events left blank. It turns out that there wasn't much to fill in.

    Arthur is probably one of the least likely presidents to ever find himself in the oval office. He had never held political office prior to being selected as Garfield's vice president in an ultimately failed effort to appease the "Stalwart" wing of the Republican Party. He was a lawyer and ran the New York customs house - the most financially lucrative political post one could be appointed to. He also was the head one of the leading organizers in the Republican party. A talented organizer with a gift for schmoozing, Arthur could never have been accused of putting in a hard day of work at any position he held; but he was far from corrupt. Rather, he was a product of the Gilded Age and the patronage system that ran wild. When most of his contemporaries took wild advantage of the spoils that the spoils system had wrought, Arthur never truly indulged beyond the fact that said system put gave him a lot of work. His selection as Garfield's running mate in the 1880 election was a shock and was undesired. His ascendancy to the presidency after Garfield's assassination was the last thing he wanted - especially because the dirty and quarrelsome political bickering of the day was partially implicated in Garfield's death. Arthur actively worked against his president while he was alive, and now he had to take his office. Perhaps guilt ridden and perhaps more aware that the office of the president is beholden to all Americans, not just his party's faction, Arthur became a strong advocate for reform and eliminating the very spoils system that got him into office in the first place.

    Karabell does a praise-worthy job of not just highlighting the events that surrounded and defined Arthur's life and career, but he also captures a decent portrait of the man and how events had changed him, and then how he strove to change events. Despite his skills as an organizer and administrator, however, he was no match for the challenges the country faced during his term - specifically the power and corruption rampant in Congress. Further, his failing kidneys were ultimately poisoning him to death, no doubt a distraction from a job he never wanted to do.

    A quick read, but a good supplement to the history of the period of the Gilded Age if that's what you're looking for.

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  • Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage - to the Loss of the Presidency, 1837-1888

    by Allan Nevins Year Published: 2001

    Difficulty: Average

    The presidencies between Hayes's and McKinley's are generally the least studied and least understood by most casual students of American history... and there's good reason for it. During those terms, the presidents were comparatively weak compared to the power and influence of Congress. The men who filled those offices, while mostly competent administrators lacked the foresight, courage, and imagination that Teddy Roosevelt had in spades which they needed to grow and evolved the presidency along with its country that was now past its centennial. The issues that defined this period were also not very "romantic", either - the tariff, the federal surplus, and reforming civil service positions are hardly the stuff of Oscar winning movies, let alone page-burning texts.

    These presidents, however, were vital and played an important role in our country's history as it was transitioning from agrarian to industrial society, from isolationist to economically dominant world power... those "boring" issues were important and HAD to be dealt with if the US, let alone the office of the presidency, were to move forward. They were also important defining issues as the Republicans were forced to evolve from the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Democrats were struggling for national relevance.

    Grover Cleveland was one of those middling presidents. He had only a little political experience in both local and state politics in New York - and he rose to the power directly as a result of and a beneficiary of that state's political machinery. His biographer, Nevins, describes him as a man of middling intelligence and of very limited imaginative power - Cleveland was, by no means, one of our nation's most dynamic thinkers. But he was principled, he was organized, and he knew how to administer over large tasks and delegate his authority. The Democrats, emerging horribly bruised and scraped - still seen as the party of the Confederacy, had transformed themselves from the party of slavery to the party of the working man - and it was during Cleveland's administration that the Democrats would try to tackle some very important issues for the common man - eliminating the tariffs on international trade (the Democrats would be the party of free trade as liberal economic thinkers outlined in that era),engaging in civil service reform with the intent of - at least - partially disenfranchising the spoils system (even at the risk of angering members of his own party). During his first term in office - Cleveland would also help outline the Democrats' foreign policy for the new century ahead - steering the US away from a policy of imperialism at home and abroad (even though the Republicans would abruptly reverse that stance between Harrison & Wilson's administrations). Cleveland also holds the distinction of being the only president not elected to two consecutive terms - as members of his party who weren't thrilled with his reform-minded efforts in doling out federal offices worked against his reelection. Despite the fact that Cleveland wasn't an interesting person, his presidency was interesting - at least in the sense that no matter how unexciting the issues of the day are, there is always major drama when party lines define the positions!

    Nevins biography, which was written in 1932, is very much a product of its day - and Nevins shows himself to be a very politically moderate, if not conservative, author based upon how he treats the history surrounding Cleveland's first term. When the issues facing the newly liberated African-Americans arises - he focuses them as a voting block, only, and at that even irksomely. The plight of the working class is only barely mentioned in passing - instead of analyzing why two such significant groups of people were marginal during this time, he treats them flatly as marginal. He also addresses the farming concern in regards to the gold standard as more of a selfish sort of consortium more focused on their own well being as opposed to the nation's economic health (while also failing to mention precisely how deeply invested national and international banking concerns were in seeing silver abolished for their own profits). As one reads this book while keeping in mind that Nevins published this after 3 years of the Great Depression - just before FDR came into office, you see an author who is thorough and comprehensive in his research - but, like his subject, lacks the imagination and creativity to place Cleveland in the time in which he served and show how his actions fit into and defined his time, as much as he, himself, was defined and restricted by his time, as well.

    Not an engaging read, but - again - well researched and informative about the inner-workings of politics at an important and transformative time.

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  • The Johnstown Flood

    by David McCullough Year Published: 1968 History

    Difficulty: Average

    McCullough is far and away my most favorite author. If everyone wrote history like he writes it, we would have a vastly more literate and self-aware American populace!

    This book, one of his earlier works (published in 1968), recounts one of the greatest disasters in American history. thoroughly researched and vividly described, McCullough first paints the picture of what life in Johnstown was like - as well as its neighboring communities who were also devastated by the flood. McCullough then goes on to account how greed, corner-cutting on engineering projects, and a lack of respect for the power of the natural forces the local governments were trying so halfheartedly to control would erupt in such a bloody, tragic ending.

    Complete with photographs from after the devastation as well as numerous first person accounts and exhaustively researched records, McCullough brings this disaster from more than 100 years ago right into the present. As a result, it not only serves as a tragic memorial to the nearly 2000 souls who perished in the tragedy, but a reminder of what such profiteering and shabby workmanship can unleash upon us now when we least expect it.

    McCullough's writing is vivid and immediate, as well as deeply respectful for his subjects.

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  • The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison

    by Homer E. Socolofsky & Allan B. Spetter Year Published: 1987 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    This brief but encompassing biography specifically analyzed the actions and decisions Harrison made during his one term in the White House. While the authors do give a bit of color on Harrison's past, very little was discussed regarding what became of him after he left office in 1893. And that may be just as well given that, in my estimation, he was one of the more bland and milquetoast presidents about whom I've yet to read.

    Harrison came into office in between Garfield's two terms - and at a time of great financial uncertainty in the United States. Additionally, the political playing field was evolving and changing as the Civil War generation was dying off and the old "bloody shirt" the Republicans had waved time and time again to boost their chances of getting into office was no longer working.

    The 1880's and 1890's reflected profound change in the US as topics like civil service reform (that is, ending the spoils system dominant since Jackson's presidency), tariff reform, the coinage of silver, the overbearing corporations and trusts from Standard Oil to US Steel to American Sugar, and the horizon of the US' imperialist era dominated public conversation. Unions were waging massive strikes and Populists were barnstorming up and down the West and South in response to the perceived and real power held by Eastern financial interests... while this era gets little attention in text books or in the realm of public discussion - it's rather compelling not only how clearly present sociopolitical issues relate to this time some 120 years ago, but how deeply complex and electrified our young republic was.

    Socolofsky and Spetter do a pretty good job at reflecting all these issues in this brief biography while showing how Harrison would react and impact them, as well. Like his predecessors since Grant and through Teddy Roosevelt, Harrison was not a leader of great imagination nor charisma. Presidents in this era marked themselves, rather, by being able and hard working administrators. While their visions for their people were limited, their ability to work for what they did believe in and value was tremendous. Presidents in that era were afforded little in the way of budgetary allotments for staffing assistants, and as a result had to do a great deal of the day-to-day drudgery paper work themselves... resulting not only in extraordinarily long 16-20 hour work days for much of their tenure, but a growing bitterness at the throngs of office seekers and congressional wheeling and dealing they had to contend with.

    While an able and hard worker, Harrison tended to rub people the wrong way. Egotistical and blunt about his capabilities versus those of other men, his personality won him few friends and confidantes in Washington. However, he possessed a tremendous oratory and was highly effective in addressing crowds and laying out his rationale in the public sphere.

    Nonetheless, his presidency was marred by conflict he couldn't control. His republican party was tearing itself apart over civil service reform - and while the republicans were fairly united in supporting high tariffs to protect American industries, they were steadily losing popularity among the poor and working class around the country who viewed the Grand Old Party as the party of wealth and monopolism. His stance on imperialism - specifically on Hawaiian expansion and annexation did not help people see him as any different from the plutocrats in his party. The death of his beloved wife shortly before the presidential election in 1892 was also the death knell for his service as president; despite running for office again in that year, what interest he had in campaigning and fighting against a resurgent democratic party was sapped by his mourning.

    A quick read that will give you a fairly comprehensive understanding of Harrison as seen through his one term of office succeeds in the sense that it makes you want to learn more about him, personally, if not the era in which he served.

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  • Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage - to the End of a Career, 1888-1897

    by Allan Nevins Year Published: 2001 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    Published in 1932, this second volume of the life and service of the 22nd and 24th President, Grover Cleveland brings his career to a close as a century ends and a new era in US history began to take shape.

    The story of Cleveland's second term in office is also the story of how the United States had begun to cast off and cast away from the legacy of the Civil War. By the time his second term in office was up - most of the great and remembered leaders - both military and political, North and South - had died. Manifest Destiny, at least on the continental level, had been achieved and the US's interior space was rapidly filling up... California was growing larger by the year. The fate of the freed men and women from some 30 years earlier had barely garnered a mention in national politics - except where increasing education to the poor or the plight of the poor farmers the nation over were also mentioned.

    This last term of office, indeed Cleveland's last years of life until 1908, were spent fighting against the advocates of an economy which valued silver at a 16:1 ratio with gold and would freely print it as currency in an effort to drive farm prices up and help millions of impoverished farmers throughout the nation; against the advocates for the development of an American Empire extending to Cuba, Panama, and Hawaii; against those foreign empires who sought to challenge the Monroe Doctrine and extend their power into American shores (namely, Venezuela). Cleveland's bid to "clean up" national politics by instituting Civil Service reform programs and exams in an effort to stab at the heart of the patronage whose use had historically not only filled most government positions, but was also at the heart of nearly every bureaucratic and fiscal issue of the national government was largely abandoned; Cleveland felt that he had accomplished all that he had set out to with this issue in his first term of office and no longer needed to tend to it... despite the fact that he was plagued with patronage-based appointment issues throughout his second term.

    Most notably, we see under Cleveland the development of a very conservative Democratic Party who tried vigorously to maintain the same economic and territorial values that the party's forefathers had established well before the Civil War. In doing so, especially with the currency issue, he split the Democrats in half - especially in the South which had always been heavily under Democratic control... but which also had a thick population of share croppers and poor farmers. In this, we see Cleveland's chief weakness as an administrator come to light... for he and many in Washington (except the more radical Populist congressmen) the issue concerning the problems that plagued farmers was one of currency... not of tighter banking rules and oversight, of railroad fare regulation, of communications regulation, of the rights of the working class compared to the privileges enjoyed by the banking and market class. Cleveland's lack of imagination is evident in how stubbornly he stuck to his guns (and triumphed) in his fiscal policy - but did nothing else to break the grip that monopolists and trusts had not just upon the poor and working man, but upon the national government, itself. To the laymen, it would seem that Cleveland was firmly in the pockets of the rich banking class; he met and strategized frequently with the Carnegies and Morgans - and seldom conversed with representatives (what few there were) of the poor working class. Despite the fact that after he left office the first time in 1888 he had openly made many speeches showing concern for the plight and future of the poor, exploited industrial and agricultural laborers - even going so far as to say that rule by monopolists was no better - if not worse than - rule by communists. Cleveland adhered so staunchly to fiscal conservatism arguably because he couldn't envision any other way to handle them beyond what he knew... at least no other way to do so as President. His rantings against and distaste for the 26th President, Teddy Roosevelt, only illustrate his lack of foresight regarding how the office of the president could implement significant and positive change in the lives of Americans.

    While the dry topics of macro economics and international diplomacy may not interest many, I found this second volume more compelling than the first and a very informative text about the United States during a very important and transitional period in the ageing nation's life.

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  • The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

    by David McCullough Year Published: 1972 History

    Difficulty: Average                

    One of legendary author and historian David McCullough's earlier books, The Great Bridge is both a delight to read and an insight into one of America's greatest industrial era monuments.

    The always thorough McCullough skips no detail in describing the construction of the Great Bridge; in fact, an engineering reader could probably build the bridge him or herself from simply reading this book and studying its illustrations!

    The joy, as is the case with all of McCullough's works, however is not in the subject, itself, but how the subject transcends its own nature in taking on the representation of something much greater. In this case, that representation was as a harbinger of American engineering greatness to come. Easily the biggest and boldest bridge of its time, the Brooklyn Bridge also represented a triumph of engineering, of joining to relatively disparate cities (Brooklyn and New York), and a celebration of American productivity - specifically, steel.

    This story is also very much about the men who made the bridge, namely John Roebling and Washington Roebling - the father and son team who first conceived of the bridge, and then - when the elder was killed due to contracting lock jaw from an on-the-job accident just a couple years into construction - the will power of the son to see it through to the end. Ironically, the bridge nearly killed Washington Roebling, as well, as he - like many other workers - became a victim of a "mysterious ailment" that seemed to afflict only those men who worked in the caissons below the river's surface, sinking the bridge's foundation. That disease would become later identified as "the bends", acquired by exposure to higher atmospheric pressure followed by a quick return to normal pressure. The younger Roebling spent the rest of the bridge's construction (nearly a decade) - bed ridden, only able to communicate instructions through his wife, Emily, as he watched progress daily from a telescope in his bedroom.

    It is also the tale of New York City caught in the throes of its worst era of corruption - the Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall. Indeed, what becomes apparent is what a miracle the bridge was built at all given the unending line of corrupt politicians and contractors trying to embezzle off the project or trying to stop the bridge's construction in the name of political reform.

    In the end, this is the Roeblings' story as McCullough celebrates the Brooklyn Bridge as man's triumph over nature, over man, and over himself. It ushered in the era of modernity, at least for New York City, and demonstrated that with heart and mind united, there is no scientific feat out of mankind's reach.

    A great read about a great and often unknown piece of American history.

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  • Standing at Armageddon

    by Nell Irvin Painter Year Published: 2011 History

    Difficulty: Challenging

    This books is a self-billed "Grassroots History of the Progressive Era" - which highlights just how ambitious it truly is. With the exception of the Civil War, the Progressive Era covers a period of time in American History that reflects more dramatic change in the United States than any time before... so to try to capture the entirety of this era in one book is an exceedingly difficult proposition at best.

    What Painter gives her reader is a very thorough play-by-play overview of the Progressive movement (from the 1870's to the late 19-teens), however it's impossible to give each moment of this significant time in American history its due just in one book. The rise of American industrialization, the transportation boom, the explosion of labor rights and radicalism, the political and social responses that accompanied it, and the multi-faceted gender and racial issues that flew to the surface of American attention require study individually before one can understand how complicated they all become when combined together.

    Nonetheless, Painter does a good job showing multiple cause and effects for the problems industrialization caused American workers and how the social failings of the era launched the beginnings of the fight against child labor, feminism and black equality. Painter does show clearly how the problems of the rapid divide in incomes earned by workers and industrialists, as well as the influx of immigrants (at the behest of most industrialists) lay at the root of much of what the Progressives fought for. She carefully and meticulously lays out evidence describing how the rich got fabulously richer while the poor where further impoverished by rapidly inflating prices, partially caused by protective tariffs who seemed to serve nobody except for the industrialists, themselves. She highlights how effective a tool Congress and state governments were for their industrialist sponsors. Her focus on women's push for the vote, prohibition, and other progressive means is brief, but she does clearly show how this issue locks into the larger problems caused by industrialization. She also thoroughly highlights the racial violence caused both by white bigotry in the south and the north that resulted in few changes and next to on justice.

    Her book concludes on the note of defeat - how the end of World War I was a turn away from labor organization (at least in the form of any widespread political support). While women had the vote, they had little else in the form of representation, equal pay, or a break from societal double standards. Despite their efforts to support the US in WWI (13% of troops were Black, while they made up only 10% of the population), civil rights took a huge step backward due, first, to the tremendous waves of violence unleashed against Blacks in the south and migrant Blacks in the north; and, second, when conservative Republicans took power and set the tone for the 1920's. Blacks would have to wait for another generation and another World War to being noticing any palpable change in their status across the US.

    Overall, this is a good "survey" book - it gives the reader a lot of detail about a very broad piece of American history; but it's incomplete in that the reader who expects to get the whole story from this piece, alone, will be left lacking. It reads more like a summary of a multivolume set of books on Progressivism... but there are no series of books that expand what Painter writes about, and so therefore, it's a bit unsatisfying in the end.

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  • The Populist Vision

    by Dr. Charles Postel Year Published: 2007 History

    Difficulty: Challenging

    The Populist Vision recounts an era of great political turmoil that is, today, either all but forgotten - or largely ignored. The late 1800's were arguably some of the most politically tumultuous years in American history. Reconstruction was trying (and failing) to reassemble the Union after the Civil War. Industry was expanding at unimagined rates and industrialists were becoming increasingly wealthy and powerful players in the local, state, and national levels of politics. Immigrants were pouring through Ellis Island by the hundreds of thousands annually (and through Angel island by the thousands) - and were dramatically altering how America looked and sounded. Machine politics and political corruption were rampant... and at one of the shorter ends of all these sticks were the farmers - especially in the South, Mid-West and West - who would brew their discontent into the first truly "grass roots" political party in American history... The Populists.

    Former Sac State professor Dr. Charles Postel's exhaustively researched tale of the Populists traces the causes that brought the party together and the forces that ultimately tore them apart. His book leaves no stone unturned - and examines every aspect of Populism... from its very radical fiscal and political aims - extremely left even for this day and age; to its inability to successfully address the racial divide between white and black farmers; to the complexity that dealing with urban industrial workers brought to their cause.

    In the end, The Populist Vision not only gives one a clear sense of the complexity of politics from over a century ago - but also the complexity of farmers... people who were not simpleton "hayseeds" - but highly intellectual, well read and educated; people who demanded a better life for themselves and their kin after feeling ravaged by industrialists, railroad barons, and corrupt politicians - and were prepared to work and fight for it as well as expanding opportunities to better themselves through education. Postel also shows how many of the Populist's "visions" succeeded in the long run (largely through the New Deal) and just how far we have diverged from them in the present.

    This is a great book for giving one a sense of history of one of America's most often historically dismissed groups - the farmers. While complex and a certain degree of background knowledge of this time period and it's people is helpful, Postel is thorough enough in his narrative in clearly fleshing out the cast in this play without ever turning the tale of the Populists into melodrama.

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  • The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

    by David McCullough Year Published: 2011 History

    Difficulty: Average

    McCullough has done it, yet, again! The master of narrative history envelops the reader in some of the most gripping tales most have never heard of! This book examines the connection between Americans, the city of Paris, and back to America as a nation roughly from the 1820's through the early 1900's.

    Instead of focusing upon one person in their travels, McCullough's work is divided between people like one of America's early great doctors (and father of one of its most significant Supreme Court Justices) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.; the only true American Impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt; early master painter-turned-inventor Samuel Morse - who would revolutionize communication around the world; August Saint-Gaudens who would become America's greatest sculptor; and politician turned fervent abolitionist, Charles Sumner... just to name a few.

    In focusing upon Americans as opposed to American politicians (Elihu Washburne is a noted, but importantly included, exception) McCullough brilliantly connects the global center of all things metropolitan to a nation that had not yet come into its own, culturally or otherwise. He really shows how much of Paris is within us by showing how much it meant to so many Americans.

    This book will not only make you want to go to Paris to see everything from the Tower to the Tuileries palace - but it will make you want to learn more about all the Americans to whom their time in The City of Light meant so, so much.

    As with all of David McCullough's books - I can NOT recommend this enough!!

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  • William McKinley and His America

    by H. Wayne Morgan Year Published: 1963 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    In many ways, William McKinley was a transitional president - he bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, he saw the US eventually sever its bonds with isolationism to become a Pacific and Caribbean colonial power in Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, he slowly moved the US away from its last vestiges of trade mercantilism and bimetallism - slowly edging us toward free trade and the gold standard (both of which wouldn't arrive until decades later). Morgan's biography captures this transitional man rather adeptly.

    Morgan goes to great pains to show what went into making McKinley a rather remarkable chief executive who helped bridge the US to a more modern era without necessarily embracing it, himself. He shows us a very conscientious, straight forward politician - rare even in those days; a man who knew the value of an ally and had the skill to make many of his political opponents such assets. A kindhearted and devoted husband who developed what was probably carpel tunnel syndrome in his right hand from shaking far too many hands, McKinley was a popular and well loved national leader who could have easily been reelected to a third time in office... a feat Grant couldn't even pull off. He was a popular president and, at his time, ranked high in job-performance among his predecessors.

    Morgan also shows the reader, however, that like the Presidents before him (and really since Lincoln), while a good administrator and an efficient if not effective bureaucrat... he had not developed much of an imagination for potential as well as a capability for handling the unexpected - as his successors like the Roosevelts would and that Lincoln, before him, had demonstrated. While he made no qualms regarding breaking the Spanish of their Pacific and Caribbean possessions after the Spanish-American "war", he really had not idea what to do with or how America should (or should not) transform as a result of them. His stance on bimetallism had more to do with party politics (he had favored a bimetallic platform before taking on Bryan in the 1896 election) as opposed to grasping the efficiency of single metal-based currency. He pushed for reciprocity trade agreements (a forebearer to free trade), but balked when confronted with the possibility that the US could become a free trade nation. While he was extraordinarily adept at setting goals and accomplishing them, he wasn't always sure regarding what to do with the spoils once they were won. In this regard, there was nothing particularly remarkable about McKinley as he lacked that key ingredient that separated great presidents from those who merely did their job well: vision.

    Unfortunately, Morgan somewhat skimps on painting a framework around McKinley that would adequately explain why he was more a man of his time than a man of the future. You don't see the tremendous leverage plied upon the Republican Party to stymie at the mention of Progressivism and Populism - forces to truly be contended with in McKinley's terms. Nowhere in the book is his record on race relations even slightly discussed, despite the fact that the most important event in the defense of Jim Crow segregation - the Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court case - was argued in the middle of his first term in office. This last fact is made more curious given that this book was first published in 1963, one of the most pivotal years in the modern Civil Rights Movement as it was capped with the March on Washington. Morgan is so focused upon McKinley the man and how he responded to and reacted to the times around him that he spends little time analyzing and breaking down what those times were... leaving us, ultimately with a figure who it seems is intended to be seen as a man out of time; whereas he was not such remarkable being.

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  • The Wright Brothers

    by David McCullough Year Published: 2015 Biography, History

    Level:  Easy

    This most recent book by McCullough is both a biography on the two Wrights as well as a history of the race to fly the first self-powered aircraft.  Like all of McCullough's work, it is filled to the brim with deeply researched information that is spun into a brilliant narative that reads much more like a "once upon a time" than a "history of human flight".

    In the book, we not only get thorough character studies of the two younger Wrights, Orville and Wilbur, but also their sister, Katherine who was a potent force behind the scenes with regards to their devotion and dedication to their craft, if not with the science in which they were dabling, itself.

    In addition to the tale of the Brother's lives as they push themselves to master the birds' domain, McCullough also gives the reader an overview of all that was going on in flight up to the historic moment at Kitty Hawk in 1903, as well as how quickly their invention revolutionized the world... especially by the dawn of WWI.

    It is surprising, therefore, that McCullough did all this in a scanty 263 pages.  Normally, I find myself begging for more of his writing - even after some of his lengthier books - like Truman... and this time is no different, the portion of his book devoted to the end of the Wrights' lives, while touching, even heartbreaking, feels rushed.  I would have also liked to have seen more of a connection to the First World War, and how by the end of that conflict, at least, flight had utterly rewritten the rules of war.  

    Always leave them wanting more, I suppose.

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  • The Path Between the Seas

    by David McCullough Year Published: 1977 American History

    This is the last of McCullough's books that I have read, and it's not without a twinge of bitter sweetness that I turned the last page and closed the book for good.  McCullough is by far my favorite historical writer, and it was his work that initially roped me into reading history and biography and historical narrative exclusively throughout the last eight years of my life.

    While not his most important work (I would chalk that up to either Truman or John Adams - with a close tie for The Great Journey), The Path Between the Seas does not disappoint.

    McCullough accounts in detail how the French, first, and then the US attempted and then successfully channeled across what could well be the most difficult, brutal stretch of land in all the world.  In so doing, McCullough examines the character flaws and fine points of both the French engineering team as well as the successful Americans in order to understand not only how this most marvelous of engineering marvels was accomplished, but how it also changed the people who made it their venture.  He explores in depth how financial and political corruption halted and defeated the first French effort, despite making tremendous progress given what technology they had access to at the time.  He also explores how the successful American effort became a model of government/bureaucratic-executed precision that some would call the model of the best of what socialized society could be (even though "they" tended to ignore the treatment of the native and African-descended workers).

    This story is also the story of medical progress as much as it is engineering progress - as the little-understood diseases that plagued French efforts - malaria and yellow fever - were systematically studied and nearly eradicated by American medical minds to such an extent that death due to these mosquito born illnesses - early killing thousands per year - were reduced to rates so low that one had a much greater chance of contracting and dying from malaria back in the United States than one did while working on the canal in its latter stages.

    This is the tale of an America who was on the rise - our might was being flexed in wars against Spain and the Philippines; we had exerted our presence upon the Hawaiian islands; and were asked to mediate conflicts between other great world powers - like Russia and Japan.  By the time we started work upon the canal, picking up where the French left off, we were the most industriously productive nation of the earth.  American ingenuity was on display two decades earlier in the mighty Brooklyn Bridge... the US was full of pride (hubris, really), confidence, and the kind of gumption that comes from believing that anything can be accomplished if an American is behind the scheme... and McCullough shows just how America accomplished this greatest of engineering feats.

    A great, detailed book that offers the reader a thorough education in everything from imperial-era American politics to the engineering of canal locks - McCullough never disappoints in telling an important tale in the rise of a great world power.  Like all of McCullough's other works, this has my highest recommendation.

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  • Theodore Roosevelt

    by Henry F. Pringle Year Published: 1931 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    This version is a condensed volume of the larger book that Pringle wrote in 1931 for which he subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize. While Pringle edited this shorter volume (just over 400 pages), and therefore it can be truly said that it reads the way that he wanted it to be read, it's somewhat of a disappointment, and on two levels.

    First, the book seems disjointed - it never stays on one topic for a satisfying length of time. The book covers the entire breadth of Roosevelt's life - but much of it seems hurried and therefore you feel like you're only getting a Cliff's Notes reading. Compared to McCullough's book which focused only upon Roosevelt's first two decades, you're not getting a study on a president's life and political decisions as much as you are getting a recap.

    The second reason the book disappoints is because of the subject, itself. Teddy Roosevelt was nothing if not a divisive president, and not merely for how he transformed the presidency. What Pringle does well is, using Roosevelt's own words and exhaustively researched documents from Roosevelt's library, he shows Roosevelt as a modern American Don Quixote - crusading after one political windmill after another. Roosevelt's passions and fervent desire to fight for whatever just cause was his of the moment made him a celebrated president during his time, but in the long run damaged his presidency, his reputation and many of those same causes for which he fought.

    Pringle's experience as a muck raking journalist during the 1920's afforded him the distance from America's love affair with the newly-late Roosevelt that allowed him to look at his life and his work with much more objectivity than Roosevelt's then-popular autobiography. Pringle's work heaps praise upon Roosevelt's development as a weak, asthmatic and sickly child who was through sheer will alone able to overcome those weaknesses to become the very picture and peak of masculine physicality celebrated in America near the turn of the 20th century. While his family name and wealth, no doubt, played a very important role in launching his political career - it was his personality and, again, sheer will which kept him in politics... often fighting for then unpopular causes such as political reform, tariff reduction, and protective legislation for workers.

    His willpower, however, was often his biggest obstacle as a politician. A demagogue, he believed that he was on the side of right and justice, and therefore he was quite infallible. While he was comfortable about tossing around words like corruption and hypocritical in describing his opponents, he never had the self introspection to understand how he often behaved the same way. An unapologetic militarist, he was always ready to jump in harms way - and drag others with him, more in an effort to relive his own moment of military glory on San Juan Hill... even if that fight wasn't as truly glorious as he remembered. He was fond of calling it the greatest military battle in the last 50 years... true, but it was really just about the only significant military battle in the last 50 years. Aside from, perhaps, Little Big Horn.

    Roosevelt was always looking for another fight into which to charge his cavalry brigade. Panama and South America, imperialist disputes with Europe around the globe... he was always looking for his next windmill. He would spend much of the last decade of his life begging the government and even his arch political rival Woodrow Wilson to give him a regiment of mounted infantry to charge straight into the trenches at Marne. Whether or not he truly realized how much warfare had changed - or even that something as "antiquated" as mounted infantry wouldn't last a minute against the scientific warfare that launched gas and machine gun-driven bullets didn't seem to register with him at all... it was all about his outdated vision of glory, the next windmill in the distance.

    Most telling about Roosevelt's personality, he spent his last year berating publicly and privately Wilson's proposed League of Nations, an idea that Roosevelt had promoted a decade prior. When the inspiration was Roosevelt's, he could fight for the cause with the fierceness of the numerous lions and bears he had hunted and killed time and again... when the inspiration was from another, he lacked the vision to play a supporting role.

    He is remembered as the "trust-buster" - although Taft did far more to destroy the harmful capitalistic tools; although he had taken up the cause of worker's rights on more than one occasion, his distant relative, Franklin, would do far more than he to protect American employees; while he frequently attacked tariffs and protectionism, he did little to reduce them. He did, however, understand how to parlance media attention into recognition - making this feature of his time in office truly pronounced as his link to the modern presidency.

    Teddy Roosevelt - sadly, the myth outshines the man.

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  • Mornings on Horseback

    by David McCullough Year Published: 1982 Biography

    Difficulty: Average

    In a sense, I'm the worst person in the world to review a McCullough book because my reviews will often consist of only four words: "Read this book now!" McCullough is, has always been, and will likely always be my favorite historian if, for no other reason, he can seamlessly translate exhaustive amounts of research into a gripping, personable, and immediate account of history. It's easy for some to dismiss McCullough as a "pop" historian... until you look at his source list, which generally spans for at least 20% the length of his books.

    Morning on Horseback is a brilliant account of the youth and formation of the man who would be our 26th president - but instead of diving with verve into his years in politics leading up to his landmark years in the White House, McCullough focuses only on the part of his life leading up to the moments when he would become a titan in New York and then national politics. In so doing, McCullough gives us a thorough portrait and analysis of how such a dominant figure evolved.

    McCullough looks carefully at a young "Teedie's" life growing up in the shadow of a father whom he would eventually completely overshadow, a mother whom he idolized, and a close circuit of brothers and sisters who meant the world to him. While Roosevelt's asthmatic condition as a youth was well known to play a formative role in his decision to strengthen his way out of it, McCullough dives into depth at where his asthma came from, devoting an entire chapter to his analysis of the times and locations where his attacks were most frequent and severe, determining that environmental factors were in all likelihood NOT the cause of the young boy's condition as psychosomatic ones were... his attacks came most frequently on the family's days of strict religious observance - being cooped up and silent indoors when the young boy longed for adventure, excitement and education that only the outside world could provide.

    Seeing and learning about an adolescent Roosevelt - a boy who appeared more like a defender at the Alamo than the prodigal son of one of New York City's most wealthy families - is not only a treat, it's a vitally important piece of the educational puzzle in learning about the youngest president, the first one who was born and lived in one of America's big cities, and arguably its most traveled and cosmopolitan at that point in history.

    It was this kind of overwhelming attention to detail that McCullough poured into Truman - spending over 400 pages examining the period of that president's life before the presidency - that we see in Mornings. If there is only one fault it is that, unlike Truman, we are not treated to McCullough's brilliant work, analysis and narrative with regards to Roosevelt's adult life... but then, there are numerous other biographies for that tale, as well... none of which dedicate the same effort on the makings of the man.

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  • Colonel Roosevelt

    by Edmund Morris Year Published: 2010 Biography

    Difficulty: Challenging

    Unlike the previous biography of President Theodore Roosevelt that I read (Pringle's Theodore Roosevelt), Morris's book - which captures Roosevelt's life immediately after his time in the White House - is far more understanding of his subject, and therefore is able to present the reader with a far more complete and complex portrait of the man. Pringle's was incredibly well researched and, like this book, won the Pulitzer Prize in its day, but unlike Morris, Pringle didn't really know much of Roosevelt beyond his time in office... since he either limited himself to the papers in Roosevelt's presidential library, or wasn't able to access the dearth of personal writing and correspondence that Morris could, nearly 90 years after his death. Because Pringle didn't really know much of the man in the time leading up to his death, he didn't really understand who Teddy Roosevelt was when he died. The lack of empathy for his subject is plain in the text whereas Morris knows and shows the reader the full man, an act of true empathy.

    In Morris's book, the bulk of Roosevelt's political career is behind him except, of course, for his some what stagger-start-and-stop run for the 2012 White House which split the Republican party down the line and gave it to Wilson. Therefore the reader spends the remainder of Roosevelt's days out of politics... and away from the necessary compromises and politicking that have compromised the character of nearly every executive official. As a result, we see Roosevelt resume the life he had wanted to live, longed to live before his career had engulfed his time. We travel with Roosevelt the Adventurer on a safari across North Africa, on a barnstorming tour throughout Europe, and finally on his last great adventure - one that nearly killed he and his son - across uncharted rivers in the Amazon. We see in Roosevelt's last decade alive the portrait of a man who embraced the adventure of living perhaps more fully than any man alive at that time, embodying and defining masculinity for an Imperial world... but we also see a man unable to be the man of his vision without such stirrings. When he wasn't waging war against nature, he was bored and dissatisfied with sedentary life at home - and as such, his lust for struggle, for fight led him to wage war against the conservative wing of the Republican party as his own politics became, in some ways, more progressive. We see him wage war upon New York's political machine and fight successfully against the war of words waged upon him in not one but two libel civil suits. As the First World War broke out and the US stalled and stalled again its entrance into the fray, he waged war upon President Wilson and his blindly pacifistic policies. Morris shows us a man who only felt truly alive when he was fighting, and, sadly, Morris shows us the truth that Roosevelt's fights not only tended to consume more of him than he would acknowledge (until he, at last, was consumed once and for all in 1919), but that he often instigated fights of one sort or another in order to feel vital, needed, alive.

    In this last book (of three) about Roosevelt's life, we see a truly brilliant man - a Renaissance Man if ever the USA produced one. He was a polyglot (if not a perfect one), a prolific writer, a frequent and passionate speechmaker, an art critic, and as a politician - a president unlike any America had seen and redefined what the office could do and be. While his economic knowledge was quite weak if underdeveloped, he was more than exemplary in just about every other facet of his political career. And, like many other men of such self-made greatness, sadly, he was also a victim of his own ego, often unable to acknowledge his own changes in opinion... or at least able to acknowledge how his mind and actions had changed over time, thus leaving inconsistencies in his decision making even more glaring.

    Edmund Morris is a highly skilled historical biographer. He deftly switches between first person and third person/omniscient voices and in so doing gives the reader both a powerful glimpse at how the world must have looked through Roosevelt's eyes, while also keeping the reader sharply focused upon how the world viewed TR. He is thorough without being tiresome, and his research is beyond exhaustive - so that the reader may rest comfortably with the portrait he wrote and the conclusions he reached.

    Edmund Morris shows us the final years of a great man, perhaps one of America's greatest... yet he also captures the man, himself, in his flaws, misperceptions, and misunderstandings. Therefore the reader not only learns about this very important president, but develops a great and deep sense of feeling for him. At some point, I will have to go back and read the other two books in this trilogy, regardless of where I find myself in my course of personal study. If this book is any indicator, the trip out of order will be more than worth it!

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  • The William Howard Taft Presidency

    by Lewis L. Gould Year Published: 2009 US Biography

    A short, but insightful book whose purpose is to give the reader a more full view of Taft's overall presidency - his strengths and weaknesses as the Chief Executive - more than anything else, this book succeeds nicely.  In a brief 200 or so pages, Gould succinctly captures the highs and lows of Taft's time in office while also introducing the reader to the man behind the mask - the man who was domineered by women (his mother and wife), by the Bully Pulpit President (Teddy Roosevelt) - who really was much more of a man of ideas, a man who loved the law and wanted no more than to take his considerable legal learning and apply it on the bench... but was first called to duty as President first by Roosevelt, and then the American public in 1908.

    Despite his sound and consistent presidential philosophy, Taft was not suited for the office.  He disliked the confrontation which came with the position - and lacked the ability to evolve himself along with the presidency as the times around him changed... and in the early 1900's, they were changing dramatically!  The US had just embraced its imperial possibilities in the Caribbean and in the Pacific; we had become the wealthiest and most industrially productive nation in the world just a decade and a half prior; we were a beacon to immigration - tens of millions had poured into our borders since Taft's birth; and we were quickly becoming a "key player" on the global stage.  Despite these changes, Taft viewed the office of the president very conservatively - seeking to keep its powers limited to the more specific and "clear" descriptions outlined in the Constitution... unlike his predecessor and one time chief supporter for the office, Teddy Roosevelt, who viewed the office of the presidency as the culminating tool of The People - to be used however is required to enact their will so long as it wasn't "too" expressly forbidden by the Constitution.  In short, Roosevelt saw the Constitution as a very flexible document he used in order to apply governmental power to the timely concerns of the early 1900's - be it trusts and business combinations or using the power of government to clean up and ensure the healthy quality of food and drugs which, at that time, were both big business.  Taft did not.  And it was this conflict in viewing both how to use the power of the presidency as well as where to apply its powers that brought the monumental clash between Taft and his former friend and biggest political supporter, Teddy Roosevelt, in the 1912 election... an election that split the Republican party and forever changed American politics - ushering the two chief parties into the more recognizeable modern era.

    Gould's book succinctly captures Taft's role as a poltician, as president, while also giving the reader enough insight into his personality and personal quirks so as to understand him and his decision making more fully.  For the historian or student who is looking to obtain a more well-rounded view of the pivotal 1912 election, this book will greatly aid in their studies without consuming a great deal of time or energy in the pursuit.

    4 of 5 stars.

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  • 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs - The Election That Changed the Country

    by James Chace Year Published: 2004 US History

    Chace has written a very concise yet highly informative and quite gripping tale of the most important election, perhaps, in modern American history.  The US has not seen a contest so divisive and defining of its politics since - and will likely never see one like this again.  It's the tale of an America in transition - caught between Progressive ideas born out of the corruption and abuses of the industrial era on three of the four sides and the last vestiges of Old Conservatism on the other.  America had changed much in the last 136 years, as evinced by how far to the left three of the election's four candidates had moved.  In fact Debs - the most radical of the four as the Socialist Party's candidate for the Presidency - often complained that the only reason he and his fellow socialists had no chance of winning that election was because the Democrats and Teddy Roosevelt's upstart Bull Moose Party had all but stolen their platform.  Taft represented the lingering conservatism of old American Republicanism which preferred its presidents small and their footprint on America even smaller.  As a strict interpreter of the Constitution - Taft saw no role for the presidency in the demands the modern world was making upon it... while not anti-labor, he certainly wasn't interested in seeing the government come to the sole defense of the working man... and that cost him and the Republicans in this election as they would win only 24% of the overall popular vote to the 76% that the Socialists, Democrats, and the Progressive Republicans (Bull Moose) would win.

    This book aptly captures the characters and personalities involved in the race - giving the reader short but insightful vignettes about each candidate's history and political evolution without meandering too far from its purpose: to show how the 1912 election was one forged and driven by powerful personalities clashing powerfully.

    It would definitely help the reader to have a background at least on Taft and Roosevelt - the two men who had already served as President before 1912 - as well as more than passing knowledge about Wilson and Debs.  At the very least, this book leaves the reader hungering more for each of these men's stories because they - unlike so many other candidates before - had captured the popular attention and created such a rare electoral occurrence (rivaled only, perhaps, by the 1800 election between Adams and Jefferson) that it is highly unlikely we'll ever see anything like this again.  Born from this election were the modern defining traits of what our political parties would come to embrace... Republicans, the openly conservative party as well as the dominant machine since the Civil War would become, as a result of this conflict, much like the Republican party of today - fiscally conservative, internationally detached while very protective over the domestic; Democrats, the weaker party (even though they were victorious in 1912) would see Progressivism - even Socialism - as fields ripe for plucking party ideology from in an attempt to win popular favor beyond the party's Southern heritage.  As a result, the Democrats became not only the party of "change" throughout the FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton presidencies - they became the answer to those who saw answers to America's contemporary quandaries not in her past but in her future.

    Chace's book brings excitement to electoral politics and makes all four of his subject's personalities radiate with flair and meaning.  His book leaves the reader hungry for more knowledge about this era and its people - the hallmark of any great piece of writing.

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  • Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

    by John Milton Cooper, Jr. Year Published: 2009 Biography

    Difficulty: Moderate

    A very thorough examination of Woodrow Wilson's life that reads quite easily, despite the copious detail it contains, it unfortunately doesn't do much to unravel the riddle that was Woodrow Wilson's presidency.  Mixed with a Progressivism that bordered on Socialism (just ask Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, from whose platform Wilson, and his competitor in 1912, Teddy Roosevelt "stole" many of thier issues), he saw himself as a champion of the poor and working man, without doing much to support unions, women or Blacks... yet it was under Wilson that the most progressive and protective economic legislation got passed (far more than under Mr. Bull Moose, himself).  He was a champion of peace (although never the pacifist that history later painted him), yet fiercely committed to fighting his enemies to the bitter end (political and otherwise).  

    His 2nd term marred by a stroke that left him bedridden for much of the last year of his presidency, he perhaps lost a shot at becoming a 3rd term president (which he dearly wanted) simply because of the lack of other satisfactory candidates.  While he was deeply upset and distressed over the failure of the US to join the League of Nations, he reconciled himself to the knowledge that so long an isolationist just wasn't ready yet... but he also knew that it's failure to join would soon help spark another, greater, global conflict.

    Cooper's book offers a deep examination of Wilson, the man and Wilson, the president, and gives us a very intimate portrait of who he was in and out of the public eye, and as a result - we see a very human person... full of conflict, frustration, and vision... and ultimately, full of disappointment for how his ailments had cut him down professionaly far earlier than he would have liked.  It's a good book and a thorough book, but it is also fairly apologetic to Wilson - in trying to show us who he was from his point of view, we lose who Wilson was and why he was who he was to the rest of the US.

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  • Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

    by David von Drehle Year Published: 2003 History

    A terrific book that is both about one of the greatest work place disasters in US history as well as the reform that would follow it, Triangle is an important lesson to the history student about the origin and need for work place regulation... a lesson, as evinced in the use of sweatshop labor the world over, that still needs to be more fiercely embraced.

    Triangle shows the reader a typical shirtwaist factory (read: blouse) in New York City, most of the employees were women and the employers did not trust nor respect their workers.  Conditions in such places in the early 19-teens were hot, musty, filled with the dust that tons of fabric bring, and - apparently - a huge fire risk.  When a fire erupts  and quickly spreads through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the fifth floor of a New York City office building, most were caught and killed by the flames before they could escape.   Those that tried to escape found the factories doors shut and locked - from the outside (allegedly to prevent employees from sneaking out and back in without working in order to collect a full day's wage)... piles of burnt bodies were found at the exits.  Those who refused to perish by flame tried their luck with gravity - leaping to their death from more than 50 feet up - as people below screamed in horror, "it was raining people!"; dozens plummeted to their deaths.  146 died, total, making this the greatest workplace disaster in US history at its time.

    The book also takes great pain to explore the subsequent trial - and how the proprietors were given a token of a fine and no jail time despite massive public outcry.  Further, it shows how this disaster became a rallying cry for the Progressives - at their political height and might at the time of the disaster - as well as American communists and socialists who decried the exploitation of the poor and working class by the wealthy, evinced in how not one business owner was held accountable for the 146 whose deaths could have been easily prevented had safer precautions been put into place.  

    The fact that the guilty weren't punished was more the fault of the lack of laws that existed at the time than any sort of explicit criminality in the legal system.  Triangle would quickly rectify that as worker's safety laws began streaming down the pipeline and the membership of the unions who fought for those rights sky rocketed.

    An engaging read for anyone who wishes to know more about the history of labor in the US.

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  • The Guns of August

    by Barbara Tuchman Year Published: 1962 History

    Arguably, the definitive WWI history that has yet to be written, Tuchman's 500 page master piece weaves together the personalities and powers that collided in August of 1914 and precipitated the "war to end all wars".  Her work is chiefly focused upon how the war unfolded in that most fateful month of the 20th Century, and how the best laid plans of France and Germany derailed what both sides thought would be a short conflict ("the boys will be home by Christmas!") and turned it into the first "modern" war that featured unprecedented butchery, industrialized weapons, airwar, specific, intentional focus upon attacking civilians with the intent of causing terror (as the Germans did in both Belgium and France).

    Tuchman's work is exhaustive and can be exhausting to read... but it's worth the effort.  Similar to the books and TV program Game of Thrones, Guns of August unfolds by introducing the reader to dozens of principal players - military and civilian leaders from nearly half a dozen nations (principally Germany, France, England, and Russia)... and while it's difficult at times to keep straight who is who and on whose side (especially when Francois was a German general and Foche and Galleani were French).   But in doing so, the reader also learns how massive wars like this formed chiefly from the egos of the leaders involved... and the mistakes and many gaffes occurred due not only to an utter lack of understanding of how warfare had changed (like France), an utter unwilling desire to be prepared (like Russia, whose prime military commander frequently boasted that he not only didn't read a military book in the prior 25 years, but also felt that rifles and bullets would be useless in this conflict), as well as how the best laid plans of mice and Germans frequently go awry.  Germany's Schlieffen Plan, finalized in 1906, by all means should have brought a quick and sudden surrender by France - who was utterly unwilling to do anything but attack against the irresistible German onslaught, as opposed to defend (at least until Paris was at stake)... however, in Germany's perfectly orderly autocracy where freedom of thought and questioning superiors was utterly verboten, its leaders simply lacked the ability to perceive what could go wrong with their plan and how to be prepared with contingencies.

    While Tuchman doesn't linger on the tragedies of the early war, one cannot help but miss this important piece in reading Guns.  Tuchman is careful to point out how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of casualties were stricken in this particular August because of their leaders' ignorance, cluelessness, firm and unrelenting convictions, and inability to think creatively.

    While this book does not cover any part of the war except for the first month, it nonetheless defines the course the rest of the war would take and clearly teaches how the war would break down into the horrific trench fighting that came to define the western front.

    A very challenging book to read (if, only to keep every character's name and purpose straight), it is nonetheless a thoroughly stimulating and gripping tale.  Highly recommended!

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  • 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar

    by Eric Burns Year Published: 2015 Historical Editorial

    The 1920's - a decade popularly characterized by a "roaring" good time - was much more than celebration.  This book by Eric Burns (whose "Infamous Scribblers" I also enjoyed and is reviewed on this blog) shows just how much can happen in a year.  As an historian, when I am asked when the most important time or year in, say, the history of the US was - I tend to answer with the rather glib response, "Well, of course, every year was an important year!"  - which, of course IS true, as history is a process and with the absence of any prior point in time, no matter how bland or milquetoast it may have seemed, events could not have conspired to make for a more exciting moment later on down the road.  So, no - no year was more or less important than 1920... but, man! what a great deal of excitement was packed into that 366 day stretch!

    Burns explores many of that year's high (and lowlights) that would come to define not only the decade ahead but would also define modern America.  1920 brought us the radio, the Flapper, the first national election in which women could leaglly vote, Carlo Ponzi and the beginning of his infamous scheme, the beginning of Prohibition, the birth of the Harlem Renaissance and the explosion of Jazz with Louis Armstrong's northward migration and Bessie Smith arriving on the scene, Margaret Sanger's first birth control clinic (which would eventually form into Planned Parenthood), the Palmer Raids, the (as of yet) first woman to make Presidential decisions (as Wilson's wife, Edith, served as a go between for him and the rest of the world for much of his last year in office), and saw the most corrupt and worst-rated president (Harding) enter into office.  Labor strikes, which had been rife throughout the past 40 years of US history were ominpresent in 1920 - but thanks to Palmer and the first terrorist bombing that ever occurred on US soil (on Wall Street) 1920 saw the birth of the Red Scare and Sacco and Vanzetti its first martyrs.

    It is no easy feat to bring so much history into so succinct a book of 300 pages, so credit goes to Burns for tying so much information with a skillful narrative.  It is worth noting, as well, that this is editorial - commentary on history, as much as a history itself.  While his research is quite evident, his bias - especially from a modernistic perspective - does creep in, and as a result, we're not getting the "whole" story... but that's not necessarily his intent in this work.  Burns wants to show the reader what a powerful transition and place in time 1920 was first and foremost, connect it to the present second, and tell as much of the story as he saw fit about each and every subject into this narrative.  The wise and hungry reader will be inspired to go online and explore more of the history that piqued his or her interest; those not left so inspired, however, may make the mistake of taking Burns account of 1920's history at only its face value.

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  • Warren G. Harding

    by John W. Dean Year Published: 2004

    This biography is a part of an ongoing series of short, succinct presidential biographies designed to give the curious reader a slightly more than precursory understanding of the president they highlight.  I have read a couple others out of this series - notably, Martin van Buren.  While these volumes are not heavy on analysis or deep in terms of the character exploration of their subject, they do quickly (most volumes weigh in under 200 pages) provide the reader with a greater understanding of their presidents' role in US History.

    When I purchased this book, it was with this intention and no more.  Warren G. Harding is certainly one of the US's less consequential presidents - and I had read a great deal about him not only in biographies of previous presidents (like Taft's), but also in books which focused upon scandals (The Teapot Dome) that occurred during his presidency.  I didn't feel like I needed to really spend much time on the man.

    What is particularly interesting about this book is not so much the subject, but the author.  John W. Dean (yes, THAT John W. Dean) who, as a young attorney for the Nixon administration, was catapulted into the forefront of the Watergate investigation - first as the "master manipulator" of the cover up, and then as the key witness who turned on many of his inner circle members for a reduced jail time.  Since Nixon, Dean has become an adamant critic of conservatism and the Republican party, even going so far to argue that George W. Bush should have been impeached... that's quite a turn from his pre-Watergate days!

    So... given this information about this "passable" book's author, I became much more intrigued with both it and the subject than I had been previously.  Dean makes no bones about the fact that he was seeking to restore a great deal of credibility to Harding's administration that had been lost both after his death as well as with the onset of the Great Depression - a time when most Americans, regardless of party, looked back upon the Republican domination of the 1920's with a great deal of anger... which arguably resulted in a great deal of distorted history of the work of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.

    Dean's bias is slight - aside from the fact that he and Harding are from the same small town, they don't share much in common, especially not contemporary politics.  Despite the book's short length, Dean goes through great pains to both examine the roots of anti-Harding "hysteria" that broke out after his time in office as well as to deflate it to find the accuracy regarding what he did during his limited time in office (he only served 3 years of his one term due to dying prematurely).  Dean offers up a lot of credible evidence to suggest that Harding's poor surviving contemporary reputation as one of the US's worst presidents is quite undeserved.  While Dean does make a considerable case that anti-Harding fever was strong, and therefore likely warped the perception of his presidency for generations to come, Dean did not convince this reader that Harding deserved, necessarily, better placement in the "Hall of Presidents Passed".

    One cannot accurately characterize Harding as a buffoon who got into office by sheer luck... he was long an Ohio newspaper man who ran his own Republican newspaper.  He knew how politics worked and knew how the game was played long before he entered it.  He had the opportunity to cover national conventions directly, and won praise from then-President Taft for his support of Taft over Roosevelt's Bull Moose charge in the 1912 election... praise that would translate soon into support when Harding decided to run for the Senate.  Harding knew how presidents won office, he knew how conventions worked and how sometimes being the candidate who offends nobody can lead to the White House far faster than a strong willed, powerfully minded candidate with political enemies can.  Dean argues that Harding and his campaign manager, Daugherty, knew exactly what they were doing when they positioned Harding to be the Republican's 1920 "dark horse" candidate, and he argues this point well.  

    My problem with Harding that survived Dean's thesis is that I'm not really convinced that once in office Harding did much of anything remarkable.  While his appointments to the Supreme Court would be among the best any president could have made - at the time, they were simply politically expedient and in line with what the Republican machine would have wanted (Taft, his mentor straight through to the White House) was one of those appointments.  His appointments to ambassadorial positions as well as his own cabinet turned out to fare much, much worse.  Scandal ripped apart his cabinet - with the Teapot Dome being the biggest, but perhaps not the most morally reprehensible as was Charles Forbes stealing from the Veteran's Bureau.  Harding did not pass a bonus - promised to WWI veterans who signed up for the fight as opposed to face the draft, because Harding was so engaged in slashing national spending.  Dean cites two of Harding's speeches - one to a crowd of Black and white southerners - regarding the need to end lynching and restore de facto voting rights to Blacks in the South.  However, talk is all Harding did - he never sent anti-lynching legislation to Congress nor put any power of the national government behind his sentiments, leaving Blacks feeling like the had sympathy from the White House and little else as the KKK rose from its earlier ashes to unfathomably high membership rosters.  Dean, himself, points out that in his one partial turn in the Senate, Harding introduced no significant legislation and frequently missed votes on bills.  

    While Harding's dalliances outside of his marriage certainly do his reputation no favors, Dean does not white-wash Harding's marriage - explaining perhaps why Harding so often sought to be out on the road when working as a newspaper man.  While he may have been a shrewd politician, Harding was not an effective leader - nor an imaginative one.  He could not take an effective stand on the tariff question to satisfy either side of the argument, nor could he understand how weak the League of Nations would be without US participation - and how, because the US would not be in it, he and the US Senate were not only committed to its failure, but also to helping Europe fall back into bloody warfare just 20 years after the 1st Great War ended.  He took no effective stand that set him apart from the earlier defined platform of conservative Republicanism that would endure, to a partial degree, even to today.  Not only could he not foresee problems such party policy would cause the nation in the years ahead, he could not creatively see how to use the power of government to solve the problems that existed during his here and now, like the crisis that was brewing on farmlands and in the nation's very shaky and irresponsible form of credit.

    So what I felt left with was a book that successful argued that Harding was worth another, more deeply investigative look beyond that which had since the 30's been written... but beyond agreeing with Dean on that point, my view of Harding as an ineffectual leader whose lack of vision and creativity helped point the US straight towards the Great Depression.

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  • The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country

    by Laton McCartney Year Published: 2008 History

    While the book, itself, isn't quite as dire and dramatic as its title - it is a pretty damning expository about a time not too dissimilar from today - when major corporations seemingly had the government in their back pocket and at their beck and call.  In this case, the industry was oil - the largest industry then and now.  This book tells the tale of the relationship between Big Oil and Harding's Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, and how Big Oil used its power and financial strength to purchase lucrative favors from the government through Fall, such as the sale of oil rich lands to private industry... lands that were supposed to be for the sole use of the US Navy.

    In McCartney's book, one learns how the bribery and subsequent scandal broke out and affected the presidency.  Albert B. Fall was the highest ranking government officer ever to be found guilty of a felony (at that time) - and while it destroyed his career... ironically this tremendous scandal had little impact upon the Republican dynasty of the 1920's.  Everyone knew that Harding was an ineffectual chief executive (an extreme long shot to ever take the Oval Office, chosen for no other reasons than he was one guy no faction in the Republican Party could complain much about).  He was frequently drunk during Prohibition and enjoyed the service of ladies of the evening through secret passages through and under the White House.  He embraced the Republican's credo of "the government which governs least governs best" - and it was under this style of "leadership" that the 20's earned their "roaring" nickname... a nickname that only covered the surface of the decade, hiding an ever widening income gap between the rich and the poor, an era of limited freedoms (no drinking, no free speech concerning communism or socialism), and an era in which corruption didn't raise much of a national hackle.  Perhaps this was evidence of Progressivism - such a powerful force for change a decade earlier - losing its luster and a nation trying to get over the tragedy of the Great War (the US's first true test of combat since the Civil War).  Regardless, one can't help but see many similarities to the relationship between business and government today... and wonder, "when will we learn"?

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  • Coolidge

    by Amity Shlaes Year Published: 2013 Biography

    Going into this biography, it is essential to understand that this is not so much a biography about Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States, as it is an idolization of the supply-side economic policies the Coolidge administration put into place.  For much of the last century, the economic policies that have been the backbone of the Republican administration were largely born out of the Coolidge administration, and Ms. Shlaes is an apostle of those policies - as her career as the project manager for the 4% Growth Project, her work writing for Forbes, and her previous piece, The Forgotten Man all attest.

    Her biases as a pro-business, anti-union, small government, laissez-faire economist ring throughout this biography on Coolidge and therefore she fails to give us a more multidimensional understanding of the man.  Her portrait of the Boston Policeman's strike that would catapult Coolidge into both fame and infamy around the US (depending upon which circles you ran with) is largely one-sided.  While she does an apt job indicating the numerous deplorable conditions that prompted the law and order in Boston to march out on strike (much to the chagrin and detriment of the city's welfare), she really only focuses upon what Coolidge's response to the strike was without examining his motivations with much depth.  As a result, we not only miss the inner theater that must have played out in Coolidge's mind as he reacted to the expanding crisis.  Coolidge's response comes across as rather one dimensional - the need for the service that employees provide (in this case, police officers) far outweighs their needs as human beings who exchange a great deal of safety and security for, as it turned out, far too few rewards.  Coolidge's response to this situation became the defining moment as to how Republicans thereafter would treat employee organization... workers had few rights and deserved few protections that their government would recognize while the companies and industrialists who employed them were the very ideal of Americans.

    Like Republicans during the 1920's, Shlaes seems to have little sympathy for the working men and women who saw their share of America's wealth dramatically diminish during the Harding and Coolidge years.  She describes in great depth Coolidge's efforts to get the federal budget balanced and spending decrease (much to the immediate chagrin of the WWI Bonus Army veterans who saw Republican promises evaporate in November election after November election, as well as the armed forces, themselves, whose expenditures were slashed so thoroughly... a quick cost-cutting measure which hurt employment and the US's war preparedness later in the 1930's).  A great deal of this book is spent analyzing Coolidge's (and, by default, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's) fiscal policies and progress, that one can't help put that focus together with Shlaes's other professional activities to see these past actions as a plea for contemporary action.

    Despite the thinly veiled politicizing and grandstanding for a return to Republican policies of old, Shlaes nonetheless paints an admirable portrait of a man who was notoriously private (nicknamed "Silent" Cal while in office).  Shlaes shows the passion behind the man - around whom the death of loved ones seemed to be constant.  She shows clearly how his upbringing in rural Massachusetts played such a vital role in making self-reliance and hard work such keystone values.  She also - intentionally or otherwise - shows Coolidge as a man of no great depth of thought, despite his other talents as an administrator.  He was not the wise philosopher that Lincoln was, nor the dramatic defender of American and Americanism at home nor abroad.  He seemed to have little empathy for people beyond his circle - to whom, however, he could be quite generous.  He expected a great deal of hard work out of himself in the projects he chose to accomplish, and he did just that.  But like most adherents to his "business first" policies then and now, he failed to see how he was also setting up millions for hardship and ruin in the years to come.  With little regard toward regulating the financial industry (an action, or lack thereof, which clearly benefited Secretary Mellon's bottom line), agriculture (which was begging for regulation and federal assistance), or inserting the federal government between employees and the predatory industries who profited and grew from their workers' toil - he was sewing many of the seeds of the Great Depression, as well as the many rationales as to why the Republican party became so unpopular during that time - an unpopularity that the likes of Coolidge, Shlaes, and similar fiscal adherents can't quite seem to grasp to this day.

    In the end, Coolidge is a competent if loaded biography of one of the US's more simplistic chef executives.  While the reader gains a greater understanding, sympathy, and even a sense of respect for the man - one does not feel that he is any more multidimensional than the propaganda we see today calling for an end to business taxation, regulation, and calls for responsible behavior.

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  • An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover

    by Richard Norton Smith Year Published: 1984 Biography

    Herbert Hoover had all of the ingredients that combine to make for a very interesting, if not quite capable president.  An undistinguished childhood that never hinted at the places that young Hoover, an orphan before adolescence, would go... a brilliant, successful, and rather lucrative career as a Stanford-educated engineer... an idealist who demonstrated a potent knack for not only working with the party "across the aisle" (in this case, the Democrats), but one who also deeply admired the Democratic president under whom he made a name for himself in public service, Woodrow Wilson... a tireless crusader for the downtrodden at home and around the world... and a chief executive who had the profoundly bad luck to have the Great Depression erupt shortly after his term in office began.  Herbert Hoover was also a deeply human chief executive - one who, despite his brilliance and compassion, could not see his own flaws as a leader nor evolve quickly enough to understand the true, deep-seated roots about the causes (and potential solutions to) the Great Depression.

    While some of his efforts at stabbing back against the Depression (such as the Colorado Dam - later "Hoover" Dam - project and the early blueprint for Social Security) would be co-opted and dramatically expanded by his successor, FDR, he failed to see just how damaging the rampant unemployment and subsequent hopelessness had become in the US... despite being very charitable to many in need.  In fact, it was his contradiction in being charitable to those who reached out for help or whom happenstance made cross his path versus his inability to shake off the old notion that the unemployed were so at their own fault... that the massive unemployment (more than 25% including farmers) was in dire need of correction that only the national level of government could provide.  His bitterness over his one term in office which then led directly to one of the biggest landslides in political history through FDR's election, as well as a 20 year Democratic domination of the oval office, never left him for the rest of his long-lived life.  He became increasingly conservative when the US needed new leadership and fresh ideas to thwart the Depression.  He became increasingly isolationist and ambivalent to the growing crisis in Europe - despite his tremendous sympathy to those who went hungry or were victimized by the brutality of fascism and communism - and even the British, whom Hoover could never generate a love for, let alone respect.

    While he retained his brilliant mind and undying desire to be of aid to his country after his term in office (whom Truman put to use in not only aiding war-torn Europe, but also helping to reorganize and improve efficiency in his post-war government), he lacked the ability to change with the times, let alone to understand how the times had changed... how the Korean peninsula became worth fighting to a stalemate, why the US and USSR had to wage an idealistic war of occasional compromise, how China's fall to communism was just as much (if not more so) his party's fault as it was Truman's and the democrats, and how his desire to "be involved" often translated to a desire to have absolute authority to control situations.  His life after the presidency, in essence, was reduced to being somewhat of an "armchair chief executive" - a person who was more than confident in telling anyone who would listen what should be done without having to bear the responsibility of actually doing it, himself.  Nonetheless, despite his flaws, he was deeply respected after the Roosevelt years in a Washington that had reformed its view of him and his presidency and brought him back into respectability.  He and Truman became good friends, even though each frustrated one another quite a bit.  He was tireless and working, thinking, writing constantly right up until his death at age 93.

    Smith does a fantastic job of capturing the career and personality of one of America's most poorly understood - yet, arguably, most active and engaged presidents, at least in the 20th Century, in one volume of some 430 pages.  The chief frustration the reader might have is that Smith occasionally sacrifices depth in order to cover as much of Hoover's experiences as possible (from mining expeditions to the Boxer Rebellion to Agricultural Secretary under Wilson and angel of mercy to Belgium to Savior of the Mississippi Flood to President to retirement to vocal critic of FDR and WWII to active once again in the federal bureaucracy after WWII to retirement once again)... but that problem can't be faulted to Smith.  Clearly, Hoover is as worthy of a multi-volume biography as any other president in US history, and if the reader wants a more detailed analysis of Hoover's life, that is what one should seek out.  Smith not only does an excellent job at presenting the breadth of Hoover's work and contributions (if not the depth), he also spends a great deal of time inside the man's head, giving the reader a clear idea of Hoover's personality and character, if at the expense of a more thorough analysis of each demonstration of that character and when its judgments were in the right and when they were clouded.

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  • Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939

    by Barry Eichengreen Year Published: 1995
    This is quite probably the most difficult, challenging book I've ever read.  In order to truly understand all of the arguments that Eichengreen makes concerning what he feels was the true culprit behind the Great Depression (the globe's reliance upon the Gold Standard), one must have a thorough understanding of finance, macro and micro economics, as well as world and US history around the Depression Era.  Suffice to say, I've only got a good grounding in a couple of those items, nonetheless, I toughed it out!  I mention this purely as a warning to those who may think this might be a quick, easy read to give themselves a deeper understanding of the Depression.  IT WON'T!!!
     
    Eichengreen goes painstakingly through the economic history of World War I to show how that conflict created the massive circle of international debt that would ultimately choke the global gold supply.  Through using numerous charts of data as well as detailed explanations for what that data means as well as how it correlates to its era in history, Eichengreen shows at a deliberate, painstakingly thorough pace just how the size and scope of the First World War proved too much to bear for the means of managing global finance for some 50 years prior - the Gold Standard.  
     
    It was also the fault of many nations' reluctance to give it up (such as the US, UK, Germany and France) which dug the world deeper and longer into depression during the 1930's - it was virtually all financiers and bankers really understood about global scale economics and the possibility of surrendering it was just too much change for many to take... however, Eichenberg shows that once it was abandoned, credit was easier to come by and economies quickly improved... just in time for the second World War.
     
    The bigger picture, here, however, was that the Depression was not caused by speculation or rampant, poorly issued consumer credit, nor even the crushing time farmers were having in the 1920's and '30's.  The root of all of those problems was international credit and monetary supply - causes managed (or mismanaged) by the international banking system and its inability to respond to great crisis.  As a result of this analysis, Eichenberg not only becomes an advocate for governmental economic management and oversight, but he also illustrates how little most Americans - including many in positions of political and financial leadership - truly understand about the system that held recovery back versus the current "free-floating" system that allows for greater flexibility and economic creative problem solving.  
     
    In the end, Golden Fetters is a lesson to us all - a lesson regarding how vital economic education (as well as a thorough grounding in history) really are as we, internationally speaking, continue to make many of the same mistakes based upon a severe misunderstanding caused by a lack of education in these vital topics.  My next degree?  Economics, for sure. 
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  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom

    by Conrad Black Year Published: 2003
    The reader gets exactly what one would expect from this 1100+ page book about the life and leadership of FDR - a thorough examination of the man's life and actions.  In retrospect, it would be nearly impossible to capture him effectively in any book short of this length - he is arguably the most important American since Lincoln, definitely the most influential figure since the early 20th Century... He led the US through not one but two of its most trying crises: The Great Depression and World War II.
     
    Black does a more than admirable job bringing his subject to life from birth to death as well as providing a great deal of in depth character analysis in order to help explain why FDR was the leader that he was... how he rose to be the preeminent figure in politics during the 1930's and 40's and how he completely redefined one political party and nearly made obsolete another by his sheer force of will, alone.  Black thoroughly examines how FDR threaded the needle in between dictatorship and weak democracy during these trying times with only a few political set backs and in so doing, he shows what his gifts as a leader truly were and why the US was so hesitant to let him retire (and, for that matter why he was so hesitant to retire after two terms in office).  He paints a portrait of a man who knew greatness when he saw it and was as quick to surround himself by immense talent as he was to swiftly cut away those who would impede his efforts (in most cases, at least - his retention of the ambassadorial services of Joseph Kennedy still baffle the mind...)
     
    Black addresses the conspiracies that surrounded FDR after his death - from his alleged "allowance" for Pearl Harbor to happen in order to have an excuse to bring the US into WWII, through is believed "bungled management" of Josef Stalin during the Yalta conference which Republicans would use to smear his name as one who was easy on communism only shortly after his death.  Black quickly points out the many errors in such theories and steers FDR's reputation back on track as one of the US's greatest leaders.
     
    Regardless of your political beliefs, one cannot read this book and not come away with tremendous respect for FDR's talents and leadership, as well as the still-enduring impact he had upon the US and its politics.  Black's titanic work is more than worthy of the titanic leader it presents. 
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  • The Defining Moment

    by Jonathan Alter Year Published: 2006 History
    The Defining Moment is about FDR's legendary "First 100 Days" as President, however, the book also functions as a sort of early-period biography about FDR, as well.  Roughly 50% of the book covers his early life up through his first inauguration; the rest focuses upon his first three months in office.
     
    Alter's book is fairly short (340 pages +/-) but it does a fairly admirable job in terms of covering who FDR was by the time he took office, how he evolved to be the man Americans would meet as president for the first time, and how the more major programs in Alphabet Soup came to be.  For someone looking to learn a bit about, arguably, the most defining president in the last 150 years, this is an easy book to read and it won't take much time to do so.  While Alter does not make his subject difficult to penetrate, he doesn't skimp on the deep analysis of his character, either.  His book is filled with colorful anecdotes about FDR's life up through 1933 that the casual historian will come away with a fairly good understanding of what made FDR so successful as president - and what made his programs so enduring.
     
    If the reader is looking for a more substantive analysis, however, one should consider the book I read prior - Black's biography on FDR.  Black spends many more pages and plums much deeper into FDR's life (probably 4-500 pages, at least) than Alter, giving the reader both a deeper understanding of the man and his first term legacy with all of its complexities... but Black's book is no mere weekend reader.

    At the very least, The Defining Moment will introduce the reader to FDR - and more than likely captivated them and make them want to read further about a president whose legacy is still so vital and central to American politics.
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  • No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt... the Home Front in World War II

    by Doris Kearns Goodwin Year Published: 1994 Biography
    Despite whatever controversies that surrounded Goodwin around her improper citations and/or lack of use of quotes, she knows how to spin a solid historical tale and is capable of weaving researched material into her own words quite seamlessly.
     
    In many ways, this book serves as a companion for the prior book I read about FDR during wartime.  Whereas that book focused strictly upon FDR and his efforts to lead the US (and the free world) to victory in WWII, this book focuses upon what was happening back in the US concerning the Roosevelts during that same time. 
     
    Just like her book Team of Rivals, Kearns creates an intricate and thorough plot of ancillary characters around the Roosevelts - Joe Lash, Missy LeHand, Harry Hopkins and more from the cabinet, the personal assistants, and even Mrs. Nesbitt, the pugnacious White House head cook.  In understanding the people that surrounded the Roosevelts, Kearns brings greater understanding of the character and personality of both FDR and Eleanor to life through their interactions with others.  

    In FDR, Kearns clearly shows the master politician at play - at his best when he had dozens of plates spinning in the air with all around him guessing which would fall first (if any... and with FDR, seldom did anything fall...)  It's through his master ability to manipulate and create a cult of personality we see a man who was unable to truly form much of an intimate bond with anyone who couldn't satisfy any of his personal needs.  When advisers and aides alike left his service or lost their physical faculties, FDR was unable to cope with someone he would no longer have use for.
     
    We also see how Eleanor really rises as a personality and political force during the Second World War, championing the fight for the expansion of democracy and rights for the poor, people of color, and women at home - while never sacrificing her support for her husband's leadership abroad.  We see a truly tireless woman who could out walk Generals and members of the armed forces as she took the time to visit hospitals near the front lines in order to spend time with the wounded... wounded who nearly all found some healing in a visit from someone many considered the nation's First Mother.  Her push to be active in her husband's political life as well as have a profound and meaningful impact upon his decision making was significant - and often requested, for tho' their marriage had soured more than two decades earlier when his affair was discovered by Eleanor, he still had a deep and profound respect for her intellect and wisdom... and most of all, her heart.  Indeed, if there is a tragedy that surrounds Eleanor Roosevelt, it is that she was born far too early.  A woman of such talents, intellect, and work ethic would be lauded today and encouraged into the very positions of leadership that she had to scrabble fiercely for even token status 70 years earlier.
     
    This book is quite personable and does its best to make the subjects be people you live with as opposed to simply read about.  Kearns' writing is quickly turning into some of my favorite! 
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  • Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom

    by James MacGregor Burns Year Published: 1970
    As I continue to read more and more books on history - especially biographies - the more I notice stylistic changes in those books that were written before I was born and those that are more modern.  Generally speaking, historical biographies that I've read which were published well before the 1980's tended to be much more authoritative in tone than analytical - telling the reader what to think and believe about their subject, whereas contemporary works have a more analytical tone - presenting the reader with copious evidence and analysis of that evidence in order to form a coherent understanding about whom their subject is.
     
    For that reason, I was very pleased in reading Burns' work on FDR's war years.  Despite being nearly 50 years old and focused upon a subject nearly 80 years' past, it has a surprisingly modern and contemporary feel.  If anything, Burns' book works to illustrate just how complex and demanding the office of President is, especially during war, especially ESPECIALLY during WWII.  Through flashback narratives, the author uses pieces of FDR's earlier life prior to WWII (his relationship with his mother and his power struggle with Al Smith, most notably) to illustrate his style, reasoning and shortcomings in overseeing the Allies' global effort against fascist tyranny during WWII.
     
    One comes away with a sense of not only how immense that load was to carry - to coordinate "allies" as disparate as Stalin and Churchill abroad while doing the same at home with isolationist Republicans and socialistic labor leaders who often saw WWII as an excuse to crush and reverse labor's New Deal gains.  In 600 pages, Burns manages to turn a magnifying glass onto FDR's leadership during WWII in order to show how, perhaps, no other person in the US could have led as successful an effort as FDR did through all of that chaos and turmoil, as well as his shortcomings as a leader who sometimes failed to unite the "ends" and "means" of his efforts failed to create the postwar visions he had longed for... a peaceful and productive end to imperialism, an atmosphere of calm, trust, and international security in which the USSR could deflate their cruel expansionist aims, and the destruction of white racial oppression and poverty at home.  In a sense, perhaps without intending to, Burns catapults FDR into status with America's founders - a great and visionary leader in war and peace whose reach sometimes exceeded his gasp.  Just like the authors of the Declaration of Independence, FDR would not live to see his vision expand and gain greater acceptance; indeed, just as with the promises in the Declaration, the US and the world continues today to struggle to achieve FDR's lofty aims - even at the point of repudiating all the he (and so many millions of Americans) fought and struggled so hard for.
     
    Burns writing is clear and precise, and while it is academic in tone, it is not needlessly verbose.  The cast of characters who orbited FDR during his presidency is large and full (and worth while making notes in order to keep who's who straight), but they do not overshadow the man.  Indeed, even the momentous history being made in Europe and the Pacific is related only in short spurts so that Burns discussion of FDR's actions can be properly indexed.  
     
    A terrific and engaging read for anyone who wants to become more familiar with the leadership behind World War II. 
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  • In the Garden of Beasts

    by Erik Larsen Year Published: 2011 History

    Difficulty: Easy Reading

    This wonderful, gripping and suspenseful book came to me by recommendation from one of Casa's great retired teachers, Putt! Given that it's a little out of my routine and targeted area of historical study (currently I just began a book on president #18, US Grant) - I was a little hesitant to alter my pattern, but I'm glad that I wasn't locked into that consistency because this book is an absolute treasure!

    In the Garden of Beasts is the story of William Dodd in his family after his appointment to be the US diplomat to Germany in 1932. Dodd's story, alone, is quite interesting as he was really one of the last people you would expect to see represent the US diplomatically - a university professor engrossed in the work of his lifetime, a multi-tome collection entitled The Old South, with no prior significant political experience... and unlike many of his peers in the diplomatic corps, no great personal fortune and no interest in displaying what he did have with any sense of ostentation (out of as much mindfulness about the fact that such displays were distasteful during the Great Depression, as well as his distaste for other diplomats who chose to live high on the hog with little regard for the tax dollars funding their mission).

    This book is a perfect example why well written history is vastly superior to any piece of well written fiction. Enclosed in this book is the story of a family and their personal struggles within the greater context of the ascension of the Nazi party in 1932 Germany. Here, the well known tale is told through the eyes of Americans who were right in the "belly of the beast" as it happened - literally just a few blocks away from the epicenter of Nazism in Berlin. We see through the eyes of Dodd the atmosphere of Germany change as the Nazi's seized and then consolidated power - he first viewed the Nazis with a begrudging respect for their "revolution" and what it had seemingly accomplished to one of horror and repugnance at its brutality and lack of dignified leadership among the likes of Hitler, Rohm, Goebbels, and Goering.

    You do not get a heroic tale of daring a la Oskar Schindler in Dodd's stay from 1932 to 1938 - but you do see how it changed the man and his family as they saw the changes in Germany itself. We come to understand how the US among all nations could so easily delude itself into seeing no serious threat in the Nazis. The US had been openly treating its Black citizens as second class human beings since the end of the Civil War and rarely did anyone involved in the dozens of lynchings that occurred annually ever get punished or brought to justice. How could the US - where antisemitism was also rather strong (in no small part due to propaganda the Nazis spread around the US during the 1930's) - see what was occurring to Jews as a sign of worse to come? What did trouble Dodd was how fearlessly the Nazis discarded the Versailles treaty by rearming and rebuilding what had been deemed an illegal military - in open view of the whole world. As early as 1934, Dodd began sending warnings of the war to come five years later.

    This book often provides an intimate portrait of Nazi Germany through the eyes of Dodd's only daughter, Martha, a young and attractive socialite who partied, drank, and socialized with the very people who would drive the world to war and butcher nearly 12 million people in concentration camps. Her recollections bring a certain human face to the Gestapo, the SA, and the Nazis, in general, and we see that human face turn to the face of a monster as Martha grew closer to them.

    While superficially you have a story of the rise of the Nazis from first-hand accounts, this is the story of the impact the Nazis had upon one family - a family that wasn't predisposed to love nor hate them... at first. This is the story as much about Hitler's rise as Fuhrer as it is how that rise affected the lives of the US diplomat and his family in Germany at that time. It is a gripping, page-burning tale that reads like a screen adaptation, and one has to intentionally remind oneself that this was real. This happened. And this was powerful!

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  • Infamy

    by Richard Reeves Year Published: 2015
    A powerful and important book that documented one of the darker moments in United States history, Richard Reeves spins a potent and fast-paced narrative that aptly captures the imprisonment of more than 110,000 people just for the crime of being born Japanese.
     
    Despite weighing in at just under 300 pages, Infamy is quite comprehensive.  Reeves covers the history behind the government actions that led to Executive Order 9066 and the imprisonment of most of the Japanese descendants living in the US (minus those in Hawaii and east of the Rockies).  He documents the line of thinking of many prominent American public servants, such as Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, whom commented in regards to imprisoning the Japanese, "The Constitution's just a scrap of paper to me".  The bigotry and envy of California farmers who were angry at how successful Japanese farmers were is on full display, as well as California's governor, Earl Warren, who would later regret his actions with regards to the Japanese in his state so much that he would later break down in tears during interviews on the subject.
     
    Reeves largely lets the words and deeds of people on both sides of the prison fences tell this tale as we become intimately acquainted with prison life for those who committed no crime.  We see firsthand the prejudice the Issei and Nissei had to endure after Pearl Harbor, despite remaining loyal, serving valiantly in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters, and not causing one single incident that posed a threat to the US war effort.  We see the sacrifices in property, relationships (as the traditional family bonds broke down since all meals were served in cafeterias), education, and potential that went to waste at a time when American needed it the most.
     
    Most of all, we see why so many Japanese Americans remained optimistic and put on their bravest face.  Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange were frustrated at how the Japanese refused to appear as miserable and hopeless as he knew they must have felt when he arrived to photograph them.   
     
    Ultimately, Infamy leaves the reader with two things: first, a sense of tragedy at how much potential the US locked up instead of utilized during its most dire hours; and, second a potent reminder for how quickly democracy, human rights, and the Constitution can be deliberately thrown away when enough people in this country choose to feel that a small group of "others" pose a dire threat.  In the age of building walls and jailing and deporting Muslims, this book should be mandatory reading for all.
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  • Doctors From Hell

    by Vivien Spitz Year Published: 2005 History

    Difficulty: Easy Reading

    No book that you read about the Holocaust will ever "sit easy" on one's soul - and this is no different. Despite how disturbing and tragic the material, however, books like this are VITAL to the library of human knowledge and SHOULD be read by all because they serve as constant reminders as to the depth of evil that we are all - especially the supposedly "best" among us - can sink to. Being human means we have the capacity within us to do tremendous good and tremendous evil, and this book shows human beings who had a job and swore an (Hippocratic) oath to do so - but chose to use their talents for some of the most evil, degrading acts known to man. This is the story of Germany's - well, really, the Nazi party's - doctors who were involved in conducting brutal and inhumane medical experiments during WWII. In name these experiments were for the benefit of science, in practice they were part of the Nazi ideology "The Final Solution" - and in the end, they were simply experiments in cruelty that neither furthered scientific knowledge nor benefited humanity. Tragic, indeed.

    Spitz was a court reporter during the Nuremberg trials that oversaw prosecuting those involved with medical experiments, so her book is as much testimonial to these horrors as it is a surviving, 1st person account of the mountains of evidence that was brought out against the doctors who perpetuated these horrors. The pictures are sometimes shocking, if not horrific - the tales that survivors and witnesses tell are ghastly. Most incomprehensible, however, is the mountain of denial right up to their sentencing (and, in some cases, executions) offered by the accused... not only did they not commit crimes of war nor crimes against humanity, but their actions would be remembered as a great service to mankind. Pathetic to the end.

    The book is a fairly easy read - complete with definitions and clarifications for court proceedings and medical terminology - which makes it accessible to most reading levels. The narrative, at times, is a bit disjointed. It breaks down into equal parts of directly quoted testimony and evidence from the trials in which Spitz served as court reporter - to a biographical sketch of what time and life were like in the years immediately proceeding WWII, as Spitz accounted her own experiences living and working in such a war-torn nation. As a result, the book sometimes seems a bit uneven thematically. The court proceedings are heavy - one definitely feels the burden that being a witness to such horrors must have been for Spitz, but in her accounts of life in Nuremberg - Spitz sometimes interjects even lighthearted moments from her life that, while lightening up the mood, ultimately serve to contradict the more serious accounts held in the text.

    Nonetheless, this is an important book, especially since the survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust are all but passed on... all that remains of their account of this worst nightmare in human history are the words, images, and artifacts they have left behind. It is up to us and subsequent generations to pick up the burden and continue to bear witness to the Holocaust in hopes that someday, such atrocities will be nothing but history.

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  • The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II

    by Winston Groom Year Published:
    Winston Groom's The Generals, published by National Geographic, reads more like the 90-minute military documentaries on the History Channel play out... which means it makes for some entertaining and insightful vignettes far more than it succeeds as a serious work of history.  Like Groom's most famous book (and subsequent film) Forrest Gump, history and its many forces and wide cast of characters are boiled down to a few highlight reels in order to give the reader the opportunity to say, "Hey! I remember when...!" as they thumb along through the book.
     
    This criticism, however, may not be very fair.  The subjects of this biographic work - Patton, MacArthur, and Marshall - are titans of military, if not American history, and had I wanted to really grow acquainted with these men I, perhaps, should have read larger individual books about each.  My unwillingness to stray too far from my current reading discipline roped me into reading what was, in fact, more of a Cliff's Notes version of their history.

    While Groom speeds along the life tales of each man from boyhood, to enrollment in military academies, to service in the Spanish American and Philippines Wars as well as WWI and ultimately in WWII (and Korea for MacArthur), he sacrifices the narrative of their lives.  How did these men become the men they became?  Patton and MacArthur were both renowned for monumental egos - how were these developed?  Patton's depression and even suicidal tendencies are lightly hit on, but only obliquely.  Marhsall's stoic wisdom and ability to juggle politicians and military commanders with only minimal trace of ego made him invaluable to both FDR and Truman, but how he went from a restless boy to that kind of commander is still a mystery.  

    Unfortunately, Groom's bias is riddled throughout this book - going so far as to indicate that his parents were married in the chapel where MacArthur was buried.  Along with intertwining his own life with his subjects', he also clearly displays a disdain for the dominating politicians of the WWII era while portraying his subjects as both righteous and infinitely patient with their political superiors lack of wisdom or foresight.  This carries through with his oversimplified discussion of the Depression and how it impacted the size of our armed forces through the late 1930's... it was the bungling of anti-military, inept politicians, not a result of the economic realities of that day nor the still-significant hauntings of WWI and it's anti-war scars.

    Absent is any discussion of the Republican Party's aborted attempt to court MacArthur for president... until they learned just how unstable the man was.  No examination of Mac's desire to bring atomic weaponry to bear in the Korean War.  The press that was critical of Patton, a brilliant military leader nonetheless, who was also quite unhinged and uninhibited with embarrassing his superiors and the military, in general, with his often overly theatrical behavior.

    The reader will read hints of ego and personality, but will get no insight into from where these developed nor how, and certainly will not find much in the way of fair and balanced criticism of Groom's subjects.  While I do understand their greater role throughout American history in the first half of the 20th Century, all the rest will have to wait until I can circle back and take more time to read about them all more thoroughly... one thing that DOES come through in Groom's book - these men are worth that effort.
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  • Water in My Veins: The Pauper Who Helped Save a President

    by Ted Robinson Year Published: 2008

    Memoirs are tricky.  Tricky because they are about as biased as writing can get (the subject is writing about himself or herself, after all), and so while the reader wants to respect both the author and what is written, the reader must also keep a modicum of skepticism in the back of his mind.

     

    The book's subtitle is what initially interested me in reading it - I was curious about our own local WWII vet and his connection to President Kennedy, specifically the PT boat accident that left Kennedy with a bad back for the rest of his life - the moment that would leave him surrounded by controversy even in death... was the accident a bad lapse of judgment on JFK's part - or was the accident unavoidable and JFK's actions to save his fellow crewmen heroic?  Robinson clearly bends toward the latter.  Sadly, only roughly 50 pages of this near-500 page book is about the accident and Robinson's role in rescuing the future president and his crew.  While Robinson does shed some very interesting light upon a man who had no idea that he'd become president two decades later (they were tent mates for a few months while JFK convalesced), it's really not enough... at least not enough for a book that sells itself on this short but fascinating relationship.

    The majority of the book serves as Robinson's memoirs for the first 40 or so years of his life (including his encounter with Kennedy) - with little vignettes about the years that followed.  Unfortunately, Robinson's life - nor how he chooses to reminisce about it with the reader - is quite a let down.  Perhaps it's mostly due to highly shoddy editing on behalf of Robinson and the publisher.  There are several of his vignettes that are repeated across the book, and like one should expect from a memoir, they come across as "highly polished".  That is, he quotes people from his adolescence word for word in some passages - unless he has photographic memory, there is no way he is giving the reader a recount of what went on in his life, rather just what he chooses to remember about it.  His accounts of his service in WWII are very interesting, nonetheless, as you get a perspective of what service was like during both the very boring times away from the front as well as the life and death struggle of being in the heat of battle.  Robinson does a fairly good job at putting the reader right in the thick of battle.  Further, given how thorough WWII is documented, and given that there aren't any significant web entries up questioning the authenticity of Robinson's experiences, one may take him at his word, at least about the general experiences he shares.

    As for the rest of his story, that's where the disappointment really sets in.  Robinson shows little penchant for self-reflection upon his storied past, leaving the reader to do the reflecting for him.  One wonders just how hard-hit his family was by the Great Depression when his neighbors were owners of a lucrative Navy surplus chain of stores that their mother and grandfather could likely have found gainful employment in - had, allegedly, their pride not gotten in the way.  The way Robinson describes interactions with that family, they seem like they actually wanted to help Robinson's family out.  Additionally, his grandfather was able to scrimp and save some $3000 during the worst of the Depression in order to send Robinson to college at the then new Duke University.   Had times been so tough for his family, I couldn't help but wonder why Robinson didn't simply go to a local and less expensive college in New York and insist that the money be used to help his family.  Further, for what little Robinson does to address both women (who gained the right to vote the year he was born) and ethnic minorities (he went to Duke in the heart of the South) he seems to show very little understanding then or now of what hardships both groups had went through during his life time.  The closest he comes to acknowledging any value in women besides the attractiveness of their appearance is at the expense of an Eleanor Roosevelt "women's libber" joke.  All the black people in his life were subservient - a maid "mammy" for Duke's football team whom he referred to as a motherly presence, and the Black soldiers who occupied only subservient positions in the Navy (and he never even points this out, a fairly light reading of the book makes this fact obvious to the reader).   To make matters worse, he clearly and repeatedly demonstrates disdain for people who tried to upset this system - he hated the "America-hating" "Hippy riots" that plagued the 60's and 70's, and even briefly points out how he and his daughters differed on the changes the US was going through in the 60's and 70's... changes he clearly did not understand, let alone empathize with.

    His writing comes across as a combination of a curmudgeonly old man lecturing younger generations about how much better things were "back in the day" and a series of well-transcribed speeches... which makes perfectly good sense because he made quite a name for himself speaking both for Bell Telephone Company and about his own wartime experiences for nearly the last 50 years... so, the reader is not so much reading a reflection of a man's life as the reader is listening to some well polished speeches that had been given dozens of times over during the last few decades to admiring crowds.

    Except they're not so well-polished, as the book is littered with spelling, punctuation and capitalization errors.

    While one must recognize Robinson's service and sacrifice for the US during WWII, as well as the unique contribution he made in participating in the rescue of JFK as heroic, it's a shame that the rest of the man's life doesn't live up to the soldier.  In the end, he comes across as someone who never was able to move beyond his celebrity encounter - it was the dominant subject of speeches he gave for decades afterward.  Beyond that, there is little of value in this book, and if he does write a sequel (doubtful, now that he's in his mid-90's in 2015, and he was considering doing so back in 2008...) I will not be buying it because beyond the one small piece of this story that connected Robinson to JFK, there's really not much I want to know about the man.

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  • The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt

    by Eleanor Roosevelts Year Published: 1961

    This book should be read in conjunction with other books about - but not written by - Mrs. Roosevelt so that the reader gains a more full appreciation for not only what Mrs. Roosevelt chose to write about in her autobiography, but also what she omitted.  Not doing so will really leave the reader with only a partial picture of this incredibly complex, dynamic, and important woman.

    The passages in which she details the challenge of ratifiying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are telling and highly informative regarding how challenging navigating the early UN was, and how complex politically both Great Britain and the USSR had made work within the UN during the early Cold War.  Further, Roosevelt details the numerous "assignments" she took on behalf of her husband - traveling to Depression-ravaged enclaves around the US in order to find out and report more accurately how the Depression was impacting the US's poorest Americans... traveling to naval outposts in the Pacific during WWII to give aid and reassurance to soldiers wounded and not - to let them know that their government was behind them and supported their tremendous efforts.

    While being, perhaps, overly humble - the reader still comes away from Roosevelt's book with a sense of awe at just how much this tireless person accomplished during her life.   One also comes away with the cold distance between she and FDR, as well as her children.  As Mrs. Roosevelt might have stated it, she was cut out for the work of a stateswoman or a diplomat, not so much for a wife nor mother.  True, FDR's affair earlier in their marriage drove an irremovable wedge between them, but instead of divorce, Mrs. Roosevelt used her husband's prestige and power as the US's only 4-term president as a platform to labor and lobby for her own social and political interests.  Even her humble, self-deprecating tone cannot fail to but exhaust the reader with all this woman's boundless energy accomplished.

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  • Truman

    by David McCullough Year Published: 1992 Biography
    David McCullough has given the world so many brilliantly written histories and biographies - it's tough to pick a favorite... but this book would be in the final running, without a doubt!
     
    Initially a very intimidating book - weighing in at over 10 pounds (in paper back!) and a length of over 1100 pages (BEFORE you get to the bibliography), McCullough's award winning biography is about as comprehensive and thorough an examination of its subject as one singular book could possibly be.  McCullough has painstakingly investigated Truman's earliest roots and takes the reader right up to his death in an amazing journey recounting the life and actions of one of its least understood and most underrated modern presidents.
     
    An unconventional politician, Truman made for what was arguably one of the least likely - and, as many at the time thought least qualified - US presidents.  McCullough recounts how the son and grandson of unlucky and impoverished farmers wound his way through the first world war, unsuccessful business ventures that crashed with the stock market, and found political opportunity within Missouri's political machine - and in so doing shows how much fortune can play a role in both hindering and making a man.  Always one to take advantage of an opportunity to prove his worth through hard work, McCullough exhaustively illustrates how unwilling Truman was to compromise his integrity or his sense of right and wrong.  Despite being a product of machine politics, Truman refused to let anyone (even the machine's "boss") pull his strings in office; an adherent racist whose grandfathers fought for the Confederacy, Truman nonetheless did more than any president since Lincoln to put the power of the national government behind fighting segregation and Jim Crow... because it was the right thing to do.  

    A president whose approval rating upon leaving office was the lowest in US history (until the second George Bush), McCullough was one of the more notable historians to reexamine his life and service and hold up his writings as justification for why Truman deserved far more positive credit than he ever received in office - and is, in no small part, one of the chief reasons why many historians now place Truman in the "top 10 list" of great American presidents today.
     
    Again, the length is daunting, but McCullough's VERY thorough writing is - as it always is - presented in such a style that pulls the reader in and grips them in the drama of our nation's past and, in this case, the one man whose life and direction in that past McCullough's focus was set upon.  This is one of the greatest books, let alone biographies, I've ever read and can't recommend it enough! 
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  • American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman - and the Shoot-Out that Stopped It

    by Stephen Hunter & John Bainbridge, Jr. Year Published: 2005

    This books is an exhaustive research and write up on 38 significant seconds of US history - the time it took for the assassination attempt on Harry Truman's life to play out in a violent exchange of gunfire outside of the Blair House in Washington, D.C.  This enjoyable read combines the best of what good history does - research different angles and perspectives to present the most likely and truthful tale of an historical event - with what the History Channel does best - that is, add drama.

    This book combines dramatization with thorough research to tell the tale of the disenfranchised Puerto Rican nationalists - frustrated with poverty at home and in America and desperate for independence from the colonial overlord that "won" their nation in the Spanish-American War.  The authors provide thoroughly detailed accounts of not only the nationalists but the Secret Service agents and members of the police involved in the fire fight, as well as detailed balistics analysis in order to carefully lay out the events of that fateful - and nearly fatal day.

    What the reader is left with is a taut play-by-play of the gunfight and a thorough understanding of the men involved.  Dramatic?  Definitely, but well researched and engaging from beginning to end.  And in the end, this moment is but an historical footnote; Truman wasn't assassinated and the cause the Puerto Rican nationalists fought and died for was ultimately a rather unpopular one - even in their home nation.  But it is a unique tale of our country's history and how the actions of a super power create powerful ripples and usher in unforseen consequences.

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  • A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel

    by Allis and Ronald Radosh Year Published: 2009

    The title is a bit of a misnomer - because while Israel's ultimate recognition did come down to Truman, himself, there were far too many actors involved in this moment to pin it all down to one person.  This book gives the reader a good reckoning of how complex the issue of the creation of the state of Israel was.  The authors detail the several different Jewish groups involved - from the Zionists to the Jewish anti-Zionists to the freedom-fighter/terrorist group who lashed out against the Arabs and British, alike.  Also well detailed were several of the actors of the British Empire, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

    What the reader comes away with is a sense of just how complex this issue was - despite the tidal wave of remorse and support that people aroudn the world felt for the plight of the post-Holocaust Jews.  One also gets a sense of what a juggling act Harry Truman was involved in... as a person, his every sympathy was with the Jews and he wanted to see them fulfill their Biblical destiny by reclaiming the land the beleived was truly theirs.  He, however, had to juggle Cold War politics - balancing the actions of the Soviets in the Middle East with the Arabs... as angering the latter might throw them, and their vast supplies of oil, into the arms of the former.  Truman also had to combat tremendous political forces at home - his own State Department who, at times, seemed to actively sabotage if not dictate Truman's actions with regards to Israel... the Republican Party, who quickly jumped upon Zionism as a means of winning political support nationally... to all of his other responsbilities - ending WWII, managing the eruption of the Cold War with the Berlin Blockade, the founding of the UN, and implementing both the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine.  One cannot overstate the tremendous pressure Truman must have been under at this time... which means one must also appreciate the act of putting the US behind the creation of Israel without seeing so many other projects collapse as a result.

     

    The Radoshes do a commendable job illustrating the creation of, arguably, the most contentious nation in the modern world while balancing perspectives and keeping bias out of their writing.  A great book for the reader who wants to beocme more familiar with the scope and dynamics of Israel and its consequences.

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  • Eisenhower: Soldier and President

    by Stephen E. Ambrose Year Published: 1990

    This is a one-volume version of the highly acclaimed 2-volume set of books that traces Eisenhower's life, military career and presidency.  Ambrose's 2-volume set is widely consider the definitive biography of our 34th president - and the one volume version is no slouch, either!  Ambrose paints a highly endearing portrait of one of the US's most successful leaders of the 20th Century, tracing Eisenhower's humble beginnings through his very slow, but ultimately meteoric rise through the military to become the leader of the Allied Forces in Europe.  The reader learns of Ike's continued service in the military as the organizer of NATO and then as President of Columbia University.  Ambrose spends the bulk of the time in this book focusing upon Eisenhower's presidency, with only a scant bit of text dedicated to his years in retirement.

     

    One walks away with a very comprehensive picture of who Eisenhower was - and how he was able to become such a successful military leader.  Ike was a studious and patient man, never willing to risk major confrontations until he was sure of victory.  He knew how to move troops across a map and he always knew which objectives were worth the risk (hence, he never made a major push for Berlin like the Soviets did because the inevitable end to WWII would have been far more costly for us).  


    Ambrose treats his subject most fairly and is prone to accurately criticising Eisenhower's weaknesses and failures, especially in the presidency.  While Ike's military leadership provided him with ample training to administer the Federal bureaucracy, the challenges he faced as president were far different than those he faced in Hitler.  Hence, he was most successful as a president when he had clear objectives and clearly comprehensible opponents.  As a strong leader for bipartisanship, he was able to pass an astounding highway and infrastructure bill that united the cities of the US like never before.  He had wrestled, mostly successfully, with his own party against escalating the communist witch hunt spearheaded by McCarthy - although he never confronted nor sought to silence the Senator directly (despite having extreme distaste for the man... he was concerned about dividing the party).  He was a tireless pursuer of world peace and nuclear deescalation - and did far more than the Russians to move the world away from nuclear arms... only to have America's fear that having fewer arms meant losing the Cold War derail him (a fear drummed up in no small part by the military industrial complex and those Congressmen to whom they heavily lobbied).  Ike preferred to use covert operations than out and out use of military force - as seen in his use of the CIA in Central America and in Iran (moves that worked well for him in the 50's, but would ultimately backfire for America decades later).

    Ike's weaknesses were in confronting colleagues face to face.  He never stood up to McCarthy and his bullying, despite hating him and hating what he was doing to the country.  He wouldn't confront Southern segregation with anything that appeared like demonstrative progressive action, despite having Supreme Court rulings on his side.  He found his own vice-president, Nixon, highly distasteful and not until Nixon's '68 campaign could he ever find much to say in support of the man; yet he only haltingly made efforts to remove him as a VP candidate.  During the 1952 campaign, he even heavily criticized his former boss (and, at the time, huge admirer) Harry Truman and FDR for their so-called "failure" at Pottsdam, yet he actually participated in the negotiations with the Soviets and adivsed both presidents on what was attainable at the conference... and he was a chief architect of NATO.

    By the book's end, one gets a very well rounded picture of a simple man yet a complex leader.  His presidency, while popular at the end of his 2nd term, was not popular enough to help carry Nixon into the White House.  He kept the United States out of hot wars while honoring alliances.  He defended the world order even at the threat of straining those alliances in the war Israel instigated with Egypt.  He was not imaginative and couldn't see the value in the Space Program or the moon landing, nor could he find the means to shrug off his Southern leanings to support the clearly just cause of civil rights for blacks.  His administration did bring peace and prosperity to the US and ushered the US through what many today feel was it's golden era of projected strength and security, with a car in every drive way and a white picket fence around every house.

     

    Ambrose brings life and color to a man often seen in black and white for what he did or did not do.  An enjoyable read well worth your time!

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  • Harry & Ike: The Partnership that Remade the Postwar World

    by Steve Neal Year Published: 2001

    It's books like this that make me wish that MORE books like this existed.  Harry & Ike details the relationship, friendship, and rivalry between two successive presidents - the 33rd and the 34th.  This book serves both as a mini-biography for each of its subjects, a side-by-side comparison of life experiences, successes, and failures, as well as a close examination as to how politics brought them both together, forged a unity in purpose when HST was president and Ike virtually ran the military, and drove them apart when the quest for office became to desirous a prize.

    In Neal's book, Truman comes out looking like the greater man, if not the greater leader, because of his tenacity and accomplishments, but also because of his humility around those whom he admired and felt better fit to do his job than he was.  Neal details how HST thought so highly of Eisenhower that Truman volunteered to step back from running for office in 1948 if Ike wanted the presidency instead... even volunteering to run as his Vice President... an offer utterly unheard of in any moment of US politics.  Truman did so, of course, for the practical purpose of bringing Eisenhower into the fold of the Democratic party (of which, HST thought Eisenhower was a member at that time... Ike, however, always played his political cards VERY close to his chest).   Therefore, when Ike decided to run on the Republican ticket in 1952, it must have stung HST quite fiercely.  When Ike refused to publicly rebuke McCarthy in his heday out of a desire to preserve party unity and get votes (despite the well-known fact that Eisenhower hated McCarthy and all of the witch-craft hunters in HUAC), Truman grew even more distant from the military leader he admired second only to Marshall and the man he had hoped to usher into political greatness.

    It's not that Neal short-sheets Eisenhower, he doesn't.  His role as NATO's first leader, commander of the unifed forces in Europe in WWII, and his service to the presidency after Marshall stepped down are well documented.  Eisenohower certainly had the resume to make him more qualified for the presidency than, perhaps, any other American aliver at the time.  The difference that Neal highlights - and other biographies of Ike confirm - is that Eisenhower was, for all his worldly experience, rather naive and certainly lacked that certain sense of "craftiness" for politics... and his foray into the 1952 race definitely highlighted this fact, despite his overwhelming victory.  He could barely control his own Vice President, Richard Nixon... and had he been able to straighten Nixon out early on, he either might NOT have been president from '68-'74... or might well have been a very different leader.

    After Ike's tenure in the White House ended, Neal shows how he and HST healed the wounds between them - not unlike how Adams and Jefferson did in 1811, three years after Jefferson left that office and eleven years after Adams did.  Perhaps the strain and difficulty of being president precludes that friendships will come and go as they are political expedient... but once out, one's humanity may then return... and Neal shows both men with their humanity in tact, their records unblemmished and unstained.  Only their endearing relationship and how it shaped the US through the end of WWII and into the Cold War remained.

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  • Simple Justice: This History of Brown v Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality

    by Richard Kluger Year Published: 2004 History

    If you read only one book about defining moments in the history of the struggle for Civil Rights in the US, make it this one... but strap yourself in because it is an EPIC!!

    Well written with deep, lush narrative, Simple Justice is really about one Supreme Court case - Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas... but it's REALLY about the history that made a struggle for civil rights a necessity in this country AND the long fought legal struggle to get the US to the point to where it COULD hear a case like Brown v Board.

    Kluger exhaustively researched and deeply writes about all of the prior events and historical characters whose paths eventually led the US to the Brown case.  This, at times, can make reading this book rather exhausting - at over 800 pages of text, there is very little skimping on details.  From before the American Revolution right up until the early 1950's, Kluger brings to light every moment that led to this famous case.

    This books serves as a mini-biography for dozens of significant Americans, as well - from Thurgood Marshall and many of the NAACP workers who helped move Brown forward, to the plaintiffs in the Brown case and many other cases before it, as well, Kluger wants the reader to know that this case was foremost about people, and he wants you to know these people.  Several of the Supreme Court Justices' lives are highlighted, as well - including many who served before the Brown case, but it's Chief Justice Earl Warren whose life becomes the most interesting focal point by the book's end - as it was his court under his leadership that delivered its famous, unanimously supported verdict in Brown.  Kluger spared no effort to bring these dramatic court battles to life in order to show how they persuaded - or failed to persuade - the white-dominated power structure of both the South and the United States government that it was both time to move on and move forward.

    As with most court-related dramas (historical or otherwise), it's the actual court room debates that prove to be the most interesting - those are what the entire book was set up to deliver the context for.  However, wading through much of the work that went in to prepare for these fights - including discussion of filing amicus briefs, preparing lines of questioning, etc., can be exhausting at times.

    This book has not only given me a great deal of information about the events that launched the post-WWII civil rights movement for African Americans, it left me with more questions and a stronger desire to learn more about this event's actors.

    A challenging read, a LONG read, but a good read.

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  • All the Shah's Men

    by Stephen Kinzer Year Published: 2003 History

    Difficulty: Challenging

    A thorough recounting of Operation Ajax - the CIA's strategy which put Mohamed Reza Shah in control of Iran while simultaneously overthrowing the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh, this book serves two purposes.

    First, a clear warning to the hazards of clandestinely (and illegally) tampering in other nations' politics and sovereignty. Our current testy relationship with Iran is a direct result of placing someone in power in that region whom the people didn't want; someone who would keep the oil flowing cheaply to the west and make sure that US and UK policy was followed lock step at the expense of his populace's economic and political wellbeing. The CIA pushed Iran into one extreme, when the Ayatollah Khomeini launched and succeeded in his revolution in the mid 1970's it was pitched to an opposite extreme - one from which our relations have not recovered.

    The second shows just how far our government has historically gone to protect the oil interests of itself and its allies. This early Cold War event could be seen, somewhat justifiably, as a crucial move that blocked the USSR from Iran's vast oil reserves - but it also showed quite clearly how the US would compete... and how vital a tool the CIA would become in this competition when the mechanisms of democracy and a free populace weren't consistent with US/West goals.

    A very good read, but you do need to know some history about the region and the Cold War in order to really wrap your head around all that's described therein.

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  • Profiles in Courage (50th Anniversary Edition)

    by John F. Kennedy Year Published: 1956 History

    JFK wrote this book while he was convalescing from major back surgery while on leave from his service in the US Senate in 1954-55...  Although just how much of the book JFK actually wrote is a rather controversial topic for consideration as it has been established that much of the book was ghostwritten by assistants, and that then-Senator Kennedy oversaw the flow and architecture of the chapters.

    This book is as much a dedication to service in the Senate as it is an homage to those senators who showed tremendous grace under pressure during their terms.  Kennedy wanted to highlight the unique kind of courage it takes to be a legislator when confronted by tremendous pressure to vote along the line of popularity, as opposed to what is for the best or even for what is in line with one's integrity.  In the book, JFK wrote chapters about past senators such as John Q. Adams, Sam Houston, Daniel Webster, and Edmund Ross, highlighting moments in their career where they performed senatorial actions that required a great deal of courate because of the threats to these men's careers, fortunes, and even lives the vote of integrity warranted.  Kennedy focuses specifically upon largely unpopular acts that these men took a stand on, as well as actions that crossed party lines (like George Norriss voting to disempower the mountain of authority the Republicans had accumulated in Congress by the early 1900's).  

    Given that Kennedy had vice-presidential ambitions for the election of 1956 and soon thereafter, presidential ambitions in 1960, this book also serves a secondary, more personally relevant purpose:  it was also a campaign tool.  By focusing a lot of his attention to Republicans in the Senate (from Webster to Taft) who had committed acts of legislative bravery, Kennedy was reaching across the political aisle in an effort to win the support of more liberal members of the Republican party.  By focusing upon those Southerners, such as Houston and Benton, JFK was praising Southern Democrats who lobbied against secession at great personal cost in order to preserve the union.  His chapter on Webster, a northerner from an abolitionist state who sided with unpopular, pro-slavery legislation to, likewise, keep the union from splitting, serves the same purpose.  Here, Kennedy is reaching across the regions of the US to bring members of the South into his camp.  

    Curiously, JFK praises men who labored to preserve the union while preserving slavery - but utterly absent are the mentions of any senators who lobbied to not only end slavery, but turn the power of the national level of government into effecting a powerful change in the status and condition of freed slaves to better integrate them into US citizenship.  Clearly, JFK was more focused upon playing politics to win national elections rather than championing the cause of Civil Rights (which he would later embrace toward the end of his life in what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act).  Just how much courage that casts upon his profile is for the reader to decide.

    Included in this special printing is a brief biography of JFK - nothing near as informative as what a search on wikipedia would provide.  There is also information about the Profiles in Courage Award - an annual honor that the Kennedy estate bestows upon law makers who show tremendous courage in their office.  Including in that piece are the excerpts of two award winners: John Lewis and Dan Ponder (both from Georgia).  Their speeches are pretty moving tributes to their caus