Saturday, April 24, 2010


A review of James F. Simon’s Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers (2006)

(Rating:5 of 5)

In my pervious review, I described Simon’s other work, What King of Nation, as the struggle between two American icons: Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. This book is slightly different, although it also features the struggles of a famous president with the chief justice of the Supreme Court; this book features an American Icon vs. an American villain. It is unusual for me to name any historical figure a villain, even when they hold views I find deplorable, because to me that would be strong presentism*. However, when I find the presence of such a historical figure to be so negative that it makes almost erases any good points they might have had, I feel obligated to call them out for what they are and that is a villain. I realize that mine is not a perfect system and one could go on and on over the details of various figures, but with this acknowledged I still say: that Roger Taney was an outright villain in American history whose presence we could have done without. Yes, I realize that he was useful to President Jackson during the Bank War, but I think President Jackson would found someone else to fill the role that he needed played, and his evil role in issuing the Dred Scot decision far overrides any good that he performed in his career. While Lincoln is the icon, who saved the Union and ended legalized slavery in the United States.

Simon gives Taney a fairer treatment than I would give him, detailing a good deal of his career showing that he was at one point a half-way decent chief justice. Someone who entered the national stage and had participated in big events, back when Lincoln was still a young man trying to find his place in the world. This makes his sudden turn during the Dred Scot case even more shocking. A man who at one point had earned praise of even those who had been Andrew Jackson’s opponents suddenly turns away from law and reason. Simon describes how Taney’s decision completely upends almost three quarters of a century of precedent, in order just to satisfy his personnel feelings.

“Taney did not offer a single source of proof for his sweeping generalization. He lumped all of those who signed the Declaration and the Constitution together, the slaveholders of the South with the opponents of slavery in the North. He dismissed the idea that the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that ‘all men are created equal’ should be taken literally. Blacks were permanently excluded, according to Taney, because they were a degraded class.” p.122

Taney attempt to protect slavery though the court backfired on him. Instead, it only intensified things, and cost the Supreme Court under his leadership the respect of a great deal of the nation. The case was brought up in the Lincoln/Douglas debates where Lincoln accuses Presidents Buchanan and Pierce, Senator Douglas, and Taney himself of being in a conspiracy to force slavery over the whole nation. Lincoln was of course exaggerating, but his star was rising. Lincoln would win the election of 1860 in a close four-way race in which he would receive less the forty percent of the vote. Before Lincoln ever took the oath of office states were already abandoning the Union to avoid living under a president who was going to be openly hostile to the cause of slavery.

Lincoln began to take steps to save the Union, having avoided a mob in Baltimore, things started to take an even more dangerous turn with riots and state officials even trying to persuade Lincoln not to have troops at all in Maryland, to which Lincoln chastises them for.

“Maryland remained dangerously volatile. Secessionists in northern Maryland destroyed railroad bridges between Washington and the North and cut telegraph lines. The state legislature, dominated by southern sympathizers, was scheduled to meet in Frederick on April 26. Anticipating a secessionist vote, General Scott recommended to the president that he be given the authority to arrest secessionist politicians in advance. If Maryland voted to secede, he told Scott, he would act decisively to put down the rebellion with ‘the bombardment of their cities—and of course the suspension of habeas corpus.’ Those drastic measures were not immediately necessary. The legislature did not vote to secede. Meanwhile, northern troops managed to filter into the capital in increasing numbers by a circuitous route, first ferrying down Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, then boarding trains to Washington.” p.186

Even with the arrival of the Union army, Simon describes and environment in which the threat of sabotage was still ever present. With that, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and had military commanders arrest suspected secessionists and hold them without trial. This would give Taney, traveling circuit, an ability to undermine the Union cause from within. He ordered the military to hand John Merryman, the army commander, General Cadwalader, refused to hand him over citing orders from the president himself. In his famous decision, Ex. Parte Merryman, Taney strips to the president down to the bare minimum of constitutional authority. Taney’s new position is one that clashed with his own history and views on presidential power and government authority.

“To achieve his goal of proving that Congress alone could suspend the writ, Taney systematically reduced the president’s constitutional powers to Lilliputian proportions. Here Taney displayed the artistry of a partisan trial lawyer rather than the detachment of a judge. His interpretation was starkly at odds with Taney’s own reading of presidential power when he had been President Jackson’s Attorney General. In defending Jackson’s broad constitutional powers in the Bank War, Attorney General Taney discovered deep wells of presidential authority, totally independent of both Congress and the Supreme Court. And Chief Justice Taney, in an earlier judicial opinion that raised an issue much closer to Lincoln’s plight in 1861, declared that the governor of Rhode Island could use martial law to put down an armed insurrection. The power to do so, Taney wrote in works equally applicable to the president of the United States, ‘is essential to the existence of every government, essential to the preservation of order and free institutions, and is necessary to the State of the Union as to any other government.’” p.192-3

So low was the public opinion in the Roger Taney, that Lincoln just ignored the order and proceeded as he intended to do. Lincoln would win the war and would receive monuments built in his name for generations. Taney would die in 1864, and be replaced by Salmon P. Chase, formally Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. I strongly recommended James Simon’s book to anyone who is interested in some of the legal aspects of America’s Civil War.

*Presentism is the comparing people of the past to the morals of today. Link

{Video taken from the 1989 classic Glory}

Friday, April 23, 2010


A Review of James F. Simon’s What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall And The Epic Struggle to Create a United States (2006)

(Rating:5 of 5)

Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall were two of the most important men in our nation’s history. They both served in the American Revolution, Jefferson more famously as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as diplomat, and Marshall as a junior officer in George Washington’s army. Their careers, however, would intersect when they both reached their pinnacle. Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States and John Marshall as the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The battles between the Jefferson Administration and the Marshall Court were critical in shaping the government that we know today. In his work, What Kind of Nation, Simon describes these battles and recreates the world from which they had been fought.

Since Jefferson in this stage of his life, his political career from the 1770s onward, is better known even amongst us plain general knowledge historians, I found some of his descriptions on Marshall’s career far more interesting. George Washington’s recruitment of him as a congressional candidate, during a visit to Mount Vernon, with the former president’s nephew Bushrod, is one such adventure.

“Over the next four days, Washington flattered, cajoled, and entreated both men to agree to become candidates for Congress. Bushrod could not, and did not, refuse his esteemed uncle. Bust Marshall balked, even when Washington arrange another festive banquet in his honor in nearby Alexandria. He must make good on his debt, Marshall told Washington, and a seat in Congress would not allow him to do so. Finally, on the fourth day, Marshall decided to leave before sunrise to avoid another confrontation with his mentor. But Washington, anticipating his guest’s early departure, greeted him on the piazza—in full military uniform—and made a last plea to Marshall.” p.68

Marshall would not serve in Congress long. President Adams makes him the country’s new Secretary of State, after getting rid of his previous Hamilton-dominated Cabinet officers. After Adams stunning defeat to his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, in the election of 1800, Adams begins to stuff the court with Federalist judges, appointing his own Secretary of State, Mr. Marshall, to the top job.

This sets the stage for the great battles that take place between the two American icons. The most famous of these is without a doubt, Marbury vs. Madison. The circumstances for this are very odd, and Simon points out in his book there were many reasons that the Chief Justice could have abstained from the case. Marshall was the Secretary of State whose commissions his predecessor refused to deliver. However, he carefully danced around those issues and gave the most important decision ever. He did not rule against the Jefferson Administration, in fact, they received what they originally asked for. He also ruled a part of the law, the part that gave the Supreme Court more power no less, unconstitutional.

“But although Marshall had satisfied the Republicans’ short-term interests by rejecting Marbury’s claim, he had purchased an enormous piece of constitutional real estate for the Court. Marbury v. Madison established the Court’s authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional, a power that would prove to be of historic significance in securing the institution’s parity with Congress. Marshall’s opinion also served notice that the Court, not the president, would be the ultimate judge of claims or executive privilege, an authority of seismic proportions.” p.187

Political battles raged the removal of justices sought through the method of impeachment, once successfully with John Pickering, once unsuccessfully with Samuel Chase. Ironically, the presiding officer of the impeachment trials was outgoing Vice President Aaron Burr who Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party had dumped in favor of George Clinton. The vice president had just been just been acquitted in a murder trial over the death of Alexander Hamilton*. Simon describes a Vice President Burr who is eager to have on grandee final on the stage of American politics, and give Thomas Jefferson more fits**.

A few years after his tenure as vice president, Burr is on trial himself for alleged treason to the country, the judge in his trial was none other than Chief Justice John Marshall who was riding circuit as Supreme Court justices did in Marshall’s time***. Simon tells this story in stunning detail and great analysis.

“The Burr prosecution produced an ironic reversal of roles for Jefferson and Marshall. The president, author of the Declaration of Independence and a supporter of many of the individual rights contained in the Bill of Rights, pursued Burr and his associates with a vengeance that ignored basic civil liberties. The chief justice, whose major libertarian concern was the protection of private property, became the vigilant defender of criminal suspects’ constitutional rights.” p.258

In his battles with Alexander Hamilton, one can conclude that Thomas Jefferson won in life and fame but Alexander Hamilton ended up with the nation that he, not Jefferson, wanted. With John Marshall, Jefferson is still more famous nationally and internationally, but Marshall’s career as chief justice surpassed Jefferson’s presidency by twenty-six years and his life by nine; in addition, it was Marshall’s view on the Constitution that prevailed, not Jefferson’s. With a brilliant narrative, James Simon brings these epic legal battles from the past back to life.

*Burr had killed Hamilton in a now famous duel, but the jury ruled it was a ‘fair fight’ and he was not guilty of murder.

**As if almost stealing the election of 1800 was not enough.

***This process ended in the early twentieth century.

{Video taken from PBS documentary The Supreme Court}

Thursday, April 22, 2010


A review of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln (1995)

(Rating:5 of 5)

In my first review with Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency, I pointed out that there were certain American icons I did not think too much about. ‘Honest Abe’ was just another one, a perfect do-gooder who could not possibly measure up to the marble statues we have of him. I found that after reading this book, although Lincoln was from a perfect human being (who is), he was an incredible individual who earned his place as one of the greatest presidents in history.

The man who would become our sixteenth president grew up in extreme poverty; he had an intense dislike of his father that was match by love for his stepmother*. Having no formal education, Lincoln educated himself while working hard labor jobs as a boy. His tools for learning were the works of Shakespeare, the Bible**, copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

He would, after many false starts, begin a career as a lawyer. As a lawyer, he would have incredible success and recognized as a talent. His political career, however, would be less then stellar. Although, he had some success as a state legislature he would just have one mediocre term in the United States House of Representatives. Donald also chronicles Lincoln’s family life, his courtships, his marriage, and his very attentive parenting style with his younger children.

The most pressing concern in Lincoln’s time was slavery, the expansion of slavery, and what to ultimately do about it. Donald’s describes Lincolns understanding of the concept. To Lincoln, slavery was the ultimate evil and he hated that it existed in a country that espoused freedom above all other values. Lincoln is historically aware of slavery in his country’s past. He knows that the country had slavery in all of the thirteen original states but the northern states had all gradually abolished it after the American Revolution. For a time, it seemed like it would gradually disappear everywhere but somewhere along the line things had changed. The invention of the cotton gin made slavery profitable again and its expansion into the southwest, where it had been prohibited in the northwest, had given it strength and life. He felt that in this national battle the pro-slavery forces were winning out against the anti-slavery forces.

“Lincoln had trouble defining his own position. A practical man, he knew—as he had remarked in his eulogy of Henry Clay—that in America ‘the man who is of neither party, is not—cannot be, of any consequence.’ But it was not clear what party he should choose. When his old friend Joshua F. Speed, with whom he now differed politically, inquired where he now stood, he replied: ‘That is a disputed point. I think I am a Whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am abolitionist.’ But, he went on to explain, he resented efforts to ‘unwhig’ him, since he was doing no more then oppose ‘the extension of slavery,’ which had long been the position of most Northern Whigs. Certainly, he explained to Speed, he was not a Know Nothing. ‘How could I be? How could anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?’ The United States began with the declaration that all men were created equal; it is now practically read as ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes,’ and if the Know Nothings gained control it would read ‘all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics. When things came to this pass, he told Speed, ‘I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense for loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.’” p.189

However, how to get rid of slavery, was still a question up in the air. The Anti-slavery movement was wide and diverse. On one hand, it was good that slavery was being challenged on multiple fronts, on the other; these groups would undercut each other with political infighting that would undermine their overall effectiveness. Each section did not agree with each other on method or ideology. William Lloyd Garrison and his group believed in universal human equality that put them far ahead of good deal of others in their day. Unfortunately, although their beliefs were good, their politics were bad. They could not work with anyone who did not share their ideals, which made them incapable of building any sizable coalition. Garrison was also a terrible persuader to anyone who did not already share his passionate beliefs. At one point in his career, he burnt the U.S. Constitution in front of a shocked crowd, ‘abolitionist’ became a dirty word and pro-slavery forces could build them up as the creators of disorder and anarchy. Lincoln wished to build a coalition strong enough for Congress to ban slavery in the territories of the United States forever. This would mean all new states would be free states and then could put pressure and incentives on the remaining slave states to get them to gradually abolish slavery.

Lincoln gains national fame during his Senate campaign through the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Both he and Stephan Douglas tried to paint the other as an extremist and sell themselves as the moderate. Douglas stated that although he did and would not own slaves himself, it was not for him to decide if other white people in other states could, and Abraham Lincoln was a race mixer and an enemy of self-government. Lincoln fought back most elegantly, although he did not argue for full racial equality, he argued for the compassion and decency of humanity.

“Up to this point Lincoln’s appeal had been chiefly to reason and everyday experience, but his address took on a new tone when he turned to the next argument, that ‘the scared right of self-government’ required that the restrictions on slavery be removed so the residents of the territories could decide for themselves whether to admit or exclude it. Of course the inhabitants of the territories should make their own laws, Lincoln conceded, and those should not be interfered with any more than ‘the oyster laws of Virginia, or the cranberry laws of Indiana.’ But whether they could permit or exclude slavery depended upon ‘whether a Negro is not or is a man.’

Here Lincoln reached the crux of his disagreement with Douglas. He and the senator might both regret that slavery had ever been introduced to the American continent and they might both believe that African Americans could never be the moral or intellectual equals of whites. But their views of African-Americans were fundamentally different. Douglas, Lincoln said, ‘has no very vivid impression that the Negro is human, and consequently has no idea there can ever be moral question in legislating about him.’ But to Lincoln the African-American was very much a man. The Declaration of Independence taught him that all men—even men of limited abilities and prospects—are created equal. Because the Negro was a man, there could be no moral right to slavery, which was ‘founded on the selfishness of man’s nature.’ ‘No man,’ Lincoln announced, ‘is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.’” (p.175-6)

Before Lincoln was able to take office, Southern States begin succeeding from the Union one by one and then they formed the Confederate States of America. Lincoln, declaring succession unconstitutional, proclaimed all the laws would be enforced in every state of the Union. However, Lincoln would have a great deal of trouble and a sizable portion of that trouble would come from his own generals. His generals seemed timid and wanted to avoid fighting. This would continue until U.S. Grant started his string of victories in the Western front. President Lincoln would become General Grant’s biggest supporter. The team of Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan would win a great deal of victories in battle and this would help Lincoln insure a victory in politics. Lincoln winning the presidential election of 1864, crushing his old subordinate, General George McClellan, secured victory not only for himself but for the nation as a whole to remain a whole.

The act, however, that he was most famous for: the Emancipation Proclamation; is one he would never imagined he would do. Although, he hated slavery more then anything, presidents, as he knew, had no legal power to free slaves. However, with the Civil War in full swing, he had found a legal technicality that would allow him to do the unthinkable. As the Commander-In-Chief in the time of war, he had powers that he would not have otherwise had. Citing Confederate advantages to using slaves, Lincoln legally liberated all the slaves in the Confederacy***. Later, the Thirteenth Amendment, endorsed by Lincoln, would end legalized slavery in the Union forever.

“Lincoln believed that there was more than personnel satisfaction at stake in the 1864 election. He saw it as a test of the feasibility of democratic government. The will of the people was ‘the ultimate law for all.’ If the people supported the Union cause, he said, they would act ‘in the best interest of their country and the world, not only for the present, but for all future ages.’ If, on the other hand, ‘they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.’ The decision they made would determine ‘the weal or woe of this great nation.’ (p.540)

Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world. The homeliest man to look at, but one of the greatest intellects and visionaries the world had ever seen. David Herbert Donald’s work is and extraordinary masterpiece with excellent prose that captures the heart and soul of this great American.

*His real mother died on him at an early age.

**Although, he was not one to subscribe to the literal interpretation of the Bible, he did feel it had a good deal of value.

***The people who were held in slavery still needed the army to come to see their freedom granted de facto what had already been achieve de jure.

{Video was taken from Gore Vidal's Lincoln adapted to film in 1988.}

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Go Ask a Founder…

A review of Richard Brookhiser’s What Would the Founders Do? (Our Questions Their Answers) (2006)

(Rating:4 of 5)

Often when one turns on the television to any political talk show, regardless of the station, it is not unusual to find someone on program invoking men from centuries past. The person will claim that founders of the United States would support position A (their position) and be against position B (their opponent’s position). Often the person will even argue that their opponent’s position is an outright betrayal of the founders’ vision. These ‘talking heads*’ often make quite a few assumptions with their statements. The biggest and most popular of these assumptions is that all the founders thought the same way. They did not, there were several founders and they all thought differently about different things. Therefore, for every idea you have, you probably could find a founder who would support that particular idea.

I have always wondered when people ask what Jefferson, Washington, or any other founder would want: do they consider biographical time lines? For example, if someone asks what Thomas Jefferson would feel about Obama’s health care plan, I always wonder which Tom Jefferson the person asking means.

· Is this person referring to the Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776?

· Is the person referring to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805?

· Is the person thinking of Jefferson as if he woke up from his really long nap he started on July 4th, 1826, and the first thing he does now that he has woken up is to pick up a newspaper and read about the new health care law?

· Do dead people learn things after they die?
That last one is important to me. After all, a great leader is not someone who believes in the same thing on Wednesday that he or she believed on Monday regardless what happened on Tuesday. I have often thought, through my own study of the Founding Fathers that, if given all the information, they would quite pleased with the country’s progress.

However, in his book, Brookhiser creates and interesting way of tying modern events to the founding era. He takes questions that modern Americans have and uses it to provide history lessons into how the founders handled similar situations in their time-period. One of the questions posed was: ‘were the founders were as poll driven as the politicians of today?’

“No one in the founding era was interrupted at dinner by some stranger asking his opinion of current events. Yet public opinion could be gauged, by demonstrations, by memorials---letters to politicians from citizen groups---and by newspapers. (Some founders thought measuring public opinion was all a newspaper was good for: ‘Like a thermometer,’ wrote Fisher Ames, ‘it will show what the weather is, but will not make it better’) The founding fathers disagreed, however, about how public opinion should be expressed, and what weight to give it.” p. 198-9

He then goes on to explain that George Washington hated lobbyists** and thought they were constitutional usurpers, while James Madison both liked and used them.

What Would the Founders Do?, is a fun book and great teaching tool. Those who read this book it will enjoy the fun in comparing the world of the founders to our own.

* “Talking heads" is an old phrase for news anchors and others who appear on T.V. news programs. It has nothing to do with the old rock band.

**To use a modern term.

{Video is a preview of the movie "Ghost" (1990), if you could not already tell.}

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My Favorite Founding Father

A review of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004)

(Rating:5 of 5)

My favorite founding father by a mile is Alexander Hamilton. He first became so when I saw the History Channel’s Founding Fathers mini-series based on Joseph Ellis’ book by the same name. Chernow does Mr. Hamilton justice, in this incredible work, he tells the tale of the amazing immigrant who would rise up and help found the United States of America. Hamilton, a genius who anything he touches turns to gold, becomes a self-educated lawyer, military officer, strong player in the writing and establishment of the Constitution, party leader, and member of George Washington’s cabinet. Chernow captures the highs, lows of a career that helped found a nation, and changed the world.

Chernow’s tale begins in the early 1850s an elderly widow Elizabeth Hamilton is still alive half a century after her husband’s fatal duel with infamous Aaron Burr. Mrs. Hamilton is now treated as a type of local celebrity since she is the last physical link to the country’s glorious past. (And in the 1850s, the American people have a lot of reason to feel nostalgic for the country’s past since they face an uncertain future.) The old woman still has a bust of her famous husband for she still cannot let go of what happened decades past.

Alexander Hamilton grew up on the island of St. Croix; there he lived a very unusual life exposed to many interesting things, not all them were good. Slavery was huge and brutal, and at the time, it dominated St. Croix. This exposure would later inspire Hamilton’s abolitionism. Another unfortunate encounter he had was the law; that after the death of his mother the legal aspect of his parents relationship, being not legally married, meant that he and his brother had almost no rights in a court of law.

“There was to be no surcease from suffering for the two castaway boys, just a cascading series of crises. Heaps of bills poured in, including for the batch of medicine that had failed to save their mother. Less than a week after Rachel died, the probate officers again trooped to the house to appraise the estate. The moralistic tone of their report shows that Johann Michael Lavien meditated further revenge against Rachel at the expense of her two illegitimate sons. The court decided that it had to consider three possible heirs: Peter Lavien, whose father had divorced Rachel ‘for valid reasons (according to information obtained by the court) by the highest authority,’ and the illegitimate James and Alexander, the ‘obscene children born after the deceased person’s divorce.’ The whole marital scandal was dredged up again only now at an age when Alexander and his brother could fully fathom its meaning. At a probate hearing, Lavien brandished the 1759 divorce decree and lambasted Alexander and James as children born in ‘whoredom,’ insisting that Peter merited the entire estate, even though Peter hadn’t set eyes on his mother for eighteen years.” p.25

Hamilton escapes from this and eventually finds his way to the United States just in time for the American Revolution. Going through a series of adventures, he finds him on the staff of General George Washington, and there he is able to have a significant impact on the Revolution and the country. After the Revolution is over and the Articles of Confederation prove to be a disaster for the country, Alexander Hamilton not only aids in writing the new constitution but also helps ensure, that co-authoring the Federalist Papers with James Madison and John Jay, New York will ratify it.

The Federalist is so renowned as the foremost exposition of the Constitution that it is easy to forgot its original aim: ratification in Hamilton’s home state. Printed in only a dozen papers outside of New York, its larder influence was spotty. In places where it did appear, the verbal avalanche of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay overwhelmed hapless readers.” p.261

When the new government was established, President Washington appointed Hamilton the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. As a member of the new cabinet, Hamilton would be engaged in a legendary conflict with the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Since Washington was an American nationalist, he most often sided with Hamilton, angering Jefferson. However, Hamilton and Jefferson were able to put together one of the most important deals in the nation’s history: a southern capital for federal assumption of state war debts.

“The dinner deal to pass assumption and establish the capital on the Potomac was the last time that Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison ever cooperated to advance a common agenda. Henceforth, they found themselves in increasingly open warfare.” p.331

Thomas Jefferson would go on to led the opposition and be elected vice president to John Adams in 1796. In part because of a public break with Adams, Hamilton would help usher in Thomas Jefferson to victory in 1800. In 1804, in a feud with his former friend and law partner, Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States under President Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. He was less the fifty years old.

Yet, in the end, Hamilton may have lost the battle and his life, but he won the ultimate war. We live not in Thomas Jefferson’s America but Hamilton’s. It was Hamilton who envisioned a powerful United States that was both an industrial and agricultural, not Jefferson. Hamilton who dreamed of a world power set a course that the nation would ultimately achieve. Ron Chernow’s masterpiece discusses all these events and more. I would most definitely recommend a highly enjoyable book to anyone interested in this incredible person and the history of our nation.

{Video created by britannicus08 on Youtube}

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Everything you wanted to know about the American Revolution

A review of Robert Leckie’s
George Washington’s War: The Saga of the American Revolution (1992)

(Rating:4 of 5)

In America, it was once a common tradition to name wars after our leader at the time. During the colonial period, we had King William’s War (War of the Grand Alliance), Queen Anne’s War (War of Spanish Succession), and King George’s War (War of Austrian Succession)*. After Independence, we still informally referred to conflicts by our leaders, Mr. Madison’s War (War of 1812) or Mr. Polk’s War (Mexican-American War). However, over time, this feel out of fashion and we started to refer to wars by geographical area or politician significance**. In that bold tradition, Leckie’s titles the tale of the American Revolution as: George Washington’s War.

Leckie portrays the American Revolution as an epic tale involving colossal figures. Although the book has George Washington’s name on the cover, the work covers far more then just him. The book focuses on many of the military leaders and statesmen of the period. In fact, sometimes Leckie goes a little overboard with information. Not only explaining a certain leader and who they were but also he likes to go into immense detail about their family history dating back centuries. For example, although I, as a history buff, eat a lot of this stuff up, one wonders if the average reader feels the need to know George Germain’s ancestry dating all the way to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

One of the major things that I learned from reading this book is how the structure of the American and British Armies contributed to an American victory. The American Army was so small and assembled haphazardly that it was possible for people like Nathaniel Greene to be promoted right from buck private to a general officer. The cream rose to the top in the American Army. While the British Army was the exact opposite of the American Army, officers had to buy their commissions if they wanted to serve in the Army in any leadership role. This allowed the American Army to have a higher quality group of leaders then the British.

“A wealth young officer could not, of course, simply buy his way up the chain of command. He had to serve a certain amount of time in his rank and wait until a vacancy occurred above him, either in his own regiment or somewhere else. Even if promoted, he still had to buy his higher new rank.” p.171

In the end, George Washington’s War is a wonderful experience and an even better source of reference for anyone who had any question about the American Revolution.

*Since King George II was king for both War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, Americans refer to the later as the French and Indian Wars.
**There had been some attempt to name later wars after presidents but it never quite caught on the way it had in earlier generations. Ex. “Mr. Lincoln’s War” (U.S. Civil War), “Mr. Wilson’s War” (World War I), and “Mr. Roosevelt’s War.” (World War II).

{Video created by a Keol101 on Youtube. Scenes are from the movie Patriot that was made in 2000. Movie is not that great history wise but it does have some nice scenes.}

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The First Presidency

A review of Richard Norton Smith’s Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (1993)

(Rating:5 of 5)

Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation is a book about George Washington that follows a unique formula. For this book is about President George Washington as opposed to General George Washington. The purpose is to give readers and understanding in early constitutional government and George Washington’s role in it.

Americans today take for our constitutional government for granted. We hold elections every two years for Congress and every four years for the presidency, and to us this is normal procedure and part of the natural order of things. However, this democratic republican nature was not always guaranteed to be our fate. The fact that since the current form of our Republic was established in 1789, we have enjoyed over two centuries of peaceful transition from administration to the other*. As grown older it has also grown much stronger, with each year it existed it established more legitimacy and historical memory of the American people, and as it continued it became more inclusive going from a republic with only white men who owned land voting to suffrage being extended to all citizens upon entering adulthood.

In the beginning of this new form of government, the Constitution, everything was new and those who were in it were learning how to make this bi-cameral Congress, presidency and Supreme Court work. There were many ups and downs, experiments that would ultimately become precedent, and experiments that would fall apart almost immediately.

“On August 22, 1789, taking literally his constitutional charge to advise and consent with lawmakers over a proposed treaty involving southern Indian tribes, Washington had appeared in Federal Hall. Senator Maclay moved to refer the whole business to an appropriate committee of Congress. For a moment, Washington lost his legendary poise. ‘This defeats every purpose of my coming here,’ he exploded. Soon after he withdrew vowing he would be damned rather than face such public humiliation again. In a single exchange Maclay and his colleagues had asserted their independence, undone the executive’s plan to treat them as a kind of privy council, and laid the groundwork for a very different set of presidential advisers, the Cabinet.” p.37

The book covers not only the major events of the Washington presidency, such as Hamilton’s economic plans, the Bill of Rights, Citizen Genet, and the Jay treaty, but it also discuss a great deal of what life was like in our first two capitals of New York and Philadelphia. How Washington dealt with people’s expectations of him is one of the books reoccurring themes. One of Smith’s great accomplishments in this book is the way he shows President Washington as a smooth political operator.

“Politics is theater, and George Washington was America’s first actor-president. The Constitution made Washington head of state as well as head of government, and no man had a better grasp of ceremonial leadership then George III’s American usurper. The Washington presidency was nothing if not theatrical. Why else the elaborate rituals of levee and drawing room, of triumphal progress to occasions of state and deferential responses from lawmakers for whom the president was both symbol of continuity and the instrument of change? As the embodiment of revolutionary virtue, Washington knew that wherever he appeared, partisan murmurs would be lost in a chorus of hero worship. This alone was enough to make him the young republic’s greatest asset and only glue.” p. 87

Smith’s work covers Washington’s presidency and his post presidency in such detail that those who choose to read this book are opening a window into one of the most interesting decades in our history: the 1790s. I trust those who give this book time will not be disappointed.

* There is the 1860 exception of course, but I view the U.S. Civil War as something that the Republic was able to get though in one piece (we did have elections in 1862 and 1864 after all) by holding the nation together in ‘one piece’.

{Video from the now classic HBO John Adams series}

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Unfinished Autobiography of… Thomas Jefferson

A review of the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (1821 original printing) (2005 current printing)

(Rating:4 of 5)

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, is one of the most important men in the history of the world and one of the most hard to study. James Madison*, Jefferson’s secretary of state and successor as president, warned future scholars who would try to study the author of the Declaration of Independence that he was a man of many contradictions and is extremely hard to nail down**. No one who can be in public life as long as Thomas Jefferson was and do so without some sort of inconsistency, since no one stops learning and changing, but Jefferson jumps around more issues then most. Some of his contradictions are extremely famous. Jefferson was a champion of small federal government and more local state power. Nevertheless, he would become one of the presidents most responsible for the increase in federal power with the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was also a man who detested slavery to the point, as president, abolishing the overseas slave trade in America, and yet he was a man who owned slaves all his life. In this work, Jefferson tells his own story. Unfortunately, like dear Dr. Franklin before him, he does not get to complete his tale.

Jefferson grew up in a world that was changing all around him, born in the middle of the Enlightenment; the old ways were constantly being challenged by new ideas and ways of thinking. Jefferson himself would play a major role in the ever-changing world that he was a part of. As a young man, the American colonies’ crisis with their mother country grew larger and Jefferson was a passionate advocate for the American cause. In this work, he lays out the argument of the colonies against mother country.

“In this I took the ground that, from the beginning, I had thought the only one orthodox or tenable, which was, that relation between Great Britain and these colonies was exactly the same as that of England and Scotland, after the accession of James, and until the union, and the same as her present relations with Hanover, having the same executive chief, but no other necessary political connection; and that our emigration from England to this country gave her no more rights over us, than the emigrations of the Danes and the Saxons gave to the present authorities of the mother country over England.” p. 7

Basically, what Jefferson brilliantly explains was that the only thing the colonies had in common with Great Britain is that we shared the same king. Other then the shared monarch, we had no other legal connection. This is why the Declaration of Independence targets King George III personally, because from the American position he was the only link we had to break.

My favorite part of the autobiography is when Jefferson gets distracted and starts complaining on how infective legislatures can at times be. What starts out as a topic on the Articles of Confederation’s treaty ratification methods, becomes a rant on his poor colleagues.

“Our body was a little numerous, but very contentious. Day after day was wasted on the most unimportant questions. A member, one of those afflicted with the morbid and copious flow of words, who heard with impatience any logic which was not his own, sitting near me on some occasion of a trifling but wordy debate, asked me how I could sit in silence, hearing so much false reasoning, which a word should refute? I observed to him, that to refute was easy, but to silence was impossible; that in measures brought forward by myself, I took the laboring oar, as was incumbent on me; but that in general, I was willing to listen; that if every sound argument or objection was used by some one or other of the numerous debaters, it was enough; if not, I thought it sufficient to suggest the omission, without going into a repetition of what had been already said by others: that this was a waster and abuse of the time and patience of the House, which could not be justified. And I believe that if members of deliberate bodies were to observe this course generally, they would do in a day, what takes them a week; than may at first be thought, whether Bonaparte’s dumb legislature, which said nothing, and did much, may not be preferable to one which talks much, and does nothing. I severed with General Washington in the legislature of Virginia, before the revolution, and, during it, with Dr. Franklin in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point, which decides the question. They laid their shoulders to the great points knowing that the little ones would follow themselves. If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise, in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour? That one hundred and fifty lawyers should do business together, ought not to be expected. But to return again to our subject.” p.52-3

In addition to being a leader in the American Revolution, Jefferson was also on hand in France to witness the emerging French Revolution. Jefferson would be a defender and cheerleader for the French Revolution long after he actually should have been. One of the most interesting parts is he blames the entire event of Queen Marie Antoinette.

“The King was now become a passive machine in the hands of the National Assembly, and had he been left to himself, he would have willingly acquiesced in whatever they should devise as best for the nation. A wise constitution would have been formed, hereditary in his line, himself placed at its head, with powers so large as to enable him to do all the good of his station, and so limited, as to restrain him from its abuse. This he would have administered, and more than this, I do not believe, he ever wished. But he had a Queen of absolute sway over his weak mind and timid virtue, and of a character the reverse of his in all points.” p.92

Jefferson telling his own tale is a fascinating read, it is so sad they did not live long enough to finish the whole thing. It would have been nice hearing him describe his time as the first secretary of state, second vice president, and third president. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable work.

* As fond as I am of Mr. Jefferson, I really feel that Madison was the greater of the two but that is a story for another time.
** I am not quoting Madison directly, but paraphrasing. However I think you, the reader, can get the main idea.

{Video taken from the classic 1776 musical from 1972.}

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The unfinished Autobiography of… Benjamin Franklin

A review of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1790* original printing) (2004 current printing)

(Rating:4 of 5)

Ben Franklin’s autobiography begins, in 1771, as a letter to his son. That son, William Franklin, was becoming something of a disappointment. He, for someone born a bastard in the 1770s, was becoming something of an aristocrat. William had been climbing the social ladder to the point of kissing the ring of King George III. It was not always that way, once father and son had been extremely close, they were only twenty years a part in age, and they shared many a common interest. William, for example, would often act as an assistant in many of Franklin’s experiments. However, the similarities seem to have ended there. Ben Franklin had always proud to part of he called the ‘middling people,’ what we would call today middle class, while his son wanted to be part of the ruling elite. One the first things Ben Franklin points out to his son in his ‘letter’ is that he (Ben Franklin) is the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations. In a time-period where the old laws of primogeniture** are still the law of the land, this is quite a strong point to make on his son. Franklin tries to forcefully point out to his son that he and his family are of the most humble origins.

In this work, Franklin revels a good deal about his life using the wit in humor that he is famous for. It is very reveling that he sums up his life by stating that if he were offer the chance he would gladly do it all again.

“That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some of the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable. But though this were denied, I should still accept the offer. Since such a repetition is not expected, the next thing most like living one’s over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.” p.1

Some of the most interesting aspects of this book are the little things that Franklin talks about while going over his past. As someone who knows quite a few vegetarians, I found Franklin explaining his ‘all vegetable diet’ very entertaining. Franklin was apparently an on again, off again vegetarian.

“I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking of every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All of this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principal and inclination, till I recollected that when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, ‘If you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t each you.’ So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then to an all vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” p.28

As Ben Franklin guides of though the journey of his life, engaging us in useful entertaining tales, he then begins to discuss matters that are far more serious. As the book reaches its unintended conclusion, he remembers a conversation that he had with Lord Grandville, the President of the Privy Council, in 1757, on the nature of the relationship between Great Britain and her colonies. This is a conversation that would have a great deal of consequences over a decade later.

“’You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend that the king’s instructions to his governors are not laws, and you think yourselves at liberty to regard or disregard them at you own discretion. But those instructions are not the pocket instructions given to a minister going abroad, for regulating his conduct in some trifling point of ceremony. They are first drawn up by judges learned in the laws; they are then considered, debated, and perhaps amended in the Council, after which they are signed by the king. They are then, so far as they relate to you, the law of the land, for the king is the LEGISLATOR OF THE COLONIES.’ I told his lordship this was new doctrine to me. I had always understood from our charters that our laws were to be make by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the king for his royal assent, but that being once given the king could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent laws without his assent, so neither could he make a law for them without theirs. He assured me I was totally mistaken. I did not think so, however, and his lordship’s conversation having a little alarm’d me as to what might be the sentiments of the court concerning us, I wrote it down as soon as I return’d to my lodgings.” p. 138-9

Reading Benjamin Franklin telling his own life story is a wonderful and fascinating adventure. In this book, the reader gets advice how to live his or her life to fullest by a man who actually did. Ben Franklin is funny, informative, and opens up a great view into the eighteenth century. The only sad part is he was unable to finish the job, a small disappointment in very successful and productive life.

*Since this work was a project that went on and off again from 1771 to 1790 and not published until years after his death, I just put the last year of his life as the books date.
**Primogeniture was an old inheritance law that gave the oldest son all the parents property and gave the other siblings nothing.

{Video clip is from the already classic HBO 'John Adams' series.}