Monday, June 28, 2010


A review of Robert Asprey’s The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (2001)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Asprey's second book on Napoleon Bonaparte picks up right were the first one had left off, Napoleon now Emperor of the French, was engaging in a series of wars and struggles known as the Napoleonic Wars. Europe was determined to destroy this usurper to power and he was determined to beat them back and gobble up their kingdoms as well.

(Emperor Napoleon I)

“Neither was Napoleon that father of the wars that accompanied the process, as his detractors would have us believe. Almost constant warfare between was the legacy of the revolutionary chaos, a series of wars invoked by European and English rulers determined to topple this dangerous interloper and restore Bourbon feudalistic rule to France” p.xxii

(Emperor Napoleon on this throne)

In this war, Napoleon had the greatest victory of his career, the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors; Napoleon would defeat the forces of Austria and Russia at the same time. William Pitt the Younger is said to have collapsed dead at the news. This battle marked the official end of the Holy Roman Empire, as its last Emperor Francis II, dissolved it in favor of the Austrian Empire and proclaimed himself Emperor Francis I. Austerlitz had made Napoleon the master of continental Europe. Although he would still have adventures by conquering Prussia and fighting in Poland, he was clearly the man in charge. He would use his new position to create the Continental System that would force the great Empire of the Sea, Great Britain, into an impossible position. He would create puppet states and place his own brothers and in-laws on to those thrones.

(the last Holy Roman Emperor, first Austrian Emperor)

“Napoleon’s gentle if contemptuous treatment of Czar Alexander is curious, as if regarding the Russians as visitors from another planet. He disparaged Russian arms, having noted even before Austerlitz that the cavalry although splendidly turned out had not yet learned to use savers effectively. ‘The Russian troops are brave,’ he commented after Austerlitz, ‘their generals are inexperienced, their soldiers ignorant and sluggish which in truth makes their armies to be little feared.’ He regarded Alexander as an ambitious but inexperienced and impetuous young man surrounded and controlled by firebrand courtiers such as Prince Dolgoruky who were in English pay. Alexander’s participation in the Third Coalition was a temporary aberration, an unwise intrusion in European affairs. ‘Russia is the sole power in Europe able to make war of fantasy,’ he wrote. ‘After a battle lost or won, the Russians vanish; France, Austria, Prussia, to the contrary, must live a long time with the results of war.” p. 2

However, enforcing the Continental System would prove costly for the Emperor of the French. He would invade Portugal through Spain in order to enforce it. When the Spanish royal family began to give Napoleon a hard time, he would depose the King of Spain, Charles IV, in favor of his own older brother Joseph. Once more, a Bonaparte would take a throne of a Bourbon king. Spain however would never be fully conquered and Napoleon would have to invest to many troops fighting the Spanish guerrilla* forces.

(King Charles IV of Spain)

(Napoleon's older brother Joseph Bonaparte now King of Spain)

“A final weakness stemmed from Napoleon himself. His diplomacy was atrocious. The exclusion of either King Charles or Prince Ferdinand from rule was doomed from the beginning, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of the Spanish character would have realized. The center of power envisaged by Napoleon did not exist. The grandees who had propped up the throne were despised as the French. Military occupation had turned into a war of pacification that neither Napoleon nor his generals how to fight. It was a fast-moving series of small wars in a big country, not a war of corps or divisions. Early successes, a few hundred insurgents shot here, a few thousand there, villages burned, arms collected, private properties and fortunes sequestered, officials and priests forced to swear allegiance to the new crown, cities and towns required to pay enormous ‘contributions’—all these were ingredients for a massive civil explosion.” p.113

For want of an heir, Napoleon was forced to divorce Josephine and remarried this time to Marie Louise of Austria, ironically the niece of the infamous Queen Marie Antoinette. The new Empress would give birth to the Baby Napoleon, known as the King of Rome.

(the new wife and son, Empress Marie Louise and the King of Rome)

(King of Rome as a young man)

Nothing however would be as equally disastrous as Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Seeking to punish Tsar Alexander I for his backing out of the Continental System, Napoleon invaded the Russian Empire. The French Emperor would have victory after victory, but as Russia withdrew, the Russians burnt their own cities and farms. As the winter came the French had no resources and they had to retreat with very heavy losses. Seeing Napoleon as weak, the rest of Europe joined in to help destroy him. The French were eventual overwhelmed and were forced to surrender. Napoleon would be exiled to Elba, and King Louis XVIII was put on the throne that his brother had lost.

(Tsar Alexander I of Russia)

(King Louis XVIII brother of the murdered King returns to the family throne.)

Napoleon was restless in Elba and plotted his way back to the throne of France. King Louis XVIII had made quite a mess of things, just like his brother, and Napoleon would land in France to claim what he felt was rightfully his.

“It was surely one of the boldest acts in history, Napoleon landed on the southern coast of France with 1,000 soldiers, two cannons and some very fiery words set forth in three proclamations, one to the French people, one to the French army, and one to the Old Guard.” p.375

Napoleon's new reign would last one hundred days. This brief reign would cause immediate war. Napoleon would fight his last battle at Waterloo, where he lost to allied forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington.

(The Duke of Wellington, the man who finshed Napoleon)

This time Napoleon would be exiled to St. Helena where he would remain in a gilded cage until his death. Napoleon's legacy is a mixed one, Asprey's work on him stands out because he does not give in to either side, the British paint him as a monster and the French a saint. He was both and neither, Asprey presents Napoleon as an incredible human being and that is it. He is a man who was the winner of a thousand battles who was ultimately brought down in the end. He took on the entire world and lost but he is remembered for taking it on.

*These were of course the original guerrilla forces.

{Video is taken from the 2002 TV movie Napoleon}

Sunday, June 27, 2010


A review of Robert Asprey’s The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (2000)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Robert Asprey’s book traces the journey of a small boy from Corsica, on a journey from solider to emperor. He would turn the entire world on its ear; nothing would ever be the same again because Napoleon existed. He would knock kings off their ancient thrones and put his own relatives upon them. He would win battles against formidable odds; he would make incredible discoveries from his time in Egypt that would change the way we look at ancient history. He was a man who fought in the army of the Republic but would give himself a crown. There are more books written about this man then any other. Yet, he loses in the end. However, this book is not about his defeats but about how he rises to become the most powerful man in world who is sitting in the center of the stage.

Napoleon starts his life in Corsica, one year after France annexed it, during the reign of King Louis XV. Asprey covers a great deal of his early years growing up in Corsica under the watchful eye of his mother, Letizia Ramolino, then being sent to school in mainland France. He was able to get into French school because his father, Carlo Bonaparte, was the Corsican representative to the court of King Louis XVI. School is difficult for him; he always teased and made to feel like an outsider because of his accented French. Nevertheless, he did well at French military school and was commissioned in the French Army.

(King Louis XV who conquered Corsica)

(Napoleon's mother)

(Napoleon's father)

(King Louis XVI)

During a leave of absence from the French Army, Napoleon would try to join the Corsican Nationalist Movement led by Pasquale Paoli. He would join them, even leading troops against the French, but he was never fully accepted. Napoleon would get away with this behavior because this was all happen as French Revolution was going down. He would find himself with a strong ally in the younger brother of the most feared Maximilien Robespierre, Augustine. Napoleon would earn his respect by his performance at the siege of Toulon. Napoleon’s actions were not one of military genius, just competence. Nevertheless, it made Napoleon a general in the French Army.

(Pasquale Paoli)

(Young Napoleon)

“Napoleon had never attempted to hide his preference for Jacobin rule insofar as it promised an end to tyranny and the establishment of an egalitarian republic. Nevertheless, he did not like certain aspects of the formative period: he loathed the mob attacks on the Tuileries, and he approved neither of the execution of King Louis XVI nor of the hideous excesses of the Terror. Yet, what were the alternatives? Certainly not a monarchy and rule by feudal lords. Certainly not rule by assembly, a mumbo-jumbo of screeching lawyers who could scarcely agree on the time of day, a disastrous regime that threatened to plunge the country into anarchy and open its borders to foreign invasion. No one could deny that Robespierre’s quasi-dictatorship, despite or perhaps because of its excesses, had brought a semblance of order to a torn country.” p.102

(Death of Louis XVI)

(Maximilien Robespierre, quasi-dictator of France)

(Augustine Robespierre, Maximilien's younger brother)

After the fall of Robespierre, Napoleon was almost imprisoned but a reactionary mob trying to bring down the Republic allowed him to demonstrate his abilities by putting it down. The Directory, the new power in France, knew it now had a champion and sent him to campaign in Italy, shortly after his marriage to Josephine, and from there, he would begin to earn incredible fame as a military commander.

(General Bonaparte)

(Josephine, Napoleon's wife)

“The offensive began auspiciously by pushing Archduke Charles behind the Tagliamento. ‘The enemy appears very uneasy,’ Napoleon wrote Massena on 13 March, ‘and once more finds himself caught with his pants down after executing his adopted plan. Everything presages our great success.’ Two days later he qualified this ebullience in a long operations order to Joubert which warned that under certain circumstances he might find himself beaten and ‘even obliged to take refuge in Mantua.’ Should this happen he was to play for as much time as possible to allow the main army to extricate itself. Napoleon’s major worry at this point centered on the Austrian right flank and was considerably eased when he learned the Massena had sent that column flying with a haul of 800 prisoners including its commander, the disreputable General Lusignon.” p.211

After his incredible success in Italy, Napoleon finally meets Talleyrand* and the Directory sends him to Egypt to undermine British trade routes to India. While he has initial success and made incredible discoveries, most famously the Rosetta Stone, Admiral Nelson’s victory at sea, put Napoleon’s army in a terrible position. With the wars in Europe going badly, the Directory recalled Napoleon.


(Napoleon in Egypt)

“Napoleon chose to fight the big battle with tactics similar to those employed at Chabrakhyt (which must have seemed an eternity ago to his exhausted troops). This time there would be no fleet action owing to an adverse wind. Division deployed in echelons of mutually protective battalion squares, the artillery filling the intervals, the tirailleurs carefully placed. Moving up toward Embabeh, moving toward Mourad’s horsemen, he deployed Bon on the left, Vial on the right and Dugua in reserve on Vial’s flank (where Napoleon stationed himself). Reynier and Desaix’s divisions deployed ahead and to the right of the assault divisions deployed ahead and to the right of the assault divisons to block what Napoleon believed was Mourad’s natural line of retreat. This move caused the Mameluke commander to open the action be sending a corps to attack Reynier and Desaix.” p.267

(Napoleon in Egypt)

When Napoleon he pulled the original coup d'état on the Directory and establish the consulate with Napoleon as the First Cousul**. From this point on Napoleon rules France as a monarch in all but name. This led to a great many positive developments, first needed bureaucratic reform in the administration of government, banking, and civil law. Military victories on land in the War of the Second Coalition, although the sea still eluded them. This period also had a great deal of set backs, a rebellion in Haiti convinced Napoleon to give up France’s empire in North America by selling the Louisiana territory to the United States under President Jefferson.

“The Bonaparte brothers, Sieyes and the coterie of generals were severally upset, and with good reason. The coup stood at a crossroad. It was one thing to disband the generally scorned Directory, but it was a far more serious matter to challenge the freedom of the elected legislature. But if that body were not quickly brought to heel the conspirators would undoubtedly end on the guillotine. No realized this more than Sieyes who had a carriage and six horses standing by for a quick escape. Ironically it was he who at this critical moment kept his cool and advised Napoleon to send in the grenadiers.” p.338

(coup d'état)

In 1804, tired of plots against him Napoleon, decided to take the crown, mimicking Roman history he takes the title emperor. In December of that year, Napoleon has his grand coronation.

(Napoleon is Emperor, Napoleon put his mother in the picture even though she was not there)

“Napoleon’s sudden elevation to imperial status had brought mixed reactions at home and abroad. European rulers in general, including the English king, cautiously welcomed the move as indicating an end to the dangers of revolution—Napoleon, so to speak, had joined the ‘family,’ albeit as an uncouth parvenu. A good many statesmen were not so optimistic, looking on the event a consolidation of his power, a basis on which to build further mischief. Liberals everywhere were dismayed and saddened. Upon learning of the news the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who had just dedicated a new symphony to his hero, furiously tore up the dedication, retitled the work ‘Eroica’ and dedicated it to ‘the memory of a great man.’” p.489

This book by Asprey is extremely well done; in addition to the historical information, Asprey also discusses Napoleon’s personnel life, his marriage, and relationship with his political brothers and his mother. Asprey’s work also has a smooth narrative that is easy for the reader to follow.

*His full name was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.

**In a clear allusion to the Roman Republic that was governed by two consuls, and the Triumvirates that preceded the personnel rule of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus.

{Video is taken from the 2002 TV movie Napoleon}

Saturday, June 26, 2010


A Review of R.B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson (2003)

(Rating 4 of 5)

R.B. Bernstein’s biography on Thomas Jefferson packs a great deal of information into a very little space. Inside this a fewer than two-hundred-and-fifty-page work, is the life of the third president of the United States. Yet, the work has very ease flowing narrative that makes it enjoyable to read.

Thomas Jefferson’s entire life is put into to nicely fit little chapters. The Revolution starts right at the second chapter, which makes sense considering Jefferson was only thirty. The second chapter covers Jefferson’s glory years in the Continental Congress fighting for independence and authoring the Declaration. While the third and fourth chapters focus on some of Jefferson’s less than great moments, such as his disastrous governorship of Virginia to his time as U.S. Minister to France, where he to in love with the French Revolution.

The fifth chapter focuses Jefferson coming home to be the nation’s Secretary of State, under President George Washington, that he finds very frustrating and leaves after a single term. The next chapter goes into his brief exile from politics where he plots the campaign of 1796. Through a fluke in the Constitution, in 1796, he is elected his opponent's, John Adams, vice president, and in 1800 is stuck in House of Representatives battling a tie with his own running mate. These elections and his vice presidency are all in chapter seven.

Chapter eight covers his glorious first term as president. From his brilliant inaugural address to his brilliant, although accidental, purchase of the Louisiana territory. Other then the Declaration of Independence, I feel that Jefferson’s first term as President is his great accomplishment.

The next chapter covers his not-so-great-second term as President. Although he does abolish U.S. participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, his 1808 trade embargo caused a huge economic downturn for the nation. Unpopular though the embargo was, Jefferson’s chosen successor, James Madison, is elected to replace him. The final chapter is Jefferson in retirement, his thoughts, fears and founding of the University of Virginia.

“Unfortunately, the students showed little inclination to behave like the serious scholars whom Jefferson had hoped to welcome. Instead, they carried on in ways resembling Jefferson’s idle, boisterous classmates at William and Mary. Their favorite activities were drinking, gambling, and riots, all of which Jefferson denounced as ‘vicious irregularities.’ In particular, the students’ nighttime raids up and down the Lawn, known as ‘calathumps,’ alarmed and outraged him. Those who took part in calathumps wore masks to avoid being recognized and punished as they shouted and yelled, fired guns into the air and whirled noisemakers, broke windows, and otherwise made a ruckus.” p.176

This book is a good one-stop little biography of the nation’s third president. The book covers all that was stated in this small review and much more, it has some surprising depth for such a small book. It is a good starting point for someone who knows nothing about Thomas Jefferson.

{Video from the already classic HBO John Adams series is Jefferson being at his most silly fortunately for him James Madison would be at his side during his presidency to talk good sense to him.}

Thursday, June 24, 2010


A review of Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)

(Rating 5 of 5)

To say that Benjamin Franklin led an interesting life would be the understatement of the century. Dr. Franklin was the first American to be world famous. He was an American Revolutionary, a theorist on government, a scientist in nearly all fields, and a printer being his first profession. In the end, one can say that there is nothing that the man did not do in his lifetime. Walter Isaacson brings this extraordinary American to life, allowing the reader to explore the world that was with this incredible human being.

The thirteenth of sixteen children, and a youngest son of a youngest son for five generations, Ben Franklin learned early on that if he wanted to be noticed he would have to work hard. Franklin went to work at an early age as an indentured servant for his brother James’s print shop in Boston. He even get his first by-line, after getting in trouble with the state legislature and order to print no more work under his own name, James Franklin decides to publish everything under his brother’s.

However, life as an indentured servant is no fun even when your master is your own older brother. Ben Franklin decides to escape to Philadelphia, where he opens his own print shop. As a printer, Franklin has tremendous success, his paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, was popular. He would also publish the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac. Franklin, however, does some things okay for his time, but now we would frown upon. For example he, from time to time, makes up stories or writes letters to the editor under pseudonym often to express a political point or to tell a funny tale.

“Like most other newspapers of the time, Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette was filled not only with short news items and reports on public events, but also amusing essays and letters from readers. What made his paper a delight was its wealth of this type of correspondence, much of it written under pseudonyms by Franklin himself. This gimmick of writing as if from a reader gave Franklin more leeway to poke fun at his rivals, revel in gossip, circumvent his personnel pledge to speak ill of no one, and test-drive his evolving philosophies.” p.65

Ben Franklin was also an accomplished scientist, even though he was not formally trained. His work in electricity would be revolutionary as his later political ideas. Franklin's most famous invention outside his silly stove was the Lighting Rod. He would also map the Gulf Stream, and would always be fascinated by oil’s effect on water.*

“In fact, these terms devised by Franklin are the ones we still use today, along with other neologisms that he coined to describe his findings: battery, charged, neutral, condense, and conductor. Part of Franklin’s importance as a scientist was the clear writing that he employed. ‘He has written equally for the uninitiated as well as the philosopher,’ the early nineteenth-century English chemist Sir Humphry Davy noted, ‘and has rendered his details as amusing as well as perspicuous.’” p.135

Ever a political and social creature he was member of local clubs and debating societies. He would marry Deborah Franklin after her first husband abandoned her. He would have also father an illegitimate son who he would personally raise**. As the colonial postmaster general, he would found the origins of what would become the post office.

(William Franklin)

Benjamin Franklin would spend almost an entire decade in Britain trying to be an advocate to the people of Pennsylvania on a variety of issues. He was an opponent of most the tax laws that Britain made during this time. When letters from the colonial Governor Thomas Hutchinson came to Franklin’s attention, he leaked them so that the Americans would see that the threat to their liberties was coming from home rather than the mother country. The Privy Council of George III however saw that event differently, and he was brought before them and ridiculed. After this misadventure, he went home and joined the Revolution. Joining the rebels would cause a permanent break with his son William that was never healed.

As a member of the Second Continental Congress, he was a strong advocate for Independence for America. He was part of the famous Committee of Five with future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. There he aided in drafting what would become the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin was dispatched by the Congress to try to form an alliance with King Louis XVI of France. There after the Battle of Saratoga, Franklin negotiated the most important military alliance in the young history of the Republic. He would later take part in the signing of the Treaty of Paris the ended the American Revolutionary War.

“As he would prove in France, Franklin not only knew how to play a calculated balance-of-power game like the best practitioner of real-politik, but he also knew how to play with his other hand the rousing chords of American exceptionalism, the sense that America stood apart from the rest of the world because of its virtuous nature. Both the hard power that came from its strategic might and the soft power that flowed from the appeal of its ideals and culture would, he realized, be equally important in assuring its influence.” p.338

At the end of his life, Franklin would do two more things that are incredible. In 1787, he would take part in the writing of the Constitution of the United States; his plea for unity became a part of his legend. Two years later, as his life was about to end, he became the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and wrote letters to the First Congress urging an end to slavery.

Ben Franklin’s incredible life ended on April 17, 1790, he was the man who did it all. Everything written in this review and more is covered in Mr. Isaacson’s work, and I highly recommend this book to anyone.

*Which means Franklin would have quite a bit to say about this latest crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

**William Franklin’s mother was most likely a prostitute.

{First video was posted by Rocketboom on Youtube, I think the young lady gives the best three minute description of Franklin. The second Walter Isaacson himself.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


A review of Stephen and Paul Kendrick’s Douglas and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass came from two different walks of life and led very different lives. They were both, as Douglass would later describe it, ‘self-made men’ with Douglass rising out of slavery and Lincoln out of poverty to become leading figures of the nation. Lincoln would become a politician and rise to become the sixteenth president of the United States. Frederick Douglass would become a politician too, but not an office-seeking one. He would be on the outreaches of power doing all he could, in his genius, to fight for the enslaved and for justice for all African-Americans. Stephan and Paul Kendrick, father and son, recreate the epic political battles of the Mid-Nineteenth century United States over slavery and the Constitution.

Both Lincoln and Douglass had to overcome many hurdles in life to get to their destinies. Lincoln was born into extreme poverty. He had a cruel and overbearing father who worked all he could out of him until he was twenty-one. Douglass had been born into slavery. He did not even know who his father was, although he had a strong suspicion that it was the man who, by the law, owned him. Both would over come these obstacles on the road to greatness.

Lincoln managed to educate himself and ‘read law’ in order to join the bar and become a frontier lawyer. He would win election to the state legislature and become a vocal minority leader as a member of the Whig Party. He would serve one mediocre term in the United States House of Representatives. In the 1850s, two failed Senate bids, one against the legendary Stephen Douglas, established Lincoln as one of the leading voices against slavery, the expansion of slavery, and slave power. Although against slavery, he had a strong dislike for the radical Garrisonian Abolitionists, who in his view undermined the Anti-slavery movement by making it unelectable, unappealing, and anarchistic.

(Beardless Lincoln)

Douglass managed to escape to chains of slavery and went to the North, where he dodged slave catchers, educated himself, and was found by William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison himself, recruited Douglass into the movement. As time went on, however, Douglass started to become very critical of the movement that he had joined. The Garrisonian abolitionists were pretty good at getting nothing accomplished; they made a lot of people mad at them but did nothing to really damage slavery. Douglass would leave to start his own movement one that would be more mainstream without being mainstreamed.

(Young Douglass)

“To fully break from Garrison and his philosophies was wrenching, but Douglass had tired of conceding to the South their argument that the United States Constitution was a proslavery document. Further, he now resisted William Lloyd Garrison’s often expressed notion that seceding from the Union was a viable option for northern states. Instead, Douglass came to view the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that ‘all men are created equal’ as the proper lens though which to understand the essential meaning of the Constitution with the additions of the Bill of Rights.” p.44

When Lincoln was elected in 1860, Douglass was disappointed. Lincoln was not really the type of person he wanted as president. Although the most openly anti-slavery president ever elected, Douglass thought Lincoln’s approach was too slow and his willingness to enforce fugitive slave laws too cruel.

(Fredrick Douglass)

However as the war went on Douglass’s view on President Lincoln began to change, first by meeting him and deciding upon that meeting that Lincoln was nothing if not honest. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Douglass started recruiting young black men, including his own sons, to fight for the Union cause. Douglass would even collaborate with Lincoln in a plan for Douglass himself to go down to the South personally and try to start up a slave rebellion, but the war ended before that became necessary.

(Lincoln at work)

“Douglass had clearly made quite an impression on the president. It was now Lincoln himself prompting a second meeting. In thinking about the ease and evident lack of prejudice that marked his meetings with Lincoln, Douglass maintained that this connection was forged in their both being self-made men. Though it might be audacious to compare a president’s early days with his own, Douglass was well aware of the grinding poverty of Lincoln’s childhood, and he later pondered that this commonality was a source of their ease with one another. Douglass concluded, ‘I account partially for his kindness to me because of the similarity with which I had fought my way up, we both starting at the low rung of the ladder.’ So when receiving the invitation, Douglass resolved to go ‘most gladly.’”

(Lincoln on the field)

After the war was over, Lincoln would, though some backroom strong-arming, get the eventual Thirteenth Amendment though the Congress of the United States. President Lincoln would not live to see it though; John Wilkes Booth took his life on April 14, 1865. Although he and Lincoln had their differences, Douglass would never have it so good with a president again*. Lincoln’s immediate successor was more of villain to his cause than an ally. Douglass would spend the rest of his life fighting for justice and civil rights. He would live until 1895, fighting forever to the end.

(Douglass from his senior years)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested to anyone interested in U.S. history, the Civil War, and centuries-long struggle for civil rights. This book captures the essence of two incredible leaders who lived and lead in incredible times.

*Although, he did have a positive opinion of President Grant.

{Video is from a biography channel preview on the life of Fredrick Douglass}

Monday, June 21, 2010


A review of Evan Thomas’s John Paul Jones (2003)

(Rating 5 of 5)

If there is a movie in need of a modern remake Hollywood should look no further than another John Paul Jones movie based on this book by Evan Thomas. Jones is the only military commander during the Revolution who would take the fight to the Great Britain itself. Thomas’s work is an exciting adventure story that is a historical biography.

Born John Paul, Jr. as young man he grew up with little promise in a world that judged your worth by social status of birth. As old orders were challenged, they would bite back making advancement for people like John Paul even harder. Since Paul was only a gardener’s son, the only future he could have at sea was on a merchant ship. He would do well at that earning his way up to captain. Unfortunately, for the captain and a member of his crew, John Paul got into a fight with a sailor unhappy about his pay. In the fight, the sailor was killed. John Paul claimed self-defense that might have been true, but he thought the British courts would never try him fairly so he ran off to America, to become John Paul Jones.

“At first, Captain Paul did not hesitate to turn himself in to the authorities. He was not arrested, but he understood that he would be summoned before a legal proceeding of some kind. His experience in the Mungo Maxwell affair have him some confidence that the courts would ultimately vindicate him. He knew that captains were afforded great latitude to put down mutinies, at least under maritime law. Tobago was an English crown possession, and normally any legal case arising from an action aboard ship would be tried in an Admiralty Court, where the law of the sea—invariably protective of the authority of captains—prevailed. But the Admiralty Court was not sitting in Tobago at Christmastime 1773, which meant John Paul might have to face a normal jury trial in the local court, where he could be charged with murder. Since the Ringleader was a local, one of about 300 white men who lived on the island, John Paul looked upon the jury of his ‘peers’ with some foreboding.” p.33

Whether it was self-defense or a stupid fight we will never know, but on thing is for certain and when the American Revolution happened he answered its call. Jones earned a captaincy of a ship called the Ranger and was incredibly successful at sea, capturing enemy vessels that contained critical supplies that was going to the British troops and would now head over to the Americans. Despite his success, Captain Jones would have a good deal of trouble with the Navy Committee and his commodore. He was given, despite his success the lowest of seniority of the captains, which would send him into a jealous rage.

(Jones's ship the Ranger at battle)

“Jones needed to outsmart his opponent, to get an edge and keep it. He had maintained his ship to windward and just ahead of the enemy to give himself more room to maneuver. He knew that he could not afford to let Drake draw too near, or the superior British forces could board Ranger and take her by storm. But he wanted to keep Drake just close enough, where Ranger’s greater firepower could slowly grind down the enemy. Jones filled the tops, platforms about a third of the way up each mast, with marines, sharpshooters who could keep a steady fire of musket balls raining down on the enemy quarterdeck where the officers stood.” p.130-1

He would later go to France, where under the direction of his new patron, Benjamin Franklin, he would take the war to Britain itself. Captain Jones earned a reputation as mythical pirate who made fools out of good officers of the greatest fleet in the world. He would do this with a crew that was always on the brink of mutiny, which leads one to wonder what this man would have accomplished if he had more dedicated crew.

(Battling the British)

“The game was up. Jones hauled down his false British colors and broke out his Continental Navy ensign. At just that moment, a nervous marine in the Bonhomme Richard’s tops fired his musket. Both ships erupted, loosing their broadsides at once. The sound was appalling: the tremendous concussion of forty-two cannon and scores of small arms fired at nearly the same instant, the cracking of splintered wood, the jarring clang of a cannonball striking an iron muzzle or an anchor fluke, and, very soon thereafter, the shrieks and cries of the wounded. At the range of twenty-year yards, every gun hit home. For the officers standing exposed on the quarterdeck, it must have taken extraordinary willpower not to flinch or cringe, much less diver for cover.” p.183

(The famous line, "I have not yet begun to fight")

Jones would, with permission of the Washington Administration, would go to work for the Russian Empire as a rear admiral. He would have success but once again be undermined by jealous peers and superiors. He would nearly forgotten until President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, needed a historical hero and President Roosevelt was the type of person that really liked Captain Jones. Disney would do a toned down version in 1959, I think a remake might be worth trying.

{Video was posted on Youtube by Creative Quotations}

Sunday, June 20, 2010


A review of Edward G. Lengel’s This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters (2007)

(Rating 3 of 5)

Edward Lengel assembled the letters that George Washington wrote during the Revolutionary War against the British Empire. The letters are laid out year by year; there are comments in-between to give context to what it is the reader is looking at. Lengel’s remarks are always italicized to distinguish them from General Washington’s letters. It is an all right read, but not something for a beginner, rather for someone who already has a strong understanding of the period.

Here are some of the letters I found most interesting:

On the Declaration of Independence,

“I perceive that Congress have been employed in deliberating on measures of the most Interesting nature. It is certain that It is not with us to determine in may Instances what consequences will flow from our Counsels, but yet It behoves to adopt such, as under the smiles of a Gracious & All kind Providence will be most likely to promote our happiness; I trust the late decisive part they have taken is calculated for that end, and will secure us that freedom and those privileges which have been and are refused us, contrary to the voice of nature and the British Constitution. Agreable to the request of Congress I caused the Declaration [of Independence] to be proclaimed before all the Army under my Immediate command and have the pleasure to inform them that the measures seemed to have their most hearty assent, The expressions and behavior both of Officers and men testifying their warmest approbation of It.” p.52

On Saratoga,

“By this Opportunity, I do myself the pleasure to congratulate you on the signal success of the Army under your command, in compelling Genl Burgoyne and his whole force, to surrender themselves, prisoners of War. An Event that does the highest honor to the American Arms, and which, I hope will be attended with the most extensive and happy consequences. At the same time, I cannot but regret, that a matter of such magnitude and so interesting to our General Operations, should have reached me by report only, or though the channel of Letters not bearing that authenticity, which the importance of it required, and which it would have received by a line under your signature, stating the simple fact.” p.119

On American nationhood,

"We are known by on other character among Nations than as the United States—Massachusetts or Virginia is not better defined, nor any more thought of by Foreign Powers then the County of Worcester in Massachusetts is by Virginia, or Gloucester County in Virginia is by Massachusetts (respectable as they are); and yet these Counties, with as much propriety might oppose themselves to the Laws of the State in Government, by which they are, as an Individual State can oppose itself to the Federal Government, by which it is, or ought to be bound. Each of these Counties has, no doubt, its local polity & Interests, these should be attended to, & brought before their respective legislatures with all the force their importance merits; but when the come in contact with the general Interest of the State—when superior considerations preponderate in favor of the whole—their Voices should be heard no more—so it should be with individual States when compared to the Union—Otherwise I think it may properly be asked for what purpose do we farcically pretend to be United?” p.281

This book is a rich holding of primary source material on General George Washington and the American Revolution.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


A review of John B. Wolf’s Louis XIV (1968)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Born in the last years of his father reign, Prince Louis was considered special right from birth. The new Dauphin—heir to the French throne—was dubbed a miracle child. His birth denied his uncle Gaston de France, the Duke of Orleans, of throne to which he had been standing as heir presumptive for almost thirty years. Two years after he was born a younger brother, Philippe, the Duke of Anjou, joined him. In 1643, his father had died and Louis, who was only four, was now the King of France. John Wolf brilliantly lays out the life and reign—which are practically the same—in a decent narrative.

(The miracle child who becomes king)

(The man who would have been king if not for a miracle child, Gaston de France, Duke of Orleans)

During the few decades before he was born, France was under the rule of his father King Louis XIII. The most important member of King Louis XIII’s council was his ‘prime minister’ Cardinal Richelieu who helped the King create a powerful and centralized state. This would be a great asset to France’s next monarch.

(King Louis XIII, father and predecessor)

(Cardinal Richelieu)

“There is a famous story, probably untrue, that the child, returning from the ceremony to his father’s bedside where the king asked him his name, replied, ‘Louis XIV’. ‘Not yet, not yet!’ replied the sad king. The memoirists repeat this story so faithfully that it must have had a wide circulation, but it is improbable that either Louis or his father ever referred to themselves with a numeral; perhaps the story is one of those that should have happened even if it did not.” p.11

When King Louis XIV came to throne as a child, his mother Queen Anne would take charge as the Queen Regent. The Queen and her new boyfriend, the Cardinal Mazarin, would govern the Kingdom and raise the King. During the regency, they would fight off rebellions, arrange alliances, and prepare the King to govern the nation as an adult.

(Queen Anne, the Queen Regent and mother)

(Cardinal Mazarin)

King Louis XIV would have longest reign of any monarch. At the time he takes power, Wolf’s narrative starts to become a little choppy. He stops telling the story chronologically and starts telling it categorically. Louis, as the King, would become a great patron of the arts. The King would protect and support writers, painters, and performers. Louis was so found of ballet that he would participate himself in the first half of his reign. Louis would also be a believer in the ‘divine right of kings’ that is kings were put on Earth by God and were accountable only to Him. If a King acted evil then God would send to him to Hell when he died, so if he wanted to go to Heaven he would have to be a just king.

(King Louis XIV as a young man)

“In his Memoirs Louis explains that he carefully picked his trusted ministers for their merit and probable usefulness. His critics chide him for claiming for his choices on the ground that all the men were in his entourage when Mazarin died. We have already noted that this quite misses the point. Even though Mazarin might have indicated the men who could best serve the state, Louis had to make the decision to employ them. There were many men in his entourage who would have been willing, indeed eager, to become his advisers and his tools; a man of lesser capacity would have thought twice before taking strong men as confidants. Louis’s great merit was exactly in this: he chose men senior to himself in experience as well as age, men with an expert knowledge of the problems of the kingdom rather than ‘yes men’ who might have flattered him by their submission. This young men who informed the world that he intended to govern his kingdom was no vain ‘know-it-all’ who wished to be surrounded by flatterers and sycophants.” p.147

Louis XIV would involve his nation in a war with the Netherlands. The Franco-Dutch War had many positive and negative effects for the King and his country. France would gain a good deal of territory however he would himself with a new rival the young William III, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic. Ultimately, William would take advantage of the political situation in Europe to ‘invade’ England and seize the throne away from King Louis's Catholic cousin, King James II*, and place himself on it.

(King Louis XIV as an active king)

Wolf also tells how the King revoked the Edit of Nantes. The King’s grandfather, King Henry IV, created the Edit in order to aid and protect protestant Christians from persecution. King Louis XIV decided that France was to be a Catholic nation again and his subjects would either convert or get out.

King Louis XIV would marry a Spanish princess, named Marie Theresa. The new Queen of France was said to be woman of great beauty but also extreme stupidity. The King and the Queen would have many children together but only one would live to adulthood, Louis, the Dauphin of France. Unfortunately, the son seemed to inherit all of his mother’s bad traits including lack of intelligence. It seems that consistent inbreeding may have been the cause. The French, Spanish, and Austrian royal families marrying to many times my have caused this, the Queen’s brother King Charles II of Spain was deformed and mentally unwell. Further evidence is the King’s illegitimate sons were all healthy and strong.

(Queen Maria Teresa, wife of the king, and their son the Dauphin)

When his son became a man, King Louis would betroth him to a German** princess, named Marie Anna. This seemed to have worked for sons of the Dauphin seemed to process none of his negative traits. Indeed, the oldest, Prince Louis, the Duke of Burgundy, seemed to have a lot of potential. He was then married to an Italian*** princess, named Maria Adelaide, who would have sons with him. This gave King Louis a good deal of security for the future of his throne. Unfortunately, in 1683 he lost his Queen, to which he marked that death was the only way his wife had ever displeased him.

(Royal succession secure, The King (center) The Dauphin (behind the King), the Duke of Burgundy (right), the pregnant Duchess of Burgundy (left), and the Duke and Duchess's first born son.)

Since the King had so many heirs, he decided he could spare one. After the death of his brother-in-law, King Charles II of Spain, in 1700, he decided make a play, to gain that throne for his royal house. Realizing Europe would never allow a unification of Spain and France under one monarch, instead of pressing the claims of the Dauphin of France for the Spanish throne, King Louis had him renounce them in favor of the Dauphin’s second son, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Anjou. This would then involve France in the war of Spanish Succession. This would be costly for France but it would successfully but a Bourbon prince upon the throne of Spain. The descendants of King Phillip V of Spain rule Spain to this day.

(King Charles II of Spain, proof of what damage incest over generations can cause)

(King Phillip V of Spain, King Louis XIV's grandson)

(King Phillip V's descendant and current King of Spain, Juan Carols I)

“French historians favorable to the king assert that it was quite unnecessary for Louis to assure Europe that the crowns of France and Spain would not be worn by the same man. Just as the Grand Dauphin and the Duke of Burgundy resigned their rights to the throne of Spain when Phillip mounted it, so would future princes ‘adjust’ the will of God so that the burden would not be too great for one man. It is all well and good to argue this way, but such talk does not change the fact that this proclamation was a bold, brash, arrogant challenge to the Europe that had written the partition treaties, and particularly to William of Orange and the men who had placed him on the English throne. It not only defied their policies but also boldly asserted that God, not Europe, would decide the fate of the Bourbon succession in both Spain and France.” p.511

(The later years of King Louis XIV)

After six decades of successful rule, King Louis XIV would run into one last crisis. The crisis of who would replace the King when he died. In 1711, Louis, the Dauphin of France, who had stood as the heir apparent for almost fifty years, died. In some ways, this was not too tragic. The Dauphin had always been some thing short of an idiot, he would not have a good ruler, and this would allow his young dashing son the Duke of Burgundy, now the new Dauphin of France could advance to the throne earlier. However in 1712, the Dauphine caught the measles, and the new Dauphin stayed by her bedside but she died and he got the disease. He died shortly there after, but not before, he had accidentally infected his two sons. The now five-year-old new Dauphin fought his life for three weeks before dying. His younger brother, now the fourth dauphin in four years, was the heir. After the surveying child, was the King of Spain, for the French throne.

(King Louis XV as a child, great-grandson and successor)

(King Louis XV as an adult)

Fortunately, for all involved, that child lived, and he would follow his great-grandfather on to the throne of France as King Louis XV. In this work, John B. Wolf describes in great detail the challenges and triumphs that the King of France, known as Louis XIV, was able to achieve in the longest reign on record.

*Who also happens to be William’s father-in-law.

**Although formally the Holy Roman Empire, Germany was more like a group of little countries as opposed to one big county. This meant there were many royals for the other families of Europe to marry, regardless of religion. This is primarily the reason so many royal families from Britain to Russia would be more German then of their native countries.

***Italy like Germany was a bunch of little countries at the time and provided for a good deal of potential marriages for the great powers.

{Video is from a documentary about the The Palace of Versailles, where King Louis XIV lived.}