AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE by Al Franken

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(After)

Senator Paul Simon, left, adjusts comedian Al Franken's bow tie on June 5, 1991, as they rehearse for a Citizen Action dinner honoring Simon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

(Before)

In the current political climate with congressional hearings, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he were a godfather it was good to read a political manifesto in the form of biography that drips with sarcasm and humor.  When one thinks of Al Franken, Saturday Night Live (SNL) comes to mind, and the “serious” laughter his writings, i.e., RUSH LIMBAUGH IS A BIG FAT IDIOT, and appearances produced.  His new autobiography is in the same vein as he uses his life story as a clarion call for a progressive agenda and a fight against alternative news and/or reality and the lies that are perpetrated regularly by certain politicians and supposed news outlets.

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE describes the evolution of a belief system that began at an early age, particularly as a young teen reacting to Lyndon Johnson’s work to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law.  From that point on we witness Franken’s intellectual growth using his comedic sense through high school, college, a career on SNL, and a second career in the United States Senate.  As Franken matures emotionally and politically his commitment to a progressive agenda for the American people (as well as Minnesota!) emerges.  But make no mistake for Franken to be successful he had to suppress his public humor to avoid political pitfalls

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(Senator Franken on a USO tour in Afghanistan)

The key event in his career was the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone; his mentor, teacher, and intellectual role model.  For Wellstone “politics was about improving people’s lives.”  Franken presents a wonderful chapter encompassing Wellstone’s life’s work and positive goals for the American people.  Franken explains the type of person he was and how he was influenced by his progressive agenda.  Once Wellstone and his family are killed in a plane crash he was replaced in the Senate by Republican Norm Coleman who stated “I am a 99% improvement over Paul Wellstone.”  For Al Franken it was “game on.”  Franken believed in Wellstone’s core, that “we all do better, when we all do better,” a mantra that Franken has worked for since his time in the Senate.

Franken explores in detail his campaign against Norm Coleman.  Faced with Republican obfuscation, distortion, and outright lies Franken was welcomed to the wonderful world of what he calls the “Dehumorizer,” or how his opponent would do or say anything about his opponent’s past and present be it fact or fiction, in the 2008 campaign, mostly fiction.  Franken would defeat Coleman by 312 votes, but it took over eight months to finally join his Senate colleagues as Coleman’s team dragged the results through the courts and in the end never really conceded.  Fast forward, eight years later Franken was elected by a 10% margin.  It is interesting how the Obama people did little to assist Franken, no matter what he did even Democrats could not wrap their heads around a former SNL comic becoming a serious politician.

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(Franken on SNL)

The most interesting aspects of Franken’s story rests on the legislative process which is bound in hyprocracy by both major parties, though perhaps a bit more by Republicans.  He cites a number of examples dealing with the 2009 Stimulus package which finally passed despite Republican opposition which led to a slower recovery than was necessary.  This allowed Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to blame the slow recovery on President Obama.  This is the same Senator who stated once Obama was elected in 2009 that it was his primary purpose to make sure that the new president would not achieve any successes.  It is also fascinating that certain congresspersons who voted against the stimulus took credit for it when it created benefits for their own districts.

Franken takes the reader behind the scenes as the Senate votes on legislation.  In particular a “disclosure bill” designed to offset the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.  The cavalier attitude of a number of Republicans is offered in their own words, of course funded by the Koch Brothers and their “Federalist agenda.”  Franken goes on to eviscerate Texas Senator Ted Cruz in a chapter entitled “Sophistry.”  Franken is proud of the fact that he hates a colleague who in two short months managed to turn almost his entire party against him.  As is Franken’s methodology throughout the book his comments are sardonic, humorous, and sarcastic, but below the surface the Senator from Minnesota is seething.

A major theme of the book is a clarion call for Democrats to turn out and remove Republicans from power.  If it is not done soon, Franken argues President Trump will continue to dismantle the achievements that Obama was able to attain.  Franken tries to be upbeat throughout as he rests on his comedic talent.  But, after watching the Senate Intelligence Hearings and Trump’s response congressional hearings televised on what seems to be a daily basis, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he was “the godfather” it was good to read an uplifting political manifesto in the form of a biography that the past few days we all must be careful because what we are witnessing cannot be good for our country, which seems to be what motivates Franken each day-what is good for our country.

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HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

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(Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION is the perfect companion for those interested in an in depth look at the development, creation, and performance of the musical, “Hamilton.”  At the outset the authors make the cogent point that they believe that what Lin has gifted to the American people is more than just a Broadway show, it reflects two revolutions side by side.  The first being the an 18th century revolution that is the foundation of our country and society, and the second, a 21st century revolution  for American theater as the musical provides a glimpse into a more diverse America.  In 2008, Lin came up with the idea of a hip-hop concept album about Alexander Hamilton.  He would employ hip-hop to tell the story that had nothing to do with hip-hop – using its form not content.  Lin’s success has gone far beyond whatever he could have imagined and his book co-written with Jeremy McCarter provides the public many important insights about the musical itself, and our country.

The book is both a narrative and oral history of how Lin gave birth to the musical lyrics and overall concept of “Hamilton.”  It is important that he does not deify the founders and by creating cast of Latinos and African-Americans to act out our “white” early history provides a unique perspective that audiences would not have experienced with a traditional approach to casting.  We are a nation of immigrants and through Hamilton’s own immigrant story it should bring us together and encourage immigration, as opposed to the political rhetoric of our times.

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(Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton)

Lin is a master of character development.  A case in point is how in Act II has the actors who portrayed the Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan, friends of Hamilton in Act I, play Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his enemies.  Further, Lin creates lyrics based on his vast research, apart from Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, that augments the historical players and delivers through the lens of artistic license a fairly accurate presentation of history.  As a former history educator I drool at the thought of using the musical in a classroom situation. With students role playing and singing their way examining primary documents to learn our history, using a strategy that will make them remember their experience and material without pressure, would have been very rewarding.  The outreach of the musical in New York, and with plans to do the same as the production expands across the country, as McCarter points out on any given day hundreds of classes might be studying our early history using “Hamilton” as an excellent educational tool.

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The book explores a range of topics that include the biography of Alexander Hamilton, but also the causes of the American Revolution, its outcome, the main characters involved, the political struggle (vicious at times) that ensued, and culminates with the duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death.  The reader will gain a greater understanding of the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, John Adams, and George Washington.  Lin explores the partisanship that existed through his lyrics as he does with the most important events of Hamilton’s lifetime.  Lin also delves into Hamilton’s family and the portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is important in trying to determine what type of person Hamilton really was.  Lin has the ability to convey issues, relationships, and individual personalities in a way that entertains and interprets history in a meaningful way.

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The book thoroughly examines each song and places it in its historical context and how Lin went about creating the lyrics.  In addition, the book explores the people behind the scenes from the production, choreography, and scene creation in detail.  Vignettes abound, as the reader is exposed to information that normally would not be revealed in this type of companion volume.  If you did not believe that Lin was a “genius” before; once you read this book and explore songs ranging from the opening number that deals with Hamilton’s early years taking forty pages of Chernow’s biography and condensing it into song, to “Non-Stop,” which details the need for a justification for the new constitution, or the lyrics that go with George III’s three numbers, you will now.  Hopefully, all will be able to witness the musical in person at some point, but your viewing will be totally enhanced with the material that Lin and McCarter offer.

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(Hamilton and the Schuyler Sisters)

WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED A NATION by John Sedgwick

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If you are looking for a comparative biography of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr I would avoid John Sedgwick’s WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED A NATION.  I would turn to Ron Chernow’s magisterial work on Hamilton and Nancy Isenberg’s excellent life of Burr.  To his credit Sedgwick makes no pretensions to have produced similar all-encompassing works, and states that his goal was to prepare a more personal and intimate portrait of Hamilton and Burr as they careened through the late 18th and early 19th centuries toward their eventual collision.  There is a great deal that is attractive in Sedgwick’s work, but his seeming obsession with his subject’s attitudes and actions toward women detracts from some substantive insights.  There is much that can be praised, but careless errors abound.  I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, which is reflected in his prose, and not a trained historian.

The title of the book is an apt description of the end of the Hamilton-Burr relationship that dated back to the American Revolution.  Sedgwick’s goal is to present an analysis and history of the two men and determine why their relationship soured.  Sedgwick’s quest is to determine the turning point that pushed them on to the dueling field in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804.

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(Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, “Hamilton: The Musical”)

It is ironic that two men who had much in common ended up with such antipathy for each other.  On the one hand Hamilton was particularly vocal about his disdain for Burr that seemed to originate in the election of 1792 and continued as he successfully contributed to Burr’s failed quest for the presidency and the governorship of New York State.  Or perhaps it was Burr’s defeat of Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for his New York Senate seat.  In either case it appeared that Burr could swallow Hamilton’s demeaning and insulting comments for over a decade, but once Hamilton blocked him from the New York governorship in 1804, it was the last straw, especially due to Hamilton’s remarks at an Albany dinner at the home of Judge John Tayler.  Also in attendance was Dr. Charles D. Cooper who passed along Hamilton’s remarks to the editor of the New York Post, William Coleman.  Once Hamilton’s words reached the public, Burr was pushed over the edge.

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(The Duel)

Sedgwick recounts the most important aspects of the Hamilton-Burr association, mostly in a somewhat superficial manner.  Beginning with their upbringing and the fact that both grew up without parents, Burr, an orphan; Hamilton the son of an illegitimate pairing abandoned by his father, with a mother who was jailed for illicit behavior and passed away when Hamilton was a boy.  What sets Sedgwick’s narrative apart is the attention he offers to certain aspects of their lives that other biographers do not.  A case in point are Sedgwick’s ruminations concerning Burr’s attraction to women and resulting sex life, and Hamilton’s true lineage.  Sedgwick seems to hold a fascination with the sex lives of both men, noting the many affairs in which they were involved that are explored in detail.  As a novelist I guess he is drawn to tawdry aspects of his story and spends an inordinate amount of time on Hamilton’s idiotic pursuit of Maria Reynolds and the ruination of Hamilton’s career.

As previously mentioned, Sedgwick is prone to a number of historical errors.  As the eminent historian Gordon Woods points out;

He has Benjamin Franklin in Paris negotiating the peace all by himself.  He mistakenly           makes John Adams the minister to France when in fact Adams was never minister and was only a member of a peace commission.  He says that President Washington pardoned the rebels in Shay’s Rebellion when in fact it was Massachusetts governor John Hancock.  He has Washington selecting Hamilton to make the a ‘grand summation’ of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention ‘at the end’ of the meeting, when actually Hamilton gave his six-hour speech on June 18 near the beginning, and it was not a summation at all but an effort to make the Virginia plan seem more moderate.  He says the Senate decided to call the chief executive the president, when actually it was the House of Representatives that overturned the more monarchial title suggested by the Senate.  (”Federalists on Broadway,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016)

I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, and at times is also prone to overstatement and hyperbole; for example, “When Laurens died, it was as if the true Hamilton died too.”

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Sedgwick mostly alternates chapters between his two protagonists as he compares his subjects.  Burr is described as a man who was always short of money or in debt, charged the highest lawyer fees he could obtain, engaged in land speculation, and never committed to a position unless it could benefit him – a man without an ideology.  Hamilton, on the other hand maintained a consistent ideology and was not obsessed with wealth, though he was concerning his reputation and social station.  Sedgwick explores the marriages of both men in detail with Burr deeply in love with Theodosia, a widow of a British soldier he had had an affair with and was ten years his senior.  It was more of an intellectual relationship than a physical one and despite his meanderings he worshiped her.  Hamilton who suffered from his own peccadilloes, loved the “matronly” “Betsy,” but she was more of a traditional wife with womanly skills, and not a feminist.  Sedgwick also spends time comparing their approach to fatherhood.  Though away a great deal of the time Burr adored his daughter, also named Theodosia who was educated as if she was a male.  Hamilton was a good father who was thrilled with his large “brood” and was very involved in the lives of his children.

My concern with Sedgwick’s approach is that he does not provide enough information when he introduces a topic and fails to provide the necessary historical context for the many scenes he introduces.  For the novice his presentation is inviting, but I imagine too many times it is confusing.  Further, the author seems to spend more time on inconsequential aspects of the story rather than the more important events that surround his subjects.  A case in point is that he spends more time on why Federalists did not shake hands with each other, or even touch each other, than discussing the development and importance of Hamilton’s National Bank.  In addition, Sedgwick’s approach to citations is somewhat cavalier.  He presents a rationale for the approach he takes and it seems like a cop out.  Stating that the existence of Google provides the best sourcing for readers, Sedgwick does provide a short paragraph for each chapter reflecting a few main sources to let the reader know where the information originated.  Since he states that he used a myriad of sources it could not have overly taxed him to provide the proper affirmation.espite these shortcomings Sedgwick does provide some interesting insights particularly Washington’s disdain for Burr who he saw as arrogant, untrustworthy, unsoldierly, and one who would not conform.   Another is his remarks pertaining to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s view of Burr that he would do for them in the political world what Philip Freneau did in the newspapers by backing him for the Senate from New York State.  It was designed to “drive Hamilton to a frenzy of irritation, causing him to bring about his own ruin with no further help from them.”  Sedgwick is also insightful as he explores Burr’s machinations as vice president, after the duel with Hamilton, and his plot to create his own western empire.

Overall, Sedgwick’s work can be categorized as entertaining and as a stylized historical narrative the book seems to be a success, but as a work of history, it is rather weak.

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JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON: THE RIVALRY THAT FORGED A NATION by John Ferling

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(Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson)

Before John Ferling delves into the background, philosophies, and careers of his subjects in his JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON: THE RIVALRY THAT FORGED A NATION he exposes the reader to a meditation on how the third president and the first Secretary of the Treasury have been evaluated by successive generations.  At the outset Jefferson was seen more favorably as he was deemed to be a democratic populist who defended the liberties of all, while Hamilton was viewed as the spokesperson for the rich upper class or “monarchical party.”  This characterization existed through most of the 19th century as Jeffersonian agrarianism fought off the evolution of industrialization.  Men like Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan claimed Jefferson’s mantle, while Theodore Roosevelt and his adherents at the turn of the 20th century believed in Hamilton’s vision of American power, influence, and economic interests.  By the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jefferson’s legacy reemerges with the onset and effects of the Great Depression which was laid at the feet of “monied interests.”  Following World War II and the onset of the Cold War Hamilton was seen as the “patron saint” of the political right wing, and his service on behalf of the financial sector and free market economy is applauded.  Jefferson’s reputation was decried during the Civil Rights era and by time Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency many saw him as a hypocrite because of his stance on slavery and his vision for America suffered.  With the advent of neo-conservatism, Hamilton’s insights were more generally accepted and he was described as a creative genius.  It is interesting to contemplate the new Trump administration’s stance on the two founding fathers since they came to power based on a populist economic message.  It will be fascinating to speculate and somewhat scary to observe the evolution of the new regime in Washington.

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(George Washington)

It is obvious that Ferling has mined a significant amount of the voluminous secondary sources that exist on his subjects.  He offers a strong synopsis of their early years and provides penetrating insights into their future characters.  However, his discussion of Jefferson is presented in greater depth, in part because of the paucity of material related to Hamilton’s early years.  Further, his objectivity can also be questioned as it is apparent that he holds Jefferson in greater esteem than Hamilton.  Ferling claims to be more impressed with Hamilton than he thought he would be.  Though he admires Hamilton’s intellect and achievements, the narrative, despite pointing out a number of Jefferson’s flaws is decidedly in favor of “the Sage of Monticello.”

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(photo of Jefferson’s home at Monticello)

Jefferson comes across as self-absorbed in his private life as opposed to his public career before the American Revolution, particularly up to 1774 as he worked on his law career, married into a monied family, and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses.  His writing were sharp, clear, and radical, but only from a Virginian’s perspective.  Jefferson was more radical that most Virginians and interestingly his views dovetailed more with the north.  As Jefferson wrote in a meditative and philosophical manner, at the same time Hamilton’s approach was slash and burn.  His no holds barred approach would never change, be it answering Samuel Seabury or Aaron Burr.  What separated Hamilton’s writing from others is that he predicted why and how England would lose a war with the colonies.  Hamilton avoided criticizing George III and did not call for independence, as he blamed English ministers for the coming conflict, and therefore argued for reconciliation.

Ferling writes with a smooth prose that allows the reader to glide over his words, words that are full of insight and analysis.  Ferling’s comments are very measured throughout the narrative and his approach allows the reader to make up their own minds on the subjects at hand.  For example, Ferling holds Jefferson in high esteem, but he does not shirk from describing his self- indulgent nature as is seen when he describes Jefferson’s contribution to the Revolutionary War effort, his accumulation of debt because of his consumerism, his refusal to serve in Congress, the hypocrisy related to his future plans for slavery, and the life style when he lived in Monticello and Paris.  Ferling does balance his presentation by arguing that Jefferson’s non-military contributions to the revolution are as important as his “scripture,” the Declaration of Independence which crystallized the founding ideas of the new country by trying to diminish the power of the “patrician order” and laid the foundation of a truly republican government.  As for Hamilton no one had to goad him into service or exhibit courage.  However, Ferling does explore Hamilton’s motivations as he tries to overcome his family roots and achieve notoriety and success.  For Hamilton, it just seemed as his life progressed there was always a rich and powerful sponsor that helped him move forward.

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(The Continental Congress)

Ferling tells the story of the American Revolution through the movements of Hamilton and George Washington.  Strategy is analyzed, personalities are explored, and the importance of Hamilton-Washington relationship is presented front and center.  Ferling makes the excellent point that Washington was very concerned about the quality of intellect in the Congress at Philadelphia.  Washington kept pointing out the weak financial state of the government that existed due to its inflated currency and speculation that threatened victory.  The Adams and Franklins that populated the original Congress were gone by 1781, leaving few men of ability; provoking Washington to say, “where are Jefferson and others in this time of need.”  A comment that may have been born of Washington’s close relationship with Hamilton.

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(John Adams)

Hamilton strongly believed that the major problem that the war effort confronted was its lack of a strong central power in government.  Hamilton came to the conclusion that “Europe will save us despite ourselves.”  Hamilton urged people to call for a Constitutional Convention to rectify the situation that had resulted in a military stalemate and create a National Bank in order to finance the war.  Hamilton also called for the use of black soldiers in order to defeat the British. Ferling reviews Hamilton’s writings and agrees with Ron Chernow’s magisterial study that Hamilton was developing his ideas and concepts that he would later apply to governing when he became Treasury Secretary.

Ferling’s approach to Jefferson’s two terms as governor of Virginia is very diplomatic.  He criticizes him for taking until 1779 to agree to serve, but has empathy for Jefferson as he tries to figure out how to defend Virginia from a British invasion, but also assist South Carolina from the attack.  In evaluating Jefferson as governor one might say he did try and rally his home state through leadership other than just employing his quill.  Ferling reviews the reasons for Jefferson’s abandoning his capital when the British threatened.  For the author Jefferson did “dilly dally” over his personal needs, and should have taken the warning of invasion more seriously.  Jefferson comes across as self-centered and it took a great deal of pressure to get him to act.  Overall, Jefferson’s governorship would become a political albatross around his neck until he could escape America and pursue his diplomatic mission in Europe that allowed him to avoid the post-revolution political fray as the new government gained its footing.

Ferling offers a number of important insights concerning the founding fathers that challenges the historical imagery that has surrounded them.  One of the most important is his exploration of Hamilton’ true feelings toward Washington, as he argues that Hamilton did not really care for his commander.  Hamilton’s feelings are colored by his frustration of not gaining a command, a path he believed was a necessity for post-war success.  He resented Washington for keeping him as his aide de camp and viewed his commander as “ill-humored….coarse and sometimes petty, vain, ill-tempered, inconsiderate, insecure, inelegant, and unoriginal in his thinking.”  But, Hamilton realized that Washington was honest and honorable and essential to the American cause that required a “fabricated Washington” for the American people to believe in.  Hamilton would eventually resign and Washington would finally appoint him to a command at Yorktown that sealed his reputation for bravery and leadership.  In stark contrast at the end of the war, Jefferson faced an investigation of his leadership as governor of Virginia.

Ferling’s treatment of the Washington-Hamilton relationship is enhanced because of the knowledge gained writing an excellent biography of Washington, THE ASCENT OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE HIDDEN POLITICAL GENIUS OF AN AMERICAN ICON.  This was apparent after the revolution when the issues of military back pay and pensions threatened to become a military revolt.  Both he and Hamilton agreed on the need to develop a program to pay off the government’s debt, but it did not stop Washington from seeing “menacing qualities in Hamilton that nudged him to assure that his former aide remained a loyal follower, not an enemy.”

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(James Madison)

The fundamental difference between Jefferson and Hamilton was clear early on.  Jefferson stressed the expansion of individual freedom and independence.  Hamilton emphasized the wellbeing of the nation.  Ferling is correct in arguing that “Jefferson had become a revolutionary largely in the hope of securing, enlarging, and sustaining personal liberties. Hamilton’s experience in the Revolutionary War led him to believe that liberty could never exist unless the nation was strong and secure.”  These world views would color their heated relationship for years.

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(Salley Hemmings)

Ferling’s chapter on Jefferson’s life in Paris is important in gaining an understanding of his belief system and interaction with others.  The author’s description of his relationship with the John and Abagail Adams is very poignant in light of their later political feuds.  Jefferson’s loneliness is apparent as he still had not recovered from the death of his wife Martha.  Ferling explores the Maria Cosway affair and his budding relationship with Sally Hemmings as a means of explaining how desperate Jefferson was to fill the void in his life.  A part from personal issues, Ferling describes Jefferson’s views that encompassed his love for the French people, disdain for absolutism and monarchy, including his support for the events of 1789.  What is key is that the philosophy that Jefferson crossed the Atlantic with was reinforced in France and are an accurate guide as to how he would resume his public career once he returned to the United States.

While Jefferson was off in Paris, Hamilton was involved with the Constitutional Convention that replaced the Articles of Confederation.  For Hamilton the government’s indebtedness was the most important issue and the problem that he faced was that “while virtually every delegate came prepared to increase the powers of the national government at the expense of the states, none was willing to jeopardize the vital interests of his state.”  Hamilton’s philosophy became widely known from this process as Ferling describes how Hamilton pulled back the curtain that concealed the thoughts of conservative Americans.  They had not dreamed of sweeping social or political change.  For them, a powerful nation state should be created that would allow men of finance to be free from the shackles of England to invest, make money, and secure their wealth.  For Hamilton, inequality was just the nature of things and he was not inclined to remedy these disparities.  He was an elite who wanted to preserve his status and this anti-democratic belief would be the core of his thought for the remainder of his life.  Hamilton did work to gain passage of the new Constitution by taking on a high percentage of the burden to prepare THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, and once he became Secretary of the Treasury he was able to implement his plans to preserve and develop the new nation.  Ideas such as a National Bank, Assumption of debt by the government, building the Coast Guard, and contributing to a strong executive branch of government were all were major contributions that historians believe were Hamilton’s greatest achievements as our government and economy today follow the principles he developed.

The period following the inauguration of Washington reflects the true disdain that Jefferson and Hamilton felt for each other.  On issue after issue their disagreements reflected their hostility toward one another.  Ferling does a remarkable job explaining the basis for their disagreements and describes the political repercussions.  Today we dread the level of political partisanship, but when one looks back at the nastiness of the 1790s, one might argue that we are somewhat tame today in comparison.  The author provides wonderful anecdotes that reflect the chasm between the two men.  For example, during a visit to Jefferson’s residence in New York, Hamilton pointed to three pictures on the wall and asked who their subjects were.  Jefferson responded; “Bacon, Locke, and Newton” three of the greatest men of history.  Hamilton retorted that the greatest man in history was Julius Caesar.

Ferling seems to sympathize with Jefferson in that he believed that once the assumption of debt issue was settled in return for moving the capitol to the Potomac River region that there would be a few areas of disagreement.  However, once Hamilton launched the rest of his economic program Jefferson claimed to have been deceived.  It is unlikely that Jefferson was that naïve.  But once the Whiskey Tax, the National Bank, and Hamilton’s plan for manufacturing became public, Jefferson was pushed over the edge as he feared that the United States would be turned into a monarchical state that replicated England. As the war in Europe expanded with England joining the alliance against France, foreign policy would enter the equation with the Genet Affair and Jay Treaty that would further exacerbate tensions between Jefferson and Hamilton.

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(Aaron Burr)

The partisanship was further reflected in newspapers, one for each side that became the mouthpieces of the two men.  Hamilton and Jefferson’s cohort, James Madison would publish numerous essays that skewered their opponents.  Jefferson’s misreading of Washington’s views contributed to the problem in that he believed the president had an open mind.  Jefferson did his best to besmirch Hamilton in the eyes of Washington by providing as many damaging documents as he could.   However, Washington blamed Jefferson for the rise of the nasty political factionalism that had developed, in addition to the fact that the president supported Hamilton’s economic program and vision for the future.  Jefferson’s hatred of Hamilton is best seen in Jefferson’s comment to Washington, “Hamilton was a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the country which had not only received him and given him his bread, but its honors.”

Ferling carries the narrative through the end of Washington’s presidency, the Adams administration and the election of 1800.  What is clear in the last third of the book is that Ferling maintains a soft spot for Jefferson and doesn’t miss an opportunity to disparage Hamilton.  Once Hamilton became a private citizen he could not let go of influencing events easily.  He became more of a schemer to implement his grandiose ideas and his “Federalist agenda.”  Ferling’s narrative reduces Hamilton to an individual who worked behind the scenes to manipulate governmental policy, individual opinion, and events to achieve his nefarious goals.  A case in point is the election of 1800 where Hamilton worked overtly and covertly to undermine Adams’ reelection through pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, and private conversations defeat Adams.  In the end he would throw his support to Jefferson to block Aaron Burr as the election came to a vote in the House of Representatives.  Ferling believes that Hamilton suffered from a flawed temperament that dominated his actions which resulted in the end of the Federalist Party as he let his ego get in the way of the changing political culture that had developed.  As far as Jefferson is concerned he is raised to a level of respectability that does not exist in the first half of the book.  Jefferson may have cut a deal with the Federalists to gain the Presidency, but Ferling rationalizes that by doing so he saved the union.

It is interesting that one of the early songs in the musical “Hamilton,” “I am not going to throw away my shot,” it’s star, Lin-Manuel Miranda describes a man who would never give up an opportunity, however as Ferling describes the duel scene with Burr, that is exactly what he did.  Perhaps as Ron Chernow suggests, Hamilton had enough, and it was a respectable way of committing suicide.   Whatever one thinks of these two men, their impact on the creation of the republic, and the legacy that exits today,  it is important to remember the time period in which they lived, and how fervently they believed in their ideals and how they tried to do what they deemed best for the new nation.  Ferling’s book is a strong comparative study and it provides a true understanding of how America began and provides strong clues of what it was about to become.

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(Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson)

ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow

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(Alexander Hamilton)

The popularity of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” has rekindled interest in Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.  I read the original when it was published and I found it to be an amazingly comprehensive study which included incisive analysis and a fairly objective approach to its subject.  Since I will be teaching a course entitled, “Hamilton: The Musical, Historically Accurate or Not” I decided to revisit Chernow’s work.   My opinion has not changed and I still find it to be the best study of Hamilton’s private and public life that includes the major events and issues that he experienced, discussions of his economic proposals and plans, evaluations of those who opposed him, and placing Hamilton in the proper historical context as the Founding Father most responsible for America’s economic development.  Since the publication of ALEXANDER HAMILTON, Chernow has written an excellent study of George Washington and should be considered one of America’s foremost biographers.

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Reading a biography of Hamilton is like reviewing the history of the republic from its inception through the duel with Aaron Burr, as Hamilton seems to be involved in every major event or issue from the revolution until his death.  What becomes clear is that without Hamilton’s ideas the United States government would be unrecognizable today, as we are the heirs of his vision of America.    Chernow’s Hamilton is a man obsessed with his background dating back to questions surrounding his birth in the West Indies, his social standing, and matters of honor.  All three would influence his decision-making and causes he would engage in.  In covering Hamilton’s upbringing, self-education, and employment as a clerk at a mercantile house when he was in his teens Chernow does an excellent job showing how these experiences would create the basis for the policies he implemented when he was in a position to do so later in life. The turning point in Hamilton’s life seems to take place on July 6, 1774 as he spoke to a crowd near King’s College where he was enrolled.  Hamilton favored a boycott of English goods, raged against unfair taxation, deplored the closing of Boston Harbor, and called for colonial unity.  In answering Samuel Seabury’s Tory viewpoints Hamilton’s writings made him an anti-Tory hero.

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(Elizabeth [Eliza] Hamilton)

Chernow effectively delves into Hamilton’s philosophical development during the lead up to the American Revolution and during its evolution.  Hamilton always seemed to worry about the long term effect of constant disorder, particularly among the uneducated masses.  He feared that increased freedom would lead to increased disorder, and thereby a lack of freedom.  This became Hamilton’s lifelong dilemma; how to straddle and resolve this contradiction – balancing liberty and order.  Hamilton’s inner intellectual struggle is nicely played out throughout the biography as Chernow integrates Hamilton’s writings through his published essays in newspapers, public speeches, and position papers prepared for Congress and George Washington.  Hamilton’s internal debate is enhanced through Chernow’s portrayal of Washington.  According to Chernow both agreed on the main issues and the author’s examination of how and why two founding fathers from disparate backgrounds got along so well.  Their relationship forms a major core of the narrative and we can see their mutual dependency. Washington needed Hamilton’s intellect and his total commitment to his beliefs, and Hamilton needed Washington’s personal and political support in dealing with the many enemies he would make, a number of which was due to his irascible personality and approach to getting things done.  Hamilton became Washington’s “pen,” as well as his alter ego.

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(George Washington)

All of the major figures of the American Revolution and the early republic are on full display as is Hamilton’s personal life.  John Adams, Aaron Burr, James Madison, Lafayette, John Laurence, and of course Thomas Jefferson all make their appearance with their own personal agendas.  Also developed is Hamilton’s personal life particularly his relationship with Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler, his wife and her sister Angelica who would marry John Church, an English businessman.  Some authors present Hamilton as a philanderer after his marriage to Eliza, and Chernow does not downplay this character fault, however, after his disastrous affair with Maria Reynolds between  1791 and 1792, and dealing with the blackmail of her husband James, it seems Hamilton had learned his lesson and from that point on he was a devoted father and husband.  The affair would be a cloud hanging over his head for the remainder of his life, particularly when his reputation was so important to him. Chernow conjectures that evidence of the affair once in the hands of his political enemies, may have cost him the presidency.

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(Thomas Jefferson)

Chernow is very incisive in his analysis of the politics of the period and the parochial interests of certain individuals.  For example, dealing with slavery which Hamilton ardently opposed due to witnessing the venal effects of the slave trade growing up in the West Indies.   Chernow condemns “the hypocritical critiques of his [Hamilton’s] allegedly aristocratic economic system [which] emanated from the most aristocratic southern slaveholders, who deflected attention from their own nefarious deeds by posing as populist champions and assailing the northern financial and mercantile interests aligned with Hamilton.” (211)  Hamilton’s role at the constitutional convention and preparation of the final document is fully discussed as is Hamilton’s commitment to do everything in his power to successfully implement the document when he was in public and private life.  Granted, Hamilton was able to expand the constitution when needed, by developing the concept of “implied powers,” but his loyalty to the constitution and his arguments in favor, particularly, the FEDERALIST PAPERS never wavered.

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(James Madison)

Chernow asks a very important question in that why did this period spawn such extraordinary men, especially when we compare them to the new administration in Washington.  The behind the scenes machinations at the Constitutional Convention, its ratification, Washington’s cabinet debates, and the political wrangling over Hamilton’s program for the assumption of debt, the national bank and other components of his plans for the young republic all receive extensive coverage.  Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is Chernow’s discussion of the development of the Federalist and Republican parties synonymous with Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Chernow explores their writings, personal conversations, and the vitriol that existed between the two men.  Chernow’s portrayal of Jefferson is not a positive one seeing the author of the Declaration of Indolence and Secretary of State as a hypocrite in dealing with the problems of the young republic.  Chernow’s portrayal of the man who avoided the American Revolution with his posting to France, was rather cavalier when it came to shedding the blood of others, in addition to his sanctimonious views when it came to government and Hamilton’s economic program,  is not very flattering.  Chernow dives deep into the essays and communication between the two men, also bringing in Hamilton’s ally at the Constitutional Convention and co-author of the FEDERALIST PAPERS, James Madison into his discussion, concluding that fourth president and member of the “Virginia Dynasty” was a back stabber, and though brilliant in his own right, was a lackey of Jefferson.  Jefferson resented Hamilton’s encroachment into his sphere as the Secretary of the Treasury as he developed the Customs Service and the Coast Guard to protect American trade.  However, the issue that riled Jefferson the most was Hamilton’s opposition to honoring the 1778 alliance with France during its war with England, Spain, and Holland.  For Jefferson, Hamilton was a monarchist married to the English crown and economic system with pretentions of sitting on an American throne.

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(Angelica Schuyler Church)

In evaluating Hamilton, Chernow is spot on pointing out that many of Hamilton’s actions and behaviors demonstrated that beneath his invincible façade throughout his career he was still the hypersensitive boy from the West Indies.  His combativeness came from an obsession with matters of honor – a man of deep and, at times, ungovernable emotions; i.e.; involvement and threats dealing with duels, insulting remarks and commentary, and vindictive essays.

The role of Angelica Church, Hamilton’s sister-in-law is useful in discussing how politics and personal issues played out.  The questions of Hamilton’s relationship with her, and a possible affair is presented, as is her love for her brother-in-law.  Church who lived in England with her husband becomes a source of intelligence for Hamilton as men seemed enchanted with her, even Jefferson, who invited her to Monticello, seemed to fall for her.  The Jefferson that Chernow discusses is a lot different that of Dumas Malone or Jon Meacham.  He lives on credit and spends a great deal of money on his interests, whether wine, books, French furniture and as a result would leave his heirs to pay off his substantial debt.  Jefferson liked to present himself as above the fray, but he was down in the “mud” in dealing with the Constitution, the Genet Affair, the Jay Treaty and any other issue that could injure Hamilton.  What bothered Jefferson and Madison the most was that Hamilton’s economic program was setting precedents that would be difficult to undo in the future.  Hamilton acted speedily dealing with the debt from the revolution and making the United States a manufacturing power with a National Bank and other programs. What frightened them was that they saw a future that threatened their southern way of life.  To Chernow’s credit he does present Hamilton programs and rationale in detail, but he also develops the opposition’s point of view.  Today we think we are in the midst of one of the nastiest and bipartisan periods in American history, but it pales in comparison to what Hamilton had to deal with.

Whatever flaws one can detect in Hamilton’s private life and pursuit of power one must recognize his accomplishments.  When he left government service he could point to suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, a flourishing financial base for the country and the economy in general, and had survived numerous investigations into his motives as Treasury Secretary and his private life.  “He prevailed in almost every major program he had sponsored – whether the bank, assumption, funding the public debt, the tax system, the Customs Service, or the Coast Guard – despite years of complaints and smears….Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States now enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation.  He laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of president from a passive administrator to active policy maker….He demonstrated the use of government and helped weld the states irreversibly into one nation.” (481)

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Once out of power it seemed as if Hamilton was a “shadow” member of Washington’s administration, but once Adams became president the animus between the two emerges, in part because of Hamilton’s behavior behind the scenes during the 1796 election, the result of which was that his influence waned as he was shut out of decision making.  Adams’ hated Hamilton and some of his comments seem delusional.  In fact, much of his critique of Hamilton was so full of vindictiveness it could have emanated from the mouth or pen of Jefferson.  Hamilton made two major errors after he left Washington’s cabinet.  The first, publishing “The Reynolds Pamphlet” designed to clear his name and reputation.  But, in reality it just dragged his family through the mud once more and provided fodder for the Republican press.  His second error was his “intemperate indictment” of John Adams.  This reflected his “genius for the self-inflicted wound and was capable of marching blindly off a cliff—traits most pronounced in the late 1790s.” (619)  The end for Hamilton would come when he supported Jefferson for the presidency and worked behind the scenes to deny Burr, a man he totally distrusted the any higher office in the election of 1800.  Later, he would work behind the scenes to deny Burr the governorship of New York which would lead to a number of poor decisions of Hamilton’s part resulting in his death in a duel on July 11, 1804.  In this particular instance the strength of Chernow’s work can be seen as he places the events, communications and previous historiography under a microscope to set the scene for the reader to digest all aspects of what took place.

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(Aaron Burr)

Burr ended the life of one of the most important individuals in American history and Chernow must be commended for his story telling ability, analysis based on comprehensive research in preparing his award winning biography.  Overall, Chernow sets the record straight on many controversial occurrences and has provided an alternative view of Hamilton that adds to the debate concerning the founding fathers.  But once you have read Chernow’s biography one cannot disagree with David Brook’s comment in his 2004 New York Times book review; “so there is no Hamilton monument in Washington, but at least we have Ron Chernow’s moving and masterly ‘Alexander Hamilton,’ which is by far the best biography ever written about one man.” (“Creating Capitalism” NYT, April 25, 2004)

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THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE by Stephen Kinzer

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(Mark Twain)

Stephen Kinzer is a prolific writer and historian among whose books include ALL THE SHAH’S MEN an excellent study that explains the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the origins of our conflict with that country.  Other books; THE BROTHERS, a fascinating dual biography of Allen W. and John Foster Dulles, men who significantly impacted American intelligence gathering and foreign policy throughout the 1950s; and OVERTHROW, a study that explains how Washington conducted a series of coups from Hawaii to Iraq to install governments that it could control.  If there is a theme to Kinzer’s books it is that the United States has conducted a series of forays into foreign countries that reek of imperialism and have not turned out well.  His latest effort, THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE follows the same theme and tries to bring about an understanding of why and how the United States began its journey towards empire.

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(President Theodore Roosevelt)

From the outset Kinzer describes a conflicted American approach toward foreign policy.  It appears that Americans cannot make up their minds on which course to follow: Should we pursue imperialism or isolationism?  Do we want to guide the world or let every nation guide itself?  This inability to decide has played itself out from the end of the nineteenth century until today as we try and figure out what avenue to take following the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its ramifications.  Kinzer argues that “for generations every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition,” however, “all are pale shadows of the first one” that began in 1898 is developed in THE TRUE FLAG.  Kinzer zeroes in on one of the most far reaching debates in American history that was fostered by the Spanish American War, not the Second World War as most believe; should the United States intervene in foreign lands, a debate that is ever prescient today.

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(Henry Cabot Lodge)

Following the results of the war against Spain, the United States found itself in possession of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and was about to annex the Hawaiian islands, leading to a fever of empire among many Americans in and out of government.  Kinzer traces the political machinations that resulted in the new American Empire.  He also takes the reader behind the scenes that resulted in decisions that led to what President McKinley termed “benevolent assimilation” for the Philippines, or a more accurate description, a race war to subdue Filipino guerillas led by Emilio Aguinaldo.  Kinzer has full command of the history of the period politically, militarily, and economically.  He has extensive knowledge of the secondary and primary materials, and writes with a clear and snappy prose that maintains reader interest.

What separates Kinzer’s narrative and analysis from other studies dealing with this topic is his focus on the debate over American expansionism that created the Anti-Imperialist League to offset the arguments of the imperialists in and out of Congress.  He provides a blend of both arguments integrating a great many heated speeches and articles that the protagonists engaged in and produced, even describing a fist fight in the Senate between the senators from South Carolina over a vote that ratified the Treaty of Paris.  Kinzer focuses on a number of important historical characters that include; Theodore Roosevelt who used the Spanish-American War as a vehicle to advance politically; Henry Cabot Lodge, a strong believer in the “large policy” of imperialism as the Senator from Massachusetts; William Randolph Hearst whose newspaper helped incite the war, and would later turn against imperialism as he sought a political career; President William McKinley who supposedly received divine guidance to pursue his expansionist agenda; Mark Twain, writer and satirist who initially favored expansion, then became the “eviscerating bard” against empire; William Jennings Bryan, the “free silver” commoner from the Midwest who was defeated three times for the presidency; Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America, but opposition to imperialism for him was almost a religious cause; and Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who fought in the Civil War and served as Secretary of the Interior among many important positions during his career.

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(Andrew Carnegie)

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Kinzer’s narrative discusses the two opportunities that Bryan had to stem the imperialist tide.  Bryan was an avid opponent of expansion from the moral perspective, but he would cave to political ambition on two occasions.  The first, during the debate in Congress over the Treaty of Paris which would cap America’s territorial aggrandizement from the war.  At the last minute Bryan decided to support the treaty and America’s possession of the Philippines.  Second, as the Democratic candidate for president in 1900 he refused to leave out his “free silver” plank from the convention platform and concentrate on the anti-imperialist message.  By not doing so he scared away eastern business opponents of expansion and a number of allies in the Democratic Party.  The result was the passage of the treaty and the reelection of McKinley.

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(President William McKinley)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Kinzer’s treatment of Mark Twain.  Kinzer offers a detailed discussion of Twain’s arrival from Europe on October 15, 1900 in the midst of the imperialism debate and his transition to his anti-imperialism stance.  A number of Twain’s writings and comments are presented and analyzed and compared with those of Theodore Roosevelt, whose ascendancy to the presidency after McKinley is assassinated, effectively kills the Anti-Imperialism League.  Twain’s writings detail his disgust for events in the Philippines and the disaster that ensued.  Twain is presented along with other famous writers and poets whose anger at expansion and its results knew no bounds.   However, the work of Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley character, written with an Irish workman’s accent is probably more important in that it reached the illiterate masses, while others appealed to the social and political elite.

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Kinzer’s narrative packs a great deal into 250 pages and it is a fast read.  However, do not   evaluate this book by its length because it presents an excellent synthesis and analysis of the important events, personalities, and policies of the 1898-1902 period as America debated if it should become an empire, the type of debate that was missing in the United States as we contemplated invading Iraq in 2003.  A war that we are still paying for today.  In the end many of the predictions set forth by the anti-imperialists have come to pass, just examine American foreign policy since the end of World War II.  We as Americans must answer the question: “Does intervention in other countries serve our national interest and constitute global stability, or does it undermine both?” (229)

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(Mark Twain)

ONCE IN A GREAT CITY: A DETROIT STORY by David Maraniss

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(Ford Rotunda, Dearborn, MI)

David Maraniss’ ONCE IN A GREAT CITY: A DETROIT STORY is almost a love story or at the very least an ode to a city that has slowly fallen from the heights it had reached in the 1950s.  Maraniss focuses on the 1962-1964 period when the city was about to confront white flight to suburbia, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the ever present issue of racism.  Maraniss who is an excellent writer whose works include sports biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, the foremost study of Bill Clinton’s pre-presidential years, a wonderful book on Vietnam and the anti-war movement among a number of others.  Maraniss takes on the city of his birth, an urban colossus held together by the automobile industry and manufacturing after World War II that is in the midst of a severe decline.  The decaying city is like a boxer who has been knocked down and is trying desperately to get off the canvas.  In 1962 a reform mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh comes to office and launches a courageous campaign to root out racism in the city’s police force.  Others including Walter Reuther, the powerful head of the United Automobile Workers Union, who saw segregation through the lens of the Cold War and a threat to increasing progressive unionism worldwide is examined.  Reuther was a man of action who tried to create programs and investment to rekindle Detroit’s glory.  It was an uphill fight, and a timely story as today, Detroit, now much smaller and with a more varied economic approach is still trying to rise from the ashes.

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(the founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy, Jr.)

Maraniss begins in a symbolic fashion as he describes two events that took place on November 9, 1962.  First, the fire that destroyed most of the Ford Rotunda one of the city’s most important symbols – America’s love affair with the automobile, never to be rebuilt.   Secondly, the police and federal agents raid of the Gotham Hotel, the center of black culture for many years, to break up a significant gambling racquet, and as a result the hotel was demolished in the name of urban renewal, or as others remarked “negro removal!”

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The book conveys a number of interesting biographical sketches of important individuals of the period.  Maraniss ranges from the automobile industry concentrating on Ford, and the music industry zeroing in on Motown and the empire Berry Gordy, Jr. built providing the reader the feel of the mid-1960s.  The reader is also exposed to the grimy side of Detroit as Police Commissioner George Edwards goes after the mob and its gambling ties to the city.  His investigation, along with the FBI establishes links to National Football League players and the Giacalone mob family that involves Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras who will be suspended from playing, and eventually through a sting he arrests Tony Giacalone.   Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a JFK liberal and his quest to bring the summer Olympic Games to Detroit in 1968 is discussed in detail as he tries to implement his progressive agenda.

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(Henry Ford II)

Maraniss used the rise of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas as a template to explain why Detroit was at the perfect storm to develop the Motown sound.  From the availability of pianos to middle class black families, the migration from the south of gospel and blues as people came in search of jobs during World War II, the reach of Grinnell’s, the music store that made affordable instruments available, the luck and proximity of random talents like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson living so close to each other during childhood, and the music education provided by Detroit public school teachers.  The role of the Reverend Clarence La Vaugh Franklin is analyzed as he moved from being a theatrical circuit preacher around the country to that of a civil rights leader in Detroit as he organizes a civil rights march, “the Walk to Freedom” in Detroit supported by Reuther and the UAW among others. The march was highlighted by an address by Martin Luther King, and it was at this Detroit rally that he laid the basis for his “I had a Dream Speech” given later that summer in Washington.  Overall, the black community throughout the time frame of the book is beset by a power struggle and division as Franklin is not able to maintain the unity of the rally and Reverend Albert Cleague moves toward a black liberation theology bent on dealing with the problems faced in Detroit.  Cleague will go so far as inviting Malcom X to speak to his supporters providing evidence of the total rift that existed as King was derided, and that there was no way to close the factionalism that emerged.

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(Lee Iacocca)

Maraniss also explores the relationship between Lee Iacocca, the head of Ford and J.Walter Thompson, the advertising firm that was to modernize Ford’s image as 1963 approached.  The campaign would be headed by William D. Laurie, the head of the agency in Detroit and the epitome of the “Mad Men” mystique.  The project was T-5, and after the bust called the Edsel, Iacocca needed a success.  The success would become the Ford “Mustang,” whose development Maraniss details concentrating on the relationship between Henry Ford II and Iacocca.  Maraniss also conveys the importance of Ford and Walter Reuther focusing on their ability to negotiate and reach agreements that allowed workers to think of themselves as middle class as they received pensions, health insurance, and wages connected to an inflation index.  The work of these two men was important to the labor peace of the mid-sixties and their impact was throughout the industrial universe.

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(1965 Ford Mustang)

Perhaps the most evocative topic is that of the development of Motown and the music industry and how it was spawned.  Concentrating on the Gordy family and its contributions, Maraniss focuses on Berry Gordy, Jr. and the Motown review, a stage show of some of the future stars of music including Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.  The review left Detroit on a 56 day tour on the day the United States instituted its embargo of Cuba during the missile crisis of October, 1962.  Maraniss effectively transforms the trip into a discussion of race in America as the group experiences segregation throughout its journey.  Traveling all over the Midwest, south, and winding up in New York City Maraniss integrates the black migration north for jobs beginning in the 1930s, the reaction of whites who felt they were taking their jobs, race based actions by white police forces, and the violence of black youth.  Racial fearmongering was a dominant theme and the issues that were prevalent during and after World War II were ever present as the tour wound on while the Civil Rights Movement was in full gear.   What emerges from the tour is that music is another Detroit export that impacted America second only to the auto industry.

Maraniss is careful to point out at a time when Detroit was booming a Wayne State University study in February, 1963 predicted the collapse of the city as it declared bankruptcy in 2013.  The study pointed to the reduction of the city’s population from 1,670,414 in 1960 to a projected 1,259,515 in 1970.  It also highlighted the white flight to the suburbs as blacks made up 28.9% of the city’s population in 1960 and a projected 44.4% in 1970.  The result of which would be a population whose tax base could not pay for its needs as by 2013 the population would be 688,000.  But what is fascinating at the time of the report automobiles were selling at record levels and the city was selling itself as the home for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games.

“By the close of Mr. Maraniss’ book, dreams of hosting the Olympics have been scuttled; urban renewal has uprooted many traditional, predominantly black neighborhoods; police reforms that might lead to greater racial harmony have stalled; and efforts to transform the city through Model Cities and War on Poverty programs have run aground, fueling tensions that would explode in the 1967 riot.” (NYT, September 14, 2015)   A riot that would kill 43 people, injure another 1189, result in 7200 arrests, with the destruction of over 2000 buildings.

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(the symbol of Detroit today, an abandoned building)

If you want to relive the essence of the mid-1960s, Maraniss’ new book, with its emphasis on Motown, the Ford Motor Company, race relations and the civil rights movement, politics and much more is an excellent synthesis of the period.  It reflects Maraniss’ approach to narrative history, impeccable research and mastery of topic that will not disappoint.  Read it and enjoy.

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THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT: MAC ARTHUR AND TRUMAN AT THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR by H.W. Brands

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at the Wake Island Conference, October 15, 1950)

On June 25, 1950 North Korea unleashed an attack against its southern neighbor that set off a war that resulted in 36,914 American casualties.  Many Americans are aware of the role of General Douglas MacArthur in the conflict, in particular his brilliant, but risky landing at Inchon that beat back the North Korean attack, and later in the war pursuing a strategy that led to Chinese intervention.  MacArthur’s actions were very controversial and once the Chinese crossed the Yalu River with over 100,000 troops and the military situation deteriorated, America’s allies grew concerned when MacArthur suggested the use of atomic weapons against the Chinese.  President Harry S. Truman did his best to reign in his commander to no avail and most historians believe that MacArthur overstepped his authority and allowed his strong belief system guide his actions.  Others like the British historian Robert Harvey and the American historian Arthur Herman believe the situation was much more nuanced.  The topic has again been explored in H.W. Brands new book, THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT: MACARTHUR AND TRUMAN AT THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR.  Brands position is very clear that Truman’s firing of MacArthur was a “bold stroke” that may have headed off a much wider war with the Chinese.

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(US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson)

Brands juxtaposes two personalities with totally different backgrounds and agendas.  Truman, reelected president in his own right in 1948 stood up to Stalin after World War II implementing the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and stood fast over Berlin as he pursued the policy of containment of the Soviet Union.  With the North Korean attack he was able to blunt their progress until the Chinese crossed the Yalu River in force, but he was faced with a commander who wanted to employ nuclear weapons to send a message to the communist world.  On the other hand, MacArthur, the “all knowing general” who held politicians in contempt, especially a “novice” president like Truman.  MacArthur saw himself as having saved the Pacific in World War II, rebuilt postwar Japan, and now believed he had the communists right where he wanted them, but a feckless president stood in his way.  Brands does his best to explain the issues between the two men in the context of the Cold War in which they lived.  Brands has written a general history of their relationship and its ultimate outcome, but does not really add anything new that has not been uncovered by previous works on the topic.

Brands smooth narrative style, refined through the many books he has written is present throughout.  Brands is a master story teller who is able to present his narrative and analysis in a concise fashion that the general reader should enjoy, which at times will also satisfy an academic audience.  A case in point is how MacArthur gained the support of the Japanese people as he totally reoriented their society away from the militaristic emperor worship to a nation based on liberal democracy.  In the constitution he prepared he did away with all pre-war institutions, except the emperor, that had dominated Japan and resulted in World War II.  Further evidence of this approach can be seen as Brands reviews Truman’s career that spans his election to the Senate in 1940, his assumption of the presidency in 1945, and Cold War events to the onset of the Korean War.  Brands effectively relies on Truman’s correspondence with his daughter Margaret who served as a remarkable conduit into his thoughts and concerns.

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(General Matthew Ridgeway who took over command in Korea after MacArthur was relieved)

A major strength of the book are the character studies that are presented.  Discussions of people like Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a rather arrogant individual; General Omar T. Bradley, whose insights into Truman and MacArthur’s personalities are fascinating; General Matthew Ridgeway, a hero at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II whose leadership helped turn around the military balance in Korea; and Marguerite Higgins, a wartime correspondent add to the narrative.  Other strengths of the book include Brands’ description of the plight and final breakout of US Marines at the Chosin Reservoir and their two week trek battling the elements which were more dangerous than the Chinese communists to reach Hamhung.  Brands coverage of Truman and MacArthur rationalizations when confronted by Congress and the press is eye opening in trying to gain insights into their dysfunctional relationship after the Chinese communists crossed the Yalu into North Korea.  MacArthur’s statements at this time concerning administration restraints in dealing with bombing Chinese airfields in Manchuria and other issues is very similar to his rhetoric leaked to the American press after Matthew Ridgeway’s forces saved MacArthur’s reputation in April, 1951.  Brands coverage of Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff finally reaching the conclusion to relieve MacArthur of his command points to the final realization that MacArthur’s insubordination and egocentrism could no longer be tolerated.  Especially enlightening was the inclusion of a great deal of the testimony of MacArthur and Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall before Congress following MacArthur’s dismissal. However, the report of the hearings would have been enhanced if excerpts of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s testimony had also been included.   This along with the geopolitical analysis of the region and domestic politics in the United States that included the role of Chiang Kai-Shek, Republicans in Congress, and the coming 1952 presidential election are all important pieces in understanding the war and its domestic implications.

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(President elect Dwight Eisenhower visits South Korea after his election)

Despite the strengths of the book there are a number of areas that could be improved.  The bibliography is rather sparse and the endnotes could be enhanced.  In the area of analysis, Brands chooses to deal with a number of major issues in a rather superficial manner.  His exploration of Soviet motives behind the North Korean attack is weak.  His excuse that the Russians were protesting the seating of Formosa over mainland China in the UN Security Council as the reason for their absence to block an American/UN force to stop the North Korean advance does not go far enough.  Is it possible that Moscow tried to draw the United States into the conflict in the hope it would cause difficulties with the Chinese at a time when the Sino-Soviet split was emerging is a main motivation?  Brands covers all the major topics that come under the umbrella of his overall subject, but he needs to dig down further, or just state up front that he is preparing a general history of the topic, then the reader will not expect more.  For example, the Wake Island meeting between Truman and MacArthur covers the basics.   Further, he does not drill down far enough when discussing events that led up to the Chinese overrunning UN forces in November, 1950.  To his credit he does list the signs of possible Chinese actions that MacArthur missed, but he needs to explore the reaction of America’s allies further, as well as the interaction between MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Overall, Brands has written a very readable account of the Truman-MacArthur relationship in the context of the Cold War.  I would agree with Francis P. Sempa’s view published in the New York Journal of Books* that Brands does not present a very clear legacy of the Korean War in terms of future American foreign policy.  Truman wanted to have a “police action” or “limited war,” in Korea, MacArthur sought total victory, something the United States has achieved only once since World War II in the first Gulf War in 1990-91, but failed to accomplish in Vietnam, and currently in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are a number of lessons that could have been discussed that relate to future American foreign policy, an important area, which Brands chooses to ignore.

*http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/general-vs-president

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at the Wake Island Conference, October 15, 1950)

HIS FINAL BATTLE: THE LAST MONTHS OF FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT by Joseph Lelyveld

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(President Franklin Roosevelt circa late 1944)

A number of years ago historian, Warren Kimball wrote a book entitled THE JUGGLER which seemed an apt description of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach to presidential decision making.  As the bibliography of Roosevelt’s presidency has grown exponentially over the years Kimball’s argument has stood the test of time as FDR dealt with domestic and war related issues simultaneously.  In his new book HIS FINAL BATTLE:  THE LAST MONTHS OF FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, Joseph Lelyveld concentrates on the period leading up to Roosevelt’s death in April, 1945.  The key question for many was whether Roosevelt would seek a fourth term in office at a time when the planning for D-Day was in full swing, questions about the post war world and our relationship with the Soviet Union seemed paramount, and strategy decisions in the Pacific needed to be addressed.  Lelyveld’s work is highly readable and well researched and reviews much of the domestic and diplomatic aspects of the period that have been mined by others.  At a time when the medical history of candidates for the presidency is front page news, Lelyveld’s work stands out in terms of Roosevelt’s medical history and how his health impacted the political process, war time decision making, and his vision for the post war world.  The secrecy and manipulation of information surrounding his health comes across as a conspiracy to keep the American public ignorant of his true condition thereby allowing him, after months of political calculations to seek reelection and defeat New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944.  Roosevelt’s medical records mysteriously have disappeared, but according to Dr. Marvin Moser of Columbia Medical School he was “a textbook case of untreated hypertension progressing to [likely] organ failure and death from stroke.” The question historians have argued since his death was his decision to seek a fourth term in the best interest of the American people and America’s place in the world.

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(Roosevelt confidante, Daisy Suckley)

Lelyveld does an exceptional job exploring Roosevelt’s personal motivations for the decisions he made, postponed, and the people and events he manipulated.  Always known as a pragmatic political animal Roosevelt had the ability to pit advisors and others against each other in his chaotic approach to decision making.  Lelyveld does not see Roosevelt as a committed ideologue as was his political mentor Woodrow Wilson, a man who would rather accept defeat based on his perceived principles, than compromise to achieve most of his goals.  Lelyveld reviews the Wilson-Roosevelt relationship dating back to World War I and discusses their many similarities, but concentrates on their different approaches in drawing conclusions.  For Roosevelt the key for the post war world was an international organization that would maintain the peace through the influence of the “big four,” Russia, England, China, and the United States.  This could only be achieved by gaining the trust of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and making a series of compromises to win that trust.  The author will take the reader through the planning, and decisions made at the Teheran Conference in November, 1943, and Yalta in February, 1945 and the implications of the compromises reached.  Lelyveld’s Roosevelt is “the juggler” who would put off decisions, pit people against each other, always keep his options open, and apply his innate political antenna in developing his own viewpoints.  This approach is best exemplified with his treatment of Poland’s future.  In his heart Roosevelt knew there was little he could do to persuade Stalin to support the Polish government in exile, but that did not stop him from sending hopeful signals to the exiled Poles.  Roosevelt would ignore the Katyn Forest massacre of 15,000 Polish officers by the Russian NKVD in his quest to gain Stalin’s support, and in so doing he fostered a pragmatic approach to the Polish issue as Roosevelt and Churchill were not willing to go to war with the Soviet Union over Poland.

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(Yalta Conference, February, 1945)

While all of these decisions had to be made Roosevelt was being pressured to decide if he would run for reelection.  Lelyveld’s analysis stands out in arguing that the president did not have the time and space to make correct decisions.  With his health failing, which he was fully aware of, and so much going on around him, he could not contemplate his own mortality in deciding whether to run or not.  The problem in 1944 was that Roosevelt would not tell anyone what he was planning.  As he approached 1944 “his pattern of thought had grown no less elusive….and the number of subjects he could entertain at one time and his political appetite for fresh political intelligence had both undergone discernible shrinkage.”  By 1944, despite not being not being totally informed of his truth health condition by physician Admiral Ross McIntire, Roosevelt believed he was not well.  Lelyveld relies a great deal on the diaries of Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin who he felt comfortable with and spent more time with than almost anyone, to discern Roosevelt’s mindset.   Lelyveld raises the curtain on the Roosevelt-Suckley relationship and makes greater use of her diaries than previous historians.  She describes his moods as well as his health and had unprecedented access to Roosevelt.  In so doing we see a man who was both high minded and devious well into 1944 which is highlighted by his approach to the Holocaust, Palestine, and Poland.

Lelyveld spends a great deal of time exploring Roosevelt’s medical condition and the secretiveness that surrounds the president’s health was imposed by Roosevelt himself which are consistent with “his character and methods, his customary slyness, his chronic desire to keep his political options open to the last minute.”  He was enabled by Admiral McIntire in this process, but once he is forced to have a cardiologist, Dr. Howard G. Bruenn examine him the diagnosis is clear that he suffered from “acute congestive heart failure.”  Bruenn’s medical records disappeared after Roosevelt died and they would not reappear until 1970.  Roosevelt work load was reduced by half, he would spend two months in the spring of 1944 convalescing, in addition to other changes to his daily routine as Lelyveld states he would now have the hours of a “bank teller.”  Despite all of this Roosevelt, believing that only he could create a safe post war world decided to run for reelection. But, what is abundantly clear from Lelyveld’s research is that by the summer of 1944 his doctors agreed that should he win reelection there was no way he would have remained alive to fulfill his term in office.

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(First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt)

Since awareness of Roosevelt’s health condition could not be kept totally secret Democratic Party officials were horrified by the prospect that Roosevelt would win reelection and either die or resign his office after the war, making Henry Wallace President.  Party officials had never been comfortable with the Iowa progressive and former Republican who was seen as too left leaning and was no match for Stalin.  Roosevelt entertained similar doubts, but using his double bind messages convinced Wallace to travel to Siberia and Mongolia over fifty-one days that included the Democratic Convention.  Lelyveld explores the dynamic between Roosevelt and Wallace and how the president was able to remove his vice president from the ticket; on the one hand hinting strongly he would remain as his running mate, and at the same time exiling him to the Russian tundra!   For Roosevelt, Wallace did not measure up as someone who could guide a postwar organization through the treaty process in the Senate, further, it was uncovered in the 1940 campaign that Wallace had certain occult beliefs, he was also hampered by a number of messy interdepartmental feuds over funding and authority, and lastly, Roosevelt never reached out to him for advice during his four years as Vice-President.  The choice of Harry Truman, and the implications of that decision also receive a great deal of attention as the Missouri democrat had no idea of Roosevelt’s medical condition.  Lelyveld provides intricate details of the 1944 presidential campaign which reflects Roosevelt’s ability to rally himself when the need arose to defeat the arrogant and at times pompous Dewey.  Evidence of Roosevelt’s ability to revive his energy level and focus is also seen in his reaction to the disaster that took place at the outset of the Battle of the Bulge, and finally confronting Stalin over Poland.   In addition, the author does not shy away from difficulties with Churchill over the future of the British Empire, the Balkans and other areas of disagreement.  In Lelyveld portrayal, Roosevelt seems to be involved through the Yalta Conference until his death in April, 1945.

Lelyveld is correct in pointing out that Roosevelt’s refusal to accept his own mortality had a number of negative consequences, but he does not explain in sufficient detail how important these consequences were.  For example, keeping Vice President Truman in the dark about the atomic bomb, Roosevelt’s performance at Yalta, and a number of others that made the transition for Truman more difficult, especially in confronting the Soviet Union.  Overall, Lelyveld’s emphasis on Roosevelt’s medical history adds important information that students of Roosevelt can employ and may impact how we evaluate FDR’s role in history.

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(President Franklin Roosevelt towards the end of his life)

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: MILITANT SPIRIT by James Traub

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(John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States)

At a time when most Americans believe they are witnessing the most divisive political campaign they have ever experienced, they need only to turn the clock back to the 1828 presidential campaign when Andrew Jackson, angry because he believed the previous election had been stolen because of a “corrupt bargain” between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, launched a nasty and personal attack against Adams as early as his inauguration resulting in Jackson’s eventual victory.  This political clash is just one component of James Traub’s excellent new biography, JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: MILITANT SPIRIT.  Adam’s the son of our second president was a rather enigmatic and recalcitrant figure who seemed to always answer to principle, not political expediency.  His diplomatic career consisted of ministerial posts in the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, England, as well as serving as Secretary of State.  His political offices included the Massachusetts State Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Presidency.  Adams’ life is a compendium of late 18th and 19th century events where he usually was a focal point in any important situation.  This amazing career is skillfully portrayed by Traub as he dissects his subjects’ life and concludes that despite numerous achievements and failures, he never wavered from the moral convictions instilled in him by his parents, John and Abigail Adams.

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(Abigail and John Adams, John Quincy’s parents)

The success of Traub’s effort lies in mining the 15,000 pages of Adams’ journal that he kept over his entire life.  The fact that the journal has been digitized allows the author easy access and assisted in creating a window into his subject’s mind that is fascinating.  Traub explores every aspect of Adams’ life, especially his close relationship with both of his parents.  The reader can eavesdrop on conversations between the father and son where we see why Adams’ became the man he did.  Not quite a reincarnation of his father, but strikingly similar.  Many of the letters and conversations between mother and son are also available and we are exposed to the rigid moral principles and advice that Abigail offered. The type of father Adams’ became later in life is directly related to his own upbringing as he pursued the same method of childrearing as his parents.  As far as his relationship with his wife Louisa it does not measure up to the closeness between John and Abigail Adams.  He was a distant husband and Louisa and John Quincy spent many years apart.

At a very young age he “followed a set of standards, moral, and intellectual, to which people should be held, and he found much of the world wanting,” particularly women.  The pressure on Adams because of his parents was immense and this led to feelings of guilt and depressive episodes.  Many times he felt conflicted as he passed back and forth between aspiration and resignation.  Traub has the knack of interweaving Adams’ private life with his career in an interesting fashion.  We get a glimpse of all aspects of Adams be it in the family, years of diplomacy overseas, and his political career.  Traub’s careful devotion to detail creates an accurate portrayal of life on the family farm in Quincy, MA, Washington, DC, or the many countries that he served as a diplomat.

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(Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams who would outlive him by four years)

Adams was a much more pragmatic politician for his time and tried to stay away from rigid ideologues.  For example, he refused to join the Federalists in their attacks on Thomas Jefferson, a man he admired, and supported the purchase of Louisiana because for Adams, unlike today, country came first, not political partisanship.  Adams even supported Jefferson’s Embargo Acts (1807) when the New England region that he represented opposed it.  As Traub states “he would become an honorable outcast like his father.”

Traub does a masterful job explaining how Louisa endured her domineering husband.  The author’s narrative reflects a great deal of empathy toward Louisa as she tries to live apart from her sons for long periods of time while her husband was posted overseas.  This in conjunction to the many disappointments the couple endured, from separation, countless miscarriages, and the death of their daughter Louisa, and their two sons John and George, but as their marriage endured John Quincy and Louisa would grow somewhat closer.

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(Charles Francis Adams, the son of John Quincy that was most similar to his father)

Traub delves into all aspects of Adams’ diplomatic career.  His most important postings dealt with negotiations to end the War of 1812, as minister to England, and his work in St. Petersburg as he established a close and friendly relationship with Alexander I which proved very important during the period of Napoleon’s defeat and the establishment of the Holy Alliance.  Adams’ stint as Secretary of State is covered completely and the chapter devoted to negotiations with the British and concerns over the rise of Republics in the former Spanish colonies that led to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 is one of Traub’s best.

Adams’ journal contains copious details of negotiations, social observations, and acute analysis.  Adams’ mindset, particularly as it related to the intellectual underpinnings of his foreign policy is incisive.  What emerges is a man whose belief system is somewhere between a realist and an idealist who spent his entire career trying to enhance American prestige and territory while avoiding what he considered reckless adventures, i.e.; recognition of Spanish Republics, whether to invade Cuba, the seizure of West Florida among others.  The intellectual core of Adams’ belief system rested on “the crucial distinction he made between freedom as a donation or grant from a sovereign and freedom as an act of mutual acknowledgement among equals.  This was America’s gift to mankind—a gift [that Adams] hoped to spread across the globe.”

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(Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and a political foil to John Quincy)

Traub correctly points out that Adams’ was not a politician and would not seek office and do the necessary lobbying and cajoling to gain support for his own candidacy, and after assuming the presidency, to gain support for his legislative goals, particularly that of internal improvement and creating an infrastructure linking the expanding country.  The machinations involving the 1824 and 1828 presidential elections, his relationship with men like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Andrew Jackson, and especially his term as president can best summed up by the British historian George Dangerfield, here was “a rather conspicuous example of a great man in the wrong place, at the wrong time with the right motives and a tragic inability to make himself understood.”

Adams’ later career is presented in a clear and concise manner as he enters the House of Representatives, the only president to do so.  For Adams the issue of slavery was paramount and he saw the problem of states’ rights over tariffs as nothing more than a cover for the “peculiar institution.”  In the 1840s Adams found himself in the midst of many heated debates dealing with slavery.  At times he refused to label himself as an abolitionist, and would argue before the Supreme Court representing the men who had seized the slave ship, Amistad.  Further, he would become a thorn in the side of states’ rights supporters of slavery in the House of Representatives by repeatedly arguing against the “gag rule,” introducing petitions against slavery, and defending himself as attempts to censure him for his opposition to the “slavocracy” were introduced.  Adams would become a man without a party as he would support no faction in the House and found a unique role for himself, “the solitary vote of conscience.”

John Quincy Adams was the last link to the founding generation which in part makes his life so important.  In addition, he is also the last link between the creation of the United States and its near destruction by Civil War.  In a sense Traub argues that Adams’ time in the oval office was an unsuccessful interlude in a remarkable career that saw principle over expediency as the guiding light of one of the most remarkable figures in American history.  For Adams, no matter what the situation, Washington’s message in his Farewell Address to remain neutral abroad, achieve unity at home, and create the consolidation of the continent were his guiding principles and Traub does an excellent job explaining how his subject went about trying to achieve them.

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(John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States)