A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)

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THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS by Jon Meacham

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

Reading Jon Meacham’s latest historical work, THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS at the same time as the federal government is separating immigrant families into “relocation centers” reminiscent of Japanese internment camps during World War II is extremely disturbing.  It is not a stretch to label the Trump administration’s immigration policies as racist when one considers the language and comments of those like Steven Miller and company, especially the president.  However you describe the facilities that parents and children are separated and housed in together, it is un-American for the media and members of Congress to be barred from investigating what is going on behind those chain linked fences.  President Trump may tweet his racist rationalizations and comments that have little or no basis in fact all he wants, but what is clear is that he has a different agenda than the majority of the American people.

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(Thomas Jefferson)

Meacham’s overall thesis is that the current political turmoil we find ourselves in is not unprecedented and as a nation we have survived worse.  Let us hope that he is correct but after events like Charlottesville, talk of Mexican rapists, vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with the administration, the Mueller investigation, the fecklessness of Congressional Republicans, and President Trump’s admiration for dictatorships around the world, at the same time as he is exhibiting disdain for America’s democratic allies, I fear that Mr. Meacham may be overly optimistic.

For those who have read Meacham’s works on Roosevelt and Churchill, Andrew Jackson, George H.W. Bush, and Thomas Jefferson his current effort should not disappoint.  Meacham’s monograph is well written and researched as are all his previous books.  He has the ability to expose the reader to a useful overview of American history that assists in our understanding of events. The author points out that he has not written his work because past presidents have always risen to the occasion, but because President Trump rarely, if ever does.  A major theme of the book is that America will usually choose the right path when encouraged from the top.

Meacham’s discussion of the historical roots of fear in our history are apropos as in today’s politics as President Trump seems to rest each statement and policy on ginning up his base through the application of fear.  We must remember that “fear divides, hope unifies.”  Meacham concentrates on the twin tragedies in our nation’s history, the subjugation of people of color, and the justification of policies that infringe upon the rights of citizens justified through the concept of the “expansion of liberty.”  The creation of the presidency by the Founding Fathers was “an act of faith in the future and an educated wager on human character.”  The problem is that throughout our history such hopes have not always been realized.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
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After reviewing a number viewpoints dealing with the presidency, the ideas of Thomas Jefferson sum it up best; “in a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people,” not just those who voted for him.

Meacham delves into the philosophical foundations of America’s creation in detail.  He explores the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams concluding that the president is a reflection of the needs and wants of the American people.  The character and temperament of the Chief Executive are of paramount importance when trying to unite the general population behind a program that is supposed to meet the needs of all.  By discussing the approaches taken by men such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson it makes it difficult to accept the demeanor and character of the current occupant of the White House.

The author does an excellent job introducing each case study at the outset of each chapter.  He places events and characters in their proper historical context and allows the reader insights into the issue at hand, and creates continuity for the examples he puts forth.  This is evident in perhaps Meacham’s best chapters dealing with immigration and white nationalism.  He makes the important point that to understand the resurgence of white nationalism today, furthered by Trump’s “dog whistle” approach to race one must return to the immediate post-Civil War period and the failure of Reconstruction.  The parallels with the latter part of the 19th century, the 1920s, and today in terms of racial issues and hatred, are very discomforting.

Many white American feared a post slavery society in which emancipation led to equality, and they successfully ensured through lynching’s, denial of equal education and voting rights, that no such equality would come to pass.  Immigration has also been seen as a threat to white Americans as millions arrived between 1890 and 1910.  The reaction that produced the Ku Klux Klan is important to contemplate because some of the issues that prevailed in America are similar to today.  For the post-Civil War period that produced the first Klan, and the 1920s that produced the second Klan we witness massive industrialization and urbanization which transformed the old agrarian world.  The Klan promised racial solidarity and cultural certitude.  The issue of jobs, neighborhoods, religious rights, immigration all affected how Americans felt about the future, a future where whites believed that they were losing their country to non-whites.  The Klan and men like Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s gave their adherents a social and political program that spoke to their fears at the moment and to the “mythology of identity.”  The 1920s sought a wall against southern Europeans, today Trump wants a wall against Mexicans and Central America.

Perhaps the man who most epitomizes the tactics, character, and temperament of President Trump is Senator Joseph McCarthy.  While Trump wishes he had his own Roy Cohn, McCarthy actually had him.  Cohn, a New York lawyer who advised McCarthy and later worked with Trump describes McCarthy; “he was impatient, overly aggressive, and overly dramatic.  He acted on impulse.  He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had….He would neglect to do important homework and consequently, would on occasion, make challengeable statements.”  McCarthy was a master of the news cycle and probably the author of “fake news “as he dominated politics between 1950 and 1954, and caused so many who were accused as being soft on communists or communists themselves to lose their jobs and place in society, but as Meacham might argue we as a nation overcame his negative impact and moved on.  Since Cohn’s description fits Trump to a tee, hopefully once he is out of office the same thing will occur.

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The most important chapter in the book deals with Lyndon Johnson.  After not heeding the warning that he could lose the south for the Democratic Party for a generation he pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Further, Johnson, a white southerner led the fight that resulted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Johnson’s work reflected an unusual character and temperament that allowed him to beat back the George Wallace’s of the age and show what the true “soul of America” could be.  As he stated in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, “For with a country as with a person, what is men profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Today, I wonder what the evangelical leadership thinks when they support Trump’s tweet and actions when they consult Jesus from the Gospel of St. Mark?

For Meacham, his book is one of optimism and hope arguing that after each period of reaction and racism it has been followed by elements of the good in our society.  He makes it sound like the business cycle and that it is inevitable that the evil purported by the Trump administration will eventually be replaced by what really made America great once he is out of office.  Meacham‘s work is an easy read, but do not mistake the substance that lies behind it.

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

 

ROBIN by Dave Itzkoff

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(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

For years I showed the Robin Williams’ film “Good Morning Vietnam” to my history classes.  The movie reflected Williams’ genius, empathy, and commentary pertaining to a conflict that tore America apart.  I introduced the film because I wanted students to get a feel for a different aspect of the war which the character of Adrian Cronauer apply portrayed. Williams’ is also known for many other ground breaking and important films that include, “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Fisher King,” and the cartoon voiceover of “Áladdin,” along with a number that did not achieve recognition, but reflected Williams’ many talents.  Williams was a multifaceted individual whose onstage comedic insanity expressed a certain poignancy when one got passed the mask that the comedian presented to his audiences.  When he died in 2014 a cultural void was created which may never again be filled.  Williams was an insecure individual who found solace from rejection in childhood and other personal issues by developing voices, characters, and other coping strategies as he meandered through his early years.  Williams lived an unsettled life that would end in tragedy.   When he could no longer cope with medical issues that resulted from Lewy body dementia disorder he took his own life. The full scope of his career, personal life, and demons are fully explored in Dave Itzkoff’s wonderful new biography, ROBIN.

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(From the film “Dead Poet Society”)

Itzkoff points out the key to Williams’ comedic genius was in an attic in the family home in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.  The Williams’ family moved around a great deal as his father advanced his career as an auto executive.  Rob, his dad was a hard man to get close to until much later in his son’s life.  From his mother Williams’ learned that connections could be made with other people if one entertained them.  As a result Williams’ would spend hours developing his own world where toy soldiers dominated and he could develop scenarios, conversations, and different voices that would appear later in his career.  His childhood loneliness would fuel an amazing imagination, as he repeatedly moved and had to attend new schools and develop new acquaintances.

The narrative is peppered with Williams’ wit, sarcasm, and social commentary.  Whether Itzkoff is describing Williams’ participation in an improvisational acting class in college, his time at Julliard, quips and riffs with others on movie sets, or even remarks as his career declined and realized his body was abandoning him, we witness a man who moved at such a fast pace that the neurons in his brain were firing so fast that it was difficult to keep up with him.  The result was a new type of improvisational humor built on role models such as Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.  According to Itzkoff, Williams’ true gift was not his spontaneity, but the appearance of spontaneity.

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(Williams, live at the Met)

There are a number of important components to the book, one of which were the reactions of other comedians to Williams’ work and the relationships that developed.  Williams’ friendship with Billy Crystal was perhaps the most meaningful to the point where they seemed as if they were brothers by another mother.  Larry Brezner, a talent agency executive describes him best as “like Holden Caulfield, a guy walking around with all of his nerve endings completely exposed.”  Perhaps the most moving aspect of Itzkoff’s work is his chronological development of Williams’ family life from his relationship and marriage to Valerie Velardi, his second marriage to Marsha Garce, to his final wife Susan Schneider, as well as his children, particularly his son Zak, and daughter Zelda.  Williams’ was addicted to comedy and it was his aphrodisiac, but like all addictive personalities, drugs and alcohol are temptations that seem to capture people.  Williams was no exception and ultimately he went into rehab, which cost him his second marriage, and later in life he would lapse again.  The poignant way Itzkoff presents this aspect of Williams’ life is more important and incisive than the movement from one film to another that encapsulates the comedian’s career.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book deals with Christopher Reeves, Williams’ friend since their time at Julliard who would suffer a devastating accident resulting in paralysis.  Williams’ cared for his friend for years on a face to face level as well as financially when medical costs seemed to spiral out of control.  The softness of Williams’ personality and gift is seen in the number of USO tours and shows between 9/11 and 2010 as he traveled to Afghanistan numerous times to engage the troops, people who he believed he owed a heartfelt debt towards for their bravery and sacrifice.

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(Williams performing for the troops in Afghanistan)

Williams’ insecurity was always present no matter the heights that his career reached.  Be it an Academy, Grammy, Emmy, or other awards he was always worried that his career was coming to an end.  When he died it was a loss for all, because no one could present his brand of humor and acting talent as he.  Itzkoff has captured Williams’ with his successes as well as his warts, and has written a wonderful portrait for all of us to enjoy.

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(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI by David Grann

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(oil rigs in Osage County, OK)

From 1921 to 1926 a series of murders took place in Osage County, Oklahoma.  As the number of victims turned up more and more residents of the county became suspicious.  The history of these murders is recounted and analyzed in David Grann’s new book, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI.  Though the book appears to be a work of non-fiction, in reality it reads like a serial murder mystery, as it leads the reader through the different layers of the crimes that were committed.

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Grann begins his narrative by introducing a number of important people, then goes on to describe the background history of the Osage tribe that was stripped of their land between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers, and forced on to a reservation in Kansas.  When white squatters stole many of their plots in the 1870s the government moved them again, this time to Oklahoma.  By 1877 there were no buffalo remaining and government policy shifted from containment of Native-Americans to assimilation.  The forced acculturation made the Osage adapt the white man’s clothing, names, and way of life.  The government instituted an allotment plan that was designed to destroy the communal way of life to make Native-Americans farmers on given plots of land.  The Osage were the last to accept this system when they negotiated an increase in acreage per family.  They were wise to include in the 1906 treaty a caveat that stated “that the oil, gas, and other minerals covered by the lands…are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.”  Lo and behold the land would contain the largest oil deposits in the United States, creating numerous “Red millionaires” as described by newspaper accounts  The problem was that in the early 1920s a series of murders of tribal residents began to occur.

Since the victims were “only Indians” the white power structure did not go full bore in their investigation of the developing “reign of terror.”  With a lack of forensics and other techniques the investigation really went nowhere prompting the tribe itself to fund further investigative work.  The number of people that were killed is open to question.  Grann puts the figure as around 24, but other historians believe it is significantly higher.  Many Native-American lived an ostentatious life style that only created further animosity against them.  The government instituted a “guardian system” to protect these incompetent individuals.  These guardians would become perpetrators of “theft, graft, and mercenary marriage” against the Osage.

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(Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover)

Grann’s story is a deep dive into who the victims were and why they were murdered.  Grann presents a series of important characters that are the key to events.  The Burkhardt family, including Ernest and Mollie emerge as extremely important when other family members are killed.  William Hale, who presents himself as a benefactor to the tribe, but in truth is rather duplicitous with his own agenda.  Tom White is appointed by J. Edgar Hoover, the newly appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) to take over the investigation when the killings continue.  Of course there is J. Edgar Hoover and numerous other characters from criminals, prosecutors, lawyers, snitches and on and on.

Grann’s approach is based on meticulous research as he has combed the available primary materials.  Interviews, investigative documents, and newspaper accounts are all employed.  What emerges are crimes that had infected the state and local government of Oklahoma, particularly Osage County.  Be it the courts, the governor’s office, or county officials there were layers of crimes being committed in the name of a cover-up for the goal of fleecing Native-Americans of their oil money.  Grann heavily focuses on Tom White, offering his background in law enforcement and his approach to solving the murders.  He must navigate the closed society that exists that seems to want to cover-up any evidence and when potential witnesses began to disappear the case goes cold.  White also must deal with Hoover who sees the case as a means of increasing the reputation of his new agency.  Hoover wanted things done in a certain way and have his agents follow his approach to “scientific law enforcement.”  Those who worked outside his parameters soon found themselves unemployed.

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(Mollie, Lizzie, and Anna Burkhardt)

The core of the book involves tracing numerous murders of the Osage.  A few would be solved, but many, perhaps a few hundred were not.  Grann will use the last section of the book to describe his own investigation into some of these murders.  He will interview descendants of the victims and the conclusion is very clear that an unknown number of the Osage community were killed over the oil wealth to the point where it is described as “the blood cries out from the ground,” or the Osage seeking justice a generation or two later.  Grann delivers what appears to be a detective novel just as he did in his previous book, THE LOST CITY OF Z and he has produced a wonderful work of non-fiction as a follow up.  As David Eggers points out in New York Times review of the book,  by interviewing contemporary Osage tribe members Grann presents “a far deeper” and sickening conspiracy against the tribe throughout its history.  As Eggers states, “history is a merciless judge.”*

 

  • Dave Eggers, “Solving a Reign of Terror against Native Americans,” New York Times, April 28, 2017.

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(a typical farm with an oil rig in Osage County, OK)

PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Lawrence O’Donnell

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstration on the streets of Chicago)

The publication of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS comes at a propitious moment in American political history.  According to O’Donnell 1968 is the watershed year that set our current politics in motion – a partisan conflict were by ideology and party affiliation has become more important than the needs of the American people.  O’Donnell argues that before 1968 the terms conservative democrat and liberal republican existed, today they are pretty much extinct.  By examining 1968 we can discern the origin of this political schism and conjecture on how it affects the United States domestically and in the realm of foreign policy.  The comparison between our current politics and 1968 is fascinating as Donald Trump seems to have adopted the populist message of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, be it state’s rights or white nationalism, and Bernie Sanders can be compared with Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and his liberal socialist agenda.  We must also mention the emergence of Roger Ailes and the role of Fox news in molding a certain part of the electorate, because in 1968 Ailes joined the Nixon campaign, which over decades led to the creation of his successful news outlet and helped formulate the term “fake news.”

 

The election of 1968 was about life and death as the war in Vietnam controlled people’s lives.  A person’s draft status dominated their waking hours be it soon to be high school graduates, college students, and recent college graduates.  The United States found itself in this situation due to the machinations of the Johnson administration in late July and early August, 1964 that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which provided Lyndon Johnson with almost imperial powers to conduct a war.  According to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appearing before Senator J. William Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the president to use “the armed forces of the United States in any way that was necessary,” and argued further that the constitution did not require the Senate to play a role in foreign policy.  Johnson would take the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as almost carte blanche in getting the United States into a quagmire in Vietnam.  Keeping with the theme of comparing the past to the present, the Patriot Act passed by Congress and signed into law on October 26, 2001 in response to 9/11 has been used in a similar fashion by three presidents; Bush, Obama, and Trump to conduct war on their own terms in the Middle East, and currently it appears, in Africa.

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(President Lyndon Johnson agonizing over Vietnam)

For O’Donnell the key figure in 1968 is Senator Robert Kennedy who appeared as a political “rock star.”  People believed that he would never send America’s youth to fight in Vietnam a subject he rarely spoke about in his speeches.  People related to Kennedy because they recognized the pain he was in and believed his empathy for the electorate was real.  Many believed that it was only justice for Robert Kennedy to reclaim the presidency that was lost in Dallas when his brother was assassinated in November, 1963.  The 1960s was an era of change, and no one’s view of the world changed more than Robert Kennedy.  By 1968 the Senate began questioning Johnson’s “monarchial” approach to Vietnam and this would help foster the political upheaval we are still dealing with today.

O’Donnell does a wonderful job replaying the events leading up to 1968 and what took place that incredible year.  My main problem with O’Donnell’s approach is that it mostly based on his own experience and writing and a slew of secondary sources and in some cases not even the best ones.  A case in point is the Johnson-Kennedy rivalry and contempt for each other.  The best study of rivalry is Jeff Shesol’s MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY, AND THE AND A FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE an in depth nuanced look that O’Donnell might have consulted.  There are many other examples including his over-reliance on Evan Thomas’ biography of Kennedy, which reinforces my belief that O’Donnell needs to broaden his research, with the integration of more primary materials that would further his arguments as a significant part of the book reads like Theodore White’s THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968.

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(New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy)

To O’Donnell’s credit there are many fine chapters and insights interspersed throughout the narrative.  By delving into the different factions on the left and the right the reader is exposed to the ideological struggle that existed in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  The introduction of Allard Lowenstein, the role of Gene McCarthy’s candidacy, in addition to the rise of the radical left, we can see the beginning of the splintering of the Democratic Party.  The chapters dealing with the Kennedy-McCarthy competition for the Democratic nomination is well played out as is the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey after Robert Kennedy is assassinated.  Republicans also experienced many fissures in their quest for the presidency.  The discussion involving the reinvention of Richard Nixon, the liberal quest of Nelson Rockefeller, and the rise of Ronald Reagan on the right within the Republican Party are all artfully explained and we see the end result, and the type of campaign the “new Nixon” ran.

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Among O’Donnell’s most important points include the machinations within both major political parties, the role of the Tet Offensive in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race, Kennedy’s candidacy, and the politics of fear employed by George Wallace.  Perhaps O’Donnell’s most interesting comments encompass the rise of Ronald Reagan as a conservative spokesperson for General Electric allowing him to develop into a viable political candidate.  O’Donnell’s is right on when he argues that Reagan was GE’s tool in educating workers, and indirectly the public in the evils of unions, government interference in the economy, and the benefits of giving freer rein to corporate America embodied in General Electric.

In addition, O’Donnell is correct in pointing out that the militarization of America’s police forces that we experience today began in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  King’s death led to burning and rioting in 30 US cities that called for 18 Army Brigades, consisting of 50,000 troops to restore civilian control.  The result was 20,000 arrests and 39 dead.  Another example of how the past formed the present is the concept of “premeditated confrontation” that ABC introduced as a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican convention.  By pitting the well-known conservative intellectual William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal, novelist and liberal commentator the expected explosions took place.  When we watch PBS, the networks, and cable television today, we can easily discern where these types of panels originated.

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(Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago yelling anti-semetic comments toward  Senator Abraham Ribicoff at the Democratic Convention)

O’Donnell forces the reader to relive or learn for the first time the impact of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and to contemplate a counter factual approach to history by conjecturing what America might have experienced had he been elected to the presidency.  Vietnam, civil rights, and numerous other issues would probably have played out much differently than it did under the Nixon administration, an administration that came to power based on the treason Nixon committed by interfering with the Paris Peace talks at the end of October, 1968 thereby contributing to the ongoing war in Vietnam and perhaps lost the opportunity for peace that led to the death of over 20,000 more Americans.

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(President Richard Nixon)

What is clear from O’Donnell’s narrative is that Donald Trump copied the 1968 Richard Nixon playbook in his presidential run.  First, the slogan “America First” began with Nixon as did the concept of the “silent majority” that Trump also followed.  Second, Nixon’s approach was one of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-abortion, pro-law-and-order, just as was Trump’s.  It is also clear that 1968 was a dividing line in the evolution of partisan politics and a realignment of the American electorate, it is just a question of how long the American people will suffer because of these changes.  For O’Donnell, Eugene McCarthy is his hero because he was the first one to take the risk and try and end the war.  Bobby Kennedy, is also his hero, but he was not the first to challenge an incumbent president as McCarthy had.  In conclusion, I would recommend that O’Donnell include more of his comments that have been on display recently on various programs on MSNBC, because they strengthen his overall narrative argument.

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations on the streets of Chicago)

STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY by Walter Stahr

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

When one thinks of impactful figures in American history few would come up with the name, Edwin M. Stanton.  However, without Stanton the North would have had a much more difficult time defeating the South in the Civil War, the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated someone else would have had to step forward to round up the conspirators and capture John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, and perhaps Andrew Johnson might not have been brought before the Senate for an impeachment trial.  Lincoln’s Secretary of War is the subject of Walter Stahr’s latest biography, STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY, a smartly written, intimate, and incisive portrait of Stanton’s role in the Civil War and American history in general.  As he did in his previous biographies of John Jay and William Seward, Stahr has mined the available sources reaffirming many of the standard opinions of his subject, but also evaluating new sources and developing new perspectives.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1814 Stanton was raised near the dividing line between the slave and non-slave states of Virginia and Ohio in a period when abolitionism was beginning to take root.  Stanton would attend Kenyon College, but never graduate.  He went on to study law under the auspices of a Steubenville attorney, Daniel Collier and began his practice of law in the spring of 1837.  Soon Judge Benjamin Tappan, a staunch Democrat would become his law partner and mentor.  At this point in time Stanton grew increasingly interested in politics in large part due to the depression that would last over five years.  Stanton’s involvement in Democratic Party politics increased and he was soon elected Prosecutor for Harrison County, Ohio.  Judge Tappan would soon be appointed to the US Senate and Stanton was well on his way as a partisan Democrat developing a “no holds barred” approach to politics.

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(Stanton and Lincoln’s cabinet)

Stahr has full command of primary materials as he repeatedly points out what documents pertaining to Stanton’s views were available and those that were missing.  This allows him to compare diverse viewpoints and sources to determine what Stanton actually wrote, said, or acted upon during his law and political career.  Stahr attacks the many myths associated with Stanton and he does his best to straighten out discrepancies in the historical record.  In Stahr’s study we follow the evolution of Stanton from an important member of the Ohio Democratic Party to becoming the cornerstone of Lincoln’s Republican administration.  During this later process, in particular, we witness the liberalization of Stanton’s views dealing with race.

Stanton’s personal life was wrought with tragedy leading to a strong sense of religiosity.  As a boy he would lose his father, a brother would commit suicide, and a sister would pass at a young age.  Further, in March, 1844 he would lose his first wife to tuberculosis and during the war years he would lose his infant son James.  These experiences made him appear decidedly older than he actually was.

Stahr correctly stresses that though he was known for his service to a Republican president, Stanton was a staunch Democrat who had supported Martin Van Buren as President, and later James K. Polk’s annexationist policies.  Though he had a very low opinion of James Buchanan whose presidency directly preceded the Civil War, he did not think that highly of Abraham Lincoln either during the pre-war period.

An area that Stahr should have developed much further were Stanton’s views on race and abolitionism.  The author seems to skirt these issues and based on his later beliefs an earlier intellectual roadmap for Stanton’s thinking is warranted.  In Stahr’s defense,  he does give the appropriate amount of attention to Stanton’s views and handling of the use of blacks as soldiers in the union army and what prerequisites it demanded and how it would be implemented, especially the Freedman’s Bureau.  Further, the care and treatment of former slaves is examined and the reader gains a more complete picture of where Stanton stood on these issues especially constitutional amendments.   Stahr does spend an inordinate amount of time detailing Stanton’s legal career, seemingly case by case ranging from the Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge case arguing that the bridge blocked commerce on the Ohio River designated for Pittsburgh, to land cases in California, patent claims, labor riots, medical body-snatching, death from duels, and electoral chicanery.  Stanton would argue many cases before the Supreme Court, and many thought he was the leading lawyer of the period.

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(Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, January, 1863)

One of the strengths of Stahr’s effort are his descriptions of American society, culture, and geography in areas in which Stanton lived and influenced.  Stahr provides numerous insights particularly concerning California in the 1850s where he argued numerous land claims, and Washington DC before, during, and after the Civil War.

Stahr stresses how Stanton seems to always claim the moral higher ground no matter the situation.  It is difficult to sustain that approach by supporting the weak President Buchanan and the corruption that surrounded him.  Stanton became a member of the Buchanan administration because of his legal work and with a few months remaining in office Buchannan appointed Stanton Attorney-General.  The most important issue that was at hand was whether to supply Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded.  Buchanan’s cabinet was split by secessionists and those loyal to the union, and Stanton did his best to stiffen Buchanan’s back and get him to support resupply.  Once out of office Stanton’s view of cabinet meetings stressed positions that Republicans would support as a means of strengthening his position with Lincoln.  Stahr is on firm ground as he argues that Stanton’s view of Lincoln at this time was not much better than Buchanan.  Stahr quotes Stanton’s letter to Buchanan after Lincoln assumes office, “the imbecility of this administration.… [is]…. a national disgrace never to be forgotten….as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”  Stanton’s bonifides are also to be questioned as he was close with General George McClellan and seemed to share the same views.  It appeared too many inside and outside the press that they were “confidential friends.”  Simon Cameron as Secretary of War advocated arming slaves which McClellan abhorred.  With Congress upset over the course of the war by January, 1862 it should not have come as a surprise that Cameron would be fired.  What was surprising is that Lincoln chose Stanton as his replacement.

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Stahr is accurate in his assessment that Lincoln chose Stanton because of his organizational ability, his workaholic approach, and his ability to get things done.  Critics, particularly the northern democratic press pointed to Stanton’s extensive use of military commissions that tried civilians for military offenses, suspension of habeas corpus, and cutting telegraph privileges to opposing newspapers.  These criticisms of Stanton must be weighed against the crucible of war since the Militia and Conscription Acts did deprive numerous individuals’ due process and civil rights.  But one caveat to Stanton’s record on civil rights were the virulent attacks on the Secretary of War which a good part of the time were unmerciful.

Stahr does a workmanlike job reporting on the McClellan-Lincoln/Stanton imbroglio.  McClellan’s ego is explored in detail and the author makes excellent use of the available correspondence.  Stahr performs equally as well in detailing Stanton’s relationship with other generals including; Grant, Sherman, Hooker, Halleck, Meade, and Burnside.  The Stanton-Lincoln relationship is analyzed and the author like many historians before him concludes that personalities and demeanors may have been opposite in many cases, but as A.E. Johnson, Stanton’s private secretary wrote “they supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were necessary to each other.”

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Stahr does a commendable job revisiting the Andrew Johnson-Edwin Stanton relationship and the deterioration that led to Johnson’s trial in the Senate.  As with other examples in the book this aspect is well documented and the “large” personalities and issues involved are careful dissected.  The result is that Stahr has captured the essence of Stanton as a man who could be deceitful, arbitrary, capricious, as well as vindictive.  However, he was a superb Secretary of War who galvanized Union forces as well as President Lincoln with his energy, organizational skills, ability to learn and adapt, and overwhelming will to defeat the south.  Stahr characterizes Stanton as the “Implementer of Emancipation,” as opposed to the “Great Emancipator,” that was Lincoln.  But for all intents and purposes Stanton must be seen as the equal to Lincoln and Grant in earning accolades for their work during the Civil War.

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL by Timothy B. Tyson

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

At a time when the “Black Lives Matter” movement continues to gain momentum it is interesting to contemplate what the turning point was for the Civil Rights Movement.  In his new book THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL, Timothy B. Tyson argues that the lynching of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, by two white men in rural Mississippi was the tipping point.  It appears their actions were in part motivated by the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KA decision outlawing “separate but equal,” a landmark case that lit a fire under white supremacists in the south.  Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Birmingham, AL and events began to snowball.  Tyson reexamines the murder of Till and explores what really happened that night.  The author includes new material gained from his 2007 interview of Carolyn Bryant who was supposedly the victim of some sort of offensive behavior that violated Mississippi’s unwritten code that existed between whites and blacks.  It seems that Bryant’s memory of what transpired after fifty years has changed, which makes it even more disconcerting in exploring the plight of Emmett Till.

In her interview Bryant changed her story from the testimony given in the trial of her husband Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. “Big” Miam who were accused of murdering Till.  Her testimony “that Till grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities” was not true.  Till did not grab her, but the all-white jury acquitted both men of the murder.  Till a fourteen year old boy and his cousin, Wheeler Parker who lived in Chicago’s south side were visiting their uncle Reverend Moses Wright who was a sharecropper on the G.C. Plantation in the Mississippi Delta.  Both boys were not ignorant of the mores of white-black relations in Mississippi, but what is key to the story is what actually happened when Till entered the Milam country store and interacted with Mrs. Bryant.  That night Till was seized from Wright’s house by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam and was severely beaten, shot in the head, and dumped in a river twelve miles from the murder scene.  Tyson provides detailed accounts of August 28, 1955, the return of Till’s body to Chicago, the arrest and trial of the two men, the effect on American society, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and the world wide reaction to the verdict which played into the hands of the Soviet Union in the heart of the Cold War.

For Tyson, the key to the reaction to Till’s murder was the behavior and strategy pursued by his mother, Mamie Bradley.  Once she learned of her son’s kidnapping she decided that “she would not go quietly” and began calling Chicago newspapers as she realized there were no officials in Mississippi she could appeal to.  Sheriff Clarence Strider of Tallahatchie County was put in charge of the investigation despite the fact the murder occurred outside his jurisdiction.  For Strider and other county officials the goal was to bury Till as soon as possible and let the situation blow over.  Bradley refused to cooperate and demanded that her son be returned to Chicago for burial.  Once that occurred Bradley’s only weapon to make sure her son’s death had meaning was his body.  During the viewing and funeral she made sure that the casket was open so the public could learn the truth of how her son was tortured and then murdered, and learn what Mississippi “justice” was all about.  Because of the new medium of television and newspaper photographs of the mutilated body the entire country was now a witness to the results of the lynching.

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(J.W. “Big” Milam, Roy Bryant and their wives)

Tyson does an excellent job bringing the reader inside the courtroom and explaining why the two murderers were acquitted.  He digs deep into Mississippi’s historical intolerance of African-Americans and how they should behave and be employed.  Tyson reviews the plight of Black America through World War II and touches on the hope that returning black veterans who fought for democracy would be treated differently after the war.  This did not occur nationwide, particularly in Mississippi.  However, as the Civil Rights Movement shifted its strategy toward enforcing its voting rights and employing the economic weapon, Mississippians grew scared and became even more violent towards African-Americans, and with the Brown decision men like Bryant and Milam were exorcised to the point of lynching Till.

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(The mutilation of Emmett Till)

Tyson presents a concise history of intimidation, violence, and murder that African-Americans confronted each day in Mississippi.  As the NAACP grew and demands for voting rights and desegregation expanded the powers that be in Mississippi grew worried.  They relied on people like Thomas Brady, a Mississippi Circuit Court Judge and occupant of a seat on the state’s Supreme Court to create the “Citizens Council Movement” to espouse the propaganda of race mixing and the threat to southern womanhood as the gospel of the white south.  In fact, the defense in the Till trial leaned on the threat of southern womanhood in its argument that gained the acquittal.  The fact that the trial itself took place only twenty days after the murder in of itself reflects the lack of proper investigation. Further, the threats and coercion to prevent witnesses from testifying is testimony to the lack of justice.  In fact, a few who did testify for the prosecution, uprooted their lives in Mississippi and moved to Chicago for fear of retribution.

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(Carolyn Bryant, then and now)

The person in this drama who should feel ashamed of themselves is Carolyn Bryant whose lies contributed to the acquittal of Till’s murderers.  It is a shame that there is a statute of limitations for perjury because she was certainly guilty.  Her show of “conscience,” for this reader is fifty years too late.

Reading this book can only make one angry about America’s past and one would hope that race would no longer be a factor in our society.  But in fact it is.  We witnessed race baiting throughout the last presidential campaign and as a society we have not come to terms with the idea of “equal justice under the law.”  Tyson’s book should be read in the context of history, but also as a vehicle to contemporary understanding.  As Tyson aptly points out, the death of Emmett Till “was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.” (208)  One wonders if the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO will be as transformative an episode as the death of Emmett Till.

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

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)

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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