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)

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

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(Mark Twain)

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

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(President Theodore Roosevelt)

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

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(Henry Cabot Lodge)

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

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

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(Andrew Carnegie)

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

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(President William McKinley)

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

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

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(Mark Twain)

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

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(Ford Rotunda, Dearborn, MI)

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

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

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

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

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(Henry Ford II)

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

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(Lee Iacocca)

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

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(1965 Ford Mustang)

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

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

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

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(the symbol of Detroit today, an abandoned building)

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

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BLOOD IN THE WATER: THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND ITS LEGACY by Heather Ann Thompson

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On September 9, 1971 the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York forced its way into newspaper headlines across the United States.  On that day roughly 1300 prisoners took control of the facility in response to years of mistreatment and harassment.  In American history there have been many violent protests that have led to the death or wounding of those who took part.  Whether they involved Native-Americans, Vietnam anti-war demonstrators, organized labor, or Afro-Americans the causes and results of these events were documented and analyzed carefully by historians.  In the case of Attica, where 40 individuals, prisoners and hostages were killed and hundreds wounded, government officials placed immediate road blocks to thwart an objective investigation.  Government officials did not want the truth to come out, particularly New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his administration because of errors in judgement and outright incompetence when hundreds of poorly trained New York State troopers and prison guards were sent into the facility with shotguns blazing.  The Rockefeller administration immediately put out misinformation about what occurred, particularly when autopsies showed that the hostages were killed by indiscriminate gun fire, and not by prisoners.  Coroners were pressured to bury the truth as were other officials who disagreed with prison administrators and Rockefeller and his cohorts. It took many years to overcome the opposition to releasing what actually took place.  Finally historian Heather Ann Thompson in her comprehensive history, BLOOD IN THE WATER: THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND ITS LEGACY has addressed all the major issues and individuals involved through her doggedness and refusal to accept no for an answer as she rummaged, researched, filed numerous freedom of information requests, interviewed participants and survivors in her quest to uncover the truth.

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(Bodies and wounded hostages and prisoners after New York State troopers and Correctional guards stormed the prison)

According to Thompson the gap in the historiography pertaining to Attica existed because of the obstruction by those who knew what really occurred and were concerned with the backlash that would result if the truth came to the fore.  Part of that truth were the conditions that existed in Attica as well as many other prisons nationwide.  Thompson describes a system overseen by Attica’s Superintendent Vincent Mancusi that suffered from overcrowding, lack of medical care, poor training of correctional officers, using prisoners as free labor to the tune of $12 million per year, no visitation for common law families, which effected one quarter of the inmate population, a capricious and arbitrary parole system, censorship of reading material and letters, medical experiments, and an overall atmosphere of racism.  The prison itself was built in 1930 and by 1971 its facilities had never been updated to accommodate an increasing number of prisoners whose racial makeup was no longer predominantly white, and the crimes they were incarcerated for did not fit the patina of the 1930s.

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(Prisoners  vote on whether to accept demands of prison officials after riots)

Thompson’s book is very disturbing and the events of September, 1971 were greatly affected by the political climate of the 1960s. At that time politicians moved toward “law and order” planks as demonstrated by the Nixon administration in 1968 and as the 1972 election moved closer.  The “law and order” approach greatly affected the funding and operation of America’s prisons.  As politicians in the north and south saw crime as the greatest problem in society, they decided to wage war against it.  This would lead to the imprisonment of more inmates than in any country in the world.  In New York state Governor Rockefeller, known as a “liberal Republican saw Nixon’s crime agenda as an impediment to his own quest for the presidency.  By 1970 he began to change his image to a more conservative politician who was tough on crime.

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(the remnants of Yard D after the prison was retaken by troopers and guards)

An uprising at the state prison at Auburn, NY was a precursor to events at Attica.  What occurred at Auburn should have served as a wakeup for New York State Prison Commissioner Russell Oswald to investigate inmate grievances, because prisoner reform advocates, New York ACLU lawyers and others were becoming very involved and wanted to investigate prisoner complaints.  The prison population was younger and more politically aware than previous generations.  Members of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Black Muslims, and Weather Underground placed an emphasis on acquiring knowledge as they worked for improved educational programs.  For them, knowledge meant power and it was used to convince prisoners that what occurred to them on the inside mirrored what was occurring in the outside world.  From that perspective Thompson is correct that Attica was a prison that was about to explode in September, 1971.

The first half of the narrative concentrates on prisoner frustration concerning their treatment and the lack of response by prison officials to their concerns, the seizure of the facility by inmates, the negotiations that were conducted to try and resolve the situation, and the final storming of the facility by New York State troopers and correctional officers.  In so doing Thompson provides intimate details of every important aspect of the crisis.  Thompson takes the reader inside the lives of inmates, negotiators, administrators, correctional officers taken hostage, and individuals brought in from the outside to try and alleviate the situation.  In each section Thompson introduces important individuals to highlight what was about to be covered.  A few of the most powerful are portraits of Michael Smith, a correctional officer who is severely wounded by gunfire; Tom Wicker, a New York Times reporter who was brought in as an observer; Tony Strollo, a New York State trooper whose brother Frank was a correctional officer inside the facility; Elizabeth Fink, a lawyer who defended the prisoners and tried to gain compensation for them and their families; and Malcom Bell, an investigative lawyer who turned whistleblower against the state.   The reader will witness the motives that laid behind the actions of the major participants and how it influenced their behavior.  Thompson leaves no rock unturned as she explores every aspect of her story and reaches the conclusion the massacre that takes place at Attica did not have to happen, but for Rockefeller’s selfish concern for his political career and the party line that “black revolutionaries” and outside agitators were responsible for the uprising, the lack of training provided for the New York State Police for this type of operation, and the seeming stubbornness and vindictiveness of prison officials and many correctional officers in dealing with a situation that had gotten totally out of hand.

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(New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who refused to entertain prisoner demands)

The second half of the narrative encompasses the attempts to cover-up the truth by the Rockefeller administration and statewide prison officials, the brutal treatment of prisoners by correctional officers following the retaking of the prison, the attempts by inmate families, and families of correctional officers (hostages) that were killed to learn the truth.  The obfuscation, misinformation, direct interference to learning the truth, and outright lies dominate the experience of anyone who disagreed with the findings that the leaders of the cover-up who feared what would happen should the truth emerge dominates the narrative.  The atmosphere that the different investigative commissions operated under created a very difficult situation as Thompson is correct in pointing out that “the nation’s most powerful politicians viewed Attica as part and parcel of a revolutionary plot to destabilize the nation as a whole would have profound consequences for how officials, both state and federal, handled official investigations.” (267)  A further impediment to learning the truth were the actions taken by Governor Rockefeller, his staff, prison officials, New York State Police officials and correctional officers to corroborate their stories to make sure they would achieve the outcome they desired from any investigation.

Thompson examines each investigation and then goes on to the legal effort by the families involved to learn the truth and gain compensation and better treatment for those who perished and those who survived.  Overall, it took three years for the state to bring inmates to trial for the uprising.  The most common theme dealt with those who were prosecuted, those who was not, the coercion of inmates to testify, and the uneven field that was created for prisoner defense lawyers.  As Malcom Bell, a lawyer recruited to Special Prosecutor Anthony Simonetti’s team pointed out when he became a “whistle blower” after experiencing the abuses of the prosecution, “it struck [me] as odd that so much effort was going into prosecuting prisoners from Attica when the officers had killed ten times as many people as the inmates had.” (403)  Bell tried to gain support for his findings, even writing a report for Hugh Carey, then the recently elected governor of New York.  After waiting months Bell grew tired and contacted Tom Wicker and the story ran in the New York Times  creating a firestorm.   The overall approach was clear, the prosecution of inmates was of the utmost importance and the case against law enforcement was a much lower priority.  What followed was an investigation of the investigation and perhaps Thompson’s best chapter.

Thompson discusses the prosecution of the prisoners in a very clear and concise manner.  The key conviction that Simonetti’s team sought was the murderer of corrections officer William Quinn.  The Quinn case as with other prosecution cases produced witnesses that were not very credible.  Most had not even been at the scene of the supposed crimes, they had been coerced into testifying, or they were promised early parole, reduced sentences, or total release.  Prejudiced judges in the first two cases gained convictions but once Bell became a whistle blower prosecution tactics began to change particularly when going after New York State police officials where increasing evidence that they interfered with the collection of materials and issued orders designed to protect troopers and themselves emerged.  Men in Simonetti’s office were fully aware that the top brass in the NYSP were hiding and destroying evidence.  Bell grew angrier and sent numerous letter to Simonetti pressuring him to go after State Police officials like Lt. Colonel George Infante, Captain Henry Williams, and Major John Monahan, but the Special Prosecutor chose to ignore Bell’s requests over and over.

The theme of culpability for the Attica uprisings pervades Thompson’s narrative, and like a fish that rots from the head down we see the interference and strategy of the Rockefeller administration throughout.  By the time a number of these cases finally reached trial, Nelson Rockefeller was undergoing Congressional hearings to be approved as Vice President once Richard Nixon resigned.  Angela Davis made the correct comparison when she pleaded before the committee not to approve Rockefeller.  Here was a man who refused any empathy toward the prisoners.  He would not go to the prison, he would not grant any paroles or pardons.  However, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for his crimes, why couldn’t the Governor of New York do a little of the same?

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(New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz

Thompson completes her history of Attica by exploring the long road taken by inmates to seek redress in the New York State courts.  Led by attorney Elizabeth Fink they fought for years to overcome a new round of legal stalling and machinations as inmates, and families of inmates who had passed away fought “the system.”  As in other parts of the narrative Thompson provide minute details as the years passed until the trial of prison administrators in the early 1990s.  Partially successful the next battle would be over monetary damages to the inmates.  Fink led the former prisoners through the labyrinth that was the New York court system and finally in 2000, almost thirty years later a settlement was reached.  This created tension with the families of the forgotten hostages who received nothing from the state despite promises.  They would begin their own war to receive compensation that was somewhat successful, but just as with the prisoner settlement New York State refused to grant them an apology or any admission of wrongdoing for the massacre at Attica.

Reading Thompson’s study can be exhausting due to the detail and the emotion in which the author presents her material.  However, she has done a wondrous job of research and picking apart the documentation that she uncovered.  For those who lived through the Attica uprising you will be amazed at what Thompson has uncovered.  If you are younger and have never heard or thought about Attica and prison reform this book will be a revelation.

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JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: MILITANT SPIRIT by James Traub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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