American history

All posts tagged American history

I’m trying very hard this holiday break to wade through my enormous pile of unread books. As a first, tiny success, I just finished reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book on an intellectual and personal level, but, surprisingly, it also relieved some of my anxieties about today’s political tumult in the US. Every worrying element of the modern political landscape seems to have had some historical parallel in Hamilton’s time.

An endless stream of fake news stories stressing you out? In 1796, just after George Washington’s farewell address, the Aurora newspaper accused him of having conspired with the British during the American Revolution (p. 507).

Worried about US officials making backroom deals with foreign governments? Thomas Jefferson met secretly with France’s ambassador to sabotage President Adams’s negotiations to avert war with France during its own bloody revolution while Jefferson was vice-president (p. 547).

Troubled by signs of suppression of the press? While it controlled the government, Hamilton’s Federalist party passed the Sedition Act in 1798, which criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government.

Alongside the vivid portrait Chernow paints of Hamilton and his life in the newly founded nation, these stories make this biography as relevant and alive as news posted yesterday on facebook. And as just in Hamilton’s time, the political turmoil and truculent partisanship seem to threaten the foundations of our government. Unlike Hamilton, though, we have 200-plus years of democratic traditions to reflect on as we face our current political crises.

Chernow’s rightly acclaimed biography is emotionally engaging, replete with detailed anecdotes from Hamilton’s life, and reassuring, showing that American politics has always been raucous and exasperating.

51+mQ-ZXBcLUntil very recently, I didn’t think I had a real interest in history. I don’t remember my high school history classes too fondly, and most of the history books I’ve read are about the history of science.

That really changed after I read Goodwin’s Team of Rivals on Lincoln’s life. She painted such a detailed and lively portrait of Lincoln and his world that it read more like a movie script than a textbook.

The Bully Pulpit was the same for me. The few times I’ve encountered documentaries of Theodore Roosevelt, he certainly seemed a compelling character, but this was the first book I’ve ever read about his life.

It was also the first time I ever read about journalism in the Progressive Era, and although I’d heard the term “muckrackers” before, I had no idea it originated with Theodore Roosevelt.

I also had no idea that the Philippines was once controlled by the United States or that William Howard Taft was the first governor.

Goodwin explores Roosevelt’s and Taft’s youths and the development of their deep friendship as they embarked on their political careers in Washington DC. She follows the intertwined ascent of both men into the presidency and the subsequent presidential campaign which dissolved their friendship, paining both men and the American people. Finally, she recounts the heart-warming scene of their reconciliation in the lobby of a hotel not too long before Roosevelt’s death, a reunion that drew applause from the gathered crowd and helped heal the nation.

Only two things I found a bit wanting in the story:

(1) Goodwin doesn’t discuss in much detail what both men did legislatively during their presidencies. Instead, she focused on a handful of specific bills and executive actions, such Roosevelt’s use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up large, market-manipulating trusts, although I suppose such a discussion could easily devolve into mind-numbing details.

(2) I also wasn’t completely clear on why or when Roosevelt turned against Taft. To be sure, Goodwin describes the scandals that probably soured the relationship (e.g., the Pinchot-Ballinger Controversy). But given how close the two men were before and how loyal Roosevelt was to other friends, it wasn’t clear to me why such controversies made Roosevelt so hostile toward Taft. Goodwin never really pinpoints a time when the relationship turned. Given how central that change is to the story, it would have been nice to know more about it. Since Roosevelt seemed convinced of his own indispensability to the Progressive movement, maybe he would have been dissatisfied with anyone else as president, no matter what he did.

But, on balance, this book is really a fascinating read, even to a non-history-buff.