Archive | April, 2013

Review of Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams

30 Apr

Joseph Ellis’ Passionate Sage contains remarkable insights into the personality and psychology of one of America’s most misunderstood—at the time of its publication—founding fathers. This biography, after all, appeared a decade prior to David McCullough’s epic book on Adams which fully announced his arrival in the pantheon of American heroes for a new generation. As Ellis can largely be credited with bringing Adams to the consciousness of modern historians, though, I wanted to see for myself how his interpretation of the man influenced the recent groundswell of interest in what had previously been an obscure figure.

Ellis Sage

I found Ellis’ examination to be a piercing analysis of Adams, rendered in fluent prose. He has an unusually thorough grasp of his character and what made him tick, in both public and private life, that will no doubt serve as the bedrock for anyone writing on our second president henceforward. Ellis reveals Adams to be an essentially inconsistent political philosopher whose thinking was marked by the contradictions that are at the heart of American life in his era. He preached self-denial and service to a higher cause yet actively sought personal glory and selfish vindication. He cautioned against rash action yet could be impulsive, especially when attacking opponents.  It was precisely this inconsistency which makes him such an example for an age, according to Ellis; he played an important role in creating our country and defining its early values even if he did not hold steadfastly to them all the time himself.

What made him different, and hence relatively forgotten until recently, was that he was much more of a realist than his contemporaries. While Jefferson is remembered for soaring rhetoric concerning notions of liberty and idealism that gave Americans a guiding vision for the type of society they sought to establish, Adams had no taste or capacity for such language. Rather, he was more willing to see the inherent frailties of human nature and caution against their influences than to see its virtues and encourage their full development in expressions of personal liberty. He, in simplest terms, was the rhetorical “party pooper” who never quite got on the idealism train that pervades the writings and commemorations of so many of our founding fathers. This point is made most strikingly in Ellis’ handling of his lengthy retirement era correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, which he uses to cast him as Jefferson’s counterpart as touchstones for an age. That these men, the very embodiment of the two driving forces for the philosophies so fundamental to America’s early development, died on the same day (July 4th 1826) is poetic. Thanks to Ellis and those he has influenced, we can now fully appreciate how they both shaped our democracy.  


Of Books and Brochures

17 Apr

As my job involves publishing history books and staying involved in the latest trends in heritage tourism, I naturally pay special attention to forecasts for the publishing industry. For years now, I have been hearing a steady stream of predictions declaring the eminent death of printed books and physical rack cards, all supposedly to be brought about by technological advances that have already rendered print obsolete. To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, I find the pronouncements of the death of print to be greatly exaggerated.

stack of books

I simply cannot see any way printed books and brochures disappear any time soon. The reasons are many, and they don’t all revolve around the fact that people have an innate and undeniable desire to hold books in their hands and to collect them on bookshelves. Neither does my belief print will be around for many more years, perhaps indefinitely, come about solely because travelers continue by many times over opt for printed brochures about tourism attractions, often in tandem with electronic versions of the same materials. Perhaps the primary reason I believe print is here to stay is far more practical. We are a long way from figuring out a reliable, standardized way to distribute and preserve electronically published materials for the long term. To suppose the Kindle or Nook of 2013 is the end all for ebooks is a bit like the person who first touted cassette tapes as the ultimate solution for recorded music. How many of us even own a tape player anymore?   

No, if books disappear I don’t believe it will be because of technology. I believe it will be because of the willful blatant ignorance and disdain for learning I unfortunately witness all too often in our society. As “Exhibit A” I point to my meeting a tourism professional at a conference not long ago who questioned “why we needed such outdated things as libraries…Nobody needs to read anymore, we’ve got the internet.”

On second thought, maybe Random House is in trouble.


Review of Confederate Shipbuilding, by William N. Still, Jr.

15 Apr


I am embarrassed to say that although I have long been interested in Confederate naval history, I have just recently read William Still’s classic book on the topic, Confederate Shipbuilding. A slim volume originally published in 1969, the book still stands as an important primer on the topic. In a mere 82 pages, Still condenses an enormous amount of information to provide us with the core of what we now know and take for granted about the Confederate Navy: It was hamstrung from the beginning by a monumental lack of resources, manpower, and technical expertise but achieved remarkable results through innovation given the circumstances. Anyone who knows anything about Civil War history won’t be surprised by these by now dated conclusions, but they were not so readily understood at the time of the original publication of Still’s groundbreaking study. The book isn’t a flowing narrative, but it is focused, concise, and has stood the test of time. Anyone who wants to know what the Confederate Navy did and what it had to overcome to do it should continue to consult this little book.


Review of Tohopeka: Rethinking the Creek War and War of 1812, edited by Kathryn Braund

11 Apr

This nation is in the midst of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, not that anyone knows it.  A recent work on this war and its related Creek War conflict is Tohopeka, Rethinking the Creek War & the War of 1812 edited by Kathryn Braund. Consisting of papers presented at a symposium at Auburn University in the spring of2009, this collection examines a variety of subjects related to the Creek War written by the accepted experts in the field. Any scholar or even general enthusiast with an interest in this topic should have this book on their shelf.


Featuring twelve distinct essays as well as an introduction and an afterword, this book details many important aspects of these conflicts as well as how we as a society choose to interpret or preserve its memory today. As seems to be the case with most books of this type, there are some excellent essays, a few good ones, and few that could be stronger.  Topics featured include Tecumseh’s 1811 mission, the origin of the term “Red Stick,” the Cherokee involvement in the war, the dramatic engagement at Horseshoe Bend, and an examination of Fort Bowyer and the war on the Gulf Coast. What makes this volume special is the inclusion of articles and information on the creation of Horseshoe Bend National Military Park and the status of archaeological and historical sites in the region. The appendix detailing the status of almost every village, fort, camp, and battle site of the Creek War is itself worth the price of the book. I must say the weakest portion of the book was the afterword containing the Muscogee(Creek) perspective which failed to add much of anything of value.

The book’s essays all added knowledge to this field of study as well as demonstrated how little is known in certain circumstances.  As stated in my introduction, these conflicts are now 200 years old and the vast majority of the public is unaware of them and their importance to our region and nation.  Whereas books on the American Civil War and the modern Civil Rights movement are hitting the shelves at alarming rates (historical events that are also undergoing anniversaries), this conflict remains overshadowed.  We need more books like this one to fill bookstores to attract and educate readers about the importance of this conflict as well.


Review of Mississippi in the Civil War: The Homefront, by Timothy Smith

10 Apr

Timothy Smith’s recent book on the Mississippi homefront is an admirable attempt to chronicle the wartime experience of the state’s civilian population. I say it is an “admirable attempt” because the nature of the subject itself seems to work against a volume dedicated to such a multifaceted topic becoming a flowing narrative even in the most skilled of hands. A true explanation of the real experience of civilians, including a wide range of pro-Confederate and pro-Union men, women, and children, and thousands of slaves in both war-ravaged and relatively untouched areas of the state, is virtually impossible. There are perhaps insurmountable complexities associated with simultaneously explaining economics, government operations, and fluctuations in morale, especially considering that the records are scant or nonexistent for many of these topics.


All this is not to provide a built-in excuse for Smith. He does a good job with what is available, and has found through diligent research many new stories that help illustrate our understanding of wartime Mississippi for a new generation. Although Smith claims his work doesn’t really supplant the writings of John Bettersworth and other pioneers on the subject, the truth is that it does. It at least attempts to take into account the widest possible range of people and events for the fullest understanding of what life was like in Mississippi during the Civil War yet published. If there is a fault to the book, it is that it, if anything, tries perhaps too hard at times to make the disparate topics it covers flow together and sometimes attempts to provide perhaps too many conclusions. Mississippians experienced the war on an individual level, not necessarily as members of a neatly defined subset of the state’s population. Sometimes historians are best served by admitting there are some things we simply cannot know, after all. Smith’s work likely comes as close as we have ever seen to putting into words what can be known about a truly complicated subject.  


All Is Not Lost

8 Apr

If there is an overall theme to the many posts contained in this blog, it is that the profession of history and its future study are both gravely endangered by a distracted and disinterested public. I certainly believe that is in large part true, but occasionally, I am reminded that hope lives.

Pilgrimage 2013

This weekend I had the pleasure of opening my agency’s headquarters office, a ca. 1850 historic home, to the public as a free attraction on the annual Eufaula, Alabama Pilgrimage Tour of Homes. The event is a big deal for Eufaula, raising vital funds for the support of the local Heritage Association and taking hundreds of volunteers to arrange. I, along with a small team of dedicated volunteers, welcomed well over 300 guests to our office, which just happens to be housed in one of the towns’ oldest homes in the heart of its beautiful historic district. We shared its past and some of the scenes it witnessed with people from all over who had come to experience Eufaula’s history and architecture. We provided them with heritage tourism information. We sold them some books. Many traveled here from surrounding states such as Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi. But they also came from Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Canada, Puerto Rico, France and Germany. Not all made their way here specifically for the Pilgrimage, of course, but it was on their itinerary during their visit to the region.

We welcomed senior citizens and young couples in their twenties, family groups with grandparents and grandchildren, and even saw a few with babies in strollers. There were church groups and social clubs, vacationers and locals. I even met a truck driver who said he passed through town a lot on his routes and was just curious about the old homes in town. The great majority seemed to be very interested in the home and regional history, and many engaged me in conversations about the area’s past. They came to see, and they came to learn. For them, history was, at least for a day, fun. In the crush of bad news about budget cuts, closures, benighted leaders, dumbed-down curriculums, and a general lack of interest for the past evidenced in modern society, it is refreshing to see history front and center in one community’s showcase event of the year. There are people who still care about what we do. We’ve just got to be diligent and creative in reaching them.



RIP Robert Remini

3 Apr

Noted American political historian and biographer Robert Remini passed away on March 28.  Remini, a former Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, is best known for his work on the Jacksonian Era in American History. His three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson can honestly be judged a masterpiece. Although few scholarly treatments have stood the test of time, there is no doubt that these books will remain forever the “definitive” work on one of our nation’s most influential and controversial figures. Remini’s work was expertly researched and crafted, but it was his ability to portray Old Hickory and humanize him that made his biography such a joy to read. I can remember a feeling of sadness when I had completed reading the end of the third volume. Not only because I had grown to admire and respect Jackson himself, but also because I knew I was done with the series and my journey was over.


While not having the pleasure of meeting Dr. Remini, I have seen numerous interviews with him and could see for myself the passion in which he had taken up the craft of history. History was not merely his profession, it was his love and I am sure I join many others whom he influenced in thanking him for his great work. Remini narrated the meetings and conversations of many illustrious statesmen during his career and it is a shame we can’t see Remini meet Jackson himself in Heaven and witness the master historian get the opportunity to dialog with a man he no doubt admired.


Review of Nothing to Fear, by Adam Cohen

2 Apr

Given our current political climate, it did occur to me that a reading of Adam Cohen’s recent book, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America might be especially timely. After all, to hear right-wing pundits tell it, our nation is careening towards full-fledge soul-robbing socialism that will forever destroy our nation’s cultural fabric. Surely an examination of the sweeping changes wrought in the first three months of the biggest of the “big government” presidents in U.S. history, which occurred in the middle of an economic crisis similar to our current one, would help me frame a better understanding of our rush toward the precipice! My goodness, did it.


Read this book, and listening to the inane rants of the Fox News and Tea Party-types becomes comedy. Anything being considered, debated, or remotely suggested in American politics as symptomatic of socialist leanings today pales in comparison to the sea change brought about in our society by the FDR presidency. His programs, the so-called “alphabet soup” of government agencies and state-sponsored relief efforts designed to rescue the nation from the depths of the worst depression we have ever experienced, did nothing short of completely transforming the role of the federal government in relation to citizens.  

Government-regulated wages and working hours, state-sponsored social welfare programs, agricultural subsidies, direct employment of hundreds of thousands of people, environmental programs, social security, deficit spending—FDR’s administration for better or worse ushered in the modern era of American government. This was a time, mind you, in which to be “conservative” meant not just advocating lower taxes, but saying no to such foreign concepts as social security, child labor laws, minimum wage standards, unemployment insurance, and occupational safety codes. What happened in FDR’s first 100 days, seemingly overnight and with surprising consensus, is that the federal government was brought into the lives of citizens on a scale previously unimagined. FDR simply reset the bar. Despite relatively modest protestation, we’ve never looked back.

Cohen examines the lives of the key individuals in FDR’s cabinet—their backgrounds, influences, and goals—to demonstrate that all this was anything but inevitable. They were not a homogenous group in personality or political leanings, and they apparently entered into their task with remarkably few preconceptions. Their target was always moving, and even years after their service, they were not always sure of what exactly they had done during the crisis in which they worked. And, according to Cohen, FDR himself may have ironically had the most limited vision of what he wanted to accomplish of all of them. Although creatively focused and reasonably well written, I can’t say Nothing to Fear is going to cause me to suddenly become interested in New Deal scholarship. I can say that it enlightened me as to the inside story behind a true turning point in American history and it helped me understand that “Liberal” and “Conservative” are truly relative terms.