Archive | June, 2018

Review of The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, by David McCullough

26 Jun


A master historian makes a passionate plea for the centrality of history in our understanding of good citizenship in David McCullough’s The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For. A simple collection of commencement addresses and speeches of varying lengths given for the most part at several institutions of higher education (though there are a couple of presentations to Congress included), the book is a quick but stirring read and a clarion call for educating Americans on the sacrifices, struggles, and decisions which have made our nation possible. It is also an abbreviated civics lesson, explaining some of the foundational ideals on which America was established and discussing in human terms those who advocated and fought for them. Throughout the book, McCullough also manages to look forward even as he delves deep into our past to encourage an understanding of who we are as a people. He suggests that history and the humanities ought not be shuffled aside as antiquated in our increasingly technological society; rather, that they assume a new place at the very core of civic education. As we have come to expect from his previous writing, McCullough’s simple prose is captivating and inspiring, revealing a depth of knowledge of our nation’s history, an unequalled ability to relate the essence of a story, and an unparalleled wisdom about how we can best learn from the lessons of history. The American Spirit is a reminder of what makes McCullough such a national treasure. Anyone who loves this country and wants to see it continue to thrive would do well to take its lessons—both about the past, present, and future—to heart.


Review of Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James McPherson

19 Jun

James McPherson is perhaps the most accomplished Civil War scholar of our era. In addition to having a distinguished career as lecturer at Princeton University and being a consultant on projects too numerous to mention, he has authored several books which have helped define our understanding of the war in contemporary times. His publications include such noted books as Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, What They Fought For 1861-1865, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, and The War That Forged A Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters, among a long list of books and essays. It goes without saying that his latest work, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief (2014) is worthy of the consideration of anyone with an interest in Civil War history and promises to help frame a familiar story in a compelling new light.


It should be noted at the outset that Embattled Rebel is no biography of the Confederate president. Important details about Davis’ life before and during the Civil War are certainly included, but the purpose of this book is to provide an evaluation of his leadership of the Confederate military effort, not a chronicle the entirety of his life. Admittedly in the process of doing so a great deal of the book becomes simply a chronicle of the major military clashes of the contest since the Confederacy barely existed a day but that it was embroiled in a war with the United States, but McPherson keeps a steady light on Davis as military leader throughout so as to point out key decisions—advancing and harming the Southern cause—made at the highest levels. Davis certainly made more than his fair share of crucial decisions in the course of the war. Advocate of an “offensive-defensive” strategy that called for simultaneously attempting to defend some 750,000 square miles of Confederate territory while keeping an eye out for opportunities to launch strategic offensives, his vision overreached the ability of Southern arms. Difficult to know and possessed of few social charms, he did little to ingratiate himself with the men upon whom he relied to carry out his orders. He sustained generals who had done little to earn his esteem and, it might be argued, wasted the talents of others. He chose to try to manage an all-consuming war at the same time he micro-managed the minutia of administrative duties which should have been more effectively delegated to subordinates, and perhaps as a consequence of his near-maniacal work habits spent extended periods of time in poor health. He even on occasion inserted himself into battlefield decision-making when the opportunity presented itself.

Yet McPherson makes it clear Davis was no hack at military affairs and it just might be that he was about as good a commander in chief as the Confederacy was likely to have had. Davis came to his task with quite a bit of experience and recognized ability, he points out. A former Secretary of War and an accomplished veteran of the Mexican War, Davis was a trendsetting leader in military circles who had hopes of actually becoming the ranking general of Confederate forces at the outset of the war. In fact he was actually disappointed at being named president, but took to the job with a gusto that would end with him committed to carrying on the Confederate cause long after virtually everyone around him had given it up as lost. He was devoted to his cause, committed to his position, and tireless in pursuit a definite vision he had for how the war should be waged and might be won. As other scholars have done, McPherson notes that it may be unfair to judge Davis as the loser of the war in which his opposite, Abraham Lincoln, was the victor for many reasons, foremost among them being that the Confederacy probably did not so much lose the war as the Union won it.

The crucial question of the book, then, is whether or not the South might have fared any better with another leader? Was there someone as devoted to Southern independence who was better adept at blending political imperatives and military necessities who could have better orchestrated the war? McPherson is unequivocal in his assessment—no. Davis was far from perfect and historians have shone light on his flaws for decades in their efforts to explain Confederate defeat. But there remains no clear cut evidence that any other individual considered for positions of leadership within the short-lived Confederacy might have administered the war more successfully or been able to bring about Southern independence by arms. While this question has been the subject of thousands of pages of scholarship over the years, it is of more than passing note that a historian of McPherson’s caliber and prestige has weighed in on one of the most intriguing “what ifs” in Civil War history.


We Can Do Better

12 Jun

As a historian, I am acutely aware of the profound and difficult issues which have roiled our country’s political waters over the centuries—disagreements over the form of our republic and scope of our government, the extent of state rights, the existence of slavery, the extension of civil rights, etc… I am also very aware of the pivotal role strategic protest and open debate have played in identifying these and other problems and forcing us as society to find constructive solutions to a host of issues. We in contemporary America don’t face the exact same issues as our forefathers, but the issues that do confront us are just as immediate and just as important as those in any other time, and how we come together to address them will inevitably impact the trajectory of our nation. Unfortunately, it seems that we have replaced substantive debate and actual dialogue for grandstanding, soundbytes, and photo ops on an unprecedented scale, and collectively we do a whole lot less problem solving than name-calling and blaming, and spend less effort attempting to form consensus than fostering an “us vs. them” mentality. And much to my deep disappointment, we positively revel in all this intellectually bankrupt slop.

As an example, allow me to draw your attention to the absurdity of the news feed the past few weeks where I live. It has been filled with stories of misplaced outrage, pettiness, and disingenuous attempts at assigning blame instead of fixing common problems. We have millionaire football players continuing to cause a meaningless uproar by making a total ass of themselves by disrespecting the very nation that gives them the right to express themselves under some sort of misguided notion that their boorish behavior helps solve actual problems in our society. We have professional athletes from multiple sports—people paid incredible salaries to play a game—petulantly refuse to attend traditional championship-celebrating ceremonies at the White House as some sort of self-righteous statement they conflate as political protest simply because the sitting, duly-elected president was not the candidate for which they voted. In turn, our nation’s “leader” (quotes required as he has done little to deserve the title) cannot help but in return himself act like a child and resort to name-calling, bullying, and other unflattering and small-minded behaviors unbecoming of the office he holds (or any adult in fact) because he is miffed at the slight. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with his policies, it is hard to argue that he is simply a rude, overbearing jerk quick to stretch the truth to meet his agenda. If all this wasted angst, myopic disrespect, and embarrassing partisan and selfish behavior from influential people from whom we should expect so much more wasn’t so tragic, it would pass as a farcical comedy.

Further, since it is primary season where I live, I have of late have been treated to the usual round of demagoguery in the form of silly campaign ads—blaming the “liberal elites” for pressuring us all into record levels of student college loan debt for example—and filled with the usual slew of candidates for local office trying to convince me a vote for them will help clean up Washington. Yep, it’s time we got a true conservative dogcatcher in office to drain that swamp in the capital! Give me a break! Whatever the issue, it is somebody else’s fault and they are usually somewhere else to boot, it seems. They are all a threat to “our” way of life. The one consistent campaign message from both parties seems to be decidedly less about vision and action than protection from the predicted horrid ravages of the other party. We live in a democracy in which elections are so closely contested that when any candidate obtains as much as 55% of the vote it is considered a landslide, yet we persist in foolishly buying in to the party-system-created notion that anyone who doesn’t vote exactly like us is our mortal enemy. Do we really believe one out of every two people we meet are so different from us that we can’t find some common ground on most if not all issues? To say this is an unconstructive mindset would be putting it mildly. I would argue it is actually un-American.

Our nation was founded by a diverse group of people in terms of background, beliefs, lifestyles, and goals. It has only grown more so over the two and a half centuries since its creation. Yet, save for one short tragic period that I hope has taught us an everlasting lesson, we have seemed to work together on big issues eventually and our leaders usually engaged one another about disagreements in a civil manner in public. We as a people are more easily outraged, offended, and insulted than ever today, though, and we seem to love assigning blame quicker than ever as well while we cheer on one partisan side and deride the other. We seem to like to see those in power behave like children in the process, somehow justifying rudeness and inflexibility on the grounds that since someone disagrees with us it is all ok. At the same time we seem to do less actual constructive talking than ever. It’s pretty dismal out there, right now, in my opinion.

We desperately need some true statesmen. We need some informed citizenry. We need to better discern between self-centered, divisive, grandstanding and real problem-solving, and between political spin and actual plans for action. We need to show some respect for ourselves and others. We need to respect authority and take seriously the freedom we have to replace our leaders if they aren’t up to the job and not denigrate the offices they hold. We need to realize that while nobody will ever get their way on everything all the time, we live in perhaps the greatest nation on earth and enjoy privileges, wealth and opportunity of which a large portion of the world can only imagine, and all of it was made possible by the blood, sweat and tears of our forebears. And for God’s sake, it’s time to act more civil towards one another, even in our interactions with those of the “other” party. Respect our shared traditions and shared experiences, and listen to those who feel as if they have been left out of both. In other words, it’s time to try to grow up and live up to the values we all allege to hold so dear.


Review of West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, by Claudio Saunt

6 Jun

The year 1776 is monumental in American history, a familiar date to those with even a cursory knowledge of our heritage. It was the year we both declared our independence from Great Britain and began fighting in earnest to secure it. Within the twelve months of that year American armies famously commanded by George Washington narrowly averted disaster at New York and roared back with a triumphant crossing of the Delaware on their way to monumental victory at Trenton which would change the course of the war. As historians and those with an interest in the past, we so associate 1776 with the events of the American Revolution, though, that I dare say that anyone but scholars specializing in regional histories are but dimly aware that other important events in our national drama were taking place all across the continent at the time.


Claudio Saunt’s West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 explores a few of those happenings, attempting to change our perspective of that pivotal year from a myopic focus on a narrow strip of the east coast to a broader vision of a land eventually stretching thousands of miles westward and running north to south the full length of the mighty Mississippi River. It is an ambitious undertaking, and one that in truth simply cannot be done thoroughly in the roughly 200 pages allotted. But in a series of short, loosely connected essays, Saunt sheds light on a variety of developments concurrent with the American Revolution that are sure to broaden readers’ awareness of the true scope of American history. He chronicles interactions between Russian traders and Native Americans of the west coast; an uprising in colonial San Diego; Spanish exploration of the American West; the realities of life working in the fur trade in the continents’ northern reaches; the cultural dynamics of the region supplied by the Black Hills area; the rise of the Osage empire in central North America; and some unexpected connections between the Creek Indians of the Southeast and Cuba.

The book has an inherently broad sweep, and as a consequence some of its stories are more than a little disjointed. The book is essentially a group of essays with few readily-grasped connections, and when they are attempted they feel forced. To his credit, however, Saunt introduces stories most of his readers will be unfamiliar with in a conversational fashion and brings them up to speed with contextual information briefly and satisfactorily. If there is an overall theme which readers may take from this assemblage, it is a greater awareness of the dynamic cultural exchange taking place all across North America at the time of the United States’ founding. While those individual stories may not, on their own, have relevance to our national saga remotely similar in degree to the events in New York, Boston, New Jersey, and other seaboard locations in 1776, they are nonetheless integral to histories of their respective regions. West of the Revolution is a unique book with some definite limitations and challenges, but it is if nothing else an interesting read which is sure to provide information on stories that most readers have not previously heard.