Is your morning coffee moving? Is there a particle party going on in your kitchen? What makes for a great-tasting gourmet meal? Does artificial flavoring really make a difference? Why does mixing soap with water get your dishes clean? Why do some say that “sitting is the new smoking?” How come one beer gives you a strong buzz but your friend can drink a bottle of wine without slurring her words? When it comes to love, is the “right chemistry” just a metaphor? And would you dump your partner because he won’t use fluoridated toothpaste?
All this and much more makes for the delightful conversation packed into Chemistry for Breakfast: The Amazing Science of Everyday Life, by Mai Thi Nguyen-Kim, a fun, fascinating, and fast-moving slender volume that could very well turn you into a fan of—of all things—chemistry! This cool and quirky book is just the latest effort by the author—a real-life German chemist who hosts a YouTube channel and has delivered a TED Talk—to combat what she playfully dubs “chemism:” the notion that chemistry is dull and best left to the devices of boring nerdy chem-geeks! One reason it works is because Nguyen-Kim is herself the antithesis of such stereotypes, coming off in both print and video as a hip, brilliant, and articulate young woman with a passion for science and for living in the moment.
I rarely pick up a science book, but when I do, I typically punch above my intellectual weight, challenging myself to reach beyond my facility with history and literature to dare to tangle with the intimidating realms of physics, biology, and the like. I often emerge somewhat bruised but with the benefit of new insights, as I did after my time with Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe and Bill Schopf’s Cradle of Life. So it was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I approached Chemistry for Breakfast.
But this proved to be a vastly different experience! Using her typical day as a backdrop—from her own body’s release of stress hormones when the alarm sounds to the way postprandial glasses of wine mess with the neurotransmitters of her guests—Nguyen-Kim demonstrates the omnipresence of chemistry to our very existence, and distills its complexity into bite-size concepts that are easy to process but yet never dumbed-down. Apparently, there is a particle party going on in your kitchen every morning, with all kinds of atoms moving at different rates in the coffee you’re sipping, the mug in your hand, and the steam rising above it. It’s all about temperature and molecular bonds. In a chapter whimsically entitled “Death by Toothpaste,” we find out how chemicals bond to produce sodium fluoride, the stuff of toothpaste, and why that not only makes for a potent weapon against cavities, but why the author’s best buddy might dump her boyfriend—because he thinks fluoride is poison! There’s much more to come—and it’s still only morning at Mai’s house …
As a reader, I found myself learning a lot about chemistry without studying chemistry, a remarkable achievement by the author, whose technique is so effective because it is so unique. Fielding humorous anecdotes plucked from everyday existence, Mai’s wit is infectious, so the “lessons” prove entertaining without turning silly. I love to cook, so I especially welcomed her return to the kitchen in a later chapter. Alas, I found out that while I can pride myself on my culinary expertise, it all really comes down to the way ingredients react with one another in a mixing bowl and on the hot stove. Oh, and it turns out that despite the fearmongering in some quarters, most artificial flavors are no better or worse than natural ones. Yes, you should read the label—but you have to know what those ingredients are before you judge them healthy or not.
Throughout the narrative, Nguyen-Kim conveys an attractive brand of approachability that makes you want to sit down and have a beer with her, but unfortunately she can’t drink: Mai, born of Vietnamese parents, has inherited a gene mutation in common with a certain segment of Asians which interferes with the way the body processes alcohol, so she becomes overly intoxicated after just a few sips of any strong drink. She explains in detail why her “broken” ALDH2 enzyme simply will not break down the acetaldehyde in the glass of wine that makes her guests a little tipsy but gives her nausea, a rapid-heartbeat, and sends a “weird, lobster-red tinge” to her face. Mai’s issue with alcohol reminded me of recent studies that revealed the reason that some people of northern European ancestry always burn instead of tan at the beach is due to faulty genes that block the creation of melanin in response to sun exposure. This is a strong underscore that while race is of course a myth that otherwise communicates nothing of importance about human beings, in the medical world genetics has the potential of serving as a powerful tool to explain and treat disease. As for Mai, given the overall health risks of alcohol consumption, she views her inability to drink as more of a blessing than a curse, and hopes to pass her broken gene on to her offspring!
The odds that I would ever deliberately set out to read a book about chemistry were never that favorable. That I would do so and then rave about the experience seemed even more unlikely. But here we are, along with my highest recommendations. Mai’s love of science is nothing less than contagious. If you read her work, I can promise that not only will you learn a lot, but you will really enjoy the learning process. And that too, I suppose, is chemistry!
[Note: I read an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program]
Until Jimmy Carter came along, there really was no rival to John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) as best ex-president, although perhaps William Howard Taft earns honorable mention for his later service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Carter—who at ninety-seven still walks among us as this review goes to press—has made his reputation as a humanitarian outside of government after what many view as a mostly failed single term in the White House. Adams, on the other hand, whose one term as the sixth President of the United States (1825-29) was likewise disappointing, managed to establish a memorable outsize official legacy when he returned to serve his country as a member of the House of Representatives from 1831 until his dramatic collapse at his desk and subsequent death inside the Capitol Building in 1848. Freshman Congressman Abraham Lincoln would be a pallbearer.
Like several of the Founders whose own later presidential years were troubled, including his own father, John Quincy had a far more distinguished and successful career prior to his time as Chief Executive. But quite remarkably, unlike these other men—John Adams, Jefferson, Madison—who lingered in mostly quiet retirement for decades beyond their respective tenures, in his long career John Quincy Adams could be said to have equaled or surpassed his accomplished pre-presidential service as diplomat, United States Senator, and Secretary of State, returning as just a simple Congressman from Massachusetts who was to be a giant in antislavery advocacy. Adams remains the only former president elected to the House, and until George W. Bush in 2001, the only man who could claim his own father as a fellow president.
Notably, the single unsatisfactory terms that he and his father served in the White House turned out to be bookends to a significant era in American history: John Adams was the first to run for president in a contested election (Washington had essentially been unopposed); his son’s tenure ended along with the Early Republic, shattered by the ascent of Jacksonian democracy. But if the Early Republic was no more, it marked only the beginning of another chapter in the extraordinary life of John Quincy Adams. And yet, for a figure that carved such indelible grooves in our nation’s history, present at the creation and active well into the crises of the antebellum period that not long after his death would threaten to annihilate the American experiment, it remains somewhat astonishing how utterly unfamiliar he remains to most citizens of the twenty-first century.
Prominent historian William J. Cooper seeks to remedy that with The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (2017), an exhaustively researched, extremely well-written, if dense study that is likely to claim distinction as the definitive biography for some years to come. Cooper’s impressive work is old-fashioned narrative history at its best. John Quincy Adams is the main character, but his story is told amid the backdrop of the nation’s founding, its evolution as a young republic, and its descent to sectional crises over slavery, while many, at home and abroad, wondered at the likelihood of its survival. It is not only clever but entirely apt that in the book’s title the author dubs his subject the “Lost Founding Father.”
Some have called Benjamin Franklin the “grandfather of his country.” Likewise, John Quincy Adams could be said to be a sort of “grandson.” He was not only to witness the tumultuous era of the American Revolution and observe John Adams’ storied role as a principal Founder, he also accompanied his father on diplomatic missions to Europe while still a boy, and completed most of his early education there. Like Franklin, Jefferson, and his father, he spent many years abroad during periods of fast-moving events and dramatic developments on American soil that altered the nation and could prove jarring upon return. Unlike the others, his extended absence coincided with his formative years; John Quincy grew up not in New England but rather in France, the Netherlands, Russia, and Great Britain, and this came to deeply affect him.
A brooding intellectual with a brilliant mind who sought solitude over society, dedicated to principle above all else, including loyalty to party, the Adams that emerges in these pages was a socially awkward workaholic subject to depression, blessed with a wide range of talents that ranged from the literary to languages to the deeply analytical, but lacking even the tiniest vestige of charisma. He strikes the reader as the least suitable person to ever aspire to or serve as president of the United States. A gifted writer, he began a diary when he was twelve years old that he continued almost without interruption until shortly before his death. He frequently expressed dismay at his inability to keep up with his ambitious goals for daily diary entries that often ran to considerable length.
There is much in the man that resembles his father, also a principled intellect, whom he much admired even while he suffered a sense of inadequacy in his shadow. Both men were stubborn in their ideals and tended to alienate those who might otherwise be allies. While each could be self-righteous, John Adams was also ever firmly self-confident in a way that his son could never match. Of course, in his defense, the younger man not only felt obligated to live up to a figure who was a titan in the public arena, but he lacked a wife that was cut from the same cloth as his mother, with whom he had a sometimes-troubled relationship.
Modern historians have made much of the historic partnership that existed, mostly behind the scenes, between John and Abigail Adams; in every way except eighteenth century mores she seems his equal. John Quincy, on the other hand, was wedded to Louisa Catherine, a sickly woman given to fainting spells and frequent migraines whose multiple miscarriages coupled with the loss of an infant daughter certainly triggered severe psychological trauma. A modern audience can’t help but wonder if her many maladies and histrionics were not psychosomatic. At any rate, John Quincy treated his wife and other females he encountered with the patronizing male chauvinism typical of his times, so it is dubious that if he instead found an Abigail Adams at his side, he could have flourished in her orbit the way his father did.
Although Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was largely the force that drove the landmark “Monroe Doctrine” and other foreign policy achievements of the Monroe Administration, most who know of Adams tend to know of him only peripherally, through his legendary political confrontation with the far more celebrated Andrew Jackson. That conflict was forged in the election of 1824. The Federalist Party, scorned for threats of New England secession during the War of 1812, was essentially out of business. James Monroe was wrapping up his second term in what historians have called the “Era of Good Feelings” that ostensibly reflected a sense of national unity controlled by a single party, the Democratic-Republicans, but there were fissures, factions, local interests, and emerging coalitions beneath the surface. In the most contested election to date in the nation’s history, John Quincy, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford were chief contenders for the highest office. While Jackson received a plurality, none received a majority of the electoral votes, so as specified in the Constitution the race was sent to the House for decision. Crawford had suffered a devastating stroke and was thus out of consideration. Adams and Clay tended to clash, but both were aligned on many national issues, and Jackson was rightly seen as a dangerous demagogue. Clay threw his support to Adams, who became president. Jackson was furious, even more so when Adams later named Clay Secretary of State, which was then seen as a sure steppingstone to the presidency, something that further enraged Jackson, who branded his appointment by Adams a “Corrupt Bargain.” As it turned out, while Adams prevailed, his presidency was marked by frustration, his ambitious domestic goals stymied by Congress. In a run for reelection, he was dealt a humiliating defeat by Jackson, who headed the new Democratic Party. The politics of John Quincy Adams and the Early Republic went extinct.
While evaluating these two elections, it’s worth pausing here to emphasize John Quincy’s longtime objection to the nefarious if often overlooked impact of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution, which granted southern slaveholding states outsize political clout by counting an enslaved individual as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation. This was to prove significant, since the slave south claimed a disproportionate share of national political power when it came to advancing legislation or, for that matter, electing a president. He found focus on this issue while Secretary of State in the debate that swirled around the Missouri Compromise of 1820, concluding that:
The bargain in the Constitution between freedom and slavery had conveyed to the South far too much political influence, its base the notorious three-fifths clause, which immorally increased southern power in the nation … the past two decades had witnessed a southern domination that had ravaged the Union … he emphasized what he saw as the moral viciousness of that founding accord. It contradicted the fundamental justification of the American Revolution by subjecting slaves to oppression while privileging their masters with about a double representation. [p174]
This was years before he was himself to fall victim to the infamous clause. As underscored by historian Alan Taylor in his recent work, American Republics (2021), the disputed election of 1824 would have been far less disputed without the three-fifths clause, since in that case Adams would have led Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College 83 to 77 votes, instead of putting Jackson in the lead 99 to 84. When Jackson prevailed in the next election in 1828, it was the south that cemented his victory. The days of Virginia planters in the White House may have passed, but the slave south clearly dominated national politics and often served as antebellum kingmaker for the White House.
In any case, Adams’ dreams of vindicating his father’s single term were dashed. A lesser man would have gone off into the exile of retirement, but Adams was to come back—and come back stronger than ever as a political figure to be reckoned with, distinguished by his fierce antislavery activism. His abhorrence of human bondage ran deep, and long preceded his return to Congress. And because he kept such a detailed journal, we have insight into his most personal convictions.
Musing once more about the Missouri Compromise, he confided to his diary his belief that a war over slavery was surely on the horizon that would ultimately result in its elimination: “If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union … the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself.” [p173] He also wrote of his conversations with the fellow cabinet secretary he most admired at the time, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, who clearly articulated the doctrine of white supremacy that defined the south. To Adams’ disappointment, Calhoun told him that southerners did not believe the Declaration’s guarantees of universal rights applied to blacks, and “Calhoun maintained that racial slavery guaranteed equality among whites because it placed all of them above blacks.” [p175]
These diary entries from 1820 came to foreshadow the more crisis-driven politics in the decades hence when Adams—his unhappy presidency long behind him—was the leading figure in Congress who stood against the south’s “peculiar institution” and southern domination of national politics. These were, of course, far more fraught times. He opposed both Texas annexation and the Mexican War, which he correctly viewed as a conflict designed to extend slavery. But he most famously led the opposition against the 1836 resolution known as the “gag rule” that prohibited House debate on petitions to abolish slavery, which incensed the north and spawned greater polarization. Adams was eventually successful, and the gag rule was repealed, but not until 1844.
It has long been my goal to read at least one biography of each American president, and I came to Cooper’s book with that objective in mind. I found my time with it a deeply satisfying experience, although I suspect because it is so pregnant in detail it will find less appeal among a more popular audience. Still, if you want to learn about this too often overlooked critical figure and at the same time gain a greater understanding of an important era in American history, I would highly recommend that you turn to The Lost Founding Father.
Early in the war … a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate, and he obviously didn’t own any slaves. He couldn’t have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And said: “What are you fighting for, anyhow?” they asked him. And he said: “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” Which is a pretty satisfactory answer.
That excerpt is from Ken Burns’ epic The Civil War (1990) docuseries, Episode 1, “The Cause.” It was delivered by the avuncular Shelby Foote in his soft, reassuring—some might say mellifluous—cadence, the inflection decorated with a pronounced but gentle southern accent. As professor of history James M. Lundberg complains, Foote, author of a popular Civil War trilogy who was himself not a historian, “nearly negates Burns’ careful 15-minute portrait of slavery’s role in the coming of the war with a 15-second” anecdote. Elsewhere, Foote rebukes the scholarly consensus that slavery was the central cause for secession and the conflict it spawned that would take well over 600,000 American lives.
While all but die-hard “Lost Cause” myth fanatics have relegated Foote’s ill-conceived dismissal of the centrality of slavery to the dustbin of history, the notion that southern soldiers fought solely for home and hearth has long persisted, even among historians. And on the face of it, it seems as if it should be true. After all, secession was the work of a narrow slice of the antebellum south, the slave-owning planter class which only comprised less than two percent of the population but dominated the political elite, in fury that Lincoln’s election by “Free-Soil” Republicans would likely deny their demands to transplant their “peculiar institution” to the new territories acquired in the Mexican War. More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all, and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Most whites lived at the margins as yeoman farmers, although their skin color ensured a status markedly above those of blacks, free or enslaved. The Confederate army closely reflected that society: most rebel soldiers were not slaveowners. So slavery could not have been important to them … or could it?
The first to challenge the assumption that Civil War soldiers, north or south, were political agnostics was James M. McPherson in What They Fought For 1861-1865 (1995). Based on extensive research on letters written home from the front, McPherson argued that most of those in uniform were far more ideological than previously acknowledged. In a magnificent contribution to the historiography, Colin Edward Woodward goes much further in Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War (2014), presenting compelling evidence that not only were most gray-clad combatants well-informed about the issues at stake, but a prime motivating force for a majority was to preserve the institution of human chattel bondage and the white supremacy that defined the Confederacy.
Like McPherson, Woodward does a deep dive into the wealth of still extant letters from those at the front to make his case in a deeply researched and well-written narrative that reveals that the average rebel was surprisingly well-versed in the greater issues manifested in the debates that launched an independent Confederacy and justified the blood and treasure being spent to sustain it. And just as in secession, the central focus was upon preserving a society that had its foundation in chattel slavery and white supremacy. Some letters were penned by those who left enslaved human beings—many or just a few—back at home with their families when they marched off to fight, while most were written by poor dirt farmers who had no human property nor the immediate prospect of obtaining any.
But what is fully astonishing, as Woodward exposes in the narrative, is not only how frequently slavery and the appropriate status for African Americans is referenced in such correspondence, but how remarkably similar the language is, whether the soldier is the son of a wealthy planter or a yeoman farmer barely scraping by. In nearly every case, the righteousness of their cause is defined again and again not by the euphemism of “states’ rights” that became the rallying cry of “Lost Cause” after the war, but by the sanctity of the institution of human bondage. More than once, letters resound with a disturbing yet familiar refrain that asserted that the most fitting condition for blacks is as human property, something seen as mutually beneficial to the master as well as to the enslaved.
If those without slaves risking life and limb to sustain slavery with both musket in hand and zealous declarations in letters home provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance to modern ears, we need only be reminded of our own contemporaries in doublewides who might sound the most passionate defense of Wall Street banks. Have-nots in America often aspire to what is beyond their reach, for themselves or for their children. For poor southern whites of the time, in and out of the Confederate army, that turns out to be slave property.
One of the greatest sins of postwar reconciliation and the tenacity of the “Lost Cause” was the erasure of African Americans from history. In the myth-making that followed Appomattox, with human bondage extinct and its practice widely reviled, the Civil War was transformed into a sectional war of white brother against white brother, and blacks were relegated to roles as bit players. The centrality of slavery was excised from the record. In the literature, blacks were generally recalled as benign servants loyal to their masters, like the terrified Prissy in Gone with the Wind screeching “De Yankees is comin!” in distress rather than the celebration more likely characteristic to that moment in real time. That a half million of the enslaved fled to freedom in Union lines was lost to memory. Also forgotten was the fact that by the end of the war, fully ten percent of the Union Army was comprised of black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)—and these men played a significant role in the south’s defeat. Never mentioned was that Confederate soldiers routinely executed black men in blue uniforms who were wounded or attempting to surrender, not only in well-known encounters like at Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater, but frequently and anonymously. As Woodward reminds us, this brand of murder was often unofficial, but rarely acknowledged, and almost never condemned. Only recently have these aspects of Civil War history received the attention that is their due.
And yet, more remarkably, Marching Masters reveals that perhaps the deepest and most enduring erasure of African Americans was of the huge cohort that accompanied the Confederate army on its various campaigns throughout the war. Thousands and thousands of them. “Lost Cause” zealots have imagined great corps of “Black Confederates” who served as fighters fending off Yankee marauders, but if that is fantasy—and it certainly is—the massive numbers of blacks who served as laborers alongside white infantry were not only real but represented a significant reason why smaller forces of Confederates held out as well as they did against their often numerically superior northern opponents. We have long known that a greater percentage of southerners were able to join the military than their northern counterparts because slave labor at home in agriculture and industry freed up men to wield saber and musket, but Woodward uncovers the long-overlooked legions of the enslaved who travelled with the rebels performing the kind of labor that (mostly) fell on white enlisted men in northern armies.
A segment of these were also personal servants to the sons of planters, which sometimes provoked jealousy among the ranks. Certain letters home plead for just such a servile companion, sometimes arguing that the enslaved person would be less likely to flee to Union lines if he was to be a cook in an army camp instead! And there were occasionally indeed tender if somewhat perversely paternalistic bonds between the homesick soldier and the enslaved, some of which found wistful expression in letters, some manifested in relationships with servants in the encampments. Many soldiers had deep attachments to the enslaved that nurtured them as children in the bosom of their families; some of that was sincerely reciprocated. Woodward makes it clear that while certain generalities can be drawn, every individual—soldier or chattel—was a human being capable of a wide range of actions and emotions, from the cruel to the heartwarming. For better or for worse, all were creatures of their times and their circumstances. But, at the end of the day, white soldiers had something like free will; enslaved African Americans were subject to the will of others, sometimes for the better but more often for the worse.
And then there was impressment. One of the major issues relatively unexplored in the literature is the resistance of white soldiers in the Confederate army to perform menial labor—the same tasks routinely done by white soldiers in the Union army, who grumbled as all those in the ranks in every army were wont to do while nevertheless following orders. But southern boys were different. Nurtured in a society firmly grounded in white supremacy, with chattel property doomed to the most onerous toil, rebels not only typically looked down upon hard work but—as comes out in their letters—equated it with “slavery.” To cope with this and an overall shortage of manpower, legislation was passed in 1863 mandating impressment of the enslaved along with a commitment of compensation to owners. This was not well received, but yet enacted, and thousands more blacks were sent to camps to do the work soldiers were not willing to do.
The numbers were staggering. When Lee invaded Pennsylvania, his army included 6000 enslaved blacks—which added an additional ten percent to the 60,000 infantry troops he led to Gettysburg! This of course does not include the runaways and free blacks his forces seized and enslaved after he crossed the state line. The point to all of this, of course, is that slavery was not some ideological abstraction for the average rebel soldier in the ranks, something that characterized the home front, whether your own family were owners of chattel property or not. Instead, the enslaved were with you in the field every day, not figuratively but in the flesh. With this in mind, sounding a denial that slavery served as a critical motivation for Confederate troops rings decidedly off-key.
While slavery was the central cause of the war, it was certainly not the only cause. There were other tensions that included agriculture vs. industry, rural vs. urban, states’ rights vs. central government, tariffs, etc. But as historians have long concluded, none of these factors on their own could ever have led to Civil War. Likewise, southern soldiers fought for a variety of reasons. While plenty were volunteers, many were also drafted into the war effort. Like soldiers from ancient times to the present day, they fought because they were ordered to, because of their personal honor, because they did not want to appear cowardly in the eyes of their companions. And because much of the war was decided on southern soil, they also fought for their homeland, to defend their families, to preserve their independence. So Shelby Foote might have had a point. But what was that independence based upon? It was fully and openly based upon creating and sustaining a proud slave republic, as all the rhetoric in the lead-up to secession loudly underscored.
Marching Masters argues convincingly that the long-held belief that southern soldiers were indifferent to or unacquainted with the principles that guided the Confederate States of America is in itself a kind of myth that encourages us to not only forgive those who fought for a reprehensible cause but to put them on a kind of heroic pedestal. Many fought valiantly, many lost their lives, and many were indeed heroes, but we must not overlook the cause that defined that sacrifice. In this, we must recall the speech delivered by the formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass on “Remembering the Civil War” with his plea against moral equivalency that is as relevant today as it was when he delivered it on Decoration Day in 1878: “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”
For all of the more than 60,000 books on the Civil War, there still remains a great deal to explore and much that has long been cloaked in myth for us to unravel. It is the duty not only of historians but for all citizens of our nation—a nation that was truly reborn in that tragic, bloody conflict—to set aside popular if erroneous notions of what led to that war, as well as what motivated its long-dead combatants to take up arms against one another. To that end, Woodward’s Marching Masters is a book that is not only highly recommended but is most certainly required reading.
Several years ago, I published an article in a scholarly journal entitled “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans & School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” that spotlighted the odd confluence of anti-Irish nativism and the struggle to desegregate Boston schools. The Know-Nothings—a populist, nativist coalition that contained elements that would later be folded into the emerging Republican Party—made a surprising sweep in the Massachusetts 1854 elections, fueled primarily by anti-Irish sentiment, as well as a pent-up popular rage against the elite status quo that had long dominated state politics. Suddenly, the governor, all forty senators, and all but three house representatives were Know-Nothings!
Perhaps more startling was that during their brief tenure, the Know-Nothing legislature enacted a host of progressive reforms, creating laws to protect workingmen, ending imprisonment for debt, strengthening women’s rights in property and marriage, and—most significantly—passing landmark legislation in 1855 that “prohibited the exclusion [from public schools] of children for either racial or religious reasons,” which effectively made Massachusetts the first state in the country to ban segregation in schools! Featured in the debate prior to passage of the desegregation bill is a quote from the record that is to today’s ears perhaps at once comic and cringeworthy, as one proponent of the new law sincerely voiced his regret “that Negroes living on the outskirts . . . were forced to go a long distance to [the segregated] Smith School. . . while . . . the ‘dirtiest Irish,’ were allowed to step from their houses into the nearest school.”
My article focused on Massachusetts politics and the bizarre incongruity of nativists unexpectedly delivering the long sought-after prize of desegregated schools to the African American community. It is also the story of the nearly forgotten black abolitionist and integrationist William Cooper Nell, a mild if charismatic figure who united disparate forces of blacks and whites in a long, stubborn, determined campaign to end Boston school segregation. But there are lots of other important stories of people and events that led to that moment which due to space constraints could not receive adequate treatment in my effort.
Arguably the most significant one, which my article references but does not dwell upon, centers upon a little black girl named Sarah Roberts. Her father, Benjamin R. Roberts, sued for equal protection rights under the state constitution because his daughter was barred from attending a school near her residence and was compelled to a long walk to the rundown and crowded Smith School instead. He was represented by Robert Morris, one of the first African American attorneys in the United States, and Charles Sumner, who would later serve as United States Senator. In April 1850, in Roberts v. The City of Boston, the state Supreme Court ruled against him, declaring that each locality could decide for itself whether to have or end segregation. This ruling was to serve as an unfortunate precedent for the ignominious separate but equal ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson some decades hence and was also an obstacle Thurgood Marshall had to surmount when he successfully argued to have the Supreme Court strike down school segregation across the nation in 1954’s breakthrough Brown v. Board of Education case—just a little more than a century after the disappointing ruling in the Roberts case.
Father and son Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick teamed up to tell the Roberts story and a good deal more in Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, an extremely well-written, comprehensive, if occasionally slow-moving chronicle that recovers for the reader the vibrant, long overlooked black community that once peopled Boston in the years before the Civil War. In the process, the authors reveal how it was that while the state of Massachusetts offered the best overall quality of life in the nation for free blacks, it was also the home to the same stark, virulent racism characteristic of much of the north in the antebellum era, a deep-seated prejudice that manifested itself not only in segregated schools but also in a strict separation in other arenas such as transportation and theaters.
Doctrines of abolition were widely despised, north and south, and while abolitionists remained a minority in Massachusetts, as well, it was perhaps the only state in the country where antislavery ideology achieved widespread legitimacy. But true history is all nuance, and those who might rail passionately against the inherent evil in holding humans as chattel property did not necessarily also advance notions of racial equality. That was indeed far less common. Moreover, it is too rarely underscored that the majority of northern “Freesoilers” who were later to become the most critical component of the Republican Party vehemently opposed the spread of slavery to the new territories acquired in the Mexican War while concomitantly despising blacks, free or enslaved.
At the same time, there was hardly unanimity in the free black community when it came to integration; some blacks welcomed separation. Still, as Sarah’s Long Walk relates, there were a number of significant African American leaders like Robert Morris and William Cooper Nell whom, with their white abolitionist allies, played the long game and pursued compelling, nonviolent mechanisms to achieve both integration and equality, many of which presaged the tactics of Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights figures a full century later. For instance, rather than lose hope after the Roberts court decision, Nell doubled down his efforts, this time with a new strategy—a taxpayer’s boycott of Boston which saw prominent blacks move out of the city to suburbs that featured integrated schools, depriving Boston of tax revenue.
The Kendrick’s open the narrative with a discussion of Thurgood Marshall’s efforts to overturn the Roberts precedent in Brown v. Board of Education, and then trace that back to the flesh and blood Boston inhabitants who made Roberts v. The City of Boston possible, revealing the free blacks who have too long been lost to history. Readers not familiar with this material will come across much that will surprise them between the covers of this fine book. The most glaring might be how thoroughly in the decades after Reconstruction blacks have been erased from our history, north and south. Until recently, how many growing up in Massachusetts knew anything at all about the thriving free black community in Boston, or similar ones elsewhere above the Mason-Dixon?
But most astonishing for many will be the fact that the separation of races that that would become the new normal in the post-Civil War “Jim Crow” south had its roots fully nurtured in the north decades before Appomattox. Whites and their enslaved chattels shared lives intertwined in the antebellum south, while separation between whites and blacks was fiercely enforced in the north. Many African Americans in Massachusetts had fled bondage, or had family members that were runaways, and knew full well that southern slaveowners commonly traveled by rail accompanied by their enslaved servants, while free blacks in Boston were relegated to a separate car until the state prohibited racial segregation in mass transportation in 1842.
Sarah may not have been spared her long walk to school, but the efforts of integrationists eventually paid off when school segregation was prohibited by Massachusetts law just five years after Sarah’s father lost his case in court. Unfortunately, this battle had to be waged all over again in the 1970s, this time accompanied by episodes of violence, as Boston struggled to achieve educational equality through controversial busing mandates that in the long term generated far more ill will than sustainable results. Despite the elevation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court bench, and the election of the first African American president, more than one hundred fifty years after the Fourteenth Amendment became the law of the land, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement reminds us that there is still much work to be done to achieve anything like real equality in the United States.
For historians and educators, an even greater concern these days lies in the concerted efforts by some on the political right to erase the true story of African American history from public schools. As this review goes to press in Black History Month, February 2022, shameful acts are becoming law across a number of states that by means of gaslighting legislation ostensibly designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) effectively prohibit educators from teaching their students the true history of slavery, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights. As of this morning, there are some one hundred thirteen other bills being advanced across the nation that could serve as potential gag orders in schools. How can we best combat that? One way is to loudly protest to state and federal officials, to insist that black history is also American history and should not be erased. The other is to freely share black history in your own networks. The best weapons for that in our collective arsenal are quality books like Sarah’s Long Walk.
My journal article, “Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans & School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts,” and related materials can be accessed by clicking here: Know-Nothings
A familiar trope in the Looney Tunes cartoons of my boyhood had Elmer Fudd or some other zany character digging a hole with such vigor and determination that they emerged on the other side of the world in China, greeted by one or more of the stereotypically racist Asian animated figures of the day. In the 1964 Road Runner vehicle “War and Pieces,” Wile E. Coyote goes it one better, riding a rocket clear through the earth—presumably passing through its center—until he appears on the other side dangling upside down, only to then encounter a Chinese Road Runner embellished with a braided pigtail and conical hat who bangs a gong with such force that he is driven back through the tunnel to end up right where he started from. In an added flourish, the Chinese Road Runner then peeps his head out of the hole and beep-beep’s faux Chinese characters that turn into letters that spell “The End.”
There were healthy doses of both hilarious comedy and uncomfortable caricature here, but what really stuck in a kid’s mind was the notion that you could somehow burrow through the earth with a shovel or some explosive force, which it turns out is just as impossible in 2022 as it was in 1964. But if you hypothetically wanted to give it a go, you would have to start at China’s actual antipode in this hemisphere, which lies in Chile or Argentina, and then tunnel some 7,918 miles: twice the distance to the center of the earth you would pass through, which lies at around 3,959 miles (6,371 km) from the surface.
So what about the center of the earth? Could we go there? After all, we did visit the moon, and the average distance there—238,855 miles away—is far more distant. But of course what lies between the earth and its single satellite is mostly empty space, not the crust, mantle, outer core, and inner core of a rocky earth that is a blend of the solid and the molten. Okay, it’s a challenge, you grant, but how far have we actually made it in our effort to explore our inner planet? We must have made some headway, right? Well, it turns out that the answer is: not very much. A long, concerted effort at drilling that began in 1970 by the then Soviet Union resulted in a measly milestone of a mere 7.6 miles (12.3 km) at the Kola Superdeep Borehole near the Russian border with Norway; efforts were abandoned in 1994 because of higher-than-expected temperatures of 356 °F (180 °C). Will new technologies take us deeper one day at this site or another? Undoubtedly. But it likely will not be in the near future. After all, there’s another 3,951.4 miles to go and conditions will only grow more perilous at greater depths.
But we can dream, can’t we? Indeed. And it was Jules Verne who did so most famously when he imagined just such a trip in his classic 1864 science fiction novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Astrophysicist and journalist David Whitehouse cleverly models his grand exploration of earth’s interior, Into the Heart of the World: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, on Verne’s tale, a well-written, highly accessible, and occasionally exciting work of popular science that relies on geology rather than fiction to transport the reader beneath the earth’s crust through the layers below and eventually to what we can theoretically conceive based upon the latest research as the inner core that comprises the planet’s center.
It is surprising just how few people today possess a basic understanding of the mechanics that power the forces of the earth. But perhaps even more astonishing is how new—relatively—this science is. When I was a child watching Looney Tunes on our black-and-white television, my school textbooks admitted that although certain hypotheses had been suggested, the causes of sometimes catastrophic events such as earthquakes and volcanoes remained essentially unknown. All that changed effectively overnight—around the time my family got our first color TV—with the widespread acceptance by geologists of the theory of plate tectonics, constructed on the foundation of the much earlier hypothesis of German meteorologist and geophysicist Alfred Wegener, who in 1912 advanced the view of continents in motion known as “continental drift,” which was ridiculed in his time. By 1966, the long-dead Wegener was vindicated, and continental drift was upgraded to the more elegant model of plate tectonics that fully explained not only earthquakes and volcanoes, but mountain-building, seafloor spreading, and the whole host of other processes that power a dynamic earth.
Unlike some disciplines such as astrophysics, the basic concepts that make up earth science are hardly insurmountable to any individual with an average intelligence, so for those who have no idea how plate tectonics work and are curious enough to want to learn, Into the Heart of the World is a wonderful starting point. Whitehouse can be credited with articulating complicated processes in an easy to follow narrative that consistently holds the reader’s interest and remains fully comprehensible to the non-scientist. I came to this book with more than a passing familiarity with plate tectonics, but I nevertheless added to my knowledge base and enjoyed the way the author united disparate topics into this single theme of a journey to the earth’s inner core.
If I have a complaint, and as such it is only a quibble tied to my own preferences, Into the Heart of the World often devotes far more paragraphs to a history of “how we know what we know” rather than a more detailed explanation of the science itself. The author is not to be faulted for what is integral to the structure of the work—after all the cover does boast “A Remarkable Voyage of Scientific Discovery,” but it left me longing for more. Also, some readers may stumble over these backstories of people and events, eager instead to get to the fascinating essence of what drives the forces that shape our planet.
A running gag in more than one Bugs Bunny episode has the whacky rabbit inadvertently tunneling to the other side of the world, then admonishing himself that “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!” He doesn’t comment on what turn he took at his juncture with the center of the earth, but many kids who sat cross-legged in front their TVs wondered what that trip might look like. For grownups who still wonder, I recommend Into the Heart of the World as your first stop.
[Note: this book has also been published under the alternate title, Journey to the Centre of the Earth: The Remarkable Voyage of Scientific Discovery into the Heart of Our World.]
[A link to the referenced 1964 Road Runner episode is here: War and Pieces]
In southern Greece in 1944, German forces constructing a wartime bunker reportedly unearthed a single mandible that paleontologist Bruno von Freyberg incorrectly identified as an extinct Old-World monkey. A decades-later reexamination by another paleoanthropologist determined that the tooth instead belonged to a 7.2-million-year-old extinct species of great ape which in 1972 was dubbed Graecopithecus freybergi and came to be more popularly known as “El Graeco.” Another tooth was discovered in Bulgaria in 2012. Then, in 2017, an international team led by German paleontologist Madelaine Böhme conducted an analysis that came to the astonishing conclusion that El Graeco in fact represents the oldest hominin—our oldest direct human ancestor! At the same, Böhme challenged the scientific consensus that all humans are “Out-of-Africa” with her competing “North Side Story” that suggests Mediterranean ape ancestry instead. Both of these notions remain widely disputed in the paleontological community.
In Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, Böhme—with coauthors Rüdiger Braun and Florian Breier—advances this North Side Story with a vengeance, scorning the naysayers and intimating the presence of some wider conspiracy in the paleontological community to suppress findings that dispute the status quo. Böhme brings other ammunition to the table, including the so-called “Trachilos footprints,” the 5.7-million-year-old potentially hominin footprints found on Crete, which—if fully substantiated—would make these more than 2.5 million years earlier than the footprints of Australopithecus afarensis found in Tanzania. Perhaps these were made by El Graeco?! And then there’s Böhme’s own discovery of the 11.6-million-year-old Danuvius guggenmosi, an extinct species of great ape she uncovered near the town of Pforzen in southern Germany, which according to the author revolutionizes the origins of bipedalism. Throughout, she positions herself as the lonely voice in the wilderness shouting truth to power.
I lack the scientific credentials to quarrel with Böhme’s assertions, but I have studied paleoanthropology as a layman long enough to both follow her arguments and to understand why accepted authorities would be reluctant to embrace her somewhat outrageous claims that are after all based on rather thin evidence. But for the uninitiated, some background to this discussion is in order:
While human evolution is in itself not controversial (for scientists, at least; Christian evangelicals are another story), the theoretical process of how we ended up as Homo sapiens sapiens, the only living members of genus Homo, based upon both molecular biology and fossil evidence, has long been open to spirited debate in the field, especially because new fossil finds occur with some frequency and the rules of somewhat secretive peer-reviewed scholarship that lead to publication in scientific journals often delays what should otherwise be breaking news.
Paleontologists have long been known to disagree vociferously with one other, sometimes spawning feuds that erupt in the public arena, such as the famous one in the 1970s between the esteemed, pedigreed Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson over Johanson’s discovery and identification of the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecine “Lucy,” which was eventually accepted by the scientific community over Leakey’s objections. At one time, it was said that all hominin fossils could be placed on one single, large table. Now there are far more than that: Homo, Australopithecine, and many that defy simple categorization. Also at one time human evolution was envisioned as a direct progression from primitive to sophistication, but today it is accepted that rather than a “tree” our own evolution can best be imagined as a bush, with many relatives—and many of those relatives not on a direct path to the humans that walk the earth today.
Another controversary has been between those who favored an “Out-of-Africa” origin for humanity, and those who advanced what used to be called the multi-regional hypothesis. Since all living Homo sapiens sapiens are very, very closely related to each other—even more closely related than chimpanzees that live in different parts of Africa today—multiregionalism smacked a bit of the illogical and has largely fallen out of favor. The scholarly consensus that Böhme takes head on is that humans can clearly trace their ancestry back to Africa. Another point that should be made is that there are loud voices of white supremacist “race science” proponents outside of the scientific community whom without any substantiation vehemently oppose the “Out-of-Africa” origin theory for racist political purposes, as underscored in Angela Saini’s brilliant recent book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. This is not to suggest that Böhme is racist nor that her motives should be suspect—there is zero evidence that is the case—but the reader must be aware of the greater “noise” that circulates around this topic.
My most pointed criticism of Ancient Bones is that it is highly disorganized, meandering between science and polemic and unexpected later chapters that read like a college textbook on human evolution. It is often hard to know what to make of it. And it’s difficult for me to accept that there is a larger conspiracy in the paleoanthropological community to preserve “Out-of-Africa” against better evidence that few beyond Böhme and her allies have turned up. The author also makes a great deal of identifying singular features in both El Graeco and Danuvius that she insists must establish that her hypotheses are the only correct ones, but as those who are familiar with the work of noted paleoanthropologists John Hawks and Lee Berger are well aware, mosaics—primitive and more advanced characteristics occurring in the same hominin—are far more common than once suspected and thus should give pause to those tempted to conclusions that actual evidence does not unambiguously support.
As noted earlier, I am not a paleontologist or even a scientist, and thus I am far from qualified to peer-review Böhme’s arguments or pronounce judgment on her work. But as a layman with some familiarity with the current scholarship, I remain unconvinced. She also left me uncomfortable with what appears to be a lack of respect for rival ideas and for those who fail to find concordance with her conclusions. More significantly, her book is poorly edited and too often lacks focus. Still, for those like myself who want to stay current with the latest twists-and-turns in the ever-developing story of human evolution, at least some portions of Ancient Bones might be worth a read.
[Note: I read an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book obtained through an early reviewer’s group.]
Is another biography of George Washington really necessary? A Google search reveals some nine hundred already exist, not to mention more than five thousand journal articles that chronicle some portion of his life. But the answer turns out to be a resounding yes, and David O. Stewart makes that case magnificently with his latest work, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, an extremely well-written, insightful, and surprisingly innovative contribution to the historiography.
Many years ago, I recall reading the classic study, Washington: The Indispensable Man, by James Thomas Flexner, which looks beyond his achievements to put emphasis on his most extraordinary contribution, defined not by what he did but what he deliberately did not do: seize power and rule as tyrant. This, of course, is no little thing, as seen in the pages of history from Caesar to Napoleon. When told he would resign his commission and surrender power to a civilian government, King George III—who no doubt would have had him hanged (or worse) had the war gone differently—famously declared that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington demonstrated that greatness again when he voluntarily—you might say eagerly—stepped down after his tenure as President of the United States to retire to private life. Indispensable he was: it is difficult to imagine the course of the American experiment had another served in his place in either of those pivotal roles.
But there is more to Washington than that, and some of it is less than admirable. Notably, there was Washington’s heroic fumble as a young Virginia officer leading colonial forces to warn away the French at what turned into the Battle of Jumonville Glen and helped to spark the French & Indian War. Brash, headstrong, arrogant, thin-skinned, and ever given to an unshakable certitude that his judgment was the sole correct perspective in every matter, the young Washington distinguished himself for his courage and his integrity while at the same time routinely clashing with authority figures, including former mentors that he frequently left exasperated by his demands for recognition.
Biographers tend to visit this period of his life and then fast-forward two decades ahead to the moment when the esteemed if austere middle-aged Washington showed up to the Continental Congress resplendent in his military uniform, the near-unanimous choice to lead the Revolutionary Army in the struggle against Britain. But how did he get here? In most studies, it is not clear. But this is where Stewart shines! The author, whose background is the law rather than academia—he was once a constitutional lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.—has proved himself a brilliant historian in several fine works, including his groundbreaking reassessment of a key episode of the early post-Civil War era, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy. And in Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, Stewart’s careful research, analytical skills, and intuitive approach successfully resurrected portions of James Madison’s elusive personality that had been otherwise mostly lost to history.
This talent is on display here, as well, as Stewart adeptly examines and interprets Washington’s evolution from Jumonville Glen to Valley Forge. Washington’s own personality is something of a conundrum for biographers, as he can seem to be simultaneously both selfless and self-centered. The young Washington so frequently in turn infuriated and alienated peers and superiors alike that it may strike us as fully remarkable that this is the same individual who could later harness the talents and loyalty of both rival generals during the war and the outsize egos of fellow Founders as the new Republic took shape. Stewart demonstrates that Washington was the author of his own success in this arena, quietly in touch with his strengths and weaknesses while earning respect and cultivating goodwill over the years as he established himself as a key figure in the Commonwealth. Washington himself was not in this regard a changed man as much as he was a more mature man who taught himself to modify his demeanor and his behavior in the company of others for mutual advantage. This too, is no small thing.
The subtitle of this book—ThePolitical Rise of America’s Founding Father—is thus hardly accidental, the latest contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life. Collectively, these studies serve to underscore that politics is ever at the heart of leadership, as well as that great leaders are not born fully formed, but rather evolve and emerge. George Washington perhaps personifies the most salient example of this phenomenon.
The elephant in the room of any examination of Washington—or the other Virginia Founders who championed liberty and equality for that matter—is slavery. Like Jefferson and Madison and a host of others, Washington on various occasions decried the institution of enslaving human beings—while he himself held hundreds as chattel property. Washington is often credited with freeing the enslaved he held direct title to in his will, but that hardly absolves him of the sin of a lifetime of buying, selling, and maintaining an unpaid labor force for nothing less than his own personal gain, especially since he was aware of the moral blemish in doing so. Today’s apologists often caution that is unfair to judge those who walked the earth in the late eighteenth-century by our own contemporary standards, but the reality is that these were Enlightenment-era men that in their own words declared slavery abhorrent while—like Jefferson with his famous “wolf by the ear” cop-out—making excuses to justify participating in and perpetuating a cruel inhumanity that served their own economic self-interests. As biographer, Stewart’s strategy for this dimension of Washington’s life is to treat very little with it in the course of the narrative, while devoting the second to last chapter to a frank and balanced discussion of the ambivalence that governed the thoughts and actions of the master of Mount Vernon. It is neither whitewash nor condemnation.
Stewart’s study is by no means hagiography, but the author clearly admires his subject. Washington gets a pass for his shortcomings at Jumonville, and he is hardly held to strict account for his role as an enslaver. Still, the result of Stewart’s research, analysis, and approach is the most readable and best single-volume account of Washington’s life to date. This is a significant contribution to the scholarship that I suspect will long be deemed required reading.
Conspicuous in their absence from my 1960s elementary education were African Americans and Native Americans. Enslaved blacks made an appearance in my textbooks, of course, but slavery as an institution was sketched out as little more than a vague and largely benign product of the times. Then there was a Civil War fought over white men’s sectional grievances; there were dates, and battles, and generals, winners and losers. There was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, then constitutional amendments that ended slavery and guaranteed equality. There was some bitterness but soon there was reconciliation, and we went on to finish building the transcontinental railroad. There were the obligatory walk-on cameos by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and later George Washington Carver, who had something to do with peanuts. For Native Americans, the record was even worse. Our texts featured vignettes of Squanto, Pocahontas, Sacajawea, and Sitting Bull. The millions of Amerindians that once populated the country from coast to coast had been effectively erased.
Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize winning author and arguably the foremost living historian of early America, has devoted a lifetime to redressing those twin wrongs while restoring the nuanced complexity of our past that was utterly excised from the standard celebration of our national heritage that for so long dominated our historiography. In the process, in the eleven books he has published to date, he has also dramatically shifted the perspective and widened the lens from the familiar approach that more rigidly defines the boundaries of the geography and the established chapters in the history of the United States—a stunning collective achievement that reveals key peoples, critical elements, and greater themes often obscured by the traditional methodology.
I first encountered Taylor some years ago when I read his magnificent American Colonies: The Settling of North America, which restores the long overlooked multicultural and multinational participants who peopled the landscape, while at the same time enlarging the geographic scope beyond the English colonies that later comprised the United States to encompass the rest of the continent that was destined to become Canada and Mexico, as well as highlighting vital links to the West Indies. Later, in American Revolutions, Taylor identifies a series of social, economic and political revolutions of outsize significance over more than five decades that often go unnoticed in the shadows of the War of Independence, which receives all the attention.
Still, as Taylor underscores, it was the outcome of the latter struggle—in which white, former English colonists established a new nation—that was to have the most lasting and dire consequences for all those in their orbit who were not white, former English colonists, most especially blacks and Native Americans. The defeated British had previously drawn boundaries that served as a brake on westward expansion and left more of that vast territory as a home to the indigenous. That brake was now off. Some decades later, Britain was to abolish slavery throughout its empire, which no longer included its former colonies. Thus the legacy of the American Revolution was the tragic irony that a Republic established to champion liberty and equality for white men would ultimately be constructed upon the backs of blacks doomed to chattel slavery, as well as the banishment or extermination of Native Americans. This theme dominates much of Taylor’s work.
In his latest book, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, which roughly spans the period from the Peace of Paris to California statehood, Taylor further explores this grim theme in a brilliant analysis of how the principles of white supremacy—present at the creation—impacted the subsequent course of United States history. Now this is, of course, uncomfortable stuff for many Americans, who might cringe at that very notion amid cries of revisionism that insist contemporary models and morality are being appropriated and unfairly leveraged against the past. But terminology is less important than outcomes: non-whites were not only foreclosed from participating as citizens in the new Republic, but also from enjoying the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness allegedly granted to their white counterparts. At the same time, southern states where slavery thrived wielded outsize political power that frequently plotted the nation’s destiny. As in his other works, Taylor is a master of identifying unintended consequences, and there are more than a few to go around in the insightful, deeply analytical, and well-written narrative that follows.
These days, it is almost de rigueur for historians to decry the failure of the Founders to resolve the contradictions of permitting human chattel slavery to coexist within what was declared to be a Republic based upon freedom and equality. In almost the same breath, however, many in the field still champion the spirit of compromise that has marked the nation’s history. But if there is an original sin to underscore, it is less that slavery was allowed to endure than that it was codified within the very text of the Constitution of the United States by means of the infamous compromise that was the “three-fifths rule,” which for the purposes of representation permitted each state to count enslaved African Americans as three-fifths of a person, thus inflating the political power of each state based upon their enslaved population. This might have benefited all states equally, but since slavery was to rapidly decline and all but disappear above what would be drawn as the Mason-Dixon, all the advantage flowed to the south, where eventually some states saw its enslaved population outnumber its free white citizenry.
This was to prove dramatic, since the slave south claimed a disproportionate share of national political power when it came to advancing legislation or, for that matter, electing a president! Taylor notes that the disputed election of 1824 that went for decision to the House of Representatives would have been far less disputed without the three-fifths clause, since in that case John Quincy Adams would have led Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College 83 to 77 votes, instead of putting Jackson in the lead 99 to 84. [p253] When Jackson prevailed in the next election, it was the south that cemented his victory.
The scholarly consensus has established the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, but Taylor goes further, arguing that its significance extended long before secession: slavery was ever the central issue in American history, representing wealth, power, and political advantage. The revolutionary generation decried slavery on paper—slave masters Washington, Jefferson and Madison all pronounced it one form of abomination or another—but nevertheless failed to act against it, or even part with their own human property. Jefferson famously declared himself helpless, saying of the peculiar institution that “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go,” but as slavery grew less profitable for Virginia in the upper south, Jefferson and his counterparts turned to breeding the enslaved for sale to the lower south, where the demand was great. Taylor points out that “In 1803 a male field hand sold for about $600 in South Carolina compared to $400 in Virginia: a $200 difference enticing to Virginia sellers and Carolina slave traders … Between 1790 and 1860, in one of the largest forced migrations in world history, slave traders and migrants herded over a million slaves from Virginia and Maryland to expand southern society …” [p159] Data and statistics may obscure it, but these were after all living, breathing, sentient human beings who were frequently subjected to great brutalities while enriching those who held them as chattel property.
Jefferson and others of his ilk imagined that slavery would somehow fall out of favor at some distant date, but optimistically kicking the can down the road to future generations proved a fraught strategy: nothing but civil war could ever have ended it. As Taylor notes:
Contrary to the wishful thinking of many Patriots, slavery did not wither away after the American Revolution. Instead, it became more profitable and entrenched as the South expanded westward. From 698,600 in 1790, the number of enslaved people soared to nearly 4 million by 1860, when they comprised a third of the South’s population … In 1860, the monetary value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the nation’s banks, factories, and railroads combined. Masters would never part with so much valuable human property without a fight. [p196]
As bad as it was for enslaved blacks, in the end Native Americans fared far worse. It has been estimated that up to 90% of Amerindians died as a result to exposure to foreign pathogens within a century of the Columbian Experience. The survivors faced a grim future competing for land and resources with rapacious settlers who were better armed and better organized. It may very well be that conflict between colonists and the indigenous was inevitable, but as Taylor emphasizes, the trajectory of the relationship became especially disastrous for the latter after British retreat essentially removed all constraints on territorial expansion.
The stated goal of the American government was peaceful coexistence that emphasized native assimilation to “white civilization.” The Cherokees who once inhabited present-day Georgia actually attempted that, transitioning from hunting and gathering to agriculture, living in wooden houses, learning English, creating a written language. Many practiced Christianity. Some of the wealthiest worked plantations with enslaved human property. It was all for naught. With the discovery of gold in the vicinity, the Cherokees were stripped of their lands in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, championed by President Andrew Jackson, and marched at bayonet point over several months some 1200 miles to the far west. Thousands died in what has been dubbed the “Trail of Tears,” certainly one of the most shameful episodes of United States history. Sadly, rather than an exception, the fate of the Cherokees proved to be indicative of what lay in store for the rest of the indigenous as the new nation grew and the hunger for land exploded.
That hunger, of course, also fueled the Mexican War, launched on a pretext in yet another shameful episode that resulted in an enormous land grab that saw a weaker neighbor forced to cede one-third of its former domains. It was the determination of southern states to transplant plantation-based slavery to these new territories—and the fierce resistance to that by “Free-Soilers” in Lincoln’s Republican Party—that lit the fuse of secession and the bloody Civil War that it spawned.
If there are faults to this fine book, one is that there is simply too much material to capably cover in less than four hundred pages, despite the talented pen and brilliant analytical skills of Alan Taylor. The author devoted an entire volume—The Civil War of 1812—to the events surrounding the War of 1812, a conflict also central to a subsequent effort, The Internal Enemy. This kind of emphasis on a particular event or specific theme is typical of Taylor’s work. In American Republics, he strays from that technique to attempt the kind of grand narrative survey seen by other chroniclers of the Republic, powering through decades of significance at sometimes dizzying speeds, no doubt a delight for some readers but yet disappointing to others long accustomed to the author’s detailed focus on the more narrowly defined.
Characteristic of his remarkable perspicacity, Taylor identifies what other historians overlook, arguing in American Republics that the War of 1812 was only the most well-known struggle in a consequential if neglected era he calls the “Wars of the 1810s” that also saw the British retreat northward, the Spanish forsake Florida, and the dispossession of Native Americans accelerate. [p148] That could be a volume in itself. Likewise, American culture and politics in the twelve years that separate Madison and Jackson is worthy of book-length treatment. There is so much more.
Another issue is balance—or a lack thereof. If the history of my childhood was written solely in the triumphs of white men, such accomplishments are wholly absent in American Republics, which reveals the long-suppressed saga of the once invisible victims of white supremacy. It’s a true story, an important story—but it’s not the only story. Surely there are some achievements of the Republic worthy of recognition here?
As the culture wars heat to volcanic temperatures, such omissions only add tinder to the flames of those dedicated to the whitewash that promotes heritage over history. Already the right has conjured an imaginary bugaboo in Critical Race Theory (CRT), with legislation in place or pending in a string of states that proscribes the teaching of CRT. These laws have nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, of course, but rather give cover to the dog whistles of those who would intimidate educators so they cannot teach the truth about slavery, about Reconstruction, about Civil Rights. These laws put grade-school teachers at a risk of termination for incorporating factual elements of our past into their curriculum, effectively banning from the classroom the content of much of American Republics. This is very serious stuff: Alan Taylor is a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia, a state that saw the governor-elect recently ride to an unlikely victory astride a sort of anti-CRT Trojan Horse. Historians cannot afford any unforced errors in a game that scholars seem to be ceding to dogmatists. If the current trend continues, we may very well witness reprints of my childhood textbooks, with blacks and the indigenous once more consigned to the periphery.
I have read seven of Taylor’s books to date. Like the others, his most recent work represents a critical achievement for historical scholarship, as well as a powerful antidote to the propaganda that formerly tarnished studies of the American Experience. The United States was and remains a nation unique in the family of nations, replete with a fascinating history that is at once complicated, messy, and controversial. American history, at its most basic, is simply a story of how we got from then to now: it can only be properly understood and appreciated in the context of its entirety, warts and all. Anything less is a disservice to the discipline as well as to the audience. To that end, American Republics is required reading.
Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here:
In what has to be the most shameful decision rendered in the long and otherwise distinguished career of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell to uphold a compulsory sterilization law in Virginia. The case centered on eighteen-year-old Carrie Buck, confined to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and Holmes wrote the majority opinion in the near unanimous decision, famously concluding that “three generations of idiots is enough.”
Similar laws prevailed in some thirty-two states, resulting in the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans. Had Carrie lived in Massachusetts, she would have avoided this fate, but she likely would have been condemned to the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, which—like similar institutions of this era—had its foundation in the eugenics, racism and Social Darwinism of the time that argued that “defectives” with low moral character threatened the very health of the population by breeding others of their kind, raising fears that a kind of contagious degeneracy would permanently damage the otherwise worthy inhabitants of the nation. I have written elsewhere of the horror-show of inhumane conditions and patient abuse at the Belchertown State School, which did not finally close its doors until 1992.
Sterilization was only one chilling byproduct of “eugenics,” a term coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin whose misunderstanding of the principles of Darwinian evolution led to his championing of scientific racism. Eugenics was also the driving force behind the 1924 immigration law that dramatically reduced the number of Jews, Italians, and East Europeans admitted to the United States. White supremacy did not only consign blacks and other people of color to the ranks of the “less developed” races, but specifically exalted those of northern and central European origin as the best and the brightest. This was all pseudoscience of course, but it was quite widely accepted and “respectable” in its day.
Then, along came Hitler and the Holocaust, and more than six million Jews and other “undesirables” were systematically murdered in the name of racial purity. Eugenics was respectable no more. Most of us born in the decades that followed the almost unfathomable horror of that Nazi sponsored genocide may have assumed that race science was finally discredited and disappeared forever, relegated to a blood-spattered dustbin of history. But, as Angela Saini reveals in her well-written, deeply researched, and sometimes startling book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, scientific racism not only never really went extinct, but it has returned in our day with a kind of vengeance, fueling the fever for calls to action on the right for anti-immigration legislation.
Saini, a science journalist, broadcaster, and author with a pair of master’s degrees may be uniquely qualified to tell this story. Born in London of Indian parents, in a world seemingly obsessed with racial classification she relates how her background and brown complexion defies categorization; some may consider her Indian, or Asian—or even black. But of course in reality she could not be more British, even if for many her skin color sets her apart. The UK’s legacy of empire and Kipling’s “white man’s burden” still loom large.
But Superior is not a screed and is not about Saini, but rather about how mistaken notions of race and the pseudoscience of scientific racism have not only persisted but are rapidly gaining ground for a new audience and a new era. To achieve this, the author conducted comprehensive research into the origins of eugenics, but even more significantly identified how the ideology of race science that fueled National Socialism and begat Auschwitz and Birkenau quietly if no less adamantly endured post-Nuremberg cloaked in the less fiery rhetoric of pseudoscientific journals grasping at the periphery of legitimacy. Moreover, a modern revolution in paleogenetics and DNA research that should firmly refute such dangerous musings has instead been incorporated for a new generation of acolytes to scientific racism that serve to both undergird and add a false sense of authenticity to dangerous political tendencies on the right that long simmered and now have burst forth in the public arena.
Whatever some may believe, science has long established that race, for all intents and purposes, is a myth, a social construct that advances no important information about any given population. Regardless of superficial characteristics, all living humans—designated homo sapiens sapiens—are biologically the same and by every other critical metric are essentially members of the same closely related population. In fact, various groups of chimpanzees of Central Africa demonstrate greater genetic diversity than all humans across the globe today. Modern humans likely evolved from a common ancestor in Africa, and thus all of humanity is out of Africa. It is just as likely that all humans once had dark skin, and that lighter skin, what we would term “white” or Caucasian, developed later as populations moved north and melanin—a pigment located in the outer skin layer called the epidermis—was reduced as an adaptation to cope with relatively weak solar radiation in far northern latitudes. The latest scholarship reveals that Europeans only developed their fairer complexion as recently as 8500 years ago!
The deepest and most glaring flaw in the race science that was foundational to Nazism is that it is actually a lack of diversity that often results in a less healthy population. This is not only apparent in the hemophilia that plagued the closely related royal houses of the European monarchies, but on a more macro scale with genetic conditions more common to certain ethnic groups, such as sickle cell disease for those of African heritage, and Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews.
Counterintuitively, modern proponents of race science cherry pick DNA data to attempt to promote superiority for whites that concomitantly assigns a lesser status for people of color, and these concepts are then repackaged to champion policies that limit immigration from certain parts of the world. Once anathema for all but those on the very fringes of the political spectrum, this dangerous rebirth of genetic pseudoscience is now given voice on right-wing media. Worse perhaps, the tendency of mainstream media to promote fairness in what has come to be dubbed “bothsiderism” sometimes offers an underserved platform to those spinning racist dogma in the guise of scientific studies. Of course, social media has now transcended television as a messaging vehicle, and it is far better suited to spreading misinformation, especially in an era given to a mistrust of expertise, thus granting a seat at the table to the unsupported on the same platform with credible fact-based reality, urging the audience to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.
The United States was collectively shaken in 2017 when white supremacists wielding tiki torches marched at Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and shaken once more when then-president Donald Trump subsequently asserted that there “were very fine people, on both sides.” But there was far less outrage the following year when Trump both sounded a dog whistle and startled lawmakers as he wondered aloud why we should allow in more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa instead of from places like Norway. (Unanswered, of course, is why a person would want to abandon the arguably higher quality of life in Norway to come to the U.S. …) But the volume on such dog whistles has been turned up alarmingly as of late by popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who in between fear-mongering messaging that casts the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and Critical Race Theory (CRT) as Marxist conspiracies that threaten the American way of life, openly advocates against the paranoid alt-right terror of the “Great Replacement” theory, a staple of the white supremacist canon, declaring the Biden administration actively engaged in trying “to change the racial mix of the country … to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly-arrived from the third world.” Translation: people of color are trying to supplant white people. Carlson doesn’t cite race science, but he did recently allow comments to go unchallenged by his guest, the racist extremist social scientist Charles Murray, that the “the cognitive demands” of some occupations mean “a whole lot of more white people qualify than Black people.” Superior was published in 2019 but is chillingly prescient about the dangerous trajectory of both racism and race science on the right.
There is a lot of material between the covers of this book, but because Saini writes so well and speaks to the more arcane matters in language comprehensible to a wide audience, it is not a difficult read. Throughout, the research is impeccable and the analysis spot-on. Still, there are moments Saini strays a bit, at one point seeming to speculate whether we should hold back on paleogenetic research lest this data be further perverted by proponents of scientific racism. That is, of course, the wrong approach: the best weapon against pseudoscience remains science itself. Still, the warning bells she sounds here must be heeded. The twin threats of racism and the rebirth of race science into the mainstream are indeed clear and present dangers that must be confronted and combated at every corner. The author’s message is clear and perhaps more relevant now than at any time since the 1930s, another era when hate and racism served as by-products that informed an angry brand of populism that claimed legitimacy through race science. We all know how that ended.
I have written of the Belchertown State School here:
When identifying the “greatest presidents,” historians consistently rank Washington and Lincoln in the top two slots; the third spot almost always goes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as chief executive longer than any before or since and shepherded the nation through twin existential crises of economic depression and world war. FDR left an indelible legacy upon America that echoes loudly both forward to our present and future as well as back to his day. Lionized by the left today—especially by its progressive wing—far more than he was in his own time, he remains vilified by the right, then and now. Today’s right, which basks in the extreme and often eschews common sense, conflating social security with socialism, frequently casts him as villain. Yet his memory, be it applauded or heckled, is nevertheless of an iconic figure who forever changed the course of American history, for good or ill.
FDR has been widely chronicled, by such luminaries as James MacGregor Burns, William Leuchtenburg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jay Winik, Geoffrey C. Ward, and a host of others, including presidential biographer Robert Dallek, winner of the Bancroft Prize for Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. Dallek now revisits his subject with Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, the latest contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and most recently, in George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, by David O. Stewart.
A rough sketch of FDR’s life is well known. Born to wealth and sheltered by privilege, at school he had difficulty forming friendships with peers. He practiced law for a time, but his passion turned to politics, which seemed ideally suited to the tall, handsome, and gregarious Franklin. To this end, he modeled himself on his famous cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt. He married T.R.’s favorite niece, Eleanor, and like Theodore eventually became Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Unsuccessful as a vice-presidential candidate in the 1920 election, his political future still seemed assured until he was struck down by polio. His legs were paralyzed, but not his ambition. He never walked again, but equipped with heavy leg braces and an impressive upper body strength, he perfected a swinging gait that propelled him forward while leaning into an aide that served, at least for brief periods, as a reasonable facsimile of the same. He made a remarkable political comeback as governor of New York in 1928, and won national attention for his public relief efforts, which proved essential in his even more remarkable bid to win the White House four years later. Reimagining government to cope with the consequences of economic devastation never before seen in the United States, then reimagining it again to construct a vast war machine to counter Hitler and Tojo, he bucked tradition to win reelection three times, then stunned the nation with his death by cerebral hemorrhage only a few months into the fourth term of one of the most consequential presidencies in American history.
That “brief sketch” translates into mountains of material for any biographer, so narrowing the lens to FDR’s “political life” proves to be a sound strategy that underscores the route to his many achievements as well as the sometimes-shameful ways he juggled competing demands and realities. Among historians, even his most ardent admirers tend to question his judgment in the run-up to the disaster at Pearl Harbor, as well as his moral compass in exiling Japanese Americans to confinement camps, but as Dallek reveals again and again in this finely wrought study, these may simply be the most familiar instances of his shortcomings. If FDR is often recalled as smart and heroic—as he indeed deserves to be—there are yet plenty of salient examples where he proves himself to be neither. Eleanor Roosevelt once famously quipped that John F. Kennedy should show a little less profile and a little more courage, but there were certainly times this advice must have been just as suitable to her husband. What is clear is that while he was genuinely a compassionate man capable of great empathy, FDR was at the same time at his very core driven by an almost limitless ambition that, reinforced by a conviction that he was always in the right, spawned an ever-evolving strategy to prevail that sometimes blurred the boundaries of the greater good he sought to impose. Shrewd, disciplined, and gifted with finely tuned political instincts, he knew how to balance demands, ideals, and realities to shape outcomes favorable to his goals. He was a man who knew how to wield power to deliver his vision of America, and the truth is, he could be quite ruthless in that pursuit. To his credit, much like Lincoln and Washington before him, his lasting achievements have tended to paper over flaws that might otherwise cling with greater prominence to his legacy.
I read portions of this volume during the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, especially relevant given that the new President, Joe Biden—born just days after the Battle of Guadalcanal during FDR’s third term—had an oversize portrait of Roosevelt prominently hung in the Oval Office across from the Resolute Desk. But even more significantly, Biden the candidate was pilloried by progressives in the run-up to November as far too centrist, as a man who had abandoned the vision of Franklin Roosevelt. But if the left correctly recalls FDR as the most liberal president in American history, it also badly misremembers Roosevelt the man, who in his day very deftly navigated the politics of the center lane.
Dallek brilliantly restores for us the authentic FDR of his own era, unclouded by the mists of time that has begotten both a greater belligerence from the right as well as a distorted worship from the left. This context is critical: when FDR first won election in 1932, the nation was reeling from its greatest crisis since the Civil War, the economy in a tailspin and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, unwilling to use the power of the federal government to intervene while nearly a quarter of the nation’s workforce was unemployed, at a time when a social safety net was nearly nonexistent. People literally starved to death in the United States of America! This provoked radical tugs to the extreme left and extreme right. There was loud speculation that the Republic would not survive, with cries by some for Soviet-style communism and by others for a strongman akin to those spearheading an emerging fascism in Europe. It was into this arena that FDR was thrust. Beyond fringe radical calls for revolution or reaction, despite his party’s congressional majority, like Lincoln before him perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest challenge after stabilizing the state was contending with the forces to the left and right in his own party. This, as Dallek details in a well-written, fast-moving narrative, was to be characteristic of much of his long tenure.
In spite of an alphabet soup of New Deal programs that sought to both rescue the sagging economy and the struggling citizen, for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party FDR never went far enough. For conservative Democrats, on the other hand, the power of the state was growing too large and there was far too much interference with market forces. But, as Dallek stresses repeatedly, Roosevelt struggled the most with forces on the left, especially populist demagogues like Huey Long and the antisemitic radio host Father Coughlin. And with the outbreak of World War II, the left was unforgiving when FDR seemed to abandon his commitment to the New Deal to focus on combating Germany and Japan. Today’s democratic socialists may want to claim him as their own, but FDR was no socialist, seeking to reform capitalism rather than replace it, earning Coughlin’s eventual enmity for being too friendly with bankers. At the same time, Republicans obstructed the president at every turn, calling him a would-be dictator. And most wealthy Americans branded him a traitor to his class. There was also an increasingly hostile Supreme Court, which was to ride roughshod over some of FDR’s most cherished programs, including the National Recovery Act (NRA), which was just one of several that were struck down as unconstitutional. We tend to recall the successes such as the Social Security Act that indelibly define FDR’s legacy, yet he endured many losses as well. But while Roosevelt did not win every battle, as Dallek details, only a leader with FDR’s political acumen could have succeeded so often while tackling so much amid a rising chorus of opposition on all sides during such a crisis-driven presidency. If the left in America tends to fail so frequently, it could be because it often fails to grasp the politics of the possible. In this realm, there has perhaps been no greater genius in the White House than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Fault can be found in Dallek’s book. For one thing, in the body of the narrative he too often namedrops references to other notable Roosevelt chroniclers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and William Leuchtenburg, which feels awkward given that the author is not some unknown seeking to establish credibility, but Robert Dallek himself, distinguished presidential biographer! And less a flaw than a weakness, despite his skill with a pen in these chapters the reader carefully observes FDR but never really gets to know him intimately. I have encountered this in other Dallek works. If you were, for instance, to juxtapose the Lyndon Johnson biographies of Robert Caro with those by Dallek, Caro’s LBJ colorfully leaps off the page the flesh-and-blood menacing figure who grasps you by the lapels and bends you to his will, while Dallek’s LBJ remains off in the distance. Caro has that gift; Dallek does not.
Still, this is a fine book that marks a significant contribution to the literature. FDR was indeed a giant; there has never been anyone like him in the White House, nor are we likely to ever see a rival. Dallek succeeds in placing Roosevelt firmly in the context of his time, warts and all, so that we can better appreciate who he was and how he should be remembered.