Review of: The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, by Harlow Giles Unger


PODCAST#13 … Review of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, by Harlow Giles Unger

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Did you know that the single greatest president in America’s first half-century was James Monroe? Even more than that, did you know that the most significant Founder of the fledgling Republic was James Monroe? That Monroe’s long-overlooked accomplishments The Last Founding Fatherand contributions dwarfed those of Washington, Jefferson and Madison and all the rest? That Monroe was a towering figure in both establishing and leading the new nation?  I didn’t either, but that is the boast of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, by Harlow Giles Unger.

Should you suspect that I am unfairly exaggerating the author’s bold claim, look no further than page two of the “Prologue” to learn that while Washington may have won American independence, his legacy was little more than a “fragile little nation” and his “… three successors—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes.” It was, apparently, left to the heroic, brilliant, and larger-than-life character of James Monroe to step in and make America great, as summarized by Unger:

Monroe’s presidency made poor men rich, turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people … Political parties dissolved and disappeared. Americans of all political persuasions rallied around him under a single “Star Spangled Banner.” He created an era never seen before or since in American history … that propelled the nation and its people to greatness.

That’s from page three. I might have closed the cover after that burst of hyperbole, which better channels the ending of a Disney movie than a historian’s measured analysis. But then I checked the dust jacket bio to find that Unger is “A former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington’s Mount Vernon … a veteran journalist, broadcaster, educator and historian … the author of sixteen books, including four other biographies of America’s Founding Fathers.” Perhaps I was misjudging him? So, I read on …

Spoiler alert: it does not get any better.

Presidential biography is a favorite of mine, and I have read more than a couple of dozen. For the uninitiated, the genre tends to diverge along three paths: the laudatory, the condemnatory and the analytical.  While closer to the first category, The Last Founding Father really fits into none of these classifications. In fact, one might argue that it is less biography than hagiography, for the author is so consumed with awe by his subject that the latter is simply incapable of transgression in any arena. When I was a child, I could do no wrong in my grandmother’s eyes. If I did go astray, she would redefine right and wrong to suit the circumstances, so I always landed on the positive side of the equation. Unger offers similar dispensation for Monroe throughout this work.

Unger’s inflated reverence for Monroe should not diminish his subject’s importance to the early Republic, only compel us to examine the man and his legacy with a more critical eye.  The list of “Founding Fathers”—a term only coined by Woodrow Wilson in 1916—is somewhat arbitrary, and Monroe does not even always make the cut. The essential seven that all historians agree upon are:  John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Other lists are more broad, and many also include Monroe, who was after all not only the fifth President of the United States, but also U.S. Senator, Ambassador to France and England, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War—at one point even holding the latter two cabinet positions simultaneously. Monroe’s tenure in the White House has famously been dubbed the “Era of Good Feelings,” but only school kids—and Unger, apparently—believe that this is because suddenly faction disappeared, and both rival politics and personalities gave way to a mythical fellowship.  In fact, historians have long recognized that this period was characterized by the one-party rule of the Democratic-Republican Party that dominated after the disintegration of the Federalist Party, which had flirted with treason and been discredited in its opposition to the War of 1812. But Monroe’s Democratic-Republicans represented far more of a coalition of loose factions than the powerful central force that the party had been under the stewardship of Jefferson and Madison before him. The fissures unacknowledged by Unger were brewing all along, later made manifest in the Second Party System of Clay and Jackson.

Most studies of Monroe reveal a man of great personal courage with stalwart dedication to principle and service to his country. Few—Unger is the exception—credit him with the kind of intellectual brilliance seen in peers like Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. Like Hamilton—who indeed once challenged him to a duel—Monroe seems to have possessed an outsize ego and a prickly sense of honor that was easily slighted if not subject to the praise and recognition he felt certain he rightly deserved, such as sole credit for the Louisiana Purchase! Nearly a decade earlier than that milestone, Monroe had served as ambassador to France but was later recalled by Washington, who found him too easily flattered and otherwise lacking in the traits essential to upholding American diplomatic interests. Monroe was stung by this, but in his long future in government service he was in turn to have fallings-out with both Jefferson and his old friend Madison, unable to tolerate differences in opinion and bristling in his perception of being ever snubbed by not being elevated to the prominence he felt due him. Like Jefferson, Madison’s presidency proved to be a disappointing chapter in a life marked by great achievements. But while the War of 1812 was hardly Madison’s finest hour, and Monroe indeed played a pivotal role during the existential crisis of the burning of Washington and its aftermath, Madison was hardly the bewildered, sniveling coward Unger portrays in his account, so incapacitated by events that Monroe had to heroically swoop in to serve as acting president and single-handedly rescue the Republic.

The many flaws in this biography are unfortunate, because Unger writes very well and citations are abundant, lending to the book the style and form of a solid history. On a closer look, however, the reader will find that the excerpts from primary sources that populate the narrative are often focused on superficial topics, such as food served at events, room furnishings, or styles of dress. And Unger seems to sport a weirdly singular crush on Monroe’s wife, Eliza, whom he describes as “beautiful” more than a dozen times in the text—and that before I gave up counting! Attractive of not, she seems as First Lady to have come off as cold and imperious, with aristocratic airs that she no doubt accumulated during her times abroad with her husband, when they lived often in a grand style that was well beyond their means. Oddly, far more paragraphs are devoted to descriptions of Eliza’s clothing and social activities, and her many debilitating illnesses, real or imagined, than to Monroe’s eight years in the White House.

A greater complaint is that for a book published as recently as 2009, conspicuous in its absence are the less privileged people that walked the earth in Monroe’s time, Native Americans and most especially the enslaved African Americans kept as chattel property by elite Virginia planters like Monroe—as well as Jefferson, Madison and Washington—something that manifestly flies in the face of recent historiographical trends.  Although Monroe owned hundreds of human beings over the course of his lifetime, the reader would hardly know it from turning the pages of The Last Founding Father, where the enslaved are mentioned in passing if mentioned at all, such as: “Although Monroe had to sell some slaves to rescue [his brother] Joseph from bankruptcy, he held to the belief that brotherly ties were indissoluble …” [p207] Long before the more famous Nat Turner Revolt, there was Gabriel’s Rebellion, and Monroe was Governor of Virginia when it was repressed and twenty-five blacks were hanged in retribution. The slightly more than two pages given to this episode lacks critical analysis but credits Monroe with promptly calling out the militia to put down the uprising [p140-142]. Such a cursory treatment of the inherent contradictions of the institution of chattel slavery to the ideals of the new Republic are an inexcusable blemish on any work of a twenty-first century historian. Since there is much in the literature about the incongruity of Monroe the plantation master—much like Jefferson—at times decrying while yet sustaining the peculiar institution, we can only conclude that Unger deliberately passed over this material lest it cast some aspersion upon the adoring portrait that this volume advances.

It pains me to write a bad review of any book. After all, the author typically labors mightily to generate the product, while I can read it—or not—in my leisure. But I am passionate about both historical studies and the rigors of scholarship, which should apply even more scrupulously to someone such as Harlow Giles Unger, who not only possesses appropriate credentials but has written widely in the field, and thus owes the student of history far more than this, which after all does no real service to the reader—nor to James Monroe by overstating his achievements while failing to contextualize his role as a key figure in the early Republic with the nuance and complexity that his legacy deserves.

Review of: Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything, by Martin W. Sandler


Astronaut William Anders began: “For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

On Christmas Eve fifty-one years ago, millions in the United States and around the globe—including this then eleven year old boy—gathered breathlessly around their TV’s to Apollo 8 bookwatch the first live broadcast from space, an extraordinary transmission beamed back to earth from more than two hundred thousand miles away from an American spacecraft in orbit around the moon. The largest television audience to that date was treated to remarkable photographs of the forbidding moonscape, but far more awe-inspiring and humbling were the images they viewed of their very own living planet, appearing so tiny and so remote from such a great distance. The three astronauts closed out the broadcast by reading passages from the biblical book of Genesis. Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders was followed by Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and then Commander Frank Borman, who added: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

While this episode remains a heartwarming moment that celebrates both the universality of the human endeavor as well as the singularity of this accomplishment, it should not obscure the reality of what was really happening on that blue planet viewed from afar, of the wars and famines and cruelty and disasters that did not take a pause while space travelers read aloud from an ancient book that itself once gave witness to its same share of wars and famines and cruelty and disasters. Nor should it fail to remind us that these representatives of the earth blasted off from a badly fractured landscape at home.

The claim that America on this Christmas Eve of 2019 has never been this divided is at once refuted by a glance back to 1968, replete with acts of terror, campus unrest, cities in flames, mass demonstrations, political assassinations, and violence in the streets—the perfect storm of the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam and the revolution of rising expectations among long-disenfranchised blacks frustrated by the pace of change. If there was a kind of unifying force that remained to serve as some sort of glue amid the chaos and dissonance of a splintered national polity it had to be the space program and its race for the moon. The actual moon landing was not until the following year, but 1968 closed with the remarkable Apollo 8 mission, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon, made more dramatic by that live Christmas Eve audio-video transmission from space that included those readings from Genesis, and later forever enshrined in our collective consciousness by the iconic photo “Earthrise” that depicts the earth rising over the moon’s horizon, snapped by astronaut Bill Anders, that is said to have inspired the environmental movement.

Martin W. Sandler revisits this existential moment that briefly comforted a troubled nation with the oversize and lavishly illustrated Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything, directed at a young adult (YA) audience but suitable for all. I have read and reviewed Sandler before. The author has a talent for clear, concise writing that while targeting a younger readership does not dumb-down the topic, an otherwise frequent tarnish to this genre of nonfiction. I obtained this book as part of an Early Reviewer program and my copy was an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) with black and white images, but the published edition is full-color and worth the purchase if only for the magnificent color photographs, though these are nicely enhanced by a well-written narrative that encompasses the totality of this highly significant space mission and its ramifications back home. The only caution I would add is that I have detected glaring historical errors in some of Sandler’s other works. I did not stumble upon any here, but then I am hardly an expert on the space program. Thus, the reader should trust but verify!

Some—at the time and since—have objected to the astronauts’ choice of verses from Genesis, as if there was an attempt to impose religion from the beyond, or to celebrate the Judeo-Christian experience at the expense of others. We should not be so hard on them; they were simply seeking some kind of universal message to inspire us all. That they may have failed to please everyone may only underscore how diverse we are even as we transcend the myth of race to acknowledge that we all share the very same DNA, the same hopes and dreams and fears and needs and especially the desire to love and be loved.  Astronaut Bill Landers himself returned from space as an atheist, awed by his place in the vast universe.  I am not a religious person: I celebrate Christmas as a time for peace and love and Santa Claus. But I can still, like the astronauts on Apollo 8 fifty-one years ago, wish my readers a good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you on the good Earth.


Click for: Apollo 8 Live Broadcast

Review of: Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks


Some years ago, I had the pleasure of reading the Booker-prize winning masterpiece Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, which motivated me to pick up a couple of his other novels for later consumption, including Engleby. One day, I randomly plucked it off the englebyshelf and turned to the first page. Honestly, it was not easy to put down. Also, to be even more honest, there were times that I really wanted to.

As a reviewer, it sounds somewhat awkward or even unseemly to resort to a term like “creepy” to describe a novel, but that would most accurately describe the subtle if sustained punch in the gut I experienced while reading this one, propelled by a growing revulsion for the central character. As the narrative unfolds, that character—the eponymous Mike Engleby—is a working-class Brit on scholarship to “an ancient” university in the early 1970s. He comes across as a bit of an oddball, but for those of us who lived through this era that was hardly unusual nor especially undesirable, given that to be an iconoclast in those days was often seen as a virtue. But the reader cannot help but experience an emerging disquiet as Engleby develops an infatuation that veers to obsession that then turns more ominously to the outright stalking of his bright and beautiful classmate Jennifer Arkland. Along the way, there are flashbacks to the bitter poverty of Engleby’s youth, the regular beatings by his father, the quotidian brutality of his life at public school where he is condemned to the unfortunate nickname “Toilet” and subjected to an ongoing torment that stretches the limits of endurance to cruelty—the cumulative effect of which, it becomes clear, shapes him into a bully, a thief, a drug dealer, an opportunist. Flash forward again and Jennifer has disappeared, never found, presumed murdered.

Did Engleby murder her? Could he be a serial killer? Is he mere weirdo or sociopath? That’s for you to find out: I don’t believe in folding spoilers into reviews. But the narrative is laced with plenty of clues, scattered within an interior monologue that invites an uncertain sympathy for a protagonist whom at best provokes the uneasy, at worst the repellent. Yet, it is the genius of the author to tempt the reader to veer from repugnance to empathy, against all odds, even if this shift may prove temporary. And the reader, like it or not, is ensnared in an uncomfortable fascination with this very same well-crafted interior monologue, a kind of labyrinth pregnant with Engleby’s barely suppressed anxiety, which he overcompensates for with visions of grandeur and a disdainful arrogance for all others in his orbit—except perhaps, that is, for Jennifer Arkland. And then that anxiety grows contagious as the reader begins to question the reliability of the narrator! Are the things revealed by Engleby’s inner thoughts real or imagined? Is Faulks himself, acting as both wizard and jester, simply mocking us from behind the curtain?

The last time I found myself as deeply unsettled by a work of fiction, it was Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, the unlikely tale of an eighteenth-century serial killer, but that novel was tempered with a pronounced sense of the ironic if not especially comedic. Not so with this one: there’s nothing even a little bit funny about Engleby. For his part, Faulks proves himself a true artist of the written word, his pen taking full command of his character and his audience alike. I recommend it, even if it may keep you up at night.

Review of: Napoleon: A Life, by Adam Zamoyski


PODCAST#9 … Review of Napoleon: A Life, by Adam Zomoyski

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The most consequential figure of what historians dub Europe’s “long nineteenth century” (1789-1914)—from the start of the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I—came to virtually define the first part of that era while setting forces into motion that napoleonshaped all that was to follow. Over the course of a single decade, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled not only much of the territory on the continent, but the entirety of its destiny.  When he fell from power, the peace that was crafted in his wake largely held for a full century. The Europe that was obliterated by the catastrophe of the Great War that followed was the Europe both made and unmade by Napoleon. And even well beyond that, in the nearly two centuries since he walked the earth, no other individual—not Bismarck, not Stalin, not Churchill, not even Hitler—has emerged in the West, for ill or for good, to rival his significance or challenge his legacy.  Yet for most, these days Napoleon is, if not exactly a forgotten character, a much overlooked one, a rarely referenced ghost of a distant past whose specter though perhaps unnoticed nevertheless still haunts the twenty-first century capitals of Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow.

An outstanding remedy to our collective negligence is Napoleon: A Life, by Adam Zamoyski, a noted historian and author with a long resume who masterfully resurrects the outsize character that was the living man and places him in the context of his times. At nearly seven hundred pages, at first glance this hefty tome might seem intimidating, but Zamoyski writes so well that there are few sluggish spots in a fast-moving, highly accessible narrative that will likely take its place in the historiography as the definitive single-volume biography. And this is surely the treatment his subject deserves.

There could perhaps not have been a more unlikely individual to command the world stage and change the course of history than Napoleon Bonaparte, born to a family of minor Italian nobility of quite modest means on Corsica in 1769, somewhat ironically in the same year that the Republic of Genoa ceded the island to France. It may be a minor point but it certainly adds to that irony that the future Emperor of France apparently ever spoke French with an atrocious accent, which—knowing the conceit of those native to the language—could only have rankled those in his orbit, both friend and foe. Yet, this is just one of the many, many contradictions that cling to Napoleon’s person. As a child, he was sent to a religious school in France, and later attended a military academy, which led to his commission as a second lieutenant in the artillery.

It was the outbreak of the French Revolution a few short years later that catapulted him onto the world stage in a bizarre trajectory that saw him first as a fervent Corsican nationalist seeking the island’s independence from France, then a pro-republican pamphleteer allied with Robespierre, and then artillery commander at the Siege of Toulon, where he first demonstrated his military genius. He was wounded but survived to be promoted to brigadier general at the age of twenty-four and later placed in command in Italy, where he led the army to victory in virtually every battle, while taking time out to crush a Royalist rebellion in Paris. He also survived his association with Robespierre. Proving himself as gifted in the partisan arena as he was on the battlefield, he adroitly commandeered the dangerous and ever-shifting political ground of revolutionary France to engineer a coup and make himself dictator, euphemistically styled as First Consul of what was now a republic in little more than name only.  He was just thirty years old. Within five years, he was Emperor of France in a retooled monarchy that both resembled and served as counterpoint to the ancien régime that revolution had swept away.

The rare general with talents equally exceptional in the tactical and the strategic, Napoleon managed both on and off the battlefield to defeat a succession of great power coalitions aligned against him until he commanded much of Europe directly or through his proxies, while crippling British trade through his “continental system” that controlled key ports. Like Alexander two millennia before him, Napoleon was brilliant, courageous, opportunistic and lucky—all the ingredients necessary for unparalleled triumph on such a grand scale. Unlike Alexander, he outlived his conquests to try to remake his realm, in his case by spreading liberal reforms, stamping out feudalism, promoting meritocracy and codifying laws. But he also lived to fall from power and to fall hard.  At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the ancient Greeks invented the term hubris to describe the tragedy in the excessive pride personified by men just such as Napoleon. Whereas Alexander looked to Achilles and the Olympic pantheon, Napoleon looked only to his own “star,” which he fully relied upon to guarantee his success in every endeavor. And one day that star dimmed. He famously overreached with the ill-conceived invasion of Russia that turned to debacle, but it was more than that. For all his genius, he ruled the French Empire like a medieval lord—or a crime boss—placing on the thrones of puppet states that served him members of his extended family or his cronies, most of whom lacked competence or even loyalty. His dramatic rise was met with an equally dramatic fall, and he ended his days in exile on a remote island in the South Atlantic, slowly succumbing to what was likely stomach cancer at the age of fifty-one.

Of course, you could learn all of this from the prevailing literature—there are literally thousands of books that chronicle Napoleon—but Zamoyski’s rare achievement is to capture the essential nature of his subject, something that too often eludes biographers. The Napoleon he conjures for us is a basket of contradictions: at once kind, despotic, magnanimous, ruthless, noble, petty, confident, insecure, charismatic, and socially awkward.  Zamoyski does not stoop to play psychoanalyst, but the Napoleon that emerges from the narrative often smacks of a narcissist and depressive who frequently rode waves of highs and lows. If nothing else, he was certainly a very peculiar man who was repellent to some just as others were somehow drawn to him irresistibly, a paradox perhaps captured best in this passage recounting the recollections of those who knew him as a young man:

He was out of his depth, not so much socially as in terms of simple human communication: he showed a curious lack of empathy which meant that he did not know what to say to people, and therefore either said nothing or something inappropriate. His gracelessness, unkempt appearance, and poor French … did not help … He could sit through a comedy … and remain impassive while the whole house laughed, and then laugh raucously at odd moments … [He once told] a tasteless joke about one of his men having his testicles shot off at Toulon, and laughing uproariously while all around sat horrified. Yet there was something about his manner that some found unaccountably attractive. [p92]

Zomoyski does not pass judgment on Napoleon, but deftly brings color, form and substance to his sketches of him so that the reader is rewarded with a genuine sense of familiarity with the living man, an accomplishment that cannot be overstated.  If there is a flaw, it is that the work is skimpy on the historical backdrop, on the prequel to Napoleon; those not already well-schooled with the milieu of late eighteenth century Europe may be at a disadvantage.  But this is perhaps a quibble, for to do so competently would have further swelled the size of the book and risked an unwieldy text. On the other hand, there is a welcome supply of many fine maps, as well as copious notes.

Napoleon’s ambition left thousands of dead in his wake, and he left his mark far beyond the Europe he transformed. Modern Egyptology was born out of Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt; the famous “Rosetta Stone” was among the spoils of war, although it ultimately ended up in British rather than French hands.  Napoleon was the force behind the Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the size of the nascent United States.  It was the impressment of American seamen during the Napoleonic Wars that was a leading Casus belli in the War of 1812, and it was British exhaustion at the conclusion of that conflict that spared the young republic a harsher price for peace.  Look closely and you will find Napoleon’s fingerprints nearly everywhere—and you will see them in far greater detail if you treat yourself to Zamoyski’s magnificent biography, which surely does justice to his legacy.


[CORRECTION: the podcast version of this review misidentifies the location of Napoleon’s death as on an island in the Pacific rather than in the South Atlantic, which has been corrected in the written text above.]

Podcast Review of: “The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt” by Patrick H. Breen


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Review of: “The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt” by Patrick H. Breen

Review of: Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, by Robert A. Caro



PODCAST#14 … Review of Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, by Robert A. Caro

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While browsing a bookstore sometime in 1982, I picked up a thick hardcover entitled The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert A. Caro. I had never heard of Caro, Workingbut the jacket flap told of his winning the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for biography for his very first book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. I had never heard of Moses either, but in the days before smartphones and Google might let me dig a little deeper, that accolade spoke directly to the author’s reputation. I did—and still do—like to browse bookstores and to read books about American presidents. The twenty bucks I shelled out to buy that book was probably most of the cash I had in my wallet that afternoon, something else that was and remains characteristic of me to this day: given a choice between buying lunch or a new book, I will almost always choose the latter. I mean, I can wait until dinner …

That volume of The Path to Power is 768 pages of small print, not including notes and back matter, of mostly dense material, but Caro’s voice is so commanding that I found myself both absorbed and obsessed. For those who have not read him, it is difficult to describe Caro’s style, which exists somewhere at the confluence of incisive reporting and towering epic, a kind of literary salad that blends the best of Edward R. Murrow and Robert Penn Warren—seasoned with a dash or two of Thucydides—that the reader is driven to devour.

There are great presidential biographers out there—think Robert Remini, David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Jon Meacham—yet Caro is in a league all his own.  And unlike the others, he has not been prolific, devoting the decades since the publication of The Path to Power to just three books, all part of his The Years of Lyndon Johnson saga, one of which—Master of the Senate—is a landmark synthesis of history and biography and politics that won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Another ten years passed before the release of The Passage of Power, which only just follows LBJ into his first months in the White House. Now an octogenarian still doggedly at work on what is to be the final book in the series, Caro has broken precedent by releasing a slim volume that is a study of the author rather than his subjects.

This latest book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, is less a memoir than a profile of what Caro has set out to do and how he has approached the process, as neatly summarized by the subtitle. Surprisingly, Caro is not a historian, but instead started off as a journalist who won the respect of an old-fashioned hardboiled editor when his diligence in the field turned up info vital to a storyline. The editor, who had barely acknowledged him before, advised: “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” That has been his mantra ever since.

Caro is fascinated by power and those who wield it, and especially by the ways power can be obtained and exercised outside of ordinary channels.  For instance, his first subject— “master builder” Robert Moses—was never elected to any office, yet at one point simultaneously held twelve official titles and used his accumulated authority to preside over the utter and lasting reshaping of New York City and its suburbs. In his research on LBJ, by turning “every page,” Caro encountered an obscure reference that led him to learn that Lyndon Johnson’s political rise and own personal wealth was closely linked to a long-secret relationship with the principals of Brown & Root, a construction company that built roads and dams and was later enriched by government contracts sent their way by Johnson; in turn, their largesse was to overflow LBJ’s campaign coffers.  The rest is—quite literally—history.

A silent partner in Caro’s award-winning achievements has long been his wife Ina, who has quietly devoted her life to aiding his research and managing the household so that he could concentrate entirely on his book projects. In Working, Caro reveals that Ina once sold their home—without telling him—in order to ensure their financial solvency. Another time, when he announced they were moving to the Texas Hill Country for three years to continue his research on LBJ, Ina cracked: “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?”  But she went along, without complaint.  And Caro makes it clear that Ina was no mere admin or assistant: she often sat across from him at long library tables and turned over half of those “goddamned pages” herself.

By my own calculation, I have read nearly three thousand pages of Robert Caro in his four volumes on Lyndon Johnson. I eagerly and impatiently await the final book. I did not know what to expect from Working, which is closer to memoir than autobiography but truly defies categorization.  Most great writers are incapable of talking about themselves without something like bitterness or bravado. Hemingway certainly couldn’t do it. Steinbeck—think Travels with Charley—was better at it, but he tended to conflate fiction and nonfiction along the way. Caro would have none of that. His work has always had a singular focus that has been about the unvarnished facts, about the warts and all, about the inconvenient truths that swirl about the lives of his subjects, and he delivers no more and certainly nothing less when he turns the lens on himself.

Working would be a party favor if written by anyone but Robert Caro. But because he is a magnificent writer gifted with extraordinary insight, it is a kind of a minor masterpiece packaged in an undersized edition that is an easy read of less than two hundred pages. If there is a fault, it is the odd inclusion of an interview with The Paris Review from 2016 that is not only superfluous but distracting; I would urge skipping it. But that’s a quibble. Even if you have never heard of Robert Caro yet are fascinated with history and how solid research serves as the foundation to analysis, interpretation and an ever-evolving historiography, you should read this. If you have read Caro’s other books, of course, then you must read this one!

Review of: The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, by Patrick H. Breen


PODCAST#8 … Review of The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, by Patrick H. Breen 

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In August 1831, in Virginia’s Southampton County, a literate, highly intelligent if eccentric enslaved man—consumed with such an outsize religious fervor that he was nicknamed  “The Prophet” by those in his orbit—led what was to become the largest slave uprising LandShallBeDelugedin American history. Nat Turner’s Rebellion turned out to be a brief but bloody affair that resulted in the largely indiscriminate slaughter of dozens of whites—men, women, children, even infants—before it was put down. The failed revolt itself was and remains far less important than its repercussions and the dramatic echoes that still resounded many years hence during the secession crisis. Rarely would any historian of the American Civil War cite Nat Turner as a direct cause of the conflict—after all, the rebellion took place three decades prior to Fort Sumter—but it is almost always part of the conversation. Turner’s uprising not only reinforced but validated a deep-simmering paranoia of southern whites—who like ancient Spartans vastly outnumbered by Helots were often in the minority to their larger chattel population—and spawned a host of reactionary legislation in Virginia and throughout much of the south that outlawed teaching blacks to read and white, and prohibited religious gatherings without a white minister present.  And while for those below the Mason-Dixon it was an underscore to the perils of their peculiar institution, at a time when abolitionism was in its infancy it also served to remind at least some of their northern brethren that the morally questionable practice of owning other human beings was part of the fabric of southern life. Indeed, one could argue that the true dawn of what we conceive of as the antebellum era began with Nat Turner.

For such a pivotal event in the nation’s past, the historiography has been somewhat scant. There is the controversial “confession” that Turner dictated to lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray in the days between his capture, trial and hanging, which some take at face value and others dispute. But in the intervening years, surprisingly few scholars have carefully scrutinized the rebellion and its legacy, which remains far better known to a wider audience from William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner than from the analytical authority of credentialed historians.

A welcome remedy can be found in The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, a brilliant if uneven treatment of the uprising and its aftermath by Patrick H. Breen, first published in 2016, that likely will serve as the academic gold standard for some time to come. While giving a respectful nod to the existing historiography—which has tended to breed competing narratives that pronounce Turner hero or villain or madman—Breen, an Associate Professor of History at Providence College, instead went all in by conducting an impressive amount of highly original research that locates the revolt within the greater sphere of the changing nature of the institution of slavery in southeastern Virginia in the early 1830s, which as a labor mechanism was in fact in a slow but pronounced decline. Nat Turner and his uprising certainly did not occur in a vacuum, but prior to Breen’s keen analysis, the rebellion was generally interpreted out of its critical context, which thus distorted conclusions that often pronounced it an anomaly nurtured by a passionate if deranged figure. For the modern historian, of course, this is not all that shocking, since the uncomfortable dynamics found in the relationships of the enslaved with wider communities of whites and other blacks (both free and enslaved) has until recent times been typically afforded only superficial attention or entirely overlooked. It is nevertheless surprising—given the notoriety of the Turner revolt—that until Breen there was such a lack of scholarly focus in this arena.

The book has eight chapters but there are three clear divisions that follow a distinct if sometimes awkward chronology. The first part traces the start and course of the rebellion and presents the full cast of characters of conspirators and victims. The second is devoted to subsequent events, including both the extrajudicial murder by whites of blacks swept up in the initial hysteria spawned by the revolt, as well as the carefully orchestrated trials and executions of many of the participants. The final and shortest section concerns the fate of Nat Turner himself, who evaded capture for two months—long after many of his accomplices had been tried and hanged.

The general reader may find the first part slow-going. The story of the revolt should be an exciting read, especially given the passion of prophecy that consumed Turner and the violence that it begat with its slaughter of innocents by an unlikely band of recruits whose motives were ambiguous. Instead, the prose at times is so dispassionate that the drama slips away. In my opinion, this is less Breen’s fault—he is, after all, a talented writer—than the stultifying structure of academic writing that burdens the field, the unfortunate reason why most best-selling works of history are not written by historians.  But I would encourage the discouraged to press on, because the effort is intellectually rewarding; the author has deftly stripped away myth and legend to separate fact from the surmise and invention pregnant in other accounts. If there can be such a thing as a definitive study of the Nat Turner rebellion, Breen has delivered it.

It is clear from the character of the narrative that follows that Breen’s true passion lies in the aftermath of the revolt, where he serves as revisionist to what has long been taken for granted as settled history. This is as it should be, because it was the repercussions of the rebellion and the way it was remembered (north and south) in the thirty years leading up to secession that was always of far greater importance to history than the uprising itself. And it is unfortunately this echo—much of which has been unsubstantiated—which has tainted later scholarship. The central notion that prevailed, which Breen challenges, is that the reaction to Nat Turner was a widespread bloodbath of African Americans by unruly mobs whose suspicion was that all blacks were complicit or were simply driven by revenge. The other, also disputed by Breen, is that whatever trust might have once existed between white masters and the enslaved had forever evaporated, the former ever in fear that the latter were secretly plotting a repeat of the Turner episode. Finally, Breen takes issue with the view of many historians that the authorial voice in Turner’s “confession” is unreliable because it was dictated to a white man who was guided by his own agenda when he published it.

Breen refutes the first by lending scrutiny to the empirical evidence in the extant records of the enslaved population. A little general background for the uninitiated here: the enslaved were treated as taxable chattel property in the antebellum era, so meticulous records were kept and a good deal of that survives. Many slave-owners insured their human “property,” often through insurance companies based in the north. If an enslaved person was convicted of a capital crime, the state compensated the slave-owner for the executed offender. Breen, as a good historian, simply reviewed the records to determine if prevailing views of the rebellion’s aftermath were accurate or exaggerated. What he learned was that there was indeed much hyperbole in reports of widespread massacres of African Americans. Yes, certain individuals and militias did commit atrocities by murdering blacks, and sometimes torturing them first. But the numbers were vastly overstated. And local officials quickly put a stop to this, motivated perhaps far less by ethical concerns than in an effort to protect valuable “property” from the extrajudicial depredations of the mob, whose owners would not then be duly compensated. Breen should be commended for his careful research—which demonstrates that long-accepted reports of mass murder are simply unsupported by the records—yet it seems astonishing that those who came before him failed to follow the same road of due diligence that he traveled. This should underscore to all budding historians out there that there remains lots of solid history work ahead, even and especially in otherwise familiar areas like this one where what turns out to be a flawed analysis has long been taken for granted as the scholarly consensus.

This business of assigning value to chattel human property is uncomfortable stuff for modern students of this era, but as those who have read The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry’s outstanding treatment of the topic, it is absolutely essential to understanding how slavery operated in the antebellum south. The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood steps beyond the specifics of Nat Turner to offer a wider perspective in this vein, as well. The enslaved were often subject to the arbitrary sanctions of their masters, but those accused of capital crimes were technically granted a kind of due process of law. Breen points out that special courts of “Oyer and Terminer” that lacked juries—the same kind that convicted and hanged those accused of witchcraft in Salem—were ordained in Virginia to judge such cases. Initially enacted to expedite the trial process of the enslaved, the courts—captained by five magistrates who were typically wealthy slave-owners, and which duly supplied defense attorneys to the accused—came to have the opposite effect, convicting only about a third of those brought before them. [p108] Much of the reason for these results seems to be connected to an effort to limit the cost of the state for compensation for those sent to the gallows for their crimes.

It turns out that these same courts also had a tempering effect on the trials of those accused of taking part in the rebellion.  But this time, it wasn’t only about the money.  Breen argues convincingly that the elite magistrates who controlled the trial process also created and marketed to the wider community a reassuring narrative that the uprising was a small affair involving only a small number of the misguided. In the end, eighteen were executed, more than a dozen were transported and there were even some acquittals. Thus, state liability was limited, and the peculiar institution was protected.

That reassurance seems to have been effective: freedom of movement for the enslaved subsequent to the revolt was not as constrained as some have maintained, as evidenced by the fact that Nat Turner was discovered in hiding and betrayed by other enslaved individuals who were hardly prohibited from wandering alone after dark. By the time Nat Turner was captured and executed, the rebellion was almost already history. As to the veracity of Turner’s “confessions” to Grey, Breen makes a compelling argument in support of Turner’s words as recorded, but that will likely remain both controversial and open to interpretation. So too will the person of Nat Turner. The horror of human chattel slavery might urge us to cheer Nat and his accomplices in their revolt, while the murder of babies in the course of events can’t help but give us pause. Likewise, we might harshly judge those white slave-owners who dared to judge them.  But, of course, that is not the strict business of historians, who must sift through the nuance and complexity of people and events to get to the bottom of what really happened, warts and all.

I first learned of The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood when I sat enthralled by Breen’s presentation of his research at the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2019 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, and I purchased a copy at the college bookstore.  While I have some quibbles with the style and arrangement of the book, especially to the strict adherence to chronology that in part weakens the narrative flow, the author has made an invaluable contribution to the historiography with what is surely the authoritative account of the Nat Turner Rebellion. This is and should be required reading for all students of the antebellum era.

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[My review of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry, is here: ]

Review of: Korea: Where the American Century Began, by Michael Pembroke


PODCAST#15 … Review of Korea: Where the American Century Began, by Michael Pembroke

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There’s an abiding irony to the fact that the United Nations, formed in the wake of a catastrophic global war to keep the peace, instead gave sanction to the first and most significant multinational armed conflict since World War II, not even five full years after Korea Where the American Century BeganJapan’s capitulation. It never would have happened had Stalin not ordered Soviet delegates to boycott that Security Council session in protest over the seating of Chiang Kai-shek’s government-in-exile on Taiwan instead of Mao’s de facto People’s Republic of China. It might never have happened if United States President Truman was not under enormous political pressure due to a hysterical campaign of right-wing outrage known as “Who Lost China” born out of Mao’s surprise victory in 1949, the same year that the Cold War grew much hotter when the Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb, and fears of global communist domination magnified. It probably never would have found the support of so many other nations if the memories of appeasement to Hitler were still not so fresh and compelling.

“It”—of course—was the Korean War, which took place on a wide swath of East Asian geography that remains unresolved to this very day. Historically, the Korean peninsula hosted at various times both competing kingdoms and a unitary state but was always dominated by its more powerful neighbors: China, Russia and Japan. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, and an especially brutal occupation ensued. Following the Japanese defeat, the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel into two zones administered in the north by the Soviet Union and in the south by the United States. Cold War politics enabled the creation of two separate states in the two zones, each mutually hostile to one another. In June 1950, the Soviet-backed communist regime in the north invaded the pro-western capitalist state in the south, which spawned a UN resolution to intervene and launched the Korean War. At first South Korea fared poorly, but an American-led multinational coalition eventually pushed communist forces back across the 38th parallel. The fateful decision was then made by the Truman Administration to pursue the enemy and expand full-scale combat operations into North Korea. This brought China into the war and a long bloody struggle to stalemate ensued. Like a weird Twilight Zone loop, more than sixty-six years later a state of war still exists on the peninsula, and Kim Jong-un—the erratic supreme leader of a now nuclear-armed North Korea who regularly taunts the United States—is the grandson of supreme leader Kim Il-sung, whose invasion of the south sparked the conflict!

The origins, history and consequences of the Korea War makes for a fascinating story that—especially given both its scope and its dramatic contemporary echo—has received far less attention in the literature than it deserves. Unfortunately, Michael Pembroke’s recent attempt, Korea: Where the American Century Began, contributes almost nothing worthwhile to the historiography. This is a shame, because Pembroke—a self-styled historian who currently serves as a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia—is a talented writer who seems to have conducted significant research for this work. Alas, he squanders it all on what turns out to be little more than a lengthy philippic that serves as a multilayered condemnation of the United States.

As the subtitle suggests, Pembroke’s bitter polemic is directed not only at US intervention in Korea, but at the subsequent muscular but misguided American foreign policy that has begat a series of often pointless wars at a terrible cost in blood and treasure not only for the United States but also for the allies and adversaries in her orbit. Many—including this reviewer—might be in rough agreement with a good portion of that assessment. But the author sacrifices all credibility with a narrative that repeatedly acts as apologist for Mao, Kim Il-sung and even Stalin! For Pembroke, Truman takes on an outsize stature of a bloodthirsty monster who is not satisfied with the hundreds of thousands he vaporized at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but is willing and even eager to sacrifice millions more in order to achieve his nefarious goal of global domination. Stalin and Mao, on the other hand, simply had their reasons, and were often misunderstood. Left unexplained is why, invested with that motivation and given that the United States in that era had overwhelming strategic nuclear and conventional superiority, Truman and his successors chose not to deploy that capability to pave a dramatic sanguinary road to hegemony.

To my mind, America’s war in Korea was a calamitous misstep, further exacerbated by the escalation that ensued with the crossing of the 38th parallel after achieving the initial objective of driving communist forces from the south. And one could make a good argument that none of the seemingly endless conflicts the United States has engaged in since that time was worth the life of a single American serviceman or woman. Yet, it is a hideous distortion to disfavorably juxtapose America—warts and all—with the endemic mass murder of Stalin’s Soviet Union. History, as I have often noted, is a matter of complexity and nuance, a perspective that seems utterly alien to Michael Pembroke in a book that is neither a history nor an analysis but simply an almost breathless diatribe that reduces characters to caricature and events to a bizarre comic book style of exposing villainy—but in this case all the villains happen to be American.

Because I received this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, I felt an obligation to plod through it to the very last page. In other circumstances, I would have abandoned it far, far earlier. As a reviewer, rarely would I suggest that a work has absolutely no value to a reader, but here I will make an exception: the best-case scenario for this book is for it to go out of print.

Review of: Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard


PODCAST#7 … Review of Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard

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The best book I ever read about Theodore Roosevelt was actually about a river, with T.R. in a supporting role. By lending focus to just a single episode in the colorful drama of his remarkable life in The River of Doubt, Candice Millard’s insight and gifted prose Hero_of_the_Empire_Millarddelivered a superlative study of the existential Roosevelt that has often eluded biographers, while recounting the little-known challenge of his sunset years that nearly broke him.

Millard brings a similar technique to her third and most recent effort, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill. With pen dipped in the inkwells of careful scholarship as well as great storytelling, the author adroitly marries history and literature to deliver an unexpectedly original and fascinating tale that reads like something from Robert Louis Stevenson. If there are similarities to her earlier work, there is also a twist, with the storied figures in nearly inverse circumstances. Rather than the late-in-life challenge that nearly does the central character in, this is the chronicle of a young man’s extraordinary adventure that was to launch his long celebrity.

Not that Churchill was ever really anonymous. But first: is it even possible to imagine a young Churchill? Think of the man and what comes to mind is the steely but beefy, even rotund British leader who was already all of sixty-five years old when he became Prime Minister at the onset of World War II, after many decades both in and out of power. (And he was to live yet another two decades after Hitler’s defeat, again both in and out of power!)  But the Churchill of Hero of the Empire is a slight fellow in his early twenties with an outsize ego and seemingly boundless ambition who talks too much and annoys most of those in his orbit. Yet, even then, he was hardly unknown, born into the upper echelons of the aristocracy, scion of a famous father who committed a kind of political suicide before his own early death, and the celebrated and sometimes notorious American beauty Jennie Randolph, a brilliant iconoclast legendary for her many lovers. Before the action unfolds in Hero of the Empire, the twenty-four-year-old Winston had already traveled much of the world, had a brief career as an army officer, served as war correspondent, published two books, and made an unsuccessful run for Parliament.

Anticipating what would become known as the Second Boer War and determined to be in the thick of the fray, in 1899 Churchill obtained credentials as a journalist and set off for Cape Town, then on to Ladysmith amid fierce hostilities. Journalist or not, when his train came under Boer attack, he took the lead and mounted a heroic defense that although it ultimately ended with his capture is credited with saving countless lives of those aboard, most of whom were in uniform.  His time as prisoner of war and his bold escape is the central focus of the narrative.

Telling this story as well as Millard does might well be achievement enough, but this book succeeds far beyond that because the author not only brings a singular authenticity to her portrait of Churchill, but also to the wider canvas of the milieu that was England, the British empire, and the Boer republics at the turn of the century. This is especially impressive because rather than a trained historian, Millard comes to her craft with a master’s degree in literature, although there is no lack of citations to underscore the meticulous research that is the foundation of her work.

Millard’s account of Churchill’s escape from prison in Pretoria is no less than thrilling, tracing his footsteps as he wandered alone in unknown territory, stowed away on freight trains, and even concealed himself for a time in the bowels of a mine.  Eventually he made it to safety, hundreds of miles away at what was then Portuguese East Africa. The British public followed Churchill’s exploits with great excitement, and at war’s end he returned home to wide acclaim. His next attempt at Parliament met with success; his long career in politics and public service had begun.

What would any Churchill book be without the anecdotes born of his eccentricities? Hero of the Empire has its share, especially as it recounts his captivity, where he demonstrated that regardless of his circumstances he was and ever would be a creature of the elite. So it was that as P.O.W. Churchill nevertheless regularly indulged in fine wines, traced troop movements on wall-size maps, and was only missed after his audacious escape because the local barber he had hired refused to be turned away by fellow prisoners when the time came for his regularly scheduled haircut!

Churchill has fallen out of favor to large portions of our modern audience. His racism, his imperialism, his misogyny, are all somewhat cringeworthy nearly one hundred fifty years after his birth. And it is not all political correctness: many of his views were well out of step with others more enlightened in his own era. At the same time, warts and all, Churchill was indeed a great man. It is impossible to imagine England under the siege of the Nazi war machine without Churchill cheering the Brits on, collaborating with FDR, demanding the sacrifice of the nation, and his clarion call to “Never, never, never give in.” The character, the determination, the heroism, the steadfastness of that iconic figure is already manifest in the form of that spindly young overconfident fellow brought back to life for us once more in the pages of this fine book. There are indeed too few characters like Winston Churchill to animate our history, and far too few writers like Candice Millard to deliver such readable accounts of past times.