Review of: The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, by William E. Leuchtenburg

This review goes to press just three weeks out from the most consequential election in my lifetime, perhaps in the history of the republic. For those who might judge that hyperbolic, the-american-president-leuchtenbergconsider that a surprising number of eminent historians – including such iconic scholars in the field as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Harold Holzer, Bernard Weisberger, Joseph Ellis, and Sean Wilentz – have come together on a Facebook page “Historians on Donald Trump” to post video jeremiads as dire warnings against the election in November 2016 of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Add to that list renowned nonagenarian historian William E. Leuchtenburg, Professor Emeritus of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose own articulate video cautions us in no uncertain terms that: “What’s especially different about Donald Trump is that he is not a patriot. He has no sense of the American past and he doesn’t understand the achievements of this country. He has said we are a third world nation . . . we are not a third world nation! We are the envy of most of the world . . . and Donald Trump has no sense of the glory of the more than two centuries of the American republic or what we can take pride in today.” [full video at:]

Leuchtenburg, author of a numerous Presidential biographies and other works of American history, knows something about Presidents and seeks to showcase his decades of scholarship in the ambitious yet in many ways deeply flawed epic The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. I have read dozens of Presidential biographies, a favorite genre that if well-executed not only examines the specific figure but lends focus to an entire era of American history. In this election year, I was drawn to Leuchtenburg’s book because it promised a consecutive survey of twentieth century Presidents which presents a connectivity to the Oval Office ever lacking when each chief executive is treated in isolation.  The problem, of course, with a single volume approach is that even with a truly big book like this – The American President is 812 pages – there simply is not adequate space to do appropriate justice to each figure under consideration, especially when there are seventeen such figures and one of them is the historic giant of the century Franklin Roosevelt, and some of the others include such complex characters as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon. Typical “handbooks” of American Presidents end up as little more than a series of Wikipedia-like entries. Leuchtenburg the noted historian aspires to much more than that, and not unexpectedly falls short.

In the end, Leuchtenburg compromises and his portraits are an uneven swirl of careful biographical studies and sometimes awkward editorials which occasionally drift off to little more than polemic that leaves the nuance and complexity so critical to historical studies somewhere way off in the dust. This book has been criticized for not including footnotes, although Leuchtenburg reveals in the prologue that he was specifically asked not to annotate the volume as such.  That turns out to be an unshackling convenience for the author as his history is overshadowed by his summary judgement of the White House occupants that he considers. That my own politics and Leuchtenburg’s often coincide – I too find little to praise in the respective tenures of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — makes me no less uncomfortable as a historian with the license he grants himself to blatantly and often sweepingly pronounce sentence upon his subjects.

The American President does not start off that way. Indeed, his opening analyses of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson reflect a far more scholarly approach to his subjects, warts and all.  He rightly identifies Roosevelt, the accidental President (upon McKinley’s assassination), for playing the pivotal part in the reshaping of the office of POTUS for the twentieth century and expanding the role of the White House in national affairs, something not seen since Lincoln’s days in Washington during the Civil War. And TR in peacetime was in many ways to go far beyond Lincoln during armed insurrection, paving the way for a far more powerful Chief Executive. Without Teddy Roosevelt, the kind of imperial presidencies of a Woodrow Wilson or a Franklin Roosevelt or a Richard Nixon might never have been possible.

The author gives short shrift to Taft, probably deservedly, and cuts corners for the sake of brevity – unfairly I think – by combining Harding, Coolidge and Hoover to a single dismissive chapter.  A biographer of FDR in other volumes, Leuchtenburg expertly charts Roosevelt’s impressive accomplishments in leading the nation during the dark days of depression and war, crediting him for much but not failing to identify his various flaws and missteps, including the egregious court-packing attempt and the internment of Japanese-Americans.  Next, he attempts to make some sense out of the chaotic Truman era of dramatic peaks and valleys, acclaim and condemnation, although that probably is not achievable in the delimited space allowed.  Despite recent revisionist attempts to credit Eisenhower with more than his due, Leuchtenburg concurs with the consensus of historians that other than demonstrating appropriate caution in dangerous times, the popular Ike proved to be a fine general but a rather mediocre President whose two terms can perhaps best be summed up, in Stephen Ambrose’s words, as “the time of the great postponement,” because Eisenhower’s failure to act in so many critical arenas simply kicked the dangerous cans down the road of civil rights, urban decay, poverty and “a Cold War warming toward combustion.” [p385]

It remains somewhat puzzling given Leuchtenburg’s spot-on appraisal of Eisenhower’s legacy that he subsequently cuts John F. Kennedy so little slack and assigns him virtually no credit for juggling the huge basket of crises, both foreign and domestic, that he inherited in a world literally on the brink of catastrophe. JFK had a tragically abbreviated Presidency, but it seems utterly disrespectful to sum it all up in thirty-eight pages, most of it with derision, affording him only half-credit for Al Hunt’s tribute that “Kennedy’s skills may have saved 20 million to 30 million lives” in the Cuban Missile Crisis [p420] while dismissing JFK as “. . . a figure not of chronicle but of myth.” [p424] It is here, in Chapter 7, just about the midway point of this huge volume, where Leuchtenburg can be seen to begin to strain stridently at the leash of the academic and to yank his studied analyses more toward the unbridled and uncertain territory of the polemicist.

Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Lyndon Johnson is predictable and thus disappointing, crediting him with great domestic accomplishments while condemning him for the Southeast Asian adventurism that delivered the Vietnam debacle, without the careful autopsy of a Robert Dallek or a Robert Caro that would more accurately reflect the flaws of a figure of great ego and ambition who whatever his intentions stumbled mightily both home and abroad and whose worst legacy was to open the doors of the White House to Richard Nixon.  Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Nixon strips the latter of all complexity and marches a mostly vile cardboard cutout of an unbalanced man past us as he harnesses every ounce of the power of the imperial Presidency once shaped by Theodore Roosevelt for mostly benign purposes and puts it to work like a kind of criminal syndicate to achieve his corrupt and devious ends at all costs.  Everything the author presents here is chillingly accurate, but lost in the translation is the brilliance of the man.  Nixon was a kind of a demon, but he was nonetheless a far more complicated figure than the evil comic book villain that is showcased on these pages. Again for brevity, and especially unfairly in my opinion, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are afforded a slim chapter that hardly does either one of them justice.  Ronald Reagan earns more space in the volume, but much of it is a paragraph by paragraph revelation of how ill-equipped and unsuited to the office of the Presidency he was.  Today, Reagan is lionized on the right and has been mostly forgiven by much of the rest of the political spectrum for his dunderheaded reign, but Leuchtenburg does little to – like Rick Perlstein would gleefully do – wade through the layers of the man and his two administrations to identify why this is fact not editorial. And Leuchtenburg probably unfairly denies Reagan the one accolade he, as Richard Reeves has assessed, most deserves: it was Reagan who broke with his own administration to take Mikhail Gorbachev at his word that the stated intentions of the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War were genuine and not a hostile diversion.

To his credit, it is in the subsequent and final chapters devoted to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton that Leuchtenburg returns to his earlier more dispassionate approach to history seen in his treatment of TR and Wilson. He analyzes these men for their accomplishments and their failures, and rightly sums up why each stood on the very edges of greatness in office yet failed to achieve that because of their own unique but no less unshakable shortcomings. Finally, Leuchtenburg clearly blames Clinton’s incautious “sexcapades” with contributing to the loss of his successor, Al Gore, and what was to follow. This volume does not contain a chapter on George W. Bush, but there is no question that the author rightly recognizes the disaster of those years by citing editor Michael Takiff’s conclusion that “Bill’s dalliance with Monica [Lewinsky] . . . cost the nation not only what might have been . . . [in the concluding years of the Clinton Administration] . . . but what might have been done, and what was done instead, over the eight years that followed.” [p794] You don’t have to be a historian to recognize the merit in that estimation.

The American President winds up with an unremarkable epilogue, as if after all of those pages the author has simply run out of steam.  In retrospect, as a reader deeply invested in historical studies, I cannot help but wonder if Leuchtenburg’s own life’s trajectory proved to be a critical measure of his approach to this book.  Born during the Harding Administration, Leuchtenburg has lived through the Presidencies of all of his subjects save three.  Did a lifetime contemporary with the bulk of his protagonists put pressure upon his perspective as an historian and impact upon the appraisals in this volume?  Perhaps that is so.  Still, the value to this book, faults and all, is that it offers that continuous narrative of the Oval Office and reminds us that each occupant must first of all confront what has been left behind by his predecessor.  In these tumultuous times, it is also a cautious reminder that much, much worse things could happen to America than Richard Nixon. As Leuchtenburg concludes in his video on the “Historians on Donald Trump” Facebook page: “When I think of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency the words of Thomas Jefferson come to mind: ‘I tremble for my country.’”


[NOTE: Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States.]

Review of: The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

A stubborn incongruity to the again resurgent southern “Myth of the Lost Cause” is that the commitment to secession was far from universal.  In fact, about one hundred thousand white southern loyalists fought for the Union; except for South Carolina every state of the the-state-of-jonesConfederacy sent at least one battalion to join the northern ranks. More significantly perhaps is that there were multiple geographies where Unionist sentiment prevailed throughout the conflict, especially those where hardscrabble farming was far removed from the arena of the slave-holding plantation elite. Indeed, a great chunk of a cornerstone Confederate state broke off to become the new loyal Union state of West Virginia. A less well known locale is the subject of The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the tale – a blurred mix of fact and legend – of how pockets of loyalists in Jones County, in eastern Mississippi, were led by the colorful Newton Knight to secede from the Confederacy and form the “Free State of Jones.” This book, which dates back to 2009, served as the basis for the 2016 motion picture featuring Matthew McConaughey, which has brought the story to a much wider audience.

Despite the title, Newton Knight – rather than the State of Jones – is the true central character, which forms both a strength and a weakness to the book. The strength is that a biographical figure serving as focal point often enriches an unfolding historical narrative. The weakness in this case is that the perspective is often severely delimited to that figure, which diminishes the wider view. The authors introduce us to Newton Knight in 1921, interviewed in the twilight of his days by journalist Meigs Frost. It is hard to know what to make of him, especially since much of what is known about him is derived from his reminisces and those partisans who were loyal to him. Was he a heroic figure with a strong moral core and loyalty to an unwavering ideological outlook?  Or was he rather an opportunistic scalawag, a narcissistic self-serving outlaw that constructed his ethical framework entirely to suit his own interests?  He seems to be a bit of both, and to their credit Jenkins and Stauffer largely tell the story as they have it and leave it to the reader to pass judgment, although overall Knight tends to come off as more of a sympathetic figure than not in the course of this account.

Newton Knight was apparently a larger than life character, imposing both physically by his great stature and otherwise by the strength of his disposition, which encompassed a devotion to his Baptist “primitive” faith, a personal aversion to alcohol and a moral opposition to slavery. Knight, like many others in Jones County, was a poor white dirt farmer who had little sympathy for the Confederate cause, especially because of his anti-slavery views.  Nevertheless, as the draft loomed, he joined the army and served as both soldier and hospital orderly. His service did not last long. Disillusioned, he deserted and teamed up with other Unionists as a guerrilla fighter, leading the “Knight Company,” the genesis of the forces that eventually broke Jones County off from the CSA and became what was later more or less formalized as the “Free State of Jones.”

Naturally, pro-Confederates viewed Knight and his band as traitors. And while the reader may be sympathetic to Knight’s cause, it is often difficult not to wince at his methods, which as a guerrilla frequently eschewed the rules of war to include bushwhacking and the assassination of opponents, in and out of uniform. Also, it becomes increasingly ambiguous whether Knight was really fighting for any cause other than what best suited Newton Knight.

Knight differed from the majority of southern Unionists not only in his opposition to secession but also in his stand against slavery and his views on African-Americans, which encompassed not only abolition but a kind of equality which would have been viewed at the time as extremely radical, north or south. Knight, who was married and had multiple children with his Caucasian wife, also became involved with an African-American former slave named Rachel with whom he sired many more children. While it was hardly unusual for southern white men to consort with black women in the antebellum era – slaveholders including such notable figures as Jefferson commonly (if hardly publicly) had slave concubines that they impregnated – Knight went a giant step further as he eventually also took Rachel to be his wife, and came to treat all of his offspring and various relatives, white and black, as full equals. This story spills over into the post-war period, with Knight serving as a despised Republican officeholder in the Reconstruction era.  This is perhaps the most captivating part of the book, as the “Free State of Jones” is left in the dust and we observe the tragedy in microcosm in eastern Mississippi as the south loses the war but essentially wins the peace, as Reconstruction gives way to Redemption, as the brief experiment of attempts at equality end ruthlessly as African-Americans are murdered, terrorized, dehumanized and turned into second-class citizens for a century to come. Yet, somehow Newton Knight not only weathers the calamities about him but thrives, carving out his own enclave for his ever expanding inter-racial family, which somewhat uncomfortably intermarries amongst themselves.  Hero or villain or a blend of the two, Newton Knight remained a fascinating and singular character throughout his long life.

Given the wealth of great material, this should have been a far better book, but alas it often falls flat.  I would chalk that up to the fact that there are two authors, which frequently is problematic in any such volume.  Audiophiles will tell you that CD’s never sound as good as vinyl records because the highs and lows are averaged out – Keith Moon’s percussion is simply not as dramatic on a “Who” CD as it is on vinyl; the passion is, if not lost, deeply compromised.  Something similar often occurs when two authors attempt to speak with a single voice in a narrative – in this case Stauffer, a Harvard professor of history, and Jenkins, an award-winning journalist – and here again what is most conspicuously diminished is the passion of the telling of the tale. Still, it remains a compelling story and despite this flaw I would recommend it.

Review of: The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John, by Bruce Ware Allen

Readers with a penchant for military history and a comfortable familiarity with the milieu of the sixteenth century Mediterranean world – often defined by the ongoing struggle for dominance between the Muslim Ottoman Turks and the (less-than-united) Christian European West – will likely relish The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John, by Bruce Ware Allen. It will nevertheless present The Great Siege of Maltaa challenge for the uninitiated. I came to this book as part of an Early Reviewer’s program, and I found it an uphill climb from the start because I am less than intimately familiar with this historical period.  A similar well-written, analytical volume centered upon events in the Peloponnesian War or the American Civil War would not have tasked me so, which thus has more to say about the shortcomings of this reviewer than that of the author.

As the title foretells, this work is focused upon the celebrated “Great Siege of Malta” by Ottoman Turks in 1565, which if successful could have served as a gateway into Sicily, Italy and southern Europe beyond. The heroes were the “Knights of St. John,” a multinational Roman Catholic military order dating back to the crusades which had been forcibly ejected by the Turks from their base on the isle of Rhodes some four decades previously. Allen devotes some time to setting the stage for the siege in an account that is unfortunately often dulled by passages pregnant with names, geographies and events that can be dizzying for the reader.  For example, a single paragraph introducing the naval hero Don Garcia de Toledo contains the following:

“He was … made a colonel of Spanish foot in Naples, and . . . led twelve thousand imperial troops against Franco-Sienese forces at Siena. Among his fellow officers were the one-eyed condottiere from Pavia, Ascanio Della Corgna; the Tuscan nobleman Giovan Luigi “Chiappino” (the Bear) Vitelli (a favorite of Garcia’s brother-in-law Cosimo de Medici); and Don Alvaro de Sande, all of them respected veteran commanders. He also served in Flanders and Italy. In 1560 he was slated to replace Medinaceli as viceroy of Sicily if the latter did not return from Djerba. By February of 1564 Philip had named him Captain General of the Sea (Andrea Doria’s old title), and when others (including the Djerba veteran Sancho de Leyva) had failed, ordered him to take the Moroccan pirate stronghold, the Penon de Velez de la Gomera.” [p86]

Conspicuous in its absence is a biographical table of the immense cast of characters, a historical timeline, and much more detailed maps, all of which would have been very useful to interested readers who are not scholars of the era and its key players and places.

The narrative takes a dramatic turn for the better once military events occupy center stage.  It is clear that Allen is an accomplished military historian who skillfully inserts the reader into the battlefield milieu. Much of the faults of the chapters leading up to the siege largely dissolve as the author adeptly explains weapons, tactics and events on the ground in the various military engagements for the extended duration of the siege and ultimate triumph of the Knights. The reader otherwise unfamiliar with this material at once finds a comfort zone as the experience of battle in the sixteenth century Mediterranean is expertly recreated by the author in careful but colorful prose.

The strength of Allen as a gifted writer and military historian clearly rescues this work from a dullness that seems to overshadow the first part of the book, although it should once again be underscored that those who are more comfortable with this era may not judge that portion of the narrative as harshly in this regard.  Certainly those seeking a competent exploration of the events surrounding the Great Siege of Malta should take up this book, for Allen indeed deserves much credit for his superlative skills as a military historian.

Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South … here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.  Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave … Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered … A Civilization gone with the wind …

The preceding is the title card screen prologue to a 1939 epic film that was so tightly woven into the fabric of popular culture that no American of my generation, or the two generations that preceded it, could be unfamiliar with it. Its musical score was as taraimprinted upon our DNA as were any number of snippets of dialog, such as the frightened slave Prissy screeching “De Yankees is comin!,” the antihero Rhett Butler uttering the scornful retort, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and the manipulative vixen Scarlett herself, in the final scene, voicing an irrepressible optimism with “Tara! Home. I’ll go home … After all … tomorrow is another day.” Tara.  That was the storybook plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara, the locus for the romantic legend in the novel by Margaret Mitchell and its movie adaptation, that title card writ large in an imaginary dimension where gallant giants walked the earth and dutiful slaves like Mammy and Prissy lived in terror of invading Yankees instead of in gleeful anticipation of fleeing to freedom in their lines.  And much more than a classic movie, Gone with the Wind served as the most successful paean to the myth of the “Lost Cause” since Birth of a Nation, with less malevolence and a much larger and more enduring audience.

In her highly original, thought-provocative study, Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, Catherine Clinton walks back from the Tara of that iconic spectacle to its historical roots in an antebellum era erased by war that then spawned a revisionism that has not only stubbornly persisted but has seen a disturbing late renaissance as a similarly fanciful emergent heritage claimed by present-day right-wingers wrapped in Confederate flags. The current generation of the latter not only promotes the justice of rebellion, but even imagines tens of thousands of African-Americans garbed in gray and willingly wielding carbines to defend the Confederacy!

The scholarly consensus is that a narrow slice of elite planters committed to an expansion of slavery brought on the secession crisis and subsequent Civil War that resulted in the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans. The north at first put men at arms only to preserve the union, although emancipation later became a war aim. The south lost the war but in some sense won the peace. As Reconstruction gave way to “Redemption,” former Confederates regained control of the south and the freed African-Americans – who had enjoyed a brief period of near equal protection under the law – were terrorized, murdered and reduced to a second class status that persisted into the 1960s and beyond. The defeated promulgated a myth of the “Lost Cause” that rewrote history to claim that the conflict was about states’ rights rather than slavery, focused upon the depredations of Northern carpetbaggers, and especially upon the imagined threats of black men preying upon helpless white women.  The “Lost Cause” was the creation mythology of this post-war south, and its vast success can be measured by the fact that its tissue of lies managed to convert much of the north in the decades to come, as reconciliation turned into a universal goal and the institutionalized abuse of African-Americans was rarely even acknowledged.

In Tara Revisited, Clinton focuses upon the plantation legend that is integral to central elements of the “Lost Cause” myth and turns it on its head. While she acknowledges there were indeed women like Scarlett O’Hara from families of extreme wealth who lived on large plantations with many slaves and busied themselves with social dalliances, her cohort comprised the tiniest minority of antebellum southern women.  In fact, plantation life typically meant hard work and much responsibility even for affluent women.  More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Plantations like Tara probably accounted for less than ten percent of the total, which is why its persistence in Lost Cause plantation legend is so notable. As such, Clinton takes us on a tour of the real antebellum south and the real white women who inhabited it: typically wives and daughters with no slaves who had very modest means, deprived of husbands and fathers away at war while they struggled to survive. Some worked in manufacturing to support the war effort, some volunteered to care for the wounded, some served as spies – for both sides – but most focused simply on keeping themselves and their families alive in a time of little food and great deprivation. She also reveals those who are often invisible to history, enslaved African-American women who lived hand-to-mouth in lean and dangerous times, most of whom were unable to escape to Union lines yet eagerly anticipated a northern victory that would ensure their liberation. Masters tried to instill fear in their slaves about the coming blue marauders, but most blacks saw right through this; if there was a cry of “De Yankees is comin!” it was more likely to be in celebration than distress.

Clinton also traces the growth of the legend of “rose colored plantation life” from its roots in a kind of forbidden literary tradition dubbed “Confederate porn” [p203-04] that glorified whites while demeaning blacks, to its central public role within “Lost Cause” theology from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind and beyond. The living breathing cheerleaders of this fantasy are the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an organization founded in 1894 to celebrate Confederate culture that continues to thrive today.  It is no coincidence that there was both a rebirth of the “Lost Cause” and a resurgence of Confederate heritage during the Dixiecrat resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The controversial Stars & Bars that was recently removed from the South Carolina statehouse was only first raised in 1962 by the then governor to protest desegregation. Since 1965, the UDC has coordinated an annual “Massing of the Flag” ceremony in Richmond on Jefferson Davis’s birthday in which the participants pledge “I salute the Confederate flag, with affection, reverence and undying remembrance.” [p186] There is of course for us in 2016 something both disturbing and surreal about this event, which seems to lionize the forces of rebellion while dishonoring the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in blue who died to preserve the United States, not to mention the millions of African-Americans who were first enslaved beneath this flag and then terrorized and degraded by it for a century afterward.

Catherine Clinton, who is currently the Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has a long resume as a historian that goes back to the PhD from Princeton that she earned with the completion of her dissertation under the direction of eminent Civil War scholar James M. McPherson.  She wrote Tara Revisited in 1995, and I cannot help but wonder if she is at all surprised by yet another generational resurgence of the “Lost Cause” as an element of contemporary right-wing politics.

I recently screened Gone with the Wind on DVD. In retrospect, it is not really a very good film and it does not stand up well over time; the acting is often histrionic, the dialogue overwrought. It is dwarfed by other notable films of the same era.  Unlike those of my generation, most millennials have probably never seen it. Yet, there remains a stubborn resilience in the notion of Tara, as underscored by the ongoing popularity of pilgrimage weeks in the south, “in which plantations recreate the Old South with costumes and other trappings,” and, as the author articulately observes, “in many ways embalm a departed south that perhaps never lived outside Confederate imaginations.” [p187] As such, the central theme of this well-written and eclectic work retains its relevance today.  I highly recommend it.

Review of: The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: A Case Study in Cooperation and Communication, 1951-1971, by Fred Altensee

It so happened that I finished reading The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: A Case Study in Cooperation and Communication, 1951-1971, by Fred Altensee, in the same tragic week as the worst mass shooting in modern American history at Pulse, a gay nightclub in The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights MovementOrlando, an event no less emblematic of a hate crime than the Charleston black church massacre of the previous year. But most Americans, especially white Americans, do not recall – or do not want to recall – that until relatively recent times hate used to be baked into the quotidian course of existence for African-Americans in Florida and in South Carolina and throughout the south of the old Confederacy. This hate was most manifest in exclusion, and it was so mundane it was unremarkable – at least until a re-energized and resolute Civil Rights movement had the audacity to stand against it; then an appalled nation that did not really want to know of such things came to understand that red blood on black skin was the true emblem of the white unreconstructed south. As The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement aptly details, there were actually areas in Florida that an African-American could not visit without a white escort.  [p31] Yet, in the exploration of nuance and complexity that true historians thrive upon, in this fascinating analysis Altensee reveals that civil rights was not all rock-throwing and police dogs, and that Orlando offered a surprising alternative to conflict that slowly but successfully desegregated the public spheres of their police force and the school system.

Full disclosure: Fred Altensee received his Master’s Degree in History from American Public University one year before I did. As such, we are acquainted with each other through both the virtual world of online education and social networking.  Fred sent me a copy of this book and asked me review it.  I must admit I dreaded this as much as I do when a friend urges me to see his band play at a local bar and seeks my opinion of the performance: the notion of drinking poison rather than commenting is an attractive alternative. So it was with great relief and attendant pleasure that I read Fred’s book and found it exceptionally informative and revealing. This volume is a published version of the author’s master’s thesis, based upon extensive original research including his oral history interviews with surviving members of the first African-American officers to serve on the Orlando police force. Augmenting this authenticity is the fact that Altensee is a former police officer himself, and a current resident of Orlando.

The relationship of African-Americans and the police throughout the south was most palpably defined by a culture dominated by the Ku Klux Klan and a police force devoted to enforcing Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination.  Not only were blacks subject to being herded to the back of the bus and consigned to separate restrooms, but they were not welcome in many business establishments at all, and certain geographies were entirely forbidden to them, especially after dark. A failure to abide met not only with intimidation but often violence and sometimes death. That was the reality of the day. So what distinguished Orlando from many other locales was far less recalcitrance towards at least some forms of integration, and especially the establishment of biracial committees that achieved a major step forward as a handful of African-Americans were hesitatingly but nevertheless successfully added to the rolls of the Orlando police force.  By today’s standards, this was a baby step at best: black cops patrolled only black neighborhoods, could not carry guns, lacked radios or patrol cars and could arrest someone only insofar as they could escort the perpetrator to a call box and wait for white officers to arrive.  Black officers “could not arrest or even testify against a white person.” [p44-45] Yet, this initial integration was accomplished without court order or the national guard, an especially remarkable feat given the times. Altensee reminds us that:

In 1951, the same year Orlando hired its first African-American police officers, the Klan held two cross burnings in downtown Orlando . . .  In February, an African-American janitor was beaten and shot for allegedly entering the girls restroom in a white elementary school unescorted. A month later, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, his brother-in-law is beaten, flogged and shot to death – the only reported lynching in the United States in 1951. In July, an apartment building is dynamited after the owner rented an apartment to a black family . . .  in November, the Creamette Frozen Custard Stand . . .  is bombed for refusing to serve blacks and whites at separate windows. [p39]

Despite an environment of volatility and violence, Altensee’s studied analysis demonstrates that it was possible for cautious and respected members of the white and black communities to come together to achieve at least a foundation for long-term meaningful change. It is difficult for us to imagine or appreciate black police officers with no radios, cars or guns, but in Orlando in 1951 – and across much of the south – it was even more fantastical that there were black police officers at all!

The chief weakness of Altensee’s otherwise fine book is that as a thesis paper it is thus constricted in style and presentation. I would like to see it rewritten and expanded, as I suspect there is much more material that did not make the final cut given the academic audience. Also, the portion of the book devoted to desegregating the public schools does not receive nearly as much attention as the focus upon the police department, which probably deserves a book length treatment of its own. Another quibble is Altensee’s handling of the famous N-word, a despicable epithet hurled by a white supremacist like David Duke, a typical component to a song lyric by a rapper like Ludacris, a snatch of an excerpt from a Mark Twain novel, and a harmless colloquialism among black and brown people across America today. I’m with the late George Carlin on this one: it is just a word; it is the context that matters. But in the context of this book, as experienced by the African-Americans who had it used again them, it was extremely defamatory, intimidating, insulting, dehumanizing. Yet, in the narrative it appears as N________, which to my mind reduces the power of the word as an offensive curse, as it was then intended.  When asked about this, Fred notes that he abhors the word and would not spell it out in his own personal journal, and I can respect that.  But I can’t help feeling that by inserting it in euphemistic abbreviation the expletive loses the power to make the reader wince the way the subjects of such derision must have winced at the time.

These minor points aside, I highly recommend this extremely well-written and insightful slender volume.  I was truly surprised by how much that I learned from Altensee’s focused account of how one city in the segregated south managed to take positive steps towards a new future. Despite the recent terror at Pulse, Orlando today is light-years away from where it was in the mid-twentieth century, especially for the African-Americans who were once relegated to second class status, and of course there is no longer any novelty to blacks serving on its police force.  But racism remains a stubborn problem in the United States, and not only in the south, although the uneasy currents are perhaps more palpable there. Even today, while 29% of Orlando’s population is African-American, only some 16% of its police are, and we can hardly overlook the significance in these kinds of disparities.  Still, there is no doubt that Orlando has dramatically evolved from the days when it gingerly recruited a handful of black cops who were not even trusted with firearms.  Special thanks to Fred Altensee and this fine book for an opportunity to look back thoughtfully and analytically at times very different from our own.

Review of: New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, by Wendy Warren

Early on in New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, a telling story is related that dates back to 1638, not even two decades removed from the Mayflower, of an New England BoundEnglish colonist near Boston who owned three enslaved Africans – two women and one man – that he sought to turn into breeding stock.  When one of the females refused, he ordered the male slave to rape her in an attempt to impregnate her.  The rape victim went out of her way to report what had occurred to another Englishman nearby, who in his written account of their conversation seemed to show some sympathy; however, his very next journal entry was a humorous description of his encounter with a wasp.  [p7-8] It is clear that as property she otherwise lacked recourse under the circumstances. What does this one unusual anecdotal incident at the dawn of the colonial New England experience really tell us?  It turns out that it is far more instructive than the reader might at first suspect, as Princeton University Professor Wendy Warren’s fascinating new contribution to the history of slavery in colonial North America reveals in the pages that follow.

While many fine works of history in the past several decades have rightly restored the long-overlooked role of New England in the triangle trade that was central to the growth of slavery in the colonies, little attention has been paid to slavery as it actually existed in those northern colonies prior to abolition. The standard tale is that slavery never really caught on there, largely because the region lacked the climate and the crop for the plantation agriculture it was best suited for, and as such this untenable anachronism gradually faded away. There is so much truth to that summary that few have bothered to dissect the actual slave experience while it thrived in New England, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the southern colonies and the West Indies. This neglect has badly shortchanged the historiography of the origins of human chattel slavery in colonial North America.

By moving the focal point away from the traditional emphasis upon the Chesapeake, South Carolina, and the Caribbean, Warren has surprisingly uncovered how much slavery in New England actually had in common with slavery in those other more familiar locales. The rape story she opens with is unexpectedly emblematic of the institution of African slavery in the Americas. Slave women had no rights as property, and therefore no control over their own bodies, which meant they could indeed serve as breeding stock, a financial boon in Virginia even in Jefferson’s time as slavery became less profitable in the Chesapeake while prices soared for field hands on the cotton plantations of the deep south. It also meant that they could be compelled to sexual relations with their owners, which is why, as South Carolina’s Mary Chestnut drily noted in 1861: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children . . .”  That meant of course that English common law needed to be turned on its head, so that the children of slaves were condemned to inherit the condition of perpetual servitude from their mothers, regardless of whether their fathers were slave or free.  This was codified in Virginia in 1662 as Partus sequitur ventrem but Warren reminds us that it was already clearly understood as such in Massachusetts in 1638. [p156]

Interestingly, Warren also reveals that a 1690 Connecticut law mandating a curfew for “Negroes” managed to presage portions of the slave codes popular in the south by several decades. Massachusetts adopted a similar ordinance. [p201] The ambivalence towards the cruelties inherent to slavery is nevertheless also evident. When it became clear that owners were freeing slaves when they became too old or infirm to profitably toil as units of labor, Connecticut passed a law in 1702 directing slave-owners to care for elderly slaves, whether or not they had been freed, something otherwise left to arbitrary custom in the south. [p176] But apparently those in New England were not immune to the cruel and unusual punishments inflicted upon wrongdoers who happened to be African slaves:  Increase Mather chillingly reports that in 1681 the enslaved Maria, convicted of arson and murder, was burned alive at the stake. [p199] Regardless of geography, slaves were often underfed, and sometimes resorted to theft for sustenance. In Connecticut in 1699, a slave who stole “a bisket” on the Sabbath suffered the medieval punishment of thirty lashes and a brand to the forehead. [p211] Whipping and branding became quite common in the Antebellum south. Also echoing another common practice in the south, Warren reports that in 1698 hunting dogs were employed to track down a “Negro.” [p207-08] Warren reminds us that Amerindians were also enslaved, although this was much less widespread, but tellingly a 1697 broadside seeking a runaway Native American slave also neatly anticipates the runaway slave advertisements later so common in newspapers below the Mason-Dixon. [p212]

It is in her coverage of Amerindian slavery that Warren falls short, if only because she seems to promise more than she delivers.  The slavery of Native Americans, who were often sold to the West Indies, is a little-known element of early Americana and probably deserves a book-length treatment of its own.  Given the scant number of pages Warren devotes to the topic, she might have best simply left it alone. Yet, this is perhaps only a quibble when one considers how well the author succeeds in demonstrating that slavery was indeed integral to all geographies of the English colonies and was shockingly similar in its elemental form both north and south. That New England always seemed to harbor a certain sense of guilt about the immorality of slavery –and that it eventually acted to bring this heinous practice to an end – perhaps mitigates some of its culpability in perpetrating this great evil, yet by no means can that serve as an excuse to overlook or forgive its deep complicity in it.  Every student of the history of the institution of slavery and of early American history would benefit from reading Warren’s fine book.

Review of: 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, by David Pietrusza

In an election year that at first glance seems unprecedented – the Republican nominee is not really a Republican, a woman is likely for the first time to head up a national ticket, 1920and her stubborn rival for the Democratic nomination is not really a Democrat – I turned to historian David Pietrusza for a reminder that this is hardly the first Presidential electoral cycle branded with the air of the peculiar. I’m a big fan of Pietrusza: his frenetic retelling of two of the most consequential elections of the postwar twentieth century – 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America, and 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies – represent some of the best accounts I have read about modern politics and elections, and his style is often both compelling and irresistible.

This time, I selected his earlier work, the fascinating but in my opinion deeply flawed 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents, which recounts how in the days when deals made in smoke-filled rooms overruled primaries, an unlikely dark horse from Ohio named Warren Harding became the Republican nominee and eventually the President of the United States.  Harding – who on the convention’s first ballot polled a dreadful sixth with only 65 votes while the top two contenders garnered 287 and 211 votes respectively – became the eventual nominee largely because, as famously noted by Republican Connecticut Senator Frank Brandegee, “We’ve got a lot of second-raters and Warren Harding is the best of the second-raters.” [p225]

The book’s subtitle is a little misleading: one of the “Six Presidents” is actually Theodore Roosevelt, who actually died before he could fulfill or dispel predictions that after some years of exile due to his 1912 third-party revolt he would again be the Republican Party’s standard bearer, and Pietrusza does not really explore how the ghost of his probable candidacy weighed on the election. Another is Woodrow Wilson, the reigning President, a stroke victim broken both physically and emotionally, who dreams of a third term that virtually no one else considers possible. The remainder, in addition to Harding, are indeed future Presidents: Herbert Hoover, at this point a progressive whom (like the future Dwight Eisenhower) no one is sure is Republican or Democrat; Calvin Coolidge, the laconic and little-known governor of Massachusetts who becomes Harding’s Vice-President; and, Franklin Roosevelt, the handsome pre-polio rising star who becomes the vice-presidential candidate on the opposing ticket.

The level of detail in 1920 is daunting, but a little lop-sided on the Republican side.  There is a deep study of the biographies of Harding and Coolidge and a host of other party regulars, as well as moment-by-moment coverage of the Republican convention, but I walked away still knowing almost nothing of substance about James Cox, the other dark horse from Ohio who became Harding’s opponent on the Democratic side, and the coverage of the latter convention was superficial in comparison. One wonders whether this is because Pietrusza is a conservative historian, although that is hardly detectable in his later works, 1960 and 1948, where he appears to disdain all candidates equally. In 1920, on the other hand, he seems unable to suppress his admiration for Harding, who nevertheless comes off as an intellectual lightweight and somewhat of a cad who is most successful at accumulating much younger mistresses. He also clearly favors Coolidge, a strange man and kind of a political stick-figure who rose to national prominence by crushing a police strike, and then unexpectedly ascends to the Oval Office on the death of Harding.

For Democrat FDR, on the other hand, Pietrusza reserves a kind of barely suppressed loathing.  Nearly two chapters are disproportionately devoted to exploring unseemly scandals involving homosexual sailors during Roosevelt’s tenure as Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration. For instance, the author roundly condemns FDR for his responsibility in the return to active duty of former inmates of a naval prison – many who were termed “moral perverts” – to the consternation of ranking officers.  While it is true that there was great antipathy at the time towards what were termed “unlawful and unnatural acts,” what is striking and perhaps cringe-worthy in this narrative is that Pietrusza writing from a twenty-first century perspective cannot disguise his own horror at those he freely terms “perverts” roaming navy ships at will [p134-35]. There is of course a certain irony in historical retrospect: Harding presided over one of the most irresponsibly corrupt administrations in the nation’s history; Coolidge – whose economic policies are lauded by the author – was barely out of office before the nation suffered catastrophic economic collapse; yet it is FDR, who provided existential leadership through depression and war, who is widely heralded by historians as the nation’s third greatest President of all time, following only Lincoln and Washington.

Pietrusza’s other books are generally fast-paced; this one often gets bogged down with minutiae, but there are highlights that draw both sharp contrasts and parallels to this election season nearly a century beyond it. And the topic of “gays in the military” is not the only one that resounds to the present day. This was the first election where women had the franchise; almost a hundred years later there is yet to be a female President, although Hillary Rodham Clinton may very well change that in November.  Socialism and progressivism, as well as populism, were central albeit fading elements of political discourse. Terrorism – in this case bombs lobbed by anarchists – was much in the news. Business and labor were at odds, and the proper role of government in this and other arenas was much debated. Most striking was the chilling anti-immigrant nativism that reverberates today … cross out and replace the ethnicities in the quote below from Woodrow Wilson’s own shamefully resurrected 1903 commentary on the nation’s “wretched refuse” and 2016 sounds too much like 1920:

“Now there came multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population, the men whose standards of life and of work were such as American workmen had never dreamed of hitherto.” [p326-27]

[Now replay this scary echo: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists . . .” – Donald Trump, 2015]

Internationalism vs isolationism was also a potent issue.  World War I was part of the fabric of the very recent past and both major parties were sharply divided within their own ranks about whether to embrace or reject Wilson’s beloved but doomed offspring of the peace, the League of Nations.  And this is in my estimation where the greatest fault of 1920 is most detectable, for conspicuous in its absence is a focused examination of this single great issue that dominated the national contest like no other. The reader will learn where each candidate stood on the League – or how well he waffled about it – but not the weightier arguments that defined the debate. Perhaps pages devoted to blow-by-blow tallies of convention votes, detailed accounts of Harding’s numerous peccadillos, and Roosevelt’s role in the scandals of gay sailors might better have been redirected to a more thorough exploration of this critical topic.

While this is certainly not his finest book, Pietrusza is both a talented writer and historian, which is far more admirably evident in his later works.  And despite its flaws, 1920 is a worthwhile drive-through of an often overlooked election that ends up telling us perhaps more than we would like to know about our own times and about how little we have grown up nearly a century later. To channel Jean-Baptiste Karr, (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose) “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

[NOTE: Wilson book that quote is taken from can be accessed online here:


Review of: On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope

Every once in a while, a unique work of nonfiction appears with little pretension that nevertheless delivers unexpected superlatives in every quarter. Such a surprising and On the Trail of Genghis Khanextraordinary book is On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads, by Tim Cope.  Ostensibly an installment to the travel and adventure genre, Cope’s book offers so much more, including studies in history, geopolitics, culture, geography and lifestyle, all tightly integrated into a narrative that never loses pace with the journey itself.

In 2004, when he was just twenty-five years old, a young Australian adventurer named Tim Cope began an epic three year mostly solo expedition on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary – some 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles) – roughly retracing the routes followed by the steppe nomads of the great conqueror Genghis Khan (1162-1227 CE). Remarkably, his only previous attempt at riding a horse left him with a broken arm as a child, but even as a young man Cope had a résumé of sorts as an adventurer, having ridden a recumbent bicycle more than 6000 miles from Moscow to Beijing just a few years previous to this far more ambitious excursion through long stretches of often isolated, largely primitive and a somewhat punishing environment with only three horses and a dog as his companions. Yet, it turns out that far more dangerous than the extreme cold and prowling wolves were the uncertain human encounters with the occasional alcoholic predatory rogue who looked at Cope’s horses and saw only dollar (or ruble) signs!

Still, much of the author’s experiences with people along the way were overwhelmingly positive.  There is a long tradition of hospitality along the vast multi-national steppe highway that welcomes travelers with widely open arms, and Cope recounts the warm embrace of numerous yurts whose inhabitants had few possessions but did not hesitate to shelter the author and his animals. This hospitality would often also extend to more populated areas such as villages, although small camps and lone outposts were far more typical of Cope’s journey, which encompassed a wide swath of mostly remote territory, typically skirting cities and towns, in a part of the world that is little known to most of us. Cope’s route includes portions of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea (then part of Ukraine, recently annexed by Russia), Ukraine and Hungary.

Steppe nomads are perhaps the most consequential element of global history that are typically overlooked. Yet, the historical narrative has been writ large by their numerous collisions with settled agrarian civilizations over several thousand years. The root word for horse in Indo-European – the language family that includes English, Hindi, French and some forty percent of the other tongues spoken in the world today – can be traced back to the Proto Indo-European (PIE) spoken by the steppe nomads that according to David Anthony’s magnificent The Horse, the Wheel and Language first domesticated the horse six thousand years ago and later in conquest introduced the animal and its unique war machine, the chariot, to Europe. The Huns that brought Attila to the gates of Rome were steppe nomads. So too originally were the Turks that until a century ago controlled all of the Middle East and significant portions of Eastern Europe. And so too were the Mongols, who created a global empire and even conquered China. These are only the most famous nomads; there were scores of others. Horses were the key to their dominance in the frosty northern Eurasian steppe corridor of vast grasslands that stretched for thousands of miles, where the techniques of equestrian warfare were perfected that made them virtually invincible in battle against the settled civilizations they targeted until the advent of effective artillery in the late middle ages. The steppes also served as a highway of trade, most notably the famous Silk Road.

I came to On the Trail of Genghis Khan in a rather circuitous manner, because I wanted to learn more about steppe nomads. I am such a nerd that instead of blasting Led Zeppelin in the car I typically listen to audio college courses on CD, and this time around I was deeply invested in The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes, by noted historian and Tulane University Professor Kenneth Harl. I like to supplement these courses with suitable books that match the theme. I happened to see Cope’s unlikely title in a bookstore display and picked it up on impulse.  In the realm of history, there is the romance of history (how a cope press-release-pic-map
people or a culture want to remember the past) and there is actual history (what the past was really like). To Cope’s great credit, both of these are inherent components of his fine book. The romantic notion is intrinsic in the title, but the author is surprised to discover that the romance of the freedom of a steppe nomad on horseback is still remembered a millennium afterwards by the fierce atrocities and hundreds of thousands of dead that were left in the wake of their conquest. But the Mongols were, as noted, only one set of steppe nomads.  There were many others, and their disparate descendants on the Eurasian steppes have variously abandoned or clung to remnants of their respective heritages, with many compromises and trade-offs in between.  There are some great stories. Cope frequently traveled solo with his three horses and his dog, but carried a laptop and a satellite phone. This incongruity was trumped by his encounter with a remote modern nomad camp which was an echo of centuries past yet nevertheless included a generator, satellite dish and tiny television set. His hosts somewhat regretted their hospitality when the author unintentionally drained their battery charging his own equipment and their little TV went dark.

The best part of Cope’s book is that it never devolves into the introspective heartfelt diary of the author’s inner journey characteristic of many books like this. Not that it lacks of the personal: we feel Tim’s pain as he struggles with whether to abandon his animals to fly to Europe to be at his girlfriend’s side when she needs surgery (and he lets the reader decide whether he made the right choice), and many chapters later when his father’s unexpected death sends him home to Australia in a spiral of grief for several months. But Cope makes sure that this book is not about him, but about the country he traverses, about the animals that are his closest companions, about the cultures he encounters, about the families that embrace him and those who do not. His greatest asset can be said to be his ability to act as an observer who is not so detached that he cannot empathize, yet not so invested that he loses perspective.  His other great strength is his craft as a writer as he describes both the natural and the human landscape with an eye for detail and an outstanding narrative skill.  The book also benefits from truly terrific maps that always places the reader on the author’s path in spots on the geography most of us have never heard of, plus a glossary of words and phrases in currency in the various languages and cultures, and even a biographical listing of historic figures cited in the course of the work.  On the Trail of Genghis Khan is one of the finest books I have read in any genre, and I would urge everyone to take the time to read it.

Review of: Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin

It was my great good fortune to happen upon a copy of Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin, at a used book store some months prior to my Jefferson and Monticello The Biography of a Builder2scheduled “Behind the Scenes” tour of Monticello. I had read about half of the book by the day of the tour, and when I mentioned it to the outstanding docent who led us through the unique architecture of Jefferson’s lifetime building project – including steep staircases to upstairs bedrooms and the iconic dome not part of the standard tour – he nodded approvingly and exclaimed that it is a “great book.” I read the second half in the days that followed the tour, and upon completion I have to agree with my guide: it is a truly great book on every level! And while I did not plan to read it in two installments, with the Monticello visit sandwiched in, in fact it certainly enriched the experience.

Perhaps my favorite comment about Thomas Jefferson was the one made by President John F. Kennedy at a 1962 White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  JFK’s remarks were hardly glib: Jefferson was a remarkably brilliant man who mastered seven languages, possessed an encyclopedic mind, had a highly intuitive, analytic intellect and brought innovation to virtually everything he touched or encountered.

Jefferson was also a polymath extraordinaire: author, thinker, political philosopher, statesman, inventor, musician, wine connoisseur, farmer, scientist, meteorologist, equestrian, politician – the list goes on and on. IMG_1935And that catalog usually includes architect and builder, but what is eminently clear from visiting his mansion and reading McLaughlin’s fine work is that for Jefferson Monticello – it means “little mountain” – was not simply another of his multifarious projects and obsessions, but rather it was part of his DNA. Jefferson spent his lifetime building, tearing down, rebuilding and adding to Monticello. The “museum” visitors tour today was only structurally completed (with the installment of the Doric columns on the West Portico) in 1823, some three years before Jefferson’s death; it probably never looked exactly the way it does today at any actual moment of Jefferson’s lifetime.  It was always, like the man himself, a work in progress. In his provocative work The Phenomenon of Man, philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advocated for turning each new day into a process of “becoming” a new person based upon the insight and experience gleaned from the days that have gone before. While the latter was written more than a century after he was gone, in a way it seems that Jefferson lived his life in just this fashion and that Monticello was the structural reflection of his own unique evolution of “becoming.”  It remains his most tangible physical legacy. Thus the subtitle of McLaughlin’s wonderful book — The Biography of a Builder – is especially apt. The author helps the reader to understand that Jefferson and Monticello were in a sense twin manifestations of a single soul.

While there are breaks to explore specific themes, Jefferson and Monticello generally traces Jefferson’s life and the construction of Monticello in parallel.  Jefferson’s design of IMG_1952Monticello was inspired by the influential sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who was himself deeply influenced by classical Greek and Roman forms. But the genius of Jefferson was ever his ability to innovate and transform, so while Palladio’s work remained a significant model, Monticello took shape as nothing less than a true iconic Jefferson structure. Along the way, McLaughlin teaches the uninitiated much about architecture and building techniques in the eighteenth century and the kinds of compromises requisite when under construction in the relative wilds of Virginia in those days.  I never knew, for instance, that the reason why brick buildings of that era varied so markedly in color across regions was because brick was typically fired on-site with local clays mixed with water. Jefferson added an additional challenge by choosing to build on a mountain top, something almost unheard of at the time, which meant there were issues with accessibility to resources – and especially to water, which is the other essential ingredient to brickmaking. In the end, rather than attempt to transport tens of thousands of bricks to the mountaintop, Jefferson opted to source water and build kilns on the site. Nails were also made there.  McLaughlin, somewhat of a polymath himself, was not only professor of English and Humanities at Clemson University, but he also built his own home. His passion for both history and construction is evident in his prose, which is almost poetic at times. He relates a fascinating story with some pregnant detail, yet the narrative never grows dull.

With all of his talents, Jefferson also had a paradoxical side, as showcased superbly in Joseph Ellis’ masterwork, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson had an uncanny ability to hold two almost diametrically opposed notions in mind simultaneously without the sort of cognitive dissonance this would provoke for most people. The dark side of this contradiction is tragically underscored as he famously decried the great evil of chattel slavery yet throughout his lifetime owned some two hundred human beings and likely fathered a half-dozen children by one of them.  IMG_1862Despite his obvious admiration for his subject, McLaughlin hardly gives Jefferson a pass in this regard, devoting an exceptional chapter entitled “To Possess Living Souls,” to this great incongruity.  As McLaughlin and the tour guides these days at Monticello make incontrovertibly clear, it was primarily the labor of African-American slaves that built Monticello, and their master was the great statesman who wrote that “All men are created equal.”  The author makes clear that while Jefferson was not a cruel master, and that he seemed to genuinely care for the welfare of his “property,” human slavery in itself is a cruelty. Moreover, slaves were whipped at Monticello, as on other plantations, and those who did not fall into line were sold away from their families to distant lands.  Although this book was published in 1988, before DNA evidence seems to have settled the argument about rumors of the long liaison between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, McLaughlin implies that he takes this for fact and repeatedly points to the special treatment members of the Hemings family received at Monticello. On her deathbed, Jefferson promised his wife Martha (“Patty”) that he would never again wed, but this pledge did not stop him apparently from begetting some six children with (ironically!) Martha’s much younger mulatto half-sister, Sally.  For all of his accomplishments, this paradox of Jefferson as slave-owner will forever leave an indelible stain on the great man’s reputation.

Jefferson and Monticello, which was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, is one of the finest books I have read in some time on a variety of levels.  IMG_1867Sadly, Jack McLaughlin died very recently (in November 2015, at eighty-nine years old) so I could not share my praise of this wonderful volume with him. Still, his work lives on.  I highly recommend this book to all who seek a greater understanding of Jefferson, of American history, and of architecture.  And be sure to visit Monticello, because in that ancient homestead a part of Thomas Jefferson still thrives.

Review of: Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, by Tim Whitmarsh

How do we define atheism today? What exactly constitutes an atheist? Although I am not a believer in magical sky gods, I avoid describing myself as an atheist, which not only has a Battling the Gods Atheism in the Ancient Worldbit of an arrogant ring to it but these days is additionally burdened by the negative fallout from the militant atheism – actually “anti-theism” – of a Richard Dawkins or a Bill Maher, as of late further tarnished by blatant Islamophobia. On the other hand, agnostic sounds a bit tentative, so I coined my own term, “dogmatic skeptic,” to sum up my outlook in this regard. My point here is that while there are lots of variations of the religious experience, there may be just as many varieties and degrees of non-belief (un-belief?). Armed with a stunningly encyclopedic knowledge of ancient times, renowned Classicist Tim Whitmarsh sets out in Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World to establish that atheism is not only a post-Enlightenment phenomenon but has as well a solid foundation in the remote past.

There are problems almost from the very start. Once more, how do we define atheism? If one rejects established religion, does that establish them as atheist? Hardly.  Plato rejected the Olympian pantheon, but he believed in mysterious perfect forms and a vague supreme being, so he was hardly atheist. And we know a lot about Plato from the relatively large body of his work that has survived. In contrast, most of what we know about the rest of the ancient world is fragmentary, so much interpretation is required, and whenever possible Whitmarsh interprets to suit his thesis. What if all we had were portions of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses challenging the Roman Catholic Church on indulgences? We might conclude that Luther was an atheist, but we would of course be very wrong.

I would take this one step further: there remains a heated debate in some circles of twenty-first century American historiography as to the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of the various Founders, with some even asserting that Jefferson or Madison were atheists, and others vigorously challenging that notion. In this case, we have a vast collection of writings both by the subjects in question and by those who knew them intimately, yet much dispute remains. This is further complicated by the fact that spiritual beliefs can change dramatically over a lifetime; many become more devout as they grow older and mortality looms. A perfect example is Hamilton, a devoted Presbyterian in his youth who seemed to lose interest in religion entirely during the Revolution; he later briefly flirted with Deism (according to biographer Ron Chernow), and yet on his deathbed spoke with great passion about his commitment to a loving god.  These men lived only a little more than a couple of centuries ago, yet there remains great ambiguity.  How can we then reach back thousands of years with fragmentary evidence and make pronouncements with such certainty?

Whitmarsh takes us on an extremely well-written and often delightful tour of the philosophical and religious realms of the ancient Mediterranean in his studied attempt to turn up committed atheists, but leaves me mostly unconvinced, not because they did not exist but because after all he presents little incontrovertible evidence of their presence. The author himself hints at them more than locating them in their respective haystacks.  At one point, Whitmarsh cites the famous rhetorical flourish of the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes: “Now if cows, horses or lions had hands, and were able to draw with those hands and create things as humans do, horses would draw gods in the form of horses, and cows in the form of cows, and create bodies just like they had.” Yet, on the very next page he concedes that Xenophanes, a believer in “one god, greatest among gods and mortals, not at all like mortals in body or thought,” is hardly the atheist the former quotation might suggest. [p60-61] Battling the Gods is replete with such material.  I have no reason to doubt that there were atheists at the very dawn of the human experience, but I remain unconvinced that they ever comprised more than a very tiny minority. I would also grant that this number may have been greater during the heyday of ancient Greek and Roman scientific inquiry, but if in the twentieth-first century at the height of modern science and medicine so many billions stubbornly cling to supernatural beliefs, we should not be surprised if these numbers were dramatically larger in the days when the forces of earthquakes and lightning remained objects of some great and terrible mystery.

I was a bit troubled by the treatment of Socrates in this work, whom Whitmarsh buzzes around tenuously in dozens of references.  We all know that Socrates was charged with impiety (More specifically according to Xenophon’s Memorabilia for “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.”) but there is a consensus among historians that this was but a pretext to punish the great gadfly for his former association with members of the “Thirty Tyrants,” the Spartan-supported reactionary regime that came to briefly rule Athens after her defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and especially his one-time pupil, Critias, their cruel leader.  Whitmarsh makes much of the fact that the existence of the capital charge of impiety had to imply that there was a wealth of the impious, but I find him careless in failing to underscore that Socrates was hardly an example of the same.

The charges levied against Socrates, however, do raise an issue that Whitmarsh barely explores but perhaps buttresses his thesis: if you could likely be put to death simply for challenging religious orthodoxy – never mind atheism – in an unusually open society like the Athenian polis, few would advertise such proclivities nor leave written confirmation of the same. Thus, as they say, absence of evidence is hardly evidence of absence.  Susan Jacoby’s marvelous book Freethinkers resurrects the relatively large cast of agnostics that publically populated nineteenth century America, but they lived in a free society where they could perhaps be shunned but not jailed or burned at the stake.  You would hardly expect to find something similar elsewhere on the globe back then, or in such places as Saudi Arabia today.  Atheist remains a dirty word in the United States in 2016, but at least in Massachusetts you cannot be stoned to death for proclaiming yourself one.

Remarkably, while I often found Battling the Gods to lack focus and ultimately concluded that Whitmarsh failed to substantively make his case, I still enjoyed reading this book for the author’s wide acquaintance and articulate commentary upon philosophy, religion and ancient history. I would caution that some background in these disciplines is requisite in order for the reader to properly place the narrative in context, as this volume is hardly suitable for the general audience.  Finally, I would note that while I agree with Whitmarsh that atheism is not purely a modern phenomenon, I would maintain that in the past its adherents likely remained lurking quietly at the periphery, even much more so than they do today.