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review 2018-04-07 15:17
A disappointingly hollow biography of America's 30th president
Coolidge - Amity Shlaes

Few presidents have fallen as far in terms of their reputation as has Calvin Coolidge. A popular president during his time in the White House, his standing plummeted with the onset of the Depression and the retroactive discrediting of his administration’s policies that were associated with it. Yet in recent years a number of conservative writers have challenged this view, offering a contrasting interpretation of Coolidge as a presidential paragon. In this respect Amity Shlaes is merely the latest in a long line of writers stretching from Thomas Silver to Robert Sobel who seek to rehabilitate Coolidge’s historical reputation so as to make him a model of presidential leadership for our own times.


Yet it seems that the only way that Shlaes can achieve this goal is by ignoring the many criticisms directed against Coolidge’s presidency. Rather than acknowledging any role that his low-tax, minimalist-regulation agenda might have played in fueling the speculative mania that led to stock market crash of 1929 or the depression that followed, she prefers to depict his administration as having achieved a perfect economic environment that was humming along smoothly when the keys were handed over to his successor. Throwing Herbert Hoover under the bus by blaming him for the collapse that followed is not only grossly unfair, it defies the evidence of an economy in the 1920s that was nowhere near as healthy as Shlaes would like to admit. Moreover, it undermines her goal, as rather than give Coolidge’s achievements a full reexamination that would address the criticisms she does little more than offer a selective portrait that only serves to reaffirm the beliefs of the like‑minded.


This is unfortunate considering the effort she put into her work. For despite Shlaes’s considerable research in the papers of Coolidge and his contemporaries, her overall result adds little to the case made in previous efforts to redeem Coolidge and his presidency. Because of this, readers seeking to learn more about Coolidge would be better served by turning to Sobel’s far superior Coolidge: An American Enigma for an understanding of our 30th president’s life and career rather than Shlaes’s hefty tome – which, for all its size, proves in the end to be disappointingly hollow.

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review 2018-04-07 14:53
The history of surveying America
Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy - Andro Linklater

This is a book for anyone who wondered about the lines on the maps of the United States. In it Andro Linklater, a British writer and journalist, provides a history of the surveying of America. This is necessarily a two-part task, as not only does he describe the development and importance of surveying in shaping America, but it also requires him to explain the simultaneous development of uniform measurement in the Western world. For while people were familiar with units of measurement, those units themselves were not standardized, as lengths, along with weights and volume differed from place to place during the colonial period.


Yet the colonists already had access to the first standard measurement, the 22-foot-long chain introduced by the 17th century mathematician Edmund Gunter.  His chain was the first element of precision that made the surveying – and through that, the selling – of the vast American territories England claimed in North America.  Linklater describes this tandem development well, conveying both the importance of surveying and measurement in shaping the history of the country, as well as the numerous frustrations involved in getting it right.  What began as an often haphazard assessment gradually became a more professional, systematic approach by the mid-19th century, creating the checkerboard pattern and straight lines visible from the skies overhead today.


Linklater’s book is a readable history of a mundane yet critical aspect of American history.  With a scope spanning from Tudor England to a land office in modern-day Sacramento he conveys something of the long process of development that brought us to where we are now.  Yet his examination of surveying rests in a bed of outdated interpretations about American history.  These are minor and do little to effect the author’s argument, yet they are a weakness that diminishes from the overall value of the book.  All of this makes Linklater’s book a useful look at a long overlooked element shaping American history, yet one that is strongest when focusing on its main subject and not when discussing American history more broadly.

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review 2018-04-06 17:06
A perceptive account of Kennedy’s life and career
John F. Kennedy - Alan Brinkley,Sean Wilentz

For the past decade, “The American Presidents” series has churned out a series of biographies of our nation’s leaders written by a diverse range of authors, from historians who draw upon their expertise to inform their interpretation of their subject, to more eclectic writers who inform their efforts with a sometimes refreshingly new perspective. Alan Brinkley fits squarely into the first category: a longtime scholar of 20th century America, he brings the skills and knowledge gained a lifetime of study to this sprightly book on John F. Kennedy. His perspective is critical but not unfavorable; while acknowledging Kennedy’s many gifts, he describes how they served to sustain his popularity through the numerous setbacks he suffered as president. In this respect, the power of his image rested less on his actual accomplishments, but on what he represented, both as a leader and the “transformative moment” during which he served as president.


Such analysis explains Kennedy’s enduring hold on our historical imagination and points to the value of the book as a study of his life. While hardly the first short biography of Kennedy, Brinkley’s book surpasses previous works of its type such as   and   thanks to its author’s analysis and incorporation of recent revelations about Kennedy’s poor health. For anyone seeking an perceptive and readable introduction to the life and career of America’s 35th president, this is the book to read.

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review 2018-04-06 17:02
An informative but unsatisfying biography of the “Great Dissenter”
John Marshall Harlan: The Last Whig Justice - Loren P. Beth

Though often a lone dissenter from the prevailing legal thought of his time, the reputation of John Marshall Harlan has enjoyed considerable rehabilitation since his death.  Best known for his criticism of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, his opinions in that and other cases have come to be seen by many legal scholars as precursors to the liberal jurisprudence of the twentieth century.  Capping this new appreciation of Harlan’s work was Loren P. Beth’s biography of the Supreme Court justice, which offers an examination of both Harlan’s life and his jurisprudence.


Beth divides his analysis into three parts.  The first two are biographical and chronological, examining his life both before and on the Court.  Much of the information about his life before his selection to the court comes from reminisces written by Harlan and his wife Malvina, and Beth often includes large sections from them in his text.  The Harlan that emerges in these pages is an extremely political man, one who was active in the dramatic struggles of mid-19th century politics.  Starting as a Whig, he drifted in the unstable Kentucky party political environment before finally becoming a Republican in 1868.  Though unsuccessful in two campaigns for the governorship of Kentucky, Harlan’s efforts on behalf of the party in his state helped make him a national political figure, leading to his nomination to the Court in 1877.


The second part of the book, which looks at Harlan’s family life, his relationships with his justices, and his role in the politics surrounding the Court, serves as a useful bridge to the final section, which addresses his jurisprudence.  Here Beth analyzes his decisions by topic, grouping them into categories so as to identify the underlying legal philosophy that collectively they reveal.  While these chapters are informative, they do not succeed in Beth’s goal, as illustrated by his subtitle, of demonstrating that Harlan’s decisions reflected Whig political ideology, nor does the author reconcile the many inconsistencies and contradictions that existed between the Harlan’s life and his jurisprudence.  This, along with the poor editing (there are numerous minor factual errors throughout the book, particularly regarding dates), make for the book that is a useful introduction to Harlan’s life but not the thorough analytical study that the justice deserves.

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review 2018-04-05 17:22
Civil liberties as a casualty of war
World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States - Paul L. Murphy

In spite of entering the First World War pledging to make the world "safe for democracy," the administration of President Woodrow Wilson pursued the war at home with measures that dramatically restricted the rights of American citizens. Speech was curtailed, people were arrested without due process, and homes and businesses were searched without warrants, all in the name of the wartime emergency. Paul Murphy makes this campaign and the response it engendered the subject of this book, an excellent short study of the war's impact on civil liberties.

With America's entry into the war in April 1917, the Wilson administration secured the passage of emergency wartime measures designed to control domestic opposition to the war effort. These laws were onerous, but were presented as temporary measures necessary to achieve victory. In many ways this embodied what Murphy sees as the traditional view of civil liberties that predominated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which argued that only those who had "proved" that they could use their civil liberties in the right way deserved to have them protected - a view that excluded minorities, aliens, and people advocating radical ideas. That the federal government was now being employed to restrain civil liberties, Murphy argues, reflected the Progressivism of the era, as paternalistic attitudes which before the war had sought to use the federal government to address social problems now viewed it as a means of ensuring support for the war.

Murphy goes on to depict the enforcement of the laws, an enforcement that was often characterized by zealousness. Though many officials used discretion in implementing the measures, others treated it as a tool for harassing groups seen as unpatriotic or unrepresentative of American values. Often private groups such as American Protective League joined in, taking it upon themselves to conduct investigations and intimidate citizens. Nor was the judiciary immune from such passions, as judges often favored prosecutors in wartime cases and instructed juries to demonstrate their patriotism by handing down guilty verdicts. Though some people were dismayed by such oppressive action and the American Union Against Militarism created a Civil Liberties Bureau (the forerunner to today's American Civil Liberties Union) in an attempt to stem these abuses, their efforts ran counter to the public climate of the time, which did not turn against the measures until after the war.

With this book, Murphy has provided an excellent short overview of his topic. Written with clarity and a sure command of the legal aspects of his subject, he sheds considerable light on an often-overlooked aspect of America's past. Though some of Murphy's broader historical interpretations seem open to question and the text is peppered with mistakes (such as his continual labeling of William Gibbs McAdoo as Wilson's Secretary of State instead of Treasury), the book itself is a fine introduction to the history of civil liberties during the First World War one that informs issues our country continues to face today.

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