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Search tags: American-history
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review 2017-08-19 18:23
The Founding Sausage-Makers
The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution - Michael J. Klarman

The drafting and ratification of the Constitution of the United States is one of the most heavily mythologized parts of American history. For many people, what happened in Philadelphia was nothing less than a divinely-inspired blueprint for a national government, with the wise men who created it lionized as the "Founding Fathers" with all of the majesty implied by the use of the capital letters. Though this image has not gone unchallenged, it's endurance reflects its patriotic usefulness, an example of the national exceptionalism of which Americans are so proud.

 

Michael Klarman's book offers a very different view of the creation of our nation's governing document. Drawing upon a vast range of contemporary writings, he argues that the creation of the Constitution was driven by fears for the effects of democracy on economic policy. The key concern was debt. During the American Revolution the states and the Continental Congress had accumulated an enormous amount of debt in their fight against the British. Though the United States had won the war, in its aftermath the country was plunged into a severe economic depression that exacerbated the economic problems of thousands of Americans. Pressured by high taxes to service the debts, voters in several states elected officials who pursued a variety of measures designed to ease tax burdens and make debts easier to pay off, many of which threatened to destabilize national unity.

 

It was concerns over this which Klarman sees as driving the push for a new national governing structure. As he explains, the government provided in the Articles of Confederation lacked authority to address the problem, and was itself virtually prostrate from the burden of debts and the lack of any reliable means of paying them off. For many of the people behind the push for a stronger national government, the heart of the problem lay with the disproportionate power possessed by the smaller states, which enjoyed equal representation in the Confederation Congress. It was this problem which James Madison's Virginia Plan sought to address by creating a new legislature with power residing in a lower house with representation apportioned by population. His efforts to bully the delegates from the smaller states failed, though, and after a compromise was reached establishing an upper legislative house that maintained the principal of equal state representation, the desire of Madison and his allies to empower the embryonic government waned considerably. It was a fortuitous failure, though because such were the concerns of many people about the final document that even with all of the advantages the Constituion's advocates possessed, ratification was a close-run thing, with the support of the smaller states (who never would have gone along with a structure that would have diminished their representation to the degree Madison proposed) decisive to its success.

 

Deeply researched and clearly argued, Klarman's book is a masterpiece of historical writing. While his argument echoes the one famously advanced by Charles Beard in his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Klarman makes a more convincing case by nuancing his arguments in ways that acknowledges the complex range of factors involved. Contingency is at the heart of his tale, as he shows the interplay of arguments and how decisions played off of each other in ways that determined the outcome. It makes for an origin story for the Constitution that is more akin to the grimy details of sausage making than the high-minded debates of demigods, but it is one that is truer to the reality of politics than we would like to admit. For that reason alone it is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the history of our country;s founding or how our national government came to be what it is today.

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review 2017-08-13 23:40
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places - Colin Dickey

Last year, I horrified someone.  I didn’t mean to.  She asked me why I was in Old Alexandria, and I said that I had read the Ghosts of Virginia series and was interested in the history.  She gave me that disappointed look, that the one that says you are stupid.

 

                What she didn’t understand or know is this – I like ghost stories because in part, I like to know the stories behind the ghost stories.  To me, they are folklore and interesting because of that.  True Joel Chandler Harris presents tales that can be seen as trying to make slavery less bad.  That is until you realize that figures like Brer Fox and Wolf are, in fact, the slave owners who get it handed to them every single time.  Don’t believe me, read his version of three little pigs that he took down from a former slave.  The pigs are not pigs, and the wolf is not a wolf.

 

                So, folklore, in particular when it is good, can interest people.  Taylor Jr. who wrote the Ghosts of Virginia series didn’t hide the disturbing aspects of VA history.  The stories he told were also done to get people curious about history. 

 

                Dickey seems to feel that way too because his Ghostland is, in part, a look at the real stories behind the ghost stories.  At times, he examines why there are some type of ghosts and not others.  He does this by visiting and writing about some famous, and not so famous, haunted places.  Then he dismantles the story in some cases.  This isn’t to say that Dickey totally disbelieves in ghost.  I don’t know.  At times, he seems conflicted.  I guess he is like me.

 

                While Dickey does cover the well-known ghost places, like the Winchester Mystery House, and does tell the truth about such places, the best writing is in the analysis of ghost stores from the southern states.  Dickey’s comments about why there are so few stories about vengeful slave ghosts as opposed to the standard “concubine” or white people ghost are actually really well thought out and worth the price of the book alone.  Truly. 

 

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review 2017-08-11 21:21
An activist's life
Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality (Women in American History) - Marcia Walker-McWilliams

If you were to draw a Venn diagram consisting of 20th century unionism, the African civil-rights movement, and second-wave feminism, you would find Addie Wyatt where they intersect. Over the course of her long and busy life she served as a union official, a civil rights activist, and as a campaigner for women's rights. In this book, Marcia Walker-McWilliams details the range of Wyatt's activities, showing how her myriad rights campaigns were tied together by the common threads of determination, personal experience, and faith.

 

Born in Mississippi, Addie Cameron was moved to Chicago at a young age by her parents. After marrying her high-school sweetheart soon after their graduation, she sought employment as a secretary only to find her opportunities limited by her race. It was as a worker in an Armour and Company packinghouse that Addie Wyatt that she became a member of the progressive United Packinghouse Workers of America, for whom she subsequently worked as an organizer. Walker-McWilliams describes the Wyatt family's life during these years as surprisingly diverse, with Addie's skills as a pianist enabling her to participate in the vibrant gospel music scene Chicago enjoyed at that time.

 

Wyatt's position within the union enabled her to lend considerable support to the civil rights movement as it came to national prominence in the 1950s, and her growing prominence within it opened up opportunities to participate in key conferences and national commissions. By the end of the 1960s Wyatt also played an important role in the women's movement, and she worked (albeit in vain) for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Her efforts on behalf of Harold Washington's 1983 campaign for the mayoralty of Chicago proved more fruitful, and even in retirement she lent her support to the successful efforts to unionize the Delta Pride catfish processing plant in her former home state of Mississippi, as she never stopped standing up for the causes in which she believed.

 

Walker-McWilliams's book provides an insightful examination of Wyatt's life and times. The author's description of the role Wyatt's faith played in her life is particularly well-done, as it demonstrates the many ways in which it motivated and empowered Wyatt though hardscrabble beginnings and the frustrations of life as an African American woman in a world dominated by white men. It is a shame that such an interesting and accomplished person isn't better known to Americans, though hopefully this biography will help her gain the recognition she so richly deserves.

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text 2017-07-31 21:51
The Skeptic's Guide to American History - Mark A. Stoler

The Iconoclast's Guide to American History. Well done but there was one thing that drove me nuts listening to this series of lectures. This guy sounds exactly like the campaign director character played by the late Ron Silver on The West Wing--same accent, same pacing, same stridency.

 

It is a good series of lectures that points out everything that we don't learn in school and all that we tend to forget about the events of American History as we move further away from them and start to paint these events with the brush of modernity.

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review 2017-07-31 17:33
Paeans to my favorite books - VII: What It Takes
What It Takes: The Way to the White House - Richard Ben Cramer

This morning I opened Facebook to see one of my friends had posted this:

 

 

Now I get why he would post something like this. Joe Biden was a popular vice president (I suspect all of those Onion memes had a lot to do with this) whose candidacy would appeal to many of those white working-class voters who voted for Donald Trump last year. But it's not going to happen: even if you set aside his age (he will be 78 in 2020), there is another major impediment that would hobble his presidential hopes.

 

He is a seriously flawed campaigner.

 

For those of you who don't believe me, I strongly recommend reading Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes. It's an account of the 1988 presidential primaries that, though a quarter-century old, has remained remarkable relevant, in no small measure due to the candidates the author chose to focus on; in addition to the eventual winners (Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush), he also followed the candidacies of Biden, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, and Dick Gephardt. Through a combination of biography and reportage he tries to understand what it was that led people to subject themselves to the grueling and often demeaning sacrifices of a presidential contest -- the campaigning, the attacks, the toll it takes on one's family and reputation. Yet it's not just the fortuitous selection of candidates (three of whom went on to become their party's nominee and two more of whom remained prominent politicians and presidential contenders for decades afterward) that makes it worthwhile reading, as Cramer's immersive approach and almost novelistic recounting of them captures many fleeting moments that offer fascinating insights when connected to the description of the personalities that he provides.

 

The result has been lauded as possibly the best book about political campaigning ever written, one that has inspired a generation of political journalists much as Theodore White's The Making of the President, 1960 did a generation previously, I've only read Cramer's book once (and then over two decades ago), but the understanding it provided into the people he chronicled has never left me. It's why I can say with confidence that if Biden were to run he would never get the nomination, because the things that made him so endearing as vice president (such his gaffe-prone bluster) are the same things that would derail his ambitions -- just as they did in 1988.

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