Tag Archives: history

Assassination Vacation

This is yet another book I discovered via Nick Hornby and his fine book-about-books entitled Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. At the end of that post, back in March of 2006, I mentioned that I wanted to read Assassination Vacation. It’s amazing that a book I read five years ago is still influencing my reading life. It was brought to mind recently because I saw Sarah Vowell on Letterman and I thought she was hilarious. I finally complied with my proclamation from five years ago and bought Assassination Vacation for the Kindle.

This is part history book, part political commentary, and part travel book. Additionally, it’s all funny. Her writing is just as hilarious as the Letterman interview. Her humor is not for everyone, it’s often dark, negative, and sarcastic. She’s kind of like a mean Bill Bryson. I love it though, in fact, I think it’s brilliant.

Vowell, for some reason, is obsessed with presidential assassinations. She likes to visit assassination sites and view memorabilia from the horrific events. She’s especially excited if there’s a plaque commemorating something related to the assassination. Here is a passage illustrating the giddiness she often feels when she encounters an assassination-related site, in this case it’s a visit to the site of Mary Surratt’s boarding house:

Mary Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse, where John Wilkes Booth gathered his co-conspirators to plot Lincoln’s death, is now a Chinese restaurant called Wok & Roll. I place an order for broccoli and bubble tea, then squint at an historic marker in front of the restaurant quoting Andrew Johnson that this was “the nest in which the egg was hatched.”

If you can’t tell, she’s especially excited by Abraham Lincoln, her favorite president. She’s a staunch defender of persecuted peoples and critical of our country’s treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, which could have something to do with why she reveres Lincoln so. She pulls no punches and you can feel her anger when she talks about those who have wronged others in the name of race, including family members. For example, she discusses the grandfather paradox while relating the story of the grandson of Dr. Mudd as he tries to clear his grandfather’s name, and then contrasts this to her feelings towards her great-great-grandfather:

What I like about the grandfather paradox is that it treats time travel not as some lofty exercise in cultural tourism – looking over Melville’s shoulder as he wrote Moby-Dick – but as a petty excuse to bicker with and gun down one’s own relatives. I just so happen to have a grandfather who deserved it, my great-great-grandfather, John Vowell. The reason why I would set the wayback machine for the sole purpose of rubbing him out is this: In the 1860s, the teenage John Vowell joined up with pro-slavery guerrilla warrior William Clarke Quantrill, who has been called the “most hated man in the Civil War,” which is saying something.

Sarah, you had me at “rubbing him out,” you wacky woman.

Mostly, this book is a hodgepodge of facts, figures, and commentary related to the first three presidential assassinations:

  1. Lincoln (April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth)
  2. Garfield (July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau)
  3. McKinley (September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz)

She’s focused on these three, I think, because they’re linked by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who “was in close proximity” to all three assassinations. Robert Todd Lincoln gets a fair amount of space in this book as do a whole host of other characters. Vowell creatively brings in a bunch of tangential characters and weaves them into this milieu of political commentary and travelogue. Well done.

Yes, she has a political take that not all are going to agree with, especially Republicans and who think we’ve always been on the right track with our foreign policy. If you’re of this ilk, you may find Vowell full of hard edges. She wrote this book during the Iraq war and says:

When I told a friend I was writing about the McKinley administration, he turned up his nose and asked, “Why the hell would anyone want to read about that?” “Oh, I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe because we seem to be reliving it?”

Even so, she shows her sentimental side often, like this passage about Garfield’s pessimism and his love for books:

As for me, coming across that downbeat commencement speech was the first time I really liked Garfield. It’s hard to have strong feelings about him. Before, I didn’t mind him, and of course I sympathized with his bum luck of a death. But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen. In his diary he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on “Heroin.”

Or she’ll speak lovingly of her nephew Owen, who accompanies her on many legs of the assassination vacation:

I have not been particularly shocked by how much I love Owen, but I am continually pleasantly surprised by how much I like him. He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

I also liked the Chicago tie-ins; inevitable, you would think, because of Lincoln, but they’re a little more subtle than you would expect. For instance, she manages to throw in Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright:

Secondly, with a building as iconic as the Lincoln Memorial, it’s such a given, seems so inevitable, I cannot imagine the Mall without it. Moreover, it’s so universally revered it’s hard to believe there were ever protests against the way it looked. But when Daniel Burnham, Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French, and their fellow commissioners chose Henry Bacon’s Greek temple design for the Lincoln Memorial in 1913, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, led by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, threw a fit.

I’ll mention it again, this was a nice combo of humor and history and a great book. It will enlighten and entertain, and run you through a series of differing emotions. What more could you ask of a good book?

Manhunt

The subtitle is The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, and that describes it very well. There is a little background early on, but for the most part this book starts the morning of April 14, 1865 and ends with Booth’s capture and death 12 days later.  It contains the kind of detail you don’t get in history class. The minutia that Swanson dives into probably wouldn’t serve a history major well, but it’s truly fascinating and does a great job of transporting you to the time and place of one of this country’s most harrowing moments.

What I never realized was how perfectly Booth executed his portion of plan. He entered the box during the play and took one shot and killed the President. He was able to jump out of the box onto the stage and proclaim his assassination with gun and dagger raised. After that he scooted out the back and was miles outside of D.C. before anyone could start the chase. Pretty unbelievable when you consider it.

You learn how meticulously he planned this thing; how he traveled to Montreal, Quebec to meet fellow Southern sympathizers, how he scoured the countryside to plan his escape route, and how he situated his fellow conspirators for maximum effect. The amount of hatred and guile within Boothe was pretty chilling. And had he not basically broken his leg, he may have been able to make it to the Deep South and escape. But as it went, he ended up locked in a tobacco barn in Northern Virginia surrounded by 25 Union cavalrymen. In the end he was gunned down by an especially eccentric cavalry member named Boston Corbett.

His plan was much grander than just the assassination of Lincoln. Booth organized co-conspirators to kill Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson on the same night. Both of those other attacks failed; the former because of gallant efforts by bodyguards and family members and the latter because of the cowardice of the perpetrator.

This isn’t the type of history book you read to understand Lincoln. And you don’t read it to gain some insight the people and policies that were integral to changing the course of this country. But it does help you understand just how divided this country was. Just how mainstream it was at the time to have outright hatred for the President and how many people were available  to hide Booth from Union soldiers.

Most every one was caught and brought to justice. His main four co-conspirators were hanged in Washington a few months after Booth’s death.

Andrew Johnson ended up being a poor successor to Lincoln and he was succeeded by Grant, who wasn’t much of an upgrade. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War who was integral in the manhunt, was fired by Johnson and died an early death. William Seward recovered but his family was never the same and his wife and daughter died shortly thereafter. I’m not sure which of these players were in the “team of rivals” that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wrote about, but I’ll eventually read her book.

This was a fine book.

John Adams

This is a long audio book, abridged it’s still close to 10 hours. But it’s certainly a great listen and it’s a small amount of time to spend when you consider the impact this man had on the United States of America. He was one of the chief architects of the Declaration of Independence and was integral in obtaining its passage by the Continental Congress. He became a foreign policy expert after the Revolutionary War and built advantageous relationships with France and Great Britain. He was elected our second president (after serving as Washington’s veep) and used some textbook diplomacy to avert a war with France when the relationship turned sour near the turn of the century.

I’ve consumed a few books about the birth of our nation. I listened to 1776 in 2006 and read a Ben Franklin book in 2007. They dwell on the same time period and I think it’s useful to consume them all for the differing perspectives. To round things out I think I need to read a Jefferson book and an Alexander Hamilton book. Those are a couple of key figures who clashed with Adams and I feel the need for their perspective. But first, I’m watching the John Adams miniseries because Gail got it for me as a Valentine’s Day gift.

However, the interesting facts about this time period are only a portion of why this book is so interesting. What makes it shine are two things; (1) the descriptions of Adam’s personal relationships and (2) the exploration of his personality and character.

The most important relationship he had was with his wife. We’ve heard the stories about how important Abigail was in his life and the book bears this out. McCullough quotes many of their letters and leaves little doubt as to this fact. You cannot tell the story of John Adams without telling Abigail’s story also. They spent years and years apart but their relationship was strong throughout. And despite being apart, Adam’s relied on Abigail for input into all aspects of his life and work.

The consistency of Adam’s relationship with Abigail was in stark contrast to Adams’ relationship with Jefferson. To call it a roller coaster would be an understatement. They went from being amicable partners in writing and passing the Declaration of Independence, to agreeing to disagree on slavery, to best friends during their foreign service in France, and to bitter enemies during Adams’ presidency. But finally, after they had left public service, the made amends and started a long and fruitful relationship, mostly in the form of letters to each other.

This relationship lasted until the day they died, which was on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Is that unbelievable or what? They both died on the same day, within hours of each other, on the 4th of July, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. They were meant to see the day, I guess. Justice, since they were both so integral to its content.

Besides Jefferson, Adams clashed with many during his presidency. I don’t completely understand the parties at that point and I think a reading of a Jefferson book and Hamilton book will be enlightening. Adams was a Federalist but he clashed with Alexander Hamilton, so I think they basically broke up the party. McCullough identifies the other party as Republicans (Jefferson), but these weren’t today’s Republicans. I think the unabridged version may have had more on this. I need to do some more research.

In the end, McCullough paints a picture of an honorable man.

Adams decried slavery just about until the day he died. He would often try and engage Jefferson on this issue but Jefferson would have none of it. Abigail was also outspoken against slavery and racism of any sort. Abigail had run-ins with the local school about this very issue and persevered.

Adams loved books. He had a huge library, a massive library. He added comments in all of the margins. McCullough says, and I’m paraphrasing so this is not a direct quote, “that he sometimes wrote as much in the margins as was written by the author.” I know how he felt, I can relate. Books are so great that you want do more than just read them. You want to interact with them. You want to be closer to them. What do you do? You talk about them, write about them, notate them, live them. Which brings me to a point about audiobooks. I wish I could just page back and reread this passage, but I can’t, it’s too much of a hassle even with iTunes. Now with the Kindle I could, that would be cool.

I like Adams a lot. He wrote, read, ate, partied, visited, and rode horses into his later years and lived to be 90. He did not die a rich man, but neither a poor man. He seemed to be the type of caring, conscientious, and principled, independent thinker that this country needed to get off on the right foot back in those tumultuous times.

The River of Doubt

In the pantheon of great American ass-kickers, Theodore Roosevelt floats to the top of the “political figure” category. This 5’8” fireplug of a man supposedly topped out at a solid 200 lbs during his most active days despite being born a sickly child. He had a long history of tackling hardship and defeat by “vigorously pushing his body and mind to endure punishing outdoor adventures” (I think this is a quote).

After he lost the 1912 presidential election, he was a beaten man. So he decided that the best way to combat the blues was to go on a huge, rigorous South American adventure. This, despite the fact that he was over 50 years old and should have been thinking about retiring to his country estate.

Interestingly enough, for you fellow ND fans, one of the primary planners for the trip was a chemistry and physics professor from the University of Notre Dame named Father John Zahm. Father Zahm was an accomplished adventurer/scholar and an acquaintance of Roosevelt’s. However, Father Zahm’s plan for a safe, easy trip on the Amazon and the exploration of a few of the smaller, connecting rivers was quickly squelched by Roosevelt. Roosevelt viewed this as nothing less than a serious, scientific endeavor, and traveling on a slow-moving boat watching the shore go by was not what he had in mind.

This was only the start of friction between Father Zahm and Roosevelt. At one point early on, well before the expedition even reached the mouth of the River of Doubt, Father Zahm expressed his desire to be carried on a chair by the locals through the jungle rather than walking. Roosevelt disagreed strongly and would not allow Father Zahm such a luxury. In fact, it was important for Roosevelt to maintain equality with the native guides and assistants. At one point Roosevelt refused to use a chair unless his Brazilian counterpart also had a chair.

This incident probably played a big part in what followed. Roosevelt and the rest of the leaders of the trip signed a letter mandating that Father Zahm be sent home. Wow, what a blow! I’m reading this book after a 3-9 season and hearing that Notre Dame is responsible for NBC’s bottom feeding TV ratings. Like I needed to hear more negative Notre Dame sentiment. Oh well, the truth hurts, but we move on.

Yes, we move one, like the expedition did sans Father Zahm. But Father Zahm wasn’t the only member that was sent packing. By the time the expedition reached the beginning of the River of Doubt, all the dead weight had been sent on alternative routes and they were down to 22 men:

  • Roosevelt
  • Kermit (Roosevelt’s son, cool guy)
  • George Cherrie (American naturalist)
  • Col. Rondon (Brazilian leader, famous adventurer)
  • Two other Brazilian leaders/naturalists (one a doctor)
  • 16 local assistants (camaradas)

These 22 men were the heartiest and most important of the expedition but what they had before them seemed insurmountable. Their supplies were running low, they were tired, bugs and wild animals were a constant threat, and they were ill equipped. Despite all the money and planning, they showed up at the mouth of the River of Doubt without a damn boat! They had to buy/trade for seven rickety dugout canoes from the Indians. These dugouts weighed 2,500 lbs each and were far from ideal for navigating a twisting river filled with dangerous rapids. I predict death, and lots of it (I’m writing this as I read it, not afterward).

And there was death, only 19 of the 22 men made it out alive. I figured fewer would make it. It’s pretty unbelievable that this many survived based on the hardship they faced. And you don’t really understand the hardship that they dodged until the end of the book – more on that later.

At one point, Roosevelt is so sick with malaria and fatigue that he declares the following to his son and Cherrie from his deathbed…ahh, I mean, hammock:

“Boys, I realize that some of us are not going to finish this journey. Cherrie, I want you and Kermit to go on. You can get out. I will stop here.

You have to respect that. Roosevelt was, for the most part, giving and respectful of everyone throughout the trip and this declaration was completely in character. But Kermit would have nothing to do with it. According to the book:

Standing next to Roosevelt’s prone, sweat-soaked figure in their dim tent beside the River of Doubt, Kermit met his father’s decision to take his own life with the same quiet strength and determination that the elder Roosevelt had so carefully cultivated and admired in him. This time, however, the result would be different. For the first time in his life, Kermit simply refused to honor his father’s wishes. Whatever it took, whatever the cost, he would not leave without Roosevelt.

There was still a lot of river to paddle and rapids to portage. And a lot of unruly camaradas to deal with. Shortly after the incident, the stress gets so great that one particularly unsavory camarada, Julio, kills another for fear of being outed as a thief (stealing food). Despite his weakened state, Roosevelt is livid and actually hurts himself further trying to engage in the hunt for the perpetrator. The tension comes to a boiling point between Rondon and Roosevelt:

…”Julio has to be tracked, arrested and killed,” Roosevelt barked when he saw Rondon. “In Brazil, that is impossible,” Rondon answered. “When someone commits a crime, he is tried, not murdered.” Roosevelt was not convinced. “He who kills must die,” he said. “That’s the way it is in my country.”

Wow, heavy stuff. They find Julio later, on the banks of the river begging for mercy. But they just pass him by. They later return and try to find him, but they can’t. Certainly the Cinta Larga Indians probably feasted on his innards. The Cinta Larga Indians are what I was referring to when I said that the trip dodged a lot of hardship in retrospect. They did not see any Indians on the whole trip, which is unbelievable because the Cinta Larga were thought to be numerous and hostile. It was always assumed by the river travelers that the Cinta Larga were lurking in the woods, but for some reason, they allowed the expedition to pass through their territory without incident (this may be a quote also).

Eventually, the expedition hits some smooth water and the last part of their trip goes smoothly. It was a long haul. They left New York in October of 1913 and got back to New York in May of 1914. Roosevelt died about 5 years later in January of 1919. Kermit never panned out to be much of anything. He appeared to be destined for great things, but it wasn’t in the cards for him.

It’s really a great story. History buffs will certainly like it. But Millard also expands a lot on the history and culture of the Amazon, Brazil, and the rain forest. It’s a wide-ranging read and I really liked it.

Truman

Truman’s presidency occurred during times of immense global unrest and he was forced to make a few of the most pivotal decisions in US history. These decisions certainly affected the standing and prosperity of the US during his lifetime, but they also had reverberations that would affect the political and economic make-up of Asia and Europe for decades to come.

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a book. But listening to this one really has me juiced for some more because it was really good. McCullough takes you through the expanse of Truman’s life, beginning with his humble beginnings on the Missouri countryside and detailing the significant events of his life through his death in 1972. Here is a quick timeline:

  • 1884-Born, Lamar, Missouri
  • 1914-Member of artillery brigade, World War I, mostly France
  • 1934-Elected to Senate (D, Missouri)
  • 1944-FDR re-elected to presidency with Truman as his VP
  • 1945-Truman becomes president upon FDR’s death (April)
  • 1945-Authorized use of the atomic bomb in Japan (August)
  • 1946-Threatened to take presidential control of the railroads and draft railway workers if they did not end their strike, effectively settling the strike but alienating labor
  • 1947-Develops Truman Doctrine (policy of containment) and appoints George Marshall as his secretary of state (who subsequently developed the Marshall Plan to assist in rebuilding Europe)
  • 1950-In second term as president, urged U.N. to intervene in Korea and authorized deployment of US troops to Korea under General MacArthur
  • 1951-Ceased aggression in Korea and fired MacArthur from his command in Korea and Japan
  • 1952-Lost New Hampshire primary and cancels re-election campaign
  • 1972-Dies the day after Christmas

These were the highlights in the abridged version I listened to. There was evidently not enough time to talk about the Berlin Airlift, Israel, civil rights, the Fair Deal, the Red Scare, or Vietnam.

I love McCullough’s delivery on the audio book version. He reads it like a grandfather telling a story. He doesn’t use much voice inflection but you can tell he cares deeply about the topic. It’s comforting to listen to his silvery voice and smooth delivery.

There were some chilling moments in Truman’s presidency. Shortly after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, he said these words in his address to the nation.

…we are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a reign of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.

That’s heavy stuff. Often McCullough would mix in real audio, but not for the above. I’m sure it’s on tape, I wonder if someone would not let him use it or if he thought it would be too horrifying to hear it from Truman himself. The book goes into a fairly lengthy discussion on the aftermath. There is some real audio after the second bomb on Nagasaki from Truman where he tells Japanese civilians to leave the cities because he was going to destroy everything in them. Sobering stuff.

Truman never went to college, but he was worldly, well read, and very grounded. I think this is why he was careful in selecting his advisers and why he deflected a lot of the credit for victories to others but took responsibility for failures. Perhaps his most famous appointment was making George Marshall the Secretary of State in 1947. Marshall engineered the aptly named Marshall Plan to assist in the post-war rebuilding of Europe and to help stop communist aggression. It has it’s detractors, but for the most part it is viewed by historians as an unmitigated success.

Truman’s most famous public brawl was with General MacArthur. MacArthur wanted to continue north of the 38th parallel in Korea because he did not feel that the Russians or Chinese would intervene on the North’s behalf. MacArthur said this in public, which was particularly discouraging to the Truman administration. Truman disagreed, and when Truman relieved him of duty there was a public outcry of massive proportions. MacArthur went on an unprecedented “victory” tour of the US when he got back from Korea and made speeches espousing his ideas for the war and where he thought Truman got it wrong. Truman basically ignored this and eventually the country came around to ignoring MacArthur also. Finally, MacArthur made his “old soldiers just fade away” speech and the public battle between the two giants of US history faded away also.

Truman ended up living out a his life after the presidency in a state of unending wonderment and joy. You may not agree with every decision that he made, but I would say he honored the office of the Presidency.

The Americanization of Ben Franklin

Before this book, I’ve always had a tainted view of Ben Franklin because of the existence of those Ben Franklin stores. I could never figure them out. Were they supposed to be like a Walgreens, a Wal-Mart, or a Dollar General? Or are they a combination of all three? Well, here is what the Ben Franklin website says about it. Nonetheless, if the store reflected the man, a Ben Franklin store would be more like a Marshall Fields…famous, unpretentious, and dead. No seriously, this was an excellent book and I’m happy that I have a deeper understanding of the man.

He was born in 1706 of humble means in Boston but became famous in Philadelphia. By the time he retired at age 42, he was one of the wealthiest men in America and on his way to becoming a world famous inventor, writer, philosopher, and politician. He died in 1790 and his death was mourned far more by France than the United States. This book walks the reader through Franklin’s life and relates his successes and failures to the tumultuous times of the New World and Early America. I’m going to organize my description in the same way the author organized the chapters. I’m doing so because I think a major strength of this book is the way Wood defines the sections of Franklin’s life in a coherent, easy-to-understand method.

Becoming a Gentleman (1706-1756)
In the early 1700s, you were either a gentleman or a commoner, there was no middle ground. That is, until Ben Franklin turned this situation upside down. Wood says about Franklin:

In effect, he began acquiring some of the attributes of a gentleman while still remaining one of the common working people. In 1727 he organized a group of artisans who met weekly for learned conversation – a printer, several clerks, a glazier, two surveyors, a shoemaker, a cabinetmaker, and subsequently “a young Gentleman of some Fortune,” named Robert Grace, who did not have to work for a living……It was this kind of aspiring and prosperous middling man that was beginning to challenge the hierarchical network of privilege and patronage that dominated eighteenth-century society, and in the process blurring the traditionally sharp social division between gentleman and commoners.

He was so successful in his printing business that he accumulated substantial wealth by his retirement in 1948. However, he did not become a full-fledged “gentleman” until about a decade later after spending many years “organizing clubs, starting libraries, promoting schools, leading the Masons, and becoming involved in dozens of activities that were well beyond the reach and consciousness of nearly all tradesman and artisans.”

Becoming a British Imperialist (1757-1764)
The start of this stage in his life found Franklin consumed with electricity. This interest manifested itself in a book about electricity that was published in America and Europe and solidified his fame worldwide. By the end of this stage he was on a mission to align the interests of America and Great Britain. He loved London and believed that America and Great Britain could coexist and even thrive. Wood quotes Franklin and says that Franklin desired that

…the people of Great Britain and the people of the colonies “learn to consider themselves, not as belonging to different Communities with different Interests, but to one Community with one Interest.”

Wood does not sugarcoat the life of Franklin. It was during this period that Franklin acquired slaves and grew more distant from his wife Deborah. In 1764 he left for an extended stay in London and never saw his wife again, and he didn’t seem to care much about that.

Becoming a Patriot (1765-1774)
Franklin spent about a decade in London trying to get Great Britain and the colonies to get along. By this time, Great Britain was well into the mode of taxation without representation. He brawled with Parliament about the Stamp Act, a tax basically on “nearly every form of paper used in the colonies.” In front of Parliament “he made it clear as possible that Parliament had no right to lay a stamp tax on the colonists, and his pointed responses probably saved his reputation in America.”

Try as he might, through nasty politics on both sides of the ocean, conciliation between Great Britain and the colonies was not meant to be. Franklin eventually started to feel disfavor towards Great Britain and when he sailed for America in early 1775, he was described as “a passionate patriot, more passionate in fact than nearly all the other [American] patriot leaders.”

Becoming a Diplomat (1775-1784)
When Franklin got back to America the fighting had already started. Franklin’s main role in the Revolutionary War was to “seek foreign support for the war.” He went to France, achieved several diplomatic successes, and fell in love with the country (a feeling felt mutually by the French towards Franklin). Wood says,

Not only did Franklin hold the Franco-American alliance together, but he also oversaw the initial stages of the successful peace negotiations with Britain. And he did this all with a multitude of demands placed on him.

This, by a man in his 70s, in a time when people did not live as long as they do now. Wood concludes this section by making a big proclamation,

If Washington was indispensable to the success of the Revolution in America, Franklin was indispensable to the success of the Revolution abroad.

Becoming an American (1785-1790)
As Franklin’s life winds down, Wood brings the book to a rousing conclusion. Immediately before his death, Franklin made an effort to abolish slavery. It was rejected by America but Wood attributes the eventual abolishment of it partly to Franklin.

Virginia and the South always claimed that they had remained closer to the eighteenth-century beginnings of the nation, and they were right. It was the North that had changed and changed dramatically. Because northern Americans came to celebrate work so emphatically – with Franklin as their most representative figure – the leisured slaveholding aristocracy of Virginia and the rest of the South became a bewildered and beleaguered minority out of touch with the enterprise and egalitarianism that had come to dominate the country. As long as work had been held in contempt, as it had for millennia, slavery could never have been wholeheartedly condemned. But to a society that came to honor work as fully as the North did, a leisured aristocracy and the institution of slavery that supported it had to become abominations.

Wow, that is quite a tribute to Franklin. I am going to have to toss it around a little before I buy off on it though.

Great book.

1776

This book starts with a speech by King George made around September 1775 (once again, I listened to it, so it’s tough to flip back and check facts, but I will give you the gist) . Effectively, King George questioned the sanity of a bunch rebels campaigning for freedom when they had it so good. I mean, how could you not like being under the thumb of one of wealthiest and most powerful nations on the face of the earth? The rebels, he figured, would soon understand how good they had it and basically surrender. He did not go as far as to say that his troops would be “greeted as liberators,” but he definitely called out the resolve of the rebels.

The first part of the book centers on the effective blockade of Boston by George Washington’s army. The blockade started in the middle of 1775 and as it dragged into winter, commander-in-chief George Washington started to get impatient. He continually pushed for a frontal attack on Boston but the war council decided it was not the best idea. After all, the city would probably burn and the loss of human life would be huge. Then, in early 1776, copies of King George’s speech circulated among the rebels and ended up being great bulletin board material, which started to fire up the rebels to kick some redcoat ass.

Also at this point (early January), General Knox arrived with guns from Fort Ticonderoga. This set into motion the incredible occupation of Dorchester Heights (overlooking Boston) by the rebels. With the rebels on Dorchester Heights, the British had little chance of surviving a frontal attack, so they piled into their boats and left town.

As expected, the British headed for New York City, but Washington and his men were there first. It was different from Boston though because the advantage was on the side of the British. Mostly because the British brought in reinforcements, including the Hessians. Also, the British commanded the sea, with most of their fleet set up in the waters around New York.

A strategic stalemate lasted well into the summer of 1776, until August, when the British began coming ashore on Long Island. Washington and his men crossed the river and occupied Brooklyn in effort to keep the British out of New York. This did not last long and Washington and his crew slipped back to New York and eventually retreated back to Philadelphia. Now, with the British in control of New York City and numbers on the British side, things were looking pretty bleak for the rebels. They were holed up in Philly, with a pack of Hessian soldiers on the other side of the river, and on the brink of losing thousands of soldiers when their commissions were up in the fall.

But, the rebels had a few things going for them. First, the British made some poor battleground decisions. They should have been more aggressive on Long Island and crushed the rebels before they had a chance to retreat. And effectively calling a unilateral halt to fighting on the onset of winter in December 1776 was just downright stupid. But most importantly, one George Washington led the rebels, and he was a pretty gutsy guy. Washington made a rousing speech to convince many soldiers to extend their commission and planned one of the most audacious offensives in the history of the fightin’ man.

On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington marched his men to the Delaware River during a nasty rain/sleet/snowstorm. They hopped into flat bottom boats and negotiated the river despite the brutal cold, the dark of night, the wicked wind, and the jagged chunks of ice floating in the river. Once over the river, they walked through the night, and by the next morning they were queued up about a half-mile outside of Trenton, New Jersey, which was occupied by a few thousand Hessians. In the driving storm, they attacked with overwhelming force and took Trenton in less than an hour. The victory was so lopsided that the rebels did not even have a casualty of war. The only rebel deaths were two men that died from the cold during the walk over.

Trenton and the night crossing of the Delaware was the turning point of the war. This ended the year of 1776 but the war went on. Around 25,000 Americans would end up dying before the fighting ended and I think it would be like the early 1780’s before the British actually called it quits. I don’t want to blow it out of proportion, but one could make a case that our freedom today would not be if Washington did not choose to pursue that offensive during the holiday season of 1776. How appropriate as a lead-in to this holiday season. I may just have to reflect a little on this and I will definitely consume more David McCullough books.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

At one point in his life, Jared Diamond was a biologist in New Guinea studying birds. This was about the early 70’s, I think. (With audio books it’s difficult to verify the details because you can’t just leaf through the pages or refer to the index, so I apologize if I get the details wrong.) Okay, it was the early 70’s and he was having a conversation with this local politician in New Guinea, named Yali. Yali asked a question of Diamond that went something like this, why do you people (white, Euro-types) have all of this advanced technology and we don’t? What is the cause of this disparity? Well, Diamond sets out to explain the answer.

Diamond begins by walking you through the evolution of people, beginning at about 7 million BC. He gets you to about 11,000 BC before he really starts making comparisons between different peoples and continents. He concentrates first on the rise of food producing societies and their subsequent displacement of people engaged solely in hunting and gathering. This domestication of plants and animals for food allows a society to progress much faster because members can spend less time looking for food and more time reading, writing, studying, and creating complex, hierarchical political systems.

Once he establishes the import of domesticating plants and animals, he explains how the east-west orientation of Eurasia was much more amenable to rapid adoption of farming across the continent than the north-south orientation of Africa and the Americas. He illustrates this by pointing out, for example, that it took much longer for corn to find its way from Mexico to the United States than it did for certain cereals from the Fertile Crescent to spread much longer distances across Eurasia.

He concludes:

That faster spread of Eurasian agriculture, compared with that of Native American and sub-Saharan African agriculture, played a roll, as the next part of this book will show, in the more rapid diffusion of Eurasian writing, metallurgy, technology, and empires. To bring up all those differences isn’t to claim that widely distributed crops are admirable or that they testify to the superior ingenuity of early Eurasian farmers. They reflect instead the orientation of Eurasia’s axis compared with that of the Americas or Africa; around those axes turned the fortunes of history.

With only about two hours left, I expected the pace to pick up a bit if he was going to bring me back around to answering Yali’s question. And it does.

His next topic is germs, which also helped domesticated, well-organized, Eurasian societies to displace others. Germs, you see, thrive in domesticated animals like cattle and sheep. Eurasian societies lived near, and sometimes with, these animals for years. After numerous plagues, they developed resistance to many of the diseases in these animals. So, when Spanish conquistadors landed on the shores of Mexico and effectively destroyed a society of millions of Aztecs, it was less so the fierceness and intelligence with which the Spanish fought and more so the fact that the Aztecs were not resistant to the smallpox that the Spanish brought with them.

He goes through the details of three more topics and explains how they affected the rise and fall of different societies. They are, in order of presentation:

  1. The advent and cultivation of writing
  2. The rise of technology
  3. The development of complex political systems

It was really some fascinating audio. He made a complicated, controversial, and potentially boring topic very captivating. I turned it off feeling that I know more about the world. The last chapter in the audio book is 8 minutes and 35 seconds worth of summary that really ties it all together.

Here is how he sums it up:

The striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves, but to differences in their environments.

The most important differences in the environments, per Diamond, are as follows:

  1. The differences in starting material for domestication of plants and animals.
  2. The differences in rates of diffusion of certain developments across societies within continents.
  3. Inter-hemispheric diffusion of certain developments.
  4. Continental differences in area and population size.

Great stuff. Read it or listen to it and you will get more detail than you can consume on how each of the four differences resulted in widely disparate societies.