Review: American Moonshot

American Moonshot, Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper, 2020.

Summary: A history of the American space program centering around John F. Kennedy’s embrace of the space race and goal that an American would walk on the moon by the end of the 1960’s.

Born in the 1950’s, I grew up loving rockets. I built models of rockets, launched rockets, and read about rockets. In first and second grade, I remembered televisions wheeled into our classrooms when Alan Shepard became the first American launched into space and John Glenn the first to orbit the earth three times. As fellow Ohioans, we were especially proud of Glenn, as we were that moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon–we stayed up to watch the landing and hear those words “That’s one small step for a man…”

In Douglas Brinkley’s book, I was able to relive all of that, as well as understand the history and personalities behind America’s race to the moon. Brinkley introduces us early to two central figures, John F. Kennedy and Werner von Braun, the former a war hero, the latter a German scientist who hitched his scientific aspirations in rocketry to Nazism, then escaped prosecution as a “paperclip” scientist brought to the U.S. for his expertise. Brinkley describes how the two would team up to drive America’s space program to new heights, even while making his own opinion clear that von Braun was a Nazi war criminal unworthy of enduring fame, despite his signal contributions to American rocketry culminating in the Saturn V and eventually the space shuttle boosters.

Brinkley casts this against the backdrop of the Cold War with the USSR and the space race kicked off with the launch of Sputnik, followed by the Soviet manned (and womaned) spaceflights with few answering U.S. accomplishments, although we rapidly surpassed the Soviets in satellite technology. These flights also underscored a feared threat of nuclear weapons in space and that the USSR would dominate space. This provided Kennedy an issue in the form of “the missile gap,” later shown to be spurious, that helped him win the 1960 presidential election. The Eisenhower administration had taken only slow, measured steps to develop space exploration.

Kennedy changed all that, facing the opposition of the former president, especially when he gave the speech at Rice University pledging the United States to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, galvanizing von Braun and those he worked with at Huntsville. The book narrates the efforts to create NASA, mobilize the funding, and under space administrator James Webb, build out the capacity to accomplish the complex task of figuring out how to actually do what Kennedy pledged. As Kennedy’s re-election approached, Brinkley describes the increasing resistance and efforts to cut NASA funding. Paradoxically, it was Kennedy’s death that saved the program as Lyndon Johnson carried it through. The book portrays the breadth of Kennedy’s vision–at once to meet the Soviet threat, to give the country a lofty goal, and to create a kind of technology infrastructure that would bolster the economy of a number of states and result in spinoff inventions that enhanced Americans lives from medical devices to microchips.

Another facet of the book were the first American astronauts, the Mercury Seven, who were our space pioneers and paved the way for the subsequent Gemini and Apollo programs. It was fascinating to learn how deeply acquainted Kennedy became with the astronauts, hosting them collectively and individually at the White House. Some, like John Glenn, became family friends. It was Glenn who represented the astronauts at John Kennedy’s funeral, and who comforted the children of Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated. Those relationships, in turn, led to Glenn’s decision to pursue public service in a political career, serving as an Ohio Senator for three decades, attempting a run for president, and then returning to space in his seventies.

Because the book center’s around Kennedy’s role in the space program, the Gemini and Apollo launches are much more briefly covered, coming after Kennedy’s death, with the book ending with the Apollo 11 mission and the announcement that “the Eagle has landed” beating Kennedy’s goal by five months.

Douglas Brinkley pulls all these threads together around a study of presidential leadership in setting America a lofty goal wedding disciplined and courageous performance with technological innovation. While Brinkley doesn’t overlook it, one wonders if Lyndon Johnson deserves greater credit for bringing this program to fruition, if not being its inspiration. While telling a compelling story, Brinkley still left me wondering, was it worth it, particularly when what considers was not done with the tremendous outlay of money, further complicated by the Vietnam war? How important are national goals that capture the imagination and harness the resources of our best and brightest? How do we address the militarism and military industrial complex that grew around this program?

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which this was a “bright-shining moment,” a national effort that captured and held the country’s imagination. It was an exercise in presidential leadership, for which Brinkley has given us an in-depth case study. And for some of us, Brinkley’s book enables us to relive a decade of space exploration that is just as, if not more extraordinary, fifty to sixty years later as it was at the time.

Review: The Forgotten Man

The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes. New York: MJF Books, 2008.

Summary: An account of the Depression years, focusing on why the Depression lasted so long, and the impact it had on so many different kinds of “forgotten men” and women.

Many accounts of the Depression have focused on the magnetic leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, creating work programs, declaring bank holidays, and seeking to give hope to the “forgotten man.” Amity Shlaes also considers various forgotten people, but asks the searching question of why the Depression lasted so long.

We are introduced to an impressive array of characters, many who recur as central figures throughout the account. There is the brain trust around Roosevelt, the “best and brightest” of his generation, who conceived of a variety of social and reform programs, mostly ineffectual: Harold Ickes, Raymond Moley, and Rex Tugwell. We meet the entrepreneurs and business people who find themselves on the wrong side of a government crusade against business, from Andrew Mellon to electrification pioneers Samuel Insull and Wendell Willkie, to the Schechter Brothers, kosher poultry wholesalers prosecuted for violating regulations of the National Recovery Act, and ultimately vindicated in court.

There are a variety of colorful figures, from Father Divine, a cult leader teaching Black self-sufficiency, John Llewellyn Lewis, a strong labor leader, David Lilienthal who headed up the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federalized effort to bring electric power to the South and “Bill” Wilson, the Wall Street alcoholic who founds Alcoholics Anonymous and in the 1930’s writes AA’s Big Book.

The book is basically an argument that the reason the Depression lasted so long was that the financial tinkering, taxation, and New Deal programs and over-reaching attacks on business “forgot” the people who made the country prosper. It recognizes the value of public works efforts like the WPA, the foundations of which were laid in the Hoover administration resulting in important infrastructure development that both put money into and facilitated the economy.

The book raises important questions about the role of government in economic downturns, arguing a classic conservative line that an activist, interventionist approach may prolong an economic downturn. Yet it also reflects the pressure a government faces from those suffering the most to “do something,” to appear to have not forgotten the little guy.

I personally found the work a tough read because it tried to follow so many threads, so many figures in a chronological account that at time the narrative felt like a lot of disparate stories and events strung together rather than the cohesive and compelling accounts the best historians render.

In the end, a global war lifted the country out of the Depression. Shlaes leaves us wondering if it needed take that long.

Review: Morgenthau

Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, Andrew Meier. New York: Random House, 2022.

Summary: An account of the 153 year history of four generations of the Morgenthau family and its impact on real estate, politics, diplomacy, and law enforcement.

Lazarus Morgenthau probably never should have migrated from Bavaria, where he invented a cigar box that made his fortune, for a time, before the business failed. He moved his family to America where other members of the Jewish elite had made fortunes after similar migrations. For Lazarus, all his schemes failed, from a wine import business to elixirs to cure various ailments to his Golden Book of Life. He spent the latter part of his life in and out of insane asylums. It might be that his principle purpose was to land his progeny in America, who would have a profound influence in many fields over the next hundred years.

Andrew Meier’s lengthy account of this family dynasty begins here. What follows are three full-length biographies of the leading family figure in each of the next three generations: Henry, Sr., Henry, Jr., and Robert Morgenthau, concluding at the end of the latter’s life in 2019.

Henry, Sr. built the family fortune in New York real estate. Meier takes us through the growth of his empire from his first acquisitions up through the relationship with Adolph Ochs and his acquisition of the properties that made up Times Square, and the headquarters of The New York Times. In 1912, his genius in fund-raising for Woodrow Wilson resulted in his being offered the ambassadorship to Turkey, the “Jewish seat.” It was not his first choice, but he distinguished himself in history in his efforts to advocate for and document the Armenian genocide.

Perhaps his greatest challenge was to help launch his son Henry, Jr. in life. Henry, Jr. seemed to lack a clear ambition other than becoming a farmer, which his father helped him to do in acquiring land in Duchess County. This put Henry, Jr. in touch with Franklin Roosevelt, a friendship that endured from Roosevelt’s rise as governor of New York through his presidency. He was a kind of “fixer” for Roosevelt–on farm matters in upstate New York, and later, at the Treasury. This seemed the saddest part of the book because the “friendship” seemed one of providing Roosevelt pleasant company at weekly lunches, but not asserting his own ideas or personality. Perhaps, like his father, his most significant work may have been advocacy for Jews in Europe as Hitler’s genocidal plans took shape. The US State Department and Roosevelt had been intransigent in opposing vigorous measures to help refugees, but Morgenthau probably managed to rescue 200,000 and help awaken the country to the Holocaust. The latter part of his life was the saddest in many ways as he lost his wife, was dumped by Truman, and spent the latter part of his life living lavishly with his second wife, considered “this thing he married” by his children.

I found the third part of the book the most interesting in many respects. Robert Morgenthau was an authentic war hero, offering exemplary leadership when his ship was attacked. He tried politics but failed in two runs for governor. Working with the Kennedy campaign, he won the appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He took on organized crime when the FBI refused to acknowledge its existence. He also set his sights on Roy Cohn (an associate and mentor of Donald Trump), who became the “White Whale” he could never convict. When Nixon took office, he won office as the District Attorney for New York, a position he held until 2009. He was most known for the prosecutions of organized crime (the Gambino family) and the BCCI banking firm, which he believed was channeling money to Iran for development of nuclear weapons. The latter featured high powered American figures including Clark Clifford. It was a case that may have been pursued at the Federal level. For Morgenthau, if it came through New York, it was his jurisdiction.

He built a modestly-staffed department into a powerhouse, increasing the hiring of women and minorities, funding its operations in part with the fines he won. He often opted for plea bargains for fines in lieu of prison sentences–he had no appetite for sending people to prison–except for five youth accused of assault, rape, and murder of the Central Park Jogger. They were part of a “wilding” incident that night and, when apprehended, eventually confessed to the crime and were convicted and sent to prison. Except that DNA evidence, a relatively new technology at the time, linked none of the boys to evidence collected and was set aside. Several years later, new evidence matched with a man already in prison. Morgenthau admitted the mistake and reversed the convictions, albeit too late for the boys, who later recovered an award in court. It was the major stain on his record, lessened by his integrity when new evidence came forward.

This is a massive work, really three major biographies woven into a single account of a powerful family. One gains a sense of the distinctive character of the leading figure of each generation–Henry, Sr., the shrewd, incisive, and courageous businessman turned ambassador; Henry, Jr., the modest steady friend of Roosevelt who found his voice representing Jews caught in the Holocaust; and Robert, the resolute, ambitious prosecutor with a deep sense of integrity and justice that extended to the white collar criminals who often escaped prosecution. This book will carry you through the winter months, introducing you to a family who played a key role, often behind the scenes, over one hundred years in a variety of American institutions, centered around New York City,


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.

Review: Asian American Histories of the United States

Asian American Histories of the United States, Catherine Ceniza Choy. Boston: Beacon Press, 2022.

Summary: The multiple, interleaved histories of the diverse Asian American peoples who migrated to, built communities in, contributed to, experienced discriminatory acts in the United States.

If you look closely at the title of this book, you will note that it is not a singular history but rather plural “histories.” Asian American peoples have been migrating to the United States from various countries in various waves over the past two hundred years. Catherine Ceniza Choy sets out in this work to sketch the outlines of these multiple stories. Two aspects of that methodology stood out to me in the reading. One was that she followed a reverse chronology, taking more recent key events and migrations first and working back in history to 1869. The other aspect of this work is that it is a people’s history, sketching not just the large contours and key events but the stories of individual persons and families–showing us the hopes, hardships, and particular experience of anti-Asian discrimination at different periods

She considers:

  • 2020. The outbreak of Anti-Asian hatred during the pandemic, blaming those of Asian appearance for the origin and spread of the disease. At the same time, Filipino nurses, a mainstay in many hospital systems, were dying in disproportionate numbers.
  • 1975. The journeys of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees to the United States at the fall of Saigon. We learn of Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian who became the “donut king.”
  • 1968. The student strike at San Francisco State College and the growth of the Asian American Movement on campuses across the country.
  • 1965. The passage of the Hart-Cellar Act equalizing the numbers of immigration visas for all countries, allowing for expanded immigration from Asian countries, both highly skilled entering the professions as well as less-educated working in businesses like nail salons and restaurants, including the Filipino nurses among which came the author’s parents.
  • 1965. The Delano Grape Strike was part of the birth of the United Farm Workers, led by Filipino American Larry Itliong, often overlooked in the histories that focus on Cesar Chavez.
  • 1953. Permission to adopt transracial children of mixed birth from Korea and Japan, left behind when American soldiers returned home. This history raises the specter of the anti-miscegenation laws preventing inter-racial marriages.
  • 1942. Executive Order 9066 resulting in the forced removal of Japanese Americans in western states, losing property and belongings without due process to be interned in camps. George Takei and many others have told the stories of these camps.
  • 1919. The story of both Korean Americans and Filipino Americans seeking independence from Japan and the United States, respectively. The U.S. would remain silent about Korea due to their own hegemony in the Philippines.
  • 1875. The Page Act, ostensibly passed to keep out prostitutes, was used to keep Chinese women out of the United States, representing various laws that would keep Asians out of the country. This episode also reflects the sexualized stereotypes of Asian women as dragon ladies, lotus blossoms and prostitutes.
  • 1869. The completion of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese workers build much of the Central Pacific Railroad, yet were excluded from the celebratory photographs at Promontory Point and treated hostilely.

As may already be evident, Choy addresses three themes throughout the work: violence, erasure, and resistance. I was aware of both the violence and resistance but Choy makes evident that strategies of erasure are not new, whether it is blocking the publication of photographs, the scrubbing of stories from our history books, or even overshadowing the celebration of the centenary of the gurdwara in Stockton, California with a brutal mass killing at another gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. She also makes us aware that perhaps the greatest tragedy is the “othering” of those who have contributed so much as Asian Americans. Choi gives us not only Asian American histories, but also histories of the United States that both confront us with our failures to live up to our highest ideals and the opportunities before us to do so.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Black Hands, White House

Black Hands, White House, Renee K. Harrison. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of how enslaved peoples played a major role in the building of this country and the need to remember that work in our monuments and by other means.

A number of histories have detailed the slave experience in America. What is unique about this history is that it seeks to give an account of the contribution enslaved Blacks made to the building of this country and its economy. Not only that, it seeks to tell the story of people, often by name who made that contribution while enslaved. The author believes they need to be remembered for their important role. They are a part of America’s history and are worthy to be included.

The author begins with an overview of the economic impact enslaved Blacks made in the country especially through the production of tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar. She also lists six pages of companies and institutions that benefited from American slavery, or directly from slave labor. These include the government — slaves built many of Washington’s buildings and infrastructure. Insurance companies insured slaves for their owners, various banks accepted slaves as collateral or owned slaves, newspapers advertised slave sales, universities were funded by slave owners and some used slave labor in their construction, railroads rented slave labor, mines employed slaves–even churches and seminaries owned slaves and used slave labor.

Succeeding chapters chronicle the role slaves played in specific building projects. Mount Vernon’s buildings and tobacco and wheat crops depended on slaves. The author lists the names and values of slaves inherited by or subsequently hired by Washington and their trades, spouses, and enslaved children. At least 150 are buried in unmarked graves there.

Benjamin Banneker, a free black son of a slave was a self taught astronomer who was part of the survey team laying out boundaries, his role being to place the boundary markers for the new capital city. Slaves fired and laid many of the bricks and cut and hauled much of the stone for buildings in Washington. Slave markets often existed in the shadow of builds rising as shrines to democracy and freedom.

Both the White House and Capitol building were built with slave labor–and slaves re-built the White House after it was burned in the War of 1812. Of the first eighteen presidents, only two never owned slaves and publicly opposed slavery. Eight brought slaves they owned into the White House, four others owned slaves but did not have them at the White House. Four others, including Lincoln, did not own slaves but had ambiguous positions on slavery.

A similar story may be told of the Capitol. On page 175, the author lists 100 people who were “rented” for the construction of the Capitol building, a partial list. Philip Reid, a slave from Charleston, South Carolina, figured out how to cast Clark Mills Statue of Freedom in sections and install it atop the Capitol dome. His owner received most of the wages, apart from $41.25, for his work.

She goes on to describe slave involvement in the construction of the Supreme Court building, the Treasury building, the Smithsonian castle, Georgetown University, and the Library of Congress. At the core of the Library is the collection of Thomas Jefferson’s library. John Hemings fashioned the pine bookshelves and the portable book boxes in which the books were transported, Burwell Colbert painted the carriage that transported the books and Joseph Fossett fashioned the ironwork on the carriage.

Harrison believes it is past time to recognize in our nation’s monuments, particularly on the National Mall, the history of slavery, the vast machine of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the contribution that peoples forcibly removed from their own countries made in ours. She chronicles the inadequate attempt to do so with the Freedman’s Memorial, funded by former slaves but appropriated by white directors who chose the design, Abraham Lincoln towering over a kneeling slave who had been freed. Frederick Douglass, in a speech at its dedication, acknowledged the bravery associated with Emancipation but also the white self-interest.

The author describes the memorial as a pattern of absolution without accountability that has run from the end of the Civil War to the relatives of the Charleston Nine. A monument alone will not satisfy all the needs for accountability but a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers would mark a beginning–a tribute to their labors that also helped build our country, a remembrance of the people whose names and work are often absent from the pages of our histories. It’s part of a larger conversation of acknowledgement of harm and accountability and appropriate restitution without which our national wounds associated with slavery and racism cannot be healed.

This is a compelling history that moves beyond the indignities done to Black bodies to the dignity of their work, already evident in many of our national landmarks. They nourished the economy of an infant nation. I thought the idea of a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers was quite appropriate. I was surprised to find no way to help with the funding of such an effort or petition for such a monument. The University of Virginia was the only place (one mentioned in her list of institutions) where such a thing has been done. I could find no website to advocate for a national memorial. I hope the author will persist and find others to mobilize a national effort toward this end, one worthy of the many she has written of by name and the many nameless others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The British Are Coming

The British Are Coming (The Revolution Trilogy [Volume 1]), Rick Atkinson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

Summary: A history of the first two years (1775-1777) of the American Revolution, discussing the causes, personalities, and key battles.

This is the first volume of Rick Atkinson’s proposed Revolution Trilogy. Based on my reading of this volume, I look forward to reading the next two. Atkinson skillfully manages to interweave accounts of the various British and American figures, and battles from Quebec to Charleston, South Carolina without confusing this reader or losing him in minutiae. Yet one has a sense of “being there” at Lexington, Quebec, Boston, Charleston, New York City, and Trenton and Princeton. We sense how insufferably certain of himself and earnest to flex his power George III is, and how subtle and skilled Franklin is in cultivating the support of a reluctant French court.

I discovered what a near run thing it was that Quebec almost became a fourteenth colony, save for Carleton’s determined defense and the critical shortages of manpower to win the decisive battle. I learned that Benedict Arnold, before his capture, was probably the most brilliant military leader in the colonists’ cause. The feat of his march into Canada alone established his ability to lead and overcome the impossible.

I almost found myself turning my nose as I read about conditions in American camps and that desertions and illness took more than the enemy. And I came to understand as never before how hard Washington had to work to just hold together a cohesive fighting force.

More significant was to see Washington’s evolution as a commander, particularly after his failure to grasp the topography of Long Island, and his misbegotten defensive attempts to hold New York. Victory, not in battle, but in establishing a superior position in Boston failed to teach the crucial lessons both of dispositions of his forces and the folly of trying to defend New York against a superior British force. Finally he realized that his most important task was to ensure the survival of his army while maintaining morale. His lightning strikes against Trenton and Princeton reflected a growing understanding of the need to fight as he could rather than as the British wanted him to, in which he could not succeed.

The other thing that became clear in the reading was that military superiority of the British was no match for the geography of the colonies. The end of this volume shows them controlling only two ports and a radius of geography in New York and New Jersey. The defeat in Charleston showed the British were not invincible when Americans fought from a position of strength, led by the flamboyant Charles Lee.

Atkinson combines lively narrative organized around the campaigns of 1775, 1776, and the first part of 1777 with well-drawn maps and helpful illustrations throughout the text. While the political efforts of the colonies are discussed as they enter in, this is first and foremost, a military history. Even Franklin’s efforts both in Canada (a failure) and France (a growing success) centered around military supplies. Along the way, we learn of many young men, both officers and rank and file who entertained hopes of a family and a bright future only to die either instantly, or in slow, painful death of wounds or illnesses in the camps. The story of every war was no less true in the inception of this country. The follies that refused to see a greater vision of birthing a new nation that might become a strong trading partner, would sadly become the story of colonialism over the next two centuries. And it would be the source of the “butcher’s bill” to be paid in blood over the next years of the war.

Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Summary: The story of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago juxtaposed with that of a psychopathic murderer, H. H. Holmes, pursuing his sinister seduction of young women within blocks of the fair.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris captured the attention of the world, not the least for the engineering feat that dominated the vista of this world’s fair, the Eiffel Tower. Not to be done, the United States wanted its own fair and settled on a Columbian Exposition beginning in October 1892 and running through the warm months of 1893. A number of cities were in the running. In the end, Chicago won, and with less that two years to go, had to stage the fair. Two men, noted building architect, Daniel T. Burnham and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted led the effort to turn derelict parkland into a showplace surpassing the Exposition in Paris. Burnham was responsible for the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station, among other architectural wonders. Olmsted was the mind behind Central Park and numerous parks around the country.

Meanwhile, a truly demonic individual had taken up residence in Englewood, within blocks of Jackson Park, the eventual site of the fair. A medical school graduate from the University of Michigan who left unexplained trouble wherever he traveled found a pharmacy where he could assist, and when the husband died, buy the pharmacy from the wife, who was said to have moved to California but was never heard from again. This was the first of a number of disappearances, mostly of women who had been won by the courtly manners, placid blue eyes, and touches of H. H. Holmes, one of many aliases used by Herman Webster Muggett.

Like many of Erik Larson’s works, the story of the visionary genius of Burnham and Olmsted, and the evil genius of Holmes are told side-by-side. Burnham was the exposition’s director, and his first challenge was to assemble the architectural genius of the country to build the various exhibition halls of the fair, subduing personal rivalries and vanities to get them to design aesthetically beautiful but temporary structures. It was his decision to paint all of them white, creating the “White City” that contrasted with the black city of Chicago to the north, casting a vision for the future city. Olmsted, who thought of landscaping projects in terms of years, had to do this in months, much of it after construction equipment from around buildings was removed, creating walkways and the central lagoon pictured below.

By C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham – The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Two further factors exacerbated the challenges they faced. One was an economic depression with bank failures and joblessness that threatened attendance. The other was difficult relations with Chicago’s labor unions. Then there was the continuing challenge to erect a comparable structure to Eiffel’s Tower. Various hare-brained schemes were proposed until an engineer by the name of Ferris from Pittsburgh proposed building a huge wheel from which cars would be suspended. As it went up, it looked as if one good wind could knock it over. One of the highlights of the story is the account of a tornadic storm that barely shook it.

While the fair didn’t exceed the Exposition Universelle in attendance, it came close, and might have if not for the Sabbatarians who kept the fair closed on Sunday. In addition to Ferris’s engineering feat, Edison’s incandescent bulbs lit the White City at night, powered by alternating current, a first on a large scale. The fair gave also gave us Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat.

Meanwhile Holmes worked his evil in Englewood, erecting his “castle,” a dreary hotel with ground floor businesses, and some very strange features, like an airtight room and a specially designed kiln. Many women disappeared during the exposition, drawn to the newness and freedom of Chicago and inspired by the White City. It is not known how many fell prey to Holmes seductions. Larson focuses in on the deaths of Minnie and Anna Williams, Emeline Cigrand, and his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel and three of his children. Even these may not have come to light were it not for the dogged investigation of a Detective Geyer.

I find fascinating the technique of Larson’s to tell an inspiring story of noble vision next to one of unspeakable evil. Each could well be told separately and have been. To tell these stories together is to remind us that the distance between nobility and evil is never great. Even the fair’s ending points to the hubris of forgetting this reality. During the closing speech, Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. spoke of expecting to live another fifty years. That night, at his home, a disappointed and crazed office seeker, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, assassinated him. Larson weaves these stories together in a way both historically accurate and alternately fascinating and disturbing.

Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021.

Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person.

Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country.

Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government.

James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition.

Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage?

I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

Review: Ages of American Capitalism

Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States, Jonathan Levy. New York: Random House, (Forthcoming, April 20,) 2021.

Summary: An economic history of the United States, dividing the history into ages of commerce, capital, control, and chaos.

I received an early e-galley of this book and by the time I worked through this massive tome, I thought it would be in print. Perhaps because of publishing delays, it won’t be out until April 20 of next year. If you want to read a history of the United States from an economic perspective, pre-order this book now.

Jonathan Levy covers the period from 1660 up until the present. He divides this history up into four ages. If you cannot remember all the economic developments, charts, booms and recessions, you need to remember just four words: commerce, capital, control, chaos.

The Age of Commerce spans the period of 1660 to 1860. The focus of this period, from the early colonies to the election of Lincoln focuses on trade, often the surplus of household economies exchanged for other needed commodities. One particular feature of American commerce was the “portable capital” of slavery, creating booms of sugar, tobacco, and cotton. One of the critical questions of this period was whether Hamilton’s centralized banking-fueled economy or Jefferson’s agrarian Empire of Liberty would prevail. Northern and Southern versions of commerce, the beginnings of an industrial society in the northeast and old northwest, and the slave economy of the south, laid the groundwork for the divisions leading up to the Civil War.

The Age of Capital spans the period from 1860 to 1932. The Civil War spelled the end of slave capital and led to a new period of industrial capital, first in the explosive growth of railroads, and then the illiquid capital of industrial production. All of this was made possible by the use of fossil fuels. One of the most fascinating chapters in this section, that illustrates the fusion of all these factors, is that on “Fordism.” The age was marked by cycles of boom and bust. A return to the gold standard in the 1920’s resulted first in a great boom, and then the greatest bust, the beginning of the Great Depression.

The inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt also opened The Age of Control. Levy delimits this as the years of 1932 until 1980, ending with the economic shocks of the late 1970’s. Levy uses the language of “control” because that was the focus of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The critical thing was to deploy capital, employing breadwinners through infrastructure development programs, and providing income security through Social Security. Ultimately the war economy ended the depression as government funds were invested in war production. This was followed by the consumerism of the 1950’s, a fascinating chapter on the development of the post-war economy into which I was born. That began to unravel in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, particularly as OPEC controlled the price of oil at high levels, triggering the painful combination of high inflation and high unemployment we came to know as “stagflation.”

From 1980 to the present is Jonathan Levy’s The Age of Chaos. Things started with the “Volcker Shock,” a policy of high interest rates to bring down inflation (we bought our first house with the help of a determined realtor in this crazy period). Many of the promises of Reagan never materialized but the value of the dollar soared. Income growth shifted from labor to owners of property, whether real estate or stocks, an economy built less on production than speculation and an increasing disparity between laborers and those in the service economy, and investors. Home ownership was encouraged, with the granting of increasingly risky mortgages, bundled into investment instruments guaranteed by the big investment houses. In 2008 it all came crashing down, only to be put back together in the Obama administration with assets continuing to grow in value until the pandemic.

We are left wondering what will come next. While assets seem to grow, many see little growth in income. We face what may be an existential necessity to transition from the fossil-fueled economy. Levy believes we are at a place of reckoning. Will we keep repeating history, especially the recent history of Chaos? He proposes that this history is important to know as we determine our economic course in the future. I also think it critical in making sense of our past and how we’ve gotten to this place. Understanding the role of economics in historical events like the tensions leading to the civil war raises a question about the contemporary fault lines in our society. How do we make sense of our urban, suburban, and rural economies? Is this at all connected to our islands of blue in seas of red in so many parts of the country? I’m not persuaded that economics are the only factor but I also wonder if we cannot understand our history and contemporary social fabric without it. I’ve not seen anyone do quite what this book does, and the author has a good case for the importance of what he has done.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unsettling Truths

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.