Review: The Pioneers

The Pioneers

The PioneersDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: An account of the first European-Americans to settle the Northwest Territory, focused on their settlement at Marietta, the challenges they faced, key figures in the town’s early history, and three important conditions they established in the new territory.

I’ve long been a fan of the work of David McCullough. So it was only natural to pick up this latest work of his. Little did I realize that the focus of this work was on the settlement of the first town in my home state, indeed, all of the Northwest Territory. I suspect that many Ohioans are unaware that the scenic little town on the Ohio River in southeast Ohio, Marietta, was the first settlement of European-Americans in Ohio and the Northwest Territory.

The story begins with a minister, Manasseh Cutler and some of his friends, including General Rufus Putnam, who helped in forming the Ohio Company. When the Revolutionary War ended, the British ceded the Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota) to the United States. McCullough tells the story of the critical influence of Cutler on the drafting of the ordinance for the governance of the Northwest Territory in establishing three conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and the prohibition of slavery.

While Cutler remained in Massachusetts except for a brief visit to the settlement, General Putnam led the initial expedition that established the settlement. One of Cutler’s sons, Jervis, was reputedly the first to set foot on the land. Putnam was critical to the first years of the settlement and McCullough describes his leadership in laying out the town, creating the fortification known as Campus Martius,  when the Native peoples arose against the influx of new settlers, while preserving pre-historic mounds within the fortification.

Between attacks of the Native peoples, their depredations on wild life on which the colonists depended for food, and illness, the settlement struggled in the early years of its existence. The eventual defeat the Native peoples, and removal combined with the solidarity of the settlers in their struggle for survival resulted in the endurance and growth of the town.

McCullough tells the story of the established settlement through focusing on the lives of four individuals: Putnam, Ephraim Cutler (another of Manasseh’s sons, Samuel Hildreth, and Joseph Barker. Putnam gave leadership to the settlement. Cutler served a critical role in representing Marietta in the new capitol of Ohio, Columbus, translating the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance into reality: maintaining religious freedom, making provision throughout the state for universal free education, and resisting efforts to establish slavery in Ohio. Cutler was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University, and also Marietta College.

Samuel Hildreth was a physician, and along with his son, saw to the medical needs of the people, particularly through epidemics of influenza, small pox, and yellow fever. Survival rates under his care were higher than elsewhere, attesting to his skills and devotion to his patients.  He was an early leader of the Physicians Society of Ohio, and also kept journals and drawings of nature observations that qualify him as one of Ohio’s first naturalists. Joseph Barker was the builder and architect of Marietta, responsible for many public buildings and private residences, as well as the ill-fated Blennerhassett mansion on nearby Blennerhassett Island. The dream home of Harman Blennerhassett and his wife was caught up in the conspiracies of Aaron Burr against the United States, to the great loss of the Blennerhassetts.

McCullough’s account has been criticized for primarily looking at the challenges faced by the European-Americans who settled the Ohio country, and not those faced by the Native peoples who already occupied this land. McCullough shows cognizance of these issues in describing the motivating concerns of the aggression of Native peoples as they witness the large numbers of settlers with a very different idea of land ownership coming onto lands they occupied, the courageous and often skilled warfare they fought under leaders like Tecumseh, and the sadness of the eventual removals of these peoples. More than this would have resulted in a much longer and less focused narrative. What I think McCullough might have done is discuss the notable omission of the Northwest Ordinance to address the just treatment of the Native peoples and how their presence would be acknowledged and govern settlement patterns and practices. He addresses the positive distinctives, but not this critical omission. The assumption was that if you could survey it, you could occupy it, one reason why Native peoples especially targeted surveyors. Two very different ideas about land ownership clashed here and throughout the country, without a just resolution.

Nevertheless, I found this a fascinating study of the key figures in this book, and the early history of the settlement of my state. Ohio eventually played a key role in the Underground Railroad movement. The fight to prohibit slavery made the state a haven for fugitive slaves enroute to Canada (there is some evidence that the Cutler family even played a part in this). It was an early pioneer of public and higher education, the home of the McGuffey Reader and a network of public and private colleges throughout the state of which Ohio University and Marietta College were the earliest. McCullough gives us a narrative of the character, courage, and enterprise of these pioneers who not only survived but profoundly transformed the Ohio country during their lives.

Review: The American Spirit

The American Spirit

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Summary: A collection of addresses given by the author articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best.

David McCullough has been one of those authors whose books I always make a point to pick up whenever a new one comes out. I was tempted to make an exception with this one, not usually being drawn to read transcripts of speeches. When I found it at a good discount, I took the plunge and I am glad I did.

The thread that links these speeches, given between 1989 and 2016 is what truly makes America great. McCullough would contend that it is the people and the democratic ideas and ideals and the working out of these, that have defined our greatness.  He assembled this collection during the contentious presidential race of 2016, and it is striking that he bookends the collection with speeches discussing the history of congress, and the Capitol building where it does its work. He highlights the distinguished figures who inhabited those halls from John Quincy Adams, former president and ardent anti-slavery advocate to Margaret Chase Smith, who in her first term stood up to Joseph McCarthy, and landmark legislation including the Morrill Land Grant Act establishing public tertiary education in the growing post-Civil War nation. McCullough highlights the collaboration across the political aisle that marked great legislative accomplishments, a challenge to both of our political parties.

A number of the speeches are college commencement addresses. A common theme here was McCullough’s affirmation of the aspirations of his listeners, and his encouragements that they become life long readers, including readers of our nation’s history. To Boston College grads in a speech titled “The Love of Learning” he writes:

“Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history of science and medicine and ideas.

Read for pleasure to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first rate murder mystery. But take seriously–read closely–books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again (pp. 147-148).”

Couldn’t have said it better!

In every address, it is plain that McCullough has taken some time to look into the history of the place where he is speaking. Given my Ohio roots, I found it fascinating to read his speech at Ohio University and his sketch of the life of Manasseh Cutler, who was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University in 1804. Cutler was a minister, doctor, and lawyer wrapped up in one. Most significantly, perhaps, he was instrumental in lobbying Congress in the creation of the Northwest Ordinance, creating the Ohio company to sell the land and setting aside significant tracts to create universities, including Ohio University. In the end, the ordinance declared:

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and means of education shall be forever encouraged.”

A number of the addresses reflect the high estimation in which McCullough holds John Adams. He recounts two sentences of a letter Adams wrote on his first night in the White House, that are now inscribed in the mantelpiece of the State Dining Room:

“I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

While McCullough refrains from overt criticism either of Congress or the White House, his narrative of the people and ideas that have “made America great” stands as an implicit challenge both to our leaders and to us as citizens, first to understand the ideas and ideals that have distinguished us at our best, and then to live up to them rather than depart from them.

This pithy collection of speeches, accompanied by a number of striking photo of people and places serves well to whet the appetite to read more into our history, both to learn from and be inspired by it.

Review: The Greater Journey


The Greater Journey: Americans in ParisDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Summary: Vignettes of the waves of Americans who came to Paris as writers, artists, medical students, musicians, politicians, diplomats, and members of the cultured elite, and the profound impact the “City of Light” had on their lives.

Before An American in Paris was a George Gershwin composition, it was a reality for generations of Americans who played culture-shaping roles on both sides of the Atlantic. Historian and biographer David McCullough combines these two genres in a history of the Americans who took the risky journey to Europe, and a “greater journey” culturally and intellectually during their time in Paris.

The book is organized chronologically beginning in the 1820’s and the journeys of James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., lawyer and later abolitionist Charles Sumner up through the 1890’s with Henry Adams and sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. Some lived in Paris just a few years, some, like artist George A.P. Healey for most of their adult lives. All were profoundly touched by Paris. Sumner, living among students from Africa while pursuing studies in the Sorbonne, came to realize these people were his intellectual equals, and became an abolitionist. Later, after being caned by southern congressman Preston Brooks following a fiery anti-slavery speech, Sumner found Paris the one place that could calm his shattered nerves and restore his physical well-being.

Many came to study medicine in Paris including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Henry Bowditch. Most determined of all was Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first women physician in America. Americans braved the dangers of a typhoid epidemic and learned the most advanced, and yet by modern standards, primitive methods of surgery.

The artists found special inspiration, studying with masters and reproducing the masterpieces they found in the Louvre. Most striking is the story of Samuel F. B. Morse, who painted a giant painting of a room in the Louvre with selected masterpieces. This is the same Morse who eventually invented the telegraph. In a later period, we read the story of Mary Cassatt, who joins the impressionists, and paints striking works of domestic scenes with family members as her subjects. The works of John Singer Sargent won acclaim in Paris, culminating in the controversial Madame X, a life-size portrait of Madame Gautreau, a striking woman with dark hair and deathly white skin. It was in Paris where Augustus Saint Gaudens executed statues of David Farragut and William Sherman and many others that are the most distinctive public sculptures in New York and other cities (including a statue of Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago.

Perhaps most striking for me was the narrative of the courageous efforts of American ambassador Elihu Washburne during the seige of Paris. Washburne stayed throughout, and because of the diary he kept, provided a narrative of his efforts to secret refugees as well as Americans out of the country, intercede on behalf of prisoners, and provide food and other assistance in an increasingly famine-ridden city. One short entry typifies his exertions:

“December 15. 89th day of the siege….Went to the Legation this P.M. at two o’clock. The ante room was filled with poor German women asking aid. I am now giving succor to more than six hundred women and children.”

His presence throughout the siege and fall of Paris, and his diary mark him as one of the very greatest of American ambassadors, and a more than worthy successor to Franklin, John Adams, and Jefferson.

I’ve read some reviews of this book that criticize it for its multitude of characters and problems of continuity. I did not find this a problem because the common theme that runs through was the profound impact Paris had on all of these figures and how so many of their culture-shaping and making contributions trace back to the unique milieu of Paris. In addition, McCullough’s skill in sketching out the unique character of each of these individuals as well as the community they often formed with each other as well as Parisian friends and mentor. One thinks of similar places like New York at certain times, and the artistic communities as diverse as those in Harlem and Greenwich Village. What McCullough does here is trace an influential artistic and intellectual community over the course of nearly a century, through vicissitudes of plague and political upheaval continuing to be a “City of Light” to so many who came to her. I don’t think McCullough answers the question of why, but perhaps that is the mystique of Paris.



A past snowstorm in Columbus, January 25, 2014

A number of my friends spent this past weekend “sheltering in place” as Winter Storm Jonas (what a cool idea to name snowstorms!) blew through the Ohio Valley and up the east coast. This one missed us by less than 50 miles. We had flurries but no accumulations in beautiful Columbus.

One of the delicious things about being snowbound is the thought of some extended time to curl up with some good books and a warm drink while the snow flies outside (at least as long as the power stays on!). Digging out comes soon enough. Time now to savor that delicious thought of what to read during those extended hours.

So I was thinking, what books would I like to be stuck with in a snow storm? In this case, I decided to answer the question by looking through my TBR stack and picking some that looked most interesting. Here are five I wouldn’t mind being stuck with for a few days:

Last LionFlourishingNine TailorsFools TalkGreater journey

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid. I’ve waited for years for the final volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, covering World War 2 and the years following. Hopefully Reid preserved Manchester’s magnificent style.

Flourishing, by Miroslav Volf. He explores the importance of religion in a globalized world. I like the idea that someone doesn’t see religion as a problem and I’ve appreciated the other books he’s written even when we don’t agree.

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. One of the few mysteries of Sayers I haven’t read!

Fool’s Talkby Os Guinness. I’ve appreciated Guinness’s work since I read The Dust of Death during my student days forty years ago. This was a 2016 Christianity Today award winner and explores the question of how one might speak persuasively in the best sense of the word with regard to matters of faith. And yes, he is from that Guinness family. Now there is a thought, Guinness and Guinness!

The Greater Journey, by David McCullough. I have loved everything McCullough has written and I suspect this book about “Americans in Paris” will be no exception.

It would have to be some snow storm to finish all these books, particularly the Churchill book. The thought of getting started in each of these books is fun though. And truth is, you might see these in my reviews sometime this year anyway, snow storm or not!

OK, so my tastes may be different from yours. What books would you like to have with you if you were snowbound?

Review: The Wright Brothers

Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Summary: McCullough traces the Wright brothers successful efforts to develop the first powered aircraft to successfully, fly from their home town bicycle shop in Dayton, to their trials at Kitty Hawk, to their global success. The book also highlights the importance of their sister Katherine throughout their efforts.

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” –Wilbur Wright

The story is a famous one and yet masterfully told by biographer and historian David McCullough, who once again has turned archival work into a vivid narrative of the beginnings of powered flight. He traces the Wright brothers from their childhood, including Wilbur’s facial injuries, which led to a period of voracious reading, and Orville’s nearly fatal brush with typhoid fever to the beginnings of their bicycle shop, Wilbur’s letter to the Smithsonian to collect information about attempts at flight, to their tests at Kitty Hawk, first of gliders to learn wing design and lateral stabilizers, to their first powered plane flights. What is remarkable is that the brothers spent less than $1000, and all of it their own money, to accomplish this. By contrast, Samuel Langley spent $70,000, much of it government money, in an attempt that ended in the Potomac River.

The second half of the book details their attempts to convince governments of the success of their efforts, while continuing to refine their machines. One of the most interesting aspects of this narrative were the efforts of Katherine, their Oberlin-educated school teacher sister, on their behalf. From managing the bicycle shop with its fractious but gifted mechanic Charles Taylor to nursing Orville after a crash during a demonstration flight at Fort Myers to caring for an aging father and consulting on the business, Katherine played a key role in the success of the Wrights.

There was what seemed a bittersweet end to all this, as Wilbur dies of typhoid shortly after returning from Europe in 1912, exhausted from training flyers and fighting patent suits. Orville manages better, eventually selling the company and living with Katherine and the Bishop in a mansion in the Dayton suburb of Oakwood. But he witnessed the plane he helped invent used as a new weapon of devastation, as well as in commercial flight.

Several things seemed to contribute to the Wright’s success beyond their parentage and being born in Ohio.

1. They developed skills in making and improving machines in printing and cycling business, learning how to machine parts and work with materials.

2. They knew how to work hard, and yet they rigorously observed the sabbath. At Kitty Hawk, they first built (and re-built after storms) their own hanger, then assembled the plane, sewing the wing fabric, and then conducted the tests. Then they returned to Dayton to manufacture their next season’s supply of bicycles in their own machine shop.

3. They were rigorous experimentalists. In contrast to others like Octave Chanute, they did not simply theorize about flight. They rigorously tested designs, first as kites, then in a homemade wind tunnel, and finally through lots of time in the air learning about the issues of keeping equilibrium in the air and developing proper control mechanisms to do that. Wilbur Wright once said, “No bird soars in a calm.”

4. They had an integrity that didn’t make claims that couldn’t be substantiated by demonstrations. They worked out of the limelight, and with their own funds, and avoided publicity until they had both designed a plane that anyone could be trained to fly, and that flew reliably. At times this meant facing the skepticism of even hometown folks and the U.S government as to what they actually had accomplished.

What is fascinating is that they accomplished all of this with only a high school education, and mostly on the basis of their own resources. McCullough, who has written biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, and narratives of the Johnstown Flood, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, has once again given us a vivid portrait both of these two brothers, and their extraordinary sister, from Dayton, and a monumental human accomplishment. This is a great summer read!

What I’m Reading — June 2015

I’m in kind of a crunch right now between back to back trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. So this post will be briefer, and perhaps not so carefully crafted as some. Just thought I’d catch you up on what i’m reading right now and my reactions as I’m in the midst of several books.

Private Doubt, Public DilemmaJust started Keith Thomson’s Private Doubt, Public Dilemma, which I downloaded from Netgalley. Looks like an interesting exploration on the religion and science front, exploring cutting edge issues in the biosciences. This is taken from a Yale lecture series. A bit curious why his primary inspirations are Jefferson and Darwin and where that will go. I actually think one of the more interesting American figures to deal with religion-science issues was B.B. Warfield.

GrassrootsGrassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up by Simon Chan is trying to do just what the title suggests. He wants to explore Asian contributions to Christian theology, not by listening to academics, Asian or otherwise, but rather the people who make up Asian churches, Christians on the ground in these cultures. What a novel idea. Just getting into it. Chan is a bit of a dense read, but I’m intrigued!

The Wright BrothersI’ve loved everything David McCullough has written and am finding The Wright Brothers no exception. Interesting fact that I discovered was that the Wright’s spent less than $1000, and all of that their own money, to get the point of putting a plane in the sky at Kitty Hawk. A government project costing $70,000 ended up a terrible failure in the Potomac! I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but McCullough tells a riveting tale!

Words of LifeTimothy Ward’s Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God gives a contemporary, yet reformed perspective on the doctrine of the scripture. The novel thing is that he doesn’t start from systematics but from the Bible itself. He also draws on “speech-act” theory, which understands scripture as a type of divine speech act. I’ve seen caricatures of reformed thinking about scripture set up as straw men and destroyed. It would be better for critics to take on thoughtful writers like Ward.

An All Around MinistryFinally, our Dead Theologians reading group is discussing a collection of Charles Spurgeon sermons under the title An All-Around Ministry. These were given at a series of pastors conferences Spurgeon helped host. They sparkle with wit and contain much wise counsel for any in ministry.

That’s what’s on my book stand at present. Stay tuned for reviews at a blog near you!

Mr. President

I am in the midst of reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris and thoroughly enjoying it! My hunch is that you have to be a terrible writer to write a boring biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He was interesting from childhood! This is the first of a three volume effort by Morris and I am delighted to say that the other two are waiting on my “to be read” stack!

rise of roosevelt

It seems that this is a wonderful time if you are a lover of presidential biographies. Of course, we had the recent PBS series on the Roosevelts (it is really just a happy coincidence that the Morris biographies came to the top of the stack at this time!). It also happens that Doris Kearns Goodwin has written on Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in The Bully Pulpit, a book I received for Christmas that comes next after the Morris bios. I happen to love everything Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about from her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to Abraham Lincoln in Team of RivalsFor those fascinated by all things Roosevelt, she also wrote about FDR and Eleanor in an earlier book, No Ordinary Time.

Moving beyond the Roosevelts, there are a host of wonderful biographies that have appeared in the last ten years or so. First to come to mind are David McCullough’s biographies of Truman and John Adams. I happen to think the biography of Truman is the better of the two in exploring the character of this president who emerged from the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, even though Adams probably had the more interesting life. Not too long ago I read and reviewed Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams. John Quincy struggled in the shadow of his father but was a child prodigy, an ambassador in six countries, was a one-term president like his father, went on to congress, and argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court. He died in the House. He was probably one of our most distinguished ex-Presidents. I’ve read several biographies of Thomas Jefferson but still think the best was Dumas Malone’s six volume study of Jefferson and His Time.

I could go on and on but perhaps the interesting question I ask myself is “why the fascination with presidential biographies?” At least for me I don’t think there is a single reason. One is a certain interest in leadership and how it may be exercised both well and badly. We certainly have examples of both in our presidential history! Another is that American presidential biographies are really American history with skin on it! I’ve read both extensively but to understand both the influences and limits presidents faced in trying to shape events is instructive. It took even a Lincoln three years to find a general in Grant who would fight, and it also took a Lincoln to hold the North to its task in the absence of a Grant.

Perhaps I read these, even as I read history more generally to understand how we get here. The actions of Presidents past have shaped the Presidency now. Sometimes, I think there is a bit of a longing as well that we might find one like one of the “great” presidents of the past to fill the office. Reading the bios and the history, it seems that somehow, the greatest of presidents occupied the office at the most perilous junctures in our history. Is it that ordinary people rise to extraordinary heights in such times? Or is it a kind of divine providence that we might pray for as the need faces us? One thing is clear is that there have also been mediocrities in the office and if we are praying people, we can pray to be delivered of such folk, particularly in perilous times.

What are your favorite presidential biographies? And why do you like reading them?