Review: Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival, Walter Stahr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Summary: A biography tracing the life of this public figure who was a contender along with Lincoln for the presidency and who played a vital role in his cabinet, and then as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

He was one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination for president in 1860 and served in his cabinet, financing the Union war effort as the Secretary of the Treasury. But there was far more to the life of this public servant that makes him well worth the full length biography Walter Stahr has given us.

Born a New Englander and Dartmouth educated, after reading for the bar exam, he moved to Cincinnati and was strongly identified with Ohio’s politics thereafter. From Cincinnati’s leading attorney, he served twice in the U.S. Senate from Ohio and four years as Ohio’s governor. From defending fugitive slaves to becoming one of the leading anti-slavery advocates of the day, Chase sought to curb the spread of slavery and was far out in front of Lincoln and almost every white of his day in his advocacy for the equality of Blacks, not only arguing for their freedom but for their rights to vote and fully participate in society. It was one of the factors that cost him the presidential nomination

Setting aside his own ambitions, he campaigned vigorously for Lincoln in 1860, and then answered Lincoln’s call to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Not only did he find the resources through loans and taxes to finance the war effort, he reformed the country’s banking system and gave us a common currency rather than the myriad of banknotes issued by different banks. He employed women to work in the treasury. His advice to Lincoln went beyond the nation’s finances to counselling the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864, he set aside presidential ambitions once again to accept Lincoln’s nomination to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice, a role that would be critical in post-war cases on the rights of Blacks, America’s financial system, and the relation of the states to the Union. He would preside over the first presidential impeachment in U.S. history, helping establish precedents followed in more recent impeachments after his efforts to save Johnson from himself failed.

At least three things stood out to me in Stahr’s biography. One is that Chase is worthy to be considered America’s William Wilberforce. His anti-slavery advocacy was early and never wavered, though often disregarded or thwarted. Second, he was deeply acquainted with tragedy, burying three wives and several children and the unhappy marriage of his daughter Katherine. Third, was that he was a man of deep religious faith, that undergirded his efforts and sustained him in loss.

All of this makes Chase one of the most noteworthy public servants of this period in American history, despite an odd first name that Chase counseled his daughter not to pass on. Stahr portrays Chase as a man of ambition and yet not an overweening ambition. He both recognized when the first place would go to others and also when the public good required setting aside his private ambitions. Although he had no role in its founding, Chase bank bears his name in recognition of the important role he played in the nation’s finances and banking system.

He died comparatively young at age 65. But it was a life well and fully lived, as Stahr’s biography attests. He was a workhorse in the nation’s service, whether in criss-crossing the country during campaigns, working tirelessly during the war, or writing more opinions than his fellow justices and covering a large circuit when this was part of a justice’s duties. Above all, he was a champion of liberty, for fully realizing the ideals of the nation articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration, for Blacks and for women.

Review: Barnstorming Ohio

Barnstorming Ohio To Understand America, David Giffels. New York: Hachette Books, 2020.

Summary: The author recounts a year of traveling Ohio, always a political bellweather, to understand America.

David Giffels lives in Akron, just down Interstate 76 from my hometown of Youngstown, which features prominently in his new book. Both of us have lived our lives in Ohio, so reading this felt like inside baseball. What Giffels did in the writing of this book is travel throughout the state, talking to a wide variety of people. He contends that in doing so, this does not just reveal Ohio, it reveals the country, of which Ohio is a microcosm:

Geographically and culturally, the state is an all-American buffet, an uncannily complete everyplace. Cleveland is the end of the north, Cincinnati is the beginning of the South, Youngstown is the end of the East, and Hicksville (yes, Hicksville) is the beginning of the Midwest. Across eighty-eight counties, Ohio mashes up broad regions of farmland, major industrial centers, small towns, the third-largest university in the country, the second largest Amish population, and a bedraggled vein of Appalachia. It is coastal, it is rural, it is urban, and suburban. (p. 5)

That about captures it, although I would add that Columbus, where I now live, is home of the second largest Somali population in the U.S.

He begins by profiling Jim Renner, a former factory worker, then a business owner, someone who over time shifted in loyalty from the Democratic party to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. His story sounds like that of many disaffected Democrats who believed they had been ignored.

His travels take him to Lordstown, after GM shut down the plant and the struggles of workers, promised a recovery by the president, waiting to see what the company would offer in the way of employment at another plant. He talks about why Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown so perfectly captures the pain of so many workers. He visits Mansfield, interviewing an indie bookstore owner leading an effort to repopulate the downtown with businesses (a store that is closing as I write). He chronicles a growing craft beer business and the resurgent Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati.

He returns to Youngstown in time for Congressman Tim Ryan’s announcement of his presidential bid, attempting to be a voice for the voiceless. He shifts to Hilliard, Ohio, outside Columbus, and a group of women going to the Women’s March. Then, we’re back home learning more of his son’s story, from fireman to policeman, on the front line of fighting Ohio’s opiate crisis. He jumps over to the demise of a local shopping mall and others, including one we regularly shopped at when we lived in Cleveland, now an Amazon fulfillment center.

Then another Ohio. Agricultural Ohio with a farmer outside Delaware, Ohio, struggling with changing weather patterns making it difficult to plant his fields. This is the Ohio where the awards come in the form of bumper crops, and fresh corn on the cob. Like the Lordstown workers, he wants to be heard, he wants Washington leadership to know where things are made and grown in “flyover” country.

Back to Youngstown, he invokes a recent legend of Valley politics–Jim Traficant–bad hair, vulgar mouth, loud clothes, fighting for the worker, and taking a little on the side, the name of the game in Youngstown politics. It helps explain how Mahoning County nearly went Republican and Trumbull County to the north did. He chronicles the sputtering end the campaign of Tim Ryan, Traficant’s protege.

Remaining months take him back to Cincinnati where he meets the former mayor and learns of policing reforms. He hangs out at a Renaissance Fair near Dayton, visits a fading Ohio River town, learning why some hang on and the hope fracking offers. He strikes a positive note as he profiles dropping off at Ohio State a young man he met at his local community college, one who turned his life around and has big hopes for a future after law school.

His journey ends at the beginning of the pandemic, reflecting as he awaits the return of the buzzards to Hinckley on why we stay, why we keep coming back. And that is a significant part of the story. With so many hard knocks, why do so many stay, and some return? I don’t think we are offered much in the way of an answer other than the bonds that tie people to each other and to a place. He reveals both resilient people, and those who struggle with hope, and sometimes terrible addictions, some overcoming, others not. He introduces us to all sorts of people who believe their lives matter, their work matters, their hopes and dreams matter–America in a Midwest state. He reveals a shared sentiment, a longing that the nation’s leaders would be worthy of those lives, respect that work, and honor those hopes and dreams.

This is not a Chamber of Commerce Ohio. I appreciate Giffels work because he shows us the Ohio that is, an Ohio I recognize. If he’s right, those from other parts will recognize something of their own situation, their own people and place as well. He opens windows to see unvarnished American life and the longing that our politicians would see it as well.


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

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: Ohio


Ohio, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Four characters, acquainted with each other in high school return to their home town in Ohio ten years after graduation on the same night, unbeknownst to each other, driven by various longings reflecting lives that turned out differently than they’d hoped.

There are two Ohios. There is the Ohio of big and middle-sized cities, most within the rustbelt, apart from Columbus and Cincinnati, struggling to re-make themselves. Then there is the rest of Ohio. After you subtract the first Ohio, there are about 75 counties, each with a county seat of five to thirty thousand or so people. This story could have taken place in any of them. The largest city in the county, a decent size high school, farmland and a few local industries that employ much of the town. Many were devastated in the Great Recession of 2008. Those who could have left. Or they enlisted, some returning physically and emotionally wounded, some returning in pine coffins. The towns struggle with the opioid epidemic that is ravaging the state. There is the wistful memory of what was, combined with a hopelessness.

That is the backdrop of Stephen Markley’s debut novel, and captures the lived reality of many in my home state, when you get beyond the Chamber of Commerce promotional materials. The disturbing thought as I read this account is that it is a narrative that extends far beyond Ohio, across our national landscape.

The story begins in 2007 with a memorial parade for Rick Brinklan, the son of New Canaan’s chief of police. A bereaved family. A former girlfriend who cannot speak. A former friend who fails to show up. Fast forward six years to a hot summer night in 2013. Four graduates from the local high school, unbeknownst to each other, return to the town the same night.

Bill Ashcraft, an increasingly radical political activist, carries a mysterious package to Kaylen Lynn, for a substantial payoff, Rick’s former girlfriend, who had slept with Bill as well. Stacey Moore, a lesbian and ecologically oriented student of literature returns to New Canaan in her search for Lisa Han, her first love, who broke off with her, and then mysteriously disappeared from her life, apart from a few communications, which oddly, tracked back to New Canaan. She meets Lisa’s mom and an old high school music teacher, but fails to find a clue to Lisa. Dan Eaton, having lost an eye after his third tour of duty, in Afghanistan, returns to see his old flame, Hailey Kowalczyk, now married. Tina Ross drives across the state, leaving the first man who really loved her to avenge herself for a high school sexual assault by Todd Beaufort and his football buddies.

Markley tells the stories of each separately, moving back and forth between high school episodes, subsequent life events, and the present of the summer of 2013. There are points they, and the others they knew who are still in New Canaan intersect. We begin to see that high school wasn’t simply “the best time of our lives” but for each, a darker time that marked their lives, even ten years later. Violence done in high school, known and unknown, comes full circle in violence. Idealism and patriotism dissolves into disillusion and anger and grief.

There is a movement between veneer and reality–the church upbringing and FCA Bible studies, and sexual exploration and violence; the Friday night lights of a powerhouse football teams and cheerleaders, and the horrible things done at unsupervised drinking parties, the betrayals of friends.

The book portrays a bleak view of the world evident in the last words of the book, as Bill and Stacey part after meeting once more, several months after the summer night of 2013:

” ‘Keep searching, Moore.’ He pulled away so he could look her in the eye. ‘Fight like hell. It’s the only thing I’ve ever truly believed. Always, always, always fight like hell.’

And they were gone, these infinitesimal creatures, walking the surface of time, trying and failing to articulate the dreams of ages, born and wandering across the lonesome heavens.”

Heaven for them is empty, dreams fail and die, and yet each of the four in some ways fights on. Danny cares for a wounded buddy, both on the battlefield and at home until he dies. Tina ends up in a prison ward, trying to find hope and forgiveness in the Bible studies she leads. Bill and Stacey keep searching. They make us ask why we keep hope alive in a seemingly hopeless world, why we dream and try to articulate those dreams.

And then there is the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance, resolved in the book, but not in this review. You just have to read this haunting, troubling, and powerful work. It both is and is not about Ohio. It is a reflection on the disjunction between the American dream and American reality, that a rising generation is struggling to make sense of, and with which the postcard towns of our American landscape are trying to come to terms.


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

Remembering Kent State

I grew up within 40 miles of Kent State University and was a high school sophomore on May 4, 1970. Students had been demonstrating all weekend against US incursion into Cambodia. Some of it had grown violent, with an ROTC building being burned down and students who engaged in rock-throwing at National Guardsmen sent to keep the peace.  Four students died when the National Guard troops ordered to Kent by then Ohio governor James Rhodes opened fire with lives rounds. Sixty-seven shots were fired. Nine others were wounded.  Two of the four students who died, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, were not part of the demonstrations and were walking to class, nearly 400 feet away. Sandra Scheuer grew up in Boardman, Ohio, a suburb neighboring my home town of Youngstown.


We were shopping for spring flowers at our local nursery yesterday when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” came on their PA system. The memories came flooding back. Mostly what I remember are three things. One was the day after and walking around as a high school sophomore in shock that this could happen so close to home. Another was that a girl from the Mahoning Valley was among those who died. And the third was fear as I overheard adults who said, “they should have shot more of them.” My hair was kind of long at the time. I wondered how some of them looked at me. That’s an indication of how divided we were as a country at the time over the Viet Nam war and how divided generationally we were.

I find myself reflecting on three things today. One is the importance of responsible dissent. Student dissent did contribute to ending the Viet Nam war and the events at Kent State were part of what caused our nation to pause. Yet not all of the dissent at Kent was responsible. When dissent escalates from words to acts of violence against people and property, we deepen the divides between us. It is also folly to take on an armed force, presuming it won’t act when life and limb are at risk of harm.


The Guardsmen were also victims that day. They were in a situation for which they were not trained, and they bore the opprobrium of many afterwards, as did returning veterans from the war. It seems that we have learned since to focus more attention on the elders who make such decisions rather than the young men and women who have to put themselves in harm’s way.

Finally, I think about how the war divided our generations. It is not only a case of old men ordering the young into battle. It is what happens when public trust is broken and the keepers of that trust (and those who believe in the keepers) and the ones who are served by those leaders are set at odds with each other. This points up the deep responsibility of those of us who are elders to think not only about protecting our interests, but most deeply, about caring for the next generation when we face such decisions.

If those of us who were young at the time of Kent State can remember these lessons now that we are older, and pass them along, perhaps then we might avoid the sad situation of governors giving orders that result in the killing of our children.


Simple Gifts

We just returned from several days in the Amish area of Ohio east of Mansfield and west of New Philadelphia. These Christian communities are known for their simplicity. I have to say we only know these communities from a distance but we often find ourselves returning to this area when we want to get away, to slow down, to the enjoy the beauty of simple things and simply share time together.

Carlisle Inn--Walnut Creek

One of our favorite places, partly because it is filled with good memories of past visits is the Carlisle Inn of Walnut Creek, where we have stayed several times. It is located in the heart of Amish country, between Berlin and Sugar Creek, and near other towns like Charm and Kidron (home of a famous hardware store). They have the friendliest front desk personnel I’ve met, comfortable, quiet and well-appointed rooms and evening snacks and breakfasts.

The Carlisle Inn is walking distance from the Der Dutchman restaurant–simple food well prepared. Favorites for me are “broasted” chicken and pickled beets. After a day of visiting shops in nearby towns, it was a joy just to enjoy a leisurely good meal.

Life stops in the evenings. One of our treasured memories that we revisited were Scrabble games each night, played in their sitting area nibbling on the snickerdoodle cookies they left out for us. For the record, I was undefeated! Later evenings and early mornings were times for some quiet reading–finished most of a new C. S. Lewis biography and also enjoyed a recent biography of John Quincy Adams (stayed tuned!).

This was the first time we had visited in the winter. We drove east from Interstate 71 on State Route 39, which takes you through rolling hill country. We were in no hurry, just taking in the stark beauty of snow covered hills and valleys, bright red painted barns against the snow, rows of corn shocks in the fields, and the black Amish buggys silhouetted against the white landscape.

Of course we visited a number of shops during the day. It gave us the chance to pick up some last minute gifts and admire good craftsmanship. We looked at a number of quilts that we would love to have on our bed, but discovered quality comes at a price! But I found close attention to this workmanship is not dissimilar to studying a work in an art gallery.

These days were a simple gift to us, and in a way a Christmas gift to each other. Perhaps the greatest gift was simply to be able to share all this with the wonderful woman with whom I’ve shared thirty-five years. Merry Christmas, my love!