Category Archives: american history

Books about the history of the United States.

Review 82 – Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway


Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway by Dave Barry

When an election year comes around, I try really hard to stay above the fray. I know that there will be rumors and speeches and policies that get everyone really riled up, and I like to think that I can remain emotionally detached and not allow things to get under my skin.

I usually last until about the Conventions, at which point the slumbering poli-sci major in my brain wakes up and grabs the controls. At that point, I start to take things WAY too seriously. I write long, link-filled diatribes about why certain candidates (who shall remain nameless, in case I ever want to recycle this review during another election year) are completely wrong, utterly bereft of any kind of legitimacy or moral standing and how the American people obviously have the intellectual capacity of zucchini if they vote for them.

It’s easy to get caught up, because that’s what they want. Logical, well-reasoned approaches don’t go over well with the public, so they rely on the emotional heartstrings, and sometimes they get me. I turn really serious and absolutely devoted to the idea that I Am Right.

The only antidote to this is humor. It’s why I love watching The Daily Show – the more seriously you take things, the more self-assured you become in the absolute rightness of your position, the more you need to be taken down a peg. You need to take a breath, take a step back and allow yourself to laugh at the process. If you don’t, you end up risking becoming one of those humorless, fanatic talking heads that just drive everyone crazy.

So, if you need some laughs, and we all know we do, you could do worse than to pick up this book.

This is an original book, rather than a collection of Barry’s columns, and he promises right from the outset that he would do absolutely no research whatsoever. “To do an even halfway decent book on a subject as complex as the United States government,” he says, “you have to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. So the first thing I decided, when I was getting ready to write this book, was that it would not be even halfway decent.”

He is, of course, wrong. The book is at least three-quarters decent.

The government is a great source of humor, probably going back to the very first government when a particularly strong hunter-gatherer decided that he was the one best suited to tell the tribe what to do. Barry looks at the evolution of government, back from those early caveman days up to the early days of the twenty-first century. These days, instead of a large, heftable rock to beat possible opponents over the head with, they use commercials. Otherwise, the methods haven’t changed.

Barry’s sense of humor relies on him being The Common Man, someone who’s not really interested in the intricacies of how the government works, but is perfectly happy just sitting back and making fun of it. He has a great time re-writing the Constitution (“Article IV, section 1: There shall be a bunch of States.”) and illustrating the continual growth of the U.S. Government with the use of handy free clip-art pictures.

One of the best things he does is point out the fact that no politician ever, ever actually reduces the size of government, no matter what they promise. Government gets bigger, departments get more and more complex all the time, and there’s really nothing that we can do about it but try and get a laugh. So whether it’s the futility of trying to call prunes “dried plums” or trying to get Congress not to buy things that the military neither wants nor needs, the people in Washington that we trust to run the country are, obviously, insane. Why we keep sending them back is beyond me.

There is, of course, a section on the 2000 election – this book was written in 2001, so there was no escaping that – and a look at it from the unique perspective of those people who screwed it up for everyone. South Florida. The book gets kind of tangential at this point, going from making fun of the US government to making fun of Miami, but he does give us some warning. And in his defense, it is both funny and, in its own way, relevant. It has been argued that Florida is the reason why we had eight years of George W. Bush, so perhaps if we understand it better we may avoid such… unpleasantness in the future.

But I doubt it.

So, if you’re looking for a good laugh and something to remind you that you can’t take all this too seriously, pick up the book. It won’t solve your problems, and it won’t stop you from wanting to strangle everyone on the internet who disagrees with you, but at least a moment’s respite is worth it.

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“What the Founding Fathers were saying, basically, was: ‘Why should we let people over in England saddle us with an unresponsive government and stupid laws? We can create our own!'”
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway on Amazon.com
Dave Barry’s homepage

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Filed under american history, Dave Barry, humor, politics

Review 81: A Treasury of Great American Scandals


A Treasury of Great American Scandals by Michael Farquhar

There are many good reasons to study history. There is the desire not to be doomed to repeat it, for one, which I find to be an excellent motivator. I remember watching the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and hearing the spectral voice of William Randolph Hearst screaming “Remember the Maine!” in my head. And of all the reasons to study history, that is perhaps the most important, though not necessarily the most fun.

You might also study history to just enjoy the stories. I used to hate history, especially in high school. Like so many of you out there, I had a boring high school history teacher, who did his very best to make sure that none of his youthful charges ever gave a damn about history once finals were over. If I were a more conspiratorially-minded person, I would say it was so that he could contribute to a generation of Sheeple that would do as they were told by their corporate and governmental masters, but that would be giving him too much credit. More likely it was a lack of proper continuing education for teachers combined with the inevitable erosion of the soul that must come from anyone who has to deal with high school students all day.

In any case, I came to enjoy history once I started looking at it as a series of stories. Not just names and dates and events, but actual people. And once I understood that these stiff, bearded men and those stiff, corseted women were really human beings – with lives as rich and as interesting as any other human being (moreso, in fact, since we remember their names after a century or two) – I found more reasons to care both about them and the times in which they lived.

Take, for example, Aaron Burr. Killer of Alexander Hamilton. The two of them despised each other, seeming to even resent the fact that the other man existed, and years of animosity culminated in a fateful duel in 1804. The two men met on the dueling ground, as was the manner of the day, and shot. Both men were injured, Hamilton fatally, and Burr fled, as what he had done was technically murder. But that wasn’t all for good old Aaron Burr – he moved West, and engaged in activities that appeared to be either an invasion of Mexico or an attempt to split the Union in two along the Appalachian Mountains. Or both.

Or neither- no one was really sure what Burr what up to, other than no good. But the man was slippery in a way that would make Dick Cheney go green. While everyone knew he had murdered Hamilton, and everyone knew he was trying to set himself up as possibly the Emperor of Western America, he never went to trial for the first crime and was acquitted of treason in his second. He died a free, but reviled, man. Hell of a guy.

Not all the stories are as grand in scope – some are feuds and revenge stories that burn with jealous rage. Such was the case of Senator William Sharon’s fling with Althea Hill, which led to death, betrayal, madness, and two Supreme Court decisions. Sharon and Hill began a highly suspect love affair in 1880. It was hot, it was passionate, and it ended very, very badly, Sharon dead, Hill in an insane asylum, and Hill’s second husband (her defense attorney) shot dead by the bodyguard of the Supreme Court justice who was to rule on whether or not Hill and Sharon had been legally married in the first place.

That doesn’t hold a candle, in my opinion, to the story of Rep. Daniel Sickles, his wife Teresa, and her lover (and Sickles’ friend), Philip Barton Key, which ended in vengeful murder and an intervention by the President of the United States. Key was stepping out with Teresa on a regular and not-very-subtle basis, and everyone knew it. Everyone but Daniel Sickles, of course. Lies have a way of making themselves known, however, and eventually he found out and confronted his wife. Key, however, had no idea the affair had been exposed, and showed up in Lafayette Park, his usual meeting place with Teresa, giving The Signal that he wanted a little extra-marital nookie. What he got was a furious husband and a bullet in the chest. Sickles, for his part, was acquitted on what may have been the first “temporary insanity” defense in the nation’s history.

Parts of this book are especially fun to read in an election year, as there’s an entire section devoted to underhanded, dishonest or otherwise dirty campaigning. If you thought that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were bad, or the Tea Parties were poisoning the discourse, you’re forgetting that in the Presidential campaign of 1828, John Adams’ people accused Andrew Jackson’s mother of being a prostitute, his wife of being a bigamist, and Jackson himself of being a homicidal maniac. During the campaign of 1800 (Jefferson versus Adams), the Connecticut Courant warned that, should Jefferson be elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and proclaimed. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”

Lincoln, who has become known as one of the greatest presidents this country has ever had, was called “a joke” by the New York Herald, and an “ignorant, boorish, third-rate backwoods lawyer” by the New York World. Grover Cleveland was assaulted with the chant, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa!” after it was discovered that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. This led to accusations of further debaucheries and unnamed sins against good Christian womanhood and morals the likes of which would make Bill Clinton’s head spin.

A nice coda to that story, though – Cleveland openly admitted to fathering the child (and providing support to the mother afterwards), believing that the truth was the best defense against smears. It also helped that his opponent had not only despoiled a girl in his youth, but was forced to marry her at shotgun-point – hardly one who should be criticizing a man for his youthful indiscretions. When Cleveland won re-election, his followers took up the Republicans’ taunting chant with a retort laced with schadenfreude – “Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Which brings me to the third reason why it’s valuable to study history – it helps you gain perspective. The United States is going through some trying times right now, and if you pay attention to the blogs and the cable news networks, you might believe that these are indeed the worst of times. That having a sitting governor traipse down to Argentina for a little Latin loving is the nadir of morality. That having a news organization foment protest rallies and marches is the height of unethical behavior. That accusing your white opponent of having fathered a black child, or spending some private time with a White House intern, or making IM passes at teenage boys are all signs that America is on a one-way trip to hell, even if we can’t afford the handbasket.

History is the antidote to the common belief that the times in which we live must be special. Every generation thinks it – that I am here, therefore the events of my times must be the most important events to have ever happened. It’s egocentric and very, very human, but – and this is important – it’s not true. There is nothing special or different about the times in which we live, because human nature hasn’t changed. For every scandal we see today that frightens or enrages or disgusts us, you can look to history to see that it’s already been done, and done worse. History provides perspective, and it offers hope. The country has seen a lot of bad things in its time, but it has survived. It has seen abuse of civil rights that were far more egregious than anything that happened after 9/11 and it has survived. It has seen civil unrest that makes the Tea Partiers or the G20 protesters look like sulky children – and it has survived.

So turn off the TV, step away from the computer and pick up a good history book – like this one – and let your worries settle down to a much more manageable size. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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“I don’t know what to do about this taxation matter. Somewhere there must be a book that tells all about it, where I could go to straighten it out in my mind. But I don’t know where the book is, and maybe I couldn’t read it if I found it! My God, this is a hell of a place for a man like me to be!”
– Warren G. Harding
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A Treasury of Great American Scandals on Amazon.com
Michael Farquhar at Penguin.com

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Filed under american history, history, Michael Farquhar, presidential history

Review 80: Common Sense


Common Sense by Thomas Paine

This being an election year, there are a lot of people telling us what we should think about our country and its purpose in the world. Newspapers, magazines and books are churned out at a dizzying pace, each one designed to bend our wills to the writers’ opinions. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by them, honestly, especially the hardback tomes that – more often than not – turn out to be 300 pages of poorly disguised propaganda and party talking points.

From out vantage point, with a myriad of news sources at our fingertips – print, internet, and, of course, the insatiable maw that is 24-hour TV news – it’s difficult to truly appreciate the impact that Common Sense had when it was released as an anonymously penned pamphlet back in 1776.

No matter what your history teachers told you, the American colonists back then were not unanimously crying out for independence and liberation. Tensions were high between the Colonies and Britain, what with the various tax schemes and the conflicts in Boston, Lexington and Concord, but for everyone calling for independence, there were just as many who were looking for reconciliation between the Colonies and the Crown. They were British subjects, after all, and the thought of breaking from their God-given sovereign caused them great distress.

“We are his subjects,” the argument ran. “Who are we to disagree with his decisions? This may not be so great right now, but surely if we acquiesce, if we bow our heads, then we’ll receive all the benefits due his loyal subjects.”

Thomas Paine thought that this line of thinking was, in modern terms, bullshit, and he set out to explain precisely why.

Common Sense was written as a call for independence, aimed at convincing those hoping for reconciliation that their hopes were in vain. He believed that there could be no benefit to reconciling with the Crown, and that the only hope for Americans to have a decent future lay in the severing of bonds with Britain.

Without resorting to personal attacks, without naming names or pointing fingers, Paine systematically lays out a logical and clear rationale for independence. He begins by arguing against the legitimacy of Kings in general, and the King of England specifically, and puts forth the benefits that could only arise from representative government. He puts forth the practical economic and political reasons for independence in a calm and clear manner, and he does so in a way that makes it all sound like, well, common sense. It’s easy to imagine him standing there, saying, “Come on people! It’s friggin’ obvious!”

Political writers in the 21st century don’t really appreciate the things that they can get away with these days. If Ann Coulter wants to write a book about how Barack Obama is the vanguard of a Liberal Muslim Homosexual Revolution, she can. If Michael Moore wants to do a movie claiming that George W. Bush is the demon love child of Margaret Thatcher and Adolph Hitler, he can. The worst that’ll happen to them is a libel suit and a humbling public apology.

The worst that could have happened to Thomas Paine was a public hanging – if he was lucky.

Common Sense is such a pivotal document in American history – its influence cannot be overstated. It was so widely read, so acclaimed, that it is reasonable to say that the United States as we know it might not have come into being without it. It’s writing that I wish we could see these days. Not a call for independence per se, but rather clear, level-headed writing that treats its readers with respect. I’ve read a lot of political books in the last few years, and none of them were as straightforward and to the point as this book was.

What’s more, reading it is a reminder of the hopes and dreams that the founders of this country had for it. When they finally risked their lives and signed the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, when they fought and suffered and died in the years following, when they argued and compromised to create a Constitution, they did so in the hopes that the country they were forging would be a good one. They did so in the knowledge that they would never see the era of the United States’ true greatness, but in the hopes that it would one day come.

It is the responsibility of all Americans to live up to those hopes.

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“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense . . .”
-Thomas Paine, Common Sense
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Thomas Paine on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikipedia
Common Sense on Wikisource
Common Sense on Amazon.com
Cracked.com – 8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think

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Filed under american history, politics, Thomas Paine

Review 61: Dave Barry Slept Here


Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States by Dave Barry

Sometimes you just need a palate cleanser. Something to make you smile, that requires a minimum of thought for a maximum of entertainment. This is a dangerous thing to look for; it’s all too easy to find oneself wading through a sea of dross, looking for funny but just finding silly, childish nonsense of a mediocre caliber.

The nice thing about Dave Barry is that he is silly childish nonsense of the highest caliber.

My family has been Barry fans for a long time running. When I was a kid, the new Dave Barry book was an automatic Father’s Day present, and would migrate around the house as one or another of us picked it up for a few laughs. Fortunately for us, the laughs were more than a few – I remember laughing so hard I had to put the book down for a few minutes because just thinking “Hawley-Smoot Tariff” sent me into uncontrollable giggles.

This book is Barry’s tribute to not only American history, but to the whole concept of history books themselves. The fact that he’s covering everything from the initial human migration into North America to the Bush-Quayle administration (the book was published in 1989) in only 175 pages with fairly large font is a sign of his being a true master of history.

For example, he does what most public school textbooks do – he skips the boring parts. Teapot Dome? Who cares! The Federal Banking Crisis of 1837? Yawn…. We all remember high school, right? Pretty much nothing happened between the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and the Civil War seventy-six years later. Right? He also saves time and space by skipping over those parts of history which are, to use a technical term from historiography, “bummers.” World War 2, for example – nothing fun to talk about there.

What Barry also does to make history easier is he standardizes the dates for us. No more do we have to remember what month and day something occurred (a feat that always kept me off the high score list in high school history class.) Now all the prospective student of history has to remember is October 8. When did the Mayflower arrive in New England? October 8. When was Kennedy assassinated? October 8. When was the very first Fourth of July? October 8.

See how easy it is? Why didn’t they do this when I was in school?

The style of the book is like someone writing about something barely remembered, with only the most cursory amount of research done. And this was in the pre-Wikipedia days, kids, when you had to look stuff up in books. Fortunately, while Barry’s history does indeed parallel our own, it is almost completely devoid of actual facts that you may be required to remember. All you really have to do is follow him along on the ride. Of course, if you actually do know something about American history, the book is even funnier. The fact that the book ends with the election of George Herbert Walker Norris Wainright Armoire Vestibule Pomegranate Bush IV and his vice-President Dan “Potatoe” Quayle does disappoint a bit, but, linear time being what it is, there’s not a whole lot one can do about it. All history books, serious and silly, are obsolete the moment they hit bookstores. The good news is that Barry maintained a prolific career as a columnist until he retired back in 2004, so you can read his thoughts on the large amount of history that did not end in 1989.

I will always have a warm place for Dave Barry in my heart, but I do have to confess something. When I was younger and read Dave Barry, I would laugh. A lot. Those good, hearty, soul-clearing laughs, and part of the best memories I have of Dave Barry is simply remembering laughing. I didn’t laugh very much reading this again. I don’t know if it’s because I knew where all the jokes were, if my head just wasn’t in the right place, or if my sense of humor has changed over the last twenty years.

Twenty years. Good lord.

Anyway, whatever the reason, I had far fewer of those laugh-out-loud moments than I used to. It’s still funny, don’t get me wrong. I just didn’t giggle, guffaw, cackle and try to read bits to my long-suffering co-workers. Whatever it is, I kind of miss it. I think I’ll have to dip into some of his other books to see if I can find it again.

If you haven’t read Barry, I definitely recommend checking him out. This book is a fine place to start….

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“But as the old saying goes, “Time heals all wounds,” and in the more than 120 years since the Civil War ended, most of this bitterness gradually gave way to subdued loathing, which is where we stand today.”
– Dave Barry, Dave Barry Slept Here
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Dave Barry on Wikipedia
Dave Barry Slept Here on Wikipedia
Dave Barry’s homepage
Dave Barry Slept Here on Amazon.com

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Filed under american history, Dave Barry, history, humor

Review 60: Assassination Vacation


Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I first saw Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show and I was intrigued by her. This slight, dry, kind of sleepy-looking woman was not who you might expect when you run the words “presidential historian” through your mind (in my mind, “presidential historian” is usually an older man of leisure who’s managed to be lucky enough to turn a passion into a job), but there she was. The fact that she was also really funny impressed me even further. And so, since I have a long-running fascination with presidential history myself, I set out to Mooch this book. And it was well worth it.

Being interested in Presidents means a lot of things. For some, it’s the semi-regular top/bottom ten Presidents lists, or comparing one to another in terms of their accomplishments and scandals. Some people develop a fascination with the more obscure Presidents, hoping to rescue their names and deeds from the dustbin of history. Others look to see what kind of social or cultural changes they made in their times. In short, if you want to learn about the Presidents, there are a lot of ways you can go about it.

Ms. Vowell here explores the more morbid side of Presidential history, especially the inevitable morbidness of being in history-love with Abraham Lincoln. In the special features section of The Incredibles DVD (she played Violet), you can see that she compares Lincoln to a superhero, and has multiple instances of Lincoln idolatry around her home. She admires Lincoln’s steadfastness and resolve, his determination to hold the Union together, and the humanity that connected him to the rest of the common people. Lincoln, in life, has a great deal to appreciate.

Study Lincoln long enough, however, and you eventually get to the sad part – his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

Sitting in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, she was struck by the same thought many people have when they go there – “Wow. This was the place.” She sat in the Chinese restaurant that was built on the site of the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators made their plans and thought the same thing. And before she knew it, she was on a pilgrimage, a holy quest to visit all the places involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln. And there are a lot of places to visit, in New York, Illinois, and even off the Florida Keys, to say nothing of the area immediately around DC. Lincoln’s assassination echoed from that box seat in Ford’s Theatre and shook the nation.

Of the four Presidents that have been assassinated, most people only really know about two: Lincoln and Kennedy. But there were two others brought down by the assassin’s gun – Garfield and McKinley. So Vowell expanded her pilgrimage to include them as well, giving them the same treatment and respect that she gives to her hero, Mr. Lincoln. Why she decided not to do Kennedy is not explained. Perhaps because it hasn’t been long enough since the event, or because there’s so much controversy surrounding it already….

The book is a nice tour through the lives of one President we all know, and two that we don’t. And it’s all fun to read, which is usually hard to do with history, much less the history of James Garfield. She reveals that each assassination came about by a complex series of events, and was triggered by many things – frustration, anger, despair, madness – and that each one was a tragedy, even if we don’t appreciate them all that much.

Along the way, we get a refresher on American history, and a little contemporary comparison as well. For example, the Spanish-American war, over which McKinley presided, bears a shocking resemblance to the current war in Iraq. Both were wars of choice, fought for material gain, and initiated by dubious claims of aggression, just for starters. “Then, as now,” she says, “optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them.”

One of Vowell’s great talents in this field is being able to link things together, so that the decision made by, say, John Wilkes Booth has effects that can be traced to Emma Goldman, and then to Leon Czolgosz. Or how the utopian free love community of Oneida, New York accidentally spawned the bizarre madman Charles Guiteau, and then went on to make rather nice teapots.

This is a technique that history teachers need to learn if they’re going to give the world more people like Sarah Vowell – an understanding that history is not a series of isolated events, where you can look at a name, a place and a date and say, “Well, that’s that.” History is an ongoing process, with cause and effect coming one after another, often in strange and unexpected ways. Perhaps if people could see how a single event in the past directly influences the way they live in the present, they’d take more interest.

It’s a fun read. If you weren’t interested in history before you read this book, you’ll at least be a little warmer to it afterwards. Also, she won my heart right in the beginning by saying that part of the impetus to write this book was watching Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which I know nearly by heart even now, so many years after it was put on stage back at Siena. Every now and then she’d sprinkle a bit from the musical into the book – Charles Guiteau was a hoot – and I’d smile knowingly. Must listen to that again….

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“There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the most thrilling phrases in the English language: ‘It was on this spot…'”
– Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Amazon.com
Sarah Vowell at the Barclay Agency

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, assassinations, history, James Garfield, presidential history, Sarah Vowell, travel, William McKinley