Book Review: Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
by H.W. Brands
Doubleday
(c) 2005 by the author

The current president likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, choosing Jackson’s portrait to hang in the Oval Office. Jackson is going to be removed from the $20 bill, to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. All the hubbub over Jackson has many people in a lather about him; essentially he’s seen as the Anti-Christ for his slave ownership and the “Trail of Tears”.

I thought it might be a good idea, then, to read a biography of our seventh President, and learn something of what all the fuss is about.

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Rethinking Columbus

You may recall that a month or so ago, there was a bit of a hubbub in the papers about people wanting to take down or at least relocate certain monuments to Confederate generals and leaders. Has anything come of that, by the way?

Lost even further down in the media coverage were a few proposals to remove statues and other similar proposals to sweep Christopher Columbus under the rug, as it were. I believe that the City of Los Angeles decided to change the name of “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People’s Day”. In New York City, it was suggested that Columbus Circle be renamed, and the massive monument in the middle of the circle get put someplace where no one would be forced to look at it. A modest statue (a bust, actually) of Columbus in my area was smashed by vandals.

This is all part of an ongoing movement to discredit Columbus at best, and brand him as a genocidal maniac at worst.

Is it at all possible anymore to have a reasonable discussion about him?

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Overrated – Underrated

Way back in the mists of time (well, about 20 years ago, which is ancient history as far as the Internet is concerned), American Heritage magazine had an annual feature they called “Overrated, Underrated”. Historians and other experts contributed short essays on things in their field that they believed needed a reappraisal. They had to pair something that they felt was overrated with one that was underrated (e.g. Aviatrix: Overrated – Amelia Earhart, Underrated: Harriet Quimby). The series gave fascinating historical and cultural insights, and spread a little to other magazines. I recall Sports Illustrated did their own version….

Anyway, the idea is always a good discussion starter. Provided you can pen a short essay explaining your choices. Anyone can say Shakespeare is overrated; not everyone can explain why, as well as offer an example of an underrated English playwright.

Here’s my favorite example:

American Historical Document

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BOOK REVIEW: Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal
Jack Kelly
St Martin’s Press, NY
Copyright 2016 by the author

It was the nation’s first big infrastructure project. A canal connecting Lake Erie (and thereby the Great Lakes and the Northwest Territory) to the Hudson River (and thereby New York City and the Atlantic Ocean). A project vital to the growth and development of the United States, it also brought a palpable sense of excitement to upper New York…. an excitement that would have significant effects not only on individuals, but on the nation as a whole.

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It Was So Hot

Where I live, we’ve just been through the first “heat wave” of the summer. Three days where the temperature was in the mid 90s. Needless to say, people are already whining about how unbearably hot it’s been. Wusses….

My personal approaches to “beating the heat” involve sitting around the house in my underwear (who’s going to see me?), listening to Christmas music (to distract me), and remember that it can be a hell of a lot worse.

It could be as hot as it was in the summer of 1936….

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Book Review: Floodpath

Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
Jon Wilkman
Bloomsbury Press
(c) 2016 by the author

What Robert Moses was for New York City, William Mulholland was for Los Angeles. Both were immensely powerful and influential in their cities, despite not holding an elective office. Both earned their positions by being very hard working, and extremely good at their jobs. Both indelibly shaped their cites forever, both for good and for bad. But where Moses’ gradual fall from power was the result of a growing realization that his roadbuilding was no longer what New York needed, Mulholland’s fall happened literally overnight.

Documentarian Jon Wilkman has written another fine book on the collapse of the St Francis Dam outside Los Angeles, on the night of March 12-13, 1928. I say “another fine book” since this is not the first volume on the subject – but it is the first I’ve read. And it really is a very fine work.

The flood from the collapse of the dam blasted down the Santa Clara river valley, leaving millions of dollars in damage, and over 400 dead. It is one of the worst civil engineering disasters in US History – but is barely remembered outside California.

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Book Review: Iran-Contra

Iran-Contra:
Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
by Malcolm Byrne
(c) 2014 by The University Press of Kansas

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Communism was on its way out as the #1 Global Threat and Radical Islam was quickly climbing up the charts….

On October 5, 1986, a Sandanista soldier fired off his SAM-7 at a Fairchild C-123K cargo plane that had just crossed into Nicaraguan airspace from Costa Rica. He got really lucky – the missile hit, and knocked down the plane. Three of the crew died in the crash – but Eugene Hasenfus survived. He confirmed to his captors what documents found in the crash revealed: the plane was on a covert mission on behalf of the CIA to supply the Contra rebels with arms – in direct contravention of US laws.

A few weeks later, a news magazine in Lebanon published a scoop. Representatives from the Reagan administration had been meeting with Iranian government officials in an effort to purchase the release of a couple of Americans who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah. This was a big deal; the stated position of the American government was “We will never negotiate with terrorists”. And Iran, now that a theocratic Islamic government had kicked out our friend the Shah and then allowed a bunch of radicals to capture the staff of our embassy in Tehran, was considered the number one terrorist-backing government in the world.

This was all Very Bad News for the Reagan administration, especially when it was found that the profits from the arms sales to Iran were being used to pay for supplying the Contras without the knowledge – nevermind the permission – of Congress.
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Book Review: Ballot Battles

BALLOT BATTLES: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States
Edward B. Foley
Oxford University Press
(c) 2016

While all the hubbub over our elections and voting (so far) has to do with access to the ballot box, Foley argues that what happens after the votes have been cast is just as important.

A professor of constitutional and election law at Ohio State, Foley has chronicled all the disputed elections of national importance since the 1790s. Doctored ballots, bogus returns, stuffed ballot boxes, the works. And not just that sort of shenanigans, but cases where the result was so close that there absolutely had to be a recount. When the first count was done in Virginia’s attorney general election in 2013, the margin of victory was a mere 32 votes….

His style, as befits a law professor, is rather dry and tedious at first. It’s not an easy read, but you’ll get used to it after a while. The long slog through history is important to his thesis – disputed elections are not as rare as one would think (or hope), so we had better be prepared for the next one.

Foley notes that we do not have a standard system in place to resolve disputed elections. We’ve had them too often for it to be done on an ad hoc basis. Having a high office go unfilled while the recounting goes on and on deprives people of representation, and can even have the government come to a halt. The Senate election in Minnesota in 2008 wasn’t resolved for seven months – and that, according to Foley, was one of the ones that was handled properly.

Reading Foley’s accounts of recent disputed elections makes it clear (at least to this reader) that absentee or mail-in ballots (which some advocate as a way to increase voter participation) is most definitely NOT the way to go. Not only are those types of ballots the most susceptible to chicanery, they are also the most problematic when it comes to figuring out the voter’s actual intent. They depend on people accurately and completely following instructions. The 2004 gubenatorial election in Washington, which when the dust settled had a margin of victory of just 137 votes, should serve as a case study of everything that can go wrong with mail-in ballots.

Foley does propose a solution. Mandate an automatic recount whenever the margin of victory is below a certain threshold. Have rules and deadlines covering challenges and appeals. Select a tribunal (and he really does mean a panel of only three people) to supervise the entire process. He admits it won’t be perfect, but it’s better than the “playing-it-by-ear” that we have now. Given how partisan our politics have become, there’s no doubt that we will continue to have disputed elections for the foreseeable future.

BOOK REVIEW: The Game Must Go On

The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII
John Klima
St Martin’s Press
(c) 2015 by the author

Pretty much every baseball fan is at least passingly aware of the effects of World War II on the game, if only that it kept some players from achieving milestone goals. Bob Feller didn’t get 300 wins, Ted Williams didn’t get 600 home runs, etc. And that since players were not exempt from the draft, teams reached so far down the barrel for talent that Pete Gray, a guy with one arm, actually played in the Major Leagues.

But there’s a heck of a lot more to it than just names and numbers in the reference books.

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BOOK REVIEW: Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution

by Thomas P. Slaughter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

Pity the poor high school teacher of American History. They have so much required material to cover, along with an assortment of topics mandated by various outside agencies, that they cannot possibly cover everything, much less make what they do cover interesting.

I know from my own education (way back in the Mists of Time – the 1980s, to be precise), that when it came to American history we were briefed on the colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth – and then suddenly it was a century and a half later, and the Revolutionary War was starting in Boston. Slaughter attempts to rectify this omission.

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