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A novel of some 400 plus pages set at the time of Juan Perón's return from exile in 1973. Half of the story is in Madrid as The General and his entourage slowly prepare for the return to Buenos Aires. As the day of departure draws nigh Perón and his secretary Lopez go over the latest version of his memoirs. Lopez is frustrated by the many inconsistencies in Perón's litany of contradictory and fictional autobiographical statements but the General has no interest in such matters as facts.

Peron cover=2.jpg

Meanwhile at the airport, Ezeiza, in Argentina a throng gathers, leading the pack are journalists, including our author, who had earlier interviewed Perón in Madrid. Distant relatives of the General have been bussed in by another journalist, who has interviewed them looking for a new angle, and finding none. Others there include the Montoneros and their rivals, all armed. There are also Perónist unions and anti-Perónists, too. There are also urban beggars and impoverished campesinos come from afar for a blessing from the bearer of Evita's fire.  

Finally there is the army that in desperation arranged for the return only now to find the situation out of control. The factions in the army blame each other but none takes action, each checkmated by another.

The clock ticks and the forces gather while Perón's muses on the past, the present, and the future. Perón’s confidence is diamond hard. He will put things to right. The entourage flutters around him reading auguries in his choice of shoes. But those forces gathering at the airport are, as the reader sees, comets following their own trajectories, bouncing off each other. There were about two million people in, at, and around the airport where he was scheduled to land. When the shooting started, as was inevitable, the plane diverted.

Having read a lengthy biography of Perón a few weeks ago, I could navigate many of the names of the actors in the drama. Without that a reader would be lost, as was I the first time I tried to read this novel a decade ago.  

Peron dogs.jpg Perón always kept dogs and could be seen walking them in Madrid.

What's to like? The portrayal of many of the supporting players is good, e.g., the relatives, the buzzing journalists, and some of the entourage. But others are cardboard like President Camorra and Lopez is an invisible man. He is there but has no substance, yet some say he manipulated everything and this is given credence in the pages here when he lip syncs a Perón speech.

I also liked the author as as journalist in his own story, which is done lightly and without making the author-journalist the centre of attention, as too many journalist-authors do.

More importantly, it seems Perón was a post-Modernist avant le mot in his refusal to privilege fact or truth. His easy dismissal of Lopez's worries about consistency or authenticity are well handled. Perón's explanation derived from Alfred von Schlieffen (page 210) made me stop and think. Von Schlieffen was the architect of the eponymous plan of attack on France in World War I. He was never wedded to the plans he made, but generated one after another. No sooner did he perfect one plan than he superseded it with another, because... a better plan is possible, if I thought of it so have my enemies and I have to stay ahead of them, circumstances change and plans change with them. The stereotyped rigidity of the Prussian Army did not apply to him, but then neither did it apply to the Kaiser's army in World War I where junior line officers and sergeants had much more freedom of action than in the British army where blind discipline was enforced by firing squads.

Perón's recollections of Eva ring true. His faults are many but he was devoted to her and she even more to him, and that is given full measure here. No cheap shots, no smart-ass remarks of the Bill Bryson kind. No easy hindsight of an ABC journalist.

Interesting also to see that Perón said that the example of Salvador Allende in Chile meant he had to go slowly. The threat of another coup, the threat even of a civil war is always there.

What is not here is the change in Perón from a man with a mission to the desire to rule period. Goal displacement occurred but there is no sign of it here. The subject and the treatment will remind read of Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ (1975), but this novel is much more accessible than the elliptic and, dare one say it, self-indulgent work of García Márquez.

Eloy Martinez.jpg Eloy Martinez

Eloy Martinez has another novel based on Eva, and that is tempting, but I found this one hard going. Maybe because I was only reading a page or two at a time, but much of the early chapters concerns the gathering kaleidoscope of Argentine society which had no interest for me. The Madrid part was more engaging. Once I started reading whole chapters at a time, I connected with it. I read while we tourists toured the goldfields of central Victoria.

The role of the army in Argentina has many dimensions, but one key one is this. In the United States, the Continental Army that defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War disbanded within days of the surrender at Yorktown. In Argentina the revolutionary army that drove the Spanish out remained under arms for forty years in continuing and continuous conflicts with the Portuguese, resurgent Spanish loyalist, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, French adventurers, the native indians, and so on and on. For two generations it was the only Argentine institution. However much it later debased itself, it was in this way the nation itself.

Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) was 21st President of the United States (1881-1885).

Arthur cover.jpg

Chet was born in Vermont and went west briefly to make his fortune before settling in New York City. He is often associated with the worst presidents in rankings by historians, along with Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses Grant, Millard Fillmore, and Andrew Johnson. Yet he is the president who signed the Pendleton Act into law, one of the landmarks of 19th Century politics.

His religious father was a devoted abolitionist and Chester, at his urgings, went west to practice law and to keep Kansas a free state. He found the wild west very wild and very far away and stayed only a few weeks before heading back. That was the first, and perhaps the last time, conviction governed his actions.

He made his way in New York by attaching himself as a loyal lieutenant to movers and shakers. He was personally sociable and gregarious, a man who positively enjoyed wiling the night away in men's clubs where he got to know everyone and offended no one. While he was never anyone’s first choice for anything, no one was ever against him, ergo a reliable second choice at any time.

When the Civil War occurred he duly took to the colours of the New York state militia where he was appointed a quartermaster general by a patron. He secured this plum and cushy appointment, a long way from the cannon’s roar when hapless migrants were conscripted to die in the fields of Virginia, by the grace and favour of one Roscoe Conkling, who at the time and place was a kingmaker.

At the end of his military service, Arthur was a rich man. Our author has it that his law firm made a lot of money. Class, see if this makes sense: As quartermaster general he let contracts worth millions for food, weapons, clothing, boots, animals, fodder, leather goods, and more. Ever heard the word ‘kickback?’ Our author has not. Wikipedia is more suspicious and implies that Arthur used his position as quartermaster general in the most populous state to enrich himself.

He was not especially avaricious about it, but then he was not subtle either. Why bother when it was common practice to do so. Think Tammany Hall, and there is the picture, an alliance of Democrats and Republicans to exploit the government. Has a modern ring to it, doesn’t it?

Moreover this client passed even more ill gotten gains on to his patron, Senator Conkling, who was sometimes referred to as ‘His Lordship.’ Lord Conkling was avaricious and wanted all he could get, in part to bank roll his own plans for the presidency.

Arthur enjoyed luxury in food, furnishing, alcohol, and cigars which he generously shared with cronies in his Fifth Avenue hotel suite, which he kept even after marrying. Indeed the only point of tension with his wife was his persistent networking and socialising at the hotel night after night. She, Nell, died unexpectedly and young and left him a widower who continued the same life.

Conkling had him appointed Collector of the Port of New York by President Rutherford Hayes in a spoils deal. In return for supporting Hayes's election campaign in New York state, Conkling got to allocate federal government position in the state. It was routine at the time for each new president to dismiss the entire workforce of the federal government and appoint anew those who had supported him, a changeover that might take a year to complete. Call these office seekers. This is the spoils system which had reached its peak by this time.

The Collector of the Port of New York was one of the most important positions in the country. Far more important than most cabinet offices or governor’s chairs. What was collected was tariffs on imports and taxes on exports, and the resulting revenue in New York consisted of more than half of the income of the federal government.

By some quirk of circumstance unknown to our author, Arthur and Conkling became ever richer during his tenure as Collector. Class, figure it out. Whatever, the brandy was French, the cigars were Cuban, the sofas were stuffed, the food was rich, and Chester Arthur moved in the world of J. P. Morgan, Jay Cooke, John Jacob Astor, John Rockefeller, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, Charles Crocker, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Robert Risk, and other Robber Barons who ran the country while Hayes played at being president. Arthur moved in that world but he was not of it, a hanger on, not a scion.

There is silence about women.

Arthur was much whiskered, carefully coiffured, a dandy with expensive clothes and accoutrements. He liked all of these trappings of wealth, perhaps because they compensated for his lack of good looks, commanding presence, or manly experience in the Civil War or on the frontier. Reading of him I was reminded of a passage from ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Applied to Arthur it would mean he knew himself from the outside in. He wore expensive clothes so that meant he was an important man, and so on.

Arthur was one of the first customers for a new fangled designer who worked with metal and glass, named Charles, Charles Tiffany, who later became famous for his lamps.

After the Civil War the Republican Party, wrapped in Abraham Lincoln’s bloody shirt, was the dominant political force. The Democrats condemned for their association with rebellious southern states dominated a few cities in the north but otherwise were a spent force for decades. In the broad church of the Republican Party there were deep rivalries based on personalities, not ideologies or regions.

The most important one was between the ambitions of Roscoe Conkling and James Blaine of Maine for the presidency. These two were alike in their ideology-free ambition and unalike in every other way. Conkling was a bon vivant, open schemer, sybarite, aggressive, crude, and ill mannered. He fits the 7MATE demographic, a real man’s man.

RConkling.jpg Roscoe Conkling

Blaine was withdrawn, introspective, perhaps shy, and reflective, more inclined to read Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars' than to drink with the boys. More the SBS2 demographic. Their respective factions divided the Republican Party in half.

Blaine.jpg James Blaine

After a succession of Republican presidents, Grant, Hayes, and then Garfield, all Union generals, and the end of the military occupation of the South in the so-called Reconstruction when the seceding states laboured to pay taxes to settle the war debt, the Democrats came back to life. Off and on there was talk of a third term for Grant, which was new to me.

Conkling and Blaine both wanted the Republican presidential nomination in 1880, but more than that, each wanted to be sure the other did not get it. They undercut each other so effectively that James Garfield, who was not a member of either camp got the nomination. To win, he had to make peace with the two godfathers of the party and this he did by promising Blaine the office of Secretary of State and the say in a number of other appointments, which Blaine supposed he could use to plan a later push for the highest office, and by promising Conkling complete sway in New York state. The rivalry had become personal to Conkling and he would not serve in a cabinet that included Blaine he made clear, and New York was good but not enough.

Garfield pondered Conkling’s intransigence and then went directly to Arthur and offered him the Vice Presidential nomination in a move replicated nearly a hundred years later when Jack Kennedy went directly to Lyndon Johnson, no intermediaries, no consultation with trusted advisors. Arthur immediately accepted and shook hands with Garfield.

Conkling was outraged. Which was the greater felony? That Garfield went straight to Arthur without first asking Conkling if he could approach Arthur, or that Arthur accepted without seeking the approval of Conkling. The journalists observing all of this, often in the same room when the deals were done, supposed Arthur would not withstand the inevitable brow-beating from Conkling, and were thus surprised when he later appeared on the podium.

By the way Conkling was nicknamed ‘Lord Conkling’ and he liked that. He liked having graft monies delivered to him while sitting at his desk in the Senate like a lord receiving tribute from vassals

For the first time in his life as an ever loyal second Arthur defied his boss and told him so to his face. Conkling was apoplectic but when he calmed down later, he made the best of if because at least Blaine did not get the nomination and reluctantly allowed his New York state machine to campaign for the Garfield-Arthur ticket.

Garfield Prex.jpg James Garfield

Garfield won and Arthur was installed as Veep, where his major duty, like all before and after him was to preside over the United States Senate’s meetings. This purely nominal duty turned out to be more important than any of the pundits expected for the Senate was evenly divided between Republicans, who had spent a lot of time fighting among themselves, and resurgent Democrats at thirty-seven each. Arthur had the deciding vote and he suddenly became an important person, not just a figure head.

Conkling’s influence nosedived from that day on. In fact, he soon lost his own Senate seat, so gross were his malefactions that even the New York legislators could not overlook them, and he was turfed. now a footnote of history.

Garfield took the oath of office and Blaine became Secretary of State. Three months after that Blaine walked with Garfield to Union Station to take the train to New York City when Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in the back. Two police officer grabbed Guiteau who made no effort to escape. Instead he told the officers that he had shot Garfield so that Arthur could be president, a line he stuck in his subsequent trial. Huh?

Arthur had nothing to do with any of this, that is absolutely sure, but Guiteau said it and more than once. Guiteau was a distant follower of the Blaine camp and he had formed a hatred of Conkling and his influence and he erroneously perceived Garfield to be Conkling’s catspaw. At his trial the defence attorneys argued that Guiteau was insane and that made about as much sense as Guiteau did.

When I learned of Garfield’s murder as a school boy the line was that Guiteau was a disappointed office seeker who took revenge on Garfield for not appointing him to a lucrative federal government office, and this line is still followed in the Wikipedia entry. There is truth in that interpretation because he had written letters asking to be appointed, but it is not what he said.

Arthur was in New York City when the telegram arrived telling him Garfield was wounded. A few minutes later a journalist arrived to tell him what Guiteau had said about him - Arthur. Gulp! ‘What to do?’ he must have thought. He went immediately to Washington to see Garfield, who was comatose and to see Garfield’s wife and family and offer sympathy and aid. He then retuned to New York City and stayed there Incommunicado for the three months that followed while Garfield slowly died.

His reasoning was that he best not appear eager for the office, and indeed, it seems he was not, and so he kept the lowest possible profile.

Garfield abed.jpg Garfield, wounded.

Another telegram arrived to announce that Garfield was dead. A local judge administered the oath of office and he was the twenty-first man to be president of the United States on 22 September 1881.

Guiteau argued his own defence, and his blame-shifting reminded me of some people I have worked with. First that Guiteau shot him is Garfield’s fault for walking to the station and so exposing himself to attack, that Garfield died of the wound is the fault of the incompetent doctors who did not save him, and that he died in New Jersey and so a D.C. federal court could not try him. Marvellous, but he was hung.

Arthur returned to Washington and took a hotel suite, leaving the Garfield family in the White House as long as they wanted.

As discrete as he was and considerate of the Garfield family, his incommunicado also meant there was no executive in the government for three months. This is a time when there was constant friction along the vaguely demarcated Canadian border, when European powers flirted with interventions in Mexico and Guatemala while the Indian wars were continuous and anti-immigrant riots were frequent in New York City and San Francisco. Though our author is silent on this I rather think James Blaine may have steadied the ship.

Arthur took the oath of office in Washington and made a short but apt speech some of which is quoted in this book as his ‘inaugural address.’ I balked at that word ‘inaugural’ because succeeding vice-president were not elected to the office of president and so do not give inaugural addresses.

No sooner had Arthur sat down in the big chair than all his drinking buddies, led by Roscoe Conkling, arrived, sat down, and put their feet up his desk, and called him Chet.

This worm turned. Arthur firmly directed them to remove their feet from the president's desk and henceforth to address him as Mr President. Conkling choked on this rebuke but swallowed it. The others did as they were told. Conkling had expected to secure a cabinet appointment and he also expected to see Blaine dismissed. Neither happened.

At this point Arthur had one outstanding quality. He owned no one anything. No one had expected him ever to be president and so beforehand no one had bothered to extract commitments from him and his incommunicado had prevented later efforts at that. He was his own man. On the other hand, there was nothing he wanted to do, nor was he committed publicly to do anything. He stuck to that with one exception. In all of this there are many parallels with John Tyler who became tenth president.

Installed in the White House Arthur made his sister the hostess, and she set about redecorating the dump, encouraged by Arthur. Louis Tiffany came to the fore and made his reputation there. Virtually nothing had been spent on the White House since it had been rebuilt after the War of 1812. Congress repeatedly refused to fund anything for the president. Before it could be redecorated, much of it had to be rebuilt from the inside out and it was. In the aftermath of Garfield’s death Congress voted this presidential expenditure. The changes wrought as described in these pages sound grand, but all them were ripped out by subsequent occupants to keep up with the fashions of changing times and nothing is left of the Tiffany White House. It all went into the landfill.

Screen.jpg An example of a Tiffany screen like one installed in the White House.

The Robber Barons continued to rob. The army continued to murder Indians. Attacks on Irish immigrants on the East Coast and Chinese on the west were a daily occurrence. British and French interests continued to plot in Central and South America. More than once, shipping on the Great Lakes was interrupted by British patrols.

The federal government had grown during the Civil War and since then business had boomed. The coffers were full and the size of government began to diminish. Arthur ran a surplus and cut excise taxes.

The spoils system, started by Democrat Andrew Jackson, had become a monster that consumed itself in the case of Garfield’s murder for the label disappointed office seeker stuck to Guiteau ever after, and the longstanding minority voices calling for a reform of the civil service were reinvigorated and now heard afresh. The example of the 1854 Northcote–Trevelyan Reforms in Great Britain the generation before was cited and speakers spread the word as did newspapers. The result became the Pendleton Act of 1883 which Arthur, a creature of the spoils system, signed into law, ending the very system that had made him. Ironies of ironies.

Pendleton act toon.jpg

It slowly established civil service examinations for entry, seniority for promotions, ended levies of political contributions from salaries, and myriad of other things. Democrat George Pendleton of Ohio sponsored the legislation in the Senate. When its centenary came in 1983, I was sorry to see it pass pretty much in silence.

The Republicans had long been complacent of their domination of federal politics, but a rude awakening was delivered in the mid-term Congressional elections in November 1882 with Democrats sweeping into majorities in both houses. As a last ditch effort to redeem itself in the eyes of a jaded electorate the old Republicans who still dominated Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which had been languishing in committee for years, to claim the mantle of reform before the new members of Congress were invested in March 1883 and preparations began for the November 1884 presidential election.

One effect of the Pendleton Act was to drive political parties into the arms of business and later trade unions to seek money to campaign the length and breadth of the land. The toxic embrace endures today.

The immediate effect was to undercut Arthur’s support in New York which was entirely based on patronage. The Pendleton Act pleased no one. For the reformers it was not enough and for the spoilsmen is was too much. Thus Arthur alienated his allies and did not win any new friends to replace them. At last Blaine got the nomination for 1884.

Arthur's high living had also caught up with him in a combination of internal ailments which left him weakened. He died shortly after leaving office at fifty-seven.

Karabel.jpg Zachary Karabell

This was an easy book to read and it is sprinkled with insights and some very well turned phrases. It is odd that the author seems deliberately to turn away from the obvious fact that Arthur systematically used public office for his own private enrichment. Yes, others, too, did so but they were not president and he was and they are not the subject of this book and he is. It is also disconcerting to see several references to Thomas Reeves, ‘Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester A. Arthur’ (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975) as the authoritative biography. It made me think I should have been reading that. As is the case with books in this series, this one is not based on primary research but rather synthesises existing biographies, and so it remains at a distance from the subject and a reader feels that.

Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) was the fourteenth president of the United States, 1853-1856.

His father had been a New Hampshire militiaman in the Revolutionary War, and his two older brothers had carried muskets in the War of 1812 against Great Britain. Pierce grew up in a family that was among the founders of the new nation, and self-conscious of it.

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His war leadership put his father into the governor’s chair in Concord, and the boy Franklin accompanied him on his rounds of meeting voters throughout the Granite State. He was suckled on politics.

He was an indifferent student, preferring the recreation of an outdoorsman, killing: hunting and fishing. He was clean cut and of pleasant appearance. Not so handsome to make men jealous but nonetheless attractive to women. He also had learned, observing his father, how to get along with people with whom one had little in common.

The political parties at the time were decaying and re-newing. In the first generation of the republic the two alignments had been the Federalists, who favoured a strong central government for defence, supported by taxation versus the Anti-Federalist, who favoured 'that government which governs least.' Among the Federalist was Alexander Hamilton and among the Anti-Federalist was Thomas Jefferson.

The cleavage between these two blocs was partly regional with New England and the mid-Atlantic states generally favouring the Federalists, while the tidewater and southern states were the home of the Anti-Federalists.

Because they lived by trade, the Federalists states wanted the central government to impose tariffs on imports, build harbours and roads, and guarantee banks to further their business interests.

The Anti-Federalist feared these powers would disadvantage their plantation economy based on slavery. They were also mindful that the Constitution's provisions for slavery were tenuous, and feared a strong central government, dominated by Northerners, would undo some of the Constitutional measures sheltering slavery.

Collision occurred when local improvements, like docks and ports, were bruited and when a Bank of the United States was chartered to regulate and guarantee private banks.

To Anti-Federalist each of these initiatives was unwelcome because each enlarged the federal government. Moreover, taxes on their goods would pay for piers in Boston Harbour and roads in New York state. Meanwhile, the goods the south imported would suffer a heavy tariff. So went the argument in the South.

It was masked as states’ rights. That old sour song still heard today. The champion of this repertoire in Pierce’s time was Andrew Jackson and the Democratic party he created. Though when Old Hickory became president he did not hesitate to use the powers of the Federal government against the states. Go figure.

Meanwhile, with the passing of the Adams dynasty, the Federalists evolved into the Whig Party which advocated the rule of law, a written and unchanging constitution, and protections for minority interests against majority tyranny. It was business friendly. Four presidents served that party, William Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore.

Generalisations aside, Pierce became a Democrat, swimming against the tide in Federalist and Whig New Hampshire. In this study there is no explanation for this initial affiliation. Car license plates bear the state motto: ‘Live free or die.’

License plate.jpg

These words graced the New Hampshire colonial flag in the Revolutionary War. It has been the only state where seat belts are not mandatory, and cigarette advertising is not constrained.

Pierce actively opposed local improvements in the Granite State, the state nickname, to stay the dreaded hand of big government, and that led him to a seat in the state legislature where he proved an effective organiser of interests and votes, and companionable fellow. After five years or so he ran for Congress, and the same state legislature elected him and off he went to Washington to curb the dragon in its lair.

His young wife stayed in New Hampshire for her health was and remained fragile. In D.C. he got along with Whigs personally but was a staunch Democrat.

The next step was the Senate and the New Hampshire legislature voted him into one of the state’s seats, and back he went to Washington. However, he stayed only a few months and resigned.


Multiple causation, perhaps. First, his wife, Jane, refused to go to the swamp of D.C. Second, Pierce had taken the temperance pledge with his father and brothers, and he found it difficult to stay dry in D.C. where he shared a house with four other congressmen who did drink alcohol. To escape the clutches of demon rum, he returned to Concord.

It also seems to this reader that Pierce, after the novelty wore off in D.C., found himself a small fish in a big pond and he did not like that. Back in New Hampshire his was a name with which to be reckoned and so he went back there.


His wife briefly thought he would quit politics and into legal practice, but no. He became chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and he ruled that very effectively. He recruited leading lights of towns and villages across the state as members, travelled the state to seek them out, and placed an absolute premium on party unity. No dissent was tolerated. Office holders soon found that an unguarded comment contrary to party policy would see them recalled, unendorsed, banned, and otherwise disciplined. No exceptions. No warnings. No second chances. He was one-man nomeclatura.

Then came the Mexican War. Pierce had no military experience or interest but he knew that he could not sit it out, though he did not rush to volunteer: to be a simple soldier would not be enough for his ego, it seems. After a few months the Granite State governor, acting on a request from Washington D.C. to raise troops, commissioned Pierce a colonel to raise a regiment. He did, and proved himself again an expert organiser.

By the time his ship got to Vera Cruz the war had moved inland and it fell to him to organise the supply line. He did that very well.

However, the three times his command came under hostile fire, he was nowhere to be found… The author gives him the benefit of the doubt (illness, injury, and indisposition) but the men in his command did not. He was widely criticised by the mumblers in the ranks who were all New Hampshire men. But somehow he lived that down by assiduous application to the logistics duty that had fallen to him.

While in Mexico he met many others from across the country whose paths he would cross again later. That service was like a seminar for a future generation of national political and military leaders.

The Whig Party was dividing over the single issue of the day — slavery, masked behind rhetoric of states rights. It had northern and southern wings and within each there were further divisions over the details of the package of measures known collectively as the Compromise of 1850.

The prospects for Democrats were good. In New Hampshire Pierce’s name was bruited as a presidential candidate, but there were others with better, national profiles. Pierce followed the advice of an associate and postured. He had, he said in a published letter, no interest in a higher office that would take him out of New Hampshire….unless he was called to it. It was an obvious signal that he was waiting for the call.

His tactic was to wait and see if the front runners — Lewis Cass, James Buchanan, William Marcy, and Stephen Douglas — would defeat each other and in so doing, exhaust the nominating convention. They did, refusing to compromise among themselves.

After more than forty ballots in Baltimore, Pierce’s name was put forth, and a few ballots later he won the nomination. He became the Democratic candidates in the election of 1852. He was fifth choice.

As was the custom of the day, he did not campaign but remained at home. His supporters did the grunt mostly through the myriad of small town newspapers.

Meanwhile, the Whigs continued their immolation with contending candidates and opposing declarations of intransigence. The incumbent president, Millard Fillmore, a Whig, was denied re-nomination in favour of the Mexican War hero Winfield Scott who was vehemently opposed by southern Whigs as unreliable on slavery. Instead they advocated abstention. Fillmore flirted with the Free Soil Party which favoured opposed the spread of slavery into new states. Scott did nothing .... to court Southern voters. Scott did very little. He had a well deserved reputation for sloth and he lived up to it.

Strangely enough there was a third party candidate, one from New Hampshire, who ran as a Free Soil candidate. Remember those mumblers in the ranks? He got their votes.

Pierce won by a landslide and that was the beginning of the end for the Whig Party, but it left him with a very large party that was anything but united. His Electoral College vote was five times that of Scott, whose political career ended then and there. Congress, too, was replete with Democrats. One of the states where the vote was closest was...New Hampshire.

Super-majorities are invariably undisciplined, and this was never more true that with the huge Democratic majority that assembled in Washington, D.C.

Pierce stuck rigidity to his conception of unity by adherence to the strict letter of the law, even when those letters, having emerged from compromises in Congress, were deliberately vague. In each and every matter, Pierce, after some confused posturing in convoluted messages to Congress, would side with the interpretation of the murky laws taken by the slave-states, perhaps because of his Jeffersonian DNA which rejected any role for the Federal government in nearly anything.

The Compromise of 1850, a set of measures that admitted California to the Union, thereby upsetting the exact balance of the Senate between slave and free states, imposed the Fugitive Slave Act, and proposed local sovereignty on the question of slavery in two future states in Utah and New Mexico (very far in the future). The Fugitive Slave Act made it a Federal crime for any citizen not actively to apprehend a fugitive slave with the presumption that all blacks were slaves. It kindled significant and protests in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois and elsewhere. In effect northerners were charged to impose slavery.


Then there was Nebraska! At this time the term Nebraska referred to everything west of the Missouri River marking the boundary with Iowa to the Canadian border, and west to Oregon territory. It included everything north of the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Today that would be Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Kansas.

Land hungry immigrants, perhaps three million of them, were pushing west and railroads wanted to bridge the continent to the legendary riches of California. But the vast tract of Nebraska was lawless and government-less as well as roadless. To sell land to migrants, to license railroads the land had to be surveyed and governed. Hence the pressure to create territories, as the first step to states.

Compromise of 1850.gif The Unorganised Territory was called Nebraska.

The prospect of more new states threatened further to erode the Southern block in the Senate, and slave interest mobilized. First to stop any development in Nebraska, but that failed because the pressure was too great from migrants at the bottom and railway magnates at the top of the demand curve. The second line of defence of the slave states was to revert to the Missouri Compromise formula of 1820 and admit states two-at-a-time, one slave, one free. This proposal galvanised a reaction from the abolitionists in New England, small in number but mighty in pen. Pierce had a visceral reaction to these agitators.

The result was the Nebraska War in which settlers poured into the area to vote in a plebiscite on slavery. Abolitionist arrived from the north and thousands of Missouri slave holders crossed the river long enough to vote and then leave. Since the easiest access was through St Louis, contending parties often encountered each other along the way and the first skirmishes of the Nebraska War occurred in St Louis.

The South won this war by stacking the electoral rolls with far more voters than did the abolitionists, thanks to the proximity of Missouri, and they voted into office in Kansas, a pro-slavery territory government situated in Lawrence which applied for statehood as a slave state. In many locales the votes for the slavery outnumbered the voters by a multiple of five. The electoral fraud was extensive and blatant enough to make a Florida Republican proud.

The abolitionists, called Free Soil, who wanted to keep all blacks out of Kansas, free or slave (unless they could play football), challenged the legitimacy of this territory government and set up their own rival Free Soil government in Topeka. What a devil’s brew this was! Does this explain why the Interstate Highway to Topeka today has a toll, unlike every other Interstate? (Yes, I have read the official explanation and I know there is a similar instance in Pennsylvania.)

Pierce sided immediately and unequivocally with what he said was the legitimate government in Lawrence and prepared to send in the army to support it. Of course that was the very point at issue, was it the legitimate government? Even some of Pierce’s own cabinet thought it was not, and suggested alternatives, like another closely supervised election.

Pierce viewed that as equivocating, and I suspect also from the tone of his recorded remarks he also took that suggestion as a slight on his person, and rather than admit a mistake, he redoubled his efforts to bolster the Lawrence government. The result was the Jayhawk War between the factions in Kansas which caught in the middle many of those land hungry migrants. In this war the United States Army took the part of the slave-favoring government in Lawrence. This step inked the printing presses of the abolitionists for whom Pierce was the slave master in chief.

Three years into his administration, Pierce was hailed in the south as a true friend of the Constitution, i.e., the slavery enshrined in it, and widely reviled in the north, foremost by the abolitionists, but also by northern mercantile interests who found that in many other smaller ways he favoured the agricultural interests of South over their interests. Western migrants also disliked the use of the army to impose policy. That was too much like back home in Europe.

While Pierce’s public statements were full of patriotic fervour about his love of the United States, specifics were absent. Like so many since and now, he seemed to have disliked most of the reality while declaiming his love for the abstract, ever ready to embrace the flag on the stage, but not a person in the street. It is ever thus.

Further, the Democratic Party was suffering some earthquakes within its ranks, as the subsurface plates of North versus South and East versus West shifted. Ambitious rivals like Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan paraded their wares. While Douglas has been deeply involved in the politicking that led to the impass, Buchanan had been United States ambassador to London and was free of baggage. Douglas was energetic and brash, while Buchanan was discrete and subtle.

Pierce wanted renomination, but soon realised it was impossible. Like Fillmore and Tyler before him, he was cast aside by his party. The nominee was Buchanan, who then won the Presidential election, thanks to the continuing mutually assured destruction of the Whigs.

Pierce repaired to New Hampshire to sulk after the inauguration of his successor, which he handled with some dignity.

Events rolled on, and when the Civil War came he could not resist some ‘I told you so' public remarks that aroused the censors. To their inquiries he reacted in high dungeon. None of this was a productive turn of events. He made it worse by his belligerence, and, indeed, his remarks, as quoted in these pages sympathise with the South as the wronged party. Additionally, the timing was as bad as possible, because he made these remarks on 4 July 1863 even as news of the great Union victory at Gettysburg was on the telegraph wires. Some suspected he was a Copperhead or at least a Doughface. The former is an active Confederate agent and the latter a trustworthy sympathiser.

His wife continued to live with her sister, suffering from and finally succumbing to tuberculous. The last of the children died in a train derailment when the Mr and Mrs Pierce were travelling to Washington for his inauguration. It was terrible shock to both of them and she never got over it. He seems to have sublimated it.

He turned himself into a farmer and spent some of his time with Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose high opinion of Pierce is the one thing that give me pause, for Hawthorne was an insightful man. How else could he have written ‘The Scarlet Letter’ with a nose for hypocrisy as per 'The Blithedale Romance.'

Pierce turned ever more to drink and died of liver disease in a few years. Visitors to his farm had often found him in a stupor.

Like so many other presidents, Pierce had no contact with his VIce-President, William King, who was a supporter of Buchanan. In fact, King was sworn in as Vice-President by the American counsel in Havana, where King had gone to seek relief from tuberculous. He died a month after taking the oath. He was a Vice President who never foot in Washington D.C. That left the President Pro Tem of the Senate as next in line for three years and ten months.

The book reads like a synthesis of existing knowledge and not original research. There are no quotations from any personal letters by Pierce. I guess that is inevitable in a series where the emphasis is on complete coverage and not originality.

So what?

Holt Michael.jpg Michael Holt

The result is quite a distance from the subject because the author has no evident first hand contact with the subject, i.e., he has not held the letters or papers Pierce wrote, nor visited the sites in New Hampshire, nor looked at the local newspapers, but instead harvests from other studies who authors have done that. It is called desk research.

This is the completion of an excellent biography of a singular military and political leader.

When Finland created itself in 1917, Mannerheim was the man of the hour.

Mannerheim cover.jpg

From the summer of 1917 to 1919 Finland was a land, with ill-defined borders, of conflict. In the textbook history, there were two overlapping wars. The Independence (sometimes Liberation) War to drive the Russians, be they Czarists or Bolsheviks, of Finland, and a Civil War between Red Finns and White Finns. These two conflicts overlapped and intwined.

White Russians wanted aid from White Finns in their own civil war in Russia, and Red Finns wanted help from the Bolsheviks in Russia in their struggles in Finland.

greater_finland___suur_suomi_by_fenn_o_manic-d37b4j8.png Greater Finland, some maps also include Estonia in this national ambition in the same way that some maps in Jakarta include all of New Guinea island as part of a Greater Indonesia.

Both the Western Allies and Germany, even while at war with each other, wanted to stem the spread of Bolshevism. But the Allies did not want the Germans gaining influence in Finland. Mannerheim tried to get support from the Western Allies, but they were in no position to offer material aid in 1917.

The criss-crossing of these aspirations and allegiances is detailed in the book in a concise and lucid way. Some of the belligerents stuck to their position regardless of reality.

Mannerheim changed with the times, slowly and reluctantly, but change he did.

He did try to negotiate with White Russians on joint action to drive the Bolsheviks out St Petersburg, as he always called it, in return for which the White Russians would acknowledge Finnish sovereignty. The White Russians refused to countenance Finnish autonomy. They stuck to their guns and went down.

FinnishCivilWarMapMiddle.svg.png North is white and south is red.

He created a Finnish Army that disarmed and expelled the Czarist garrisons in Finland, some thirty thousand of them, closed the border against the Bolsheviks, and defeated the Red Finns in a civil war by systemic and methodical action. The Red Finns had dominated Helsinki and southern Finland.

Civilwar murders.jpg The caption says it is White solders murdering Red prisoners.

The Finnish Council wanted a speedy resolution and appealed to Germany for help, which was offered and German troops, freed from the Eastern Front by the collapse of the Czarist regime, though a state of war continued between German and Russia, were sent to Finland. This was presented to Mannerheim as a fait accompli, and he grizzled at it. He stressed that Finland had to be created by Finns, though he said that in Swedish. He also insisted that the Germans play only a supporting role.

Instead it was the Germans who defeated the Red Finns in Helsinki, and this outraged Mannerheim, but he swallowed it. It was a done deal, though it left a long and bitter aftertaste.

Then another comic opera ensued. Finland now had to have a constitution, and the self-appointed leaders decided on a monarchy and in early 1918 invited a German prince from Hesse to be king of Finland. He dickered on terms in great detail about everything from regalia, to aide-de-camps, to caviar so long that, well the German Western Front collapsed, and even the most stubborn Finns realised setting up a German in Helsinki was not a good idea. If the Prince of Hesse had not stuck to his guns he might have slipped in a Finnish throne before the fall.

For about eighteen months as the Civil War wound down, and while a new constitution was formed and then changed, the Finnish Council named Mannerhiem Regent. He was at once Commander-in-Chief of the armed force and head of state. He got the Germans out and spent a lot of time courting the Western Allies.

The war made Mannerheim a Finn as never before, but it also made him a White Finn in the eyes of Red Finns and their sympathisers and supporters in their defeat. He was polarising, even divisive figure. That would change.

The revised constitution called for a President and a Prime Minister on the French model. The President elected and the Prime Minister the leader of a majority in the parliament. How then to elect the president. It was common for such officials to be elected by the legislature, The alternative was direct popular election. No one doubted that Mannerheim would win a popular election.

But he had many enemies in the parliament. The Agrarians of the right thought him Russian in disguise. The Liberals of the centre thought he was a Swedish coloniser. The few remaining socialists of the left hatred him because of the Civil War. The Conservatives suspected he would be a dictator. He would not win election in a parliamentary vote.

Mannerheim recognised the election of the first president in the new, sovereign constitution was a very important event for the future harmony and stability of the country and so in the interest of stability he accepted a parliamentary vote without argument. In due course, he was a candidate and lost decisively. Think of Churchill in July 1945 losing.

From 1920 to 1932 he was a private citizen, if a former supreme commander and head of state can be that. He traveled in Europe and became an unofficial representative of Finland, much to the annoyance of the foreign minister in Helsinki. His aim was to affirm Finland's sovereignty, and win it friends and support in Western Europe against the tides of the future.

In Finland he remained a popular figure in the public mind, apart from socialists; his political enemies, the full spectrum from left to right, blackened his name at any and all opportunities. This was another reason to travel abroad.

Thanks to the influence of his sister, Sophie, when he retuned to Helsinki, he threw himself into good works and became president of the Finnish Red Cross where he was not content to be a figurehead on the letterhead. Instead he developed training and recruitment. He also strove to raise money and succeeded.

Then in the 1930s the political leadership realised that the League of Nations’ collective security would not protect Finland from the predators, especially the Soviet Union which had reactivated the Czarists claims to the whole country. Mannerheim was made chief of defence in a convoluted arrangement that was neither military nor political, but a little of both. In effect, he was chairman of a defence advisory committee. He was appointed head of the national militia, not the army. There followed another comic opera.

Was he entitled to a uniform? If so what kind? When could he wear it? And so and on. All of this had to be decided by a committee. He wanted symbols of office and others wanted to deny him those appurtenances. Meanwhile, the Soviets built roads to the border, dredged anchorages on the coastal approaches to Finland, flew over Finnish air space to photograph the ground, and so on, while in Helsinki they argued about tailoring. And to the south Hitler was arming Germany with bellicose claims about the oneness of Nordic peoples and threats to Danzig on the Baltic. While in Helsinki they argued about tailoring.

The impasse was broken when the national militia declared Mannerheim an honourary field marshal and presented him with a baton of command. This presentation was widely publicised because Mannerheim had learned to use the press, while his enemies had not. In the end, the parliament, begrudgingly, made him a field marshal of the regular army. But he only and always carried the first baton bestowed on him by soldiers, not parliamentarians.

He became a one-man lobby for increased defence spending, conscription, training, fortifications, aircraft, warships, a medical corps, and so on. He invited newspaper editors to dinners and argued his case with them. He also tried hard to secure an alliance with England and France and when that receded, he then tried for a Nordic defence pact but Sweden would not jeopardise its neutrality, on the assumption that the Russian bear would be content to eat Finland.

He also made an effort to learn Finnish. He had dabbled at this for years without systematic application. He selected two aide-de-camps who spoke only Finnish, and that meant he had to speak Finnish to them, to get a file, to get a match for a cigarette, to bring the car around for trip, to telephone newspaper editors…… He also hired a tutor who worked with him an hour every night. Then there were small dinner parties of four or five Finnish-speakers. These were not business meetings, not were they pleasure, but rather language practica. When this man decided to do something, he did it. In a few years he could speak enough Finnish to give speeches broadcast on radio, and read it, but he could never quite write it properly and retained an assistant especially for that purpose.

When he began inspecting troops, and interviewing field officers, he had cue cards in his pockets to remind himself what to say and how to say it.

Even in 1938 there were parliamentarians who assumed there would be no war that would involve Finland. Wrong! The Baltic Sea would be a prime battleground as Mannerheim saw it. That is one reason why he courted England with the Royal Navy.

Winter war map.jpg The Soviet offensive.

Perhaps Mannheim’s most decisive achievement before the Winter War was to change the method of mobilisation. Instead of gathering troops at a few central points, arming them, and then transporting them to the front he changed the locus of organisation to many local levels and distributed the arms and accoutrements of war to warehouses throughout the east parts of the county. Mobilisation would them involve much less transportation, though it dispersed control.

When the Soviet attacked, Finns responded much more quickly thanks to this dispersal of men and armaments. It also left much more leeway for local commanders to use their own judgement, which many did to good effect. He had also implemented a training program for these local commanders to learn the best exercise of that judgement.

winter-war.jpg Finnish troops using reindeer as beasts of burden.

Though Mannerheim knew that details mattered, he never seems to have been a micro-manager.

The Winter War started in November 1939 while Germany and the Soviet Union were dividing up Poland. The Soviets had strategic and historic reasons to attack and they arranged a pretext, taking a page from Hitler’s Poland book. In the first phrase about 400.000 Soviet troops attacked about 150,000 Finns.

The Soviets were better equipped and that became a liability. their heavy tanks and trucks had to use roads through the forests or cross frozen waters. The Finns used those passages as choke points. Most of the Soviet effort was around Leningrad but there was also a strike above the Arctic Circle. This first Soviet offensive failed with terrible losses.

Stalin reacted as Stalin did. He murdered scores of Soviet generals, and formed a new offensive on an even larger scale. Soviet manpower in the army was unlimited compared to Finland. The second offensive included 600,000 troops.

The Finns resisted along the so-called Mannerheim Line in the South. It was nothing like the Maginot Line, representing the places where geography favoured the Finnish defence in the forests and lakes. Elsewhere the white-clad Finns concentrated on behind the lines raids to harass, slow, and deflect the invaders.

Resistance was futile, and many efforts to secure weapons and support from the West and Scandinavia failed. The Soviets offered negotiations, perhaps realising that to vanquish Finland might lead to a military clash with either Germany in Norway, or even the Western Allies.

Mannerhiem war-2.jpg Field Marshall Mannheim at his desk in early 1944.

Mannerheim strove to hold onto Finnish territory until spring thaws would clog roads and melt ice, which together would immobilise the Soviets. The spring was late, and the Treaty of Moscow was concluded in April 1940 on very hard terms. Perhaps 20% of Finland would annexed by the victors, and its population relocated to the rump of Finland. Financial reparations were exacted, paid for mostly by metals and minerals and control of Baltic islands. This might well have been the first bite, with another to follow.

A kind of peace ensued. Mannerheim had been made Commander-in-Chief of all arms during the war and that authority rolled on. His sway with the parliament was great now, because so many of them had been discredited for supposing no war would come, for cutting defence budgets, for not denouncing the Soviet Union earlier enough and loud enough, and for fleeing while the army fought on.

The Finnish national day had been heretofore the day that marked that the end of civil war. To the Reds of Finland that was a day of ignominy. Mannerheim changed the national day to coincide with the defeat in the Winter War. He saw in the months of the Winter War, as did nearly all others, one Finland, neither White nor Red.

If Finland made itself a geo-political entity — a state — in 1917, in 1940 the Soviet made Finland socially into one people — a nation.

From mid-1940, as World War II unfolded, Mannerheim assumed that the two colossi would clash and the Finland would be in the middle. While he did not favour an alliance with Germany, which was on offer, there would now never be any reconciliation with the Soviet Union. The Western Allies were too far away, and France was out of the war, and could not be counted on for support.

Once again he prepared Finland for the next war. Only locally made equipment could be had, but the army was doubled in size.

In the weeks before Operation Barbarossa, the Germans made demands on Finland for passage from far northern Norway to Russia, and the Finns agreed.

The Germans were so intent on practical matters, that they did not press the Finns for a formal alliance. The Finns, for their part, agreed to fight the Soviet, but only if the Soviet first attacked Finland. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the Finns held their positions and waited. Sure enough a few days in the battle and the Soviets began bombing and shelling Finnish territory and the Finns became co-belligerants.

It is a technical point that later was of paramount importance.

The Germans had offered Mannerheim supreme command of all troops in Finland, German and Finn. He declined. That would have brought 250,000 German combat troops from the Arctic Circle to the Baltic Sea under his command, along with the 650,000 Finns in uniform. However that would also have made him subordinate of German High Command in Berlin, and he wanted scope to act independently in the interest of Finland, not as ordered from Berlin.

As much as 20% of the Finnish population was in uniform, including scores of thousands of women. It was prodigious national effort that could not be sustained long.

His prudence also meant that he directed the Finnish war effort at strategic targets rather than symbolic ones. Ergo the Finnish advances cut-off Leningrad from the north but did not directly attack Leningrad. Another fine point that later proved crucial. He assumed no subsequent government in Russia would forgive or forget an attack on that city so the Finns would not attack it.

To stress the Finnish nature of the conflict, Finns called it the Continuation War, the war that continued the Winter War. Every effort was made to keep it separate from the German war so that Finnish interest were seen as separate. Finland was divided into a northern and southern zones and the Germans in Lapland had the north. That meant that when the Germans attacked in the north the Finns did not support it. Rather they held their defensive positions much to the outrage of the Germans.

It was widely assumed in 1941 that Germany would knock the Soviet Union out of the war just as it had done in 1917, either directly or by precipitating a regime change.

The Finns in the south advanced to the 1939 border and stopped there and remained on the defensive. In the north the Germans were unable to cut the Murmansk railroad, and that failure registered with Mannerheim. The stout Soviet defence of Murmansk and the railroad led him to conclude that the Soviet regime would not be knocked out, nor would the regime topple.

Thereafter the prospect of a separate peace with the Soviet Union was discussed among Finns.

Hitler wanted to draw Finland closer as his Soviet invasion faltered, and a Fuhrer-visit was proposed.

Hitler_Mannerheim_2.jpg Hitler and Mannerheim deep in the north woods.

Mannerhein advised the government against it, and himself stalled. Finally it was agreed that Hitler would attend Mannerheim's 75th birthday lunch. On the grounds that he could not leave the front, this was held in a forest in east Finland with few guests and no media, apart from the offical photographers.

Instead of state visit in Helsinki with parades, flowers, presentations, speeches there was a two-hour lunch followed by coffee with a few candid photographs.

Inevitably, as we now know, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1944 with a numerical advantage of ten to one, and the front crumbled. The Finns fell back to the second line, to the third line…. Mannerheim told the government that one more push from the Soviets and it was over.

However, the push did not come. Instead Soviet troops transferred south to concentrate on the advance on Germany, while Finland imploded.

Any effort at a separate peace would invite German retaliation, but with no separate peace the Soviets would sooner or later attack again. To walk this fine line the parliamentarians, who were on a carousel by this time, changing governments weekly, proposed uniting civil and military power in Mannerheim. He declined several times but finally agreed and the parliament made him president while he retained the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and Marshal of Finland. The feeling was that only Mannerheim had the domestic moral authority to convince the populace to comply but not to lose hope. That only he had the authority to convince the Germans that Finland was serious about leaving war, and the Soviets that it would honour an agreement.

He set about securing a separate peace and preparing for conflict with the Germans. While Finland was a co-belligerent, Germany had been supplying much fuel, war material, and food. Once the rumour of a separate peace circulated these supplies stopped. In anticipation of just such a reaction Mannerheim had been stockpiling supplies for about a month beforehand.

The Soviet demands were territorial, financial, and moral. They wanted back east Karelia and to move the boundary on the Karelian isthmus north, huge reparations, and a treaty of friendship of the kind it had had with Estonia. (Gulp!) The Finns conceded the territory and the reparations but bargained away the treaty in favour of guarantees of neutrality. It was a return to the 1940 post-Winter War borders with a financial burden on top.

It may seem to have been wasted effort, but there was no third way for Finland. Had it not entered the war, the Soviets would likely have occupied the whole country to control the Baltic, and stayed. Sweden was far enough away to be neutral, but Finland was not. Had the Finns not entered the war, the Germans might have occupied the whole country and set up a puppet regime as it had done elsewhere, and used Finnish resources for German ends.

Finland was the only associate of either German or the Soviet Union to keep its independence and to continue its internal way of life, e.g., parliamentary democracy and religious freedom. Despite pressure Jews were not deported. Indeed Mannheim attended a memorial in a synagogue in Helsinki for fallen Jewish soldiers in the Finnish army, a fact reported in the local press.

In addition to the other terms, the Soviets also wanted the Finns to expel the German army in the North, some 250,000 Alpine troops around the Arctic Circle besieging Murmansk. This led to another conflict, called in Finnish history, the Lapland War. The exhausted, defeated, undermanned, ill-equipped Finnish army turned north to push the Germans back into Norway at the behest of the Soviets. While this was a low level conflict compared to what was going on elsewhere, another one thousand Finnish soldiers were killed.

This tumultuous period in sum:

Winter War April 1939 - May 1940
Interim Peace 1940 - 1941
Continuation War June 1941 - April 1944
Moscow truce 1944 ended Continuation War
Lapland War April 1944 - May 1945
Peace 1945

The War of Liberation, the War of Independence, the Finnish Civil War 1917-1919 made the geographic entity Finland. However it was the Winter War together with the Continuation War that made Finns into a single people. The national unity, especially in the Continuation War was palpable, and Mannerheim did everything he could to nurture and encourage it. He ended the celebrations and symbols of the Civil War, and created instead public holidays, awards, and recognition for contributions to these two later wars with the Soviet Union.

With the end of the Continuation War a Soviet Control Commission set up in Helsinki and intervened deeply into Finnish politics, society, and economy, but not as deeply as in the Baltic, eastern, or central Europe. There was no puppet government and sometimes negotiation was possible. But parliamentary candidates, court appointments, factory rebuilding, and more all had to be approved by the Soviet Control Commission, which in turn referred decisions to Moscow. The Soviets ensured that Finland did not receive aid from the Marshall Plan.

In 1948 many Finns, including Mannerheim assumed a communist putsch would occur in Helsinki as it had in Prague. He burned many archival papers at the time, and army officers cached weapons in anticipation of another, guerrilla war.

Mannerheim resigned as domestic politics went back to the old ways of backstabbing and undermining, much of it encouraged by the Soviet Control Commission which preferred disunity. His health was deteriorating and he spent time in Portugal and Switzerland, where he secretly worked on his memoirs. In the memoirs he tried to set the record straight, as he recalled it.

He died in 1951 at age 84. Even in death he polarised the society. Some wanted a state funeral and others opposed it, believe it or not. The army pretty much forced the issue and it was a state funeral which was boycotted by the communists in parliament.

Mannerheimin_statue.jpg Equestrian statue of Mannerheim in Helsinki.

On 5 December 2004, Mannerheim was voted the greatest Finnish person of all time in the Suuret suomalaiset (Great Finns) contest.

There were twenty years between the first and second volume, yet the level of analysis, handling of sources, expression are continuous. Well done.

The book is a model of economy, presenting vast amounts of information in a few pages. Would the other authors would do likewise. This volume is a mere 250 pages but each is fully loaded.

Alexander Hamilton (1755 –1804) was widely expected to succeed George Washington as leader of the Federalist party, which advocated a strong central government. That is until he was murdered by Vice-President Aaron Burr. Yet his face is there on the ten dollar bill. To find out why, read on.

Hamilton cover.jpg

Born out of wedlock on the Danish island of St Croix in the West Indies, he was legally a bastard. His mother, a French Huguenot, died when he was fifteen and left him an orphan. He attended a rabbinical school on the island because the Christian schools would not accept a bastard. He was both intelligent and quick to catch on, but his education was basic. He went to work at fourteen for the Cruger Brothers trading company in St Croix which had headquarters in New York City. In later life he was religious, but it is not at all clear he was ever baptised.

St croix island.gif Now part of the US Virgin Islands.

When the local proprietor, Cruger, became ill and returned to New York for treatment, he left his chief clerk, the boy Hamilton, in charge for a few weeks that unexpectedly turned into months. Hamilton had lied about his age to get work by adding two or three years. As Cruger’s absence stretched over the months, Hamilton ran the business, made decisions, signed orders, negotiated prices, initiated law suits to secure payment, signed correspondence, deposited monies, honoured contracts, and took several initiatives. When the owner returned he was very pleased with Hamilton’s stewardship.

This period of management was crucial to Hamilton’s subsequent career. St Croix was part of the triangle trade in slaves, rum (sugar), and New England goods. The man-child Hamilton ran slave auctions. He bought from and sold to New England merchants, who came to know his name from these transactions.

He also drew some conclusions, albeit slowly. First that slavery was abhorrent after his first-hand experiences, and he acted on that conviction often in later life. Moreover, he concluded that those American colonies with which he was trying to do business needed a cash currency of their own, and to get that they had to be united. He also acted on this point later. Without that the business was transacted by converting Spanish dollars, to Portuguese Josephes, to British pounds, to weights of gold or silver, and so on. None of these European currencies was readily available in the New World. Hence transactions were often paid with a mix of coins, metals, and bartered goods. Moreover, a mix of currencies and coins that worked for a Massachusetts contract, did not work for a New York one, and so on and on.

A hurricane flattened St Croix, bringing business to a standstill and in the doldrums Cruger decided to send his protégé Hamilton to the United States for an education. Smart as he was, Hamilton had no systematic education and had to start from scratch to prepare for the entrance examination to the College of New Jersey, before it became the country club of Princeton, until Woodrow Wilson made it into a university. His employer’s connections put him in the company of the social and economic elite just as New York City was becoming the chief city of the American colonies.

Arriving by ship in Boston, he found it an armed camp. The ten thousand citizens were sequestered by two thousand British army regulars. There had much restiveness among the locals because the British parliament was intervening ever more directly into each colony in the search for taxes to pay debts incurred in London. The crown dissolved reluctant local assemblies. Direct taxation was introduced. Protests were ignored. Delegations to the governor(s) were met with a wall of red coats. As Edmund Burke said, the British government’s actions drove the American colonists to rebel. All of this was much discussed by his travelling companions in the week-long stage coach ride to New York City.

Some of the division was religious with Anglicans siding with the crown, and Presbyterians with the colonists. To some Anglicans to dispute the prerogatives of the crown was blasphemous as well as treasonous.

Hamilton had a box seat to observe events because the members of the New York City elite he joined were in the firing line. It was their businesses being taxed, regulated, controlled in ways never before done.

While Hamilton performed well in the Princeton entrance oral examination, he was refused a place. No explanation survives. The author speculates that his bastard origins might have become known. When Hamilton next visited at Princeton, he came with cannons (during the Revolutionary War). He then turned to King’s College in New York, which was dominated by Anglican loyalists but…needs must. In a later evolution it became Columbia University to leave behind the English connection.

The pot continued to boil and the precocious Hamilton wrote anonymous pieces for newspapers on Enlightenment rights, though largely unschooled, he had read some of John Locke and had a good turn of phrase using natural and geographic images that communicated readily. But by day he sat dutifully in class and kept his opinions to himself. He did however join one of the militia companies created by the Sons of Liberty, which drilled around the local Liberty Pole. He was good at mathematics and learned trigonometry that made him an artillery officer in no time. Later he wrote the bulk of ‘The Federalist Papers’ which was once required reading in every college American history course.

He was not particularly good-looking nor did he speak well, or have a commanding presence according to contemporary descriptions and reports. A sloping forehead, a lantern jaw, a disproportion among his features, close-set eyes were described by his friends. Some of these were later masked by artistic technique in portraits.

Hamilton portrait.jpg Alexander Hamilton

But he did have brains and a will to match which took the form of an enormous appetite for work.

First and foremost, he was Washington’s chief of staff during the last half of the Revolutionary War, and Hamilton did much to win it. He founded the Artillery Corps, and made the first plan of acquisition and use of cannons. He wrote the Infantry Drill Regulations, the training manual of the US Army, and he trained much of George Washington’s Continental Army with it in hand. He was twenty-three at the time. As a field commander he promoted men from the ranks to officers, and this outraged many of his social superiors, but he persisted, and prevailed. He outraged still others by advocating, proposing, and planning to emancipate slaves to help repel the British in the south. On this one he did not prevail but antagonised many. Washington supported both these latter initiatives, but even his prestige was inadequate to the second proposal.

One of the many ironies is that South Carolina refused to consider freeing and arming slaves, and Charleston was then duly invested by the British who promptly freed its slaves and enlisted them in the British navy, about 2000 in all. By the way, Dr. Copeland, the indomitable black physician in Carson McCullers's 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' (1940) named one of his children after Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton was slandered by the Tea Party of the day for his bastard birth, his lack of parents, his Jewish education, and his foreign birth. An orphan, a bastard, a semi-jew, and foreigner. Imagine what Trump Donald would make of that. 'What a loser!' For several years while attached to General George Washington's staff, Hamilton was responsible for all prisoners of war. He negotiated with the British many times to exchange prisoners, to improve living conditions for Americans imprisoned, to seek compassionate release for individuals, to create a schedule of exchanges, to procure medical treatment and food for both American held by the British and for British held by Americans. For his trouble, rivals labeled him a British spy. With the same scruple, when the French entered the war as an ally, the native French-speaker Hamilton became Washington’s liaison with the French. As he spoke French with them, rivals labeled him a traitor for revealing secrets to these foreigners. It is easy to image Fox News mangling all this into one of its outraged broadcasts.

Burr and Hamilton crossed paths many times, first, in the Continental Army, where Burr served a general who hated George Washington and all who served with him, a hate the good subordinate Burr internalised. They were also thrown together after the war in legal studies and in their careers in law. Though neither was important enough to the other to figure in any of the surviving letters from that period. Later when Hamilton bought a house in New York City, Burr was the conveyancing lawyer for the vendor.

Perhaps because of his background, Hamilton tried to be more of a gentleman than anyone a gentleman by birth. Ergo he was ever alert to insults and slanders, and challenged to a duel more than one person he perceived to have slighted him. The first few of these challegenees declined the honour. Washington himself rebuked him for doing this, supposing there were more pressing matters at hand.

While he was de facto chief of staff for General Washington, his official capacity was an aide-de-camp, a messenger, and the highest rank he achieved was lieutenant-colonel. As an aide-de-camp he could go no higher. Ambitious as he was, and sure that the war would end in a British defeat, he wanted to rise higher, and left Washington’s service to seek a field command in order to do so. There was a rupture of sorts, though each regretted it and said so, but Hamilton got a command with the New York militia and played a decisive role in the final attacks at Yorktown, leaving the army as a full colonel and a reputation for success on the field of battle. His attack at Yorktown was coordinated with the French army there, and proved to be the end.

He married into a wealthy Dutch family but strove always to live off his own meagre income, as a soldier, public servant, lawyer, and author. That was not easy and his wife often took the children back to the paternal estate on the Hudson River.

Washington made him Secretary of the Treasury and he worked like a demon to make the USA a viable economy, through a sinking fund, a national debt, debt consolidation, the mint, the dollar, the reserve bank, tariffs, customs, and more. He won compliance from the states by assuming their debts from the Revolutionary War. Somehow he found time to ease Vermont's secession from New Hampshire and entrance into the Union as the fourteenth state. He worked twenty hours a day for many stretches, far more than any of the clerks employed in the Treasury who arrived at work each day to find trays full of directives, orders, draft letters Hamilton had written overnight. At one time he employed twenty-seven clerks exclusively working for him.

Though a native French speaker, and an admirer of French writers and fashion, he foresaw ‘the special relationship’ between the United States and Great Britain and worked at repairing relations with England, first through commerce and later through some unofficial diplomacy, which aroused the animosity of the French lobby in the person of Thomas Jefferson.

During the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800), President Adams commissioned Washington as Commander in Chief who appointed Hamilton a major-general. Since that war was mostly maritime, Hamilton bent himself to enhancing the US Navy and together with President Adams he can be credited one of its chief founders.

Aaron Burr.jpg Aaron Burr, one time Vice President who murdered Hamilton and was later tried for treason at the order of Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton was never much of a husband to Betsy, the shy, retiring, insecure, hesitant, ill wife who bore him five children; he preferred the company of her vivacious, extroverted, well-read, worldly sister Angelica, but there is no reason to believe it was sexual. But he was putty in the hands of a pretty face. When Benedict Arnold bolted, Hamilton believed the lies told by Mrs Arnold, and gave her money, which she promptly used to bolt and join Arnold. Later another woman seduced him and Hamilton crept around to her backdoor several times a week for eighteen months. Her husband then set about blackmailing Hamilton at the very time when John Adams was promoting Hamilton as a presidential candidate. Think Gary ‘The Zipper’ Hart.

The rumour mill worked overtime and finally Hamilton told all in a pamphlet to save his reputation as a public servant and the credit of the Treasury department, at the expense of his personal reputation. Hamilton then resigned. Despite more than twenty inquiries, investigations, trials no peculation was ever discovered. His wife found out of this infidelity by reading about in the newspapers.

But he could not leave public life, and campaigned in the gubernatorial election in New York state against Aaron Burr. Burr claimed Hamilton had slandered him at a private dinner party and challenged him to a duel, and killed him before he reached fifty.

I read Randall’s one-volume biography of George Washington some years ago and liked it.

Randall author.jpg Willard Randall

There is no summing up at the end of the book, so here is mine. Hamilton was an economist avant le mot, one of the very few who realised the importance of establishing the financial viability of the new country even during the Revolutionary War. He had a great capacity for work in the best of the Puritan Ethics. Though many tried to blacken his name, including some heavy hitters like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his personal probity was absolute. Hamilton was clear-headed and rational in argument, and in anger grew cold and slow, but he never seems to change his mind or accept compromise, though he had enough sense at times to leave the room rather than erupt in anger.

He rose to the occasion time after time and in different ways, first in arriving in the north America, then as a soldier, and then as an economist. He was inventive and no insurmountable task discouraged him. He also despised mobocracy or democracy. The state governments were democracies and to his mind they were irresponsible, corrupt, and incompetent and they would always remain.

But he also he also was putty in the hands of several women, at the expense of his wife, and one of those dalliances, which certainly was sexual, was his downfall.

In public life he made enemies easily, and often deliberately. He would name those who opposed his arguments as dunderheads. The wonder is that he was not killed in a duel earlier. Some of this seems to have been his intellectual arrogance. John Jay was his tutor in college, lent him money in later life, worked with him on the ‘Federalist Papers,’ but once when Jay differed from Hamilton he assassinated his character in print without hesitation.

This book is marred by non sequiturs that increase toward the end, and the story of his last years is truncated compared to the nearly day-by-day account of earlier years. That unevenness may reflect the paucity of sources, the fatigue of the writer, or the demands of the publisher. Whatever the reason, it is obvious.

By non sequiturs I mean passages like this: ‘Hamilton’s proposal was widely opposed. It passed easily.’ Huh? I had several of these ‘Huh?’ moments. There other inconsistencies. Early on Hamilton is said to be not attractive, and later he is said to be so. The goal posts seemed to move.

At some point it is said Hamilton advocated rights for women, but I had not noticed anything on that subject to that page, nor indeed after it.

I also found distasteful the opening of the book with the duel and his death. It makes almost no sense put first without the context of his life, if not his times. But it is lovingly detailed, the stroke of the oars, the colour of the coat, the shine on the pistols. I suppose this was the demanded by the publisher.

There are also some typos. This from Harper Collins.

John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875) was born to very comfortable circumstances in Kentucky. He was educated at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where his father had many family members. Upon his return to Lexington, the young John Breckinridge went west to make his name and fortune to Burlington of the Iowa Territory where he was a lawyer to whom professional success came but slowly. Thus he spent formative years outside the slave-holding South.


He was erect, tall, courtly, well-spoken and thus invited to speak at a 4th of July occasion, where he struck the right note and that earned him both more speaking engagements and clients.  His law partner, much like that of Abraham Lincoln, complained of Breckinridge spending too much time politicking and not enough lawyering.

By the way, one reason why the young Breckinridge found it easy to leave Lexington Kentucky for Iowa was that a girlfriend jilted him, she being one Mary Todd, later to wed the aforementioned Lincoln.  

Though slavery was the issue that governed his life and everyone else’s at the time, he apparently had no particular opinions about it, one way or another. While he was not slaver, he did not oppose it. On every occasion he always sided, ultimately and if sometimes reluctantly, with the slave states on Lockean grounds of the absolute right of property. By the way, religion does not figure much in his life as told in these pages.

Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, the Iowa excursion had always been intended to be limited, and had more success, professional, political, and social in the Bluegrass State. His public speaking on patriotic occasions made his name known.

He served in the Mexican War, where he showed concern for the troops in his command, and learned the need for staff work to secure supplies, food, harnesses, boots, forage for animals, and medicine. These lessons he would use later in life. He also met the whole gamut of officers who would later figure in the Civil War.  The list is too long to repeat here, but it included Hiram Grant and Robert Lee.

While in Mexico he defended an officer falsely accused of crimes. The accusation was hatched as a way to undermine the general commanding, Winfield Scott, whose presidential ambitions were plain to see. This was in hindsight a political conspiracy to hamper Scott’s presidential ambitions. But Breckinridge seems to a have taken it at face value. His defence was finely judged and widely reported and successful, giving him a national profile.  

His service in Mexico was after the hostilities had ceased but before the treaty was signed, ceding California and New Mexico. Ergo there were still tensions and alarms, but not cannon fire. Unlike all those other Civil War generals, he did not attend West Point, and later learned to be a general on the job.

In the late 1840s and 1850s the Whig Party was destroying itself by infighting, and Breckinridge aligned himself with the rising Democrats. He vigorously campaigned for others, and in time won a seat in the Frankfort legislature.  His public speaking is much emphasised. In these speeches he always took a positive tone and spoke about what was necessary, what he could and would do, and made it a point not to disparage his opponent(s). My, my that is lost art, emphasis on the positive.

When Abraham Lincoln visited his Todd in-laws in Kentucky, he met Breckenridge and thereafter they had an occasional correspondence, e.g., when one won a case reported in the press, the other would sent a note of congratulations.  

As the Great Compromiser -- Henry Clay, a Whig -- lost his grip on Kentucky, growing old and frail, and because his party was eating itself, Democrats filled in the spaces available.  Became of his attractive personality and eloquence, Breckenridge was pushed to the front. Clay seems almost to have endorsed him, despite the party differences, for they were often seen together.

In the state legislature Breckinridge was a dynamo for local improvements, from schools, roads, bridges, streets, public buildings, and so on.  His staff work in Mexico had taught him the importance of detail and he applied this lesson in the legislature, while many others were satisfied with oratory, and though he was exceptionally good at that, he went beyond it to get the details right.  

He married but his wife and family seldom figure in this account.

Unusual for the time, he had lived in New Jersey while in college, Iowa as a young lawyer, and being personable, attractive, and sociable, he made friends where he went and keep in touch by mail. His army service added to his contacts and gave him national publicity.  As a budding Congressman, both Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas saw great things in him and said so. He campaigned for others in surrounding states.

As a state Legislator and later as a Congressman, he was a mediator.  Where there was a deep divide, while keeping his own counsel, he was trusted by all to understand their positions, if not agree with them, and he would confer widely in search of some common ground.  

There was only one issue: slavery, masked by states rights and the Constitution. Breckenridge played a key role in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. However much or little common ground Breckenridge could find in the wording of this resolution or that, it was never enough to paper-over the chasm of slavery.  

He campaigned hard for Franklin Pierce in 1852, speaking three or four times a day in five states. While his speeches praised the Democrats, he did not belittle nor insult opponents, and generally struck a positive note, which increased the invitations to speak.  

Pierce, whatever his merits, became the first, perhaps the only, incumbent president to try and to fail to secure re-nomination by his party.  Though Breckinridge supported Pierce for re-nomination, when Pierce was eliminated, Breckinridge turned the eventual nominee, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, who wanted a southerner on the ticket and one who was presentable to all regions, ego he tapped Breckinridge, though the two had nothing in common and had met but once, briefly. (Pierce never forgave him this switch, though Pierce had no chance of renomination.)

In those days the candidates retired to their homes and did not campaign, leaving that to others, and from this practice party organisations emerged. 'Buck and Breck' won for the Democrats.

Breckinridge had the same relationship to President Buchanan that all Vice-Presidents have with all Presidents.  None.  

Though the country was boiling with dissension and the parties were cracking along geographic lines for the first times, the Pennsylvanian Buchanan did not ask the Kentuckian Breckinridge to attend cabinet meetings. Indeed they had exactly one private meeting and that was in the last year of their term about a triviality. 

Buchanan was unmarried and solitary by nature.  Accordingly, he delegated ceremonial and social tasks to Vice-President Breckinridge, e.g. receiving ambassadors, hosting functions, addressing celebrations, all of which expanded Breckinridge's horizons and networks.

His main duty was to chair the Senate and he did this scrupulously, unlike most of his predecessors.  He was impartial in the chair during heated and intensely partisan debates, but more importantly he spent much time talking to senators before the debates so that he knew what to expect.  Ever the mediator, he often was a go-between used by factions and parties to communicate with each other and at times he found that undiscovered country. - common ground to smooth over the crisis de jour.  Even that most stalwart and violent Republican, William Henry Seward praised Breckinridge's management of the fractious Senate for four years.  It may be the only time Seward even publicly said a good word about anyone.

The machinations of the 1860 election are many.  The Republicans put up an obscure western lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The Democrats split along the geographic fault line of Mason-Dixon with Stephen Douglas as the northern Democrat candidate whom southern Democrats distrusted. John Bell became a third party candidate appealing for national unity in the border states like Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri. Southern Democrats nominated Breckinridge, and he accepted.  But why?

Splitting the anti-Republican vote would insure that Lincoln was elected, and Breckinridge accepted the nomination precisely to avoid that split. How so? Pay attention now, class, this is today's lesson.

Once Breckinridge was in the field, the hope was that Douglas would realise he could not win. Then the three candidates -- Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell -- would meet and agree to withdraw in favour of another candidate and several were lined up, or the other two would withdraw in favour of Breckinridge. Note that Breckinridge did not seek the nomination in the first instance thinking it was inconsistent with his duties as Vice-President. Odd that. But he was certainly flattered to be nominated.

This plan never flew. Douglas made it clear that he would not withdraw and the four-way race ensued. By then it was too late for Breckenridge to withdraw.

The author makes a good point when he lists those who voted for Breckinridge, which include Robert Lee, Hiram Grant, Jefferson Davis, and Benjamin Butler. The point is that Breckinridge was a national candidate, as well as a regional one. He got votes in Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee. But it is also true that his vote was concentrated in the South and he carried all the slave state and Delaware, apart from Tennessee, Virginia (both taken by Bell). and Kentucky (ironic that, and shades of Al Gore) which also went to Bell. (Despite 30% of the total vote, Douglas won a majority only in Missouri.)


As the sitting Vice-President he organised the inauguration of Lincoln. He had won election to the Senate and while other southerners left as soon as Lincoln won in November 1960, he stayed after Fort Sumter in April 1861 and even after Manasses in June 1961. He was trying to calm things down but he gave up.

Meanwhile, Kentucky, divided between unionists and secessionists, tried to be neutral as the war started. But eventually Grant’s army crossed the Ohio River to Paducah, and in response a Confederate army entered eastern Kentucky. Breckinridge then returned to Lexington and accepted a commission from the secessionist governor in the state militia. Quite why he went grey and not blue is not very clear. Most of his relatives were secessionists, but not all, but in confusing times that is what he did, and once comitted he stuck it out.

He was now the soldier of the subtitle. He learned on the job, and learned quickly, but he did make mistakes. Braxton Bragg hated him, but Bragg hated just about every other officer in the army.

He served in a variety of places, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia. He took part in General Jubal Early’s 1864 raid on Washington DC and his troops shelled Fort Stevens while Abraham Lincoln watched from the ramparts, those two presidential candidates meeting again at this distance during a barrage.

In desperation, President Davis appointed him Secretary of War in early 1865, and he became a statesman again. This part of his career is the subject of another book reviewed elsewhere on this blog, namely 'An Honourable Defeat.' Here it suffices to say that it was his finest hour. He did much to bring a lasting peace.

His health was broken by the war years, and when he returned to Kentucky he eschewed public life, refusing even President Grant’s suggestion that he re-enter political life. But he became a symbol of one who accepted the defeat and looked to the future.

William_c_davis_7355.jpg William C. Davis

The book is meticulous and informative. The last chapter offers a very good summary and judgement of Breckinridge’s careers as statesman, soldier, and symbol of the Confederacy best elements.

The last days of a regime.

Regimes come and go. In most places in the world the change is rocky, ragged, and rugged: Mubarak in Egypt, Allende in Chile, Hitler in Germany, Amin in Uganda, Franco in Spain, or Peron in Argentina. Mobs in the streets, armed police off the leash, fires breaking out here and there, hastily packed bags, the Swiss account numbers memorised. It is even more difficult when there is a war on with marauding raids, artillery shells in the air, and masses of troops on the move.

That is the subject of this book, the transition of the government of the Confederate States of America out of existence from February 1865. The hour finds the man, Italians sometimes say, and this hour found John C. Breckinridge who is the major character in this telling.

Honorable defeat.jpg

An honourable defeat, as in the title, would mean the best possible negotiated terms for the men of the Confederate Army and Navy, e.g., that they would be allowed to go home and not be imprisoned or otherwise punished and also that civil order would continue even when the war ended, i.e., that the state governments would continue to maintain law and order, protect banks and private property, dams, bridges, roads and so on. None of this could be assumed, it had to be brought about…somehow. It also meant that the army would not disintegrate into bands of armed men preying on the civilian population.

An honourable defeat also meant that none of the tens of thousands of armed men pledged to the Confederacy would be encouraged by word, deed, or silence to resort to partisan or guerrilla warfare. That is. when the government capitulated, all its loyalists would lay down their arms. There would be no further resistance.

In return for that guarantee there would be no reprisals against individuals. Breckinridge also wanted the units of the army to remain together and march home, i.e., the Fifth Mississippi infantry regiment would march back to Mississippi en bloc and put themselves under the authority of the state government as a militia to keep order, if that were necessary, and the looting and banditry that occurred in Richmond and environs so quickly after Lee's withdrawal made this a real possibility. Indeed if the units simply broke up individually, the fear was that some would turn to banditry, think of the James brothers. Even those who called themselves partisans would be a greater threat to Confederate civilians than to the Union army, e.g., the James brothers when they rode with William Quantrell.

To bring about an honourable peace was difficult, first, because the elected president of the constitutional government of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, did not accept defeat was inevitable. Second feelings ran high after years of death and destruction, would anyone listen. Third, getting any message out was nearly impossible given the destruction of railroad and telegraph lines.

A major part of this story is the intransigence of President Davis for whom every reverse meant only that others had to redouble their efforts and make more sacrifices. Under the blows of defeat, he increasing retreated into a silent shell, but when he did speak it was the same message of more effort, more sacrifice. Even when resistance would serve no purpose he would not accept the personal humiliation of defeat, at the cost of the lives of many others.

During most of the flight of the Confederate government from 2 April to the end of May, Davis was lost in a cloud of despair and denial, leaving Breckinridge to exercise the executive powers remaining to the government. These powers were few but they were not negligible for those affected by them. Chief of these was to maintain social order, but also extended the preservation of and then the orderly disposition of government property. He was de facto acting President.

President Abraham Lincoln had refused to recognise the Confederate Government and he would never treat with it in any way. Yet Lincoln’s murder changed everything, for the worse, and meant that the Federal government was even less likely to respond to any overture from the Confederacy.

That the result was as peaceful, harmonious, and orderly as it was, the author credits largely to the efforts of John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875). He was a moderate from Kentucky with a distinguished political and military career. After a term in the United States Senate he was Vice-President in the administration James Buchanan (1857-1861). He was a candidate in the 1860 presidential election, one of four, and he won most of the Southern states, and so had a national reputation. After the election, won by Abraham Lincoln with far less than a majority of votes, Breckinridge returned briefly to the United States Senate.

Breckenridge.jpg John C. Breckenridge

He had served in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1847, as did so many other Civil War soldiers did. When the Civil War loomed he was commissioned a brigadier general to raise Confederate troops in Kentucky where his family name was widely respected. During the war he rose in rank to major-general of the CSA and served at Shiloh, Stone River, Missionary Ridge, and New Market. Like everyone who had to misfortune to serve with Braxton Bragg, he was sidelined because Bragg, being one of the few with any influence over Jefferson Davis, convinced Davis that Breckinridge was disloyal. Go figure, after reading that list of battles.

Despite being in sole command at one of the few battles Confederate arms won in 1864 at New Market, he was relieved of command. Then in a desperation move, Davis appointed him Secretary of War. It was desperation because no one else wanted or would take the job, and Davis perhaps thought he knew and could control Breckinridge with threats of censure on the the trumped-up charges Bragg had lodged. In this case as in all others, Davis was no judge of men (and perhaps not of women either). Breckinridge took the assignment exactly because he knew the end of days was coming, and he hoped to see an honourable peace as outlined above, and would work hard and intelligently to achieve it.

While the Confederate government remained in Richmond in February 1865 Breckinridge schemed, planned, plotted, and conspired with likeminded others to pressure Davis to face facts and seek peace. It is both heartening and depressing to see that their efforts were constrained by respect for constitutional provisions setting forth presidential powers, upholding states’ right, making supreme the civilian control of the army, and so on. Breckinridge himself was so rule-bound and though he found others who agreed with him about the need to seek peace now, they were also rule-bound. Still others were unwilling to take a position because they still hoped for some benefit from the situation. Even in March 1865 there were some Confederate Senators who aspired to succeed or replace Davis. The ego drove some to hope to be themselves President of the Confederate States of America even as it dissolved. (Pedants note, Confederate presidential elections were scheduled for 1867.)

But Breckinridge never had in mind a coup d'état which would only create more dissension, animosity, and confusion. He and all he involved adhered to the letter of the Confederate Constitution. While the most prestigious figure in the Confederacy General Robert E. Lee agreed with Breckinridge, this demigod would not overstep the chain of command. He reported to Davis and took his orders from Davis and he would not depart one iota from that, though at the same time he would lay out the unvarnished truth of the situation to Davis in his reports. These Davis would hear in silence and as always thereafter speak of redoubled efforts. Breckinridge spent several twenty-four hour days trying to coax and coach Lee into submitting a written report that implied, if did not say, surrender. Lee would never go quite that far. The conclusions to be drawn from his reports were the responsibility of his political masters.

Breckinridge tried at the same time to put together a coalition Senators and Representatives to arouse the Congress to ask the President to report to it and during the subsequent debate the peace initiative could be raised. He could not quite gain the support of the right individuals or in sufficient number.

He also tried winning over this half-a-dozen cabinet colleagues to speak as one to the President to seek peace. Some were so jaded by then as to be indifferent. Others kept alive their own ambitions, if not to succeed Davis, then to return to a political career in a state. One was a complete David sycophant. To win one man over was to alienate that man’s rivals.

He also tried to find a way for the State Government of Virginia to recall its citizens from service in the Confederate States of America armed forces, thus emasculating them in the East, and then for Virginia to secede from the Confederacy on the assumption that other states would have to follow that example and so bring an end to the fighting. The Confederate Constitution recognised state sovereignty.

To sum up, Breckinridge tried six or more different approaches, singly and in combination, to create a coalition for an an honourable peace in the Confederacy. He tried cabinet. He tried the Senate. He tried the House. He tried the state of Virginia and later North Carolina. He tried the leverage of General Lee’s prestige. He tried, later, General Joseph Johnston’s last remaining army as leverage. He tried some of these avenues more than once and several in combination.

He tried to influence Lee to sign his order of surrender on 9 April 1865 as Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate forces, a hollow title Davis had bestowed on him in earlier. Breckinridge thought that nomenclature would justify the end of hostilities across the board. Instead Lee directed his order to surrender to his field command, the Army of Northern Virginia in his General Order Number Nine. He felt he had no larger authority to dictate to others in Mississippi, North Carolina, or Texas.

That might have been enough to keep a normal man busy, but while Breckinridge was doing all of this, and more, he was also managing the largest, most complex, and important department of the Government of the Confederate States of America, accomplishing feats of provisioning, storage, and distribution that had baffled his predecessors. Lee commented on the irony that his army had never been so will stocked with food, uniforms, and munitions as it was in the last few days of its service. That fact he attributed to the labours of Secretary Breckinridge.

To no avail, and on 2 April, General Lee withdrew the scarecrows of his army from the earthworks at Petersburg and fled south and east to avoid the closing jaws of the Union army. The government now had to evacuate Richmond which was open to Federal assault. Breckinridge had no general authority, but as Davis was nearly comatose with shock, he took it upon himself to organise the selection of archive material for destruction or shipment, the opening of warehouses to distribute the food and clothing that remained, before the Federals arrived and took them, the burning of bridges, the assembly of wagon trains to put the government into flight, and to piece together the railway trains to transport the cabinet and the treasure (perhaps $500,000). He also managed to raise a scratch force of horsemen of several thousand to escort the wagon trains.

By default Breckinridge became the de facto manager of the government’s flight and gradual decay. All the while he continued to search for a way to produce an honourable peace.

Nothing was easy and nothing worked smoothly. When they came at all, the trains were five or six hours late. Roads were impassible in the mud of early spring rains and horses were near starvation to begin with. People got lost in the confusion. Mobs choked streets in fear of the coming Federals. Looters got to work. In the confusion arsenals in Richmond were destroyed, setting fire to much of the city. There were fears and rumours of an armed slave uprising fomented by the Federal cavalry.

Apocalyptic it was.

There was no plan except to get the government out of Richmond. Breckinridge hoped it still might bring an honourable peace, though the capacity to do so diminished with Lee’s surrender, while Davis spoke of, take a guess, redoubled efforts. The merry-go-round stopped briefly at Danville Virginia. The cabinet set up shop in front parlour of a private home. Davis wrote a message to the people calling for…redoubled efforts. Breckinridge gathered intelligence about the armies and tried to find a way to make peace through the state of Virginia or then North Carolina.

Federal cavalry was out in force looking for this government on wheels, and Danville was so obvious a place that burned bridges or no, it had to move on, to Greensboro in North Carolina and on and on further south.

There was no master plan and it was only Breckinridge’s initiatives that kept the wagons rolling. The group started with thousands of men, soldiers and civilian officials, and their cargo and camp followers, and other citizens terrified of rumours of the Federal atrocities (attributed to black troops, who truth to tell were themselves victims of atrocities).

The purpose of the flight changed as time went on from (1) negotiation, (2) maintenance of social order, (3) personal safety and exiles of Confederate Government officials, and (4) to assist Confederate soldiers who had surrendered to get home, (5) to settle the outstanding debts of the Confederate government with that dosh. The disintegration of Confederate armies rendered negotiation moot. Social order did break down. As soon as the caravan left a town, the government stores, offices, and warehouses as other public facilities were ransacked, looted, and pillaged. As word spread of the comprehensive defeat, other civilians took to the hills, partly to escape the feared Federal atrocities and also to escape the likes of Quantrell.

There was never any intention to take the government into exile, though some of its individual members might go into exile to avoid Federal retribution, especially for the murder of Lincoln, which many in the North thought was a Confederate deed.

Breckinridge tried, on the retreat, to preserve War Department records. Those left in Richmond were put into fire proof safes, not all of which proved to be fireproof. As they shed wagons, railway cars, and load, more and more paperwork was left behind. Much of this he tried to leave in the safes of local banks, and in other cases put into chests and buried. In part he wanted the historical record to show what had happened. This accuracy of record became even more important with the murder of Lincoln. He wanted to demonstrate that the were was no involvement of the Confederate War Department.

He also held onto some of the paperwork long into the journey to the annoyance of some in the group because it slowed the pace. Among the papers he kept at hand were dossiers, documents, charge sheets, affidavits, testimony that identified Confederate officers who had committed atrocities, usually on black Union soldiers. While en route he tried to locate one such officer who had killed helpless black Federal prisoners. This had occurred in an area where Breckinridge had nominal command on paper, though he had become Secretary of War and had left the department, his name was still on the letterhead. That made it personal since these murders had occurred in his name.

Breckenridge authorised the dispersement of the treasure along the way to pay off soldiers in the escort, to buy provisions, shoes, and clothes for paroled soldiers trying to get home, and to buy medicine to treat wounded men. He himself took the soldier’s pay of $26.60 out of the hundreds and thousands he had in hand. This was the amount all soldiers. regardless or rank were paid, Several of his cabinet colleagues were much more grasping according to the assiduous financial records kept even on this trail of tears.

The trip goes on and on, as the group splits, and takes different routes. At the end of May after some weeks in the swamps of south Florida, Breckenridge made it to Cuba, His last act as an official was to appeal through the resident American journalists in Havana for all Confederates to lay down their arms and accept the result. After some years in exile he returned to Kentucky and lived quietly, refusing an invitation from President U.S. Grant to re-enter politics. His health had been badly damaged by war wounds and then the diseases and hardships of the flight through Florida.

Early in the odyssey he become the first and only Secretary of War to lead troops into battle when he led the cavalry escort in a counter attack on Federal pony soldiers who threatened the column (p 99). Would contemporary Secretaries of Defense be less likely to put boots on the ground in combat if the boots were theirs? Or their children’s? The answer is obvious: Yes.

Our author says Breckinridge, as a former Vice-President (1857-1861), was the most senior political figure to side with the Confederacy (p 167). Former President John Tyler (1841-1845) did so, too, serving as a Congressman from Virginia in the Confederate House of Representatives until his death.

A stylistic quibble, ’Secretary of War’ should surely be in capitals since it is a title, like a proper name but it is not.

I read this book near the publication date and when the upheaval of moving brought it to light again, I put it aside and dipped in, but once in I kept going since it is such a compelling and fast-moving story with a cast of characters from the ever-smiling in the face of adversity Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, the taciturn President Davis, the demigod Lee, the clever temporiser Joseph Johnston, the man of the hour Breckinridge, and many lesser known figures who rose to the occasion.

William Davis.jpg William Davis

One such instance of rising to the occasion occurred when a month into the flight, Davis summoned the brigade commanders of the 2,500 escort troops to an audience. When they assembled, Davis spoke of redoubled efforts and still more sacrifices as they stood in dumbstruck silence. Davis expected them to salute in agreement. He did not assemble them for advice or debate but to agree with him and to obey.

As the silence prolonged, he finally asked them to respond. To his credit, the senior man of the five brigadiers, George Dibrell, stepped forward and said it was hopeless situation and useless to ask more of his men who had continued this long out of personal loyalty. In turn, the other four concurred. Davis paled, and as always when confronted with contradiction went into his shell. There was more silence. Finally, Davis’s manners returned and he dismissed them only later to bemoan their lack of resolve. All praise to General Dibrell for calling a halt to the madness.

George W Norris (1861-1944) of McCook Nebraska did much to make the United States what it became. He represented the third district in Congress for ten years, winning five elections, and then went to the United States Senate where he served five terms, thirty years.

Norris cover.jpg Published in 2013.

He supported and championed liberal and progressive causes, as did so many of his fellow Republicans in the era of Teddy Roosevelt, but if Republicans changed, Norris did not.

He left his mark in three distinct ways, one in Nebraska and the other two nationally.

1.During World War I the Federal government built a cataract of dams and power stations in northern Alabama at Muscle Shoals to power factories to produce munitions. At the end of the war, the assumption was that it would sold off for a few dollars to commercial interest who would exploit the complex of energy and factories.

But why should private corporations reap the benefit of the immense public investment in the complex, asked George Norris who then introduced a bill to have the Federal government operate the complex as a public utility.

This was socialism, cried the business interests, which grudging lifted the offered purchasing price a few dollars. Norris lobbied hard, bombarded the press with facts and figures during the Coolidge administration, and, because his opponents underestimated him, he secured a majority vote for his bill in the Senate. The first time it passed, it then died in conference committee with the House of Representatives.

Norris in Congress.jpg George W Norris

Norris was seasoned and he knew that it would be a long road, so he was ready in the Hoover administration with a second bill, re-worded but with the same effect, and it, too, passed, and this time it passed the through the conference committee and went to the president who dealt it a pocket veto.

When Norris presented his third version, Franklin Roosevelt was president, and Muscles Shoals became the first brick in the Tennessee Valley Authority. The hue and cry over the TVA raged for years but it came to be. See ‘The Wild River’ (1960) for the human side of the TVA.

TVA map.gif The TVA

2. That the electricity produced by the damns sustained the second major theme of Norris’s career, Rural Electrification. Readers of ‘Sad Irons’ by Robert Caro know just how revolutionary electricity was in the lives of untold millions. This, too, was denounced as a Communist plot, along with fluoride in the water.

Few will realise how stoutly the advance of Rural Electrification was resisted. The arguments against it are the old chestnuts much in use today about the evils of big government and the corruption of the flesh by easy living. Having electricity on tap would sap the vital energies of the people, and thereby lay them open to ever greater repression conveyed by radio propaganda….. Yadda, yadda, yadda said the Ann Coulters of the day.

3. The Nebraska element is the unicameral legislature that remains unique among the fifty states. Norris had seen in Lincoln and in Washington how the two houses of a legislature work and arrived at a counter intuitive conclusion. The more representative the houses, the less representative was the legislation. Already this is too hard for an ABC journalist out to demonise someone.

Invariably the two houses would pass bills that differed from each other and these two versions would have to be reconciled in a conference committee, typically of five individuals. This is standard operating procedure, and it is still is. This reconciliation goes on behind closed doors an is usually reported to the two houses in a list of items at the close of session without debate or fanfare.

Norris had seen legislation completely changed by a conference committee of five. The greater the volume of legislation, the more was delegated to conference committees, the less oversight there was applied to them.

He started a one-man campaign for a unicameral legislature and he kicked off in Hastings on Platte to reform the Nebraska state legislature by making it unicameral to squeeze out of existence this process of the conference committee. In a one-house legislature, he reasoned, all business would have to be done in the house, i.e., in public.

He upped the ante by also insisting that this unicameral be non-partisan. His proposals offended both political parties and the Hearst Press, the ‘Omaha World Herald,’ which thundered against this double-edged communist proposal: doing the public business in public! The lies and calumny was dished out Fox News fashion.


Against this mighty array of forces, Norris had two even more powerful allies: The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

These catastrophes convinced many that things had to change. Business as usual was inadequate to either of these challenges. In 1934 Nebraska adopted a non-partisan unicameral legislature. The monumental state capital building, only recently completed, had allowed for a second smaller, upper house which then became used for, among other things, the venue for auditioning contestants in a state-song contest. Ever practical those children of the soil are on the Great Plains.

By 1936 Norris was persona non grata in the Republican Party and he ran for re-election as an independent. Norris won then, but in 1942 lost to a real Republican, Kenneth Wherry, who is perhaps best remembered for anticipating Ann Coulter in claiming that all homosexuals were subversives and perhaps the other way around, too. Wherry is accorded all honours in the Republican Hall of Fame and Norris is absent entirely.

Oscar Underwood (1862-1929) was contemporary and sometime rival of Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, and Eugene Debs.

Born in Alabama during the Civil War, Underwood's childhood was during Reconstruction when the South was occupied and pillaged to pay reparations for the war. In particular the Republican Party descended on the South to insure it would never cause trouble again by manipulating laws and voters. This baleful episode was ending when Underwood came of age, but its legacy continued (e.g., in those Confederate flags on state capitol domes).

Underwood book cover.jpg

Patrician by birth, he was a man of his time and place. He thought women should be pregnant or in the kitchen or both. Negroes were beasts of burden best kept under strict control. Southern Europeans were failed human beings. Organised labor was anathema. In his political career, to be described shortly, he was parochial, only what was good for Alabama was important.

Why read about such an obscure figure? I am glad you asked that question, Mr. Spock! (1) He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the famous hung convention of 1924 and (2) he was one of the ‘Profiles in Courage’ (1957) television series for his confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan. The little I knew of these events made them seem odd for an Alabaman of his time and place. (3) Having just read about the egregious Alabaman George Wallace, I wondered about his fellow Alabaman. Now is the time to find out more.

Underwood ran for Congress and represented the Ninth District (Birmingham) just as the Republican ascendancy was ending. He joined with many others to purge electoral rolls of blacks and to keep them off thereafter. He developed a lock on the Democratic Party nomination as the Republican Party died in the South.


He toadied up to the Speaker of House of Representative Champ Clark who had presidential ambitions. Clark rewarded him with the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. At the time this was a minor post, but Underwood made it into an important one with some creative thinking, hard work, and unfailingly politeness. Underwood became indispensable to the business of the House. He was ever present, always ready to do what needed to be done, even if strictly speaking someone else was supposed to do it, no job too big, no job too small. He also proved to be adroit in stroking the many egos that needed to be stroked.

His main interest in Washington was tariffs affecting his constituency, and he laboured over the tariff schedules as though they were holy writ. He had always loved facts and figures and this subject played to that strength of this born accountant. The tariff was a major national issue and he became the master of the detail of tariff schedules, the impact of item #116 on Schedule B in Part 1.21 paragraph 2.0 on his constituency, and he soon schooled others in this detail, too, as it applied to their own constituencies.

The Ways and Means Committee, then as now, manages the business of the House of Representatives, and Underwood used this as an instrument to impose party discipline. In fact, in hindsight it seems that he had more success in securing party discipline than at any other time in the history of the House. Only when there was a two-thirds majority vote from Democrats in the Party Room, would he bring a matter to the floor of the House for a vote, but then he expected 100% compliance from Democrats on the floor of the House. Dissenters soon found strange delays in office cleaning, faulty telephone lines, etc. Nothing terribly subtle about it but then there was nothing personal in it either.

In time he grew bored. Holding the Birmingham seat was foreordained; he had party discipline to a fine art. He now contracted that virus so common in Washington, Potomac Fever. He became to think of himself as a statesman, and became a little less parochial, and he began to think another Southerner might one day soon be elected president. That Southern might as well be Oscar Underwood as anyone else. He was right, it was time for a Southerner: Woodrow Wilson.

In the 1912 Democratic Convention Underwood was one of the nominees, positioned to be a compromise candidate if the front runners, Clark and Wilson failed. Wilson prevailed, and he sounded Underwood out for the Vice-Presidential nomination, but Underwood declined. I am not at all sure how serious that sounding was, because even the naif Wilson must have realised two sons of the South on the Democratic ticket would be one too many.

Underwood  button 1912.jpg

Wilson’s victory was a Democrat landslide and the House majority became gigantic. Underwood used all the tactics, techniques, and tricks he had learned to discipline the mob of newbies that entered the House, each determined to right all wrongs, and change everything for the better. By that time he was an old hand at managing such upstarts. They soon discovered just how unimportant a Congressman is when there is a 100-vote majority. The object lessons were quick and decisive. Outspokenly independent Democrats had no office space, no secretarial assistance, the postage franking certificate was lost…. His handshake was firm, his smile warm, his determination to lead was Birmingham steel.

While Underwood personally had no time for the amateur newcomer Wilson, he sailed with the wind in Wilson’s canvas. And besides Wilson was far preferable to Bryan, in part because Underwood must have supposed he could manipulate Wilson, though the author is silent on that possibility. Wilson’s preoccupations with the high road and his absolute belief in the separation of powers meant that he left Underwood to run the House, and run it he did.

The first item of business was the tariff, and in the new Congress no hotel vouchers were issued, no office-space was assigned and no committee posts allocated, until the tariff schedules Underwood had devised over the preceding years had been passed. He really did hold them to ransom. Pass my tariff bill (it was an omnibus bill with 57 parts to make it harder to be amended, split, or qualified with riders) or else a new Congressman may never have had an office to sit in let alone a committee seat to brag about back home. Likewise he managed the floor debate with an iron hand. Debate was permitted but not one word off the topic was tolerated, nor were any extensions of time to debate granted. A speaker who wandered off topic would be handed a note from Underwood asking him to yield.

While the small Republican minority squawked, many of them enjoyed the spectacle of new Democratic Congressmen learning the Washington game the hard way. If Underwood’s touch seems heavy, it was light compared to that applied by the previous Republican rule when debate was often not allowed.

Underwood was both a social conservative and also a fiscal conservative, yet he steered Wilson’s progressive legislation through the House of Representatives. Politics makes strange bedfellows they say.

Like many other Southerners, to Underwood the Federal government was the enemy, and he constantly voted against appropriations for any and everything, unless the money was to be spent in Birmingham. He was one of the majority who voted to cut defence spending, public health spending, education spending, funding for scientific research, staffing for foreign missions, and so on and on. The only Federal dollars he voted to spend were those bound for northern Alabama. When, however, Potomac Fever gripped him he did try to broaden his outlook, though his heart was not in it.

With Wilson in the White House, and the House proving ever harder to control, Underwood decided to move up. He secured the Democratic nomination for an Alabama Senate seat. He fought off a challenger in the Democratic primary and easily won the election. The challenge was based on what was the central issue of national politics for some years — prohibition.

After twenty years in the House of Representatives with many accolades, Underwood entered the Senate as the newest of the new boys, and found an altogether different atmosphere. The Senate was a club whose members indulged each other. There was no urgency. Underwood who had insisted on party unity and discipline in the House became himself a dissident voice in the Senate, often speaking against Democratic measures, though at the end of the day he usually voted for them, a ploy that remains common today. Speak one-way and vote the other in the effort to please both camps. Thereafter he would often then vote against the appropriation of funds for measures he had earlier voted for. Another ploy that is time-honoured.

However Underwood did not enjoy the pleasures of the iconoclast for long and soon began managing bills in the Senate and by the beginning of his second term, he was Democrat leader in the Senate. The foreign crises with Mexico and Germany did not interest him much but he went through the motions that his ambitions required. He supported Wilson in the Great War (making sure plenty of contracts went to Birmingham) and then the Treaty of Versailles but without conspicuous energy or wit.

He had been nominated for the Presidential place in the 1912 Democratic Party convention which Wilson won. Had Wilson stepped aside in 1916, and there were such rumours, he would certainly have tried for it. In 1920, well the time was not right. He was up for re-election to the Senate and Alabama state law prohibited anyone from being a candidate for two offices in the same election. He preferred to secure six more years in Washington by contesting the Senate primary and election with an eye on 1924. He campaigned for the Democratic Cox-Roosevelt (F. D.) ticket nationally though it was a lost cause from the start.

At last we come to the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was rooted in the South and had been rejuvenated by, of all things, the prohibition movement. It was violently prohibitionist, as it was violently racist, violently anti-Catholic, xenophobic, anti-union, misogynist, anti-intellectual…..

Underwood poster.jpg

Underwood position on prohibition was local-option. Let each community decide for itself. That satisfied neither the Wets nor the Drys. Though Underwood was flexible and pragmatic on most issues that did not effect the material well-being of his constituents, he did stick on a few, and prohibition was one of those.

Strange right there. Alabama was prohibition heartland, leaving aside home-brew, and the Klan had been founded there. (I thought about including some Klan pictures, and there are plenty to be had, but they were all so vile, I did not.)

Perhaps it was his patrician outlook or the insulation of so many years in Washington D.C. that made him insensitive to this populist cause, but he would brook no compromise on this issue, though his entire legislative career was based on knowing the time to compromise. Moreover, when he launched his bid for the Democratic nomination he went to Texas, where the official headquarters of the Klan was located, to do it, and denounced the Klan in a speech in Houston: ‘It was a secret society that took the law into its own hands.’ The battle began. There were two other leading candidates, William McAdoo and Al Smith. McAdoo was ultra-Dry and Smith, as he used to say, was all-Wet. The Klan supported McAdoo and reviled the Catholic Smith as Satan with smile.

Again Underwood’s strategy was to be the compromise candidate if McAdoo and Smith stymied each other. He did not make the Klan the sole issue but he did repeat it many times in speeches in the north-east, mid-west, and the south. The 1924 nominating convention was in New York City and the Klan timed its national conclave to coincide with it across the river in New Jersey to show its force. Underwood introduced an explicitly anti-Klan plank into the Democratic platform, which was defeated. The gloves were off. The convention was marked by fistfights in the hall, clashes of marchers for and against the Klan in the streets, arrests of delegates, a spectacle that H. L Mencken adored. Underwood’s confrontation with the Klan, won him support from the north and west but eroded his southern homeland. This convention lasted three weeks and went to 102 ballots! As the wits said, 'We have to make a decision, or move to a cheaper hotel!' The nominee was John Davis….

That was high-tide for Underwood who returned to the Senate, and quickly lost interest in most things. His health had never been good, and now aged sixty-seven it got worse. He retired and spent the time dictating memoirs.

Apart from the strategic reasons of gaining a national profile in his confrontation with the Klan, I cannot understand from these pages why he did it. If it was a national profile he wanted, there were plenty of other issues to pursue that would have been less risky to his southern base, e.g., the tariff, railways, immigration, taxation, and so on.

In a fine concluding chapter the author sums up Underwood as a man of moderate ability who mastered the arcane rules of the House of Representatives and then the Senate in succession and led both, the first man to do that since Henry Clay, and the last one to do it. The author gives Underwood no moral credit for his conflict with the Klan, interpreting it purely as an electoral strategy, but that just seems too simple to this reader. If anything, it effectively made it impossible for him to be the compromise candidate between McAdoo and Smith, since it assured vehement opposition from the Drys, with and without hoods. If that was the aim, it was misguided from the start, this from a man who always counted the votes twice before they were cast. To get the necessary two-thirds of votes to win, Underwood would had to have some of McAdoo's votes, and they should have been available to him as McAdoo was also a Southerner from neighbouring Georgia. The author does do a calculation that shows if Underwood had kept his Southern base of Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina he would have had a chance.

The book is an account of his political career, much of it paraphrased from the Congressional Record. [Cue, sound of dust settling.] In some passages we get a day-by-day account of the Underwood’s committee hearings, floor speeches, and roll call votes. It was a PhD dissertation and it shows in the mind-numbing and pointless detail. None of this reveals the inner man.

I could not find a picture of the author.

I learned virtually nothing about Underwood's childhood and how that might have shaped him for later life, like the legacy of the Civil War on this child or his boyhood experiences with blacks.

Oscar Underwood was not related to the New Jersey Underwoods who made typewriters. Nor is he related to Frank Underwood. [Get it?]

Who was the democrat Winston Churchill (1874-1965) or Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)? (For those readers who do not recognise these names, stop here and turn on 7MATE, the two of you deserve each other.)

Wait! Before answering think! What does ‘democracy’ mean?

Most of the time, most people think ‘democracy’ means voting, voting, voting, and counting the votes. Journalists intone the solemnity of leaders submitting themselves to vox populi. Well, the voice of the people, since most would not dare use Latin, even if they knew it.

If voting is the criterion, how do Churchill and Hitler compare?

Short answer: Hitler led his party in far more elections than Churchill did.

Hitler was a candidate for chancellor in five national elections between 1928 and 1933. In those parliamentary elections the vote for his Nazi Party grew from 3% to 44%. He heard the voice of the people. In addition, he led his party in elections in several German states in that period. Moreover, he held a plebiscite in Austria to confirm the Anschluss (the unification of German and Austria).

Hitler 1932.jpg Hitler campaigning in 1932.

Churchill, the great war leader and champion of democracy, became Prime Minister in May 1940. There was no vote. The Conservative Party changed leaders. There was no election in Great Britain during World War II (though there were in Australia, Canada, and the United States). The last general election in the United Kingdom had been in 1935. Churchill’s government decided not to call the elections due in 1940. Imagine the fuss a shock-jock would make of an incumbent government not facing the scheduled election. Horror! Outrage! Cliché!

Only in 1945, after the European War was over did Churchill call an election, and he lost, and lost decisively. (He remained leader and led his party to victory in 1949, that being the only election he won as leader.)

Churchill_June 1940.jpg The 65-year old Churchill on his first day as Prime Minister in 1940.

Yet, I would say Churchill’s claim to the title of democrat is greater than Hitler’s. Why?

First, Hitler campaigned in election-after-election AGAINST democracy. He proclaimed the idiocy of choosing leaders by votes and promised to do away with elections, once he had the authority to do so. He was explicit and overt about this. Elections counted the votes of Jews, bankers, women, trade unionists, Gypsies, homosexuals, cripples, and others equal to Aryan votes. ‘Stop that at once!’ he declared. He used the campaigns to air his views, identify, educate, mobilise, and license supporters. As the strength of his party grew in 1932 he unleashed those supporters to intimidate voters, forge ballots, burn ballot boxes from Jewish quarters, threaten voters at polling booths…

These are the facts.

We might speculate that had Hitler called an election in August 1940, November 1941, March 1942, even in February of 1944, he would have won easily and by a big margin. Here is a guess, he (and the Nazi Party) might have garnered 80% of the vote or more. There was after all no opposition left but we could imagine that one of the conservative agrarian parties that merged with the Nazis in 1930 breaking away as the opposition, against them Hitler’s victory might have been 90+%. The contrast is Churchill who called an election in July 1945 and lost while the Asian War continued.

Hitler 1933.jpg Hitler greets the people after being sworn in as Chancellor.

Second, Churchill’s claim rests principally on his unstinting respect for and use of parliament during the war years. First he formed a national war cabinet by including the Labour opposition, and second he submitted himself and his government to parliament which remained supreme, though the mandate of its members had lapsed. He explained and justified his actions in parliament, and he replied to questions and criticisms. He permitted the criticisms in the first place. Churchill kept and respected the institutions of British government, including the courts, whereas Hitler fused authorities and abolished institutions, reducing everything to personal loyalty to him in the army oath, and executive orders. It is this respect for and adherence to procedure, process, and practice that adds credit to Churchill’s democratic account. Of course, it is true that there were compromises in the name of the war effort and security, and some of the constraints were probably unnecessary when judged in the cold, clear light of hindsight, but the fundamental institutions remained; there to be re-awakened.

In so doing, Churchill left the democratic culture of Britain undiminished. Men and women grumbled about the government, questioned the need for rationing, complained about health care, suspected profiteering, and wrote letters expressing their vexations to members of parliament, to the BBC, and to newspapers. Newspapers picked away at the foibles and mistakes of government ministries. During the height of the Battle of Britain, during all-clears orators on the ladders in Hyde Park, London, excoriated the British government for its continued hold on India. This was all constrained but compared to Germany after 1933 it was a riot of freedom.

By the way, there was a great deal of opposition to Churchill, within his own party for a start. He was too belligerent many thought, including the first of his foreign ministers. Some Conservatives wanted him to fail and be replaced by a more pliable figure. Theirs was a whispering campaign, true, but it would have been exterminated in Germany, whereas Churchill combated it though parliament.

Conclusion? Voting alone does not democracy make. A small conclusion it might seem but it has major implications.

Three men publicly declared their intentions to run the first time for public office within hours of each other, one in Massachusetts, another in California, and the last in Alabama: John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace (1919-1998), and despite his four presidential campaigns the latter, Wallace, has all but disappeared from the popular consciousness. The evidence is celebrations of anniversaries reported to television and the shelves of bookstores. Kennedy and Nixon appear now and again in those places. Pigmies (journalists) till occasionally try to hack a byline out of Kennedy or Nixon. Scholars continue to evaluate their achievements in monographs. The fiftieth anniversary of this or that has commanded television time. Hits on the internet are millions for Kennedy and Nixon.

But George Wallace, though in the time he preoccupied both Kennedy and Nixon, and commanded headlines around the world, is now all but forgotten except to specialists in American regional politics. Moreover, later in life, outwardly Wallace executed a 180 degree turn in his public persona and went from a fire-eater to a grand old man. Who was George C. Wallace?


He was the oldest son in a comfortable family, though its fortunes had declined in the previous generation, along with millions of others when the Great Depression hit. George completed high school and graduated from the University of Alabama with the help of the G.I. Bill of the (later despised) federal government.

He was small, and often called ‘Little George’ rather than ‘George, Junior. ‘ If that irritated him, he found an outlet for any resentment in Golden Gloves boxing. He did well in that as a bantam weight. More than once knocking out an opponent. As one coach said, George did not want to win the fight, he wanted to hurt his opponent. Trying to teach him to score points for a technical victory had no effect. George did not want to score points, he wanted to deck his opponent, draw blood, and have KO recorded. The pugnacity he showed later was there from the beginning.

He had served in the United State Air Force in the Pacific War and flew nine missions in a B-29 over Japan. He was the flight engineer for the large and complicated airplane. While the Japanese defences were weak sometimes it only took one hit to bring down even one of these super fortresses. In addition, the distances, the weather, the fatigue of the crew on 16-hour flights in combat conditions, and the temperamental nature of the aircraft combined to produce 5% losses on every sortie; if 500 planes took off for a mission, 475 made it back. Each plane carried 11-crewmen and so that meant 275 deaths. Yes, deaths because when the planes went down, whether over Japan or open water, all hands were lost. Air-sea rescue existed but the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean over a 6,000 mile course made recovery a million-to-one shot.

On at least one flight Wallace’s handling of the engines, the fuel flow, the oil pressure, the hydraulics saved the plane from disaster. Later he secured an honourable discharge despite some dubious behaviour. (From the details in these pages I rather think he served in the same unit as my father, likewise from the South, but there the similarity ends.)

When the war started Wallace knew he had to serve in order to secure his future political ambitions. And he had political ambitions that were articulated from about 15 years of age. He earned a place as an intern in the Alabama legislature and declared that one day he would be governor. Many a boy and today many a girl has done something like this. Few of them, however, conducted the kind of campaign he did to secure that internship. In early summer when school was out his father drove him to the capital, Montgomery, and young George laid siege to the legislature like Grant before Richmond. He had already written a stream of letters to every member of the legislature explaining his exceptional merits for one of the very few internships available, pledging to serve above and beyond the call of duty. Once in Montgomery he presented himself at the door of one legislator after another and talked his way into most. He slept at least one night in park and gave his suit an undergraduate iron, i.e., he slept on it. His father left him to his own devices. For the first but not the last time, Wallace wore down his adversaries and he got an internship. He loved it, and did do twice the work any of the others.

The man was something of a loner despite coming from a family of five children. He could keep to himself for days at a time, as he often did during this internship and later in the Air Force, but if he was with other people he was garrulous, excited, nervous, twitching with energy, and talking, and talking, and talking nothing but politics as one contemporary after another says, though what politics he talked from fifteen onward is not clear.

What is clear is that he had a burning ambition and politics was the field. The two defining poles of Southern politics were (1) hatred of the North (Federal) government because of the Civil War and Reconstruction and (2) white superiority at the cost of black oppression. The former meant that the federal government was the real enemy, though the largess from FDR’s many programs was quickly pocketed in the South, it was nothing more than overdue compensation for the great evils the North had visited on the South. Suitably encoded for contemporary sensibilities, we hear the same motifs today from the Tea Party and its media service, Fox News.

Leaving aside the details, which are thoroughly documented and dramatically presented in this book, from the beginning Wallace was a hollow man.

Wallace had a gigantic need for recognition which translated into an unquenchable ambition for political office (even before taking the oath of office as governor the first time he referred to running for president ‘next year’) that combined with his belligerent temperament. To serve that ambition he would cheat, steal, and lie while denying everything. His defiance of the federal government on civil rights was - it is abundantly clear - contrived to lock-in the white vote for his ambitions. He had no interest in the constitutional or legal aspects of the dispute. Nor did he seem to have any personal animosity to blacks. As Hitler never personally harmed a Jew, so Wallace never harmed a black person. Racism was necessary to win and he would not be out done in that. No sir! If racism got votes, he would talk racism day-and-night. Against such singleminded determination, the federal government wobbled. The Kennedy Administration wanted compromise not confrontation but Wallace wanted confrontation (before the television cameras) and not compromise of even the most cosmetic kind.

Wallace promoted the mayhem of Selma and the maelstrom of Birmingham. The descriptions of the bomb, the razor, poison, the truncheon, C-4 teargas (which is toxic), the torch, the shotgun, the knife, the pistol, the high-pressure firehose that broke limbs, the baseball bat, and the snarling police dogs, and let us not forget the electric cattle prods were, as one French journalist said, worse than any he had ever seen in banana republics. Wallace was indifferent to the blood he had let, ever ready to blame someone else. His message was clearly understood by those whites who wanted to fight. The haters came out in force and Wallace privately invited the Ku Klux Klan to mobilise to the drive the blacks off the streets.

George-Wallace-governor.jpg George Wallace. 'Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!'

Before reaching for stereotypes about Alabama, it might be noted that in the 1920s a governor of this very same state, Oscar Underwood (1862-1929), sacrificed his political career, including his own presidential ambitions, to confront the Klan. Equally, Wallace’s immediate predecessor in the gubernatorial chair, Jim Folsom was an advocate, albeit inconsistently, of racial accommodation. Wallace’s constituency was always a minority but it was an intense minority that he had identified, legitimated, recruited, mobilised, and unleashed with the full support of the state government and the connivance of some of Alabama’s Washington representatives and senators. I said 'recruited' because there is evidence that some of the perpetrators had flocked to Alabama from other states to seize the opportunity to crack skulls.

Wallace had found, as did another Southern midget, Alexander Stephens (1812-1883), that crowds were bored when he talked about states’ rights but responsive when he went in for race-baiting. What was am ambitious man to do, but play the race card? It was the only card in the deck.

Having just read some of the Robert Penn Warren’s essays written at the same time as Wallace was at his pinnacle it is hard to believe these two Southerners came from the same planet.

While Wallace ranted and raved at the evils of the federal government, he continued to receive and bank his monthly check for his war wound. War wound? His discharge was based on his unfitness for further duty due to mental instability, i.e. combat fatigue. For that disability he received a part-pension for the rest of his life. Imagine what an opponent as unscrupulous as Wallace himself would have made of that fact.

Wallace had a retentive memory and he made a point of remembering people he met, because they might be useful later, but he had no rapport with them, unlike Huey Long. They were assets to be catalogued not people whom he could help. Long's faults are encyclopaedic but he never played the race card. There is a coldness at Wallace’s core, which is also evident in this relationship with women, including his ever loyal wife, Lurleen. So seldom did he see his children that she wondered if he would recognise them in a crowd.

In all he served three discontinuous four-year terms as governor, and his wife, Lurleen, served one four-year term as his surrogate. As to Wallace’s change of heart after his own ordeal, the author is sceptical. Wallace’s injuries were terrible and left him in constant pain. But after so many years and so many lies, perhaps the one person who believed his lies was George Wallace. The author gives very short shrift to this period in Wallace's life which I took to be a silent comment on Wallace's credibility.

Reading this book brought back those times to me, and it was disturbing to recall those days of the news each night of blowing up children in churches, burning to death families at the kitchen dinner table, the murder of university students in the street, a woman beaten to death with baseball bats by five men in a town square.… Worse, the culprits in many cases were well known, and some openly bragged of their deeds, others were on-duty police officers. Looking back, it beggars belief. I had no wish to see ‘Selma.’ The original was enough for me.

The author goes to remarkable lengths to be even-handed and let the facts speak for themselves. They do.

dan-carter.jpg Dan Carter

Presidential campaigns. Wallace's strategy was to produce an indecisive election, i.e. no candidate with majority of electoral votes, and throw the (s)election of the president into the House of Representatives as prescribed by the Constitution at the time. There a combination of Southerners with some Northerners from blue-collar constituencies might give him enough votes to wangle a Vice-Presidential selection, and from that base the next time he would be the leading contender for the top job. It is not as crazy as it sounds.

1964. Wallace entered and campaigned hard in three Democratic primaries, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland, and did well. That ended the supposition he was a regional politician with no appeal outside the deep South. After dropping out, privately he offered his support to Barry Goldwater in return for the Vice-Presidential place on the Republican ticket. Goldwater declined. LBJ swept all before him.

1968. Wallace ran as a third party candidate with Curtis ‘Bomber’ LeMay. Richard Nixon won but he feared that Wallace would split his vote. Once again Wallace let it be known he would accept the Vice-Presidential slot on first the Democratic and the Republican ticket. This messages were ignored. He got ten million votes, carried five deep South states with forty-five Electoral votes. This was his high tide. He seems to have taken votes from blue collar workers in the North who might have otherwise voted for Hubert Humphrey and from Southern rednecks who might otherwise have voted for Nixon.

1972. Wallace entered the crowded Democratic primary field and won Maryland, Michigan, as well as Florida. Once again he approached Hubert Humphrey through an intermediary about the Vice-Presidential slot and once again Humphrey did not respond. While Wallace got votes, George McGovern’s campaign was more astute at getting delegates, and there was never a chance Wallace could win, but he could certainly be a spoiler. Nixon was delighted to see him in the Democrat chicken coop but worried he might bolt once again and run as a third party candidate. Many calculation were made. Among McGovern’s campaign staff were Bill and Hilary Clinton. Then that weirdo shot him. HIs assailant sought fame and barely knew who Wallace was. One weirdo too many.

1976. In a wheel chair he entered another crowded Democratic primary field but had little impact and dropped out quickly. He was allowed to address the convention, but he was a shadow of the rabble rouser he once was, and his effort to play the elder statesman was lame. Jimmie ‘Who’ Carter won and won again, the nomination and the election.

Footnotes to Wallace

Hatred and fear, these win elections. This was the lesson the Republican Party took away from the Wallace experience it has gradually make its own since. To paraphrase a Republican campaign analyst in 1968, find out what they fear, find out what they hate, and play to those and only to those. If white blue-collar workers fear that lower-paid blacks will take their jobs, play that card. If white middle-class suburbanites fear blacks will move into the neighbourhood and lower real estate values and mix races, play that card. ‘Playing the card’ means articulating these fears for them in a way that is socially acceptable but unmistakeable -- code it -- so that they can say it and in so doing realise they are not alone. This crystallised into ‘The Silent Majority’ which was hardly silent and probably not a majority, but it was a brilliant conceptualization. People motivated by hatred and fear will go to the polls and vote. Wallace's campaigns both in Alabama and in northern primaries brought many hundreds of thousands first-time voters to the polls in general or primary elections. That campaign manager used other examples and expressed them much more forcefully than I have done in deference to the PG-17 rating of this blog.

Demeaning accounts in press. The resentment that Wallace bore toward the North and its surrogate, the federal government, is easy enough to understand when reading the contemporary press accounts of him, his followers, and his campaigns quoted here. The ‘New York Times,’ ‘Time Magazine,’ CBC-TV News, all struggled to find a slot into which to place them, and they settled on the easiest one to hand. Drawing on their knowledge of the South from reading Al Capp’s ‘Lil Abner’, the pigmies of the Fourth Estate labelled them hillbillies, rednecks, hicks, yokels, and rubes. The early descriptions of Wallace on the campaign trail in North reek of condescension and deprecation. Everything about him was described as though he were a specimen in a jar, his wristwatch, his haircut, his finger nails, these were all subjected to the journalistic acid test, namely, can I get a byline out of this?

This is a lengthy and detailed biography of one Jeremy Thorpe (1929-2014). Jeremy who? He served in the British parliament for twenty years (1959-1979) and was leader of the Liberal Party, 1967-1976, until a spectacular fall from grace. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he was a scion of the upper middle class of his time and place, reared by nannies, sheltered and seldom disciplined. His mother doted on him as the only boy in the family to the occasional resentment of his two older sisters. Jeremy was fifteen when his father died, and thereafter the money slowly ran out.

Thorpe book cover.jpg

When German bombing threatened in 1939 his parents sent him (and the girls) to the United States, where he spent three years in middle school. There he found the environment freer with more emphasis on individuality than the conformism stressed at home. He was neither athletic nor bookish. He had a ear for music and accents, playing the violin quite well (sometimes in public) and mimicking teachers to the amusement of his peers. That combined with a theatrical bent, though he did not act in school plays. He craved to be the centre of attention, dressing to catch the eye, making grand entrances, and saying things to surprise or shock. This is all rather like most adolescent boys, but he did not grow out these but cultivated them as he matured. By the same token he was considerate of others, egalitarian in manner, one who looked to the future and not the past, gregarious, optimistic, and energetic, this latter being, I have always thought, an essential for anyone in politics. His American experience left him with a lifelong commitment to the Special Relationship across the Atlantic.

He had powers of concentration and a retentive memory. He would have made a good barrister, one who could absorb a brief inside out, as they say in chambers, if only he concentrated on it. If someone told him about a book he took it in, and made it his own, so that later if he told someone else about the book, it sounded as if he had read it himself. He focussed on people and he was good at remembering names. When he talked to someone - a duchess at a soiree or a dustman at a political rally — he locked onto them as if, for those moments, they were the most important people in the world. He did not fidget and look over their shoulder for someone else more important to whom to talk. These are assets in campaigning. But he was not particularly adept at debating and if challenged on a point by either the duchess or the dustman he was likely to escape with a quip or laugh.

Much influenced by family friend Lloyd George’s example, he committed himself to the Liberal Party nearly in cradle and never wavered from that though by the time he entered politics, it had been nearly extinguished. His mother was a dyed in the wool Conservative who held an elected office the local shire council, but she was unstinting in her support for his ambitious, and perhaps always hoped that he, like others who started out as Liberals, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson, would change. He spent his years at Oxford pursuing impressive offices, ending as president of the Oxford Union. He was a very poor student and barely completed the law degree and only passed the bar examination on a second or third sitting thanks to the great effort of a chum to prepare him. He was an indifferent barrister, best at appealing to a jury’s emotions and completely unaware of points of law or court procedure, with no grasp of detail, as more than one judge said. His real interest was always politics.

While a student he campaigned often for Liberals in General and By Elections. When he was old enough, rather than vying for one of the very few safe Liberal seats, which might have been possible due to retirements, he picked a rock-ribbed Conservative constituency that had not voted Liberal in two generations, and set to work and seven years later he was elected. The man had application.

He made little money from law, but when ITV was born he applied for a job there and become the host for a popular science program. In an age when all television was live to air, he was just the man, an easy manner, a ready smile, a quick wit, an adroit ability to segue over cracks in the proceedings. He became a reporter on international news and went to Africa for the independence celebrations in Ghana, and he kept travelling and reporting as the Empire converted itself to the Commonwealth. He met and befriended many of the leaders of the emerging nations in Africa, and did his best to explain their causes to his audience in Great Britain. He had a career in television for some years while still practicing law, when there was client, and working in the constituency. Television gave him exposure but very little money. He practiced law in the constituency, too, at cut rates to establish himself. For years he wore his father’s clothes to save money but that also made him seem a dandy from another age that appealed to his sense of theatre, and he lived at home with his mother in Surrey from which he travelled on British Rail to London and North Devon, the constituency, and in all those hours on trains, he chatted up one and all, some of whom recognised him from television and he lapped that up. The man loved an audience. The first time he ran in North Devon he doubled the previous Liberal vote and lost. Four years later he doubled it again and won.

When Jo Grimond retired as Liberal parliamentary leader, Thorpe became leader of the ten Liberals in the House of Commons. Though the Liberals were then a tiny party in electoral terms they retained an elaborate party organization from the days when they were a governing party, councils, assemblies, committees, and boards in profusion. Thorpe proposed changes to streamline that but those who sat on those councils, assemblies, committees, and boards resisted, though they did next to nothing to promote the Liberal cause in the electorate. He then did the next best thing and ignored them. He had three jobs: member of parliament, barrister in London, and travelling correspondent for television, and now leader of a parliamentary party. It was too much even for him, and he quit the law which brought in less money than the cost of the chambers.

In politics he was a vigorous champion of human rights, at the forefront of many campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and the rebel regime in Rhodesia. He also espoused equality for women and recognition of homosexuality in British legislation. He likewise advocated British entry into the European Community. The high water mark of his career was 1974 when the Liberal won 20% of the vote and in the consequent hung parliament, the prospect of a coalition government arose. The Labour leader Harold Wilson wanted another election, not a coalition. Edward Heath, the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister conferred with Thorpe, but Heath refused to consider electoral reform, i.e., proportional representation, ending that brief episode. Sound familiar? In 2010, for those who have not been paying attention, the Liberals entered a coalition with the Tories and for their trouble were obliterated in the 2015 British election to the benefit of the Conservatives.

Thorpe bust.jpg Bust of Thorpe in the House of Commons.

In this period Harold Wilson, first as leader of the Opposition and then as Prime Minister, encouraged the Liberals because they siphoned most of their votes from the Conservatives. Accordingly he always treated Thorpe well, invited him to events, praised his speeches, allowed him some patronage to distribute, enacted legislation that gave tax benefits to those who contributed to the Liberal Party, sent cars to pick him up…. By contrast Edward Heath found Thorpe a poseur of no substance, and could hardly abide him and made no such efforts to court him or the Liberal Party. What a triumvirate! Heath the detail-minded plodder, Wilson the wheeler-dealer, and Thorpe the razzmatazz showman.

thorpe-Heath-Wilson.jpg Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, and Harold Wilson.

The few people who remember Jeremy Thorpe today most likely recall the debacle that ended his career in 1976 when his name was regularly in 30-point type on newspaper screamers at every tube station in London and throughout Great Britain. He was a homosexual at a time when homosexuals in important positions were, in addition to the social, religious opprobrium, and illegality, were regarded as security threats thanks to Guy Burgess. Added to the animal satisfaction, in Thorpe’s case there was the added appeal of the secrecy, melodrama, and theatricality of secret homosexual liaisons. Such was his discretion that even well-known homosexuals who knew him did not realise he shared their orientation, though in time he became less and less discreet. The author gives quite a compelling account of how homosexuality meshed with Thorpe’s personality without descending into the prurient details of an ABC interviewer. Though a good number of people came to know of his homosexuality over the years, including the police and security services, they turned a blind eye but I am not sure why because as Liberal leader he had access to security and defence briefings. There many boyfriends and they came and went. But one of them, Norman Scott, plagued him for years and years and years. Asking for money, bragging to others of his hold on Thorpe, writing letters to Thorpe’s mother, appearing at Thorpe’s parliamentary office. Scott was by all accounts mentally disturbed though he was good looking and could be personable in short bursts. Thorpe tried for years to find a niche for him, securing a number of jobs for him while giving him money. Scott soon wore out his welcome at the jobs and came ever back to Thorpe for more, and more, and more. He even denounced Thorpe to the police who duly noted the allegation and ignored it, noting that Scott had spent time in more than one asylum.

In 1976 Scott’s life was threatened by a man with a gun who killed Scott’s dog. Did Jeremy Thorpe have anything to do with this…well, there is the mystery? He resigned as leader, very reluctantly, under great pressure from his parliamentary colleagues. Three years later there was a trial for conspiracy to commit murder and Thorpe was one of four arraigned, and it all came spilling out in every last detail. It was a feast for the carrion of the media and every morsel was chewed, belched up, and chewed again. His legion of friends and admirers melted away. The men involved, apart from Thorpe, were dubious characters and with chequered histories. Several were accomplished and repeated liars, and should they now be believed? In the end they were acquitted and Thorpe tried to turn that into a victory, but in the course of the trial a great deal had come out of the tube that would not go back. He ran again for parliament and lost….

In the midst of this sage with Scott, Thorpe married a women who knew his homosexuality but like many others found him engaging, and she enjoyed the glamor or Westminster, lunches at the Palace, trips to exotic Africa, and so on. Moreover, they shared intellectual interests in art and architecture. Many observers have since said that he changed as a result, became less theatrical, more relaxed, more confident. Thorpe timed his surprised wedding to upstage a coup against his leadership in the party, and it worked a treat. She was killed in a car accident two years after marriage and he went into a stunned silence for a year and a half. Emerging only occasionally to perform his public duties. He did re-marry on similar terms and this women stuck with him through the ordeal of the trial.

The book is lively and replete with incidents and colourful characters but at 600 pages the detail is so great, the names carpet bombed that I was lost most of the time. The pages are dotted with endnotes to sources of the assertions made and events reported, and replete with asterisked explanatory notes on the characters at the bottom of every other page or so. The author worked on this study over a 25-year period, interviewing everyone and anyone who knew, saw, worked with or against Thorpe, including Thorpe himself. It is all very dense. The length might also seem disproportionate to Thorpe’s achievements. As far I could tell, despite his many pronouncements no cause, no legislation depended on his advocacy his voice, vote, or his action. On the other hand, had he been silent or opposed these matters, then perhaps their progress might have slower. And he was one of the founders of Amnesty International, a tireless advocate for European union, and an effective publicist for the British Commonwealth as a model of cooperation. Even more impressive is to know that many of his most compelling speeches were unscripted.

In common with most contemporary biographers, Bloch says nothing at all about religion in Thorpe’s life, though I expect his parents were churchgoers and he must have been, too, as a child and boy. Not quite, there is one reference half way through within wife died and Thorpe spoke of the spirit living on.

There are a lot of might-have-beens in Thorpe's story. Had he joined Conservative or Labour he would certainly have made it to the front bench and perhaps leadership. Had homosexuality not been illegal and socially unacceptable, he would have perhaps been even more successful as Liberal leader, because hiding his life as a homosexual must have drained a great deal of energy and concentration from his day job, and hiding it finally undid him. Had he followed the advice of several friends to call the bluff of his nemesis and get it over with once and for all even that meant going public, he might have weathered it.

Michael Bloch.jpeg Michael Bloch

The book delivers on the potential seldom realised in the biographies of showing that the boy fathered the man. The traits, attitudes, postures, affectations of young Jeremy formed the man he became. Indeed it does that explicitly and effectively.

René failed because he succeeded. Ever a paradox.

Many people loved René and many people hated him, and still more both loved and hated him. He is the one person whom I would say was charismatic. He burned with a message akin to those religious prophets that Max Weber coined the word to describe. I saw him once in person in a very small audience in Edmonton, and many times later on television. There are plenty of clips on You Tube. But, well, you had to be there to feel the electricity in the air. At the 1980 defeat the rapturous crowd response and his simple and direct statement: 'I understand' perhaps suggest his quality. Remember this is the leader addressing the troops in defeat. It is on You Tube.

The book does not try to be a biography inquiring into the growth and shaping of the man, but is rather a summary of his life and career. It filled in many gaps for this casual observer.

Levesque cover.jpg

Readers who do not know René can start with the three facts.

1. He was always called René by everyone from bus drivers. journalists, enemies, admirers, voters, opponents, to body guards. Like the eponymous television characters Lovejoy or Morse, René had only one name.

2. When he resigned from office after nearly a decade and cleared out his one bedroom apartment where a plastic milk crate served as a coffee table, he took away his worldly belongings in a plastic supermarket bag. He had long ago given his apartment in Montréal to his divorced wife. (He lived his short years in retirement on his parliamentary pension.)

3. The epitaph from one close and sympathetic English-Canadian observer was: his words stopped more than one riot.

He was from Gaspé, a distant and isolated region where the living is hard, but his family had connections. He was a lousy student and dropped out of Laval University in 1944 for military service. But unlike the Québécois hero of Hugh MacLennan’s ‘The Two Solitudes’ he did join the Canadian army.

René did everything his way: He went south and enlisted as a translator and liaison officer in the United States army serving in Europe with Patton’s Third Army. He saw Dachau within days of it liberation, and that vision stayed with him for the rest of his days. In 1950 he went to Korea as a correspondent, this time with Canadian troops.

Like many, veterans and not, he later embellished these experiences in many ways, but somehow managed to live those fictions down. He did tell lies, to make it plain.

The author suggests three legacies his 1944 experiences that forever shaped the man:

1. Democracy. He arrived in London in 1944 to a society under siege, yet he saw Hyde Park orators excoriating Britain for its coloniziation of India. Here was a country on its knees, everything rationed so thin as not to exist, with nearly every man and woman in a crude uniform - some with wooden rifles, V-rockets falling every day killing thousands, and yet during all-clears polite Indian orators excoriated England to attentive and polite crowds. If that was democracy, it was what he wanted.

2.Les maudits Français. He never had any interest in or respect for France. Later when he met French presidents and foreign ministers, he seldom did more than go through the motions. De Gaulle’s (in)famous remark from the balcony of town hall in Montréal, sent René into a rage. Another Frenchman interfering in something he does not understand. More colonialism!

3. Dachau was the outcome of blind nationalism. Never will he do, say, or acknowledge anything that goes down that road.

He become first a radio broadcaster and then a television presenter who explained the world to Québécois(e) in the 1950s. The backward nature of Québec in the period is hard to believe. Maybe one fact says it all. In 1875, yes in 1875, the provincial government of Québec abolished its Department of Education. It vacated education, leaving it to the Catholic Church. Few children went beyond 6th grade. Most girls left sooner. The curriculum was approved in Rome.

On television his genius for keeping it simple paid off. He soon had his own program 'Point de mire’ (Focus). The author makes it clear what a refreshing breadth of air he was on a medium largely dominated by the sanctimonious and inscrutable at the time. His viewers were working class Québécois(e) and he spoke directly to them. Other presenters spoke Parisienne French, many were from The Church, some even spoke Latin on Radio Canada, most talked either down to the audience or over its head. All were dead boring. (For the literal minded, note that Radio Canada broadcasts both radio and television.)

Then came La Revolution Tranquil and he was recruited as a Liberal candidate and within weeks was a cabinet minister. He had zero (0) relevant experience. He had never managed a staff or a budget, and had never delivered anything concrete. Yet he was a whirlwind.

In a few weeks he convinced a cabinet, where there were many long-serving foot soldiers who resented this celebrity candidate, to nationalize electricity!

rené-1969_sn635.jpg René, 'My way or else!'

Hydro-Quebec was born, and it employed French-speaking engineers, accountants, technicians, specialists, receptionists, linesmen, repair crews, damn builders, managers, and secretaries. These skills in turn had to be learned and taught, and the Department of Education was rejuvenated.

Hydro logo.jpg The Québec flag atop a building with the Hydro-Québec logo

Along the way he upset many apple carts, like putting every contract to public tender. Incoming Liberals had rather been counting on rewarding supporters with contracts on the sly, and here was a minister who made it all public. Reluctantly, others had to follow…the leader. He also closed his door to contractors who wanted to woo him. Non! It all goes through channels and all the channels are public. Again other ministers found they had to do likewise.

The old saying is that every Québécois is an independentist at least an hour a day. René’s experiences as a minister led him quickly to conclude that Québec could only become a modern society if it ran its own house. The financiers in Toronto called the shots to benefit themselves. The Church wanted acquiescent worshippers. The politicians in Ottawa were always looking to an abstraction called Canada. For both, leaving Québécois to hew trees for paper and draw water for hydo-electricity was enough. Backward, barefoot, and pregnant would be fine. The colourful natives can stay that way.

In a few years he started a movement to secure a special relationship for Québec within Canada that morphed into the Parti Québécois, and a few years later he was the PQ premier of Quebec. It was a roller coaster ride.

He prevented riots. When Pierre Trudeau faced down the rioters himself in 1968, René was also hosing down the hot heads, and he had a lot more credibility with them than Trudeau. These two, Trudeau and René, were well acquainted and they lined up on different sides, Trudeau for Canada first and last, and René for Québec first and last. For a decade or more their axis dominated Canadian politics. Each had wins; each had loses.

trudeau-levesque.jpg Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque

The rough rides included the FLQ crisis and the War Measures Act that put armed troops on the streets of Montréal. As much as René reviled the War Measures, he was the first and the loudest to condemn the FLQ and stopped more riots. Years later when a convicted FLQ member (having served his time and out of jail) entered a PQ rally, René slammed down the microphone and stormed out. He would NOT be in the same room with that murdering scum. (Though that individual was not himself a murder, he had conspired with them.)

This latter was a card he played often to keep in line the Saint Bartholomew’s circus that comprised the PQ. Do it my way or get a new leader!

A few more bumps in the rough ride include these: two failed referenda on sovereignty, manslaughter, a soldier shooting up the Assemblé Nationale in Québec Cité, and a double agent. Who said Canadian politics is dull?

René the democrat accepted the referenda results, and saw to it that even the zealots in the PQ accepted the results, too. That took a lot of doing, and another threat to quit. Another riot averted.

A Canadian soldier killed three people in the Assemblé Nationale in an effort, he said, to destroy the PQ government. René was not in the building at the time but he hosed down the reaction. No riot this time either.

The manslaughter occurred when René drove home after a long, acrimonious meeting in a bitter January winter snowfall, having drunk — no doubt too much -- French wine he ran over and killed a homeless man. The victim was well known to the police for harassing motorists and lying on the road to make them stop so he could ask the drivers for money. René ran over and killed him in the snowfall and called the Sûreté du Québec. Given his many enemies, including aspiring rivals in the PQ, that he was exonerated is convincing. (Note: my driving experience in Montréal left me with a strong impression of hostile and aggressive pedestrians. Nowhere else did I met people who, passing by, yanked open the car door to ask for money, a ride, or pass an opinion on out-of-province license plates.) This event is recounted in Michel Basilieres's Québec Northern Gothic novel 'Black Bird' (2004), which I enjoyed enormously.

The double agent? It turned out that one of René's closest cabinet colleagues had been recruited years earlier by the Gendarmerie Royal du Canada (RCMP) to inform on radical student groups and he continued to take the payment thereafter. When confronted with the facts, as only René could do, face-à-face, the minister argued he had penetrated the RCMP for the cause! An explanation that René did not dignify with a reply. Well, he did reply: NON!

Perhaps René’s finest hour came the day after he resigned as premier. There was the ceremonial dinner. It was all conducted in French among 600 guests from the political, administrative, media, lobbying classes. At the end René spoke English to invite the one person, having sat through several hours, who spoke no French to join him on the podium and to speak to the assembled group in his language. This man who had come a long way at his own expense spoke Inuit and thanked René for his years of effort at improving the lives of the First People above the Arctic Circle. Indeed, René had done so much that other provincial premiers and finally the Federal Government had had to match his efforts in education, health, welfare, and more.

But the medium was also the message. We can speak our language; so can he.

That should whet any appetite. There is more in the book.

The author pulls no punches and it is a better book for it. René told lies at times. He was prone to self-dramatisation, as if his life did not have enough drama. He was bad father and a terrible husband, and treated the many women in his life as disposable. The confrontational ‘F off, I am indispensable, and you’re not’ was used too often later in life when the patience of this impatient man was exhausted.

He drank to excess, and was sometimes legless and when so, he was rude and crude.

He was nearly a midget with a bulbous head ever more revealed by thining hair, an outsized nose with a drinker’s veins in between ears the size of hockey gloves. He had one suit of clothes and when it decayed he bought another of the rack. His clothes were always smeared with cigarette ash for he was a chain smoker; the 2-3 packs a day were what killed him.

Charisma indeed! Whatever it is, he had it. Yet he was not handsome or good looking in any sense. He was not saintly in any way. He did not sound like an oracle. He seldom smiled. Told no jokes. Was no glad-hander or baby kisser.

He was completely indifferent to money. When the police took him in after the manslaughter he had $5 in his pocket. When died he left a bank balance of $2,800. He assigned the royalties of his memoirs to an Inuit trust in his will.

poliquin.jpg Daniel Poliquon

The author’s summation is brilliant. René failed because he succeeded. To explain, he failed in the referenda because he had already succeeded in imbuing Québec and Québécois with the self-confidence to become master of chez nous without sovereignty.

A biography of KOM, as he was sometimes called. A Canadian, a Kansan, a Quebecker, a New Yorker, depending on which lie he was telling at the time. O’Malley (1854-1953) spent 65 years in Australia in Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, and Adelaide.  Often one step ahead of bailiffs.  Indeed taking ship to Australia in the first place may well have been to evade creditors when he was about 25 years old.

KingOMalley.jpg The man himself, King O'Malley

To establish himself with audiences here and there he claimed a variety of backgrounds and motivations, uninhibited by what he had said previously elsewhere to other audiences, and there was no social media to trip him up.  So convincing a liar was he that he convinced himself, repeatedly.  And audiences he had to have.  He was a man who craved attention, and found it to in sound of his own voice.  He looked and sounded American to his contemporaries in Australia, but he claimed Canadian birth to qualify for citizenship and a run at parliament, first in South Australia, and then in Canberra. 

He started out selling insurance but discovered, as have others like Huey Long, that the product he could best sell was himself.

Loud, brazen, boastful, egotistical, obnoxious, he was just like all Americans in the Australian stereotype today.  So thought many then but more fool them because voters elected him.  His political career started in South Australia, borne, said his foes, on the votes of women who found him a handsome and dynamic man. So much for Enlightenment Adelaide. Having sold insurance most of his life made him — in his own mind — a financial expert, that plus the United States had a national bank were enough to convince him of the need for national bank in Australia. It was a theme he played throughout his political career and in the end he was one of the driving forces in creating the both the Commonwealth Bank and also the Reserve Bank of Australia. There were many objections to both.

Physics is so simple, as Isaac Newton said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In politics for every action there is a myriad of diverse reactions that roll on and feed on themselves. Together they far exceed the original action, and they go off in so many directions that they cannot be tracked.

While he advocated many causes on the nascent Labour agenda at the end of the 19th Century, he was reluctant to join that party and accept the discipline that went with it. Round the turn of the 20th Century the party system did not have a deadlock on seats, and there were a number of independents.  Nonetheless, he supposed he would get a cabinet seat. Someone had to tell him to join that club he had to join the party club and he became a Labor man. His constituency was Darwin in Northwest Tasmania though he lived in Melbourne in the main.

He was minister for home affairs in two governments where he seems to have made a point of clashing with the officials in the Department. Accordingly there was a great deal of smoke and lightning, but the snail’s pace continued.

Because he was a rootless bounder, he had traveled far and wide in Australia selling insurance for years before entering politics. Consequently he had seen more of the country most of his colleagues and that led him to advocate a national railroad. Another theme he stayed with for years.

Perhaps his most lasting mark on Australian was to support Walter and Marion Griffin’s design for Canberra, and to stand by that design and the Griffins when the political football game began. There were many ups and downs but they remained friends so that in his 60s and out of politics when O’Malley paid his only return visit to the United States he stayed several weeks with Walter’s parents in Elmhurst near Chicago.

O'Malley naming Canberra.jpg O'Malley at the ceremony inaugurating the site of Canberra

As O’Malley aged he matured. Many of the passages quoted from Hansard on the bank, the railroad, or Canberra as far less bombastic and more reasoned than his comments on the same subjects twenty years earlier.

By the way, he was a teetotaller all his life, though he freely bought drinks for others, clients and voters. Yet there is pub in Civic in downtown Canberra that bears his name on the stereotype that all Irish are sots. When travelling he never stayed at a licensed hotel such was his aversion to drink and drinkers.

O'Malley's_IPub.jpg The pub in Civic

He was personally frugal to a fault with his own money and that of the Commonwealth. Religion is not mentioned. King was his mother's maiden name. He spent about twenty-five years in retirement burnishing his reputation. He married Amy in his 40s and they stayed married, though our author speculates that King was not a romantic. Having bought property whenever he could along the way, he was a wealthy man and he arranged for his estate to support scholarships for girls only. In the 1960s a Canberra suburban was named after him.

This short book is judicious and droll.  It should be of interest to anyone who has wondered about Canberra came to be as it is. It faithfully recounts O’Malley’s words and deeds and then slowly applies a great deal of salt to arrive at conclusions.  It is far more circumspect than the credulous entry in Wikipedia.  Likewise the entry in the ‘Australian National Dictionary’ of biography is very cautious.  

The title caught my eye. The juxtaposition of ‘Renaissance’ and ‘prince’ had to mean Machiavelli, so it did.  I thought to read it then, to find out how Machiavelli is maligned within and, after all, Elizabeth is another great leader per my presidential reading project. So off I went.

Hilton cover_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

My head whirled at the time and place. What a world was the Tudor court. What a time in the continuing bloody conflict between staunch Catholic and zealous Protestant.  This was not a polite doctrinal dispute but one that often ended, quickly, at the end of an axe or pyre for burning dissents alive as soon as possible.  

In reading all of this I am reminded again that Henry VIII had very good political reasons for his six wives.  Now it is true that the women he selected sometimes were chosen for sexual attraction, but he desperately needed an heir.  And that heir would have a better chance of support and survival if it was a he and that he was a Protestant.  That he had six wives was a measure of the desperation for an heir as much an anything else, contrary to the vulgarians on the idiot box who can think only of genitalia, telling us some much more about themselves than Henry.

I learned a few things, against the odds as explained below under vinegar.  Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary Tudor, who ruled for five years as Mary I of England, is not Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, though the confusion is invited because Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was styled Mary I of Scotland and since there were those who thought she ought to be on the English throne, she was sometimes thus referred to as Mary I of England, too.  These two Marys were cousins of some remove.  Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, descended from Henry VII (father of Henry VIII).  Henry VIII was father to both Mary Tudor with Katherine of Aragon and Elizabeth Tudor with Ann Boleyn. Mary was 15 years older than Elizabeth.  Neither had anything like a normal childhood.

Elizabeth Tudor, as a child, survived the court intrigues in part because she was a girl and so not considered a threat by any of the court factions. Her younger brother, Edward was the presumptive heir and attention focussed on him. At one time or another, Henry VIII, while he still lived; Edward VI, the boy king; Lady Jane Grey, and Mary I either disinherited or denounced Elizabeth.  By disinherited I mean excluded her from royal succession. Sometimes this exclusion was done though an act of parliament, and at other times by a decree.  Then there would occur a shift in court politics, or a rumble in European affairs and restoring Elizabeth seemed politic.  

Edward VI was the first king raised and educated into Protestantism as was Elizabeth, and the first monarch to come to the throne a Protestant. MaryTudor, the older sibling, was reared by her mother, the very pious Spaniard, Katherine, into Iberian Catholicism, that of the Inquisition. If there were variations in Catholicism, this was the take-no-prisoners version. The best way to save the soul of sinners is to kill them immediately to stop the sin, and make things easier for them in the afterlife.  If that sounds wacko, read more about the Tea Party to find contemporary parallels.  

The boy King Edward was never robust and on his deathbed at 15, he signed a paper passing the crown onto Lady Jane Grey, who had reared him and nursed him in his last days, his mother, Jane Seymour, had died in his birth.  Whether Edward knew what he is doing or not when he signed, there were many who supposed the crown was not his to give, and Lady Jane Grey’s interregnum lasted 9 days.  To save herself, though very Protestant, she professed allegiance to Mary. It did not save her.

Mary Tudor became Mary I for five years.  She pulled off a diplomatic coup with a political marriage to Phillip of Spain, heir to the Castilian throne.  Phillip spend a year in London where he counselled her to show moderation to Protestants.  Though very much a Catholic himself, the point of the marriage was to secure a powerful English ally against the French. That would not work if the English turned against each other in a religious war.  Being a seaman himself, he also introduced reforms into the Royal Navy in ship building and in promotions.  Ironic, no? This is the same Phillip who dispatched the fabled Armanda against the Royal Navy he had helped create while Elizabeth, the women he shielded, was queen. 

Matrimonial politics makes strange bed fellows, for while the conjugal alliance with Phillip of Spain corralled the French for a time, it was not popular with the English public, nor with the many nobles who preferred one of their own in that bed. Even English Catholics were less than enthusiastic for a Spanish king. Note, he was accorded the ceremonial title king, but the marriage contract specifically denied him any authority, but still there was that word ‘King.’

Elizabeth bent to Mary’s will, even proclaiming herself a good Catholic in a letter. Mary did not believe the profession but it was enough to paper over the differences. There were Protestant plots to do away with Mary and they turned their eyes to Elizabeth as a figurehead.  She can hardly have failed to know this, but some how kept a distance from it. When one such plot was revealed, Mary sharpened an axe for Elizabeth’s neck, but Phillip urged restraint.  Why? He had a second reason. Mary Stuart that Queen of the Scots was the other most credible claimant to the English throne and she was betrothed to the French King.  If Mary Tudor I were to die, and Elizabeth was dead, that would make Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots, the inside favourite for London, thereby undoing the English-Spanish alliance he had devoted himself to securing.  So Elizabeth lived, and that kept Protestant hopes alive, as well.

Then Mary succumbed in an influenza epidemic and there was no one else but Elizabeth for the Protestants.  While the author stresses Elizabeth’s solid education, linguistic ability, honed survival instinct, it must also have been the case that there chancers around who hoped to manipulate and use this girl-queen, just as such men, including members of the Grey family, who manipulated Edward VI.  

Be that as it may, Elizabeth did everything possible in word and deed to emphasise the smooth continuity of Tudor monarchs from Henry VIII, Edward VII, Mary I to Elizabeth I. While the most Catholic elements of Mary’s rule were set aside, some was preserved in a gesture of moderation. Though it was never enough either way. The Catholics wanted a Catholic queen and all the Protestants put to the sword, and the Protestants reciprocated.

Mary STuart.jpeg Mary Stuart

Elizabeth’s reign was long, and domestic, national, and international politics swirled around in admixtures. She flirted with men, but found having suitors secured a kind of stability, rather like Penelope and that weaving. Mary Stuart kept plotting and finally was entrapped, and went to the stump. Many others went, too. Yet no one uses Elizabeth’s name as a shorthand for murderousness. Odd that. Of course, Henry VIII oversaw the slaughter of more than 50,000 Catholics who were his subjects and his royal oath pledged him to protect and defend his subjects. Hmmm.

Francis Walsingham created MI5 and MI6 in all but name, and ferreted out plotters, and no doubt fomented some of them to justify an increased security budget.

When Calvinist rebels who attacked the Spanish in the Netherlands appealed to Elizabeth for help, she being the leading Protestant monarch in Europe, the other major one was in Sweden, Elizabeth gave just enough help to keep the Spanish tied down in the Netherlands, but never enough to bring about a decisive result. Better to have Spain tied down in the Netherlands than to have it freed from that need by a decisive Calvinist victory. Who said 'cynical'?

There were many approaches of marriage both international and national. In light of the popular reaction to Mary Tudor’s marriage to Phillip, there was no chance of a foreign husband, but let the suitors come… In time the Virign Queen used that claim to identify herself with both the Madonna, and with England as her immaculate child. The author goes into the symbolism of this at length, the jewellery, the portraits, the gild.

But the point remains that there was no heir. That must have bothered a lot of people who could foresee a gathering of the carrion when she died. And she could have died at any time, falling down stairs, in an influenza epidemic, by tetanus from a small cut, bad water while travelling, the list goes on. Those who supported her the most, these had the most to lose if instability followed her death. They must surely have thought about this, and they must surely have taken out insurance of some kind. The author reveals nothing of this.

The one chapter where the author does dig concerns Elizabeth's speech at Tilbury when the Spanish Armada was approaching.

spanish-armada.jpg That armada.

Hilton concludes, mostly by assertion, that Elizabeth did not give the speech widely attributed to her (See William Safire, ‘Lend me your ears’). That she went to Tilbury to consult with the admirals and generals is documented, but not that she spoke or what she said if she spoke. The author concludes the speech was retrospectively credited to her a generation later, and stuck. I do like that kind of digging, though I was disappointed at the conclusion, but it seemed to rest largely on the absence of evidence, and as Donald Rumsfeld taught us, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Oh yes, Machiavelli is mentioned several times and is shown in one of the coloured plates in this handsomely produced book. The mentions are gratuitous and superficial. Par for the course.

Lisa Hilton is a successful author with many titles to her credit. The back cover of this tome bears this blurb: ‘Game-changing…how history should be written,’ Andrew Roberts. I expect this the Roberts with a lengthy and laudatory entry in Wikipedia where he is described as a British historian and journalist, and a FRSA and FRSL, dignities so far above my station that I know not what they are. Yet I dare to dissent.

The experience of reading this book was like watching squeal televisions programs, where gangs of immature adolescents shriek and squeal at each others’ dresses, make-up, hot-rods, guns, and general vulgarity.  It is my first squeal and shriek book.  Much more attention is lavished on the gowns, the regalia, the jewels, than on the forces in play that lead to the events at which the gowns are worn. It might also be compared to one of those celebrity magazines I pass by at supermarket tills, combining glitz and gossip a mile wide and an inch deep. 

The book starts in the middle; is breathless throughout; opinionated without being informative. It makes no concessions to the reader’s desire for an orderly exposition of the facts of Elizabeth’s life. Instead it replicates the kaleidoscope of the times in blizzards of name-dropping, as if all readers already know all of this and are waiting for the writer to tell us what to think.  She does tell us often with that dreadful adverbs: obviously, reasonably, rightly, finally. 

I made my own chart of the principal characters so I could follow, to some degree, our breathless correspondent as she darts from one subject to another, seldom leaving a transition, internal summary, or any other signpost behind. What would Jacques Barzun say about this? Probably not that it is how history should be written.

That there is contention over facts or interpretations is taken as license by this writer, not as a matter that requires careful adjudication.  There is little evidence in the text of the impact of studying the lengthy bibliography at the back. It is rather as the script writers say: based on a true story.  Sometimes passages in quotation marks have a footnote and sometimes they do not. The footnotes are often to whole books, and not to passages, page, or specific points.

hilton snap.jpg Lisa Hilton

‘What he was accused of compassing was the possession of two Tudors, the king as his charge and Elizabeth as his wife.’  Huh? ‘Compassing’? It has an archaic meaning as 'contriving’ but really, how many 21st Century readers will get it? I did not.  This is one example of many instances where odd words, usually long, are used. All those students I have read who thought big word was a big idea, they came to mind.

The novel offers an account post-Communist show trial in the heart of darkest Eastern Europe told as a test of wills between the defendant, the 35-year dictator, and the prosecutor, a professor of law, who got the assignment because no one else wanted it; too many skeletons in that closest. They spar in interviews and also in the courtroom.


During the tumult of the Change, when the Red regime fell, most records were destroyed and few records were kept in the first place. Should evidence of the dictator's undoubted crimes be fabricated, or will the new regime settle for convictions for pilfering office supplies? Enter Fox News which I am sure could puff up a few office supplies to an unprecedented national disgrace with its distinctive combination of hysteria and ignorance.

I gave the game away when I referred to this as a 'show trial' for while the new regime wants to break with the past, needs must. The prosecutor has a crisis of conscience. True believers remain and perhaps the old regime will return.

The deposed tyrant is no fool and he gives as good as he gets in his confrontations both in interviews and in court. A decisive result is necessary.

It all becomes didactic. Argument and counter argument, and not much recognisable human feeling in any of it. There is a kind of utopian element in the ambition to create society anew, to build a new and better society, but it is not developed in this short book.

Barnes.jpg Julian Barnes

I read It in 1993 but retained no memory and when I happened to see it on the shelf I tossed it in the pile to take to Hastings in 2015.

When he retired William Lyon Mackenzie King held the record for the longest serving prime minister in the English-speaking world, exceeding the record then held by Robert Walpole, in all 21 years.  To put that in perspective, note that Australia's Robert Menzies had 18 years and Franklin Roosevelt 13, and Churchill 11. In addition, King was the leader of the Liberal Party for a total of 28 years. I expect he still does hold the record for longest serving party leader, too.

William_Lyon_Mackenzie_King_1947.jpg William Lyon Mackenzie King

Roosevelt had a charm even over the radio and daring ideas, Churchill could wake the dead with his rhetoric and was willing to try almost anything, while Menzies exuded confidence and calm. King had none of these assets. He was short, round, and pudgy. He had no love for meet-and-greets. He spoke in a high squeaky voice that sounded worse on radio than in person though it sounded bad then. He invariably read his speeches word-for-word badly.  He had no electoral coattails to make backbenchers beholden to him.

Then why did he succeed? The short answer was said in an obituary 'He divided us least.' 


The legends of King are many, and most have to do with inaction: he never let his left hand know what his left hand was doing, he never did by halves what could be done by quarters and he never did at all what did not have to be done. Like a duck holding place against a tide, he paddled furiously below the surface while doing nothing up top. That image is from Churchill in another context but it fits King perfectly.  

It is said that he had all cabinet ministers sign undated letters of resignation as a condition of being named to cabinet and that he kept those in his pocket in parliament during debates or question time occasionally bringing one or all out onto the desk as though about to date a resignation and by this means stimulating his colleagues to fervour.  This book does not mention this last story and rather emphasises the care he generally took in stroking the egos of those around him in his earlier years, but it is also clear that he changed over the years, and grew ever more determined to hang on. Still he had plenty of wiles, like calling an election in the speech from the throne! Students of parliamentary procedure will realise how startling that would be.

In his youth, before the concept existed, he became an experienced and successful labor-management mediator in some pretty difficult circumstances.  His approach was to get the parties talking, sometimes about trivial things, like where to meet, the shape of the table, and the like, to get them into direct dialogue about something, anything concrete. All the while he would present the factual context and try to get them to agree to the description of the situation. In this effort he was deferential, polite, patient, and had an iron butt to see the job out no matter what.

He was headhunted into politics when a PhD student in economics at Harvard. He entered parliament and became Canada's first minister of labor in one swoop. His mentor was Wilfred Laurier of the $5 bill made famous in tribute to Mr Spock in 2015.

In office he championed social welfare measures but never tried to push ahead, always waiting for the community to accept such measures as child bonuses, pensions, and so on. His touch in these judgements was sure though there is no telling how or why he had it, since he seldom left Ottawa and when he did, he avoided voters as much as possible. In the few campaign rallies where he spoke he entered by a backdoor, read his leaden speech, and left. With experience he became a more accomplished speaker but never in the same league as his contemporaries, Churchill and Roosevelt. Canadians could hear both the latter often, and King did not try to compete with them.

His reluctance to push ahead irritated many who urged prompt action to use the votes he had in parliament, but King never hurried. Never. The votes in parliament were necessary but what was sufficient was the mood of the country, and divided Canada has many moods, all at once. For example, to some child bonuses were paying Catholic Québécois to procreate.

Divisions! Plenty of those. The prairie provinces are alienated from Ottawa. Not to be outdone the left coast of British Columbia is even more alienated. The impoverished Atlantic provinces are home to the forgotten people. Prince Edward Island cannot be found on some maps of Canada. Quebec is a world unto itself outside Montréal. Labrador and the Northwest Territory are on the dark side of the moon. Ontario owns most of the country.  Federal elections were won and lost in the Ottawa River valley, i.e., Ontario and Quebec.

King became leader when he was the rising man, and also at a time when the Liberals seemed certain to lose and none of the other likely candidates wanted the job.  He got it, and he kept it.

Many winners are born lucky in their opponents, and King certainly was. The Conservatives found one way after another to alienate vast sections of the electorate, usually by preferring Ontario's interest to the exclusion of the rest of the country, and making no effort in Quebec which was ceded to the Liberals.  In effect, the Liberals were the only national party (sound familiar?) in Canada for much of this period, getting votes and seats in every part of the country. There were elections in the only Conservative seats were from Ontario with a very light sprinkling from nearby Manitoba.

Having observed Laurier, King determined to keep Quebec Liberal at all costs. He did this by finding a loyal lieutenant, first Ernest Lapoint and then Laurier St. Laurent (who later succeeded him as leader and prime minister), to concentrate on Quebec. King pretty much gave them a free hand. He seldom went there, spoke no French, and viewed Catholicism with suspicion. 

Over the years there many remarkable events, among the most outstanding were these.

First, the Bynge Affair.  As the incumbent prime minister he was at loggerheads with the Governor-General after an election produced no majority. The Liberals lost a substantial number of seats and the Conservatives won many new seats but neither had a majority. The convention would have been that King resign and step back and let the Conservatives form a government, but he hung on for weeks and argued the point with Governor-General Bynge ad nauseum. He finally did resign and the Conservatives tried and failed and a new election followed where King secured a thin majority.  Why he protracted the matter is hard to fathom and the author can only say that he was a selfish man, hardly a satisfactory explanation, since King was smart enough to know what he was doing, but what was he doing? King had predicted that  the Conservatives would fail, indeed he told that to the Governor-General as a reason why he should stay in office, but he would not back his judgement until pinned to the wall.

Second, King advocated a Canadian foreign and defence policy so did not agree to accept all British decisions or recommendations. Unlike Australia's Robert Menzies, he did not participate in the Empire War Cabinet in World War II. Instead he said Canadian decisions will be made in Canada by Canadians in the interest of Canada, spending very little time in London, again unlike Menzies.  This line outraged the Canadian Britophils, especially in British Columbia which has long lived up to the first part of its name, but it soothed Québécois. It did not satisfy anyone but it did not completely alienate anyone either.

Third, though he advocated unemployment relief in principle, when the Great Depression hit he was unprepared for the magnitude, and he did not warm to John Maynard Keynes's approach to government budget deficits. Moreover, he was rude and crude publicly in his reaction to protests. No man of the people was he. Moreover, he refused to let the federal government cooperate with the provincial governments held by Conservatives, a sorry example of vindictiveness replacing compassion. Not one dollar to those provinces which hath sinned against Mackenzie King! He lost the next election and found opposition dead boring, leaving the running to others. In a way this loss was lucky for King and for the Liberals because it left the Conservatives in office in the teeth of the Great Depression, and so left them to carry the opprobrium for not combatting it.

Four, there is no doubt his crucible was World War II and conscription. In World War I Canada had poured men into the Western Front, and had taken a perverse pride in the lists of dead. The drain on manpower was incredible, and Laurier slowly and reluctantly accepted conscription. While English Canada was ready for it, Quebec was not.

A brief aside, Québécois speak French but have no love for France. Like the Boers of South Africa who speak a Dutch, they feel they were abandoned by their country of origin, traded away at a conference table. At times Québécois think of themselves as Normans abandoned by Parisiennes. 

Laurier legislated conscription in 1917 before the USA entered the war and it led to riots in Montrėal and produced few Québécois soldiers but much ill will. King wanted no repeat of that. His line, which pleased neither the zealots for Britain, nor the Québécois was no conscription unless necessary and conscription only if necessary. It had no ring to it.  But if it did not please either camp, neither did it fatally alienate either camp.

In 1944 the Canadian army wanted men to replace its battle losses, including 2,000 at Dieppe which is barely mentioned in this book.  But after the middle of 1944 the outcome of the war was inevitable and King would not budge, despite the pressures brought to bear from generals, Liberal backbenchers and ministers, the press, the opposition, and the British and American allies, he held firm. One argument for more troops was that a greater commitment would give Canada a larger role in the peace that followed, say at the United Nations. King had no interest in such aggrandisement. The price was too high. Conscription in July 1944 when the war was all but won in Europe, and Canada had little interest in the Pacific War, would have produced a rupture with Quebec, and would have jeopardised the Liberal lock on it.

While he held off those who wanted more troops he was calm up top, furiously paddling down below.

Five, in the post-war period when a Soviet defector revealed a spy ring in Ottawa, King smothered it, at least compared to the way similar revelations in the United States and Australia were fanned into flames. Those implicated were pursued but he did not try to exploit it with the electorate though that was urged on him by many associates. As always he preferred the minimum, not the Aristotelian mean, the absolute minimum.

In his personal habits he was notoriously frugal and recorded, in the best Scots tradition, every penny he spent. This personal frugality carried over into a reluctance to spend government money. Even for cherished projects like unemployment relief in the Depression.

He never married though many women were courted in his early life, none quite made the grade. There is no mistaking his loneliness in his mature and later years, though our author is insensitive to it.  That he was a bachelor was an oddity, for then as now, the norm is that the democratic leader to be a normal, married man, façade though it may be. The exceptions are few and none with King's endurance.

Stranger still was King’s life long obsession with spiritualism. The author has many derogatory things to say on this subject and only grudgingly notes that spiritualism had a following among many educated and intelligent people at the turn of the twentieth century. King attended sėances, consulted fortune tellers, had tea leaves read, and so on, all this meticulously recorded in a diary he kept all of his life, writing 5, 10, 15 pages a night in long hand which he had typed and filed each morning, leaving behind a houseful of boxes and binders of this diary.

seance.jpg Yes, Prime Minister!

He never seems to have read a book or listened to the radio for amusement or relaxation. His only relief from duty, apart from his love of dogs, was this diary. His only companion was a dog, three Irish setters, one after another.

Even more unusual is his near childlike belief in an enchanted world where a cloud formation foretold events, or a draft that blew a paper to the floor was a sign. Everything that happens, and I mean everything, from leaf drops, to birds in the sky, they were all communications of meaning which he recorded in his diary, linking the cloud shape to his decision to appoint X to this or that post. He confided these enchantments to his diary and did not tell X he got the job because of a cloud looked like him!

King combined this spiritualism with a Christian duty to serve mankind.  The book is silent on his church-going habits and how he squared what he heard in church with his spiritualism. By the way the focal, but not exclusive, point of his spiritualism was his mother, giving the pop psychologists much fun. Our author has no feel for religion in one's life and treats it as a hobby, one that is less amusing than the spiritualism.

As he aged King became a tired old man who took out his aches and pains, and loneliness, on his staff. He worked many to the bone, and some to death, and seldom thanked any of them. There is megalomania in all that. It is always about King.  When a subordinate dies at his post doing his bidding, King's first reaction is irritation that the chap let him down.

His name needs explanation: William Lyon Mackenzie King was the maternal grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie, himself a formidable figure in Canadian history and politics. It was his mother's father's example that led him into public life, and it was an inspiration he acknowledged now and again over the years in stressing his sense of duty. The author has hard time playing this with a straight bat. There are enough cheap shots in this book to please Bill Bryson.

The book has had many accolades.  This reader will not join the chorus. I found the writing sloppy, the organisation repetitive, the analysis of King's political successes and accomplishments just greater than 0. Instead there much sneering at the spiritualism, again and again, meanwhile accepting events as inevitable rather than examining the dynamic that brought them about.  While the author notes King's enormous capacity for delusion, he accepts most of the factual assertions in King's voluminous diaries, seldom seeking confirmation from another source.  Contrast this approach to Robert Caro's Herculean double-checking in his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Most of King's delusions stemmed from the enchanted world he inhabited, which often made him seem to be central figure. If Churchill wrote him a letter about some routine matter that was conclusive proof that Churchill admired, respected, and was influenced by him. 

Allan.Aug14.jpg Allan Levine

Explanatory note. Above I have referred to Québécois and not French Canadians. Many French Canadians live outside Quebec and they seldom identify with it and its causes. 

It is now commonplace for presidential candidates, even early in pursuit of party nomination, to publish a book. Most of these campaign books are autobiographical of the ‘My Story’ sort. John McCain offered ‘Faith of My Fathers’ (2000) gently reminding readers and reviewers of his sacrifices. Mitt Romney in ‘No Apologies’ (2010) tried to make himself seem ordinary but special at the same time. Barack Obama in ‘The Audacity of Hope’ (2008) and Hillary Clinton in ‘Hard Choices’ (2014) have bowed to the convention. A host of lesser known candidates have had their ghost writers, too, briefly putting their names before the reading public in book stores. (As always, Hillary overachieves and has several other titles to her credit.)

In the current fashion these books emphasise the intangible, the character of the candidate. Seldom do they focus on problems, programs, or goals or have the intellectual content of, say Richard Nixon’s ‘Six Crisis’ (1962).

When the campaign book became an essential is hard to say. Since the 1960s it has become a fixture. Semi-literate candidates who have never read a book, now write one!

In 1936 a campaign book was not commonplace; Long’s ‘My First Day in the White House’ was unusual in its time and place.


Long’s plan was to support an independent spoiler (Father Coughlin) with no chance of winning in the 1936 campaign to split the Democratic vote and elect a Republican, who would be unable to respond to the Great Depression, leaving the Republicans discredited and the Democrats without a leader by 1940 and the country desperate. Then Huey P. Long would accept a popular draft to take the Democratic nomination. During his short time in the United States Senate Long had begun to organise the spontaneous draft that was supposed later to impel him to the Democratic nomination. Huey never left anything to chance and he worked for the longer term.

This book, incomplete at his death, was a declaration of his intention. The custom at the time was for senators to declare their candidate for a presidential nomination at a press conference in the Senate cloakroom. Never one to follow form, Huey Long did it in this book.

In the hectic life he led, Long dictated this manuscript in 1935 in Washington D.C. where he was a senator from Louisiana, and Baton Rouge in Louisiana where he ran the state through a stand-in governor, often in cars, taxis, and hurrying from one meeting or speech to another, and on the train on his national campaign for his ‘Share our Wealth Clubs.’ He worked 24/7, getting by with four hours sleep most nights.

Long had one simple proposal that the ‘Share our Wealth Clubs’ expressed. Tax the rich! TAX the rich! TAX THE rich! TAX THE RICH! Get it?


It is more than taxing income, by the way, it is was also seizing the fortunes the rich had already amassed. The word ‘confiscation’ was not used but that it what it was. Compared to this spectre, Franklin Roosevelt was a bastion of the establishment.

But what of the book? It has an impish humour that is attractive, and a subtlety of mind and insight into the motivations of others with which he is seldom credited, but which he must surely have had to be as successful as he was. Like many other successful politicians he understood what motivated his opponents and how to manipulate that rather as a sailor learns to tact into the wind.

In these pages President Long hits the ground running, publicly naming a cabinet on inauguration day without bothering to inform those named! It is just what he would have done. He named, among others, Herbert Hoover to Commerce and Franklin Roosevelt to Defense. They could of course decline, but then they would have to explain to public opinion why they refused to serve their country in these roles! Now that is audacity. Needless to say in these pages, they comply with that great god public opinion in the person of its prophet Huey Long.

The millionaires resist but are won over through appeals to their better natures, long term self-interest, and Christian charity. That Baptist ascetic John D. Rockefeller was the first to surrender his fortune to the greater good. His fortune is a pittance compared to J. P. Morgan or John Hill but they, too, succumbed to saviour Long. In short order. Morgan and Rockefeller are redistributing their wealth and ohers' in a ‘Leviticus’ jubilee.


The only tension is this parable occurs in Chapter Six when an unnamed governor stirs up popular resistance to Long’s initiatives. Long does what Huey Long always did, he goes to face down the crowd, and wins them over. The governor is contrite, saying he led the revolt, to force the Supreme Court to rule on Long’s many initiatives, which it did found and them all good.

The initiatives include nationalising the railroads (calling William McAdoo from retirement to reprise his World War I role as Tsar of the rails), endless funding for agriculture, education, and health, combined with a balanced budget (thanks the confiscation of the fortunes of the Robber Barons). After token resistance, everyone agrees with Long’s vision.

Most of the book is told through dialogue in meetings or letters. There are illustrations he commissioned as the work evolved. This one for example.


There is none of brow-beating, blatant bribing, sale of offices, strong-arm tactics, double-dealing, and threats, or beatings that fuelled his gubernatorial administration in Louisiana in these pages. It is a redeemed Huey that figures here now that he has ascended to the White House.


It is easy to parody the book these generations later, but in the late 1930s with the Dust Bowl suffocating six states, thousands displaced through foreclosure, hundreds of thousands of jobless men wandering the country, hardship without end for a decade, and against the backdrop of President Roosevelt’s tentative first efforts, placed within the organisation of the ‘Share our Wealth Clubs,’ the book would have been a lightning rod for both hope and despair, one that Huey Long would have wielded expertly. Of that there is no doubt.

The book offers a complete social vision, albeit supeficial, as naive and as inspiring as many utopian fictions. It shows the working out of the idea without any of the inevitable reaction, undermining, half-heartedness, and confusion of life. It compares to Edward Bellamy ‘Looking Backward’ (1888) or William Morris’s “News from Nowhere’ (1890).

Class, time for another quiz. Get those eggheads ready! Agitate those little grey cells!

In the 1860s, who…

1.negotiated treaties with foreign governments and corporations without any political authority?
2.created an elaborate parallel federal bureaucracy with no constitutional authority?
3.practiced state socialism?
4.monopolized trade?
5.seized private property to the tune of $30,000,000 in gold?
6.exercised the executive authority of a president without any political mandate?
7.abrogated habeas corpus in the pursuit of conscripts?
8.and did all of this over the area of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, eastern Kansas, and Oklahoma to the loyal supporters of the Confederacy?

All those who said General William Sherman in his famous March to the Sea, on with the dunces’ caps and look at a map!

All of this was done for more than two years (1863-1865) by forty-year old full General Kirby Smith, of the Confederate States of America army. How that came to be, why it happened, what he did and how are laid out in this fascinating study of a corner of American political history quite unknown to this casual Civil War buff.

Edmund_Kirby_Smith.jpg General Kirby Smith

I had long known that the youthful General Smith had commanded Trans-Mississippi Confederacy though I was never quite sure I could find the Trans-Mississippi on a map. I now know it comprised four states (Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas) and four territories (Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, and Indian [Oklahoma]).

Map of Trans 1.jpeg The blue line encompasses the field of operations of the Department of Trans-Mississippi Confederacy.

His army, such as it was, was the last major force to lay down its arms in June 1865 as the news from the east made its way west. But knowing that was to know nothing of the detail.

After reading some other biographies of presidentials in the Civil War period I was reminded of Smith’s domain and decided to find a book about it. Pay dirt!


Not only does the book produce the goods on Smith and the Trans-Mississippi it makes the point that without the title or the legitimacy that goes with it, he exercised the prerogatives of a super-president unbalanced by a legislature and unchecked by a judiciary for two years. See that list of eight points above. If President Abraham Lincoln or President Jefferson Davis had done any of these, the opposition would have been great. Indeed, for what it is worth, Davis did none of them and Lincoln did only one, habeas corpus - he put a lot of people in jail indefinitely on the suspicion of sedition without trial. A lot. He provided a precedent for George W. Bush and Guantanamo Bay that was never cited!

First to that name ‘Trans-Mississippi’ for those who did not read Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’ ‘Cis-Alpine’ means on this - ‘cis’ - side of the Alps, and ‘trans’ means…? Yes, Class, on the other side of the Alps. Now apply that to the Mississippi.

No, Dunce, Caesar did not cross the Mississippi River at Rubicon! Do pay attention.

Cis-Mississippi is east of the Mississippi River and Trans-Mississippi is west of the Mississippi River. (Except in Des Moines Iowa where I repeatedly find on Skywalk maps that east and west are relative terms not fixed.) Now that we have nailed the name, let’s go to the man.

Kirby Smith (1824-1893), born in Florida, was a West Point graduate and a gentleman scientist whose collection of botanical specimens acquired while serving in frontier forts in Texas can still be seen in the of Natural History on the Mall. He served under Braxton Bragg in the Confederate Army of Tennessee and when his accomplishments made Bragg look bad, he removed him from command in one of this many fits of jealousy. Smith was thus available at the right time to go West in January 1863. The theatre he commanded was the biggest in space assigned to a general officer in either army and the means he had to defend it ranked the smallest on any measure. He said he liked a challenge, and off he went with a devil-may-care wink.

Within six months it got a harder. The Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg surrendered and in a few weeks the Mississippi River became a Federal lake, impassable to Confederates. Smith was now on his own, with very limited, very difficult communication with the Confederate government in Richmond. Intrepid individuals rowed skiffs, canoes, rafts, and logs across the Father of Waters bearing messages. They might wait weeks for Federal patrols on the River to move on, slacken, or be called away to a diversion before daring a night crossing. Anyone who has seen the current in the Mississippi above the Delta knows that this is a life-risking exercise. Many messages and some messengers were lost to the River, to Union patrols, and to self-preserving second thoughts.

At first Smith dutifully asked for instructions case-by-case from Richmond but after July he sought a carte blanche which in a series of agonising messages travelling this long, dangerous, uncertain route from Richmond to his headquarters in Shreveport Louisiana or Marshall Texas President Davis did not say ‘no’ to the request but then did not say ‘yes’ either. For equivocating, President Davis could give the Japanese lessons.

Finally, Smith just focused on Davis's sentences that seemed to authorise him to do what Smith deemed necessary and ignored all the qualifications, asides, limitations, hedges, cross-references, hesitations, definitions, and the fog of indecision that Davis’s pen exuded. One reason Davis obfuscated was that he, as President, did not have the powers Smith wanted to exercise, a fact of which Davis was made constantly aware by newspaper editors, Confederate Congressmen, and state governors who enveloped him.

Smith’s forces were desperately short of war material (ammunition, firearms, gun powder, pack animals, cannon, shot and shell, uniforms, boots for the men and shoes for the horses) but most of he was short of men. Periodically he would launch an enlistment campaign offering such inducements as he could (immediate furlough and an enlistment bounty in worthless Confederate dollars). Desertion was astronomical, one division reported 300 men fit for duty and 4,500 absent without leave. To stop that he would take troops from contact with the enemy and set them to find deserters who would then be shot on the spot as a lesson to others. This was hardly an appealing duty and members of those patrols often themselves deserted. It was a downward spiral.

The best way to avoid conscription was to enrol in the state militia (which remained true during the Vietnam War; think George W. Bush). The state militias’ registers were bursting with names and for each name there was an exemption. None of the states had the capacity to arm these militiamen with any more than the farm shotguns they brought with them. Few states had officers who could drill and discipline them, and since the officers were elected (per the state constitutions), any officer who tried too hard was defrocked. Moreover, a state militia cannot go outside the state (again by the state constitution), limiting cooperation with others to nearly nothing. While Smith’s armies regularly opposed forces four or five times larger, vast numbers of able bodied men of soldierly age had their exemptions, and these very same men urged Smith to fight to defend their homes and property (slaves) from the Yankee scourge. It did not take long for this circle of irresponsibility to wear out Smith’s good humour. With no legal or political authority but the weapons of his press-gangs, he forced militiamen into the ranks. Of course some of them deserted and sicced governors and newspaper editors on to him, and a host of trial lawyers brought endless suits. He persisted with some success.

To pay his army, to pay civilians for their labor as teamsters or ditch diggers, to buy uniforms, ammunition, and everything else he need a source of such goods and he needed money. The source was obvious. Look at the map above. México! There were plenty of Méxican entrepreneurs to supply whatever was needed. Then the problem was the Readies to pay for it. The only resource of value he had at hand, and he had at hand plenty of that, was cotton. In warehouses, on farms, in sheds there were hundreds and thousands of bales which had built up when the Union occupation of New Orleans stopped the trade through that port. Those who owned the cotton would not, however, sell it for Confederate dollars. Smith tried bonds; he tried his own warrants; he offered interest on the Confederate dollars - no sale!

What was a general to do?

He seized it. In some operations 60,000 bales were impressed by his troops in one day. ‘Impressment’ is the fancy word for stealing with a gun in return for a chit of paper. Get this in perspective, the price of cotton on the world market was very high. One or two bales would be worth a fortune to a private solider. Yes, there was private enterprise among the ranks and not all the cotton seized entered the lists on Smith’s accounts. Even so, in one calendar year he sold cotton for $30,000,000 gold dollars in México. By the way, there is no evidence, none, that Smith enriched himself in this trade.

060_cotton_bales_in_back_of_truck.jpg Cotton bales

He started shipping cotton to México under armed escorts (yes, some owners formed posses and came after their crop) and he was in business. He created a Confederate Cotton Office and this bureaucracy identified, compensated (seized) crops, stored, shipped, and sold it. To do so it acquired (seized) wagons, mules, harnesses, reins, and teamsters (who were conscripted on the spot). States’ rights, habeas corpus, private property did not figure in the equations. His assertion of authority went beyond even presidential powers.

In addition, to keep the wheels turning on this enterprise much was needed, wagons, wheels, tackle, yokes, horse shoes …. Smith set up foundries and factories to manufacture all this. Soon there was a Confederate Army tannery turning out leather for harnesses, an ore and refining foundry for horse shoes…. To manage these affairs an Office of Army Supply was created that socialised all of these works. There were many objections, and law suits were spun, letters of complaint slowly found their way to President Davis’s desk in Richmond, and he would in turn chide Smith in a letter received eight months later. On the rare occasions when Smith received an explicit and direct order from Davis to cease an activity, he obeyed exactly.

In short order French armament corporations started swapping cannons for cotton along the Rio Grande. There was an increasing French military presence in México at the time and many French field officers found they had rifles, saddles, horses surplus to requirements which they swapped for cotton. The entrepreneurial spirt blossomed.

While England and France had limited sources of cotton in their empires, the mills of New England had ground to a halt for the want of cotton. Sure enough purchasing agents from New England were soon buying Trans-Mississippi cotton along the Méxican border. That is, they did not buy it but swapped it for Colt revolvers, ammunition, Remington rifles, steel knives, cassons, harnesses, heavy serge uniforms in grey which they brought with them from New England. That is right. In fact prior to the closure of New Orleans many of these … businessmen had been doing this since 1861, and they were merely relocating the trade in 1863 to the Rio Grande.

One result of this trade with New England was that the Confederate troops in the Trans-Mississippi were often armed with the latest weapons, just as the their Union counterparts received them, too. A shipment of 10,000 repeating rifles to New Orleans would be split, 5000 to stay and the other 5000 shipped on to México and Smith's procurement bureau. Then when a Union cavalry patrol armed with Remingtons went out to blast Rebels, they quickly discovered the Rebels had the same rifles, and blasted back.

Since Napoléon the French had been leaders in artillery. The French sold cannons to Smith's agents. Accordingly, Smith's troops had better, though fewer, cannons than the Union forces they encountered. Better in that they were more accurate and easier to re-load.

To manage relations with México, France, Britain, and the New England traders Smith created his own State Department which negotiated agreements, exchanged agents, and so on. Everything was in writing. He made treaties with both Méxican and French authorities to pacify the border for this trade. Not only was he trading with foreign countries, he was trading with the enemy.

Nonetheless, his command often suffered privations because making or buying the material was one thing, distributing it over the vast reaches of the Trans-Mississippi with its few railways, many fordless rivers, its animal-track roads, disrupted raids by Federal cavalry was hard.

Cotton iconography features on nearly every Confederate bank note to remind the world of the white gold. On this five dollar note the overseer sits atop a horse with a whip in hand, ready to increase efficiency by using it on the blacks picking the cotton. All the while Lady Liberty on the lower left serenely observes. Most Confederate currency portrays blacks, too, always busy and happy at their work.


A good part of the book is taken up with accounts of military manoeuvres, battles, campaigns which make appalling reading. The size of the forces involved are microscopic compared to either the Virginia or Tennessee theatres but the death, the cold endured without shoes, the dying, the amputations, the disease, the swarms of stinging and biting insects, the gangrene, being constantly wet in the bayous, the malnutrition, the blinding heat, the field of rotting dead men are just as real.

The governors of each of the states and territories wanted Smith to defend every foot of their jurisdiction, the more so when the Union occupied most of a state. Missouri had to be defended, then recovered. Arkansas. Louisiana. Missions impossible, those. The Union picked and poked around looking for easy opportunities using the control of rivers to roam far and wide, supplemented by large bodies of cavalry riding on well-fed horses.

New Mexico and Arizona were the route to California gold and very early in 1861 Confederate expeditions went through Death Valley toward that El Dorado. Nature - it is called Death Valley for a reason - hostile Indians, and some Union army posts were enough to stop that. Even so there was a Confederate governor-in-exile and in the Confederate House of Representatives in Richmond sat a delegate from the Confederate Arizona Territory. Kansas figured as a continuation of the Jayhawk War and a refuge for raiders into Missouri, including the infamous William Quantrill (1837-1865), Jesse James (1847-1882), and other thugs later made into celluloid heroes. Slaughtering defenceless civilians was the preferred vocations of these men, e.g. Lawrence Kansas, not encounters with Union army patrols. There was also at least one raid into Colorado.

The Indian Territory (Oklahoma) was home to Cherokee Indians, regarded as the most civilised savages for they had adopted many of the white man’s ways: clothing, newspapers, slavery, and political representation. They negotiated an alliance with Kirby Smith against promises of future autonomy, i.e., no state of Oklahoma.

Apart from the shreds of papers affirming this alliance, it was embodied in a brigade of cavalry consisting of Cherokee and Creek Indians led by Brigadier General Stand Watie (1806-1871) himself a Cherokee, which remained loyal to the Confederate cause through thin, thinner, and thinnnest.

382630173f092a785422f50f2c34e1c2.jpg Stand Watie, Brigadier General C.S.A.

It operated independently, and mostly in today’s Oklahoma and disrupted Union communication and transportation, and occasionally joined one of Smith’s armies for a combined operation like the invasion of Missouri and then Arkansas. This brigade was one of the most reliable in Smith’s command.

While Texas was not often a scene of combat, when it was General John Magruder showed once again his tactical acumen and held off the threats made, including some French sabre rattling from México which Magruder saw-off in short order. In Arkansas General Richard Taylor did the bulk of the fighting in the Trans-Mississippi with the little wherewithal Smith could supply. He, too, had a tactical mastery that allowed him to overcome the odds often, but not always. On the debit side Generals Theophilus Holmes and Sterling Price made a mess of anything they turned their hands to, and Smith’s efforts to promote them to some harmless station, preferably in Cis-Mississippi, did not secure the support of President Davis, until it was too late.

By March 1865 a means of regular, albeit hazardous, communication had been established between Richmond and Smith at Shreveport. While the Confederacy was crumbling, the Confederate War Department launched an inquiry into the staffing Smith’s command. There were too many generals on the payroll! (Never mind that none of them, nor anyone else, had been paid in sixteen (16) months and then only in worthless Confederate dollars.) In an exchange of letters Smith was required to account for his every general and his duties in detail. Considering the vast distances within his command, he was not over-generaled, but try convincing the paymaster of that by letter.

So does the tail wag the dog.

Ever the dutiful soldier, he prepared the report but in the end he did not submit it. Why not? Because the War Department ceased to exist a fortnight later. Love it? The ship of the Confederacy is sinking, water is everywhere, and the head of payroll division sits grimly at his desk as the ship goes down demanding an explanation for those damn paper clips in the Trans-MIssissippi! It is the principle that is at stake!

As news of the surrender of Lee and then Johnston was broadcast in the Trans-Mississippi the scattered remnants of Smith’s garrisons, independent brigades, and armies evaporated. In some cases the local commander went to the Union line to surrender with some formality, but in most cases the Johnny Rebs walked away into the night. Smith surrendered formally at Galveston, and then took himself and his family off to México, because by that time, Lincoln had been murdered and the future was dark. He returned in late 1865.

He became a professor of botany and taught at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee for almost thirty years.

Conclusions? The author draws five conclusions from the study, and they make all the detail fall into place very nicely. However, I do wish they had been outlined at the start so I could have borne them in mind as I read.

1.The Confederacy conceived of the Mississippi River as a boundary, not a highway. Dividing commands at that boundary split forces that would have been better combined as the Federals proved repeatedly along the Father of Waters. This was the major strategic error. This decision divided command at the River, and then required explicit orders from Richmond for any cooperation across the River by Confederate forces on the two sides. More often than not, Richmond could not decide at such a distance what to do, and even if a decision was made, the communication was very poor. I trace this reasoning back to the general conception of military departments (matching state boundaries) which in turn paid court to states’ rights in the Confederacy.

2.Despite the hardships, the Trans-Mississippi Department sustained itself agriculturally and economically. It supplied the army with the necessities and civilian life went on. Though worn down and worn out it went on. The major problem was not production of the necessities of life, it was rather the distribution on the primitive roads, a problem compounded when the Mississippi River was closed.

3. Spared the extensive damage of general warfare experienced in Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia, its armies never suffered a decisive defeat, yet the Trans-Mississippi did suffer a collapse of morale which was apparent in 1864, well before Lee’s surrender. That surrender was the the end of this collapse not the beginning. Kerby's evidence for this collapse is ingenious.

4.Contrary to the conventional thesis that the ideology of states’ rights defeated the Confederacy from within, in the Trans-Mississippi General Smith worked effectively with the state governments in most ways, most of the time. Certainly, there was no Georgia in the Trans-MIssissippi, Georgia being the state that - some say - did more to defeat the Confederacy of which it was part then any other factor, except possibly South Carolina!

5.In the Trans-Mississippi the erosion of morale (see 3 above) that culminated with Lee’s surrender started very early in 1862. The initial cause was not defeat on the battlefield anywhere but the mobilisation of men and economy for war through conscription and impressment. Though everyone bore it, it sapped energy, enthusiasm, and spirit. Subsequent defeats sped the erosion but did not start it. Not sure what to make of this one. Again Kerby finds evidence, over looked by others, to sustain this thesis.

Unknown-10 Robert Kerby

When those who preferred compromise to war passed away, there remained those men of principle who preferred war to compromise.

Stephens had two brushes with the presidency. At one time the Little Giant of Illinois, Stephen Douglas, toyed with asking Stephens to be a vice-presidential running mate. Later the Secession Convention in Montgomery Alabama selected him to be Vice-President of the Confederate States. Indeed, he had even been mentioned as a president in the first days at Montgomery before Davis emerged as the preferred candidate.

Alexander Stephens (1812-1883), after a career in law, was a state legislator and member of the United States House of Representatives, where he was embroiled in the collapse of the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas Jayhawk War, the continuous crises that led to the Civil War.

220px-Alexander_Stephens_-1855.jpg Stephens in 1855

In his own mind Stephens was a pillar of virtue, a man of unblemished rectitude, absolutely consistent and forthright, unwavering, and never mistaken. He was also pivotal and influential in all matters he touched. That is his own opinion. He had no self-knowledge, it seems.

Schott shows in this well researched and nicely written book that Stephens was inconsistent, illogical, marginal, and often ignored. That Douglas briefly considered him as a running mate indicated how desperate Douglas was to hold together the Democrats as national party, spanning North and South, and how few Southern moderates there were that he might recruit. That he became Vice-President of the Confederate States is because more important players had contempt for this ‘empty compliment.’ Like most vice-presidents, Stephens found there was little for him to do.


Stephens was barely 5’ 2” tall and never weighed more than 100 pounds. He suffered ill health all of his days, and was often incapacitated for months at a time. He spoke in a shrill and high-pitched voice. Nor was he favoured by appearance. In today’s media he would never make it in politics.

He was a prodigious letter writer, and a finder of legal loopholes that made his legal career, an autodidact, who was as pompous as he was short. He had the intellectual vanity of a PhD.

When Jefferson Davis arrived in Montgomery to accept the presidency, he and Stephens met frequently. In those days, just as the assault of Fort Sumter occurred, Davis proposed a three-man commission North to negotiate a peaceful secession and asked Stephens to head it. Stephens declined because of ill health, he said at the time, and because, he added in hindsight years later, he saw no chance of success. Outliving many rivals, Stephens added much hindsight to his record; the the author does a good job of evaluating that hindsight against reality, seldom to Stephens’s credit.

While Davis and others argued that secession was a right to reconstitute a government, unconsciously aping John Locke, Stephens, ever in love with the sound of his own voice, delivered a paean on the divine justice of black slavery in his infamous Cornerstone Speech. That speech, widely reported and reprinted, lit a fire in the abolitionists of the North; even if Abraham Lincoln had been inclined to entertain the Davis peace commission that speech made it impossible. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States said that the purpose of secession was to defend slavery! He said further that it was a God-given right to enslave others. Moreover, that speech registered with the European powers Davis had been trying to convince to support the Confederate cause.

The author implies that Stephens’s speech was not intended to set a policy, but simply that when he started talking and mentioned slavery, the audience cheered, so he laid it on to milk more cheers from the audience. The author leaves little doubt that Stephens often talked without thinking. Before the death tolls mounted crowds North and South cheered all manner of claptrap. Don’t know what ‘claptrap’ is. Think Tea Party. Got it? Got it!

The Montgomery convention established a provisional government on the condition that the president be elected in one year. The critics of Jefferson Davis were legion. Some things never change and every newspaper editor in the South knew better than Davis how to conduct the government and wage a war, and said so often and in 30-point type. Even so, there were no other candidates; Davis (and with him Stephens) were re-elected unanimously. I cannot find out any more about this election from Wikipedia. There seems to have a popular vote of some kind and an electoral college vote.

What a utopia it would be if we were governed by the philosopher-journalists of the media who know everything.

He and Davis were much alike in their overweening egotism and thin skin, and when the government moved to Richmond, Davis no longer consulted Stephens. Accordingly, Stephens went home and spent most of the war in Georgia, and Georgia contributed as little to the war as possible.

Some historians say that Georgia made war on the Confederate government in the name of states’ rights. Georgia withheld men and material from the Richmond government on a significant scale. It stymied efforts to raise money with Georgia cotton and refused to cooperate with the Confederate Navy’s efforts to run the Union blockade, all in the name of states’ rights. Georgia Governor Joseph Brown won over Stephens with transparent and superficial flattery who then joined him in attacking his own government. Stephens could see no inconsistency in this behaviour. He never considered resigning, but continued to enjoy the status of being 'Mr. Vice-President' while disloyally opposing that government he formally served.

The Northern press fastened onto to this show of disunity with glee. European diplomats took note of this disunity, too.

The Confederate Constitution followed that of the United States very closely. It differed, however, in giving cabinet secretaries a seat of the House of Representatives where they would be subject to scrutiny. Schott accepts without examination Stephens’s claim to making this innovation, but the balance of evidence gives that honour to Judah Benjamin, the Attorney-General. (Benjamin had seen this practice in his travels to England.) In the event it seems not to have had any impact and it did not last since most cabinet secretaries stayed as far away from Jefferson Davis as possible by leaving Richmond.

Twenty_dollar_bill_Confederate_States_of_America_1864.jpg Stephens on the Confederate $20 note which in 1964 would have bought a toothpick. The Confederate government printed about $1 billion dollars in notes, and most of the Southern states also issued their own script, then there were the bonds. In addition to inflation at the time, another result is that they have little value to collectors because there are so many of them. (Readers may remember that in the 1950s the judge in Carson McCullers's 'Clock without Hands' had a stash of these notes which he proposed to put back into circulation to solve the economic problems of the day.)

Stephens never married and women are rarely mentioned in his extensive correspondence. He would say that he gave himself wholly to his country as a patriot. Did I say ‘pompous’?

While he fancied himself the only Christian gentlemen the country he did not attend church, though he read the Scriptures, and none of his opponents ever threw that in his face on the stump. Odd that. But he was not alone, e.g., Andrew Jackson.

Stephens’s political career started as a Whig, as did Abraham Lincoln’s. They sat together in the Whig caucus in Congress. As the Whig Party collapsed, unable to span the regional divides of North and South and of East and West, Lincoln became the second Republican presidential candidate, while Stephens sided for a time with Stephen Douglas as a Democrat. Class! Who was the first Republican nominee?

A pedant? His first election to the United States House of Representatives was as a member at large from Georgia, which had not yet been divided into Congressional distracts, because its western border was not surveyed. In his first speech in Washington D. C. he declared his own election invalid since the Constitution expressly required Congressional Representatives to be elected by districts of nearly equal size. He was satisfied with the startling effect on the few who heard it and did not act on his own contention, say, by resigning. By the way, the districts were surveyed and in two years he was re-elected from a district.

At the end of the Civil War Stephens was arrested and jailed for four months, the first two were pretty hard but the last two were lax. After his release he was a United States Senators-elect from Georgia but since he had not taken the loyalty oath, he was not allowed to take his seat. Later, after taking the oath, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives for ten (10) years where he served without distinction, and then briefly - less than a year - governor of Georgia.

In this post-bellum years Stephens proved (to his own satisfaction) that he had never erred, that he had opposed slavery, that he upheld the United States Constitution, that he had the right war policy, and more. His capacity for self-delusion had no bounds. That old adage about a person being promoted one level about the level of competence came to mind in his case. In the confusion of wartime, his promotion was several levels above his competence.

The book is meticulously researched and written with a light hand. It gives credit where credit is due to Stephens, e.g., he did visit wounded soldiers in Richmond hospitals now and again, something that Jefferson Davis could never bring himself to do because he thought it was inconsistent with the dignity of his office. After all, one of those hill-billy soldiers might not address him as 'Your Excellency', which the only form of address he found suitable for his high station! The book also points out Stephens’s volatility, repeated mistakes, lies, and more.

My one complaint though is that the there is no terminal chapter with a final, overview assessment of Stephens after readers have forced-marched through 520 pages of detail. A bigger picture at the end might give that details some added meaning. Without that picture a lot of that details seems, well, detail for the sake of detail.

A ticket of Douglas and Stephens would have give the wits something to talk about, for example, the Leprechaun ticket or the garden gnome slate at 5’ 6” and 5’ 2” respectively.

The story goes on, and gets even stranger. Although de Gaulle was wildly popular in France at the Liberation, the restoration of political parties, particularly the Communist Party which was taking orders from Moscow, made political life unpalatable to de Gaulle. This Fourth Republic from 1945 to 1958 was a replay of the Third Republic, divided, carping, jealous, each undermining the other for momentary advantage, negative, inward looking, oops starting to sound like Canberra. All this began while the Germans still occupied ten percent of the country. The parliamentarians had forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

Lacouture 2.jpeg

Everywhere he turned this Gulliver found himself tied down by the parliamentary pygmies. In short order he decided to teach them a lesson by quitting and letting them stew in their own juice. He retired in 1946 and the Fourth Republic stumbled into life. The parliamentary parties wanted a weak executive (since none trusted another to exercise authority) with the result that there was a government which could barely govern. De Gaulle no doubt expected to be called back to save the day again in a few weeks, a few months at the most. But the months turned into years.

As Georges Clemenceau once said, it takes a lot of ruining to ruin a country, and France stumbled on, propped up in good part by the millions in foreign aid flowing from the Marshall Plan of which Lacouture says nary a word. In the first few years de Gaulle gave speeches and a political movement in his name emerged though he had no direct contact with it, but the years rolled on. He wrote his ‘Mémoires de guerre’ in three volumes while France experienced runaway inflation, lost the colonial war in Indo-China, precipitated another colonial war in Algeria, experienced food riots, paralysing strikes led by the Communist Party on orders from Moscow, and more. While things were certainly better than during the Fall, Occupation, and Vichy, the times were hard, confusing, volatile, and stunted. Yet no call was made to the Saviour.

Finally, a military putsch in Algeria restored de Gaulle in 1958. The French Army was determined in many officers and men not to lose another war and certainly not in Algeria. Non! Accordingly, it spared nothing in pursuit of victory there, exceeding and ignoring civilian control from a parade of prime ministers in Paris, culminating in a public declaration of disobedience in Algiers and call on de Gaulle to resume control on the assumption he would support the army.

cl-trinquier01.jpg Colonel Trinquier, one the leaders

General Massu.jpg General Massu and his paratroops, a pivotal actor

Many of these ’wolves in the city’ (a reference to Paul Henissart’s book of that name) knew de Gaulle personally but they did not seem to know him at all. He had been on record since 1943 for self-determination in Algeria, yet they thought he would re-impose French domination there. By the way, there is plenty of evidence that a coup d’état was likely. Two regiments of paratroopers from Algeria were emplaned for Paris, and another regiment deemed loyal to the plotters was assembled in the Bois de Boulonge on the designated day. Tense!

Historians make careers in speculating about de Gaulle’s role in this plot. Lacouture concludes that he knew something as drastic as this was in the offing, and probably thought it would take such a dire threat to bring parliament to its senses, so he remained mute, allowing the plotters to think he was with them. That rare quality in a politician is the ability to keep quiet and say nothing, and de Gaulle had that.

The call was made and de Gaulle was sworn in as prime minister, that cooled the plotters who relented, standing down the paratroopers in Algeria, though there is an amusing story that two police officer riding bicycles through the pre-dawn Bois coming upon a regiment of a thousand fully armed paratroopers very early in the morning and ordering them to disperse, which they, lacking any further orders, did! Now that is civilian authority.

De Gaulle proposed the Constitution for the Fifth Republic which gave a president great powers and took that office by an indirect election. An indirect election? Political Science students know what that means but most punters do not. It means, in this case, that 80,000 office holders (municipal councillors, mayors, parliamentarians, and some members of the judiciary were the electorate in this first presidential election under the Fifth Republic. They gave de Gaulle a two-thirds majority against a field of six other candidates, including the inevitable Communist. In the subsequent parliamentary elections it was another two-thirds for the supporters of de Gaulle, though by this time there were two Gaullist parties. The Communist Party nearly disappeared in this election, going from 120 seats to 10. Such indirect elections were the norm in the 19th Century well into the 20th Century.

De Gaulle remained faithful to his belief that circumstances determine all, and on Algeria he stalled, delayed, spoke in enigmatic phrases, while wooing first Algerian nationalists and then moderate generals in his own army, now and again offering a dissident general a plum appointment abroad as ambassador, promising others new commands if only the crisis could be resolved, coaxed parliament to defer to him, and took his time. During all of this he came to realize himself that there was no alternative but complete independence, though he had long preferred a more gradual option that retained a filial link, and finally he said so.

Then there was a coup d’êtat attempt, but by this time the plotters were too weak, too divided, the government too strong, the Algerian nationalists too disciplined, and having anticipated this, de Gaulle out manoeuvred them.


That led a fruitless and bloody civil war between the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) - the ultras - and France, which was just as merciless and bloody as the repression in Algeria had been. None of this story is pleasant, but in the end a worse result, which was very likely at several stages, was averted and de Gaulle, love him or hate, must be credited with that. No one else could have done it.


Nor was any of it easy. Men who had been close to him for years turned against him. Others tried to kill him, several times; nothing he did satisfied the liberals, the nationalists, the Communists, the pied noirs of Algeria…. When he stalled and delayed lives were lost. It was a terrible time, and the OAS brought the war to Paris by bombing cafés. Yes, long before the IRA got around to blowing up customers drinking coffee, the OAS did it in Paris. It was all deadly serious. At the height of this struggle de Gaulle was seventy (70) years old. Reader what will you be doing at 70?

In 1965 he contested his only popular election and won 55% of the vote in the now familiar two-step process. He defeated François Mitterand.

Having learned how unreliable allies were in World War II, President de Gaulle hewed an independent line in foreign and defence policy. When England tried to prevent a European Union, De Gaulle committed himself to it as a third force between the Anglos and the Communists. Later when the United Kingdom wanted to join the European Union…. Likewise he wanted France to be a force to be reckoned with from now on, and that meant nuclear weapons, and developing these weapons could only be done outside NATO, so France left NATO.

Originally he wanted to occupy the east bank of Rhine, exact reparations from Germany, monopolise the coal from the Saar, and dismember Germany, if not quite as ruthlessly as Clemenceau proposed in 1918, but de Gaulle changed his mind. He originally wanted to manage the movement to independence of colonies, but he changed his mind. He originally opposed a European Union, but he changed his mind.

Instead of reducing Germany, de Gaulle led the way in bilateral relations with West Germany. In one remarkable instance he gave a speech in German at a factory in the Ruhr in which he challenged his auditors to do something very hard, very unlikely, never been done before, virtually impossible…to live together in peace! I did once find it on a web site but I have since lost the address.

Adenauer_de_Gaulle.jpg de Gaulle with Konrad Adenhauer

It is a common mistake that I have read in that self-important organ of opinion the Sydney Morning Herald more than once and heard on the ABC pulpit more than once that the demonstrations of May 1968 drove de Gaulle from office. In fact he left office in 1969, as always in his own time and in his own way. But what is a year to a journalist? Just another annoying fact, or so I was told by a Fairfax journalist when I pointed out this mistake.

In fact in the elections de Gaulle called after those demonstrations in June 1968 returned 352 Gaullist out of 487 seats in parliament. A resounding success! In fact he resigned in April 1969, when he was seventy-nine (79), after the defeat of a referendum he sponsored on the reform of local government. He was ready to leave and the referendum was a convenient trigger. He died within a year.

A few loose ends. De Gaulle assigned the earnings from his memoirs and other books to the Anne de Gaulle Foundation that he and Yvonne started. The Foundation supported mongoloid children and their parents.

While head of the provisional government, prime minister, and president de Gaulle paid his own way. That is he charged almost nothing to the state. He paid for his own telephone calls. He had meters installed in the living quarters so he paid for the heat, water, and light there. Paid for his own postage stamps. We know this from biographers. He lived on his pension as a colonel; his promotion to general had not been confirmed by the Reynaud government during its flight and so was never technically consummated leaving him entitled to a colonel's pension which he accepted without demure. Nothing was said about it at the time. I am not sure what conclusion to draw from his frugality except, as always, that he did things his way.

In the preface to this translation the author complains that the publisher abridged volumes two and three into a single tome. The original French three volumes were squeezed into two by combing the last two in one with much editing. It is not clear who did the editing. Was it the translator or the author himself? What I can say is that I found the blow-by-blow account of the political machinations from 1946 to 1969 is far more than I could digest in even this abridged form. What that detail does do is show how hard the work of politics is.

What I missed, and I do not know if it is there in the original, is detail of de Gaulle’s years in the wilderness. After all it was twelve years. He gave some speeches in the early years and he wrote his memoirs, yes, but what else? Did he reassemble his family? Did he go to his grandchildren christenings? Did he read a biography of Jean d’Arc? She by the way seems to me to be his alter ego. Whereas she heard God, he heard France.

Since his passing many politicians, parliamentarians, parties, and movements in France have said they are Gaullist. What does that mean, ‘Gaullism’? First, it means an independent foreign policy and that implies having the means to be independent. Second, it means planning and co-ordination in domestic policy. In economics it means Keynesianism. Finally, it means the expansion and defence of French language and culture along with social conservatism. In short, big government, big enough to please Gough Whitlam.

4_Carlton_Gardens_London_HQ_of_Charles_de_Gaulle.JPG The plaque at Carlton Gardens, London

Virtually every word on this plaque is contentious. To Vichy he was not a general; his commission lapsed when he refused the order to surrender. When he set up an office in Carlton Gardens he was alone. The Committee came much later and by then de Gaulle's headquarters had moved. Likewise, that well known term 'Free French' renders 'France Libre' which is much broader - Free France, not just some Frenchmen but the whole. Moreover, in 1943 when the Anglos were trying to displace de Gaulle they started using the term 'Fighting French' to undermine him. In 1940 there were no 'forces' with de Gaulle.

I long wondered about the 140,000 French troops evacuated from Dunkirk in May. Should de Gaulle have recruited them. He could not because they were transhipped from Dover to Bristol by train in a great hurry and shipped back to Bordeaux arriving just before the capitulation. At the time the ambition was to get them back into the war, since no one in England, least of all the French generals with the troops, anticipated a capitulation in June. It was Churchill who ordered the British to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk without regard to uniform. Until he intervened the evacuation was limited to Brits. Thereafter, the evacuation included Brits, French, Belgians, and even some Poles who with the French.

Reading about Jefferson Davis earlier reminded me of his alter ego in the Confederate cabinet, Judah Benjamin, and then a correspondent told me that one of Benjamin's textbooks from his post war career in the 1880s is still on law school curricula, a fact that I verified easily.  In an idle moment - half-time in a Niners game - I looked for a biography and this is the one I found. Published by Free Press, I took that as a mark of quality and acquired it. It is an excellent study with some surprises in it.


What made Benjamin notable in the lackluster Richmond government was first and foremost that he lasted the course of the war and no else did, apart from President Davis himself.  As I discovered from reading Allan Tate's biography of the irascible Davis, Benjamin was one of the very few who somehow got along with that moody, dyspeptic, volatile, and intemperate man. Evans suggests that Benjamin tried all his life to fit in without assimilating or converting to Christianity, though his Judaism was nominal.

Here then was a man who made a lasting contribution to legal knowledge, held very important national executive positions in cabinet for four years, and alone managed to work closely with his president. All in all a singular set of credentials.  

Note, the only other person who managed to get along smoothly with Davis was Robert E. Lee, but they seldom met face-to-face, whereas Benjamin saw Davis virtually every day, and of course Lee had his military achievements as a buffer.  

First, Benjamin's background.  His family were Sephardic Jews who originated in Portugal and then fled the Inquisition to England. His parents migrated to Charleston in South Carolina (which I visited last year) where Judah was born and grew up.  Charleston was a major seaport then and had a sizable Jewish community.  His parents were not devout and neither was he, but no one ever let him forget that he was Jewish. It was often thrown in his face, and, if not, then muttered behind his back throughout his life.  

Like so many others, when he was of age, he went west, to New Orleans (NOLA) in the 1820s.


Louisiana had only just become a state.  He apprenticed in law and made ends met by tutoring in English while himself learning Creole French.  Then as always he had a prodigious appetite for work, and brought to it an organized and systematic mind.  He made a tidy sum in NOLA by compiling a guide to the Code Napoléon that formed the basis of the Louisiana law.


It is a complex framework that he distilled, valuable to any law office, but the more so for other English speakers moving to Louisiana and encountering the Code for the first time. In this he demonstrated his eye for the niche where he could do well by doing good à la Ben Franklin.

He married a Creole woman who led him a merry chase for years before and during their marriage. Vexed as that was, it was thanks to her that he travelled to England and France, as well as Spain and Italy.  For most of their marriage, she lived in Paris which he visited one month a year. To finance these trips he undertook commercial work in England and France that gave him knowledge and contacts that were an asset later.  

In the 1840s the American political party system was fracturing as the old compromises wore thin and the great compromisers (Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, who preferred compromise to war) passed from the scene and firebrand intractables who preferred war to compromise came to the fore in the North and the South. His legal accomplishments recommended him to NOLA Whigs who got him elected to the state assembly. His appetite for work (and lack of the distractions of a home life) made him their candidate for a Senate seat in Washington D.C. which he won.  He lived for a while in Decatur House which stands today. As the Whigs dissolved he changed allegiance to the Democrats.

To step back, just before he ran for the Senate, in the last days of the Millard Fillmore Administration, President Fillmore had to appoint a Southern to the Supreme Court (regional balance then as now was honored) and he offered it to Benjamin.  He declined.  It was almost hundred more years before a Jew was appointed to the Supreme Court. Class, can you say who that was? Yes, that is right Woodrow Wilson had his beau geste and appointed Louis Brandeis of the Brandeis Brief who was not only a Jew but an innovator!

In the United States Senate Benjamin defended states’ rights but not directly slavery.  He became a slave holder when he married and set up house in Louisiana with his errant wife, but had not grown up in a slave holding family.  His legal mind, command of precedents, great memory for the dumb things others said, these combined with an assured posture and deep voice earned him a reputation as an orator in the well of the Senate. The important point is that he was a moderate, not a Fire Eater who proclaimed slavery or death like Henry Foote or Thomas Yancey.  

When secession started and Davis composed his first cabinet he wanted a geographic spread and he knew Benjamin from the Senate.  He offered Benjamin the post of Attorney-General, which he took. At the time it was supposed there was hardly any need for an Attorney-General so his appointment was accepted though his Judaism was drew comment in the newspaper.

images-6.jpeg Benjamin on the Confederate $2 note as Attorney-General.

In the first cabinet meeting in February 1961 he made the only strategic suggestion that comatose body ever conceived. He proposed that the Confederate States government acquire (by purchase or requisition) a million bales of cotton and immediately transport them to England and warehouse them there as surety against future purchases of arms and ships. The proposition died on this lips. What did this short, rotund, Jew who had never served in the army know of war. It would be over the three months. Davis dismissed the proposal in very few words and patted Benjamin on the arm in a typically patronizing way.

That incident aside, Benjamin who had long studied those around him in court to assess the best tactics to use studied Davis, and found ways to make himself indispensable to the cantankerous and thin-skinned Davis.

Whereas the others members of cabinet put as much distance between themselves and Davis as possible, Benjamin took an office next door and socially paid court to Mrs. Varina Davis. He sent her theatre tickets, offered to do things for her children and so on. She soon offered him another point of access to Davis. In the office Benjamin became something like a chief-of-staff who handled the routine, acted as a gatekeeper for those who wanted to see the President, and drafted everything that needed to be written. In a few weeks Davis could not do without him.

When the victory at Manassas was not exploited the incumbent Secretary of War in the Confederate cabinet resigned in a huff and retired to Florida. Since Davis fancied himself a master strategist what he wanted in the War Department, such as it was, was an instrument who would do his bidding. Who better than Benjamin for whom no job was too small or too big. In June 1861 he was appointed Secretary of War, he of no military experience whatever, who had never fired a gun. He did not hunt, duel or any of those like manly arts so common among Southern gentlemen. However, he was a hard working administrator with an eye for detail and a willingness to work with others, qualities rare in Richmond.

By the way, Evans argues that Richmond would have been the primary target of the war with or without the Confederate government in residence because it possessed the only ironworks sufficient to forge heavy weapons, cannons and shells, in the Tredegar Iron Works.

tredegar-iron-works.jpg The Tredegar Works today.

In fact, he argues the decision to move the government there had the effect, and perhaps that was the intention, of shielding these iron works with a great army. A point I had never before heard.

The Union anaconda strategy worked and NOLA fell early in the war cutting Benjamin off from his sisters there and his considerable property was confiscated by the Union army. He now was completely isolated in that sense, and Evans suggests that drove him to work even harder for Davis. If Benjamin lost office he could not retire to his home as others who left cabinet had done. His future, if future he had, was now in Richmond.

The winds of war blew more defeats and Benjamin was blamed for them. Evans produces a fascinating correspondence in one instance. Benjamin tells Davis he did not re-supply the Army of Northern Virginia after Antietam because there were no supplies left, no shot, no shell, no horses, no mules, no cannons, no rockets, no men in reserve, no corn, no feed, no salt pork, no nothing and not a gold dollar to buy it. But rather than admit that and (1) undermine civilian and military morale and (2) discourage potential European allies and investors that he would take the blame. Davis agreed to let him be the scapegoat in the newspapers and gossip, which went ballistic in the blame game. Watch the ABC news tonight for an example.

Yet Davis quickly moved to promote him to Secretary of State in late 1862, a post he held to the end in May 1865. Of course the pundits were outraged, Benjamin the Jewish fiend who had no doubt profited from stealing army supplies was rewarded for his perfidy with promotion! That from the Richmond press. But the Confederate Senate approved the appointment because its members knew how indispensable Benjamin was to Davis, even if they did not know about the lack of supplies.

Now Benjamin had a job for his talents. He spoke French and had done commercial law work in England and in France in his travels to his wife who was a favorite at the court of Louis Napoléon. He had many legal and social contacts in both countries. Davis and many others Southerns hoped that England and France would intervene in the war in some way. There is no doubt that it was a tempting proposition. To England it offered the chance to emasculate a commercial rival in New England and perhaps reclaim territory lost in the Revolutionary War. To France it offered the prospect of a Confederate ally to realise Louis Napoléon ambition of colonizing Mexico.

What Benjamin quickly realized that rather than risk a confrontation with the United States, what suited both England and France was to see the Americans in a deadlock. That would serve the purposes of both. England could trade and France could enter Mexico with no reaction from El Norte.

Benjamin went on the offensive. He arranged for Confederate sympathisers to go on public relations tours in both England and France. He paid unscrupulous journalists in those countries to write favorable articles and so on. He directed Confederate ambassadors in each country to offer inducement (bribes) to officials to draw their countries into the conflict.

Given the Union’s naval blockade, making these arrangement was difficult but he found paths through Mexico and Canada, though a letter might take three months to get from Richmond to Paris or London. And many letters did not make it. As a precaution against interception many of his official dispatches were coded and disguised as personal letters from a woman in Canada to a cousin in France, or a businessman in Mexico to a bank in England. In addition, he funded agents in Canada to foment trouble on the border with the United States. He also tried to organize support, financial and recruits, for the Peace and anti-conscription movements in the North, the Copperheads. One example in Vermont features in Howard Mosher's delightful novel 'On Kingdom Mountain' (2008).

In short, he tried everything.

These confections, however ingenious, could not outweigh the realities of blood and iron. The Europeans would let the battlefield decide the matter.

As the military situation produced shortages. the scapegoating of all Jews, but particularly the most visible one, increased in the South. Jews were accused of hoarding commodities, when in reality they had nothing either, he least of all. When a French banker made his way through Mexico to Richmond to negotiate for cotton, he and Benjamin spoke French. Though the resulting contract was very favorable to the Southern cotton interests, it was not enough! The press, the Congress, the know-it-alls, society ladies, men in the ranks all denounced Benjamin for selling out the Confederacy in some invisible way. Why else would a Jew speak French to a monolingual Frenchman but to conspire?

This reasoning is not more stupid than we hear today from many quarters. Nothing is ever enough. The only explanation of a shortfall is personal malfeasance. Sounds like Fox News! Simple minded and loud. Or is that the ABC these days?

The more Benjamin was pilloried, the more he took the only refuge he had, namely Richmond’s small Jewish community. But seen in the company of other Jews only intensified the hostility that good Christians directed at him.

None of this carping influenced President Davis, who was nothing if not stubborn. That stubbornness together with his poor health, he was often bedridden for days and weeks at a time, meant he relied ever more Benjamin who together with Varina tried to conceal Davis’ weakness, least the Confederate Congress start thinking about a new president. Poor health or not Davis made it to 83.

Yes, Class, there was a Vice-President, that tubercular Georgia pygmy Alexander Stephens, who fell out with Davis in Montgomery in 1861 and retired to his home in Atlanta where he stayed until General Sherman came calling. Few people could cope with Davis.

When Davis was laid low by one of his many complaints or was travelling, which he did a couple of times, Benjamin was Acting President in all but name. He called cabinet meetings, he issued directives, replied to letters addressed to Davis and so on. He reported all this to Davis after the fact, and Davis seems to have accepted it. Benjamin often did this work in concert with Varina whose advice he sought and heeded, unlike her husband.

After Gettysburg in July 1863 Benjamin began thinking about a Confederate emancipation of slaves in return for military service (shades of Robert Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’), but he dared not broach the subject with anyone but Varina. Others also realized the dire need for manpower in the army and in 1864 some generals also said the unmentionable, notably Patrick Cleburne, whose reputation as a stalwart soldier was unimpeachable.

Benjamin maneuvered for months to allow Davis to make this bold move and Benjamin enlisted Varina to help persuade Davis, step-by-step, but to no avail. The details are many and best read in book. The larger point is that Benjamin was willing to give up slavery and tried to bring that about, but failed.

A recurrent theme in any book about the Civil War is the Southern dream that somehow it would prevail despite the material odds that favoured the North three or four to one. I tried to pick apart some of reasoning in this list, which is a rough chronology of the progress of the War.

Before the shooting started:
1. Their cause was just and God would see to it, i.e., states' rights and the white man's burden of slavery.
2. After the Southern victory at Manassas: They would outfight the Northern city slickers.
3. This dream endured for most of the war: King Cotton was essential to Europe and England would intervene to get it.
4. This, too, surfaced periodically: the English desire to trim commercial rival in New England.
5. In 1863 when Louis Napoléon began interfering in Mexican affairs: French ambitions in Mexico would bring it into the war.
6. Benjamin tried this angle from later 1863: Entice French and English investments which they would then protect.
7. A widely held hope from February 1864: War weariness in the North, Peace Party, anti-conscription riots would change policy and the president.
8. Bruited in 1864 after Lincoln’s re-election. The South would emancipate the slaves and level the moral playing field which would influence European and Northern opinion, the former to intervene and the latter to stop fighting.
9. In March 1865: The Confederacy would recruit soldiers from the slaves with the promise of freedom.

Each of these straws was grasped at one time or another and none bore the weight. England turned to Egypt and India for cotton. Foolish as Louis Napoléon was, he would not act without England.

MTE5NDg0MDU1MDgzMjU1MzEx.jpg Louis Napoléon, looking as drug-addled as a celebrity today.

He would interfere in Mexico but nothing more. Lincoln won re-election on the Federal army votes. No Southern official would publicly support emancipation, except Benjamin himself. Yes, the Confederate army did accept blacks volunteered to it by their owners to be soldiers in March 1865 but there were only two hundred who were never armed.

The end came in April 1865 and Benjamin fled. The assassination of Lincoln made him a Christ-figure and did not the Jews kill Christ. What was Benjamin but a Jew. Worse, some of the agents he had employed were related to one of those implicated in the assassination. That thread would have sufficed to see Benjamin hanged. The yellow press in the North made this connection within days of Lincoln’s death. Lincoln was murdered by a plot hatched by the scheming Jew Benjamin! If it needs to be said, neither Benjamin nor any other Confederate official had any part in the murder of Lincoln.

Benjamin escaped it to England and started a third, or is it a fourth career: Code Napoléon lawyer in New Orleans, United States Senator in Washington D.C., and then Secretary of State of the Confederate States. In England he became a barrister and then a Queen’s counsel. As in Louisiana he found a niche for himself by compiling and publishing in1868 'A Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, With Reference to the American Decisions, to the French Code, and Civil Law', which had its most recent edition in 2010 and is still be found in the curriculum of commercial law.

Benjamin's sale of goods.JPG The 2010 edition.

He spent the last years of his life in Liverpool in commercial law, travelling regularly to Paris to see his wife.

The portraits of Benjamin, as those above, invariably show a faint smile on his lips. Even when the Confederate cabinet was in flight, made all the more desperate by the assassination of President Lincoln, Benjamin had that smile. He had frequently been asked why he smiled all the time over the years. His repeated answer was ‘que sera, que sera’ and meanwhile enjoy the moment.

The book is partly a parallel biography of Jefferson Davis in the opening chapters. I had not expected that from the title and even in retrospect I am not sure it was necessary, though it did reveal to me more of Davis than the Allan Tate biography reviewed earlier. The justification for this emphasis is the close association between the two men for the four years of the Confederate States government. But that is only four years of Benjamin’s seventy-three (73) years. Of course it was these years that led me to read about him.

It is the work of a professional historian, well written and thoroughly researched. It does emphasize the Jewish heritage as indicated in the title. While the Judaism does not seem central to Benjamin’s life it was the inescapable first perception of all he met.

That remarkable woman Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962) lived in the White House for more than twelve (12) years, and she made full use of the opportunities it offered her, unlike most of the others. Eleanor was content with neither rose gardens nor chiding the victims as other First Ladies have been. Indeed, she might be the only one who deserves that title - First Lady. I class this as Presidential reading.

Eleanor book.jpg

Privately, Franklin called her ‘Public Energy Number One,’ for her readiness to take up any good cause. The press frequently referred to her as ‘Eleanor Everywhere,’ for the whirlwind of activity she was. Not only did she take up causes but she went where they were to see for herself. Of course, it would have been a different story without Franklin, but as we shall see, she contributed a great deal to his achievements, too.

This is a biography, though to this reader somewhat uneven in its execution. On that more later. For now the main game: Eleanor was the daughter of Elliot Roosevelt, a brother of Teddy Roosevelt and Anna Hall Livingston, whose great great grandfather administered the oath of office to the first President of the United States, George Washington. Both sides of the family were well off but not among the astronomically rich Astors, Morgans, Hills, Gettys, and Rockefellers. She was a fifth cousin once removed of Franklin, though I do not quite know what that means. That name Roosevelt is from the Dutch who settled along the Hudson River Valley before the English pushed the Netherlands out.

She grew up comfortable in the small world of the Gilded Age, think of the novels of those superlative chroniclers of that time, place, and class, Edith Wharton and Henry James.

1898-ERphoto.gif Eleanor in her late teens.

Her mother was very religious and her father an alcoholic wastrel. Because he was mostly absent the young Eleanor idealized her father while receiving little affection from her mother who was too busy praying. She had two brothers, one who died in infancy and another who followed in his father’s footsteps. Her mother died of diphtheria when Eleanor was but six years old and her father drank himself to death three years later. Eleanor was placed with grandparents along with her surviving brother in a large household where she was the last and least. Note that when she married Franklin, the sitting President, Teddy Roosevelt acted as the father of the bride.

In both her paternal home and in the grandparents’ home, the servants all spoke French. That was evidently was the done thing at the time. The servants looked after the children and so Eleanor grew up bilingual and from that derived a lifelong interest in languages. In her teens the family sent her to a finishing school in England for four years. This school emphasized art and culture, and was conducted completely in French. Eleanor excelled there. She travelled to France, Italy, Spain, and Germany on school field trips. When she and Franklin travelled Europe on a long honeymoon she showed him around and he relished her knowledge and appreciation of fine art and history.

eleanorroosevelt.jpg Eleanor the Washington hostess.

Franklin advocated female sufferage in his first campaign for the state senate. This surprised Eleanor and she accepted the idea out of loyalty and duty as a wife. She also, in those early days, practiced the snobberey, anti-semtism, and racism of her social origins, whereas Franklin did not. Again she followed him out of duty. Of course, later she surpassed him on these counts but he led the way at the start. One of the very affecting features of this book is the unfolding of Eleanor's moral growth.

During World War I and after it was Franklin who insisted they visited wounded, injured, and dying sailors in hospital, he being Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but once there, it was Eleanor who stole the show. Even in those days of her callow youth, one observer said that she somehow transmitted good will to the men she touched and spoke to. Franklin had the wit to step back and let the small miracles happen. The observer by the way is that man whose name is forever linked with FDR, Louie Howe. Though she first despised Louie for many wrong reasons, he was working class and its showed and for a time she thought him Jewish, but in time they established a lasting rapport.

Franklin was inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and the state senate was a start. Two years later he ran for governor touting female suffrage, war on Tammany Hall, and urban renewal. To remind readers of the time and place, Franklin drove a motor car in the campaign, and he was the first to do that in New York state. He won and off they went to Albany.

The burdens on Eleanor were both the usual ones for a wife at the time and unusual ones, too. She five children in rapid succession and in this account was not a particularly loving mother. Moreover, there were the duties of a political wife. Staying awake through the speeches, attending every function, entertaining guests at home four or five nights a week, and Franklin brought home all sorts, from factory foremen, to Supreme Court judges, Jews, socialists, bankers, journalists, and all. He is only a supporting player in this book, but he seems entirely free of the prejudices of his background, all the more surprising since his mother was an exemplar of every prejudice going, and he and she were inextricable.

Eleanor learned to manage the demands, and indeed, did it so well that in time other political wives asked her advice on how to cope with children, absent husband, unexpected guests, numbing after dinner speeches, handshaking and handshaking and handshaking. When Franklin went to the Navy Department in Washington her linguistic and cultural assets came into their own. Here Franklin was more likely to bring home an Italian diplomat or a French banker, than a Jewish garment worker or an Irish radical, and the multilingual Eleanor (French, Italian, and some German) was always a hit.

In addition to all the above, Franklin more or less pushed her out the door to create a public profile, starting with the Junior League to teach reading in New York City slums and then the League of Women Voters to educate women to vote as they saw fit not as their husbands did. Ouch! But once she got a toe in those waters she found them to her liking.

The-Roosevelts.jpg The two of them in 1936

Then, at 39, that active sportsman Franklin Roosevelt lost the use of his legs, literally overnight. There were long bouts of painful therapy. Ever more responsibilities fell to Eleanor, first in caring for Franklin, and most importantly keeping his spirits up, which she did by challenging him, e.g., walk down the drive way - that took him three years of trying to achieve it, wearing twenty pounds of braces, swinging his dead legs from the hips. She is credited with driving him to run for Governor. He did, and thanks largely to the support of Al Smith, he won.

Eleanor became, in addition to everything else, Franklin's eyes and ears. She did the usual meet-and-greets, but also inspections of workhouses, asyla, prisons, school, hospitals. She took the inspecting seriously and found many deficiencies, all reported to Franklin. These reports led to changes and that emboldened her to work even harder. She continued doing this when Franklin was elected president. Indeed she clocked up 25,000 miles in the Pacific during World War II visiting the troops. One admiral said a visit from Eleanor was worth ten USO shows to lift morale. She made in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane on this tour, as well as Pacific Islands being bombed by the Japanese. The descriptions of Eleanor in hospital wards, evacuation camps, and ship infirmaries full of wounded and dying men is powerful. Those experiences made her an early and loud advocate of the United Nations. By the way, all of the Roosevelt sons were in the armed forces at the time and came under fire. (Sidebar: Teddy Roosevelt's son, Theodore Roosevelt III, a general, died on Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944. Not the cosseted presidential offspring we have seen of later.)

All the while she published a newspaper column every day, never missing a deadline, typing all the copy herself on a battered Smith-Corona. The pay she donated to a children's home founded by her grandfather.

Needless to say all this good work infuriated the Tea Parodists of the day who were sure she was a Jew, a Negro, a Communist, an alien, and, worst of all, a woman ...! The vitriol poured on her exceeds even that today poured onto Barry O'Bama. But some of the earliest Gallup Polls show her approval ratings consistently above 66%, sometimes ahead of Franklin on that crude index.

At the beginning Franklin led her political development, but later she led his on civil rights and the rights of dispossessed, and women.

When he died, she retired, too, briefly but soon enough she was invited to speak at fundraising events for charities, war bonds, civil rights, and then there was the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she alone made happen in two year - yes, two years - of committee meetings with the most intractable committee one can imagine (far beyond the Unbelievables of my experience). That is an impressive achievement. President Truman appointed her and the leader of US delegation gave her, what he thought was a pointless, trivial, and impossible job - the Declaration. No one remembers that leader any more, but everywhere today people speak of human rights, tracing back to Eleanor Roosevelt. Take that!

In 1961 President Kennedy made her chair of the first Commission on the Status of Women, an assignment she attacked as she always did: full tilt. Age wearied her and she died in 1962, an event I can remember.

There is much more to the story to be read in this or in one of the many other biographies, or in her own writings.

15097v.jpg She alone of First Ladies has a statue in Washington, D.C. Take that Nancy Reagan.

I said above that the book was 'uneven' because it lavishes page after page on the marriage ceremony of Eleanor's parents and passes virtually in silence the births of her children. It invokes the Dolomites during her honeymoon with Franklin in lyrical passages and skips lightly over crucibles like the death of her brother in 1941. Yes, it does deal with the sexual relations with a laudable reticence and decency.

Years ago I read T. Harry Williams’s authoritative and massive biography, ‘Huey Long’ (1969) of close to 1000 pages, long before my current presidential biography program.


Long aimed at the 1940 Democratic nomination, and to get it, he planned to put up a figurehead third party candidate like Father Charles Coughlin in 1936 for whom he would campaign vigorously.

Coughlin-1940.jpg Father Coughlin

That figurehead would split the Democratic vote insuring that Franklin Roosevelt would lose to the Republican nominee, one Alf Landon, governor of Kansas. With Roosevelt discredited, Long would offer himself as the savior of the Democratic party and run in 1940, being confident he could beat any Republican. Historical precedent meant nothing to Huey Long but there was one in the way Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican vote in 1912 leading to Woodrow Wilson’s election.

films-huey-long-details.jpg Huey Long

It is a plan devious enough for a Vice-Chancellor to appreciate.

Rather than re-read Williams’s tome I opted for a new look with William Ivy Hair’s ‘The Kingsfish and his Realm: The Life and times of Huey P. Long‘ (1991), an excellent book. It lives up to its title in a way a surprising number of alleged biographies do not. It is a fine piece of work, opening with two scene-setting chapters about Louisiana in the generation that reared Long. It is a shameful account of lynchings, mob violence, corruption, crushing poverty, rapacious corporations, murderous racism, rape, calculated impoverishment as a means of social control, murderous racism, all covered with a veneer of holier-than-thou Christian piety. The hypocrisy was as fetid as the bayou air in July. But this is the world the baby boy Huey was born to, and it turned out he could play its game better than anyone else.

He did not graduate from high school or college, yet gained entry to the Louisiana bar by combing buckets of smarm with pestilential persistence. In his early life he was a travelling salesman who sold anything to anyone, ice to eskimos, humidity to an asthmatic, books to the illiterate, Bibles to muslims, water to alcoholics, you name it. He was in fact a snake oil salesman for a time. From age sixteen for about ten years he travelled the backroads and byways of Louisiana, knocking at farm house doors, lintels at lean-tos, and talked to sharecroppers at the plow, and destitute woodsman on stumps. He had a prodigious memory and when he met someone a second time he asked by name about the wife, the mother, the brother. He also had an unnatural energy, sleeping three to four hours a night. If it was daylight, he was working. As fast as he made money, he spent it on cars, alcohol, and women. Note, most travelling salesmen of the era concentrated on small towns, not individual, isolated households. Years later when he campaigned for votes in these backwoods, he remembered enough names to astound, impress, and win over audiences. While he treated members of his entourage with contempt, he was always polite and respectful to voters. To be clear, it is memory. He did not keep a diary or write things down. He was in no way bookish.

From this early start his eye turned to political office when he was old enough, and the author suggests Huey had realized that was the metier where he could achieve not only material success but also power and social standing. He never tried physical labor, and the law, though a fine credential, was boring, yet he put on quite a show in court. But politics, well that was salesmanship writ large, and Huey was large, and he himself would be the product. He had no ideology.

Despite Long’s repeated claims to an early life of poverty, he was born to a middle class family and had a comfortable and stable home life. He was the second youngest of nine children. Like many sons he rebelled against his father, and the author sees in this a lifelong antagonism to authority (exercised by others over him). Ergo he always saw himself as a rebel even when acting the autocrat and conniving with the oligarchs who owned Louisiana.

When he was twenty-five, he met the age requirement for the Louisiana State Railway Commission, which in the wave of Progressivism at the turn of the Century-- successful in parts of Louisiana--had been made an elected office. This commission regulated railroads which were certainly important, but also waterways, electricity, telegraph, pipelines, roads, and telephone. Where others saw a sinecure to pension off retainers or buy off enemies, Long saw a stepping stone and went for it with all the energy and audacity that made him the Kingfish. He outlied his opponent five-to-one. Facts were no barrier to Huey. No doubt Karl Rove learned from Long’s example.

He out stumped him one hundred-to-one. No one had ever campaigned for this office before and no one since has campaigned with the intensity he did, taking the state by storm. His energy was remarkable for that semi-tropical state. He talked, shook hands, remembered names, told lies, and made ludicrous promises twenty hours a day from the doorway of shacks to villages of twenty lumberjack families, to the streets of small towns, from the back of wagons, anywhere he could find one person or more. He always got by three or four hours of sleep, though later in life once a week, every ten days, or a fortnight, he would collapse for a day or more and sleep eighteen or twenty-four hours.

At the outset he steered clear of the old money planation strip along the river and the cities of Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans where the Ring dominated, it being the bayou equivalent of Tammany Hall in New York without the efficiency. He besieged these forts from without, though those secure inside hardly noticed it at the time. More fool them.

Louisiana had even more racial, ethnic, social and economic cleavages than most states. The most exotic were the Cajuns who lived mainly in the Florida parishes east of the Big Muddy and along its eastern shores. These French-speaking people were mainly Catholic, but there were Huguenot descendants among them. Remember ‘Evangeline’? I sure do. See the note at the end.

The post-Reconstruction state constitution gave the governor more power than in the other forty-even states. For example, the governor had the authority to dismiss local town councils. These power were included to provide a bulwark against the black population, least it win some local control. The example of Haiti remained a spectre for many. These autocratic powers had not been used until Huey Long came along. He lost his first bid for governor and learned some lessons from that experience.

While waiting for the next gubenatorial election he volunteered to campaign for an incumbent United States Senator who faced a difficult challenge. He was a whirlwind who galvinized audiences in person. He also made full use of the radio, which at the time many regarded as a passing novelty. That success brought him further opportunites to campaign for others. Pause. He did this work, and he really worked at it, not out of alruism or ideology, but because he was builidng up his contacts and proving to one and all he was a vote getter. When the time came, he pushed aside those he had earlier campaigned for and usurped their organizations.

The second time around he was elected governor, and the whirlwind became a tornado. He doubled the number of state employees, and required each to pay a Long dividend to his political organization of 15% of their wage, a practice that continued for years. Those who won state building contracts were required to purchase supplies from sources owned by those friendly to Long, and their number grew to get those contracts. He divided his opponents in the legislature by intimidation, bribery, and his preternatural perception of an opponent's weaknesses. He increased the power of the governor to the extent that every state employee served at his pleasure, and he hired and fired to get what he wanted, which was first subservience.

On he went. He won a Senate seat and put a stooge in the governor’s chair, and Long ran Louisiana from Washington, D.C. by telephone. He campaigned hard for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, the two detested each other, and it was rare for anyone to get under FDR’s skin, but Huey did, and proved he could win voters over even in Republican strongholds like the Dakotas and Nebraska.

While he corrupted state government, bastardized the Senate election, and more, he was not personally corrupt in the popular sense. The money he raked in all went to pay his staff and fund his political campaigns against local opponents and for elections. He did not enrich himself. When he set his sights on the Presidency, which he certainly did, he stopped drinking, smoking, and swearing with a self-discipline no one thought he had. Yes, there were lapses. He married Rose young and she did not like the political life and as a result they lived largely apart. He had a long term mistress who worked in his private office, and that was that. He lived and breathed politics as a game to dominate opponents.

Then in September 1935 at forty-two years of age he was murdered in the foyer -- I saw the bullt holes in the wall in 2004 -- of the state capitol he had built. Why Dr. Weiss killed him is unknown and in that ignorance novelists and screen writers have poured in the usual human weaknesses, because they just do understand that Huey had no interest in women or money, but only in power.


There is much evidence of Long’s presidential ambitious, starting with his efforts to campaign for others across the nation. This is a standard exercise for future candidates to this day. He took to the radio, buying national time with the funds he extorted from Standard Oil, to develop a national profile and following with his bizarre ‘Share our Wealth’ clubs which could offer the skeleton of a national campaign organization, and he produced a book he dictated to secretaries in 1935 called ’My First Days in the White House.’ Get it?

Even more important is that state capitol in Baton Rouge. It is a high-rise tower far beyond the needs of Louisiana.

Baton_Rouge,_LA_032210_016.jpg Louisiana State Capitol Building with a statue of Long between it and the Little White House.

It has forty-eight steps leading to the front door and each step is engraved with the name of a state of the union. It is a national building unlike any other state capitol. Across the mall from the capitol he built the Little White House with East and West wings. This White House is indeed white and its interior is decorated with motifs, murals, and memorabilia from all forty-eight states. There in Baton Rouge is an imposing capitol, a mall, and a white house. Get it?

The Kingfish was one of a kind. He was larger than life and achieved immortality from the hand of Robert Penn Warren, a poet with two Pulitzer Prizes for verse, and Poet Laureate of the United States twice. He wrote but one novel but what a novel, ‘All the King’s Men‘ (1947), and that too earned a Pulitzer. The opening chapter is hypnotic. A very young Warren had been a researcher for Senator Long. This book was the basis of the first of films portraying Huey Long in 1949 with Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge (before she went to the Devil in ‘The Exorcist’), and John Ireland. In 1995 John Goodman offered a creditable ‘Kingfish.’ In 2006 Sean Penn disinterred ‘All the King’s Men’ and made a hash of it. There have been many documentaries including Ken Burns’s with twanging banjo and the seasick camera moving over still photographs. The Paul Newman vehicle ‘Blaze’ in 1989, concerning Huey’s younger brother Earl, was a travesty. I boycotted his salad dressing for years afterward. Poor guy.

‘Evangeline’ was an 1847 poem by Henry Longfellow recounting the dislocation of 20,000 or so French settlers from a region called Arcadia in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1745-1755 period. To avoid British expulsion many moved voluntarily to Maine and further south. Those who transported went to Caribbean islands and to Louisiana. They joined the French settlers who had gone there from 1715. The original French were Huguenots escaping religious persecution in French, while the Arcadians were Catholic escaping religious persecution in Upper Canada. These latter became the Cajuns of the backwaters, hinterland, bayous, forests, swamps, and islands who developed a highly spiced cuisine to mask the tastes of water rats, snakes, bats, and such as was their diet. It is often red with pepper, chili, cayenne, and capsicum. Creole cuisine is much more refined in the French manner and its sauces are brown, thanks to the addition of butter. The rule of Louisiana cooking I learned is ‘If it is red, it is Cajun’ and ‘If it is brown, it is Creole.’

This is the story that inspired Longfellow’s 2000 line poem, which left an indelible mark on me. To a spotty eighth grader it was a INCOMPREHENSIBLE BORE THAT NEVER ENDED. We students wandered through the forest primeval of Longfellow’s dactylic hexameter for at least an eternity, and emerged older and none the wiser and just as spotty. In comparison Dante’s ‘Inferno’ was exciting.

Two American presidents have not been presidents of the United States. I have read a biography of one, Sam Houston, who served two terms as president of Texas when it was a sovereign state. The time came to read of the other, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America from 1861-1865. It is an unique story and this is an odd book.

John_Orley_Allen_Tate.jpg Allen Tate (1899-1979) has a commendable reputation as a poet; he was Poet Laureate of the United States for a time. When I looked for a biography on Davis I recognized Tate’s name (a faint residue from the 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning course I did in college on American Poetry with Dr. Hardwick). That seemed as a good a criterion of choice as any. The book is dazzlingly to read, the words flow, the images are powerful, the rhythm is palpable. It is far better written than Carl Sandberg's 'Lincoln,' he being another poet of note. Moreover, Tate is no apologist for Davis. His strengths and weaknesses are exposed, examined, evaluated, and summarized. To these I now turn, leaving further comment on the book to the end.


Davis had an easy life. His father sent him to the best schools, and then West Point, where Davis was an indifferent student, on a merit list 40 out of 60. Davis served in the army in the Wisconsin and then Iowa territory, where he formed a very high opinion of his own military capacity, to judge from his letters. In the Mexican War of 1846 he served with distinction, which he took as further proof of his genius, though in each case Tate suggests others did the heavy lifting, Davis just arrived in time to accept the accolades.

He married, and seemed destined to disappear into Mississippi plantation life, but both bride and groom fell prey to typhus on honeymoon in New Orleans, and his bride, whom he had courted for one year, died within six weeks. He gradually recovered, though he remained dyspeptic thereafter, being stunned and stunted. For the first and only time in his life he became bookish and read in a study all hours, becoming the worst sort of know-it-all autodidact.

His older brother who had, by primogeniture, inherited the paternal planation, took him in, coaxed him back to life by propelling him into politics. Davis won a seat, another indication of his genius, never mind that the opponent was a numbskull, and his brother had arranged for a great deal of support. On he went, each time without much effort on his part, to the House of Representatives, and then the Senate, in Washington. He spoke well, cut a good figure, and his distant manner set him apart. He had by this time re-married, his brother having introduced him to every eligible woman in three states, and seemed contented.

To bring geographic balance to cabinet, and to make way for another to hold that Senate seat, President Franklin Pierce in 1853 appointed him Secretary of War, where he proved himself to be a micro-manager.

He was an exact contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, the two being born within a few miles of each other in Kentucky before their families moved. Whereas, Lincoln had to work, and work hard, perhaps even as hard the legends say, for everything, advantages dropped into Davis’s lap. Tate suggests that Lincoln learned much about working with others and getting along with them, respect for facts, the need to husband resources, modesty, and more, all of which entirely escaped Davis. The Davis in these pages seems born to the priesthood, ready to tell others what to do... Period. Not to persuade, not to sympathize, not to lead by example, not to negotiate. But ever ready to declare. To those who faltered his reaction was scorn and vitriol in equal measure.

He would never rise above himself, his clique, his region, his prejudices to deliver a funeral oration like Lincoln at Gettysburg, nor offer such compassion to mortal enemies as Lincoln in the Second Inaugural. Davis would conclude by some convoluted logic that such speeches impaired his majesty as president, and pandered to the mob for whom his contempt was open. He was never elected to office in the ordinary way. He was appointed to fill a vacancy by death in the House of Representatives. The Mississippi legislature selected him for the Senate twice, thanks to machinations of his brother. As for the Presidency of the Confederate States, read on.

Davis accepted the mother’s milk of states’ rights and took it to be a constant of the universe. Any objection to it was sin to be castigated and cauterised. For all his uncompromising defense of the indefensible, the slavery that was the purpose states’ right, he was not an extremist rushing to war in the manner of Howard Cobb, Robert Rhett, or William Yancey. Indeed when a Mississippi convention voted to secede, he was one of the few to vote against it.

Davis combined a profile among the political elite as an advocate of states’ rights with administrative experience in the War Department and the reputation of a moderate, a combination led him to the Confederate White House. When the leaders of the first six states to secede, those from the deepest South, met in Montgomery Alabama to constitute themselves as a separate sovereign nation they unanimously choose Davis, who had not attended the meeting, to be president. The Fire-eaters who led the secession movement checked each other, and some preferred, consistent with the doctrine of states’ rights, to remain in their state. That left Davis as harmlessly acceptable to all. At this Montgomery convention each state had a single vote, and so Davis won six votes. Surely the smallest vote for any president. As I said above, he had no experience of that fickle beast, the electorate.

When he answered the call of duty for a six-year term, Davis discovered that the Confederate Constitution (modeled on the Articles of Confederation of 1781, hence the name 'Confederated States') vested few powers in the President but he determined to make it work. There he exhibited his deficiencies as well as his personal courage and dedication. He worked himself mercilessly at micro-managing the promotion of lieutenants, how ambassadors should be received, and counting blankets. No ambassadors ever came, but had they, he was ready!

His health had been compromised by the typhus and he was fragile, often hors de combat for days at a time.

He was prickly and thin-skinned, unlike Lincoln with that rhinoceros hide. Davis was distracted and apoplectic by any criticism, and often took suggestions and advice as criticisms. Only those who learned to flatter and sugarcoat their approaches enjoyed access and even a modicum of influence with him. Any letter that did not address him as ‘Your Excellency’ was likely to be crumbled up and discarded. When a Confederate general became popular, he was damned in Davis’s eyes as a usurper of the president’s prestige. When a very good proposal came from an individual who had once slighted him, in Davis’s opinion, it was dismissed. When an aide suggested the President show himself in public to bolster civic morale, he was dismissed from service, because Davis took that suggestion to be a criticism and an affront to Presidential dignity. Rigid, inflexible, yes he was. The cause was just, the mob should not be placated but rather chastened to do its duty.

Robert E. Lee is the exception to all of this, and Tate acknowledges that but offers no explanation. He seems to have found it as inexplicable as the reader does.

Tate suggests that in his cloistered autodidact phase after the death of his first wife, Davis read a lot of political science about sovereignty and the divine right of kings, and when the presidency fell, unbidden in his lap, it was the one role model he had, even if unconscious of it.

Much in Tate's account of the Civil War puts paid to the myth that an external enemy unites people. Not so among the Confederates. The first six states never agreed among themselves, and never deferred to the Richmond government. The second five states likewise. Davis’s cabinet opposed his every move, and he made few enough of them. Here is one example from many, while Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia starved in rags over the winter of 1864-1865 in an agony worse than George Washington’s Continental Army at Valley Forge in 1777, the Governor of Georgia at the end of the railway line from Richmond had 95,000 wool uniforms in storage and three months army rations for 30,000 men. The Georgians in Richmond zealously defended the right of Georgia to retain these provisions though some had been paid for by the Richmond government. Davis would not deign to intercede as it would be beneath his presidential dignity to plead with a state Governor. He did however send him angry letters which made cooperation all the more impossible. No, the Governor did not have an army of 30,000 but he kept the uniforms and rations just the same. That is until Sherman’s Union army found the stores and burned the lot.

The other example is personal enmity. There was much of it among the politicians and generals, but the most striking embodiment is Confederate General Braxton Bragg whose titanic incompetence made Davis stick to him all the more! Once Davis appointed Bragg, despite the overwhelming evidence of Bragg’s repeated failures, for Davis to replace him would be implicitly to admit he had been mistaken in appointing him, so he did not. Bragg was always careful to address Davis as Your Excellency.

bragg_braxton.jpg Braxton Bragg

Bragg thus secured from his own breath-taking errors, devoted himself to undermining his comrades in arms least they succeed where he had failed and show him up, pursuing these personal vendettas even while Atlanta burned. Davis promoted him to higher responsibility from which he continued to destroy the Confederate Army from within. He might almost have been a Union agent. That would explain his actions. As a standard of incompetence, he rivals George McClellan’s stellar achievements. And he had in addition a personal spitefulness and venom McClellan never knew.

Today revisionist historians, searching for a new and provocative and topic, rather than deeper insight, are now rehabilitating Bragg. Mission impossible!

Tate argues that the move of the Confederate capital from Montgomery in the geographic centre of the rebellious states to Richmond was a fatal error that distorted both the military and political strategy that followed. I had never thought of it that way before.

Davis feared ceding a foot of territory to the Union, and so spread Confederate forces very thin, allowing the Union armies to pick off, smaller, isolated garrison one after another. Tate repeatedly disparages Davis’s approach, failing to mention until the last chapter that all the rambunctious Dixie governors wanted it that way and would not have cooperated with the concentration of the army. It reminded me of that spectral Brisbane Line in Australia in 1942. Though the need to concentrate was obvious, it dared not be said, the political trumping the military.

The book is at least half a summary history of the Civil War, and starts with two long chapters that are hard to swallow, blaming everything on the rapacious North and glorifying slavery. No apologist for Davis is Tate but he is a one-eyed apologist for the Slavocracy. Reminded me of the Tea Parody rantings in its profound irrationality.

Believe it or not. I offer no detail, it is too tedious to recount. The result is less of biography than the title promises.

Least a generous spirit excuse Tate for his racism, as of his time and place, note that in the same year that this book was published, 1929, Tate’s fellow Mississippian William Faulkner published ‘The Sound and the Fury’ peopled by thinking, feeling, reasoning blacks wherein Faulkner describes Southern racism as a cancer that is killing black and white, the latter more slowly but just as dead.

My study of United States presidents extends to candidates and vice-presidents.  Recently I was reminded of Nelson Rockefeller's finest hour when he stared down the Republican extremists at the 1964 nominating convention.  


Part of it is on You Tube.  That whetted my appetite and so I looked for a biography.  According to the subtitle that is what this book is.  On that more later.  

The Rockefeller in these pages is full of energy, enthusiasm, and good will though not always well disciplined.  Among his many attractive features is a complete lack of self-consciousness about his own singularity as an incredibly wealthy titan who chose, repeatedly, the hard and often unrewarding work of public life: many years on commissions and committees and seventeen years in elected office.  He never expected anyone to thank him for his efforts, and just as well because no one did.


Equally impressive is Rockefeller’s interest in evidence and argument about public affairs, domestic and foreign, which translated into talent scouting consultants, researchers, speech writers, and retainers of many stripes, notably Dr. H. Kissinger.  Rockefeller generated a blizzard of position papers, reports (often to himself), assessments, public hearings at his own expense and more. He was, on this account, a whirlwind to work for and often thoughtless in driving his staff to produce more and better.

Many billionaires keep it to themselves, including some far wealthier than Rockefeller, but Nelson followed his father in philanthropy and his commitment to art and architecture are another side to the man.  He sought out, bought, and on this account seemed to enjoy contemporary art; it was more than an investment for him. There is a charming account of Nelson walking past an 'objet d'art' in an office building, stopping in his tracks to study it, causing a pile-up of the following entourage, and quivering with excitement Rockefeller sent an aide to find the artist. In due course, Rockefeller, driving a hard bargain, bought the work and kept it in his private office for years.  A reader is left In no doubt that Rockefeller loved the expression, the creativity, the provocation he found in painting and sculpture.

In architecture he thought big, witness that colossus at Albany that now bears his name.  

He was critical in bringing the United Nations to New York and donating the land on which the building now stands.  

Less appealing is his Hamlet procrastination about seeking the presidential nomination.  He could never quite go for it.  Perhaps his easy life made it but an option for him, one among many others, rather than a desperate lifelong quest as it was for his nemesis Richard Nixon. Rockefeller had no fear of losing because win-or-lose, he was always Rockefeller, but Nixon had nothing else so he committed himself completely to the task.  All of this is my speculation for the book sheds little light on the inner man, despite the title "Biography" there is little about his life.  It is more a memoir of the author's experience of working for Rockefeller.

Rockefeller is quoted saying in later life that he was too busy being governor to devote three of four years to mounting a presidential campaign. In his case that meant setting up a national organization and going anywhere and everywhere to support Republican candidates. But his heart would not have been in it, and he would have been unable to conceal it.  He wanted to do things himself not lead cheers for others, though that is what Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan did and they got nominated.

Rockefeller was a completely unrepentant Cold Warrior and a 100% Hawk on Vietnam, and never changed.  

He seems, on this account, to have been blind to colour and to the racism of the United States.  He mouthed platitudes now and again but it was scripted not felt, say in contrast to Bill Clinton who was absolutely right on race.  Likewise he was deaf to the early stages of women's liberation.  Not a leader on either of those scores.

The author even ten years later seems star-struck by the The Grand Nelson, and why not?  He was certainly one of a kind.  Other rich men, I cannot think of a female example, have dabbled in politics, but he was a stayer in New York State politics for sure, four gubernatorial elections and fourteen years in the Governor's chair, and much accomplished in shaping New York, if leaving many bills to be paid later. (He financed many of his state projects by selling bonds that one day had to be paid, long after his tenure - sovereign debt.)  

There is a story that in 1968 Hubert Humphrey approached Rockefeller about going on his ticket as Vice-President.  He declined, saying "I'm a Republican, and always will be."  But what did that mean to him?  A tribal loyalty, a second skin that could not be shed, even after that confrontation in 1964 with the mob Barry Goldwater let loose, not even after being comprehensively out maneuvered by Nixon in the 1968 convention.  While many Republicans doubted Rockefeller was a Republican, Rockefeller never doubted it.  He was what used to be called a Ripon Republican, a breed now destroyed by the Tea Party tail of the Republican Parody. (Intentional.)

In fact, Rockefeller's presidential efforts were few.  One primary in Oregon, many position papers and press conferences on national and international issues, but few campaigns to win votes, or systematic efforts to win the support of Republican Party delegates.  In 1968 he declared himself a candidate one week and then withdrew the next.  


It is a mystery, for the author says Rockefeller dominated any room he entered with the force of his personality. Yet though he often dreamed of being president, Rockefeller said later, he never made the sustained and disciplined effort it needed, though he was quite capable of sustained and disciplined efforts as his other public service shows.  Indeed he was quite tenacious over the years in pressing his agenda.

Then in the dark and confusing days after Nixon's unprecedented resignation, Rockefeller accepted Gerald Ford's offer of the Vice-Presidency.  There are a lot of questions there.  Why did Ford turn to Rockefeller?  Why did Rockefeller accept? On that it seems that Rockefeller thought he could make something of the office in the extraordinary circumstances after Watergate.  After all Henry Kissinger was his creature, superintending foreign policy. He, Nelson Rockefeller, would throw himself into domestic policy!  That ambition sufficed to motivate him to endure a long, embarrassing, and unfriendly confirmation in Congress, but it perished after a couple of meetings with President Ford.  

For the first time in his life, Rockefeller had nothing of moment to do.  Dutifully he made the best of the hand he held, going to state funerals, opening parks, handing out ribbons and medals, and the like.   

When Ford prepared to run for (re-)election, the Republican Party, then dominated by its Southern tail, ruled Rockefeller unacceptable.  To his credit Rockefeller accepted that fate, too, and in fact nominated Bob Dole for the job, going quietly into retirement. (Bob Dole has since been demonised by the Tea Party ultras.)

He had worked for every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Gerald Ford in one capacity of another with the exception of John Kennedy, both Democrat and Republican. (In fact, he later did a short stint for Jimmie Carter.)

The end of his term as Vice-President marked the end of his life in public service.  He spent his last years with his art collection, finding ways to make it accessible to the public through exhibits, reproductions, and publications with introductions which he sometimes wrote himself and his gravelly voice seems to rise from the page to offer his visceral response to many works.

The book ends with Nelson's empty desk in Room 5600 in New York City where he did most of his work with the painting he hung on the wall in front of the chair, Georges Rouault's 'The Old King,' a work I have admired in reproductions over the years.  It was a gratifying confirmation to know that Nelson liked it, too.


The old king is remote, glacial, determined, defiant even, and unattractive, but clearly a force.  Perhaps it is the measure of what Rockefeller wanted to be.  

Pedant's note. Ford was not elected president and Rockefeller was not elected Vice-President but I kept it simple above, because these are elected offices. Weak, I know.

A detailed and comprehensive biography of the man, includes much of his family life and personal relations, as well as his long career as a diplomat, which started at his father's knee.  The trials and tribulations of his wife following him around Europe and the east coast of the United States, with repeated miscarriages and small children in tow is exhausting.  What she put up with is remarkable and yet as the author intimates the norm of the time though exaggerated in the case of JQA.


JQA had three distinct but interacting careers, the first as a professional diplomat, second as the sixth president, and third, subsequently, as a Congressman for nearly twenty years.  Throughout these careers he wrote and published poetry, and earned a little money from it, very little.  There was no family wealth and he earned his own living and had constant money worries.  One of the attractions of Congress after the presidency was the (pitiful) income.

There were many achievements in the diplomatic career, hard won though they were.  He also did some noteworthy things as a Congressman.  His least successful career was in the White House, and the poetry.

Because JQA spent so much time in Europe he saw, met, and mixed with many of the great personalities of the age including Napoleon, Wellington, Humphrey Davy, Russian emperors, Jeremy Bentham, Prussian generals, Italian inventors, etc.  on his brief returns to the United States in Boston, New York, or Washington he mixed with the leading lights in politics (Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Calhoun, James Monroe) and inventors like Robert Fulton.  

His diplomatic career started at age 13 when his father, in Paris to secure French support for the Revolutionary War, was sent to Russia to interest it in commercial contacts, and Adams Senior took along his prepubescent son, JQA, as secretary-translator.  JQA has been schooled for several years in French in Paris and was fluent at his age level, and the language of diplomacy was French, and the language of the Russian court was also French.  Adams Senior never learned any French despite his many years in Paris on several missions.  

JQA's last diplomatic posting was to Great Britain as ambassador.  In between there was an array of appointments as minister (ambassador) to the Netherlands, Portugal (though this fell through before he embarked for Lisbon), France, Berlin, and back to Russia, and also many ad hoc missions to negotiate commercial contracts here and there.  The most significant of the latter was one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812.  

The major themes of the book are:

Jefferson ran for president as the anti-Washington establishment candidate, as later did Andrew Jackson.  

The French decadent and absolutist monarchy supported revolution but USA has much more in common with the more egalitarian, mercantile English. My enemy's enemy is my friend.

Identification with France of the southern Jefferson and his embryonic democratic party versus the identification with England of New Englanders like the Adamses.  The Jeffersons wanted a weak central government and strong states (to protect slavery) as the price of their adherence to the Union.  The New England Federalist wanted a strong central government to hold the union together to protect rights and make for commerce.  To the Jefferson democrats a strong central government was monarchical.  Besides the tariff the only source of funds would be from the sale of western land, but the pressure was to sell cheap, not dear.

Tension between the human rights of the Declaration of Independnce the reality of slavery.

The effect of the 3/5ths counting of slaves allowed the south to dominate the House of Representatives where presidential elections were solved, and presidential voting.

Constant conflict between French and English involved USA as a bystander, the more so when Napoleon was active.  JQA was in St Petersburg when Napoleon burned Moscow and in Paris when Napoleon returned from Elba and in a theatre when he appeared.

Impressing seaman from American merchant ships was a recurrent event.  Britain was both desperate for manpower to blockade Europe and contemptuous of USA ability to stop it.  

The idea of concurrent majorities that States had to agree to federal laws even regarding foreign relations, designed to keep the central government weak.  To advocate local improvements meant federal government taxation to pay for those improvements.  That meant bypassing state governments.  Most federal income came from tariff on New England trade.  

JQA had a brief term as a state senator in Massachusetts and also as a USA senator.  In each case he had no chance of re-election because he did not vote exclusively for the immediate, narrow, short-term interest of Massachusetts.  

Monroe made him Secretary of State and several previous Secretaries of State had succeeded to president.  But by then JQA seems to have had no party.  The extreme Federalists had abandoned him and the moderate federalists dissolved.  The swarm of job seekers startled him.     

His election was a result of the combined efforts of ambitious others who wanted to stop Andrew Jackson.  They (Henry Clay, John Calhoun, William Crawford, and Daniel Webster) threw their votes to JQA.  Jackson had the most popular votes but lost.  In those days elections without a majority of electoral votes went to the House of Representatives where the anti-Jackson's combined for JQA because he had no future.  He had no party, no constituency, no ambition....

The intellectual, Indian-loving Adams had no chance the second time against the man of the people Andrew Jackson.  Calhoun swung to Jackson. Crawford died. Clay huffed and puffed. Webster had less influence than he,thought. The anti-Jackson coalition split. JQA followed his father as a one-term president. He was comprehensively defeated.  Like John Tyler and Millard Fillmore later, and perhaps Teddy Roosevelt, he was a president without a party.  He started as a Federalist and served in Congress first as a Republican, then a Democrat, and Whig as president and in his last stint in Congress.

Though JQA thought parties perverted democracy with deals, compromises, and coalitions, yet he rejected the direct democracy implicit in the nullifiers position.  

Indian-lover because he tried to honour existing Indian treaties.  The slave states suspected him to be a closet abolitionist though his attitude to blacks was ambivalent.

Haiti and it's black government loomed very large in the minds of slaveholding Southerners.  They would not support any meeting of Latin American States that included Haiti.

Like Monroe before him, President JQA did not rush to recognise rebellious Latin American countries.  

Adams is credited in these pages with writing the Monroe doctrine. Even if he wrote the words, which are quite matter of fact, not declamatory, it was always and only Monroe's decision.  

Major achievements of his presidency were peace and prosperity.  He negotiated several boundary disputes on the Maine border with England, and also commercial treaties to keep shipping open.  More important, he negotiated the Spanish out of Florida. Domestically he proposed many internal improvements, some of which were successful, but most were rejected.  

While president he planted about 200 trees on the White House grounds, sometimes doing the work himself.  It seems to have offered an escape from the unremitting and thankless job, as he saw it. He did not enjoy the politicking and working on the grounds also hid him from the press of job seekers.

As many as eight states proclaimed nullification of Congressional acts that did not suit them.  The most obstreperous were, no surprise, Georgia and South Carolina.  JQA always saw this as code for slavery.  He never seems to have challenged slavery in any way, though, in the first two careers.

When he left office he was 64, and not robust. Yet when a retiring Congressman from Plymouth suggested that JQA bid for his seat, he was easily convinced to do so, despite the protests of his wife and grown children. He may not have like politicking but he still had a case of Potomac fever.  He said going into Congress would allow him to speak his mind of the great principles without the onerous duties of the executive.  I translated that as 'I will have the satisfaction of carping at Andrew Jackson even if no one listens.'  The author takes him, on this as with everything else, at his word.  

JQA was interviewed by Alexis de Tocqueville.

In Congress he chaired the House committee on tariffs which the front line in the battle between the States over nullification.  But more importantly, he became ever more committed to abolition and said so often, repeatedly, and well.  He accepted the assignment to defend the Amisted Africans before the Supreme Court, and though the case was decided on a technicality there is no doubt his arguments left the Court no choice but to find for the defendants.  It was a giant cause célèbre at the time.

Adams the Congressman in an 1848 photograph

He is also credited with steering the Smithsonian bequest into the museums we now know.  Believe it or not, Ripley, the original reactions to the gift were to reject it.  New Englanders suspected there was some nefarious trick to it by the English, while Southerners did not want anything to increase the size of the federal government.  They both wanted to reject it.  President van Buren wanted to take the money, disregard the stated purpose of the gift, and use it to buy votes in his re election bid by investing in worthless state bonds in Arkansas, Ohio, and so on. There was pressure from the Brits to use it as intended or give it back to them.

JQA, because he had no party and no future, was finally made chair of a committee to deal with it.  His own goal was a national university system starting in D.C. But that would cut across States rights so it never started.  He compromised on the establishment of the natural history museum.  A fine result, I say, having visited Smithsonian museums not enough, but what a terrific struggle to bring them about.  There were several later efforts to ambush it which JQA saw off.  It all seems as frebile, selfish, and shortsighted as a curriculum committee meeting.

He died at his seat in the House of Representatives.  He had become in his last years a tiger for abolition and a skilled maneuverer in Congress.  The book ends there.  There is no summing up, retrospective, legacy, score card of strengths or weaknesses.  

He continued to write and publish poetry throughout his life, and also published many speeches and essays on topics of the day.

The book rests on a mountainous knowledge of JQA, thanks in part to his diaries. Perhaps because so much comes from that source, the book sometimes seems to see the world only as JQA did.  Any alternative view could only be explained by bad will, thus Henry Clay is written off as a self-serving cipher, he who knew he had destroyed his career with the Missouri Compromise.  So, too, for others like Calhoun, who never compromised on his (despicable) principles. Only JQA seems to have been animated by the greater good, oh, and President Monroe, too, but only because he made JQA Secretary of State.  

The book gives a premium to what JQA wrote as the mark of the man, and much less to what he did, until his last Congressional career. But in one reading of these pages he abandoned his wife and family routinely, often in very difficult circumstances though he was anxious about it, in his diaries, he did it time after time in the name of duty (but might there not have been a different way).  He was hardly ever there for his children and when he was it was to chide  and restrain them.  He seems largely friendless.  The author refers to many people as his friends but there is no detail so they seem more like neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues.  In Washington he was a profound outsider because apart for the preceding eight years as Monroe's Secretary of State he had lived outside the USA.  Yes, eight years in which he seems to have made no friends, nor found allies.  A loner he learned to be in his diplomatic life and loner he stayed even in the hive that is Washington.  

I found the book hard to read at times.  Not quite sure why.  Convoluted sentences, there were a few, but no more than in most books dealing with complications.  There was a great deal of detail especialy about his family life, that did not add to a reader's understanding of the man, but was repetitious.  In the chronology another account of the wife, Louisa, fainting spells did not sharpen the picture of JQA.  I know the author left much out but I wondered if there might have been more -- left out.

The military career of Douglas MacArthur spanned bows and arrows at the start and finished with thermonuclear weapons. He lived in a fort in the Southwestern United States with his soldier father when Apaches attacked with bows and arrows and left the army in the atomic age.

Mac colour.jpg

Most of the things this know-it-all thought he knew about Douglas MacArthur turn out to be false, the product of unscrupulous journalism, red-baiting politicians, or dithering Secretaries of State re-writing history.  

1. He did not exceed his mandate Korea.
2. He did not propose nuking China or anyone else while in Korea.
3. He did not provoke Chinese entry into the Korean War.
4. He did not defy civilian authority during that war or before.
5. He did not cower in fear from combat in World War II as in the disparaging phrase 'Dugout Doug.'
6. He did not abuse his role in post war Japan to please himself. 
7. He did not underestimate the Japanese before, during, or after World War II.
8. He did not indulge in personal luxuries in Manila before the Japanese invasion.
9. He did not indulge in personal luxuries in Manila upon his return.
The list could go on.

How did he get so vilified?  Two major reason emerge.
First, in the politically charged environment of Washington D. C. he never did not fit any the conventional moulds, so he was denigrated at times by conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, and all stations between with their obliging hacks in the press. At other times one or another of these combatants embraced him and that riled the others even more.

Second, he was aloof in person and did not court any journalist.  With personal shyness, lifelong paranoia, and a propensity to magniloquence on many occasions he made an easy target for those seeking a cheap shot. (I always think of Bill Bryson when I think of taking cheap shots which just shows that it works because he has made a career out of it.) MacArthur was always good for copy.

Perhaps more important than those two points is the fact that there was the studied reluctance in his superiors to give him clear, concise, and unequivocal orders in crises.  That master of multiple meanings President Franklin Roosevelt was the Grand Vizer of ambiguity during the siege of Bataan, allowing MacArthur to infer from his radio messages that support and relief were on the way when none was contemplated, let alone on the way.  MacArthur passed these reassurances on to his embattled army and the desperate Filipinos. Accordingly he felt betrayed when no help came and that he had been tricked into betraying the trust of his command and the Filipino people. In this context it made sense for him to say ‘I shall return’ because it was a personal pledge since he no longer trusted Washington D. C. and neither did anyone else in the Philippines at the time.

MAc wades statue.jpg

It is a similar story in Korea but with a larger cast and with even more at stake in the age of atomic bombs. President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley, and Secretary of Defense George Marshall all individually communicated directly with MacArthur, as well as in combinations. Then there was the United Nations, and the twenty-three (23) allies to consider. The energetic Secretary of State was capable of sending twelve (12) signals in a single day.  Moreover, each correspondent chopped and changed from one day to the next.  And each of them was conscious of the impending judgement of history and so at times wrote for that future audience as much, perhaps more so, than for MacArthur, who also was aware of posterity and replied in kind.

KW memorial DC-2.jpg The most haunting memorial in that city of memorials, Washington, D. C.

On occasion their communications were phrased as orders, at other times as suggestions.  Some communiques were laid out as alternatives, implicitly leaving the choice to MacArthur and when he chose he was then castigated for the choice. Often the messages were short, so short that the point was not always clear.  Others were long-winded and contradictory.  He asked once for a clarification of a short message and got back sixteen pages (16), written by a committee (the Joint Chiefs), which lent itself to any number of interpretations.

To return to that list of points above.

1. His mandate from the United Nations originally charged him to ‘unify Korea.’  He had had explicit instructions to drive 'the enemy' out of Korea from Truman.  When it seemed he was about to succeed in those aims, the ambiguity went into overdrive because China stirred.  One confusing, contradictory message after another came from his many Washington superiors who would urge him to do ‘anything necessary’ but ‘do not take any risks.’  Doing what was necessary had inherent risks. It was like walking a zig-zagging tight rope in the wind. Yes, Washington D.C. did change that mission but did not want to broadcast it so it was phrased obliquely. But MacArthur was never a man to take the hint. Once engaged he fought to win.

2. In desperation in 1951 he did propose using radioactive nuclear waste as a barrier to stop border crossing by Chinese armies. Crazy, to be sure and immediately rejected with clarity for once but he did not propose nuking Red China as routinely claimed since.

3. We now know that the Soviets and Chinese had planned the incursion long in advance. To organise and equip such a force took months of preparation. MacArthur's provocation was to defeat the North Koreans comprehensively which was the mission at the time.

4. Whenever he had orders he could understand, he obeyed even if he protested and sometimes told the press so, which he should not have done, very annoying to Washington but not a fatal offense.  The exception is Roosevelt's order to him to leave Corregidor, abandoning the 20,000 Americans and 80,000 Filipinos of his army.  He stalled, he temporized, he proposed alternatives, he pressed for reinforcements and supplies, he asked about evacuating the entire force, etc.  The third time he was ordered to leave the message said a great relief force aimed at the Philippines awaited him in Australia.  He took the bait only to find 300 American soldiers in Australia!  

5. 'Dugout Doug' exposed himself to enemy fire repeatedly.  In Korea on day four before he was assigned command he went to the front lines for an inspection. To see he stood erect with binoculars amid the huddled ROK soldiers who were reeling from one crushing defeat after another. In the South Pacific he joined patrols more than once risking his life and those of his aides and he watched kamikaze planes attack the ship he stood upon.  In World War I he, a general, was awarded five (5) Silver Stars for personal and conspicuous bravery.  What more could he have done but be killed. (By the way Manchester quotes more than one armchair psychologist who sees in MacArthur’s cavalier disregard for his personal safety a shade of Thanatos. The only way to live up to his father’s standard, they speculate, would be to be killed in battle.)

6. He was indeed a Caesar, an autocrat, who ensured that Japanese women got the vote, and every women who won an elected office while he was there got a letter from him with congratulations. This is one of his many enlightened measures of which we never hear. He redistributed land in Japan far quicker and more decisively than Mao ever did in China. He brought in John L. Lewis to create trade unions. Free public education came next. None of these measures represented the administration in Washington; it was his program.

7. Prior to Pearl Harbor, he asked for air power for Manila in anticipation of a Japanese attack.  He also re-organized his command in anticipation. In battle he was cautious and careful. During his time in Tokyo he assumed the best of the Japanese. The effort to conciliate Japan, Manchester attributes to MacArthur personally, not the State Department, not the President.

8. and 9. He did use furnishings and trappings to impress others, but he had no interest in creature comforts  of any kind, still less personal luxuries. He did not drink alcohol though he often held a glass at receptions he did not drink from it. Though he would deny nothing to his wife,

Jean MacArthur.jpg
Jean, but she asked little.  They both spoiled their son without stint.

It is also true that the frustrations of the restraint, vacillating orders, massive Chinese manpower, decaying ROK army, half-hearted allies, and unremittng Eurocentrism produced outbursts from him in 1951, and then he started making wild proposals, too often public, for bombing Manchuria, for transporting Chiang Kai-Shek back to the mainland, for blockading Russian ports in Asia... Over the edge, indeed. (Mind you he was 71 years old at the time.) Truman bit the bullet and relieved him of command in a way, unfortunately, calculated to be insulting and demeaning. But MacArthur remained so calm, dignified, and unchanged that his humiliation was invisible to everyone, except Jean who knew the man as no one else ever did.

MacArthur was now much more free to speak, and he spoke. Though he did not attack the Truman Administration head-on when invited to do so at a Senate hearing. He did refer to conspiracies, which good hearted liberals then and since dismissed as delusions....until the Moscow archives were read to show that virtually his every Korean message to and reply from Washington D.C. was transmitted verbatim to Moscow and onto Peking thanks to Messers McLean, Burgess, and Philby. If MacArthur’s tactics were less successful in 1951 than in 1950 or earlier it was partly because the Chinese and North Koreans knew what was coming. There are people who still praise in my hearing Kim Philby and his associates. There is no doubt that this intelligence led to many, many deaths that might otherwise not have occurred in the Korean War, and at the highest level it allowed the Chinese to out-wait the United States because they knew how divided, confused, and paralyzed Washington D.C. was.

But then he did become in 1952 what he had despised in others, a general who did not know when to shut up. He travelled the length and breadth of the United States and said, dressed in full uniform ranks of medals agleam, all manner of things to anyone who would listen. He became ever more inconsistent, volatile, intemperate, illogical, and shrill. He craved audiences and loved the applause and grew ever more extreme to get the former and to bask the latter, becoming briefly an incandescent Cold Warrior. Soon enough he destroyed his own credibility, but not before ensuring that Truman would not be re-elected. Indeed this last act of MacArthur’s life is pathos - his thirst for adulation led him to say anything to get the applause. He advocated bigger and more weapons, a swollen standing army, while cutting all taxes to the bone. But no more crazy than any Tea Party Republican today.

The conflict over command between MacArthur and Truman has a parallel in that between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan, though Truman was no Lincoln, but then McClellan was no MacArthur. The giants in this quadrangle are MacArthur and Lincoln.

There were moments in the 1952 Republican convention when his name was bruited and then faded quickly but, much to MacArthur’s chagrin, Eisenhower was the people’s choice then and later. While MacArthur did not actively undermine Eisenhower, he disregarded him.

It is also true that MacArthur was an egomaniac, thinking most of the world revolved around him. Any hesitation, any demure, any criticism was taken personally and never forgotten. He was driven to live up to the Olympic grandeur of his father (as told to him by his widowed mother) all of his life. Perhaps that also explains the battlefield risk-taking. That comparison may also explain his eloquence for his father was a prolix autodidact.

MacArthur did not have the common touch of Dwight Eisenhower nor the love of the warrior that George Patton had, nor the humility of Omar Bradley, nor the modesty of Joe Stilwell. He was awkward in social settings, shy and reserved which made him seem icy.  He did not visit hospitals to speak to his wounded like Eisenhower. He did not cry on the battlefield at the deaths of his men, as Patton did.  He did not carry a rifle like Omar Bradley.  He did not speak of 'we' when referring to his army as Joe Stilwell did, but always 'I.'

He restored the corrupt Filipino oligarchy in Manila at the end of the war, absent any of the reforming zeal that he showed in Japan. Most of these oligarchs had been happy collaborators with the Japanese who abused their fellow citizens. There was no land reform, no vote for women, no organized labor introduced by MacArthur here.

He saw to it that Japanese Generals Masaharu Homma and Tomoyuki Yamashita were convicted and executed when their crime was to have fought MacArthur to a standstill.

The book is superb, representing years of research, facts have been tripled-checked and cross referenced. It pulls no punches about MacArthur's many failures and faults. Failures and faults that seem intrinsic to the man who was Caesar out of time. Yet it also leaves the impression that he was a giant. In reading this book at times I thought of him as Achilles, mercurial, audacious, preternatural, sulking, personally loyal, and altogether difficult to deal with. MacArthur had no Patrocalous to act as a trusted buffer. He had subordinates but he, unlike, Achilles recognized no equal.

It is also superbly well written, finely judged, subtle, insightful, penetrating. The highest praise I can give it is that it stands on the same level as Robert Caro’s monumental studies of the years of Lyndon Johnson.  

A fabulous book about a titan. It will take two entries to review the basics. This is part 1.

It is all there in the title, and I do not mean that word ‘Caesar.’ What I do mean is that it includes neither the definite article ‘the,’ nor the indefinite ‘an.’ MacArthur is beyond those mundane grammatical considerations: one of kind, sui generis. A giant and a midget in one. Astounding achievements combined with a pettiness that seems out of character but was not. He was all one package.

Manchester MacArthur.jpg

He was widely maligned after the Korean War, and had a lot of buckets dumped on him earlier in World War II. He brought much of this criticism on himself by his unending paranoia that everyone in Washington was out to get him, by his colossal ego in which he was always trying to live up to his father’s mythical reputation, by his absolute determination to see through whatever he put his hand to despite changing circumstances, by his use of moral arguments rather than military one to justify his strategies and tactics though these were genius, by his unsocial nature through which he preserved his mystique but held most people at a distance, by his completely one-eyed devotion to and utter dependence on his wife Jean. He was a hard man to like.

Yet, as William Manchester shows MacArthur was born to the sword though he never carried a weapon yet he was in battle time and after time. He led, he directed, he observed, but he did not pull a trigger. The exception is in Manila when Tokyo Rose
in 1941 broadcasted that Japanese squads were descending on the city to capture him and his family to deliver them to torture, ignominy, and execution. The aim of the broadcast was to frighten MacArthur and thus to show to Filipinos that not even their Field Marshall was safe.

Then he pocketed a revolver with three bullets, giving the rest of the bullets back to the ordinance officer to put to other uses. A typical beau geste from a man who made so many grand gestures that they became irritating. (Reader, tax that brain, figure out why only three bullets were necessary.)


He went over the top in World War I with riding crop in hand wearing the star of a general on his shoulders without either a helmet or a gas mask, he led patrols into No Man’s Land in the night, he stood in trenches attacked by Germans... Those exploits won him five Silver Stars for valor, each well deserved. But his theatrics drove Jack Pershing mad. No division commander should go on a patrol, go over the top, or even be in a front line trench, let alone one under attack.

When carpeted by Pershing and threatened with censure, MacArthur -- clearly thinking of Douglas Haig who had never seen a trench, Joseph Joffre who bragged of not have heard a rifle shot, but not mentioning these Allied generals -- said he wanted to see what it was like for himself and also it heartened the men to see a general sharing their risks and hardships. Pershing took that as an implicit criticism of himself and ordered him removed from command, Pershing forever joining the mental Enemies List MacArthur carried around for his whole life. As happened repeatedly MacArthur had arranged for his exploits to be publicized to acclaim in France, England, and the United States, and Pershing could not then censor a hero.

It gets worse because Pershing had commanded George Marshall to prepare the order for removal, which he did, and that entered Marshall’s name, too, on MacArthur’s Enemies List. Once on that list, there was no remission.

The occasions in World War II when MacArthur was shot at, bombed, strafed, sniped at, are all too numerous to mention. He exposed himself to enemy fire time after time, in a garrison hat with the stars of command visible. He was on the point with an Australian patrol in Borneo when the two officers with him were killed by enemy fire. An Australian captain pushed him down and screamed at him to leave. Chastened, he did. More Silver Stars came. He had a child-like delight in medals and awards throughout his life. Each one was precious to him. If the Sultan of Obscuria proposed giving him a medal, he wanted to have it. Yet he seldom wore them.

Leaving aside the details, which William Manchester assembles and presents in a compelling prose (without recourse to the adolescent present tense), the best testament to MacArthur’s military genius comes from Japanese war records. They show that they found him unpredictable, deceptive, cautious and bold, and never where they could hit him. In 1942 they thought he would give battle on the plain north of Manila, instead he withdrew into the Bataan peninsula with his forces intact in a move the Japanese described as brilliant. The Japanese had not expected that and were neither supplied nor organized for a siege.

The tunnel was the headquarters on Corrigedor, the island off the Bataan peninsula.

In 1944 he sewed confusion among the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific leap-frogging over their strong points (Rabaul, Wewak) and cutting them off.

Manchester shows that his casualty rate and use of supplies set against destruction of the enemy (Japanese soldiers incapacitated, area taken, time taken) was about ten times, yes 10 times, better than that of Dwight Eisenhower in the European Theatre of Operations, and 20 times better that Admiral Chester Nimitz (he of Saipan, Tarawa) in the North Pacific. The priority of Europe meant supplies were lavished on Eishenhower's command, while Nimitz hit objectives head-on, signaling long in advance his next target - no subtlety there.

MacArthur would not have attacked a stupendous fortification like Saipan or a deathtrap like Tarawa but would have bombed and shelled each in a demonstration, and then leap-frogged over each to the next weakest island to cut their communication and supply. He would then have left them quarantined and boxed in. He put out of the war a dug-in Japanese army on Rabaul of 120,000 front line troops shipped there especially to give him battle by taking two barely defended islands north of it with the loss of some hundreds of casualties. Nimitz had 27,000 dead marines to take Saipan with its 80,000 defenders. The Japanese on Rabaul stayed there on ever decreasing rations until the Emperor told them to lay down their arms in 1945, so there was never a dramatic American flag raising on it like Iwo Jima, but then there was no comparable butcher’s bill.

On the offensive his many victories were often so quick and, in contrast to the gruesome backdrop of Tarawa or Saipan, so bloodless that they were even not reported back home, and did not enter the annuals as the great strokes they were. In fact, in the Philippines in 1944 he was criticized for moving too slowly by maneuver and not by head-on assault with the overwhelming fire power at his command. His response was public and clear, and as always in the first person: ‘I will take any objective I can by maneuver and feint to preserve every life I can, and I am sure that mothers, wives, sisters, fathers at home want it that way.’ We can be pretty sure the Grunts agreed. But for him to call a press conference and answer criticisms in this way was JUST NOT DONE! But that was the MacArthur way, his way.

Like Napoleon at Waterloo, Lee at Gettysburg, or Haig anytime, MacArthur blundered. There are many recorded instances of very successful generals in the midst of a crisis lapsing into nearly a waking coma. Napoleon at Waterloo stood silent for hours, not replying, seeming not to hear the reports and requests of subordinates, which grew more and more urgent. Lee at Gettysburg seems to have entered a trance after he gave the order for Pickett’s Charge early in the morning and stayed that way for the rest of the day, even though it was clear things were going wrong even before Pickett’s men moved into position to carry out the order. Who can wonder at it?

The pressure, the burden these generals had borne for so long, the momentous events before them, the responsibility of the blood, these would crush most of us.

MacArthur had such moments, too. During the New Guinea Campaign, he had tried everything to avoid a direct assault with aerial bombardments, naval attacks, feints around the island, commando raids, and none had sufficed. Time demanded action before the Japanese could be reinforced. The result was the Kokoda Trail. No Australian needs to be told about this battle (though the spellchecker does not know it) in which nature took five (5) soldiers for everyone lost in action. While it raged in conditions straight out of Dante’s Hell, MacArthur had such a comatose period when he seems to have tuned out, sitting at his desk at times like an effigy of himself, silent, motionless. He was impervious to the explanations of General Robert Eichelberger about those conditions; he never stirred himself to examine the ground; he barely spoke to the Australian General Thomas Blamey whose troops did the foul work; he seems almost to have been in denial that it was happening. For MacArthur to sit quietly for hours on end was extraordinary because he was usually a restless pacer, either on his own, thinking, or with a retinue of subordinates. In fact his office space was chosen to allow him to pace, as was his accommodation. For him to be sympathetic and attentive would have made no difference whatsoever to the ordeal that had to be endured, but it would have been human.

This is the first of two parts.

I read this book in my Presidents Reading on the grounds that MacArthur, like Eisenhower after him, had many supporters who pushed him as a candidate, first in 1944 and again in 1952 after President Harry Truman dismissed him.

A wide ranging study of Richard Nixon -- the man, the career, and the times that shaped both the man and the career. It is uncanny in the way it a foreshadows Nixon's self-destructive impulses: his paranoia, his introversion, his secrecy, his distrust, his self-doubts, his insecurities which combined to lead him to Watergate's half-truths, deceits, prevarications, denials, lies, enemies list, and so on.

Nixon agonistes.jpg

The Nixon that emerges from these pages is hardworking, and always over-prepared for everything, a man who scripted and edited his every word and gesture.  If he seemed wooden and without spontaneity it is because he was his own puppet master, jerking the wires to jaw and arm.  Supposing himself to lack the assets of others (the personal charm of Charles Percy, the grace of William Scranton, the wit of Adlai Stevenson, the courage of John Lindsay, the gravitas of Robert Taft, the respect accorded Dwight Eisenhower, the dignity of George Romney, the mental agility of Harold Stassen, the experience of Henry Cabot Lodge, the wealth of Nelson Rockefeller, the good looks of John Kennedy) Nixon compensated for all these these gifts bestowed on others by working longer and harder than anyone else with that famous "iron butt."  Everything he ever did in public was practiced, rehearsed, revised, practiced, rejected, redone, and so on until he reached the robotic result we all saw.

He would never give in to the human impulse to look at his watch while listening to a voter rant as George Bush (once did and was excoriated for so doing).  

If Nixon throughout his career looked tired it was because he was, not having slept but instead planned, edited, and revised the next day's every word and gesture.  Nixon never trusted himself still less anyone else.  This deep-rooted sense of inferiority seems to have come from nowhere; his childhood and family life before politics are numbingly ordinary.

As early as 1952 Nixon supposed that even members of his own party despised him (for his lack for such gifts as mentioned above) and this conclusion made him all the more determined never to put a foot wrong. One result of this determination was his distinctive reluctance ever to say anything in his own voice; instead he would say: "as a voter I met in Arizona said...," or ‘as President Eisenhower said...,’ or ‘sources close to the Prime Minister said,’ and so on. It is likely that the first few times these attributions were true but in time it became a habit to distance himself from himself. Wills describes how Nixon reacted to his own successful nomination in 1968 as an example. Convincing.

Nixon leaving the White House after resigning, giving his victory gesture. 'Victory?' Nixon-logic.

Then there is his first inaugural, an embarrassing parroting of Kennedy’s, as if somehow to capture that magic. This Nixon reminds me of Kenneth Widmerpool when Barbara Goring poured the sugar bowl on his head (or the earlier banana incident); he was grateful to be noticed: even if as a fool. (Widmerpool is the central character in Antony Powell’s magnificient twelve volume novel, Dance to the Music of Time.)

The chapters were magazine articles on the 1968 US presidential election, and so range far and wide. Only three focus on Nixon, but that is plenty. There are also delicious accounts of Barry Goldwater, a man who loved his country so much he refused to saddle it with a lightweight president and campaigned to lose, and lose he did, and Nelson Rockefeller, a Hamlet of presidential politics whose fortune blunted his competitive ambitions and yet who later sacrificed himself rather than jeopardize President Gerald Ford's nomination. The abiding hatred of Goldwater (acolytes) for Rockefeller is visceral. Apart from that noble sacrifice, Rocky's finest hour was facing down the Goldwater mob in 1964. It can found on You_Tube as 'Nelson Rockefeller denounces Republican "extremists" at the 1964 Republican National Convention.' Those whom he denounced now run the joint.

Though it has nothing to do with Nixon, I particularly enjoyed Wills’s deflation of some of Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s many pretensions. That made me wonder how they cooperated when Schlesinger commissioned him to write the brief biography of James Madison (2002) in a series. Time may have healed that wound.

Wills, for those who do not know of him, is a master stylist, a seeker of facts, an insightful observer, a staunch Catholic, a self-described conservative, a ruthless diagnostician, an astute evaluator, an honest broker among competing ideas, a measured concluder.... He also has tangentites, a condition the spell-checker does not recognise but readers do. Sometime he can neither stop nor get to the point. That combines with some very Jesuitical logic-chopping that seems pointless, albeit spirited. At times he seems determined to find fault in anyone who takes a position, this the luxury of the journalist who never has to do anything as vulgar as come to earth.

Garry Wills

‘Agonistes’ is Greek for contestant.

In 1969 Wills refers to 'men' when he means 'people.' This will outrage anachronistic style police. I found it distracting and annoying,

Harold Stassen (1907 – 2001) sought the Republican nomination for president 13 times between 1940 and 2000. Surely an entry there for the Guinness Book of World Records.

Stassen button.jpg

By the 1960s his perennial candidacy had become a national joke, but there he was all the same, joke or not, shaking hands, smiling, talking to whoever would listen. The fact is, though, he did two things no one had ever done before and which everyone has done since. He explicitly declared that he sought the 1948 nomination in 1946. There are two points here.

(1) That he overtly and explicitly said he wanted the nomination. In those days the myth was that the parties sought the nominees who waited for the call, not that the candidate sought the nomination. Stassen did. Moreover, he did it two years in advance. Again, unprecedented. No one before had ever before admitted to the ambition so far ahead of schedule, though someone like Henry Clay in the 19th Century worked four years in advance to get nominations, he never admitted it.

(2) That Stassen would contest for the nomination through the primary election. That was likewise unprecedented. Though primaries had a long existence after the waves of the Populists and Progressives at the advent the Twentieth Century they were an empty ritual at the top of the ticket. State party committees decided whom to vote for in the national nominating convention. Stassen, lacking the connections of rivals like Senator Robert Taft, the public profile of General Douglas MacArthur, and the tested staff of Thomas Dewey, based his campaign on winning primary elections. The delegates he won would not secure the nomination, went the reasoning, but the publicity of winning and the press coverage would convince state party committees that he was a winner and they would switch to him. Stassen entered every primary going and ignored the state Republic Party committees in each one of them. Not a good longterm strategy but one he persisted in. These committees then retaliated by arranging primaries so as to disadvantage upstarts like Stassen. Yet he never learned from this feedback.

Now both these steps are common practice. Aspirants start organizing and fundraising years in advance and they admit to it, if reluctantly, and they work almost exclusively through the primary election calendar.

Stassen was -- wait for it -- a liberal Republican. Is it any wonder that his name cannot be dredged up on the Republican National Committee’s web site. In deference to the Tea Party zealots the Republican Party continues to delete its own history, erasing Herbert Hoover, George Norris, Thomas Dewey, Arthur Vandenberg, John Lindsay, Wendell Wilkie, Earl Warren, Margaret Chase Smith, Henry Cabot Lodge, Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Spector, Nancy Johnson, Christine Whitman, along with Stassen.


In Stassen’s time and place, being a liberal Republican meant: (1) internationalism rather than isolationism, (2) pro civil rights, and (3) cooperative with organized labor. Anti-communism was a given for all concerned. Internationalism meant working through the United Nations. Recognition of civil rights and organized labor meant not assuming that every black or trade unionists was a communist. He always referred to himself in that way, a ‘liberal Republican,’ yet the authors change that to ‘progressive Republican’ for reasons best known to themselves.

Stassen’s early career seemed charmed. He went from country attorney, an elected office, in 1938, to governor of Minnesota at 31 years of age, without seeming effort, defeating an entrenched incumbent.

When he was 33 he was the keynote speaker at the 1940 Republican national convention, and that gave him a national profile, and he caught Potomac Fever, and never recovered from it. (Other keynote speakers have later become nominees, think William Jennings Bryan or Barry O’Bama.)

He easily won re-election as governor in 1940 and 1942. That was his last elected office at 35.

In 1946 he declined to run for the Senate from Minnesota when he returned from the Navy so that he could concentrate on that presidential run in 1948. (His 1940 campaign was the creation of a few supporters at the nominating convention inspired by his keynote address. His 1944 candidacy was managed by Minnesota supporters for as a serving naval officer he was forbidden from political activity.)

President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the American delegation of six to the San Francisco deliberations that created the United Nations, of which Stassen remained a lifelong advocate. He worked closely with Doc Evatt at the time.

In the 1948 Republican nominating convention he finished third, behind Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft. To block the anti-labor, isolationist, anti-civil rights Taft, Stassen supported the cool and aloof Dewey who went on to lose the unloseable election to Harry Truman.

Between 1948 and 1952 Stassen served as president of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the Ivy League universities. He brought to the job a reputation as a good organizer capable of working with a variety of people and a national profile. His mission was to raise funds for the University. He took the job on the condition that he would continue his political activities. This was never a good idea, and it failed. Though it should be said that he somehow managed to protect Penn from the Red-baiting witch-hunting of the self-appointed anti-Communist crusaders who purged professors at Columbia, Harvard, and Brown.

In 1952 he supported Dwight Eisenhower against Mr. Republican, Robert Taft. But it was not clear whether Eisenhower would leave the army for politics, Stassen’s support for him also positioned him as the fallback candidate if Eisenhower declined the honour. Eisenhower did accept the nomination and won the subsequent election.

President Eisenhower appointed him to several administrative positions, which he handled well.

There follows all those other campaigns that seem like those action film stars today who keep slugging it out with Computer Generated Imagery in their 60s. He never seemed to learn from his failed campaigns and tried to do the same thing again next time, until it just became a habit. Perhaps those effortless early successes convinced him a destiny awaited, and he kept making himself available for the call. In addition to his quadrennial presidential campaigns he ran several times each for governor, Congress, mayor, and lost each time.

Stassen’s approach was low-key. At the podium he was an average speaker, but shone in question and answer sessions where he took an interest in what people had to say, no matter how many times he had heard it before or how uninformed it was, and responded in a way that communicated to the audience, farmers, factory workers, students, or voters on street corners. Likewise, he was an effective organizer and administrator who preferred to talk things over with people rather than pronounce glittering phrases that could be quoted.

Most of all, in hindsight, he is an example of that person who proclaims ‘40 years of experience,’ when the truth is that it is one year of experience repeated 39 more times. He never learned from experience.

In 1968 he was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Martin Luther King gave that speech, having marched there with King (and many others). Full marks for that. Given the snide and gratuitous remarks President Ronald Reagan offered about Dr. King, it is doubtful that any Republicans these days would stand with him.

The obvious comparison is that other boy-wonder from Minnesota, Humbert Humphrey, who is scarcely mentioned in these pages. Humphrey did go into the Senate and as a result kept a higher profile than Stassen ever did after 1948.

Stassen_book cover.jpg

The authors keep some distance between themselves and the subject, sometimes contradicting Stassen’s own assertions. There is also much evidence of archival research. That said, I found the book hard going. It offers neither a chronological nor a thematic approach but goes back and forth between the two. It is not a biography, despite that subtitle -- ‘The Life...’ -- and so we never learn much about the man behind all the activities which are listed in pointless detail. The repetition suggests that the chapters were written by different co-authors. Furthermore, three-quarters of the book concerns the years 1944-1956, twelve years of his four score and thirteen.

Nor is it clear how Stassen made a living as a perennial candidate who took unpaid leave to campaign. Who paid for the buses and planes in his campaigns after 1952 is never mentioned. Did he have a core of financial backers, or just one, like Newt Gringrich, who will pay any price continually to have a message delivered, however badly? Then there is the question of his wife, whose name is mentioned now and then, and nothing more.

I met Harold Stassen in 1960 without much of idea of who he was. One of his earliest and most loyal supporters lived in Hastings and Stassen came through when campaigning in the Republican primary.

The name stuck with me, though nothing else did except that he was wearing a wig, and I have now got around to finding out more.

Class! Who was the fifth Prime Minister of Australia?

Hum! Don’t know? Well, ignorance is no excuse. Write it down. Alfred Deakin served the fifth term, having done it earlier, and the fifth person to be sworn in as Prime Minister Andrew Fisher.

Now let’s try something harder. Who was the fifth president of the United States? What? James Monroe. Yes! That’s right. Did you peek at the heading? Of course.
Monroe_Portrait.jpgMonroe was the last president to bear arms in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). While in the Continental Army he warned against the vulnerability of the fledging capital Washington D. C. and proposed defensive measures, which were rejected by the Secretary War at the time, one John Armstrong. The British burned Washington in August 1814 and in September 1814 Monroe was sworn in as his replacement.

Great Britain was much distracted by Napoleon réchauffé and made peace. Monroe was one of the commissioners who negotiated that peace at Ghent in Belgium before Andrew Jackson’s name-making victory at New Orleans. Monroe’s military, administrative, and diplomatic experience together with the patronage of Thomas Jefferson put a presidential stamp on him. There was some talk he would contest the office earlier but he stood aside for another Jefferson favorite, the diminutive James Madison who served two terms. (Monroe had been Secretary of State, had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, had been ambassador to Great Britain, to Spain, and much else.)

In 1816 Monroe’s time came. Though he was opposed because four the first five U.S. president had been from the Virginia Dynasty. (See if you can guess which is the odd man out.) Nonetheless, he was successful. At this time half of the state legislatures voted for candidates and then transmitted these votes to Congress. In the other half there was a popular vote which did not in all cases bind state delegates. If no candidate received a majority of electoral ballots, then the House of Representatives had a free vote. (All those idiots who idolize the Constitution as a sacred text without every having studied it, might consider this.)

In the event Monroe with the support of the outgoing President Madison and the living god Jefferson won. His re-election in 1820 was nearly uncontested, at least as much because the other major political party dissolved, the Federalists.

Monroe emerges from the pages of this book as a hard-working president who concentrated on foreign relations. This was an imperative because the United States was surrounded by European colonial powers. All were conscious that the United States offered an example of a successful rebellion against distant colonial masters that might be, and was, taken up elsewhere, particularly in Central and South American. There were the British in the Canada from coast to coast. The Russians had a toehold in the Pacific Northwest, while the Spanish claimed everything on the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas, and all of the Caribbean Sea and California’s Pacific coast.

Monroe tried to divide these European neighbors with many separate negotiations. The Spanish were the weakest, and in time, thanks to the impetuous actions of General Andrew Jackson, they yielded Florida and the eternal supply of mosquitoes there.

Spanish weakness raised another specter and that was a French takeover. France rebounded from Napoleon’s second departure and its restored French Bourbon monarchy offered to regain Spain’s restive American colonies from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, and so on. The rumour was that Spain’s Bourbon monarch would transfer its American colonies to France, which would then dispatch a task force to raise the flag.

At the same time, an alliance between Prussia, Hapsburg Empire of Austria, and Russia was rumoured to be planning a move from Alaska into the Pacific coast to San Francisco.

There was a great deal of pressure on Monroe to support the several Latin American rebellions led San Martín, Simon Bolivar, Andre Marti. Monroe resisted this pressure and was criticized far and wide as a coward. (Nothing ever changes.) He was by no means sure how these rebellions would work out and if they failed, the Spanish with other European powers might take revenge on the United States which had proven incapable of defending itself in The War of 1812 a mere nine years ago and since Congress had cut military budgets by half every year… Yet the budget cutters in Congress called the loudest for a declaration of support for everyone, including Greece! (Nothing ever changes.)

Instead Monroe took his time and in a later State of the Union address he declared that the United States would not tolerate further European colonization in the Americas, nor tolerate a transfer of existing colonies to another European power. He was no Jefferson as a wordsmith, and the speech is guarded, qualified, indirect, and convoluted. The more so because the United States was hardly in a military position to enforce such an aspiration, it did by then, through some of those separate negotiations mentioned above, have a silent partner with such capacity and which partner did not want to see any other European power gain ground in the Americas. Class, see if you can infer which power that might be.

This assertion became known, thirty years later, as the Monroe Doctrine of the independence of the Western Hemisphere from Europe. It has been evoked several times since, by Teddy Roosevelt to warn off a German naval expedition to collect debts from Venezuela in 1904. Instead Teddy offered to broker an arrangement to deal with the debts which was accepted. The same had been done earlier (1865) and would be done later (1915) to impede French incursions into Mexico. Regrettably the Monroe Doctrine was also a cloak drawn over some unsavory shenanigans in Central America for two generations, and as a result became an object of resentment throughout Latin American by the time the Cold War came around. Then it was again cited, but by then its moral fiber was worn threadbare.

Monroe oversaw the reconstruction and furnishing of the White House after the British bonfire, and entertained in it at a punishing rate. Three to four dinners a week with 20-30 guests, a reception for 100 to 150 guests once a week. These occasions were all at his own expense but they were expected in a small town where there was little else to do. He was absolutely formal on these occasions. He did not particularly like this enforced society and he refused all invitations to visit others on the grounds of the dignity of the office. He was no communicator or glad-hander.

To manage the work of the office he made use of his family at no pay, his brother, his son, nephews, and cousins, while his wife and daughters managed the social side.

He maintained a strict neutrality in the election of his successor in 1824, which alienated all the candidates, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun was his Secretary of War and he seems to have been a competent administrator with some strategic sense. It pains me to recognize any virtues in this violent and destructive man. It was his building program that led to the construction of Fort Sumter, later to be the flashpoint of the Civil War. Ironic that.

The petty bickering over personal and party preferment which characterizes Washington D. C. today has a long history. In 1817 when Monroe was to be sworn in the practice was for Senators to go the House of Representatives to witness the event in that chamber together with those who could fit into the public gallery once the Senators had been seated.

Henry Clay, a disgruntled candidate for president, was the Speaker of the House of Representatives. No friend of Monroe he. When the Senators proposed that they bring their own red leather chairs and put them on the floor to leave more room in the public gallery, Clay opposed this break with tradition. He was adamant, no red Senatorial chairs will ever sit in the House of Representatives!

Time pressed, and the result was to move the ceremony outside, where it has stayed ever since.

By the way, because of dispute over electoral ballots that changed nothing his second inauguration led to two days during which there was no president of the United States. Monroe’s first term, together with that of his Vice-President, expired on Friday 2 March per the Constitution at the time, but the dispute delayed his inauguration one day. For that one day, there was no one to exercise the presidential office. The succession arrangements in the Constitution at that time did not apply to such a problem. Then Monroe took the oath on Sunday, on which day it could not be communicated to Congress until Monday. The gap was then two days.

Monroe left office deeply in debt and the Congressional grant (in lieu of a pension) he had counted on covered less than half of it. He sold land and property (including tableware) to pay the rest. He died a poor man five years later, like Jefferson and Adams before him, on the 4th of July.

The volume is a part of series on presidents and it is confined to his presidency. Accordingly it does not mention at all Monroe’s support for the American Colonial Society’s efforts to transport freed blacks to West Africa, which became concentrated on Liberia, and in the city of Monrovia, as we know it today, which was given its name while Monroe was president.

The book is competent and thorough. It does stick rigorously to the presidency of James Monroe. It is not a biography then, and this reader got very little impression of Monroe the man, his family, his life before and after office. All of that is outside the remit of the series.

I read this biography in the American Presidents program I set myself.  Eugene who? A president?  He was a presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, and my program extends to candidates, too.  Some unsuccessful candidates, like William Jennings Bryan, are far more interesting than some successful candidates, e.g., Grover Cleveland.  Both were Debs's contemporaries.  


The book sets Debs (1855-1926) in the context of his time, which was the Age of Robber Barons after the Civil War and reached national proportions from the late 1870s.  In Debs's experience this New Dawn played out on railroads and the unions of railway workers.  

From the spread of the Iron Horse to the 1850s railroads were locally owned and managed.  They usually came about from the combined capital and labor of men in a few small towns, hence the names of early railroads like 'The Achison, Topeka, and Santa Fe' or 'The Kearny, Grand Island, and Hastings Line.'  Businessmen in the three towns would pool their money and borrow from local banks to raise the investment capital and to hire and train labor from the same three town to build the railroads connecting their three towns.  In boom times many did this and there were perhaps as many as 5000 of these independent railroads in the United States.  See Steven Salsbury, 'No Way to Run a Railroad' (1982) for background.

Each railroad was a small business where the owners knew all the workers and vice versa, sat next to them in church on Sunday, stood by them at parades on the 4th of July, and sent their children to the same local schools.  Accordingly, employer paternalism assisted workers, and workers made an extra effort to bolster their own towns' fortunes for their employers. What was good for the Achison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad was good for Achison, Topeka, and Santa Fe and all those who live in those towns and work on that railroad. 

This was the world that Debs entered as a high school drop out.  (His bourgeoise parents wanted him to stay in school but he wanted the pocket money, and his strong will prevailed.)  His aptitude for office work soon took him off the locomotives.  Once he became a clerk, he also did the same work for the rail brotherhoods, these were philanthropic combinations that offered services to railwaymen, usually those injured, many started as funeral insurance funds. They worked closely with the paternalistic owners, and were often tougher on dubious claims than were the more socially distant and benevolent owners. Debs soon became a leader in these self-help associations, which were the seeds of trade unions.  

Though there was much rail there was no national network, and there were few connections because gauges differed, the rolling stock was often locally made and so distinctive if not idiosyncratic, and so on and on.  Despite the thousands of miles of track, it was still difficult and expensive to ship something from Omaha to Boston.  Enter the Robber Barons.  When recessions and depressions hit, they bought up these local lines cheaply and began the slow and expensive process of unifying the equipment, the organizations, the accompanying telegraph, and the labor practices.  They took the ownership and control of railroads out of the hands of locals.  Head office was now in New York City in the conglomerate that Was J. J. Hill, and not in the next pew on Sunday, or in the next chair in the barbershop.  

Injured railwaymen, and there were many, were cast aside and newly arrived immigrants who would work for less were taken on, and in turn disposed of when they were injured.  Try the Frank Norris novel 'The Octopus' (1901) for the gruesome details, far beyond the horrors of Stephen King's imagination.  

In this context the railway brotherhoods (firemen, brakemen, linemen, telegraphers, engineers, etc - these divisions among railway men proved to be as much the problem as the hostility of the Robber Barons) gradually moved to trade unions, the relationship between labor and owners becomes formal, attenuated, and belligerent, the conflict between those already there and immigrants added violence to the equation.

When conflict is unavoidable, per Salvatore, Debs shows an intellectual inconsistency and moral weakness in seeking compromises with the forces of darkness (CAPITAL) to deliver real, immediate, and tangible benefits to union members.  Heaven forbid!  He is as bad as these Sewer Socialists of Milwaukee who concentrated on building a clean and safe city for workers, eschewing class conflict for sewer lines and trams to carry labour to work, not to protest again capital.  It is no wonder that these Wisconsin socialists have been nearly written out of left history.

Debs's persistent effort to promote reform rather than launch a revolution, his willingness to ally with William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt in the mainstream of electoral politics, his effort to use the ballot box rather than direct action or violent strikes, his penchant for citing Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, or Harriet Martineau and not Karl Marx bemuses Salvatore, and is offered as evidence of Deb's naiveté. Such is the view from Olympus.

Debs was a tireless labor organizer and speaker. The very few quotations from auditors that make it into these pages suggest he hectored, badgered, and brimstoned his audiences.
Debs hectoring.jpg
H. L. Mencken said he spoke ‘wth a tongue of fire,’ and I guess that is what he meant. Mencken is not cited in this book, though he was surely the shapest observer of his time, and he certainly had the serpent’s tongue himself.

It is sadly true that Debs was jailed, and sometimes beaten up by thugs in the employ of CAPITAL.  But it also true that at times agents of wicked CAPITALISM asked his advice, deferred to him, and treated him with respect.  

In time he became involved in the Populist backlash that the Robber Barons generated, igniting at the end of those railways in the Middle, North, and South west.  He was mooted as the presidential candidate of the nascent Populist Party in the 1896 Presidential election, but Debs instead nominated William Jennings Bryan.  To comrade Salvatore this flirtation with Populism and alignment with Bryan are proof absolute that Debs was dopey.  

In 1912 he got 900,000 votes or 6%. This was the high water mark. The votes had no effect on the outcome: Woodrow Wilson won. Debs was last, behind both Teddy Roosevelt whose one-man party finished second and the Republican incumbent William H. Taft who finished third. But each campaign allowed this man, born to the priesthood, to preach across the nation. Though he was a very intense speaker, the book hardly mentions the campaigns.

Instead the book offers minute accounts of the faction fights, splits, divisions, competing agendas of the ever smaller number of socialists as each group sought perfection. Why did Socialism fail in the United States? That is a question often asked. The answer is right there. The search for perfection is the enemy of doing some good. Here’s an experiment to answer the question. Put three self-proclaimed Socialists in a room and close the door. A day later there will be five parties. The next day, eight splits. On the third day a revolt. [They never make it to the seventh day of rest.] See Seymour Martin Lipset, 'Why socialism failed in the United States' (1954), which is not cited in this book.

Debs seems to have changed over the years and been willing to change his mind, but the author regards that as a failing. Debs also seems to have been a hard man to like. Cold, distant, jaded with time, and thin skinned to criticism from fellow socialists. In 1900 his VIce-Presidential running mate Job Harriman, despised him and left for a four-week tour of Europe to visit socialist conventions rather than campaign for or with him.
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Hmmm. That is commitment to the New Jerusalem but not today. Just the man for the job was this Job. He later found the workers’ paradise at Llano in the Mojave desert above Los Angeles where land was cheap for many good reasons, and when the apple was eaten in that paradise the group split he led some diehards to Louisiana to New Llano, a site I visited in 2004.

Debs had spoken vaguely himself of workers’ colonies in the West where the dreaded and dead hand of CAPITAL did not reach. But when Harriman tried it ... [Guess!] .... Debs objected, and so did most other socialists. This was not the way to paradise.

I often wondered why our author or why Debs himself did not turn to the most insightful student of American democracy ever to grace a page: Alexis de Tocqueville. He would have had no trouble in explaining the failure of Socialism. The promise of freedom, the promise of individualism, even if only partly achieved is irresistible. In family pictures of immigrants from Bohemia, Schleswig, Bratislava in Nebraska in the 1880s they are dressed -- to my eye -- in rags, sitting in front of crude dugouts, with animal dirt in evidence, yet these people glow with pride. They own themselves in a way they never could have done in Europe. Promise fulfilled! Serfs no longer.

Slave-pay, barbaric work practices, grinding existence, a barter economy, hunger, are second place to that self-realization. A Robber Baron is a small thing in this light.

Debs never thought out a position on race. But he was early, loud, and consistent on women's suffrage. Full marks on that one.

He was arrested during World War I for objecting to a war of nationalism while Woodrow Wilson was president. Though Debs was arrested by local authorities after the United States Attorney-General declined to prosecute a man for speaking his mind and doing so very carefully to avoid violating the law of the land. But a Federal District Attorney hungry for limelight proceeded anyway, and secured a conviction after stacking a local jury, while Debs seems to have welcomed this relief from pressures of the endless, unproductive, increasingly bitter faction fights which made martyrdom look good.

He was in a federal prison during the 1920 election when he got 915,00 votes, or 4% of the total.
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Certainly a striking campaign button. The Debs Foundation offers replicas for $3.

Debs married young and grew apart from his wife who lived in their family home in Terre Haute Indiana which he visited on his coast-to-coast travels once or twice a year. He was hard drinker and this ruined his health, as did the nervous pressure of constant conflict among the self-styled socialists, and the rigors on nearly continuous travels. He was a frequent patron at brothels, and in later life, while remaining married, co-habited with another woman who seems to have admired him in a way his wife never did.

Being a secular man, I suppose, Salvatore spends not one word on the largest and most pervasive social force of that time and place, Religion. Did Debs have religion? Did he attend church? If not, did he express atheism or agnosticism? Unknown.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 inspired many and they split the Socialist atom once again to create the American Communist Party, e.g., Emma Goldman, John Reed, Earl Browder. That was the end of Socialism. Debs himself was a spent force by then and let it slide from his prison cell.

He was jailed in Atlanta from 1917 to 1921, when President Harding, no doubt in his usual alcoholic stupor, pardoned him.

Having opened with references to Debs’s contemporaries William Jennings Bryan and Grover Cleveland, let us return to them. Debs was certainly the intellectual and moral superior to Cleveland however one defines these terms. He knew and saw more American life than Cleveland, and he had more contact with and learned from people he met, unlike the bumbling recluse Cleveland. Yet he seems a remote preacher shouting down from a pulpit compared to Bryan, who liked people whether in ones, or twos, or thousands and seemed to speak with rather than yell at them. Bryan's message was God's love and social cooperation, while Debs offered that brimstone of Socialist perfection that admitted of no exceptions.

In sum, he is a man born to the priesthood, who created, accepted, nay, welcomed his own martyrdom. In this portrayal he seems much less interesting than Herbert Hoover, Sam Houston, or Teddy Roosevelt.

For the Salvatore, Eugene Debs is the ectoplasm in which changing social forces played out.

'Ectoplasm' is the word for Debs in these pages, because the author treats him like a specimen on the slide of history, and not as a living, breathing, thinking, learning person.  This is social science as biography, and least we forget, social science is about social forces that shape and make individuals.  That is called Structure with a capital "S" in the lecture halls of universities.  Hence the reference above to religion as a social force of the age.

When biography writers establish some distance between themselves and the subject, it affords them scope to be honest about the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the subject, but Salvatore’s distance is measured is astronomical hindsightyears. Salvatore knew all along that the Robber Barons were coming, that the conflict between capital and labor was foreordained by Brother Marx, Karl not Groucho, that class conflict would be the words to live by, and so on.  

He disdains the rather dim Debs who had to learn some of these lessons through his skin.  Debs, not Salvatore, was the one beaten on picket lines, but it is Salvatore who knows how Structure led to this beating.  Salvatore's Lefter-than-thou hindsight nearly buries Debs the man beneath an avalanche of class analysis jargon.  I began to suspect that the book started life as a PhD dissertation in which the premium goes to the theoretical framework and not the data, the man in question.  

Before conceding too much to Salvatore and his ilk, note that Karl Marx said that history makes man, but that also man makes history.  It is a reciprocal equation, social forces make us what we are, but the script is broad, blunt, and imperfect and in those imperfections we Lilliputians make social forces what they are.  Social life is an endless editing of the social script.  I am using the metaphors of Brazilian political scientist Roberto Unger's very original and generally neglected 'Plasticity into Power' (1987). (Do not be fooled by the long, laudatory entry in Wikipedia; his work is seldom cited in the halls of political science or law).

There is no question here, no tension in this book: Debs is a billiard ball bounced around by social forces he only vaguely perceives.  But which forces Salvatore can name in an instant, such is the alacrity of a good student who knows all the words and little of lived-meaning in the life-world.  (Apologies but I thought I would throw in some Germanic jargon from Martin Heidegger just to show that I could.)  

Other presidential biographers smell the feet of clay in their subject without squeezing humanity out of them.  Robert Caro's distaste for LBJ is palpable in Volume II but he also finds Lyndon to be larger than life and sui generis, fascinating for it.  Nothing is sui generis in the pages of this book.  All is explained by social forces, which reduce to the evils of CAPITALISM.  Get it!  If not hand-in your class consciousness card at the door on the way out.

The book does not ever even try to bring him to life. Ectoplasm is a stain on a slide. It is the first biography I have ever read without a human subject.

After plowing through these pages I will seek relief in some pleasurable, escapist reading: Let it be Inspector Pel!

After reading the condescending remarks about William Jennings Bryan's lack of presidential intellect it was amusing to read this study of two-term president Cleveland who was Bryan’s exact contemporary. Bryan got by with the Bible for reading, Cleveland’s horizon did extend even that far. He never read a book and never opened an atlas. Never left the United States, and only made one trip around the country when president. For a politician he was nearly anti-social.


This is a book about a president by a former president. It is unique and must reading for presidentialistas. It is all the more distinctive since Wilson was a Democrat and Hoover a Republican.

Could it happen again? Would a Republican Bush write a tribute to a Democrat Kennedy? Or a Democrat Clinton to a Republican Reagan?

The ordeal is the war and the peace of the Great War 1914-1917, though it only concerns the American participation in the War 1917-1918. Hoover was enmeshed in Europe from 1914 on in organizing food aid for first Belgium and then France, and from November 1918 onward for all of Europe as far east as the Volga River in Russia. It was colossal undertaking that just got bigger.

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Hoover worked for Wilson in several capacities, directly and indirectly in these years and some of the work was very intense, urgent, and truly life-and-death. I have traced some of Hoover’s astonishing humanitarian efforts in the review of the Hoover presidential library elsewhere on this blog.

The book was written forty years after the events it describes when Hoover was in his twilight years.

There is no indication that Hoover kept a diary at the time but he certainly kept copious files. In addition to the papers he himself had, Hoover also consulted reams of declassified official files to which he had easy access and he was assiduous.

There is no doubt that Hoover had a great admiration and respect for Wilson, as an intellect, as a moral champion, as a tenacious reformer, as a titan for work, as a man of personal rectitude, and more. He writes in glowing terms of Wilson in nearly each chapter.

The book compiles a great deal of detail on the points it touches. We read about the pounds of wheat in a shipment, or the number of delegates seated around the table at a committee meeting. It rehearses the arguments made in dark days when much of Europe was starving to death between 1917-1919. It produces an anatomy of the enduring antagonism between the French and Germans, the racial hatreds among the Balkan peoples, territorial ambitions of every country involved with the Treaty of Versailles. I certainly found some of that eye-opening.

Yet there is no insight whatever into the subject Wilson. In fact, apart from some laudatory paragraphs at the beginning and end of each chapter, Wilson only appears in the book to support Hoover, to agree with Hoover, to praise Hoover, to ask for Hoover’s help, etc. More than anything else it reads like a log of their business dealings from Hoover’s side.

Robert Lansing, Secretary of State for Wilson, appears here to be the absolutely straight arrow he is seen as in others studies of the time. I stress this because he has sometimes been belittled in Wilson’s shadow. Jack Pershing seems to have been the very man for the hour; when he spoke everyone listened. The rank of general ratified what he already was, a leader. In these pages Georges Clemenceau certainly lives up to his reputation as the Tiger, completely unyielding, hoping to destroy in the peace every German who survived the war. Winston Churchill is preoccupied with retaining the British Empire, despite espousing Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Colonel Edward House is constantly moving here and there though he holds no position, except as Wilson’s friend, a very small club that.

There are a few striking anecdotes. During the Armistice and the never-ending peace talks, American army officers, numbering a thousand or more, were sent all over Europe to keep track of the American food aid flooding across Europe. Long after they had been recalled Hoover got a personal letter from a lieutenant at a railway station in East Prussia who was still recording the train cars going past, asking if he could please get a new winter coat, apologizing for contacting Hoover directly but doing so because no one in the chain of command, long since disbanded unbeknownst to him, had replied to his previous requests. Upon checking Hoover found this dutiful lieutenant from that dreary East Prussian train depot had been telegraphing data to an empty office in Paris for eight months. Hoover made sure this forgotten man was recalled immediately and treated him to a luxurious few days in Paris before sending him to his unit to be demobilized.

Of greater moment are Hoover’s descriptions of the negotiations in Paris. More than ninety governments were represented in one way or another, each anxious to retain every foot of territory and every citizen it claimed, each ready to take more territory and citizens with a list of historic grievances to support expansion, each proclaiming Wilson’s Fourteen Points while violating them, none willing to make a single concession, each distrustful of all the others. What an atmosphere! Moreover, many delegations were even more deeply divided internally. The newly created Republic of Banat (look it up) had a fractious delegation of twelve who each insisted on going around en bloc because not one of them trusted another out of sight. To put one of them on a committee meant putting all twelve on. In other cases there were two or three rival delegations each claiming to represent, say, Osteria. Which one speaks for Osteria?

Rufus T. Firefly of ‘Duck Soup’ would be the straight man here. An ordeal indeed for any sane, rational man trying to do the right thing in such a ninety-ring circus.

Hoover defends Wilson from the common charge of being a hopelessly naive idealist with a compelling and convincing list of the material achievements Wilson made in Europe starting with ending the war, saving tens of millions of starving people, undermining the tide of communism, displacing some murderous tyrants who had risen from the ashes in Eastern Europe, establishing the International Court of Justice at the Hague, creating the International Labor Organization in Geneva, and founding the League of Nations which in turn did much forgotten good and paved the way for the United Nations and the international organizations that exist today.

But most of all Hoover credits Wilson with inserting into the vocabulary of international relations the language of rights, conscience, liberation and freedom that did not exist prior to his oratory. One might say that Wilson translated the emancipatory rhetoric of the the King James Bible into statesmanship, supplanting the existing language of gunboats, maps, spheres on influence, mandates, concessions, and survey lines. That Wilsonian rhetoric remains today. spoken by people with no knowledge or interest in the man Woodrow Wilson.

It is not an easy book to read for many chapters consist of quotation after quotation from speeches, committee reports, newspaper articles, diplomatic assessments, letters, and telegrams strung together with a few transitional remarks from Hoover. In hindsight Hoover has no second thoughts and no feel for the human drama all around him in those meeting rooms. But what raw material for novelist! Bring on Frank Moorhouse of 'Grand Days,' Georges Simenon of 'The President,' or George-Marc Benamou of 'The Ghost of Munich.'

I hesitated to read this book since I found the Herbert Hoover in retirement portrayed the biography I have already read of him so bitter and unforgiving I supposed this book would be merely a record of that. Only a few asides did I perceive that rancor, primed to see it as I was. It would probably not trouble most readers who were not aware of Hoover’s ripened bile.

The forward by Senator Mark Hatfield adds little to the book.

I read a biography of Hoover (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and found the man in retirement shown there to be unsympathetic and unimpressive. However that experience bore unexpected fruit. Having driven by the exit for the Hoover Library more than once on I-80 I decided to have a look next time. The time came in November 2013.


To anticipate the conclusion, I found the Hoover presented there far more interesting and complex than that sullen ex-president I had read about. I left with no doubt that Hoover was a great man (defined as someone who does things few others possibly could) and that his great deeds were done before he became president.

He took the oath of office in March 1929 and The Great Depression started with a cataclysm in November of that year. Yes, he tried to stem it and ameliorate it but with little Congressional co-operation (which FDR later enjoyed). He got run over by History.

What great things did he do earlier? He was in England when World War I started and was one of the principal organizers of a boat-lift to evacuate about 15,000 Americans from Great Britain. There he, and the world, found the seed of his genius. He was a dynamic and innovative organizer.

He then led a food relief program in 1914-1917 for Belgium (the neutrality of which had been ignored by the belligerents), negotiating with American, French, German, and Belgium governments to import food to Antwerp throughout the war. When the United States ended neutrality and entered the war, Hoover’s program expanded to France. At times the program was giving a hot lunch to three million people a day!

In order to attract the donations to support it, he identified himself closely with the program and poured in his own money (made out of mining in Australia), encouraging others to do so as well. They did, the Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and their kind. Most of the money he raised from private donors. He asked millionaires for millions, and got it.

At the time and later this program elicited such an outpouring of thanks that it still reverberates. He made millions of friends for himself and for the United States.

When the United States entered the war, President Wilson asked Hoover to look after food at home. He did. There were meatless Mondays, milk-less Tuesdays, flour-less Wednesday, and so on, to conserve food (and so free manpower for war work and the army). He advocated the use of cooking oil in place of lard (used in packing cartridges). It was the patriotic duty on the home front to be ‘With Hoover’ in these practices. He was on the radio, in the newspapers, on the stump explaining why this was to be done. He was whirlwind.

When the war ended he went back to Europe to oversee European-wide food relief for France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and more. He was akin to a one-man Marshall Plan, raising money with one hand and ladling out soup with the other. His double effort in Europe saved millions of lives, earning the amity of a generation. Few other presidents made so many friends for the USA.

When Calvin Coolidge succeeded to the presidency, he appointed Hoover Secretary of Commerce. The whirlwind increased its speed! He was soon called the Secretary for Everything. Here he is at his desk in the museum.

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But this cartoon from the explanatory video conveys much more. Click it and see for yourself.

He promoted vaccines for children, and raised the money from private donors to support it. He also drove a national program for standardization of everything from screw heads to milk bottles, arguing that the lack of standardization was crippling the economy and destroying private life because it consumed untold time and money. On one side of town milk bottles were one shape and size and on the other side they were different. He set up committees with governors and simply would not leave the room until they agreed on a plan to reduce expensive and time consuming variations.

So many of the standards we assume today, he made into reality. Too bad his like is not with us today to impose standards on the IT world.

In 1927 the Mississippi River flooded, killing scores and displacing thousands. President Coolidge recognized it as a national disaster and he sent one man to deal with it: Herbert Hoover. The next day tent cities and field kitchens sprouted along the shores, and hundreds of thousands of American slept on Hoover cots and ate a Hoover lunch (soup and bread). These were the first Hoovervilles. Here he was a one-man FEMA (look it up).

In 1928 Hoover walked into the Republican nomination and defeated Democrat Al Smith, a Tammany Hall wet who did not hold even the Solid South, such was Hoover’s command.

Then the freight train of HISTORY roared into view .....

The Hoover Library, the smallest of the Presidential Libraries, is wonderful.

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The presentations are multi-media with plenty of buttons and bells for kids. It includes artifacts from his life, like European mails bags full of letters of thanks, and newspaper cartoons. It pulls no punches about the Depression and his inability to cope with it. Once again the National Parks Department sets the standard for conveying history briefly but in a compelling manner even to a jaded cynic with a made-up mind.

The two room house he was born in is on the grounds. From this modest beginning….

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My project on presidents of the United States extends to some also rans, and this is the first one I have read about. Others on the also ran list include Henry Clay, Harold Stassen, George Wallace, and Eugene Debs. A varied lot. I also have my eye on Jefferson Davis, an American president who was not a president of the United States, like Sam Houston. I also include the last Hawaiian monarch for the future.


Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback (1992). Recommended.

The Thirteenth President. Another succeeding vice-president who did not win an election, like John Tyler before him and Gerry Ford after.

Famous for: Maynard G. Krebs referred to him as Fillard Millmore to the repeated and visible annoyance of Mr. Promfritt, and he was also mentioned in ‘What’s up, Tiger Lily (1966)?‘ Students of Cultural Studies will grok these references; others will turn to Wikipedia.


Though Fillmore was anti-slavery he was intimidated by the magnitude of freeing seven million slaves and hoped for a gradual method and so did nothing. In an effort to maintain its North-South axis to make it a national party, the Whig party in 1848 capitalized on Zachary Taylor’s fame as a successful General from that era’s invasion of Mexico. Taylor was a Louisiana slaveholder. To balance the geography and the position on slavery, Fillmore agreed to join the ticket as a New Yorker who was anti-slavery but not an abolitionist.

Taylor treated Fillmore as every vice-president was treated. Ignored him entirely. Then Taylor took ill after a year and four months in office and died. Overnight Fillmore became president.

He had served in the New York state legislature, he had served three separate terms in the House of Representatives in Washington D.C., and he had been comptroller (chief financial officer) of the state of New York. He brought to the Presidency long experience of finance which he was good at, patience at working with committees, and a national outlook born of his long association with the Erie Canal and commerce along the shores of the Great Lakes.

The burning issue of the age was the existence, perpetuation, extension, or extinction of slavery, and its evil twin the tariff, which the South felt taxed it for public improvements in the North. The admission of new territories and states in the West was the kindling for these issues. Why? The addition of new senators would disrupt the balance of power in that body.

Fillmore supported, defended, and executed the Compromise of 1850 as a way to reduce the flames of insurrection, civil war, rebellion, invasion, riot, and the like. That meant enforcing the draconian fugitive slave law. Just as no state can decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, neither could a citizen, let alone the first magistrate, decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, despite his personal feelings, he reasoned.

As president he promoted industry, innovation, commerce, and business in the hope that national prosperity would lessen the heat in the extremities of the body politic. He encouraged trade with China and Japan and supported a railroad and then a canal across Central America to speed trade with the Orient. He warned first the French and then the British off Hawaii.

The aspirins of commerce did reduce some of the fever pitch but the effects soon dissipated. In 1852 one of the architects of the Compromise of 1850 proposed scrapping it, namely that Little Giant from Illinois Stephen Douglas. Go figure! All the old grievances and animosities re-emerged as if preserved in amber with every details in place. Nothing forgotten; nothing forgiven.

Should Fillmore seek the Whig nomination for another term in 1852? He dithered like a Libra though he was born a decisive, if lazy, Sagittarius. In the end Winfield Scott was the Whig nominee and was trounced by the Democrat Franklin Pierce.

Fillmore went into retirement in Buffalo, but his wife died within a month of leaving Washington DC and his only child, a daughter, a few months later. Thus at a loss he travelled through Europe and Asia, and flirted with re-entry politics.

By 1856 the Whig party was moribund and Fillmore joined the American Party, the political front of the Know-Nothing Movement [think Tea Party] and the rabid anti-Catholicism which was a reaction to the tidal waves of immigration occurring in East coast cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford, Brooklyn, New Bedford, Providence, Trenton, Baltimore, Wilmington, Charleston, New York, and more. It was also anti-black. His vice-presidential running mate was Andrew Jackson Donelson, a nephew of Andrew Jackson. Fillmore evidently thought he could tame these nut cases [think John McCain] and discovered he could not [ditto John McCain]. He came a distant third to James Buchanan and John Frémont. His vote made no difference to the outcome.

That ended his political career. He made another European trip and was much feted as a former president, crossing paths with The Little Magician, Martin van Buren, who was in Europe. Fillmore returned to Buffalo and in time re-married and became a man for local good works. He was on every committee for a hospital, a school, an orphanage, a library, a bridge, a hard road, a railway crossing, a sewer line, a pier on the Erie Canal, and the University of Buffalo where he served as Chancellor raising funds for many years. Many of these committees met in his home and he was the real and titular chairman of many. How many ex-presidents have done as much tangible good, I dare not ask.

Though he disliked Republicans for happily embracing a Northern only party (Lincoln got not a single electoral vote in the South and no popular votes beyond Maryland and Kentucky) which he feared would, as it did, lead to civil war. Once the civil war came he organized a home guard of the superannuated and paid for its uniforms. There were recurrent rumours from the outset of the Civil War that Great Britain would intervene from Canada to revenge itself on the United States and so this guard was as much a message to British officials in Canada as to Confederates.

At war’s end, he advocated moderation toward the defeated South but his voice was no longer heard.

Despite those wits Woody Allen and Maynard G. Krebs, Fillmore did a great deal of good first by holding the union together in peace for his term, and then materially in his home town of Buffalo. His name is found on many schools, hospitals, bridges, and the like. A honour that has so far escaped Mr. Krebs. Of Mr. Allen, I (prefer to) know not.

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The book is well documented. When an assertion is made there is a reference to a source. The first hundred pages or so are pretty dreary as it traces his origins and early life, but the prose sharpens as his political career unfolds. The last third of the book offers some well judged observations and striking turns of the phrase.

It is part of series but does not read like a completed template the way the presidential biographies read in the series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Junior. Rayback was professor of history at Syracuse University when the book was published.

There are scores of Lincoln biographies. I have long been dimly aware of a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln by that poet of the Great Plains, Carl Sandburg, but eight volumes was much more than I wanted.  In the oral version from Audible it runs to 44 hours. However I did notice that there was a one volume abridgement.  That then was the obvious choice.  A biography of the most famous son of Illinois by the most renown poet of Illinois.

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All the well known stories are there and I shall not retail them.

New to me

Length and variety of his militia service
Travel down the river to New Orleans
Early and unequivocal objection to slavery on moral grounds in public statement occasioned by pursuit of runaways slaves into illinois
His gradual drift into politics because government could build bridges, dig drains, etc that this small community could never do. Local improvements, they were called at the time.
Saw Zachery Taylor and William Henry Harrison who both later became president.
By 1837 Lincoln opposed slavery on moral grounds, but accepted it in the South because of the Constitution.
As a mediator he learned from his father's example of dealing with eight children of a blended family in a one-room cabin. Defuse the situation and illustrate with humor
He spoke up on local improvements and because he had learned to read and write, others who could not do either turned to him to prepare petitions.
He became a state representative as Whig, worked hard at committees, reports, speeches
He saw and served in some run away slave case in Illinois.
He was a one-term congressman as a Whig, campaigned for other Whigs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky.
Lincoln voted several times for the Wilmot Provision to prevent slavery in new territories and states.
In his notebooks Lincoln puzzled over the morality, constitutionality, legality of slavery in whole and in part for years.
He concluded it was immoral since 1837, only indirectly constitutional in the States that had it a when the constitution was agreed, but fugitive slave act was legal, made by congress.
So he wanted to stop spread of slavery to other or new states, stop slave trade bringing in new slaves, but not for ending it since it was legal and partly constitutional in South Carolina and its ilk and since there was no way to cope with one million slaves in seven states who would be made free overnight and impossible to work out how to do it gradually, So on practical grounds there was no solution. Abolitionists seemed to have no plan for what to do if slavery were abolished, rather like all the Greens today who scream immediate action without a thought for consequences.  He would have preferred to keep the Missouri compromise but it lapsed with the Compromise of 1850 which was a hodgepodge of deals and concessions much too delicately balanced to last.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party arose (reminds me of Tea Party!)
Lincoln supported immigrants to vote, to get citizenship quickly and they voted for him.
The number of immigrants at the period is enormous 12,000 a month in Chicago, not all stayed there but went on to Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.
When the Free Soil Party morphed into Republicans at Ripon Wisconsin (an event no longer celebrated on the Republican National Committee website, such is the pernicious influence of the ideologues) Lincoln had no baggage as an old time Whig, he was from the West and fresh and energetic, and he wanted the presidential nomination in 1860.
He seemed to like being at the centre of things in Illinois legislature and got the ambition.

In a four-way race he won the electoral vote on the popular vote in the larger, northern states. The Southern states started seceding from the Union long before he took the oath of office in March 1961.

Lincoln the president was slow, thoughtful, pragmatic, thick-skinned, patient, mindful of his limitations and those of others. Not to be stampeded by cabinet, nor by generals, nor by the press.  

Scurrilous animosity of many in the House and the Senate is hard to credit but it is palpable, and only occasionally silenced.  Even Lincoln's re-election did not shut them up.  Th calumny heaped on him by Senate Republicans, war democrats, peace democrats, abolitionists, to say nothing of the Confederates beggers belief.

The restraint in the Emancipation Proclamation was to try to prise the three border states and Delaware away from the Confederacy by not confiscating property of slave holders in those states. 

He found slavery objectionable not because of the equality of blacks, but for the debasement it brought to the master.  More and more though he did realize that blacks were not only sentient but more.  Frederick Douglas and other blacks he met lead him along this path, as did they blacks in the Union army, about 200,000 of them by 1865.  

Lincoln’s 10% plan.  Those states partly occupied by Union army in 1862 and 1863 like Florida, Louisiana.  If petitioned by 10% of males citizens computed against 1860 census he proposed that these state be permitted to form a loyal Union government and to rejoin the Union.  For example, Louisiana would have a rebel government in Shreveport and a Union government in New Orleans.  

Congress would not agree for a variety of reasons: for some the states which seceded had committed suicide and were no longer states at all, for some these states should be treated as conquered territory under military occupation, for some this plan was a sneaky Lincoln way to get more Republican voters first to get re-nominated instead of Chase and then to get more electoral votes in the general election, for some the were constitutional and legal technicalities that would take ages to be resolved through courts. Were now free blacks to sign these petitions? The House and the Senate would not seat representatives or senators from these ersatz states for all of these reasons and more. This was a mistake, Lincoln thought, because it made fighting on the only choice for some who might otherwise lead a reconciliation. The war between executive and legislature never ends, and there are few truces.  

Later in the war Lincoln also tried to set up local governments in East Tennessee that had always been loyal so to protect the loyalists from revenge of losing Confederates.  Again congress resisted on analogous grounds.  

Lincoln toyed with offering to buy slaves remaining in Deep South to end the war.  He claimed it would be no more expensive in money than continuing the war and it would save lives and the destruction of property.  

Lincoln ignored distinction of church and state several times a national days of prayer.

Scores and scores of personal petitions to Lincoln and he heard and read just about all of them, and often conceded the exception they asked.  That bothered me because I have always resisted making exception for the one in front of me because (1) there many equally placed who were not in front of me for whom I was going to do nothing and (2) I did not want to encourage others to present their petitions to me.  My thought was that if here is a reason to make an exception it should be written into the rules.  Sandburg does nothing to analyze or assess Lincoln's response to these petitions.  

The endless flood of office seekers even in the dark days of 1864 would be enough to slay a lesser man.

Of all the wonderful remarks Lincoln made, these two say it all.  

1. 'My policy is to have no policy' (p.  239). An oft repeated remark. Imagine saying it today.

Lincoln was not an ideologue.  His goal was to preserve the Union and on Monday that might mean X and on Friday it might be doing -X.  If an analogy serves considers a sail boat. To make harbour amid winds and tides sometimes a captain must oversteer to port and at other times oversteer to starboard.  These is no inconsistency in these variations, though every immature journalist will declare that there is, having face no bigger challenge than finding a parking place at work.  

2. 'Mr. Moorhead [a very young know-it-all], haven't you lived long enough to know that two men may honestly differ about a question and both be right (p 660)?'

This remarks explains why he was not an ideologue as per the first remark.

In these 800 pages there is no poetry, and very few examples of Sandburg's capacity to elevate the mundane to majesty with the sheer energy radiating from the page in his poetry.  He also lapses into the present tense in depicting the assassination.


There are too many chapters which list events that do nothing to develop Lincoln, the man, or Lincoln the President.

After the early years the book is about Lincoln the president.  No much about the man, relationship to wife or children.  Was he religious, I cannot tell?  Nothing about attending church and only show him once or twice consulting the Bible, but instead relying on his folksy stories, though the moral of many of these stories could have illustrated from the Bible.  

It has no sources or bibliography. Opening preface eschews footnotes.

Hypotheticals are often very entertaining, and sometimes, though rarely, informative.

Woodrow Wilson concluded in October 1916 that he would lose his bid for re-election in November against Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican nominee. As a constitutional specialist Wilson had always deplored the hiatus between the early November election and the inauguration of the new president in March of the following year. During that three month period -- the lame duck period -- the incumbent had no legitimate authority though the formal powers remain.

Charles Evans Hughes

In 1916 the lame duck would be no laughing matter with submarine warfare a weekly occurrence off the Atlantic coast of the United States and Europe burning in an endless war on a gigantic scale while Japan sharpened swords in the Far East and eyed Mexico. In that situation Wilson had no wish to exercise the formal powers shorn of a popular mandate. Moreover, he thought the people’s choice should take on the responsibility immediately.

He made a secret plan to accomplish that end while staying within the Constitution. Here is how he proposed to do it. As soon as it was official that Hughes had won, he would dismiss the Secretary of State, Robert Lansing. Wilson would then appoint Hughes to be Secretary of State. While Congress is not sitting the President can make acting cabinet appointments like this as a temporary expedient until Congress reconvenes. Once Hughes accepted the appointment, Wilson would ask his obliging and unambitious Vice-President Thomas Marshall to resign. Without a doubt Marshall would have readily complied. (Lansing would have almost certainly resisted but he served at Wilson’s pleasure and at the end of the day would have had no choice but to stand aside, willing or unwilling.)

With the way then clear, Wilson would himself resign, and by the existing line of presidential succession the baton would pass, absent a Vice-President, to the Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes who would also be President-Elect. Wilson’s supposed that this could be done within three days or even less once the election results were known. Hughes had only to travel from New York to Washington and say ‘Yes.’ Of course, Wilson hoped against hope to win, so he put the plan which he had typed himself in a desk drawer and waited.

On election day the result was close, and in 1916 reporting results was slow and sometimes uncertain since journalists sometimes jumped the gun. (No comment.)

It seemed by late evening on the East coast that Hughes had won. Hughes went to bed believing he had been elected President of the United States. But he woke up to find that California had voted for Wilson and the left coast was enough to keep Wilson in office. The secret plan went into the locked filing cabinet of history. Would a president today think so hard about the best interests of the country and be prepared to concede to an opponent to serve that interest?

In 1933 the XXth Amendment to the United States Constitution reduced the gap between the election and inauguration from early November to January and re-routed the Presidential succession, after the Vice-President, through the presiding officers of the House of Representatives and the Senate before going to the Secretary of State.

There are two competing principals. The first is that a successor should be someone aligned with the president and au fait with current developments in the executive, hence the Secretary of State as the most important cabinet office should be third in line. That principal applied until 1933, despite Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s remark when President Reagan was shot in 1981.

The second principal is that the successor should be an elected official with broad responsibilities, hence the presiding officers of the legislatures. While not members of the executive, they are engaged with the daily processes of government.

Eight of 44 presidents have died in office. In each case the successor was the VIce-President.

By the way, Hughes had a long and varied career in public service: Governor of New York, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, Secretary of State, Justice on the International Court of Justice, and Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.

Recommended to students of history, international relations, presidents, and biographies. As to the latter, this volume is an exemplar.

Woodrow Wilson was articulate, precise, committed, strong, and strove for a higher purpose than the next opinion poll. He owed nothing to anyone in politics, having entered as a clean-skin with no baggage. But he expected blind loyalty from those around him, not because they owed anything to him but because he was right! He was also one-eyed, a racist, a self-made martyr, and careless of others.

Only stereotypes are consistent and simple.

After the generations of political corruption following 1865, first Populism and then Progressive aroused the electorate. That tide lifted Wilson, first to governor of perhaps the most corrupt state of New Jersey in 1910, and then to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912. Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt’s third party, the Republican vote was split and Wilson won. Equally, though, one might think TR split Wilson's progressive vote. Think of Clinton, Bush adult, and Perot in 1992.


Wilson resisted the pressure to join the European war, until German unrestricted submarine warfare aroused public opinion, thanks to the irresponsible journalism of the Murdoch press, oops, the Hearst press, and his own ire. The latter was probably the more decisive of the two to Wilson. But he believed what he said, the United States entered the war to fight for a principle, unlike all the other combatants who were fighting for territory and survival, by the way that principle was the freedom of the seas. This is a foundation stone in the mystique of American Exceptionalism.

The war and the peace that followed forever defined Wilson's administration, but before getting to that a few other things should be noted. He initiated several enduring practices: the news conference with journalists, presidential addresses to Congress, and the income tax. He appointed Louis Brandies to the Supreme Court who changed American jurisprudence. He allowed his son-in-law racially to segregate the Treasury Department which had previously been integrated in a small way. He supported female suffrage but did not think it should take the form of a constitutional amendment, though he did relent on that. He vetoed Prohibition on the same grounds.

But most of all there was first the war and then the peace. The Western Allies were in dire straits when the United States entered the war. Yet Wilson insisted that American troops would only enter into combat when they were trained and then as a unit, not as piecemeal replacements to be used by English and French commanders as cannon fodder. This insistence, made face-to-face by the United States commander Jack Pershing, led the Allies to form a single, consolidated command, after three years of unco-ordinated slaughter. That in itself was a strategic accomplishment.

Against the even more depleted Germans, when the United States Army did enter combat, fully trained and superbly equipped, it had successes that vindicated Wilson’s insistence in his own mind. He was, as usual, right.

The Peace Conference was a circus like never before. Because Wilson promised the American farm boys he sent to France to die and to become blind, diseased, paraplegic, or to suffer a long painful lingering death from mustard gas in a hospital in Ohio in 1920 that this war would be the last one, in making the peace he strove to uphold his part of that pledge.

The Fourteen Points he made the basis of American entry to the war promised to re-draw the map of most of the world, and so most of the world descended on Paris to insist that the Little Enders were the Devil’s Spawn and we Big Enders can never abide them.

Meanwhile, France in the person of Georges Clemenceau, proudly bearing the nickname 'Tiger,' insisted on emasculating Germany. Wilson wanted a simple treaty ending the war, and a permanent world body -- the League of Nations -- subsequently to work out all the details of implementing the Fourteen Points. France wanted a detailed treaty that would forever eliminate Germany as a threat to France, and finally only agreed to the League of Nations to secure American loans to rebuild Eastern France. To get the League Wilson gave way on French demands, though Wilson said at the time that these demands, unchecked, would lead to another war. Right again.

Then Wilson had to sell the League of Nations to two-thirds of the United States Senate. Opponents in the Senate thought it would embroil the United States thereafter in European politics.

In the midst of this struggle with the Senate, Wilson had a stroke and become a virtual recluse for the last years of his second term. His wife, Edith, hid his incapacity (with connivance of his physician) even from cabinet, and in time he partly recovered. Ever a small-town, many in Washington at the time referred to President Edith since she determined who saw him for many months. The petitioner would leave the matter Edith who would decide whether to show it to Wilson and, if so, she would often edit it to a few sentences. Most petitions went unanswered. In the hiatus postmasters were not appointed, zoos were closed, soldiers remained in Europe, medicine was not distributed in response to the Spanish Flu, goods piled up at ports not cleared by Customs, passenger ships could not off load travellers in harbors because Immigration officials were understaffed... Concealing his disability was unconstitutional, illegal, unethical, and probably immoral. She did it as therapy for Wilson. He had to believe he was still president to recover. Love makes us do things we would never do for ourselves. (On President Edith see Gene Smith, When the Cheering Stopped [1964]).

To this reader, Wilson was not on the job for several long periods. When Ellen died he went into a numbed shock. When he courted Edith, he could only think of her, working it the White House only an hour or two a day. He spent six month at the Paris peace talks. He was fully and partly incapacitated for six months. His two month speaking tour for the League in 1918 took him out of the White House. All of that adds up to about two years when his mind was not on the day-to-day work of the executive.

By the way, Edith attended Jack Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 shortly before her death.

Wilson retired and then had to make a living since there was no presidential pension. He tried law but he would not take a case involving a client he disapproved of, this did not work since he disapproved of almost anyone capable of paying his fee. In the end private charity from supporters bought the Wilsons a house and an annuity.

There is a lot more to the story, but these are some of the highlights. My notes on this presidential biography run to 4,000 words. This review is an abridgement of that verbiage. The book is scrupulous about evidence and the judgements Berg offers are carefully circumscribed and limited. Altogether a book to recommend. I did think the Zimmerman Telegram got short shrift.

Jackson was a man of oscillating moods. Sometimes personable, charming, considerate. Other times raging, violent, bullying. Sometimes humane and broad minded; other times contemptuous, racist regarding negroes and Indians, and provincially narrow. All of these in a single day on occasion.


He was at time proudly ignorant yet more well read than many of his friends and any of his enemies knew.

Orphaned when first his father died and then his two older brothers and mother died as result of British military action, during the Revolutionary War. He forever thereafter hated England and suspected it of any and all nefarious actions against the United States.

During his military career he took a paternalistic interest in his soldiers, refusing to leave a single one behind on march, even that meant every officer, himself first, had to walk, giving up their horses to pull wagons and litters. On the other hand he was a tyrant about obedience to the point of execution.

He hated indians beyond reason yet he adopted and raised in his own home an orphaned Indian boy found while his men were massacring a tribe. He wanted to clear indians from the south as they had been cleared from the north, freeing the land for plantations and cotton and thus more slaves. He was an advocate of slavery and completely indifferent to blacks, yet 500 free men of color (in the phrase of the day) were instrumental in his great victory in the Battle of New Orleans, along with about 100 Choctaw indians. But a racist is a racist.

He liked to surround himself with young men, as acolytes, but perhaps also substitutes for the younger brothers he did not have.

He identified himself nearly complete with the country as the family he never knew. Insults to it were insults to him. Insults to him were insults to it in his mind, or so it seemed to some observers.

The mediating institutions created by the constitution stifled the people and supported the privileged, he supposed. He won more votes but had fewer electoral votes than John Quincy Adams in the 1824 elections, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives which promptly (s)elected Adams. The mediating institutions included the Electoral College, the elections of senators by state legislatures, the appointed for life of Supreme Court judges, and the Bank of the United States, which separately and together limited government in the interest of the privileged, he thought, who peopled those mediating institutions. In the 1828 election Jackson won in a four-way race.

The Nullification Crises began in the 1820s and continued for a decade when John C. Calhoun, having resigned as Jackson's Vice President, argued that South Carolina would choose which federal laws to obey and nullify others. He ever referred to secession. Jackson feared that the state(s) would destroy the union.

At the time Russia in the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to Washington along with the British from Oregon to Quebec in the north, and the Spanish and French in Mexico and the Caribbean surrounded the United States and in his eyes conspired against the continuation of the union. Predators all. Enemies with and without the gates.

The nullification crises was precipitated by an international agreement signed by the Federal Government that permitted seamen to have the freedom of the city while in port. That meant blacks on English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and other merchant ships could walk the streets of Charleston as free men.

South Carolina objected and then overruled this agreement by jailing any black sailors who set foot ashore while their ship was in port! That action breached an international treaty duly ratified by the Senate and signed by the president of the United States.

The South Carolina justification was that free blacks would by example produce unrest in slaves, might foment slave rebellion, assault white women because they have no civilised control, would be used by the English to destabilise and divide the States..... And the sky would also fall.

Jackson had a constant battle with the Bank of the United States to support local improvements, like roads and bridges. What we call today infrastructure loans to states, counties, towns, etc. The Bank had no interest in bridges over rivers in Tennessee or hard roads in Georgia.

The tariff added, it was claimed, 40% to the price of goods consumed in the south and produced in the north behind tariff walls. The tariff gets tied up with states' rights, along with slavery, as part of the dominance of the union by northern interests. Ergo to a Calhoun, abolition is a smoke screen to dominate the south and keep the tariff, and the Bank.

Then there was the Petticoat War between his niece in-law Emily and the wife of cabinet secretary Talbot. Emily was determined to show Washington DC snobs that she, from the wild frontier of Tennessee, adheres to the highest standards of propriety and so will not receive Mrs. Talbot, who wed Talbot before her divorce from her previous husband was known to her to be concluded. Moreover, Mrs. Talbot came to the Talbot marriage with a dubious reputation. (But nothing worse than had been said about Rachel Jackson.) So Mrs. Talbot was three times over not to be received: bad reputation, divorcee, and bigamist.

Emily was the wife of Andrew Jackson Donelson, who was Jackson confidante and private secretary, and an ersatz son to him. Jackson likewise was a kindly patron to Emily until the Petticoat War became the talk of that small town on the Potomac.

The Little Magician, Martin van Buren, tried several times to broker a peace between the two ladies, but each time Emily either dithered, or agreed and then revoked her agreement.

Meanwhile, Calhoun and Henry Clay are vultures circling, preparing for their own runs for the White House in 1832. John Quincy Adams, who Jackson roundly defeated in 1828 is sulking and very ready to plot Jackson's downfall. He might help Clay but probably not Calhoun, since Adams is pure New Englander.

While Jackson was ready to send the Federal army to the Blackhawk War in Illinois it was over before Winfield Scott could get there. He started the First Seminole War to move indians out of Georgia and Alabama first into the swamps of Florida and then across the Mississippi. That is why there is a Miami in Ohio.

Jackson rejected Henry Clay's proposal for national day of prayer during a widespread cholera epidemic to keep the separation of church and state.

When the Nullifiers got agitated Jackson had the entire Federal army garrison in Charleston replaced by true blue union men, and he managed to do this on the quiet.

He campaigned hard for re-election in 1832. That is, he went on the campaign trail, speaking, shaking hands, etc. The first time a candidate had taken his campaign directly to voters. Martin Van Buren was the de facto campaign manager as the Vice-Presidential nominee. Jackson triumphed comprehensively in 1832 over Henry Clay: 54% to 36%. There were two other candidates who made up the rest.

The Compromise of 1832 in part negotiated by the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, combined the Tariff reduction act with the Force Bill. The tariff was lowered to placate Southern planters and the Force Bill, though redundant, explicitly empowered the president to collect the tariff by force, if necessary. Martin van Buren did much of the politicking in Congress to count the votes.

When all else failed Jackson withdrew Federal government deposits from Bank of the United States and shifted them to banks in states. By distributing the monies he won over allies, by withdrawing the funds, he killed the Bank of the United States and with it, Nicholas Biddle's own presidential ambitions. He later vetoed the renewal of the charter. The Bank funded Henry Clay's presidential campaign very handsomely, using tax deposits, but Clay still lost.

Jackson's second inaugural address emphasized the Union that won our liberty from England, the Union that secured our freedom, the Union dealt with the Indians. The Union that made us prosperous through industry and trade. Union secured our lands. Union….. These goods were achieved by Union, not by this state or that. Now picture the results of disunion. Each state will guard its borders. Each state will impose its own tariffs and taxes. Each state ill built only internal roads. And so on. A pretty well made argument for a man with little credit as a thinker.

There was a point-blank assassination attempt by a nutter. Jackson was convinced it was a conspiracy of his enemies working through this reprobate.

When William Lloyd Garrison sent thousands of copies of an abolitionist tract through the United States mail to Charleston, Jackson sat idly by when South Carolina firebrands burned the warehouse they were in. He did nothing to protect the U.S. Mail and in fact asked about legislation to stop sending such material through the mail.

Jackson viewed Van Buren as his successor and the vote for Van Buren as a vote for him, Jackson, so Jackson worked hard for Van Buren in 1836.

I listened to this book on Audible in an abridgement during 20-minute episodes dog-walking or pedaling at the gym. That makes it harder for me to assess the research basis of the book. But I can say that it is not one-eyed. More than once Jackson's mistakes and faults are noted. And at the end the author notes how great evil can be the commonly accepted practice of the day, namely slavery.

File under ‘Might Have Been.‘ Sam Houston (1793-1863) might have been the 16th President of the United States. So the dream goes, a President Houston would have held the South to the Constitution while defending states rights, and yet found a way to satisfy the demands of the North, economic, political, and moral. With such a president there would have been no Civil War. As it is, he is in fact an American president though not of the United States but of Texas. (The 16th President was Abraham Lincoln, Class!)

Haley on Houston.jpg

Houston was a man of many parts: A staunch unionist, a Southern with unimpeachable qualifications, a hero in three wars, hand picked once by Andrew Jackson that champion of the west, known through the northeast coast as an informative and entertaining speaker, a vigorous opponent of the slave trade, an avowed proponent of states rights, a blood brother to Cherokee Indians, a man who read himself to sleep with the Odyssey and Cicero’s Offices.

Some indication of his political career can be seen in the elected offices he held. He was born in Virginia and went to the wilds of east Tennessee as a young man.
1819 elected Tennessee Attorney-General
1823 elected to the U.S. House of Representative from Tennessee
1827 elected Governor of Tennessee
1836 Elected first President of the Republic of Texas
1841 Re-elected President of the Republic of Texas
1846 Elected to US Senate from Texas and twice re-elected
1859 Elected Governor of Texas
Few are the curriculum vitae that can match that. Then there is his military service.

The list conceals as much as it reveals. The gap between 1827 and 1836 includes three years in the wilderness where he lived among Indians. He resigned as Governor of Tennessee when his bride of one-day rejected him and her relatives thereafter and for years heaped calumny on him. Bound by the code of a Southern gentleman, Houston made no reply. He gained himself in one day a lifelong reputation as a ravisher of women though it is plain he never touched his bride, and in the following three years he earned an equally enduring reputation as an alcoholic. He certainly deserved that for a time. He also found solace in an Indian woman, while still married to that bride.

What chance for such a man in civilized society? A ravisher. An alcoholic. An Indian lover?

What a fall from Attorney-General, U.S. Representative, and state Governor to pitiful wretch living on the charity of impoverished Indians.

Yet the frontier gave him another chance and by dint of his own hands he took it. GTT was the slogan of the day in the 1830s and so Go To Texas he did. There he tried to farm and developed a lifetime interest in agronomy and stock breeding. Having at the third try secured a divorce from his long estranged wife, he married a woman who swore him off the bottle, and he kept that oath. In fact, he became a national temperance speaker. He was completely devoted to his wife, Margaret. Yet he sacrificed everything for Texas, and at one point sold the family home to pay some Texas debts that were in his name.

When the convolutions of Mexican politics produced Santa Anna the Texas War started. Houston had fought in Indian Wars in Tennessee and in the War of 1812 against Great Britain. He was wounded in both and with medicine as it was, the wounds never healed properly. Indeed it is said that on his deathbed in 1863 his old groin wound opened.

He was a temporizer, having seen enthusiastic militia get themselves killed in earlier wars he advocated and practiced restraint and preparation. The Texas Revolutionary Council made him a General and he recruited troops, secured weapons, and trained the men. All of this was ridiculed by the hot heads who urged immediate action. To make matters worse when Santa Anna’s army approached, Houston retreated for he had read much of Napoleon’s destruction in Russia and thought the distances and heat of Texas might reduce the European trained and equipped Mexican Army.

When the armies at last met, he feigned confusion and fear, and this emboldened Santa Anna into several tactical blunders. The Texans prevailed at San Jacinto where Houston was wounded again.

There is much more to the story but let that suffice as a sample.

Houston was Governor when Texas seceded from the Union. He stalled this eventuality as long as he could, finally sitting at his desk while the secessionists acted in the room next door. When they demanded he take an oath of allegiance to the cause of secession, he refused and they declared the office void. At 67 he accepted this turn of events and went into retirement. He died in July 1863.

Between 1861 and 1863 his only forays into politics were to advocate the relief of the conditions of Union prisoners of war in Galveston, and to council dealing honourably with the Cherokees. The former was the more successful of the two.

Note, Houston wore an Indian blanket as a cloak when he took his place in the Senate and spoke there more than once on the terrible record of deceit and perfidy that the United States had visited on Indians. That cloak sent John C. Calhoun into one of his many rages. I rather think Calhoun was the intended audience for the gesture. To find out why, read the book.

The book is brilliantly conceived and written, starting with the Preface that explains why we need to know about Sam Houston and why this book is the one to tell us. It totals 500 plus pages and surveys the previous sixty biographies of Houston and plunges into the original source material. It is the product of fifteen years of research, writes the author. He has no university affiliation and I rather doubt a university would indulge such a project today. The demands of a three-year performance review, the imperative to secure a research grant whether needed or not, the premium on counting publications, and much more combine to make short-terms achievement the path to tenure and promotion.

My only knowledge of Sam Houston before reading this book, apart from schoolboy apocrypha, was the short chapter on Houston in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1955) that likened Houston to an actor standing just out of the spotlight. He was involved in great deeds but it was never quite clear what he was doing or why or how. That seems right in light of this volume.

Houston was capable of working on several levels at once, always had Plan B, C, and D in train if A did not progress. He knew the power of words to focus attention. He tried always to keep his word so that he could trade on it. Even when political difference divided him from friends, he tried to keep the personal relationship alive by letter and succeeded in many cases in retaining the personal friendship of sworn political enemies.

In death he is now more acceptable to Texans. Check this on You Tube

Cut-and-paste because hyperlink insertion does not work.

Now that I have ordered some presidential biographies from Amazon I get notices about others. These I have been ignoring. But one caught my eye, not because of the president, but rather because of the author: John W. Dean. Think about it.

Dean on Harding.jpg

Given Dean's experiences I thought that alone might make the book interesting. My only residual knowledge of Harding was the innumerable scandals associated with him. Dean would know about scandalous behavior by a president, I thought.

Get it yet? This is the John Dean of Watergrate, the president’s counsel who would not lie for his president and who kept meticulous notes, and made himself the star witness at the Senate hearings of Sam Ervin. That president was Richard Nixon.

As it happens Dean is from the same town in Ohio as Harding. This book is part of a series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., so it has two strikes against it. It is written to a series template, and it has Schlesinger’s name associated with it. Many of the authors in this series are interesting but odd choices, for example, the novelist Louis Auchincloss on Theodore Roosevelt, television newsman Douglas Brinkley on John F. Kennedy, and presidential aspirant Gary Hart on James Monroe. It also includes one title I have already read, James Madison by Gary Wills. None of these authors is a scholar, though Wills is a man of penetrating insight, Auchincloss a fine writer, Hart is from Colorado, and Brinkley used to talk to Chet Huntley (his associate on the national news).

I will say something about the book itself at the end, but for now let’s see what can gleaned about Warren G. Harding. He was a middle class, small town newspaper editor and owner. He was a born networker who genuinely liked people with an organized mind and a good memory for faces. He avoided conflict and seldom took sides. He was handsome and commanding in his physique. Sounds a perfect Libra! Though he was born on 2 November.

How did he become president? His own political career began in Marion Ohio then to the Ohio legislature, then lieutenant governor, then U.S. Senator, where the personal qualities mentioned above stood him in good stead. Ohio was solidly Democratic but Harding was a Republican. In that smaller talent pool, he looked good. At each stop along this cursus honorum he travelled widely and spoke to any gathering, mostly Republicans.

Nationally the situation was vexed. Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts to regain the Republican nomination in 1912 had rent the Grand Old Party. William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes who had run against Woodrow Wilson had been unable to heal and unite it. But when Wilson had a debilitating heart attack in 1919, the Democrats were leaderless, too.

In that gap Harding emerged. He got the Republican nomination on the tenth ballot after three days. By then there was pressure to choose someone and he was inoffensive, and no doubt some like Mark Hanna, the eminence gris of Ohio politics smoothed the way. When it was clear that Wilson would not seek an unprecedented third term, and that had been bruited about for a time, James Cox got the Democratic nomination. James who? More important than James was his vice presidential running mate. One Franklin D. Roosevelt. But I digress.

It was an Ohio affair between the Senator from Ohio, Harding, and the incumbent governor of Ohio, James Cox. Eugene Debs was on the Socialist ticket and got nearly a million votes from a jail cell in Atlanta. H. L. Mencken once said Debs spoke with a tongue of fire, but that is another story.

Harding took the oath of office in March 1921. He convinced Charles Evans Hughes to serve as Secretary of State, and let him get on with the job. Hughes tried to integrate the United States into world affairs to repair the damage done in the struggle for the League of Nations.

One of Harding’s best and most lasting achievements was to create the Bureau of the Budget with a director appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate who reports directly to the President. The President submits a budget to Congress which then amends it into an unrecognizable form to accommodate the interests of the constituents of the majority of Representatives and Senators. Congress sends it back to the White House, and then the serious negotiations begin. It is a fiction because after all the sound and fury there was never any check on how the money was spent. Indeed there was no way of knowing if it had been spent or on what. With his experience as a small businessman Harding did not like that and much to his credit he created this small but powerful and independent agency. But... It came back to haunt him.

The only thing I knew about the Harding Administration was the Teapot Dome scandal. It seems that three of Harding’s cabinet, at least, used the public trust of their offices to defraud the government in a big way. All were alike in a way, they sold government assets (which had ballooned during World War I) at unbelieveable prices to old pals in business and got enormous kickbacks, sometimes delivered in $100,000 units in black Gladstone bags to the office. Subtle, not!

The Bureau of the Budget did notice the decline in government assets valued at millions for peppercorn returns. The Bureau of the Budget did draw the President’s attention to these events several times. Dean has it that Harding tried to persuade the malfactors to stop. Others say, my source is Wikipedia, that he had long experience of doing the same. In any event, they did not stop, and the press got the news and passed it on. Think what the Sage of Baltimore had to say! (That is H. L. Mencken for the slow wits.)

Once one scandal was examined, it lead to another, and another. And it all unravelled.

While in San Francisco, Harding died in office of a heart attach at age 59 in August 1923 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge. From San Francesco, Florence Harding, herself very ill, by telegraph asked an Ohio confidante in the White House to burn Harding’s files. Dean has it that she did this to protect President Harding’s reputation. There is much speculation about why she did this. And that is all it is: speculation, just what passes for news today on the ABC.

The fact is that papers were burned in those days before presidential libraries. But the confidante did not burn everything, and again there is no evidence to explain why. Many boxes were stored in the third basement of the White House coming to light years later when restoration were done. In time these papers found their way to the Harding Association in Ohio in the middle of the 1960s they were catalogued and available.

However there is no evidence that Dean consulted these papers. This book is not based on original research in any sense of the term ‘original.’ Rather it is a synthesis of the existing biographies of Harding, with a slant toward rescuing the reputation of this fellow Ohioan and fellow Republican. Too often the conclusions that rehabilitate Harding seem to come from the air. The strongest claim Dean can make to defend Harding from culpable knowledge, if nothing more, is the absence of evidence. But as that other Republican ideologue Donald Rumsfeld, with whom I once crossed a street in Washington D C, said: the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Instead the book tries to cloak Harding in some kind of mist. More pages are spent on his ineffectual and inconsequential dealings with some matters that appeal to contemporary sensibilities, like race relations, than the core matters of his administration.

The book is replete with clichés that neither describe nor explain, like ‘party elders,’ ‘tough going,’ etc. I am sure lawyer Dean is expert at briefs, but sustaining a narrative for 150 pages without lapsing into the vagaries of cliché is a different discipline. Anything that exonerates Harding is taken at face value and anything that does not is clouded over with doubts. Perhaps this is a courtroom tactics but it fails on the page.

I did know that John Tyler had been president. Why? Because of that very early campaign slogan, 'Tippiecanoe and Tyler, too.' Look it up, if it is unknown. I knew he succeeded Harrison, but that is all I knew. Yet when I read Borneman's biography of Polk's emergence and election, Tyler seemed an interesting if remote figure.

He is widely regarded as a failure, no doubt in part because he did not win an election in his own right.



The publishers statement: The first complete biography of a president often overshadowed in image but seldom outdone in accomplishment. James K. Polk's pledge to serve a single term, which many thought would make him a lame duck, enabled him to rise above electoral politics and to outflank his adversaries. Thus he plotted and attained a formidable agenda: He fought for and won tariff reductions, reestablished an independent Treasury, and most notably, brought Texas into the Union, bluffed Great Britain out of the lion's share of Oregon, and wrested California and much of the Southwest from Mexico. In tracing Polk's life and career, author Borneman show a Polk who was a decisive, if not partisan, statesman whose near doubling of America's boundaries and expansive broadening of executive powers redefined the country at large, as well as the nature of its highest office.


Inspired by Robert Caro’s nonpareil biography of Lyndon Johnson, I have been reading biographies of US presidents as the occasion permits. Shortly after I decided to do that I chanced up Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Reading those three volumes confirmed me in the enterprise, though one volume works suffice. I have since read Willard Randall, George Washington; David McCulloch, John Adams; Walter Borneman, James Polk; and Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower.

I noticed a review of a recent book about Herbert Hoover and since it was current and available I decided it would be the Hoover biography: Gary Dean BEST, The Life of Herbert Hoover, Keeper of the Torch, 1933-1964. It covers his post-presidential years, as part of multi-volume biography, where each volume is by a different writer. Despite the title there is much reference to Hoover as president.

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From the 550 pages of this book I conclude that Hoover had enormous energy and vitality and remained intellectually and political active into his 80s. He outlived many of his enemies, and all of his friends. That he was something of an intellectual, rather like T. R. Roosevelt. Hoover read a lot of books and wrote a few. He took care to do research for his many speeches and often packed them with facts and figures.

He also had a set of consistent beliefs about personal liberty that he often articulated and which informed much of this thought, action, and speech. It seems also that for all his public speaking, he was not easy with company, especially the hordes one meets at a convention. He often came, saw, spoke, and left by the side door.

In this period it was common for speeches to be reported nearly verbatim in newspapers, and often printed and distributed. They were also excerpted in newsreels shown in theatres. There was a constant demand for Hoover to speak and he did, except for the first year after leaving the White House, defeated by Franklin Roosevelt at the polls. The demand for Hoover to speak suggests that he struck a cord, as did the favorable press comment, and the audience reaction in theatres. It is too bad newsreels are gone from the silver screen because audience reactions in the darkened theatre was always uninhibited, as I recall.

I have no doubt that Herbert Hoover did much good in his life and that the reputation of his presidency has suffered in the shade cast by FDR. Having said that, in the period described in this book, Hoover appears all too often to be thin-skinned, pompous, and scheming. That he should appear thus in these pages is all the more surprising given that the author verges on hagiography in his adulation of every word, deed, and gesture Hoover made. The author is completely one-eyed. On that more at the end.

Hoover wanted to be president again, and like a lot of people who have wanted that job, he did not want to run for it, he just wanted it handed to him. So he made himself available for the Republican nomination in 1936 and again in 1940, and he opposed and undermined alternative candidates right up until the last minute. He offered mere lip-service support to the Republican nominees who emerged, Alf Landon and Wendell Wilkie, respectively. Yet he constantly felt they should pay obeisance to him, and when they did not, he withdrew further.

He spend thirty years vindicating his administration in those speeches with a mixtures of facts and figures that often made sense to him alone. He regarded every criticism of his administration as a personal slight, a smear. The author uses that word ‘smear‘ repeatedly for every objection or criticism levelled at any of Hoover's many interjections into political life.

Hoover wanted to contribute, as World War II drew nearer, but only on his terms and in his way, and only if begged to do so. To that end he proposed some crazy ideas about food relief, and anyone who suggested his plan was not feasible or would, as it obviously would have, aided the German war effort is said, by the author, to have smeared Hoover.

Harry Truman tried to put Hoover to work and Hoover chaired several commission to streamline the Federal government. Well Truman thought the purpose was to streamline it but Hoover’s declared aim was to wind back Roosevelt’s New Deal, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, twenty years later. Despite Truman’s several efforts to flatter Hoover, it was never enough, and Hoover reveled in Joe McCarthy’s red baiting with nary a thought to conscience or consequence to judge by this book.

Even Eisenhower’s victory in 1952 left Hoover cold. Ike had other things on his mind and did not bow to Hoover, and so Hoover had few good words to say for him. I am afraid for most of the time in the period this book covers Hoover thought it was all about him. Petulant, one might say, for thirty years.

I have made several allusions to the book itself. There is no distance between the author and Hoover. If Hoover says black, then black it is. Assertions of fact are taken solely from Hoover, more than once. The book is packed with lengthy quotations from Hoover’s speeches and letters and these are transmitted without qualm or qualification and taken as read. Perhaps one page in four is such a direct quotation. The author seldom draws a conclusion from these long passages, but rather just lets them hang, often at the end of a paragraph. It becomes very tempting just to skip them since the author is not making any declared point with them.

For good or ill this is my Hoover biography.

Having acquired a taste for presidential libraries last year, I knew there was Hoover library and I just assumed that it was in Palo Alto where he lived most of his life. But one valuable fact I got from this book is that the Hoover Library, which Truman, demonstrating a magnanimity that Hoover never had, helped him achieve, is in West Branch, Iowa on I-80, which is where Hoover was born. It is a four-hour drive from Omaha through Des Moines, and I hope to visit it someday soon. It is near Amana.

Wow! Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson is a magnum opus, a stupendous achievement, the most vivid biography imaginable, an insightful study of political power, a tragedy of Shakespearean depth...The Passage of Power is the fourth volume in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and in some ways it is the best so far.

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It is the best because it covers the best of its subject - Lyndon Baines Johnson. That best emerged in the crucible of a seven-week period between 22 November 1963 and 8 January 1964. For informed readers the dates pulse with meaning. No explanation is required.


Caro offers in-depth studies of the characters in this drama and places them in the context of the times. The ego and alter-ego relationship between John and Robert Kennedy is particularly compelling. In the sunshine there is the charming Dr Jekyll of John Kennedy and in the shadows there is the deadly Mr. Hyde of Robert Kennedy. Those who were not won over by the former had to deal with the latter. ‘Ruthless’ is the only word that applies to Robert Kennedy.

Though Caro implies that John Kennedy's decision to put Lyndon Johnson on the ticket as vice-presidential candidate was the one thing John did not tell Robert and it is the one thing that Robert did not know by the telepathy with which these two brothers usually communicated. Ever the realist, John Kennedy knew he had to win the south to win and that he could not win the south alone or with any other running mate but Johnson and that Johnson alone could deliver the south. John did not tell Robert because Robert hated Johnson from the first time they met, a feeling the Johnson came to return in full measure, and Robert would have objected, as only he could object, to his brother, so to avoid that confrontation John did not tell Robert, John just did it himself and once it was done then it was done, and not even Robert could undo it, though undo it he tried several times, thus ensuring Johnson's continued enmity.

Fascinating as this part of the story may be, it is but preliminary. The focus of the book is Johnson's presidency from the moment John Kennedy was declared dead at Parkland Hospital on 22 November 1963 to the State of Union address on 8 January 1964 which launched the so-called War on Poverty. In between those dates Johnson performed miracles.

He calmed panic. He quelled hysteria. He stayed the hands that held the sabers. Stability, continuity, and order, these he created from fear, confusion, and anger and he did this nearly from the first moments and he showed a self-discipline that no one, least of all those who knew him best, thought he had. That alone caused one of Robert Kennedy's delegated haters to refer to Johnson at this time as 'masterful.' By 'delegated haters' I mean one of Robert Kennedy's aides who hated Johnson, it seems, because his boss hated him. The aide certainly hated Johnson before the assassination and in time he returned to hating him, but even he admitted that in the crisis Johnson was ...'masterful.' Others who disliked Johnson also acknowledged that this seven week period was ...'magnificent.'

It was masterful because after the initial shock, Johnson took charge in a calm and purposeful way. It was magnificent because in those seven weeks Johnson did things John Kennedy did not do in the preceding three years and could not have done.

What things are these?

1. He defeated a threat to presidential power in an obscure Senate bill that had enormous implications which implications he realized immediately and which he averted.
2. He cut the defense budget more than it has ever been cut before or since, and this at near the height of the Cold War, only a little more than a year since the nuclear brink in Cuba.
3. He caused the House of Representatives and Senate to vote for tax cuts which legislation had been lost in committee by its opponents for eighteen months before he put he hand to it and it was lost no more.
4. He caused the Senate to pass a civil rights bill that had all but disappeared from the legislative calendar and which was opposed by a majority of Senators, but one-by-one he won over a majority giving a Master Class on how to count votes.
5. He started the War on Poverty with the monies saved from defense.

It is a breath-taking list, one that would make a four-year term admirable, and these things he did in seven weeks, while doing much else besides. It is exhausting to read the nearly hour-by-hour account that Caro offers of this titan at work. Did he ever sleep? Did he ever sit quietly and eat a meal? Did he ever zone out with fatigue? Evidently not during these weeks.

He appealed to the ego of egoists, to the patriotism of patriots, to the intellect of intellectuals, to image to the Narcissists, to the Kennedy legacy to those that clung to that, to favors for those who would trade favors, to duty to the dutiful, to honour to the honourable, and each time he got the equation right in this seemingly endless human calculation. Meanwhile, to the nation and world of television viewers he projected a sorrowful calm and a deliberate determination.

Counting the votes for the civil rights act, Johnson insisted that every Republican in every forum be addressed as 'a representative of the party of Abraham Lincoln who had freed the slaves.' He insisted that every Republican from Illinois be addressed, in addition, as 'from the land of Lincoln who freed the slaves.' In private conversations with Republicans who opposed the bill, Johnson kept asking them to live up to their great founder, Abraham Lincoln. In the end about half of them did. Without Johnson's incessant pressure no more than one or two would have. He made it happen.

If John Kennedy’s beautiful words made us think, Lyndon Johnson’s earthy prose made us act, so said one of those whom Johnson moved to action.

Some of the most touching parts of the books are the descriptions of Mr. Hyde in mourning for his other half. Robert Kennedy was stunned by John Kennedy’s murder and he remained stunned for weeks, for months afterward. Jacqueline Kennedy showed courage and self-control enough for several, but Robert was utterly bereft. In private Robert took to wearing some of John’s clothes, an old tweed jacket that had been left at Robert’s house by accident months before, a navy coat that was in a car. It is almost, but not quite enough, to make me feel sorry for Robert Kennedy.

Caro’s work, this book especially, sets the standard for research, everything has been done, everything, and this book sets the standard for judicious and balanced judgements for there are judgements aplenty. The book is not merely a recitation of information. Like Thucydides, and likening an historian to Thucydides is the highest praise, Caro has arranged the material to lead readers to the points he has drawn from his study. PhD students would do well to examine the method in this study. When Caro quotes the findings of another, earlier author, he then affirms the truth of those words by saying he has interviewed those same subjects and got the same answers, he too has read the same boxes of files and found that same material in them, he too has been to the spot and measured the distances, he too has stood in setting sun on the stretch of land and felt warmth on his face at that same time of year and can confirm the accuracy of those earlier reports. And if he cannot confirm the assertions of others, it is because he has found something they missed. He takes nothing for granted, assumes nothing is settled and tests everything for himself and for his readers.

Is it any wonder that The Years of Lyndon Johnson is consuming its author? At one point Caro sold his house to finance this research. His wife, put aside her own career, first became his research assistant and then went to work as a school teacher to fund his research. When he claims, by implication, to have read 5,000 documents in one archive, I believe he did. I said ‘by implication’ because Caro does not boast of his research for to him, doubtless, it seems natural, like breathing.

This book cross-references the first three volumes extensively, more than I have ever seen before in a multi-volume biography and I have read at least three of those. Caro says that The Years of Lyndon Johnson is not a biography but a study of the years of Lyndon Johnson. In making this claim, Caro seems to be explaining both the lack of chronological order and the cross-referencing to earlier volumes that the omission of chronological order requires. To this reader that seems a distinction without a difference, and one of the very few false notes in The Passage of Power.

This book refers to the following volume, one that I anticipate eagerly whether it covers seven weeks or more. Though I expect a subsequent volume will return to the negative side of Johnson that dominates much of the earlier volumes, and Caro says as much in the last words of this volume.

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