Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why it Matters to Us

Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why it Matters to UsCenturies of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why it Matters to Us by Ian Mortimer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Throughout the later part of 1999, many programs were dedicated to showing the impressive change in the 20th Century over any other time in the previous 1000 years. Author Ian Mortimer thought this was presumptuous and decided to research to find which century of Western civilization in the previous millennium saw the most change. In Centuries of Change Mortimer presents the fruits of over decade worth of research to general audience.

From the outset of the book Mortimer gives the reader the scope and challenge about defining and measuring change, especially when focusing in specific 100 year periods. Avoiding the cliché answers of bright, shiny objects and larger-than-life historical figures from the get go, Mortimer looked for innovations of cultural, political, societal, and technological significance that fundamentally changed the way people lived at the end of a given century than when it began. Throughout the process Mortimer would highlight those inventions or well-known historical individuals that defined those innovations of change which resulted positively or negatively on Western civilization. At the end of each chapter, Mortimer would summarize how the ‘changes’ he highlighted interacted with one another and which was the most profound in a given century and then identify an individual he believe was ‘the principle agent of change’.

The in-depth analysis, yet easily readable language that Mortimer wrote on each topic of change he highlighted was the chief strength of this book. The end of chapter conclusions and identification of an agent of change is built up throughout the entire chapter and shows Mortimer’s dedication to providing evidence for his conclusion. Whether the reader agrees or not with Mortimer, the reader at least knows why he came to those decisions. When coming to a decision about which century of the past millennium saw the most change at the end of the book, Mortimer’s explanation of the process in how he compared different periods of time and then the results of that process were well written and easily understandable to both general readers and those from a more scholarly background, giving the book a perfect flow of knowledge and thought.

Centuries of Change was geared for the general reading audience instead of a more academic one. While I do not think this is a negative for the book, it did allow for those editing the book as well as Mortimer in reexamining his text to miss several incorrect statements on events and personages that while minor do to missing a word or two, just added up over the course of the book.

While looking at the progression and development of Western civilization is always a challenging process, Ian Mortimer’s Centuries of Change gives readers glimpse of how different types of innovations impacted just a 100 year period of time. Very readable for general readers and a nice overall glimpse for more academic readers, this book is a thought-provoking glimpse in how human’s bring about change and responds to change.

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The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American EmpireThe True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire by Stephen Kinzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The internal debate within the United States about how the country should act around the world, to either avoid or intervene in foreign entanglements, has been going on for over a century. However, neither the arguments nor the situations that bring them on have changed over that time. Stephen Kinzer in his book The True Flag looks at when this debate began back at the turn of the 20th Century when the United States looked beyond the Americas in the “Age of Imperialism”.

The political and military history before, during, and after the Spanish-American War both inside and outside the United States was Kinzer’s focus throughout the book. Within this framework, Kinzer introduced organizations and individuals that opposed the actions and outcomes promoted by those more familiar to history, namely Theodore Roosevelt, as the United States was transformed into a “colonial” power. Yet, while this book is about the beginning of a century long debate it is more the story of those who through 1898 and 1901 argued against and tried to prevent the decisions and actions that today we read as history.

Although the names of Roosevelt and Mark Twain catch the eye on the cover, in reality Kinzer’s focus was on other important figures on either side of the debate. The biggest promoter of “expansionist” policy was Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt’s long-time friend, who gladly let his friend become figure that history would remember. However, Lodge’s fellow senator from Massachusetts, George Frisbie Hoar was one of the fiercest opponents and critics of the “expansionist” policy that Lodge and Roosevelt promoted. One of the enigmatic figures of the time was newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who openly advocated and supported war in Cuba but then turned against the expansion when the United States fought the insurrection in the Philippines. Businessman Andrew Carnegie was one of many prominent individuals who founded the American Anti-Imperialist League to work against the United States ruling foreign territory. Amongst those working with Carnegie were former President Grover Cleveland and imminent labor leader, Samuel Gompers, but the strangest bedfellow was William Jennings Bryan. In Bryan, many believed they had the person in the political sphere that could stem the tide against the “expansionist” agenda but were twice stunned by the decisions he made when it was time to make a stand.

Kinzer throughout the book would follow the exploits and opinions of both Roosevelt and Twain during the period covered, however there was is a stark difference amount of coverage each has in which Roosevelt is in the clear majority. It wasn’t that Kinzer chose not to invest page space to Twain, it was that he did not have the material to do so. Throughout most of the period covered, 1898-1901, Twain was in Europe and out of the social and political landscape of the United States. However, once Twain stepped back onto U.S. soil his pen became a weapon in the cause against imperialism that Kinzer documents very well. Unfortunately for both the reader and Kinzer, Twain only becomes prominent in the last third of the book whereas Roosevelt’s presence is throughout. This imbalance of page space between the books’ two important figures was created because of marketing, but do not let it create a false impression of favoritism by Kinzer on one side or another.

History records that those opposed to the United States’ overseas expansion lost, however ever since the arguments they used have been a part of the foreign policy debate that has influenced history ever since. The True Flag gives the reader a look into events and arguments that have shaped the debate around the question “How should the United States act in the world?” since it began almost 120 years ago. This book is a fantastic general history of an era and political atmosphere that impacts us still today, and is a quick easy read for those interested in the topic.

I received this book for free though LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of PowerThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The complex life and the politics of the third President of the United States in a dramatic period in history are brought to the fore in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. After nearly twenty years in which Jefferson’s reputation has taken a hit through both scientific revelations and new biographies of his fellow Founders, the pragmatic philosopher who still yearned to daydream comes into better light 200 years after his time in office.

Meacham approached his book as a pure biography of Jefferson not a history of the times, which meant that only events that directly affected Jefferson or his immediately family were focused upon. Thus while Jefferson’s own story began in 1743, Meacham sets the stage with a family history that was also a history of colonial Virginia both politically and culturally. Throughout the next 500 pages, Meacham follows Jefferson in and out of Virginia with stops in Philadelphia, Paris, New York, and finally Washington D.C., but through everything a special focus was on how he developed his political acumen to achieve the vision he had for the United States in the world.

Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is discussed throughout the book when important moments in both their lives cross. While Hemings is not the focus of the book, the ‘relationship’ is interwoven by Meacham into Jefferson’s complicated thoughts on slavery that is more thoroughly detailed towards the end of the book and is some of the best analysis in the book. Yet, the focus on Jefferson’s political skill in comparison to his contemporaries and his time resulted in a fairly quick book to read (505 pages) that had extensive notes that could have added more to the body of the book and given the book more depth is the basic drawback of the book.

Over the last decade, a new round of biographies of the Founding Fathers has brought praise and more attention to the actual human beings we think of when we hear their names. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is a fascinating read of a man whose words and actions are both celebrated and controversial.

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Jefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation

Jefferson's America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a NationJefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation by Julie M. Fenster
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I received this book via LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for an honest review.

Early in history of the United States, the new nation found itself in a cold war not against a nation across the ocean but across the Mississippi river and the Floridian border. In Jefferson’s America, Julie M. Fenster relates how Thomas Jefferson first as Secretary of State and later as President battled with Spain to define the borders of the United States before establishing a claim on the West which would define the future of the country.

Almost a century before the United States and Spain actually fought a war; the two nations could have fought a war over Louisiana which could have been the legacy of Thomas Jefferson’s administration instead of the territory’s purchase. The Louisiana Purchase was not the event that stopped this war; it only made the likelihood more probable as the southern boundary of the territory was undefined and both nations claiming different demarcations of their respective territories. Jefferson’s solution to both keep peace and stake a claim on the West for the United States was exploration.

The journey up the Missouri, over the Rockies, and to the Pacific Ocean by the Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark is thought today to be the expedition that claimed the West for the United States. While that much heralded journey is chronicled in this book, Fenster also brings forth the effects by other explorers to study the geography of the Mississippi and southern rivers like the Red and the Arkansas. Men like Thomas Freeman, William Dunbar, Zebulon Pike, George Hunter, and Andrew Ellicott brought their own talents and personalities in exploring the frontiers of the United States and helping Jefferson make a political claim to those frontiers.

The book as a whole is well researched and overall Fenster does give the reader an view of the little known history behind the first great expansion of the United States, however there are issues that do not make this an easy read. Firstly, the first quarter of the book is rather dry and could discourage some readers who would be impressed with the later three-quarters of the book. Fenster took a chronological approach to her writing and detailed several expeditions simultaneously when they overlapped, while I didn’t have a problem with this particular set up and approach there was a drawback in that Fenster did not transition from one to the other that well which at times forced the reader to stop for a few seconds to stop and reread a sentence or two to denote when Fenster was switching from one expedition to another.

Upon completing Jefferson’s America, I found it instructive on this period of the Early Republic in not only the national and international situation but also the experiences that the explorers faced as they traveled around various points in the West.

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The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders

The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's FoundersThe Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders by Forrest Church
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

During my lifetime the so-called “culture war” has seen a debate about if the United States was founded as a Christian nation or not, however it turns out that this debate occurred during the nation’s founding. In The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders the issue of religious liberty and if the United States was a Christian nation was presented in 14 chapters of original writings of Founding Fathers and other Americans of the Revolutionary period, compiled by editor Forrest Church.

Covering a thirty year period, between 1772 and 1802, Forrest Church provided to the reader 14 writings from a variety of authors. The most famous are Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison with material before, during, and after their times in office. Other writers including not as well-known Revolutionary figures Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams as well as largely forgotten Founding Fathers now George Mason and Oliver Ellsworth. However while the well-known and historically prominent were well represented, Church also included the writings of average citizens Isaac Backus, Caleb Wallace, and John Leland to show that not only the ‘political elite’ were debating issue of religious liberty.

The strength of the entire book is the writings presented in this volume and need not be reviewed or critiqued. Although Church does his best to introduce and give context to the writings he presents, these little introductions are in fact that the only compliant one can really have with it. Given the amount of material available during this time period, Church does an admirable job in complying a number of texts from a variety of individuals to present what America’s founders thought and is a must read for anyone interested in the church-state debate in the United States.

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Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights

Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women's RightsRevolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights by Diane Eickhoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book via Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.

The life of women’s right crusader Clarina Nichols is the focus of “Revolutionary Heart” by editor-turned-historian Diane Eickhoff. Through Nichols life, we not only see the accomplishments of a very determined woman but also see the history of the three great antebellum reform movements.

The life of Clarina Nichols begins at one end of the country (Vermont) to the other (California), but a very important part of her life was spent in helping settle and attempt to influence the formation of the State of Kansas. Eickhoff using recovered sources that had not been known of since Nichols’ death in 1885, brings Nichol life in an entertaining and engaging manner that keeps the reader manner. Eickhoff follows Nichols’ life growing up in Vermont and her troublesome first marriage that helped focus her crusading efforts in the antebellum women’s right movement that was launched by circumstances in her second marriage. While detailing Nichols’ efforts on women’s rights, Eickhoff makes it a point to show Nichol’s as a mother not just as an aside but as one of the main themes throughout the book. And through Nichols, Eickhoff helped bring into the focus how the three major antebellum reform movements—abolition, suffrage, and temperance—were interwoven with one another for a 30 year period.

“Revolutionary Heart” pacts a lot of material in 277 pages in a well-written biography of an under-recognized leader of the early women’s rights movement in the 1850s thanks not only to Eickhoff’s writing but also her background of editing. The life and work of Clarina Nichols helps give context to the 1850s and 1860s when the popular view focuses on slavery and the Civil War. I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about the early women’s right movement.

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Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans

Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New OrleansEmpire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I received this book via LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for an honest review.

The virtuous reforming of New Orleans over the course of thirty years is chronicled through the lives of a few reformers, but mostly through the lives of the purveyors of vice in Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin”.  The book is a riveting history of the colorful life of the Crescent City that was, and still is, unique in both Southern and American cultural history.

Krist brings New Orleans of the 1890s into clear focus at the beginning of the moral crusade, detailing the how the city’s French and Spanish beginnings created a unique cultural atmosphere that created an environment that the social and business elite of the city found needing reform.  Krist’s narrative takes place in four phases (1890-1, 1896-1907, 1907-17, and 1917-20) in which he identifies one defining moment that resulted in a change towards the reformer’s goal of cleaning up the city.  Throughout the book, the vice career of Tom Anderson is highlighted and how his fortunes showed either the progress or staling of the reform movement in the city.

Throughout the book, Krist ably shows how on event that surrounded on group of individuals had ramifications on various aspects of life in New Orleans.  One examples is how when reformers concentrate prostitution and other vice industries into one area, they inadvertently created an incubator where jazz was able to be cultivated into a new musical art form.  In connecting his entire historical narrative together in readable prose, Krist hooks the reader quickly and never lets him go.

After the reformers finally succeed in their quest to clean up New Orleans, Krist gives a short aftermath which ironically saw the city eventually embrace it’s sinful past to market to tourists and conventions.  The irony isn’t lost on the reader who can understand some of the motivations of reformers, particularly ending political and police corruption, but cringe at the stripping of civil rights of numerous groups throughout the narrative.  “Empire of Sin” shows the uniqueness of New Orleans history that is an very enjoyable read and is highly recommended those who enjoy history.

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