They Came for Freedom: The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims

MilbrandtThey Came for Freedom: The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims by Jay Milbrandt
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

One of the enduring founding myths of the United States is the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, and like all myths it was based on true events that were warped as time passed. They Came for Freedom by Jay Milbrandt explores how and why the Pilgrims came to the shores of Cape Cod as well on how they survived when other settlements failed.

The arrest and trial of one Henry Barrow, who defied the Anglican Church’s version of Christianity and maybe the authority of Queen Elizabeth by his dissent, the story of the Separatists who would eventually become the Pilgrims begins. Milbrandt followed the Pilgrims narrative through London, a small village in Nottinghamshire, to the Netherlands, and then across the Atlantic to Cape Cod. But alternating with that of the Pilgrims was the biography of Squanto, whose own life and adventures before the landing of the Mayflower led to him being a pivotal individual for the success of New Plymouth. Once the Pilgrims had landed, Milbrandt merged the two narratives together in a very readable detailed history that went up until the fall of 1623. Although Milbrandt continued his history until 1646, the last 20 years was just a glimpse of tidbits of historical importance.

At around 225 pages of text, Milbrandt’s efforts are particularly good considering that his primary sources were few and even those were slanted to give the colony of Plymouth a good impression. Although several historical inaccuracies did appear, they were mostly naming conventions and not detrimental to the overall book.

While short, They Came for Freedom is a good general history that gives the reader a sense of the real events that later became mythologized in American culture and folklore. Overall it’s a nice, readable book about a topic most American know little able.

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500 Years of Protest and Liberty: From Martin Luther to Modern Civil Rights

500 Years500 Years of Protest and Liberty: From Martin Luther to Modern Civil Rights by Nicholas Patrick Miller
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The upcoming 500th celebration of the Protestant Reformation has spawned numerous books focusing on the impact of the movement on particular facet of history. 500 Years of Protest and Liberty: From Martin Luther to Modern Civil Rights by Nicholas P. Miller is one of these books in which the author’s articles for Liberty are reproduced in an anthology to chronicle a link between Luther to MLK Jr.

The book is divided into four sections surrounding a central theme each reproduced article in that particular section can be related to. The section introductions and the articles are all well written and fascinating reads especially for those interested in freedom of religion and separation of church and state issues. However in relation to the subtitle of the book, I found the overall flow of the book did not link Luther to MLK Jr. The first and fourth sections definitely link Luther and to the present-day, but the third seemed to be just its own thing though very informative while the second is somewhere in-between.

So while the focus of showing a progression from Luther to MLK Jr., it thought it faltered enough to impact my overall rating, I still recommend this book to anyone interested in freedom of religion and separation of church and state issues.

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Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth

Scars of Independence: America's Violent BirthScars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

The quaint, romanticized version of the American Revolution that many have grown up with through popular history and school curriculum is not the real life story that those living during those years experienced. In Scars of Independence, Holger Hoock looks past the good versus bad and underdog narratives so prevalent today to reveal the multifaceted struggle and very violent history of the American Revolutionary War from all its participants.

Hoock frames the American Revolution as not just a colonial rebellion, but first and foremost a civil war in which the dividing line of loyalties split family. The Patriot-Loyalist violence, either physical or political, began long before and lasted long after the military conflict. Once the fighting actually began, both the Americans and the British debated amongst themselves on the appropriate use of the acceptable violence connected to 18th century warfare and on the treatment of prisoners. While both sides thought about their conduct to those in Europe, the Native Americans were another matter and the violence they were encouraged to inflict or was inflicted upon them was some of the most brutal of the war. But through all of these treads, Hoock emphasizes one point over and over, that the American Patriots continually won the “propaganda” war not only in the press on their side of the Atlantic but also in Europe and even Great Britain.

One of the first things a reader quickly realizes is that Hoock’s descriptions of some of the events of the American Revolution remind us of “modern-day” insurgencies and playbooks of modern terrorists, completely shattering the popular view of the nation’s birth. Hoock’s writing is gripping for those interested in popular history and his research is thought-provoking for scholars. Another point in Hoock’s favor is his birth outside the Anglo-American historical sphere in Germany, yet his background in British history and on-off research fellowships in the United States has given him a unique perspective to bring this piece of Anglo-American history out to be consumed, debated, and thought upon.

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth is a fascinating, intriguing, thought-provoking book on the under-reported events of the American Revolutionary War in contrast to the view of the war from popular history. Holger Hoock gives his readers an easy, yet detailed filled book that will help change their perspective on the founding of the United States by stripping the varnish away to reveal the whole picture.

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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 Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

ReaganThe Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The Invisible Bridge is an apt title for the latest installment of Rick Perlstein’s historical series on the rise of modern conservatism in American politics. After the scandal of Watergate, the Establishment of the Republican Party was desperate to repudiate its former head and his politics while the right wing looked to give American “a choice, not an echo”. The showdown between President Gerald Ford and Governor Ronald Reagan was thought a cakewalk by the political and media establishment who had not learned the lessons from 1964 and beyond.

Like the previous two book in the series, Perlstein shows that politics and history do not occur in a vacuum as cultural, entertainment, and societal issues during the middle part of the 1970s are covered and how they related to political scene of the time as well. In the wake of Watergate and the resignation of Nixon, the Democratic Party was so certain of victory in 1976 that numerous candidates entered to win the nomination and a sure term as President, only for a complete unknown to the Establishment—Jimmy Carter—to come out with the nomination. Yet the main thrust of the entire book is the 1976 nomination fight between Ford and Reagan; how it came about, how it was contested, and how it ended at the Kansas City convention.

Although history and politics are central to this book, Perlstein doesn’t shy away from giving biographies of the three important individuals of the period: Carter, Ford, and Reagan. The portraits those biographies provide are for the most part not very pretty, especially for those who idolize Ronald Reagan as Perlstein doesn’t pull any punches about his life. But for those who think Perlstein out to get Reagan, the image Perlstein shows of Carter is anything but rosy or positive and gives a hint about how he’ll portray the 39th President in his next book which will not make Carter fans very happy as well. Of the three major figures in this book, Gerald Ford comes out the best though in a way Perlstein gives the impression that Ford was more an individual desirous of pity than praise.

I began this review by saying that The Invisible Bridge was an apt title for this book and the reason was that not until looking back from the perspective of 1980 and beyond did anyone see that in 1976 when Ford won the Republican nomination that it was pyrrhic victory by a moderate conservative of a party increasingly controlled by the far right conservatives. Only in hindsight could the pundits and historians see the once hidden bridge of how the crushed right wing of 1964 had taken over by 1976, that bridge was one man who it turned out won by losing.

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Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and Fracturing of America