Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

1400030722.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considered by some the most dangerous man to be President and others as one of their own that deserved the office, he ushered in a sea change in Washington and American politics. Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands follows the future President of the United States from his birth in the South Carolina backcountry to frontier town of Nashville to the battlefields of the Old Southwest then finally to the White House and how he gave his name to an era of American history.

Brands begins with a Jackson family history first from Scotland to Ulster then to the Piedmont region of the Carolina where his aunts and uncles had pioneered before his own parents immigrated. Fatherless from birth, Jackson’s childhood was intertwined with issues between the American colonies and Britain then eventually the Revolutionary War that the 13-year old Jackson participated in as a militia scout and guerilla fighter before his capture and illness while a POW. After the death of the rest of his family at the end of the war through illness, a young Jackson eventually went into law becoming one of the few “backcountry” lawyers in western North Carolina—including Tennessee which was claimed by North Carolina—before moving to Nashville and eventually becoming one of the founders of the state of Tennessee and become one of it’s most important military and political figures especially with his marriage to Rachel Donelson. Eventually Jackson’s status as the major general of the Tennessee militia led him to first fight the Creek War—part of the overall War of 1812—then after the successful conclusion of the campaign was made a major general of the regular army in charge of the defending New Orleans from British attack which ultimately culminated in the famous 1815 battle that occurred after the signing of the peace treaty in Ghent. As “the” military hero of the war, Jackson’s political capital grew throughout the Monroe administration even with his controversial invasion of Florida against the Seminole. After becoming the first U.S. Governor of Florida, Jackson left the army and eventually saw his prospects rise for the Presidency to succeed Monroe leading to the four-way Presidential contest of 1824 which saw Jackson win both the popular vote and plurality of electoral college votes but lose in the House to John Quincy Adams. The campaign for 1828 began almost immediately and by the time of the vote the result wasn’t in doubt. Jackson’s time in the White House was focused on the Peggy Eaton affair, the battle over Bank of the United States, the Nullification Crisis with South Carolina, Indian relations, and finally what was happening in Texas. After his time in office, Jackson struggled keeping his estate out of debt and kept up with the events of around the country until his death.

In addition to focusing on Jackson’s life, Brands make sure to give background to the events that he would eventually be crucial part of. Throughout the book Brands keeps three issues prominent: Unionism, slavery, and Indian relations that dominated Jackson’s life and/or political thoughts. While Brands hits hard Jackson’s belief in the Union and is nuanced when it comes with slavery, the relations with Indians is well done in some areas and fails in some (most notably the “Trail of Tears”). This is not a biography focused primarily on Jackson’s time in the White House and thus Brands only focused on the big issues that is primarily focused on schools instead of an intense dive into his eight years.

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times is a informative look into the life of the seventh President of the United States and what was happening in the United States throughout his nearly eight decades of life. H.W. Brands’ writing style is given to very easy reading and his research provides very good information for both general and history specific readers, though he does hedge in some areas. Overall a very good biography.

Shocking Secrets of American History: 115 Surprising and Amusing Tales

bed9a0ebf5ac105597241716b77444341587343Shocking Secrets of American History: 115 Surprising and Amusing Tales by Bill Coate
My rating: 0.5 of 5 stars

Shocking Secrets of American History is a collection of 115 anecdotes over the course of history from the colonial period to the 20th Century written by Bill Coate. Subtitled as “115 Surprising and Amusing Tales”, this was anything but as nothing was shocking, surprising, or amusing. Besides that, there were incorrect historical information, typos, and at least one incorrect photo. For an author who taught history for sixth and eighth grade as well as college, this isn’t good product.

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

1400067650.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Coming to the Oval Office at a critical time in foreign and domestic affairs, the Presidency of George H.W. Bush was filled with successes and failures but guided by a steady hand. Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham brings together independent historical research and interviews from the former President and numerous family members as well as political colleagues and advisories to bring the life and career of the 41st President to readers.

Meacham begins the biography with a family history of G.H.W. Bush’s father and mother showing how their lives were shaped that would influence their second son and made him the competitive though ego suppressing individual he was. Though Meacham gave overall historical background for certain situations, this was a book focusing on the life of G.H.W. Bush and what he did throughout his life from his post-war decision to forgo an easy career on Wall Street to join the oil business to Texas and being his own man in politics and not agree with everything his father Prescott believed while serving in the Senate. A political career that had as many defeats as victories, G.H.W. Bush’s path to the White House was through public service, especially throughout the 1970s especially in the diplomat sphere that would later impact his handling of foreign affairs of his Presidency. Meacham covers the Vice Presidential and Presidential terms in detail which cover over half the book before ending with the former President’s unique retirement as elder statesman and father of a serving President of the United States and an analysis of his relationship with his son during those years.

Taking roughly a decade of research, interviews, and writing Meacham presents a thoroughly well-rounded view of the 41st President, Barbara Bush, and their relationships with their children within reason. The elder Bush and Barbara allowed Meacham a free hand in written and this is evident in their attitudes to individuals being put in print and Meacham analysis of various controversies particularly Iran-Contra scandal. If there is one drawback is that at the time of publication the 41st President was still alive with several years left to live and express his views on things, but also a biography after the subjects death allows time afterwards to fully analyze their lives and that difference was evident.

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush is a very written and thorough biography of the 41st President of the United States. Like his other biographies, Jon Meacham’s research and analysis give a vivid description of his subject and his family. This is a highly recommended biography for anyone interested in the 41st President or the particular time in the 20th Century when he was in office.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton 1775-1777 (The Revolution #1)

1627790438.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The American Revolution was both political and martial in scope, yet while the high dramatic points are often touched upon it’s the details that are missed where real history can be seen affecting and creating those high points. The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson is the first book in a trilogy chronicling the military history of American Revolutionary War from major battles to minor skirmishes to unknown campaigns left out of other general histories of the period.

The account of the Revolutionary War begins in 1773 with the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party put Massachusetts under martial law and the resulting insurgency throughout the entire colony that restricted the royal government’s control to Boston alone. This situation led to the British regulars’ expedition to Concord, via Lexington, thus beginning a colonial rebellion that would slow mushroom into a global conflict. From this beginning Atkinson chronicles the military events of the war over the next two years in as best chronological fashion he can provide with multiple theaters opening up from Boston to Virginia to Canada to the Carolinas to New York and New Jersey with multiple other little events happening around the colonies as well. Atkinson avoids venturing into the political aspects of the Revolution save for how it directly affected military affairs thus George Washington’s appointment and the Declaration of Independence shaping the American military cause are covered, on the flip side the politics on the British side especially George III’s view and how the British government’s instructions to it’s commanders and the logistics of a transatlantic war were covered in-depth to provide context to the how and why of various British strategies. And the slowly developing diplomatic “front” which would be important later in the war is given its groundwork beginning, centered around Benjamin Franklin.

The approach Atkinson takes in his chronicle of the American Revolutionary War is first and foremost a military history with political, diplomatic, and social influences of secondary importance and in context of their influence on the military situation. In previous histories of the period I’ve read, the civilian governments support, or lack thereof, of the Continental Army were focused on a lot but Atkinson flips the narrative and focuses more on the British side to emphasize the transatlantic nature of their war effort especially as their expectations of loyalist support in both manpower and supplies. Atkinson brings forth many minor engagements surrounding better known battles, first in the Canadian expedition and later in various Southern colonies/states in 1775-6 that general histories do not touch on. While Atkinson is good in providing biographical information to many important participants from both sides as well and how disease affected both sides, it is also where some of his biggest mistakes and oversights occurred that left one scratching their head but not bad enough to ruin the whole of the book.

The British Are Coming begins Rick Atkinson’s military history trilogy of the American Revolution in dynamic way while also giving the reader a new view of the period. The emphasis of the historical narrative on the martial conduct of the war from major battles and campaigns to minor engagements as well as giving a clearer focus on the British side of the conflict makes this different from other books of the period I have read and has me looking forward to the next book.

Miracle at Philadelphia

bd7aa2b1eaf90685933536e5977444341587343Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nation new to its independence dealing with issues internally and external, it’s nascent future hanging by a thread all comes down to 55 men from across its length and breadth to come up with a solution. In her 1966 historical review of what became known as the Constitutional Convention, Catherine Drinker Bowen chronicles how the future of the young United States was saved by a Miracle at Philadelphia.

Though the majority of the book focuses on the four-month long Convention, Bowen begins by setting the stage for why and how the convention came about with the ineffectual government that was the Articles of Confederation and the movement to amend them, which was led by James Madison and endorsed by George Washington by his attendance in Philadelphia. For those like myself not really versed in nitty gritty details of Convention it was interesting to learn that most of the work was done in ‘Committee of the Whole’ in which Washington while President was seated among the other delegates. The familiar highlights of the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, and the Great Compromise are covered but in the historical flow of the debates within the Convention and decisions in-between of important elements within the Constitution. Throughout the Bowen introduces important personages and how their views remained constant or changed throughout the Convention resulting reputations being made or destroyed during and after the process of ratification. Bowen ends the book with a look at the ratification process, in particular the debates in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Covering approximately 310 pages, the book is efficient in covering the events of the Convention overall. However Bowen completely missed how the Great Compromise was voted in the Constitution, she just mentioned it. Besides that big miss within the Convention, Bowen spends chuck of the middle of the book covering a “Journey in America” that had nothing to do with the Convention but was just giving a glimpse of the nascent country that felt like filler than anything else.

Miracle at Philadelphia is a very good historical review of the Constitutional Convention that does not analyze but just reports history. Catherine Drinker Bowen does a wonderful job in juggling the various accounts of the Convention by the delegates and the official record to create very readable narrative. I highly recommend this book for those interested in this closing piece of the American Revolution.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

031216985x.01._sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The largest empire in history ended less than a century ago, yet the legacy of how it rose and how it fell will impact the world for longer than it existed. Lawrence James’ chronicles the 400-year long history of The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, from its begins on the eastern seaboard of North American spanning a quarter of the world to the collection of tiny outposts scattered across the globe.

Neither a simple nor a comprehensive history, James looks at the British Empire in the vain of economic, martial, political, and cultural elements not only in Britain but in the colonies as well. Beginning with the various settlements on the eastern seaboard of North America, James describes the various colonies and latter colonial administrators that made their way from Britain to locations around the globe which would have an impact on attitudes of the Empire over the centuries. The role of economics in not only the growth the empire but also the Royal Navy that quickly became interdependent and along with the growth of the Empire’s size the same with the nation’s prestige. The lessons of the American War of Independence not only in terms of military fragility, but also politically influenced how Britain developed the “white” dominions over the coming centuries. And the effect of the liberal, moralistic bent of the Empire to paternally watch over “lesser” peoples and teach them clashing with the bombast of the late-19th Century rush of imperialism in the last century of the Empire’s exists and its effects both at home and abroad.

Composing an overview of 400-years of history than spans across the globe and noting the effects on not only Britain but the territories it once controlled was no easy task, especially in roughly 630 pages of text. James attempted to balance the “positive” and “negative” historiography of the Empire while also adding to it. The contrast between upper-and upper-middle class Britons thinking of the Empire with that of the working-class Britons and colonial subjects was one of the most interesting narratives that James brought to the book especially in the twilight years of the Empire. Although it is hard to fault James given the vast swath of history he tackled there were some mythical history elements in his relating of the American War of Independence that makes the more critical reader take pause on if the related histories of India, South Africa, Egypt, and others do not contain similar historical myths.

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire is neither a multi-volume comprehensive history nor a simple history that deals with popular myths of history, it is an overview of how an island nation came to govern over a quarter of the globe through cultural, economic, martial, and political developments. Lawrence James’s book is readable to both general and critical history readers and highly recommended.

Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe–The Bill of Rights and The Election that Saved a Nation

159698192X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, The Bill of Rights, and The Election that Saved a Nation by Chris DeRose
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The future of the young United States hangs in the balance as two friends and rising statesmen travel the roads of eight Virginia counties to become a member of the first Congress under the newly adopted Constitution, depending on who is elected the new Constitution will succeed or fail. Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe—The Bill of Rights and The Election That Saved A Nation by Chris DeRose follows the lives of future Presidents James Madison and James Monroe lead up to the election the two men faced off in Virginia’s 5th Congressional district and why the result was important for the future of the nation.

The lives of the young Virginians James Madison and James Monroe were both different; one was sickly and served in legislatures during the Revolution while the other was healthy and a soldier during the war. But there were similarities as well as both were wholeheartedly behind the success of the new nation and deeply troubled about the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, wanting those similar of mind to come together to bring changes. After the failed Annapolis Convention, Madison coaxed George Washington out of retirement to the Philadelphia Convention and the result was a new Constitution that was sent to the states for ratification. Monroe, though wanting a better government than the Articles, found the new Constitution too much and joined other Anti-Federalists in Virginia hoping to reject the new document in the face of Madison and the Federalists. The heated Virginia Ratification Convention went back and forth before Virginia passed the new Constitution, but the Anti-Federalists stuck back in next session of the House of Delegates putting Madison in a seemingly Anti-Federalist district and convinced Monroe to stand for election against him. If Monroe were to win, the Federalists who would be the majority would be without a leader and not support any amendments (i.e. the Bill of Rights) that Monroe and the Anti-Federalists wanted thus possibly leading to a second Constitutional convention that would undo the new government. However, Madison’s victory came about because of his support for a Bill of Rights especially his long support of religious freedom for dissenters in Virginia.

Coming in around 275 pages, Chris DeRose’s first book was a nice read with good research and nice structure to show the parallel lives of his subjects before their history defining election. Yet the fact that the vast majority of my synopsis focused on the last half of the book shows that while DeRose had a nice structure he didn’t use his space well. Several times throughout the book DeRose would insert his opinion on what he believed Madison or Monroe were thinking at some moment in time which came off looking amateurish that fact that wasn’t helped when DeRose would also insert asides alluding to current (as of 2011) political event several times as well.

Overall Founding Rivals is a nice look into the early lives of James Madison and James Monroe along with a crucial election they stood for with the new Constitution in the balanced. While Chris DeRose did admirable work, it is still his first book and in several places it is never evident. Yet with this caution it is still a good read for history buffs especially interested in this critical period in American history.