Monday, June 17, 2024

Patriot Presidents: From George Washington to John Quincy Adams (William E. Leuchtenburg)

In Patriot Presidents: From George Washington to John Quincy Adams, author William E. Leuchtenburg highlights the first six presidents of the United States, each of whom charted a critical role and course in America's history as well as the office they were elected to. Leuchtenburg crafts his research into an effective narrative showing how the Presidency evolved over the first 40 years of the office after the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

The first six presidents were deeply involved in the American Revolution and sought to preserve its ideals. While they all had a different vision on how America should evolve, they each gradually changed the scope of how the president should function. However, each held strongly to the ideals of the Constitution without giving them too much executive power.

Patriot Presidents is an important read in discovering how America's executive branch changed over the early decades of America's history and how far the Office of the President has evolved since its formation in the late 18th Century.

MY RATING: 4

Monday, June 10, 2024

The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America (James L. Swanson)

James L. Swanson has written several historical books, most notably Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. Having read a few of Swanson's books in the past, I was looking forward to The Deerfield Massacre: A Surprise Attack, a Forced March, and the Fight for Survival in Early America. While the book is still a very good historical account of the town of Deerfield, I found myself learning more about the town and myth of Deerfield and its role in colonial history than I did about the massacre itself.

Deerfield was founded in the late 17th Century and was initially a frontier outpost in the Connecticut River Valley, with Native Americans populating much of the region to their west and north and coming into conflict with colonial settlers. A first attack of settlers and militia in 1675 nearly caused the area to be abandoned, but the town gradually resettled. Conflict between France and England in Europe spread into frontier areas separating French Canada and New England, helping lead to the attack by Native American and French forces in 1704.

Much of the book is devoted to the stories of Deerfield residents that survived the conflict, along with the town's history as shaped by the attack. Deerfield, along with many neighboring towns, have become more symbolic for heritage tourism in helping show what life was like in colonial times, perhaps a bit sanitized, but showing early American colonial life as a means of storytelling. 

As I said above, much of The Deerfield Massacre is about the town and those who were shaped by its place in history and less about the event itself. But Swanson does a good job of sharing why the town's evolution is important.

MY RATING: 4.5 

Monday, June 3, 2024

A History of Fake Things on the Internet (Walter Scheirer)

Conspiracy theories and "fake news" have long lurked in the shadows of our mainstream, even before the Internet was created in the late 20th Century. But this new creation allowed for a proliferation of fakery that has become an everyday part of our culture. In A History of Fake Things on the Internet, author Walter Scheirer discusses how technology has played a role in the advances of memes, deep fakes, and other falsehoods to the point where it's sometimes impossible to separate fact from fiction.

Hoaxes and fake imagery have a long history, predating modern computing, beginning in the 19th Century. As technology advanced and the ability to communicate electronic messages developed, sending out fake information became much easier. Creating memes, pranks, hoaxes, and hacks all gradually developed into small cottage industries, and soon bot farms and nations also engaged in the act of spreading false information.

Scheirer makes an effective argument that fake content is less the fault of advancing technology than it is human behavior. However, as technology continues to advance and AI especially continues to grow, the ability to rein in the crazy and imaginary will become ever more difficult.

MY RATING: 4

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Age of Revolutions: And the Generations Who Made It (Nathan Perl-Rosenthal)

Between 1760 and 1825, much of Europe and the Americas went through a series of revolutions that ushered in new countries and an increasing use of democratic republics. Two generations of revolutionary leaders made their marks in Europe and the Americas, transforming the lives of millions and leading to significant change in government and history. These leaders and the revolutions they helped incite are the focus of Nathan Perl-Rosenthal's book The Age of Revolutions: And the Generations Who Made It.

England, France, and Spain controlled the vast majority of the Americas in the 1750's. But within 75 years, colonial possessions of the three nations had dramatically changed. Canada was wholly taken over by England, and much of the rest of the Americas became a series of independent states or federations. France also dealt with internal revolutions of its own -- with the monarchy deposed before a short-lived republic, the era of Napoleon, and a return of the monarchy after Napoleon's downfall. Other attempts at republican forms of government took place in the Netherlands and parts of Italy. 

Perl-Rosenthal does an artful job of bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic numerous times, sharing the backgrounds of pivotal individuals such as Adams, Bunel, Bolivar, and of course, Napoleon. Each had an impact on their country and changed it dramatically. Each generation of changemakers learned from a prior generation, but the era of 1760-1825, in the author's eyes, was arguably one of the most transformative in world history.

MY RATING: 4

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and the Hidden History of Hoops (Jack McCallum)

Basketball in Indiana is often described as a religion of sorts. The state's tournament, which was a single class of all high schools for over 50 years, brought together small towns, big cities, parochial schools, public schools, and everything in-between. The tournament was opened up to private and Black high schools in the 1940's, with Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis becoming the first Black high school to win the state championship in 1955, repeating the next year.

The movie Hoosiers is largely based on Milan High School, which won the title in 1954, beating Attucks in the semifinals. However, Attucks' back-to-back state championships were largely more transformative for Indiana basketball. Jack McCallum highlights Attucks High School's basketball program in The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and the Hidden History of Hoops.

In the book, McCallum talks about the history of race in both Indianapolis and Indiana generally, where racism dominated much of the landscape. The book weaves between the rise of Attucks as a basketball powerhouse and how the state of Indiana reacted to it.

Attucks, coached by Ray Crowe, played dominant and inspired basketball, with a young Oscar Robertson leading the team in those days. Even though Robertson declined to be interviewed for the book, press accounts and stories by his fellow teammates help provide a strong narrative of Attucks breaking barriers and winning with class. 

MY RATING: 4.5

Monday, May 13, 2024

The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America (Jeffrey Rosen)

Along with life and liberty, the Declaration of Independence mentions "the pursuit of happiness" as an unalienable right. What this phrase means has changed over time. In the early days of America, the Founding Fathers meant for the pursuit of happiness to be a pursuit of virtue -- of being good and and doing virtuous work by bettering yourself with knowledge. In The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America, author Jeffrey Rosen profiles six of American's most influential founders.

The six men profiled (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton) all had varied lives and a tremendous impact on America's beginnings. Each valued industry, self-control, moderation, and sincerity and strove (and failed) to secure moral perfection. Jefferson and Adams kept vast diaries and piles of correspondence. Washington strove to lead a regimented, disciplined life and control a temper that only rarely got the best of him. 

The pursuit of virtue and self-betterment from our Founding Fathers was a bit hypocritical given a number of them owned slaves. While they also knew that the pursuit of virtue was incompatible with enslavement, many couldn't or wouldn't take the step to emancipate their slaves. Rosen does talk about the evolution of John Quincy Adams, John's son, in becoming a fervent abolitionist in his post-presidency as his virtuous pursuit.

Rosen effectively interweaves these stories of the pursuit of virtue and self improvement with our modern day worship of social media, influencer culture, and tweets, showing that what the Founders thought of as happiness is not how we see it today. Rosen articulates the spirit of self improvement that many early Founders strove for, despite their flaws and sins, and that they perhaps were better at maintaining a spirit of mindfulness that many of us could learn from in today's tweeting. TikToking world. The idea that we should take a step back and think before we speak, tweet, or TikTok is something that every Founder would consider a virtuous and wise move.

MY RATING: 4

Monday, April 22, 2024

A World Safe for Commerce: American Foreign Policy from the Revolution to the Rise of China (Dale C. Copeland)

Dale C. Copeland's A World Safe for Commerce: American Foreign Policy from the Revolution to the Rise of China is a historical study of how American international trade and foreign policy are often interlinked. Taking the reader from pre-independent colonies through two wars with Britain, this book shows how American behavior and antagonism towards Britain were largely due to British desires to keep America's growth in check. Over the subsequent centuries, America's foreign policy would often reflect the realpolitik of trade relations with allies and "enemies" throughout the world as the country grew both geographically and economically.

Copeland's historical framing of trade and foreign policy sets up a useful final chapter where he discusses the present relationship between the United States and China, a country that itself is in a position of rising global economic and political strength. Copeland analyzes potential scenarios for how the U.S.-Chinese relationship may play out in the coming decades, drawing on China's history as well as America's current political environment to map out potential outcomes. 

A World Safe for Commerce may be a complex book to digest in some areas, particularly when economic or foreign policy theories are explained. However, the bulk of the book is a fine narrative of understanding America's economic growth and how its foreign policy was tied largely to its global position and, in recent decades, its desires to shape global economic conditions.

MY RATING: 4