BrooklynFans Of Books: On American History

On this President’s Day weekend, it’s time to take a look back at our history and who made us the country we are today with these books: Winter War by Eric Rauchway; John Marshall: The Man Who Made The Supreme Court by Richard Brookhiser; Behold, America by Sarah Churchwell;  The Rise of Andrew Jackson by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler; and A Nation Forged by Crisis by Jay Sexton.

Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal

By Eric Rauchway

Basic Books; hardcover, 272 pages; $30.00

Eric Rauchway focuses on the period between a Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in November 1932 and his inauguration the following March, and how he encountered conflict with the sitting president, Herbert Hoover, in that time.

Rauchway firmly debunks the myth that FDR refused to cooperate with Hoover in steering the country during the transition of power. Instead, Roosevelt’s victory was seen as a repudiation of the sitting president. He used the time before taking office to demonstrate that he would devote his presidency to the preservation of American democracy during the height of the Great Depression, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Germany’s election of Adolf Hitler to Chancellor.

Hoover blocked Roosevelt’s moves wherever he could, as he rejected the New Deal and spoke bluntly about the threat it posed to democracy. He attempted to convince anyone who would listen that FDR was not up to the task of becoming president , both intellectually and physically.

The deeply committed conservative Hoover launched the opposition to the New Deal, and ultimately the modern conservative movement, before it even reached the floor of Congress.

Rauchway examines how a leader can deal with the rise of dictators abroad while preventing one at home. He also looks what  winning candidates owe to their constituents, and what losing incumbents owe to the constituents who tossed them out.

John Marshall: The Man Who Made The Supreme Court 

By Richard Brookhiser

Basic Books; hardcover, 324 pages; $30.00

Richard Brookhiser, the editor of National Review and the author of a dozen books including Founding Father: Rediscovering George WashingtonFounders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Hamilton, American, now delivers an original look at the life and legacy of America’s greatest Supreme Court justice.

The Supreme Court has become a battleground in American politics, as shown by the contentious hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh this past fall. It wasn’t always this way, and as Brookhiser points out, the Founding Fathers did not give much thought to the third branch of the federal government.

In the early days of the United States, the Supreme Court lacked dignity and clout, and it was Marshall who transformed it into a central pillar of American life in his 34 years on the bench.

Marshall was born in northern Virginia in 1755, served as a captain during the Revolutionary War, and as delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention. He was appointed to the Court in 1801 by John Adams, almost by chance, and he immediately turned his sharp mind toward strengthening America’s legal order.

In an array of cases involving businessmen, investors, scoundrels, and Native Americans, Marshall eloquently defended the federal government against states which were acting unruly. He established the Supreme Court’s right to rebuke Congress or the President, and unleashed the power of American commerce.

Americans had a deep distrust of judges going back to its colonial past, and Brookhiser notes that the newly independent states bristled against the federal judiciary. Marshall, as a Federalist and as a follower of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, believed that a strong judiciary, with the Supreme Court leading the way, was necessary to define laws, protect rights, and balance the power of the legislative and executive branches. He feared that members of the Republican party, including his cousin and enemy Thomas Jefferson, were willing to undermine the Constitution to elevate themselves.

Brookhiser shows just how skilled Marshall was at uniting his fellow justices around decisions in controversial cases, as well as looking at the man personally, as he was known for his wit and charm, and his love of Madeira wine.

While largely praising him, Brookhiser does acknowledge some downsides to Marshall’s career, writing, “In some of his greatest decisions, he contradicts himself, or nearly so; one of his characteristic techniques is to advance a sweeping principle, then draw back to hang his decision on a lesser point. He boldly defended Cherokee Indians; he did nothing for blacks. There were moments when even he lost heart; toward the end of his life, he feared that the great constitutional holding operation and defense of Federalism that was his career had failed.

“Considering the Supreme Court’s role in American life today, we must also ask: Was John Marshall right? Is his vision of the Constitution as the supreme statement of popular will and the Supreme Court as its defender in fact workable? Do judicial guardians inevitably decay into unelected legislators? Are we too far away from the Constitution to think about it as intelligently, or care about it as passionately, as he did?…He was a backward looking man who lived and ruled forward. The implications of his career reach even further forward, into our century.”

Behold, America: The Entangled History of “America First” and “The American Dream”

By Sarah Churchwell

Basic Books; hardcover, 368 pages; $32.00

When President Donald Trump announced his candidacy on June 15, 2015, he proclaimed that “the American Dream is dead” while also promising to put “America first,” a pledge he renewed in his inaugural speech.

Sarah Churchwell examines the history of two of the most loaded phrases in America today, and how they both are misunderstood.

When Trump resuscitated “America first,” there were multiple think pieces in the press and on social media on its origins. It stretches back to World War II, and the efforts of the America First Committee to keep the United States out of the European conflict. It was invented by isolationists like Charles Lindbergh, whose sympathy for the Nazi project was often inextricable from an avowed anti-Semitism.

Other pundits were examining the American Dream, and some were asking if it was indeed dead. Nearly all pieces agreed on what the phrase entails: upward social mobility and a national promise of endless individual progress. Now, due to epidemic levels of inequality, that dream is viewed as being under threat, a story that has been recycled in the press since the Great Recession began in 2008. Most didn’t question what American Dream meant, but debated its health.

Churchwell notes that history rarely starts when we think it did, and it never seems to end when we think it should, nor does it tend to say when we think it will. Contrary to popular thought, both “American dream” and “America first” were born almost exactly a century ago, and rapidly tangled over capitalism, democracy, and race, the three fates that always spin America’s destiny.

These received wisdoms can become self-fulfilling prophecies, basically loaded dice to rig conversations. When what’s at stake are national values, and our language obscures us from the truth about those values, the stakes grow very high. Returning to original sources, as Churchwell does with great care and detail, exposes the gaps between what we tell each other that history shows, and what they actually said.

The Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern Politics

By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

Basic Books; hardcover, 448 pages; $32.00

In the early decades of the 19th century, most Americans moved away from the frontier, and some felt they were getting soft and losing the pluck that had made them hardy colonizers and happy warriors. A fear arose that the American Revolution’s great accomplishments were fading away as a delicate people, corrupted by comfort and a cynicism about government, couldn’t remember the cost of liberty.

Andrew Jackson’s image as the man who could reverse this trend began when he earned victory over the British at New Orleans in January 1815. Nine years later, he ran for the presidency, and his supporters argued that he could renew the nation. By 1828, most voters agreed that Jackson was crucial to securing America’s future, in that he would draw on the best of its humble but energetic past.

Historians David and Jeanne Heidler argue that Jackson’s election was actually the work of handlers, editors, politicians, and at least one political genius over the course of fifteen years. Their work forever changed American politics.

The Heidlers write of Jackson, “As early as 1816, a small group of people began working on a grand political project. Jackson’s reputation as a peerless military hero fueled their enthusiasm and formed the foundation for his ascendant political career. Jackson’s promoters harnessed a previously inchoate political movement spurred by broad discontent. People fumed over government corruption. They blamed the country’s central bank for its wrecked economy. They chafed at the disdainful elitism of their ‘betters.’ who expected the deference of olden days to survive the passing fancy of democratic politics. Yeoman, mechanics, tradesmen, and small merchants were unembarrassed by the charge that democracy was the cudgel of the mob. They seemed to be yearning for an unshakeable and self-aware man ready to do right against all comers, even if he was wrong.”

If this sounds familiar, if Jackson’s election sounds similar to the conditions that brought Donald Trump to power, you’re not incorrect. The Heidlers say of parallels between their campaigns, “Jackson’s political rise coincided with a growing discontent among people dissatisfied with governance by the established political class. Part of Jackson’s appeal, in fact, was his image as someone apart from and consequently above the insiders who seemed out of touch with the people and their daily concerns. Trump’s casting himself as an outsider intent on draining the Washington, D.C., swamp tapped into the same sort of discontent that made Jackson attractive. Yet, Andrew Jackson was different from Donald Trump in that Jackson had been in public service for decades when he ran for the presidency. Donald Trump has always been a public figure, but until his candidacy for the presidency, he had not held a public office.”

A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History

By Jay Sexton

Basic Books; hardcover, 256 pages; $27.00

It has been clear for some time that the last two decades have been marked by unusual volatility at home and abroad. The crises of our age, from the September 11th attacks to the 2008 financial collapse to the bitterly contested 2016 election, have been viewed as shocking turns of events.

American history has been largely viewed as a story of linear progress, a ship that has sailed forward in pursuit of its founding ideals.

Historian Jay Sexton sees it differently, and contends that our history has actually been decisively shaped by moments of upheaval. Moreover, he shows how the transformative political crises of our past have been entwined with sudden shifts in our position within the broader international system.

Sexton examined the crises that have made American history from the mid-18th century to the present: he begins with the American Revolution and the country’s founding, when the thirteen colonies broke from the British Empire and created a new political union. Next is the Civil War, also known as America’s “second revolution,” which witnessed the abolition of slavery and accelerated the U.S.’s international rise. Then there are the protracted and interrelated crises of the mid-twentieth century, the Great Depression, World War II, and the onset of the Cold War.

Sexton argues that these periods of crisis were like violent earthquakes that forever altered the nation’s political landscape. The history of this country, in particular these times of crisis, can’t be understood in a vacuum. Nations are more than repositories of individual rights and political traditions. They are configurations of power forged by geopolitical pressures.

The United States that we know today is an imprint of the international forces that have been placed upon it in the past, namely the booms and busts of the global economy, the ebbs and flows of human migration, and the violent fluctuations in the international order.

The notion of American “exceptionalism” has obscured the ways in which the volatile forces of global integration have conditioned its development. Instead of the perception of the U.S. being the exceptional nation walled off from the world, it has always been entangled within it, even in those times in which Americans have attempted to limit their connections to the international system.

Sexton argues that it behooves us to take a new look at our history to see how past moments of crisis have made America the nation it is today as we navigate “the stormy present,” to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. In an age in which our political crises are entangled with the volatile processes of modern globalization, we would be best served to look at out history from a global viewpoint. When we do this, American history comes off differently than what we have come to know and accept.

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