Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country by Effie Florence Putney

This is a history of South Dakota written for grade school children in the 1920s, when the frontier days were still in living memory.  (Indeed, my mother was educated in a one-room schoolhouse some years later.)  This was before Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug, so the emphasis is somewhat different than a current history book might cover.

State Seal of South Dakota
State Seal of South Dakota

In the introduction, Ms. Putney explains that she’s tried to write the book in “stories” to make it easier for children to read, but never past the point of it not being good history.  The majority of the story is or intersects with Native American history, and the author tries to be evenhanded.  The war between the Ree (who were in the territory first) and the Dakota (a.k.a. Sioux) is covered in separate tales for each side.  However, there’s a lot of use of words like “savage” and “rude” (meaning crude, without craftsmanship) to refer to the native peoples.

Many of the short chapters are not so much about South Dakota as they are about people who passed through South Dakota on their voyages, such as Lewis & Clark.

The efforts of missionaries and others to “Christianize” and “civilize” the Native Americans are depicted entirely positively, and when the various difficulties between the races are brought up it’s always phrased that the Indians thought that the whites had broken treaties, rather than just admitting that the treaties had indeed been broken.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter on the political shenanigans around the choosing of the state capital, with two major railroads offering free rides to encourage the citizens to vote for that railroad’s favorite.  (It wound up being Pierre.)  The last chapter is about the activity of the South Dakota Volunteers in the Philippine insurrection.  Their heroism is emphasized, though it is mentioned that the Filipinos thought they had been ill-used when the U.S. refused to let them be independent after the Spanish-American War.

This book is primarily of local interest to South Dakotans, but may also be instructive to students of history who want to see how it was taught to children in the early 20th Century.  Parents of younger readers will want to discuss the history of Native Americans as we now understand it, and how prejudice can distort our images of those who are different.  This volume was reprinted in 2010, so you may be able to find a reasonably-priced copy.

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson

Disclaimer:  I received this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the premise that I would review it.   My copy is an Advance Reader’s Edition, and changes will be made in the final version, including an index and more illustrations.

The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

George Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” has had a great number of books written about him.  However, most of them are general biographies of his entire life, or focus on his two most active periods, being Commander in Chief of the American revolutionary forces, and being the United States of America’s first president.  This book covers the period between those two, when Washington was trying to retire to his day job as a farm owner and landlord.

As one might expect, Washington being away in the war for eight years had done Mount Vernon no favors, and there was much to set right.  In addition, land that he owned in the west was either mismanaged or infested with squatters.  For these personal reasons, and because he feared that the newly settled lands might pull away from the new republic unless there were good communication routes, Washington sponsored building a navigable waterway up the Potomac River.

Unfortunately for George, it quickly became apparent that the Articles of Confederation weren’t a sufficient framework to run the new country on.  The Continental Congress couldn’t pay its bills, including the back pay of the Revolutionary Army, because the individual states didn’t want to give them any money.  And the Articles didn’t allow them to force payment.  (Kind of like how certain countries are perennially behind on their dues to the United Nations in the modern day.)

Bad money policy led to hyperinflation in some states, while too strict a money squeeze in Massachusetts led to Shays’ Rebellion when debtors could not get relief.

So a convention was called to fix some of the problems with the government–only to have it taken over by those who felt a wholesale overhaul and a new constitution was the only way to go forward.  Washington was reluctantly called forward to chair the convention and give it the public gravitas it needed to be taken seriously.

The convention adopted a strict rule of secrecy as to its proceedings, and Mr. Washington took this very seriously, not writing any of the details in his diary or personal letters.  As he seldom spoke on the floor, what was going through his head, and what backroom conversations Washington might have been having are mostly unknown to us.

Still, the convention came up with an innovative three-part federal government with checks and balances built in.  Not everyone liked all the compromises made, but as a process for amendment was included, it was sent to the states, who mostly voted for ratification.

The problem for Washington at that point was that the new Constitution called for a strong central executive, the President.  And there was just one man the Federalists trusted to be the first, Washington himself.  So he spent the first Presidential campaign not running for office, but desperately trying to get on with his personal life before it was wrested away by his country again.

There’s an epilogue which briefly covers the Presidential years and Washington’s later life.  There is a long endnotes section and several black and white illustrations.

Mind you, this story isn’t all good news.  George Washington, like everyone else, had his flaws.  The most pressing one is that he was a slaveowner, one of the biggest in Virginia.   He seems to have been ambivalent on the subject of slavery, regretting its “necessity” but always finding it economically unfeasible to do without buying more slaves, and only making good on his promise to free his personal slaves in his will…with the actual freedom to be after Martha Washington’s death.

For more on one particular slave of the Washingtons, see this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oney_Judge .

However, it seems likely that his slaveholding helped the Southern states accept the Constitution and the idea of a President more willingly than they otherwise would have.  And Washington’s patriotism and sense of civic duty were strong influences on the early shape of the United States government.

As with other biographies that only cover a limited time span, students will want to supplement this volume with a more general biography.  I’d recommend this book for high schoolers on up, as the subject matter is a bit dry for most younger readers’ tastes.

And to round out this post, let;s have a look at the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair by Barbara & Robert Tinker with Pendred Noyce, illustrated by Yu-Yu Chin

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Once again the Galactic Academy of Science must reach out to kids from the 21st Century to preserve the timeline.  This time Dr. G is sabotaging the International Science Fair to crush the spirits of budding scientists and create a public impression that junk science is just as valid as real science.  Future teen  Quarkum reaches out to two new field agents, Ella and Shomari.

Shomari and Ella must travel through time to learn about cryptography and cryptoanalysis, codes and ciphers, so they can crack the coded messages Dr. G is sending his minions while protecting their own communications.  From Julius Caesar’s shift cipher to Whitfield Diffie and the public key, the experts of the past inform the children of the present to save the future.

This is the latest in a series of children’s books about science, with the framework of ethnically diverse youngsters traveling through time to learn about subjects firsthand.  The language is suitable for fourth graders on up, with more difficult words defined in the text.  It helps that Ella and Shomari are very literate for their age and bright enough to bring up examples when they’re appropriate.

Important or notable words are emphasized with colored text, and the illustrations are good.  There’s information on how to find more codes and ciphers on the publisher’s website if the reader wants to play along.

There is some mild peril–Dr. G’s minions aren’t very threatening.  And the story acknowledges that there are difficult topics that come up in the past, such as slavery, religious discrimination and sexism, which hinder or offend the children from time to time.    However, they are treated as problems of the past, with no mention of such topics in the present.

Like many kids, I went through a codes and ciphers phase, and this book would have been fascinating to me then.   Check out your school or public library.

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7

Magazine Review: Out of the Gutter #7 (Winter 2010)

Back in the day, the low-cost entertainment option of choice was the pulp magazine.  It contained fast, exciting stories on cruddy paper–a lowbrow art form that is still fondly remembered by some.  “Out of the Gutter” tries to be somewhat in that tradition.

Out of the Gutter #7

This is the “U.S. vs. U.K.” issue, with alternate stories from American and British authors.  They’re handily arranged by the time it takes to read them, with the shortest stories up front, interspersed with somewhat relevant quotes and bits of non-fiction.

Unfortunately, while the cover promises “pulp fiction and degenerate literature,” the stories tend much more strongly to the degenerate side of the equation.   Lots of drugs, sex (yes, including rape), strong language and of course violence, with few likable characters to be seen.  It’s kind of like pouring habañero sauce on your jalapeños; too much burn and not enough nutrition underneath.

That said, there are a couple of good stories.  “Darkness Creeps” by Stephen D. Rogers is a good snapshot of a petty bureaucrat trying to fix a town one atrocity at a time.  “Real Estate” by Benedict J. Jones is about a finger man investigating drug dealers’ deaths.  And “Pleading and Bleeding” by Charlie Wade follows two police officers tracking down a serial killer with a thing for bankers.

The non-fiction is more varied.  A comparison of infamous murderers of the U.S. and U.K.,  a remixed comic about social etiquette, and a piece suggesting that the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Paine rather than Thomas Jefferson are a sample of these.

Based on this issue, I would not recommend this magazine, but it was certainly an interesting read.

Book Review: Rot Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America

Book Review: Rot Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America by Rex Bowman & Carlos Santos

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Rot Riot and Rebellion

If I told you about a school where the students constantly engaged in partying, drunkenness and extramarital sex;  where the students scorned to study and disrespected the teachers, a campus rife with violence that boiled over into riots that resulted at least once in murder, what school would you think I was talking about?   If you guessed the University of Virginia from 1825 to 1846, you would be correct.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville was the first secular college in the young United States.  All previous schools of higher learning had been sponsored by one denomination or another, and had mandatory religious services.   Thomas Jefferson had a vision for a school that people of all religions and none could attend.  He also had some innovative ideas about the power structure such an university might have.  This got him a lot of opposition, so it was only in his eighties that the school was finally built.

Sadly, the first few classes of students failed to live up to Mr. Jefferson’s expectations; at one point he broke into tears in public, which brought about a short-lived attempt to do better by the pupils.  They were a rowdy bunch who gambled and drank and abused slaves; and were so jealous of their honor that any real or imagined slight erupted into violence.  One student tried to blow up a professor with an improvised bomb–twice!  And quite a few of them were prominent in the Confederate Army; sadly, none are mentioned as joining the Union.

There are many colorful stories of the early days, including the short college career of Edgar Allan Poe.  Since this is a University of Virginia publication, it comes with proper end notes, bibliography and index.  There are some black and white pictures in the middle, mostly portraits as very few of the important people involved lived to the age of photography.

This is a very enjoyable book that I would recommend to Virginians (especially alumni of the college), fans of Thomas Jefferson, and college students who are tired of being told how much worse their generation is compared to those of bygone days.

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