Sep 23

The Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis ★★★★

This book provides vignettes in several chapters of various events and characters from the founding period in USA history. It starts with a chapter on the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, works through a chapter on discussions regarding slavery, and then discusses various interactions, ending with the struggles and resolution of those struggles between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I can only presume that the author’s intention was to illustrate the disharmony of the founding fathers. He is quite successful, yet in many ways fails in his intentions. As an example, I am left very curious about the true details in philosophy that led many, including Aaron Burr, to so despise Hamilton. 

In spite of its flaws, I appreciated the book for several reasons. First, Ellis brings out a side of the founding years of our nation that isn’t commonly discussed, in that the founders were real people behaving among each other like real people. The characterization of the Continental Congress that a strong sense of unity and concurrence existed is a total myth, which should not be taught. Ellis also is a very fluent writer, making him quite easy to read. There were a number of quotable quotes in the book, and each page compelled the reader on to the next.  It’s a book that I could easily recommend others to read.

The Quartet, by Joseph Ellis ★★★

This book is a sequel to The Founding Brothers, offering glimpses into the founding of the constitution. Ellis’ theme is that if it weren’t for 4-6 people, the quartet being George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, perhaps also including Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, there never would have been an effective constitution to bind together the 13 states. The articles of confederation were a temporary measure to bind together the thirteen colonies in their struggle for independence, but were highly ineffective in that regard, in that each of the states failed to contribute adequately to the struggle for independence, leaving large unpaid war debts. The chronicles of how these four men led the charge of the federalists for a union that included a strong central government is a fascinating story to behold. Most demanded from many of the states was the expectation for a bill of rights, feeling that the constitution in and of itself was inadequate for the task at hand. It was a close call that many states, including New York and Virginia, had very strong opposition to a central government influencing their decisions. 

Ellis did not shine as well in this book as in the Founding Brothers, though it still is an interesting read. In this book, Ellis’ prejudices are revealed. First, he definitely has a strong feeling against the then contemporary notion of divine providence leading to the acceptance of the constitution by the thirteen states. In Ellis’ defense, even if the constitution did NOT go through, would it not have been divine providence? Secondly, Ellis always falls on the side of the federalists, and fail to give the arguments against a strong central government and the alternatives as provided by the “anti-federalists”.  Thirdly, Ellis uses the issue of much dissension to the constitution and a short statement by Jefferson (who stood strongly AGAINST the constitution), as representing the constitution as a “living” document. Jefferson suggested that the constitution should not be “too sacred to be touched” and that institutions (the constitution) must be kept in step with the times. So be it, yet Jefferson would absolutely have been appalled by the thought of 9 judges on the bench deciding that words mean something totally different from what was plainly written. It is shear balderdash to use the historical context and disagreements to the constitution to make the constitution an illegitimate document save for contemporary “feelings” about how the government should be regulated. Whether or not one was a federalist, there was a fear in 1789 of too strong of government, and why the “living document” advocates would essentially allow for a yet stronger central government who may interpret the principle law of the land and act without a common understanding of constitutional control, remains perplexing to me. The founders provided a means of amending the constitution, and it was NOT via the supreme courts. 

So, Ellis provides a very inadequate story of the history of the constitution as formed between 1783 and 1789. He writes well, but while succeeding as a literary agent, fails miserably as a historian.

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Sep 11

Washington: A life: by Ron Chernow ★★★★

I’ve been amiss at writing book reviews. Of the four books here, I found all to be delightful and informative reads, gaining insight into the thoughts and minds of historical characters from the late 18th century and civil war. I will continue several more books on the era of the founding fathers, before plunging whole hog into civil war history. The book “Sherman” has wet my appetite for the era of the civil war. But first, we review “Washington”.

Ron Chernow clearly has done his homework, going through vast volumes of papers and references to the man George Washington. Much of the book details his years during the Revolutionary War, and as president. Chernow is excellent at painting both the strengths and flaws in the character of Washington. Washington made many mistakes throughout his life, especially in the conduct of the Revolutionary War, and without the help of France, we would have probably still been a part of the U.K. I don’t picture him as a brilliant general, even though the soldiers he had to work with were painted as less than stellar. Congress (and the individual states) were also quite remiss at helping Washington fight the war that they commissioned him to accomplish. Washington’s strength was that of being able to inspire people, and to play the political games that brought people together and agree on vexing matters. 

Much of the mythology of Washington was debunked in this book. He did not throw a coin across the Potomac, or chop down a cherry tree. He did not kneel to pray at Valley Forge. His “god” was the nebulous force of “Providence”. Washington was a strong federalist, in that he wished for power to preside mostly in the central government, rather than the states. Oddly, it’s a battle that continues to this date. Chernow describes in detail but glosses over some extreme double-mindedness of Washington, such as his insistence on holding slaves, and not even allowing his most cherished slave to go free after years of dedicated service to his master.

In this book, we truly see not only greatness of the man George Washington, but also his horrid faults. Such a person would not have survived the twenty-first century. Thank God he lived in the eighteenth century. It is a book worth reading should one be interested in the founding fathers, and Chernow writes well, being able to hold your attention throughout the book.

Amazing Grace, by Eric Metaxas ★★★★

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery, details the life of Wilberforce, one of the leading persons in the British government to remove slavery from the United Kingdom. Metaxas details the life from birth to death of Wilberforce, showing the rise and actions of a truly great man, who was willing to put his life and effort into abolishing the slave trade in British Empire. This was accomplished in stages, with first the abolishment of the slave trade, and then much later, just before his death, the abolishment of the practice of slavery within the United Kingdom. Wilberforce’s accomplishments were actually far more than just addressing the issue of slavery during his time in the parliament, where he made much effort to bring help to the poor and downcast.

Metaxas paints Wilberforce as being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He grew up in a privileged family, and thus really never had to work. He dawdled his way through college, never really excelling, but he was able to enter the house of Commons through his speaking talent. Through a deepening of his Christian faith and encounters with John Newton, the pastor and author of “Amazing Grace”, but previously a slave trader, Wilberforce’s focus was directed toward the abolishment of the slave trade throughout the United Kingdom. Wilberforce was in Parliament at the time of the American Revolutionary War, though this did not seem to garner much interest to William. Like politics in the USA, there was much wrangling and fighting in Parliament before a decision could be made, and Metaxas is excellent at detailing that process.

So, what are we to think of Wilberforce? In a way, I would hold him in disdain as an elitist. In another way, he was able to take a moral stance against all odds, fight for that stance, and win, making him a hero of the cause. Wilberforce was motivated by a Christian conscience, something that also drove our Civil War for the abolishment of slavery, yet many might ask if the abolishment of slavery could have happened without a Christian mindset? I think not, but that is a topic for lengthy discussion over a good bottle of Cognac and a Cuban cigar. This book is much worth a read, generates stimulating discussion, and Metaxas is a superb author who writes in an addicting style. I encourage all to read this tome. 

1776; by David McCullough ★★★

This book begins in late 1775 and ends with the New Year of 1776. It repeats much material from Chernow’s text on Washington, though not focusing on Washington. The focus is mostly the first year of the Revolutionary War, and the activities in the North. The war in the south and at sea are really not mentioned. The campaigns in Massachusetts, the war to defend New York city, and the ending with Washington’s victory at Trenton are details. The end of 1776 left great wonderment whether Washington would ever be successful at overcoming the far more disciplined and vastly more numbered British army, supported by a large army of paid Hessian mercenaries. 

Washington faced multiple challenges from a very highly undisciplined army, as well as a congress always slow at supporting the war effort. The individual states were quite unwilling to send their militia to the support of the war effort, making recruitment a near impossible task for Washington. Much of the book is quite dark, as it should be for the first year of the war, where defeat far outnumbered victory, and those victories were most providential with the rag-tag army that Washington was fielding. 

The book would have been more successful, had McCullough carried on through the end of the war. I would have liked to see a more comprehensive review of what was occurring in congress, in the states, and other areas of the war, such as in the south. I would not put this book on the must-read list.

William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of my Country, by James Lee McDonough ★★★★★

This was a most delightful read of one of the greatest generals ever produced by America, and certainly a person that competes on the world stage as one of the greatest of the greatest mastermind in war. Sherman grew up in Ohio, being raised by adoptive parents. He went to West Point, much to the chagrin of his adoptive parents, did ok at West Point, and served in the military for a length of time, mostly in the south, but mostly attending high society parties. Eventually, he left the military, seeking fortunes in the banking industry in California. When California banking went south, Sherman moved back to the south to become one of the first military academies in the south, being released when the civil war broke out, and his strong disagreement with the south that matters should have been worked out civilly. 

Without detailing the events of Sherman’s life, and especially his war years, I would like to summarize some interesting aspects of his life. First, though he was probably one of the most brilliant generals of the war, the newspapers frequently characterized him as insane, a looney, and crazy. Any time there would be a struggle with the enemy, the charges would be resurrected. Kind of sounds like the press today… they never seem to get it right. Secondly, Sherman was correct in seeing war as a total war; civilians often are a contributor to the war, as was especially true with the civil war on both sides. Yet, it was Sherman that first spoke the phrase “War is all hell”. He had a very realistic approach to war, while having a very sympathetic feeling toward the enemy. We quickly criticize Sherman and his march to the sea, and yet overlook the supremely evil Confederate general that frequently confronted Sherman, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Sherman’s innovation in developing supply off the land far from his natural supply lines seemed only natural and right, and certainly was effective of breaking the will of the enemy for war. Though long dead, Sherman continues to receive unfair criticism. Like the other truly great generals such as Patton, end results tend to speak louder than the curbside audience that could never start up to the heat of the moment of these generals while leading the army to ultimate victory. 

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Jun 27

33Questions33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, by Thomas Woods, Jr. ★★★★

This is a nice book that has 33 short chapters covering a broad array of subjects in American history that are generally taught with a mistaken bias in public school. Woods looks at American history from a libertarian perspective, and notes that we are generally misled on many issues. These issues all center around the promotion of big government, whether it be the issues of the wars we’ve fought, the taxes we pay, or the ever increasing laws and regulations imposed on us, all for our supposed good. Woods capably shows that in general, the government has consistently made matters worse for us, rather than better, and that we now have far less freedom and security, rather than more of the same. He capably discusses the real issues of the civil war that generally are not mentioned any longer, and takes aims at various subjects including Teddy Roosevelt turning the presidency into a Monarchy, Hoover and FDR creating and maintaining the depression, Clinton creating a far worse racial slaughter in Kosovo than before we entered the Balkans, how unions have killed themselves, immigration issues, indian issues, affirmative acti0n, and many buzz words of contemporary issues that are not really so contemporary, and have been solved in a manner contrary to the constitution, and essentially to the disadvantage of all parties. It summarizes issues I’ve already been aware of, but provides for some informative, fun reading.

 

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Jun 24

I had no idea that this month would go so quickly. I’ve spent much of my time doing a number of things…

  1. 1.Recovering from jetlag. I did not think that it would take about two weeks to return to reality. Every day after return from Bangladesh was like being a Zombie. My internal time-clock persistently woke me at 2 am, and I was ready to go to bed every day at noon. Pitiful.
  2. 2.Learning French. I prefer to learn German. German is more fun to learn, and more useful. Except, when someone is going to Cameroon, which used to be a German colony, but taken over by the French. The area where we will be uses French as the immediate second language. So, I will re-learn French. I’m using French in Action, which is the best language study method that I’ve ever seen. You never are given English equivalents, but must always think in French. It is similar to how things were at the Goethe Institut learning German. I’m still trying to stay on top of my German, and you are all welcome to communicate with me in German whenever! Ich liebe Deutschland.
  3. 3.Preparing for the STP in one day. This is a 203 mile (320 km) one day affair. I’ll be doing it with some friends from church, Russ and Luc Andersen. They happen to be a bit stronger bike riders than I am, but, I suspect that I shouldn’t have too much trouble getting in the mileage. I’ve already done one century this year, and am doing at least one 70-80 mile ride per week, riding at least 3x/week. I’m now registering only the more significant rides in my Bikeblog, and will eventually merge that with my Hike-Ski blog.
  4. 4.Learning photoshop – reworking some instruction books to better master the art of connecting my camera to the computer to produce compelling prints.
  5. 5.Installing a new computer. My Power Mac was 5 years old, not Intel, and getting a touch slow. It was at last time to upgrade. So, I now have a new Mac Pro.

    I suspect this one will also last about 5 years. The old computer will be put to work performing other tasks. When I was using PCs with Billy Gates’ Windows, I’d essentially trash the computer every 3 years. All in all, it was a savings to be on an Apple computer, as it is a little more expensive up front, but you don’t have the crashes and problems that a PC gives you, and upgrading tends to be less expensive as on a PC.

  6. 6.Reading/ listening to music – I’m reading mostly larger texts, so, the book reports won’t be so plentiful. I’m re-working much of my old music, gaining a familiarity with more obscure pieces. iTunes lets me set to hear only “unheard” pieces, so that I am able to work through the entirety of my collection. I enjoy classical proper as well as twentieth century music, such as that of Korngold or Shostakovich or Goreki. There is too much good stuff to listen to. There are also too many good books that remain unread by me, and my library shelves sit full of books read or waiting to be read. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” Eccl. 12:12.
  7. 7.Ripping all of my movies. It’s easier and safer to use your movies from the computer than from the original disc. So, I am putting all the house movies onto several large hard drives. It doesn’t take up much personal time, as I can do other things on the computer while the computer rips a film.
  8. 8.Preparing for Cameroon. This will be another adventure, and am spending time thinking about how to make things go well in Cameroon, and how we might be of the best help to the missionaries who we will be staying with. Cameroon and Bangladesh are not countries that are high on the tourist list, and unfortunately, too many people go expecting some sort of adventure. We are going to be servants. It’s the least thing we could do. With that attitude, we could not have had a better time in BD. Hopefully, Cameroon will be the same. If I wanted a vacation, I’d go to the Caribbean or to Deutschland.
  9. 9.Backpacking? I hope. Jonny and I are signed up to do the Wonderland Trail counterclockwise starting 28 AUG. You’ll hear more about that once we are done. It is 93 miles, 20,000 feet elevation gain total, and usually takes 7-14 days. We will be doing it in 8 days. You have to schedule and reserve all of your campsites, so that you can’t just wander in and do the trail. It’s about 12-15 miles/day, which on this trail, can be rather demanding. You’ll get a full report in September.
  10. 10. Family. We visited Rachel and Diane. Rachel is now engaged to be married. We are delighted. She has found a good man.
  11. 11.Trails class – I did this one weekend, learning how to design, build, and maintain hiking trails. There is actually a science to this. Going to this class was an inexpensive luxury, that I could have never done outside of a Sabbatical.

 

While bicycle riding with the Andersens, it occurred to me that people do this activity as a fund-raising activity. And, why not? If people will pay me to have fun riding my bicycle, or hiking, or running, or picking my nose, or chewing gum, of course I’ll do that for a good cause. But, haven’t things gotten out of hand. How does a physical activity actually help somebody dying of cancer, or prevent poor starving children in China. In reality, it does nothing. This year, I will be engaged in two fund-raising activities, the Courage Classic, which is for the prevention of child abuse (you’ve got to be kidding me, no amount of money will prevent a moral problem!), and another ride4US, which is to purchase ultrasound machines for CareNet clinics. But really! Why these activities? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have me work for a day or week, and then donate the revenues to the cause? Of course it would, but it doesn’t get press. Actually, it was a Tacoma surgeon, Dr. G. Klatt, who started the whole run/walk/swim/pick a booger for some cause movement. He was quite well intentioned, and raised much money for cancer. It was a great idea, but, now, there are people arbitrarily asking for money for every mile of something that they do? Should I support this madness? I don’t think so.

 

Aber, was ist schließlich? Ich habe mein neues Fahrrad abgeholt! Hier ist es! Ein Foto! Ist es nicht wirklich schön? Es ist aus Stahl gebaut, dunn aber sehr streng, und ohne Gewicht! Nur 8.3 kg. Die Farbe sind gelb und rot und schwarz, und es fahrt wohl. Die erste Fahrt war über Cayuse und Chinook Pass, 1600+ km Anhöhe und 87km weit.  Es war sehr schön. Siehe “Bikeblog”.

 

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