Nov 12

The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, by Donald Hickey ★★★★★

If anybody has been following the recent books that I’ve been reading and reviewing, many of them are centered around history, and recently, of early United States history. The war of 1812 has not been well taught in school, and so I decided to fill in a few of the gaps in my education. Hickey’s text has been well reviewed on Amazon, and, not wishing to read all the books available on this war, settled with this book. It is quite condensed, without wasted words, but very complete and detailed. Hickey especially points out the conflict of Americans regarding this war, which was not strongly supported by the nation as a whole.

Hickey outlines the events that led up to the war. It was mostly complaints about British control of the seas, and their interference with American merchant vessels. Britain was fighting a war with France and needed as many sailors as possible, yet many of their sailors were “jumping ship” and working on American merchant vessels since life was safer and the pay was much higher. Britain would confront American ships, and make off with any sailor that was British, leaving some merchant vessels devoid of sufficient sailors. Britain also imposed highly restrictive areas to which American vessels could sail and thus limit American trade to Britain’s enemies, while America wished to maintain neutrality with both Britain and France. This was not a new problem but had been an issue since the end of the Revolutionary War.

The nation was quite split on whether or not war should be declared. The northern Federalists were very opposed to war, while the southern Republicans were more than eager to engage in battle. (Please note, the Republican Party of 1812 was NOT the Republican Party that we know of today). Madison, being a Republican, was eager for war. There were just three problems. 1) Half the nation was dead set against war, 2) The USA at that time had essentially no army or navy, nor constitutional means of building an army or navy, and 3) nobody, Federalist or Republican, showed interest in financing the war. Such issues needed to be addressed before declaring war, but not to either Madison or the Southern Republicans. War it will be and war it was.

The war was really broken down into three years of battle, 1812, 1813, and 1814, though the last year extended into 1815, the peace treaty was signed by the Brits on Christmas eve of 1814. The year 1812 began with high hopes, with plans for the invasion of Canada on three fronts, as well as assertion of control of the high seas. The invasion of Canada went poorly, and in the end, more land was lost than gained. Fort Dearborn (Chicago), Detroit, Mackinac Island, Niagara, Queenston Heights all fell, owing mostly to inept generalship, but also to the extensive British use of Indians throughout the war. It is no wonder that further Indian problems persisted in America; the Indians were definitely not the peace-loving innocent natives that popular imagery paints them to be. On the seas, the tide went the other way for the US, with victories from the US Constitution, as well as other smaller ship battles. This was unexpected, being that the British were considered an impregnable force on the seas. Additionally used were privateers (pirates), small quick ships with a few guns which acted independent of the US government, and which raided British merchant ships. This was a significant cause of grief for the British. In all though, 1812 was a bad year for the USA. New taxes were needed since outgoing trade was no longer taxed, and embargos (especially to Canada and Britain) only led to massive smuggling operations, free of taxation. The British were quite humored to note that American loyalty to their country quickly disappeared when a good financial deal could be offered.

The year 1813 showed a bit more promise to the USA, though it was quite mixed. Canada invaded US soil, taking Detroit. In return, the US sought to control Lake Erie, and had successful sea battles to that end. William Harrison was successful in re-taking Detroit, followed by the victorious battle of the Thames, where the Indian chief Tecumseh was killed. Lake Ontario battles were a mixed success, with the greatest defeats being from the weather. The battle of York was a success for the US, though the Canadian town was thoroughly looted and then burned. In return, Fort Niagara was captured by the British, and Buffalo burned to the ground. Attempts to take Montreal were failures owing to the greater defenses in that town. Southern battles also took place, which were mostly against the Indians. The Indians in conjunction with the British led to the massacre of Fort Mims. Andrew Jackson took command of the southern US army and multiple battle successes then ensued. The seas were quieter. The British now traveled in convoys, avoiding battle. They formed a blockade of the Atlantic coast, blocking most heavily the south since the Brits knew that it was the South and not the New England states that produced the war. The Brits commenced raids in the Chesapeake bay area. The only real US navy accomplishments were from the continued harassment on the high seas from privateers. Meanwhile, an unacceptable peace treaty was offered by Britain. The US enforced a more strenuous trade embargo, which was impossible to enforce, and violated by both the Federalists and Republicans. The US approached bankruptcy, and a national bank was unsuccessfully proposed.

The year 1814 was also a mix of losses and successes in battle. In Europe, the French were defeated at the battle of Leipzig, and though Britain still needed troops in Europe, was able to free up more ships and troops for the American campaign. Successes for the Brits in overrunning Prairie du Chien (in Wisconsin), as well as gaining control of lake Erie and Mackinac Island were countered by the Americans re-occupying Detroit. Multiple battles around Niagara were indecisive, some being quite bloody. Attacks from the British on and along Lake Champlain eventually resulted in American victories, with battles both on the lake and at Plattsburgh pushing the Canadians back into Canada. In return, the British extended their sea blockade into the New England waters. Eastern Maine was occupied by British forces. Chesapeake raids led to the burning of Washington DC, though the battle for Baltimore was a small victory for the US. It was at this time that the bombing of Fort McHenry was unsuccessful for the Brits, leading Francis Scott Keys to pen the Star Spangled Anthem. This battle was not necessarily a victory for the US. Meanwhile down south, Andrew Jackson was successful in his campaigns, including battles for Mobile and Pensacola (then officially owned by Spain), as well as the major battle of New Orleans. US sea losses included the US President and US Constitution.

Though the year 1814 had a mix of losses and successes, it was going horribly on the home front. Recruitment for the military was largely unsuccessful, and desertions frequent. Though illegal, there was massive trade occurring with the enemy. Congress was recalled to emergency session, but splits between the Federalists and Republicans made any compromise impossible. Tax increases to pay for the war with a failing economy was futile at best. The New England Federalists held a convention titled the Hartford Convention to solidify Federalist opposition to the war. Recommendations were presented to Congress. Though well-meant, the Hartford Convention was quickly spun as a traitorous movement.

A peace treaty was becoming increasingly important, since this war was hard on both the economies of Britain and the US. In addition, other nations were affected such as Russia, who depended on US shipping and thus eager to see an end to the war. Initial British propositions were found completely unacceptable to the US. The book’s author Donald Hickey notes that of all US successes, that of diplomacy to end the war was the U.S.’s greatest success. The ultimate decision was to return to status quo ante bellum, i.e., simple return to all conditions before the war started, including lands occupied by one or the other nation, and by return to all of the high seas policies which triggered the war in the first place. Interestingly enough, those high sea policies quickly became irrelevant following the war, since war also ceased in Europe, and so impressment (the British forcing return of sailors) and trade restrictions were no longer relevant. In my estimation, if the US would have waited, those problems would have solved themselves earlier.

Quickly after the war, the US spin doctors were able to frame the war as a victory to the US. The Republicans sold the war as a second and affirmative Revolutionary War against Britain. In reality, the war accomplished nothing but greater division in the US. Both political parties (the Federalists and Republicans) were on their last gasps. The US was plunged into deep debt. The Indian problem was probably made worse (for the Indians) through it all. Good did come from the war. The US realized the futility of trying to bring Canada into the fold of these United States. The US realized the necessity of having a standing army and strong defense system. Several US presidents were victorious generals of the war— William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. Thankfully, the death toll was more from disease than from combat fatalities.

We were taught in grade school that before the Viet Nam war, the USA had never lost a war. Yet, the war of 1812 was a war that was essentially lost, since it accomplished nothing but lost lives and lost property. The issues at stake before the war were not resolved. It was a futile effort of the young USA attempting to assert themselves in a crazy world. Yet, it leaves one wondering about all the wars that the US has engaged in. The war of 1812 was a war that never should have been fought. What about the other wars? The civil war essentially started at the birth of our Republic in 1789, and continues to this day. Massive lives were lost both on the side of the North and the South, yet we are rapidly retreating into another form of slavery at this time, and race relationships have never been worse than now. The Spanish-American war was a strange animal that didn’t serve many purposes except to change the hands of several islands. The first world war should never have been fought, yet WWII was the expected child of WWI. We created more misery than good in those two wars. The USA did achieve world hegemony, though it is uncertain (in my mind) whether that was really a good thing. The Korean and Viet Nam wars were either the result of the outcome of WWII or a consequence of European colonization of the world. Others view American history as showing a particular proclivity of Americans to go to war, yet that simply isn’t true, as every nation has a tendency to war, especially when they gain (or desire) military hegemony. It is intrinsic to fallen human nature to fight. Even the most outspoken anti-war Pacifists ultimately find excuses to defend themselves or their honor when challenged. There is only one Prince of Peace to whom we should all be bowing, and, outside of Him, we will know no peace.

This book is a wonderfully written book, hard to put down, chronicling of a very stupid and unnecessary war. It is no wonder that it is a forgotten war, or, when remembered, remembered in such a fashion as to distort history into saying something contrary to the truth. Reality does sometimes hurt, but it is a better alternative than living in a fantasy world.

Tagged with:
2 Comments »
Oct 18

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham ★★

I published this book review on 10/18/2020, but after some forethought and starting yet another period history book on the War of 1812, am realizing that this book does not deserve the faint praise that I gave to it. I also added additional reasons why I truly disliked this text.

This book unsurprisingly details the life and thoughts of our third president, Thomas Jefferson. I had already read the biographies of Washington, John Adams and Hamilton before attacking this book. I had awaiting me yet a history of the war of 1812, Andrew Jackson, as well as that of Madison and Monroe. After that, I will return to studies on the Civil War. This book was not as well liked by me, and does not stand up to the standard set by the other biographies mentioned above. I realize that this book might have been a NYT best seller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, yet truth be told, such accolades are essentially meaningless. This text is much shorter than other period biographies in several ways. There are multiple short chapters, each chapter named in standard fashion by some brief snippet of text found within that chapter. This book has a lengthy reference section, yet the text itself is only 505 pages, and the type face is 12 point on 15 point leading (larger than the typical 10/13 or 11/14 point type found in most texts), in narrower than typical columns, thus deceptively making the reader believe they are getting as much content as a typical biography text.

As would be expected, Meacham starts with the birth and early years of Jefferson’s life, being born on his father’s land at Shadwell, VA which lies in the shadow of Monticello. He attended college in Williamsburg, and there demonstrated some of his brilliance that led him to rise to echelons of power. His teachers and acquaintances at William and Mary college eventually put him into revolutionary circles. Meacham does not point out any illustrative traits that would suggest Jefferson’s greatness, and instead avoids laudatory praise at this stage in his life. Jefferson was eventually assigned the duty of writing the Declaration of Independence, though with the help and corrections of other founding fathers. During the Revolutionary War, there are large lacunae in Jefferson’s life, save for an episode in 1781, where Benedict Arnold and a troop of Redcoats moved on Monticello, with Jefferson running for his life, branding him a coward by many. Jefferson, having a love for all things French, became involved as an ambassador to France, and was assigned to be the secretary of state by Washington. Meacham omits much of the struggles between him and Hamilton while serving on Washington’s cabinet. Jefferson’s time in France and his interactions with John Adams in England are chronicled.

Jefferson was described repeatedly as a man that loved agriculture and loved the land. He designed and built, and then rebuilt the mansion at Monticello, and had his best moments while at Monticello, or at his vacation home at Poplar Forest. Jefferson was non-confrontational. He was not a Trump. Jefferson enjoyed the art of hospitality while at Monticello. Meacham speaks about Jefferson’s family. Jefferson lost his wife fairly early on and never was remarried. Jefferson’s sexual escapades included Sally Hemings, one of his “slaves” (though more white than black) who he took to France with him. He had a number of children from his real wife, though only two survived early childhood. With Sally, Jefferson also had children who were freed at Jefferson’s death and then went on to productive lives in the north as whites.

The presidency of Jefferson was notable for three events. First was the Louisiana purchase. Almost simultaneously was the commissioning of Lewis and Clark for their expedition. Thirdly was the trade embargo with England in hopes of avoiding a war with England. Sadly, many details were missing from each of these episodes. This is true of many other events in Jefferson’s life, making it very frustrating to read this book. Meacham did not master the art of story-telling.

Up until now, Jefferson’s life had not been portrayed by Meacham in glowing terms. Meacham was open about the many inconsistencies of Jefferson and tended to disparage him all along. Most notable was Jefferson’s inability to remain consistent with his ideology. Jefferson soundly condemned Hamilton’s banking system, yet realized he could not live without it and left it essentially unchanged. Jefferson condemned strong federal functions, yet purchased the Louisiana territory from France almost independent of the congress. Jefferson deployed the navy against the Barbary pirates, again in contrast to his arguments against Hamilton in forming a strong military. Jefferson remained a Francophile, blinding himself to the French revolution and its associated atrocities. Jefferson remained forever duplicitous regarding slavery, both wishing it gone, but finding that he couldn’t live without it. Jefferson was a brilliant, convivial man of great contradictions.

The last few years after his presidency was spent back at Monticello. Jefferson engaged in starting the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in valley below Monticello. This was intended to deter Virginians from needing to go up north to Harvard and Princeton for their education.

There are several reasons why I have problems with this book.

  1. Many of the events in Jefferson’s life are mentioned by starting the event story, but never completing it. This made the reading of this book to be very frustrating. A side story was started, and one expects that the story will perhaps be completed later in the book, yet it doesn’t happen. There are huge silent periods. What was Jefferson doing for most of the Revolutionary War? How was he aiding the war effort, and did he have any input into how congress or the war conducted itself? Meacham starts the story of the commissioning of the Lewis and Clark expedition, yet one is left with Lewis and Clark somewhere in the Rockies, presumably hunkered down for the winter after sending gifts back to Washington. Did they ever make it to the Pacific and back to the east coast? How did it affect Jefferson and further development of the country? The Louisiana purchase is briefly mentioned, but then one if left dangling. And then what happened? How did it go through congress? How was it received? How was it paid for? How did Jefferson justify the purchase as it seemed to go against his small-government Republican principles? At the end of Jefferson’s life, he started to build a university in Charlottesville and would watch its construction from Monticello. What became of that? How far did the university go in Jefferson’s lifetime? What was distinctive about it? How did it become the University of Virginia? How was it financed, since Jefferson was stone broke at the end of his life? I could mention many more examples of Meacham leaving the reader dangling.
  2. Details of importance related to many of the events of Jefferson’s life are glossed over. One misses the struggles of the Federalists vs. the Republicans, thus failing to show how Jefferson altered politics at the beginning of his term. One misses how Jefferson’s British policies were responsible for the eventual War of 1812. One loses the fanatical Fracophile leanings that Jefferson possessed that blinded him to tragedies such as the reign of terror in the French Revolution. One is not filled in how Jefferson’s enlightenment world view affected his religion and his decisions as President. The embargo enacted by Jefferson toward the end of his second term had colossal effects on America’s relationship to England and France, yet this is barely discussed.
  3. There is offered no serious analysis as to how Jefferson’s decisions and life affected the world to come. I don’t expect Meacham to offer his personal opinions, but I would love to know how the various controversies of Jefferson’s life, and how they were analyzed from and 18th and early 19th century perspective. Jefferson truly hated Hamilton for his system of banking, yet almost nothing was mentioned about it, even though it was a very big deal to Jefferson. Regarding Jefferson with his stance with the Indian populations; what were they? There was no serious analysis of Jefferson’s thinking regarding slavery, and how he justified his stance. Books of this sort should lead the reader in deep thought about the nature of our government and issues that existed in Jefferson’s time that persists today. Meacham does not compel the reader to think seriously about anything, and perhaps he is simply catering to the mentality of the readers of the New York Times?

One is left with an enormous question as they come to the close of reading this book. What was so great about Thomas Jefferson? Yet, the last two chapters of this book were an apotheosis of the man. The events surrounding his death, his worship by his friends, and his legacy were not well explained by this text. Is the book worth reading? Perhaps, in that, you do receive a brief history of the man, Thomas Jefferson. My advice would be to seek out other texts on Jefferson if you are indeed seriously interested. You will be disappointed with this text. What you will be missing is the development of the greatness of the man. Perhaps there is a better biography of Jefferson out there; this book is not the definitive text of Thomas Jefferson’s life.

Tagged with:
1 Comment »
Jul 06

A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White, Jr. ★★★★

This is a delightful 676 page biography of Abraham Lincoln, well studied and well written, describing Lincoln’s life from birth to death. The book reads quite easily, and inspires one to appreciate the greatness of the man who was to be our 16th president. I appreciated that the book was also heavily illustrated, and that the illustrations were not to be found in the center-of-the-book glossy pages, but abundantly mixed with the text.

I shall not detail and reiterate Lincoln’s life, being born in Kentucky, moving then with his family to Indiana, and then to central Illinois. White details how Lincoln was mostly self-educated, including studying law and passing the bar exam on his own. Lincoln dabbled in politics, winning a 2 year term in the House, mixing that with maintaining a highly successful law practice. Several failed attempts to achieve elected office ultimately led to his improbable but highly fortuitous win of the presidency.

Lincoln was considered an amateur in politics. He came under severe criticism for being inept and misguided. This continued on through the entirety of his presidency. Lincoln achieved an immortal status mostly after his death. Unfortunately for Abe, he entered the presidency during the onset of the rebellion with the South. Lincoln held preservation of the union as most important. Sadly, he was bedeviled by truly incompetent generals, the first (McLelland) was pompous and completely inadequate as a general, though he had the audacity to run against Lincoln for Lincoln’s second term in office.

It is odd that so much of the discussion regarding the civil war, that it was not over slavery, that it was a question of state’s rights, that the question of how to deal with the negro, the question of dealing with internal rebellion, suspension of habeas corpus, etc., remains questions that persist to today. Sadly, so many contemporary Confederate sympathizers of today present these issues as issues that were only critically analyzed and resolved by the South. I can appreciate the worn-out, hackneyed sympathies of the South but consider these assertions as mostly contentious rather than thoughtfully critical. Likewise, contemporary assertions that the South tended to be the most “Godly” against a heathen North, fail to recognize the deep religious convictions of Northern Generals and northern folk. Lincoln himself, though he grew up a Baptist and had no church affiliation for much of his life, attended a Presbyterian Church in Washington DC with Phineas Gurley as the pastor, a reverend who studied under none other than Charles Hodge. Many of Lincoln’s speeches bore witness to the heavy influence of Reformed thinking.

White excelled at providing analyses of Lincoln’s speeches, pointing out the literary techniques that made Lincoln uncannily exceptional as an orator. Indeed, White has written an entire book on the 2nd inaugural address, truly one of the greatest speeches of all mankind. Lesser minded folk will heap criticism on many of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, such as his Gettysburg Address; these very criticisms only attest to the absence of value if casting one’s pearls before swine.

Lincoln, toward the end of the war, was much concerned about the restoration of the south in acts of reconstruction. Sadly, he was assassinated before that could ever happen. We don’t know how things might have evolved differently had he been able to serve out a full second term as president, and speculation is unwise. What is tell-tale is how so much of the north, just like the south, really had no vested interest in the negro. True, many in the north detested slavery, and that, out of religious convictions. Both the north and the south refused to look on the negro as equal in value to any other human being. Whether they were most fit to be either slaves or second class citizens, there was little interest in helping the negro achieve a foot in society, only to have Woodrow Wilson’s segregationist policies extremely exacerbate the problem. Lincoln was correct in his 2nd inaugural address that blame is affixed to the entire nation, and not just the south, for the negro problem. Sadly, the problem hasn’t gone away.

I highly recommend this book. It is well written, though a touch tedious to read at times, and sometimes missing in details that I would have appreciated reading about. White paints Abe Lincoln as one of a few truly great Americans and Ole Abe deserves that distinction, regardless of those who would challenge otherwise.

Tagged with:
1 Comment »
May 17

The Origins of the Second World War, by A.J.P. Taylor ★★★★★

It is often said that history is written by the winners, and certainly such is the case with World Wars 1 and 2. At least for the second world war, there was a sense of public shame in Germany regarding Hitler and the events of his era, and memory of the Hitler era was understandably suppressed. Should Germans write a war history at this time, it would be meaningless and probably concur with everything written in the past by the “victors”. Yet, one cannot expect the English speaking world to write a fair and balanced history of the war. From the inception of the Great War (World War 1), the British masterminded propaganda regarding the Germans. Germans were painted as blood-thirsty savages that raped women and slaughtered babies, and who had absolutely no regard for human life, being brute beasts that lacked any form of dignity or humanity. The hypocrisy of the English was profound in painting the Germans as such, since their own lineage of Queens and Kings were of German origin, even resulting in them quietly changing their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to that of Windsor. Their royalty was more proficient at speaking German than English. Oh well! This fact must be securely hidden and forgotten. Perfidious propaganda and defaming characterizations persisted well after both wars against the Germans. I was reading about the meeting of some British and German climbers high in the Himalayas in the 1970s, and a German noted to a Brit that the Brits were recently beaten by the Germans in their national sport of soccer, to which the Brit replied that they just beat the Germans twice in their national sport of war. This ignores the fact that the Brits had been in constant war for at least the past two centuries in their attempt to rule the world. Oh well again! This current book was written in the early 1960’s by a Brit that has gone against the standard line which started back then and persists. This book is not revisionist history since it was written soon after the end of WW2 and based entirely on documents made public and publicly available evidence.

AJP Taylor provides a slightly different type of history of the events leading up to WW2, in that it is history almost entirely spent in recounting the work of ambassadors and statesmen from England, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and other involved European countries. In this book, you are told what was said, and just as importantly what was not said in trying to negotiate a lasting peace. What is clear (but often vehemently denied) was that the second world war reallystarted in 1918/19 at the signing of the treaty of Versailles and was just a continuation of what we call the first world war. The British and French both eventually developed a sense that the treaty of Versailles was pathologically flawed, yet flailed at resolving how to undo this treaty as well as other treaties that were made in the interim before the world war resumed in 1939.

Taylor notes that we have abundant documents from Germany since they were left in the rubble after the war and used in the Nürnberg trials. He also notes that we don’t have that luxury of obtaining essential documents from the Soviet Union since they have kept to this day most of their records as secret. The British and French have been selective in what records they have allowed to be seen. Thus, there will remain an intrinsic bias to any account as to the cause of world war 2. Regardless, the unearthed German documents tell a much different story than the current party line as to why there was a continuation of the war into what we call world war 2.

It would be weary for me to recount on a chapter by chapter basis the reiteration of what was said so eloquently by AJP Taylor. But a summary of the main thesis is simple. It is clear that Versailles demanded another war. It is clear that there was massive ineptness on the part of ambassadors and their states in trying to resolve the slow unraveling of the Versailles treaty, which by this time was looked on dimly by all parties. Hindsight is a wretched curse on all of us, yet we can now see that the war could have been prevented or made far more limited would the British and French had not wished to maintain their illusion of their being the prevailing super-power in Europe and honestly sought for reconciliation of the bad decisions at Versailles. The Germans were accused of frequently lying to the Brits and French, though Taylor has been able to show that both sides maintained an equal wealth of lies in their statesmanship. Most importantly, it can be shown quite clearly that the Germans (and especially Hitler) did not have a plan to conquer Europe or the world, and for that matter, had no interest in going to war with either Great Britain or France. Most certainly, the records from Germany demonstrate quite adequately that much of what happened in the events of 1936-1939 was unplanned and happened off the cuff; they were not the demonstration of a well thought out over-arching plan to stepwise conquer Europe. That the teaching still exists that Hitler was some evil mastermind going by a well-crafted script is testimony of how people wish to retain their own narratives regardless of the factual content of those narratives.

I’ve been told that the above recounting of the origin of WW2 is only one man’s opinion, and the debate continues and will never be resolved. It seems strange that those who say that simply wish to deny the evidence out there, their thinking being cemented in place by the fictional narratives that have created both world wars. Other authors have supported the thesis of Taylor by writing of the grave errors in the statesmanship of the Germans, British and French, specifically referring to Patrick Buchanan (Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War) which I had previously reviewed. Unfortunately, because we refuse to see the past clearly, we most certainly will persist in our errors in the future. More world wars can be expected, and blame will be fixated on the vanquished, regardless of the actual facts.

Tagged with:
2 Comments »
Apr 21

During my brief layover before getting back on my bicycle to resume the TransAmerica Route with Russ, I have had the opportunity to read books on cities that have influenced by life the last 50+ years. I plan on a 5-6 day bicycle trip the long way down to Portland, taking the train home, but have been interested in the history of both Seattle and Portland. Though I have lived in the Seattle area longer than Portland area, I still consider Portland my home. But, Seattle has a stronger “sex” appeal as a city. Though not exactly true, it has tried to paint itself as the most cosmopolitan and dynamic city. Contrariwise, Portland is the more artsy, colorful, environmentally friendly, and more comfortable place to live. True, it doesn’t have the Space Needle, but then, it doesn’t need a Space Needle. That’s my bias. It has nothing to do with the judgment of these two books. Both books paint a history of its city from its settlement by white man to the present day.


Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, by Murray Morgan ★★
Murray Morgan grew up in Seattle, but lived for the most part outside of Seattle, and is most remembered in Tacoma, by having a bridge in Tacoma named after him. He also wrote a history of Tacoma, and is buried in Tacoma. Yet, Seattle consumes his interest in this book. Starting with settlement by Doc Maynard, a somewhat sleazy if not incompetent merchant, Seattle fought hard to achieve supremacy over rival cities of Tacoma and Portland for the ascendency as the “great” city in the Northwest. Morgan paints a very patchy history of the city, mostly dwelling on various personalities that shaped the city. Unfortunately, these characters were all somewhat dubious personalities, either more in the show business, disreputable souls, or socialists/communists. Perhaps Morgan’s choice of characters only represent his own thinking and personality, or perhaps Seattle is best described by these persons; I’d like to think the former and not the latter. From John Considine and his efforts to establish brothels in the Skid Road area to Dave Beck and his corrupt leadership of unions, one is left with a bad taste of the city. Morgan does a very poor job of describing Seattle, its development and expansion, its physical development (such as the building of the locks, or the dismantlement of several of its downtown hills), its more reputable founding fathers, and the factors that molded Seattle into the city that it is. Morgan writes well, and it was easy to get through the book, but one was left wondering about the actual history of Seattle outside of what Morgan describes. Perhaps Seattle truly is the sleaze town that Morgan describes, but I’d rather think otherwise. I long wistfully for a solid history of the city of Seattle. It is sad that Morgan suggests that this book has been sold to school children as a credible history of the city.
 

Portland in Three Centuries, by Carl Abbott ★★★
Portland in Three Centuries is a different sort of book than Skid Road, written in perhaps a bit drier style, and yet significantly more informative. The book could have used maps for those uninformed as to the geography of Portland, yet each region was familiar to me, with many familiar names of historical figures that form community place names, though I was unfamiliar with the historical grounds for those names. Abbott has written other histories of Portland, Oregon and the surrounding areas. In this account, he was able to carry through history into the twenty-first century. He occasionally compares the personality of Portland with that of Seattle, as they are two radically different towns, even though they are both Northwest cities. Particularly, Portland has been far more environmentally sensitive, and possessing a far more stable economic base. Both have had their issues with corrupt politics, with dealing with race issues, with issues regarding trade unions, with the sleaze element and red-light districts, with fires and natural disasters, but Abbott does not linger on the problems, but rather, presents a dynamic city, eager to confront problems before they become unsolvable. A simple example is transportation issues, where Portland has been able to build a quality public light-rail system while Seattle picks its nose. I was amused that even in the 19th century, Portland was known as a bicycle town, and today stands as one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world.
Next week, I will be bicycling away from Puyallup, hitting the coast in Washington and riding down to Astoria, and then taking the Banks-Vernonia trail to Hillsboro, where I hop the MAX light rail to downtown Portland, and from there to Union Station (hopefully with a brief stop at cousin Dee’s world renown Ovation coffee shop) before coming back to Tacoma after the five day adventure. With my arrival in Portland, I will celebrate my love for that city, which I have known since moving there in 1964. In childhood, I dreamed of a bike trip from Portland to the coast, but now will be able to fulfill that dream, assuming I am not attacked by the weather, as my most recent other bicycle escapade.
 

Tagged with:
No Comments »
Jan 18


Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, by David Williams ★★★★
This is a wonderful historical accounting for how Seattle was massively reshaped, making it the city that it is. Large hills were completely removed, tide flats filled in, and the shoreline extended in the early reshaping of the city. Williams starts with prehistoric times, thenoffers an early history of the city including its founding by Arthur Denny. He notes Seattle’s original geography, and then details the decisions, and oftentimes absence of decisions, that led to the restructuring of the geography. It is now hardly imaginable that the shoreline was much further in, that many of the hills of the city existed that are now flattened or completely removed, that the drop in the Lake Washington shoreline by 3-6 ft with the placement of the ship canal completely changed the nature of the communities and industries that surrounded the lake, that the filling in of the Duwamish tide flats and many other flat lands adjacent to water now seem to be a natural part of a long pre-existing landscape. Williams takes a look back at all of this earthly rearrangement, and asks whether it was necessary or prudent, and whether the good was greater than the harm. These are questions that are not easily answered but always very worthwhile asking. Unfortunately, cities often get it wrong, Seattle with its audacious remodel of planet earth, as San Francisco’s grand decision to build the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Hindsight is a curse. Williams details how Seattle is now engaged in multiple tunnel projects, as well as rebuilding its waterfront which seems to be deteriorating, the new waterfront taking into account massive hypothetical rises in sea level. Who knows whether a future author will equally past judgement on current Seattle decisions?
There is only one detail I really didn’t like about the book. Williams writes as though he was doing a television script, which would work best for how the text stands. Though he includes a moderate number of historical photos, he also assumes that the reader is very familiar with Seattle. In order for me to grasp what he was saying, I needed to sit in front of Google maps, and search for every location described in the book. This slowed the reading down considerably. Many geographical features, like some of the hills of Seattle, simply could not be found. Maps are sorely missing in this book, which makes it a much less fascinating text. Hopefully the second edition of this book adds the missing maps.
I wish to thank Sarah B for recommending this book. My love for history and the environment fit well with this text.

Tagged with:
No Comments »
Dec 12


Martin Luther, The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, by Eric Metaxas, 480 pages ★★★★★
A recent review reported on three other histories of Martin Luther, read in light of the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the theses to the Wittemburg castle church. This book arrived after Reformation Day, and so I was delayed in getting it read. I read it as an autographed hard cover text, and not on the Kindle. The book is well written, and the reading flows quite easily. The book has a different focus than Roland Bainton’s magisterial text on Luther, Here I Stand, one of the books reviewed a month or so ago. Metaxas was wonderful in providing a more detailed physical history of Luther than Bainton. You were told which towns he traveled through, which people he befriended, the content of the conversations and debates of the time, small details that color the story of Martin Luther. One was told more about the mindset and thinking of the man Luther in Bainton’s text. The two texts stand as complementary, supplementing each other on the life of Luther, and both are worth reading in order to grasp the man Luther.

Tagged with:
No Comments »
Sep 07

In preparation for the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I decided to read up on Martin Luther. I’ve read three books so far, the fourth is in the mail and will be reported later. One book, Here I Stand, I’ve read many moons ago, so it was like reading the book fresh.

A life-Martin Luther, by Martin Marty ★★★★
This is a short, easy to read biography of Martin Luther. Marty focused primarily upon Luther as a person, with no effort to show how ML changed and affected the world that he lived in. It is easy to read in 1-2 evenings, and leaves you a feel for knowing ML personally. He works through Luther’s life in a historical fashion, providing vignettes of his life that are often illuminating as to the nature of the person, often chummy, often quite irascible. The book definitely does not labor hard on Luther’s theology, but more on his personality, and leaves nothing to describe the Lutheran church that he formed. It is a fun book to read, though not an encyclopedia of his life.

The Legacy of Luther, edited by RC Sproul and Stephen Nichols ★★
This book is a hodgepodge. As an edited book, the style and quality is quite variable. Several chapters are informative. Many are misleading or mistaken in their information. The two editors provide very little input, with RC Sproul writing almost nothing save for a few brief meaningless summary pages of text. Written by a bunch of Presbyterians, they do Luther a serious disservice by trying to fit ML into a Presbyterian mold. Though Presbyterians pride themselves in vigorous and accurate scholarship, this book is anything but that, save for a few chapters. Many of the chapters try to paint ML as a near-Presbyterian with Presbyterian theology, something they are quite mistaken about. There is minimal discussion as exactly how Lutheran thinking affected the minds of Reformed thinkers, such as Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Cranmer and others. Such discussion might have made the book an informative read. There is so much left out that the entire book, that it is a travesty. They fail to grasp how the liturgical reforms of ML in Wittemberg during the years 1522-1528 so heavily influenced Reformed practice. They fail to describe exactly how the formulations of the doctrines of grace in Lutheran thought affected Reformed thought. They failed in their attempts to compare and contrast Lutheran from Reformed thinking. All of these issues were responsible for affecting the world after Luther and forming his legacy.
The book is in three parts, the first being the history of Luther, portrayed in a very abbreviated fashion. It does have some historical inaccuracies, and was a little too brief to be meaningful. The second part was an attempt to describe Luther’s thought and theology from a Reformed perspective. This section was weak, and often completely misreads Luther by trying to make his words that of a Reformed thinker. This section would be best skipped altogether. The last section was on Luther’s legacy, which contained some good chapters. Particular were Luther’s work at translating the Scripture, Luther as a musician, and Luther as a preacher. One chapter, “Luther in the middle: Luther among the Reformers” was just plain odd, in that Luther, in the space of just a few years, had to completely re-invent the liturgy, while refusing to totally trash the Roman Catholic liturgy. For the most part, though there was Huss and Savonarola and few others before Luther, their legacy was not strong. Contemporaries such as Zwingli did not survive long enough to leave a lasting imprint on the church. Only Luther remained as, not the man in the middle, but the man at the head, serving as the model and example for all of Christendom, including the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist faith, as model of the church, worship, and christian behavior. Indeed, Luther affected German culture in toto, down to the very language now spoken in Germany. To call him a “man in the middle” is not only insulting but inaccurate.
The few good chapters in this book do not justify its purchase or time to read. I generally pride Sproul as a great scholar, yet this book is a shame to his name. I certainly hope that he either quits writing, or that he return to his older standards of excellence in scholarship.
 

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton ★★★★★
There is very little that I could possibly say critical of this text. It is no wonder that Bainton’s biography of Luther remains the top English text on this giant. Bainton’s writing style holds one fixed to the text, even when laboring over minute (but important) aspects of Luther’s life and teaching. Bainton provide a wonderful mix of the history of Luther, but also of the thinking and mind of Luther, providing many quotes, some even lengthy quotes, to help one understand the man ML. This text was a delight from the first to last page. It is detailed but not excessively so, giving one a feel as to Luther as a person, as a genius, as a scholar, as a husband and father, and mostly as a leader of the Reformation. Luther’s faults are all too well known, but Bainton does not labor on those, and shows the beauty of this man, making him proper to be labeled first among many to lead the charge against an evil and corrupt Catholic church. This book should be a must-read among Christians who wish to know their heritage.

Tagged with:
No Comments »
Jul 26


Puyallup-A Pioneer Paradise, by Lori Price and Ruth Anderson ★★★★
Now that I have lived in Puyallup for over 25 years, I decided that it would be nice to read a history of our town. This book became available at the local Costco, and at a most reasonable price. The book is organized mostly in a chronological fashion, starting from the early 1800’s and going up to the end of the 20th century. The focus is nearly entirely aimed at the central town itself, and the settlers who built the town. Many details are missing, which I presume are facts which might never be known. The book does provide brief sketches explaining why Puyallup was built the way it is.
My greatest complaint with the book is its brevity. The authors will use flowery language to explain town struggles during the war years and hardship times, such as with the hops aphid crisis. Reading past the flowery language, one wonders about the true nature of the settlers of the Puyallup valley. My second gripe relates to the focus entirely on Puyallup. In a way, it is good that Price and Anderson held to their stated topic, so, I can’t complain. Yet, Puyallup was developed in a much larger context. An explanation of the development of Sumner, Orting, Eatonville, and the (now ghost) towns that dot the banks of the Carbon River and Puyallup River are all of intense interest to me, and provide a greater understanding of the town of Puyallup. What about the Indian wars, and other relations with the Indians. Satulik? Other famous Indians of the area? Where were they? What about the railroads? Puyallup and the surrounding towns were bustling railroad towns, and how where they developed? Even details such as when the Puyallup River was given a straight course are left out.
The book is a fascinating read, and I was delighted in reading about my town history. It has piqued interest in further exploration of the Puyallup valley and its history.

Tagged with:
No Comments »
Jul 01

22716_lg
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany, by William Shirer ★★★
This book was read on my iPad. It is a fairly large book, taking me a while to complete it, thus, the absence of many other book reviews on my blogsite. Shirer was a journalist in Berlin, leaving Berlin approximately 1940-1941 (he doesn’t say exactly when), and then observing from the sidelines. The book is fairly well researched, and heavily referenced. After the end of the book, a 1990 afterthought is included by the author. He had noted that the book was on the best sellers list for a number of years, and purchased in many countries except for Germany itself. This Shirer felt was a sign that the German people still remained clueless as to the nature of their goose-stepping militaristic nature, and he expressed fears that the re-unification of Germany was going to lead to yet another rise to power and German world war. Perhaps the person the most clueless is Shirer himself. Throughout the book, Shirer writes not as an objective historian, but as an opinionated, biased journalist. Shirer seems to let his thinking and emotions get in the way of solid historical reporting. As an example, he shows his bitter disdain for the personality of Von Ribbentrop, rather than seeking to describe his personality and then letting the facts speak from there. He describes many episodes of secret meetings where he seems to be cognizant precisely what transpired. He makes warrantless broad assumptions about the German people that don’t serve his commentary. Here is an example, quoting the book, ” One gets the impression that … many … “Good Germans” fell too easily into the trap of blaming the outside world for their own failures, as some of them had done for Germany’s misfortunes after the first lost war…”. Excuse me, but the blame does spread around to all the European nations as well as the US. Or, of speaking of Mussolini, “…as dictator, he had made the fatal mistake of seeking to make a martial, imperial Great Power of a country which lacked the industrial resources to become one and whose people, unlike the Germans, were too civilized, too sophisticated, too down to earth to be attracted by … false ambitions. The Italian people, at heart, had never, like the Germans, embraced fascism.” Such comments leaves one feeling whether they could take anything that Shirer says seriously. He truly couldn’t be serious in implying that the mass of German people were uncivilized, unsophisticated, not down to earth?  There are many more examples throughout the book.
Shirer provides a nice flow through the book and it is very readable. There is a wealth a facts that need to be selected out in writing any historical account, and the fact that huge numbers of texts have analyzed the Nazi phenomenon attest to the fact that even 60 years after the fact, we are still grappling with the problem of made Germany do what it did. Shirer provides a completely wrong explanation, but feeds western, and especially US arrogance in the matter. To divorce himself from the reality of Germany, Shirer had to paint the Germans as a different creature, perhaps even a different species or genus. To this date, political situations are so often compared to that of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The left and right of politics continually hurtles the accusation at the other of being just like the Nazis. Why isn’t Stalin and the Communists equally brought up as a examples?Or Mao Tse Tung? Or the Japanese emporer? Or Napoleon? The list could go on at length. Germany is used as the example because sub-consciously, they are a people the most like us. They, more than any other modern country, developed the ideas of ethics that shape our world. They developed our philosophy, our music, our culture, etc. They, more than even England, gave us our work ethic, and our sense of obedience to authority. The rise of Nazi Germany seems to be a great puzzle, yet it isn’t. We see ideas in politics today reinforce that the events of the rise of the Nazi state happen on a smaller scale every year in Washington, D.C. We claim that the German people should have known and risen up, yet we don’t rise up, as our freedoms are constantly eroded, and our government increasing behaves in a dictatorial fashion that we have no control of. We claim a moral superiority to the Germans of the first half of the twentieth century, yet truthful soul-searching suggests that we aren’t much different than they.
To end it, Shirer ends with the execution at Nuremberg of the main Nazi officials. Specifically, Ribbentrop, who Shirer completely despised,  is reported as to have flippantly blurted out to the American Military pastor, “See you later” as though he was making a colossal terminal joke. Actually, the full quote is as follows… “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul”. Then he turned to Gerecke (the Lutheran pastor) and said “I’ll see YOU again”. In the book “War and Grace”, Don Stevens recounts the story of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran Pastor in the military from Missouri, who was assigned to be the chaplain to the Nazi war criminals. In the process of his encounters with Goering, Rosenberg, Ribbentrop, etc., he noted that not a few felt genuine remorse for their actions, and found faith in Christ, including Keitel, Fritzsche, von Schirach, Speer, Raeder, and after much struggle, Ribbentrop. Many Americans sent Gerecke hate mail, detesting the fact that he would minister to the Nazi war criminals. Yet, the additional story from Stevens only strengthens the impression that the Nazis are us. We might have done exactly what they did in the circumstances. The story of the Nazis is a sobering story that should make all of us weep, and not arrogantly state that “they” are a breed of another kind. For that end, a book like this is worth reading.

Tagged with:
2 Comments »
preload preload preload