Roger Bishop

No one called it the “American Revolution” while it was happening. The British spoke of the American rebellion. Those protesting in the colonies merely called it “the Cause” and insisted they were not engaged in revolution. Even now, the question of whether it was a true revolution remains controversial.

Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution from the perspectives of both England and the colonists in his eminently readable The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773–1783. Using rigorous scholarship, Ellis offers vivid portraits of and penetrating insights about this period in history, while challenging our conventional understandings of it.

For the British, Ellis argues, the defining issue was power, not money. Imposing new taxes on the colonies was a way to establish parliamentary sovereignty, not to reduce the debt they accumulated during the Seven Years’ War. Trade with the American colonies was lucrative for Britain, after all, and any taxation policy that put their trade relationship at risk would have been too costly.

Also counter to the narrative we usually hear, those early colonial Americans had a conservative character. From their perspective, the British were more revolutionary than they were. Britain was causing revolutionary change by taxing colonists without their consent, and even then, no American delegate to the first Continental Congress advocated for independence.

Likewise, John Trumbull’s famous painting, “The Declaration of Independence,” depicts an event that never happened. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original version on his own, then Congress made 85 specific changes to Jefferson’s draft, revising or deleting slightly more than 20% of the text. The final version was sent to the printer on July 4, and the printer put that date on the published version. Most delegates actually signed it on August 2, although there was no single signing day.

By the end of the war, a majority of Americans felt that the creation of a nation-state was a distortion of the Cause. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, among others, were outliers, not leaders of the dominant opinion.

This riveting, highly recommended book by one of America’s major historians will change how you see the American Revolution.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution in The Cause.

In 1880, the chief of the Prussian General Staff wrote, “Eternal peace is a dream—and hardly a beautiful one. . . . War is part of the world order that God ordained.” Many have disagreed with this statement and offered various alternatives, from abolishing war completely to conducting it in a more humane way. In his enlightening and provocative Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, offers “an antiwar history of the laws of war” that traces America’s journey, over the last century and a half, toward the disturbing place we now find ourselves: a period of endless war.

Moyn discusses many notable individuals, causes and arguments within this history, including the founding of the Red Cross despite Leo Tolstoy’s strong opposition. The peace efforts of an Austrian noblewoman named Bertha von Suttner, especially through her book Lay Down Your Arms in 1889, stand out as well. Moyn writes, “Before World War I, no document of Western civilization did more to turn what had been a crackpot and marginal call for an end to endless war into a mainstream cause.” In 1905, von Suttner became the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Moyn argues that the increased use of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (armed drones) and U.S. Special Forces in the modern era makes belligerency more humane but augurs for a grim future. In Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize address in 2009, he said, “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Instead, Obama emphasized a commitment to global justice and international law and insisted on humane constraints—which included the use of drones. He sanctioned the use of armed drones more times in his first year in office than George W. Bush did in eight years. By the time Obama left office, drones had struck almost 10 times more than under his predecessor, with thousands killed. Special Forces units were engaged in fighting in at least 13 countries during the last year of Obama’s presidency, and the same approach continued during the Trump years.

This sweeping and relevant book is a vital look at how foreign policy should be conducted ethically in the face of America’s endless wars.

In his enlightening and provocative book, Samuel Moyn traces the history of America’s disturbing journey toward a period of endless war.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt described Joseph Patrick Kennedy as “a very dangerous man.” Kennedy became wealthy on Wall Street and in the movie industry and had political ambitions to be secretary of the treasury and then the first Roman Catholic president (a title that eventually went to his son John F. Kennedy). He became a prominent financial backer of FDR’s first two presidential campaigns and successfully served in two key governmental positions during FDR’s administration. Then he campaigned to be ambassador to Great Britain. Despite serious reservations, FDR agreed to the appointment for his own political reasons. The result was a major diplomatic disaster.

Using many newly available sources, Susan Ronald brings this pivotal point in history vividly to life in her meticulously researched The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s, 1938–1940. As ambassador, Kennedy was primarily concerned with avoiding war. He grew close to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and became a fervent supporter of Chamberlain’s appeasement approach to dealing with Hitler. In a conversation with King George VI, Kennedy expressed his opinion that, if it came to war, “Britain will be thrashed and there will be nothing left of civilization to save after the war.” Kennedy was strongly anti-communist but failed to appreciate that fascism was not a better alternative.

The ambassador often differed with FDR on policy, so they maneuvered around each other for the most part. Despite the fact that Kennedy’s views often differed with his government’s, Ronald explains that Kennedy liked to give the impression that he was a policymaker and not just carrying out instructions. By tracing the opinions Kennedy expressed, Ronald outlines the likelihood that he was antisemitic and a fascist sympathizer. “He was bedazzled by the Vatican, which sympathized with Franco and Mussolini for religious and venal reasons,” she writes, “and sought to placate Hitler before he turned on Catholics once the Jews had been exterminated.” She adds that Kennedy was antisemitic “through his own ignorance and prejudices” and “placed prosperity above human life and liberty, above democracies being crushed.”

Although Kennedy failed as an ambassador and never again served in any public office, his wife and their large, attractive family made a positive impression on the American public. Three of his sons, with quite different political views from their father, were elected to high political offices. As John F. Kennedy said years later, “He made it all possible.”

When Joseph P. Kennedy campaigned to be ambassador to Great Britain, FDR made the appointment despite serious reservations. The result was diplomatic disaster.

While Jimmy Carter’s post-presidential years have been exemplary, filled with significant humanitarian projects, his presidency is often regarded as a failure. Biographer and historian Kai Bird (American Prometheus) takes a fresh look in his balanced, detailed and very readable The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, summed up their administration’s aims: “We obeyed the law, we told the truth, and we kept the peace.” Carter added, “We championed human rights.” His radical foreign policy initiatives and stellar domestic legislative record made his term an important one. Bird argues that Carter will come to be regarded as a significant president who was ahead of his time, despite the numerous missteps, misunderstandings and gossip treated as investigative reporting during his administration.

Carter was an outlier, “a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system.” Deeply religious and fiercely committed to the job, he was not an ideologue but a liberal Southern pragmatist, a fiscally conservative realist. He was perhaps our most enigmatic president, basically a nonpolitician who “refused to make us feel good about the country. He insisted on telling us what was wrong and what it would take to make things better,” Bird writes. 

Two of Carter’s most successful foreign policy initiatives, securing Senate ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty and personally brokering the Camp David Accords, wouldn’t have happened without his persistence. He also normalized relations with China, negotiated an arms control agreement with the USSR and influenced his successors and others around the world with his human rights emphasis.

Domestically, Carter’s controversial appointment of Paul Volcker to lead the Federal Reserve helped to heal the economy. He appointed a record number of women and Black Americans to federal jobs, including a substantial number of nominations to the federal bench. He and Mondale also expanded the role of the vice president, creating the modern vice presidency we know today.

His first major mistake was to appoint Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was always a disruptive force, as national security adviser. Others in Carter’s administration were not Washington insiders, and there was often friction between them and the press, members of Congress and others who were lifelong politicians.

This compelling portrait of Carter, a complex personality who was finally undone by the Iran hostage crisis, is an absorbing look at his life and administration that should be appreciated by anyone interested in American history.

Bird argues that Jimmy Carter’s radical foreign policy initiatives and stellar domestic legislative record make his presidency important, despite the missteps.

In 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall reviewed the history of America and concluded, “The Union has been preserved thus far by miracles. I fear they cannot continue.” Alan Taylor, professor of history at the University of Virginia and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, explores the complex and often tragic history behind Marshall’s thinking in his sweeping, beautifully written, prodigiously researched and myth-busting American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850.

Contrary to popular belief, most of the Founding Fathers didn’t intend to create a democracy. Instead, they designed a national republic to restrain state democracies. Additionally, the founders didn’t agree on principles or goals for their republic, and most believed that preserving slavery was the price to pay for holding the fragile Union together. 

Taylor’s powerful overview explores this fierce struggle between groups and governments as settlers expanded the country westward. Any challenges to the supremacy of white men or their reliance on slavery were met with threats of secession by enslavers and their political allies. Breaking treaties with, dispossessing and killing Native Americans were commonplace, and those who spoke out against prevailing ways often suffered strong rebukes.

When New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase “manifest destiny” in 1845, he justified annexing Texas and Oregon as part of a moral empire based on citizen consent, in contrast to European empires built from violent conquest. O’Sullivan overlooked a lot. For example, slavery became more entrenched and profitable as the country expanded. By 1860, the monetary value of enslaved people was greater than that of the nation’s banks, factories and railroads combined. Slavery divided the country, but racism united most white people. Even in the North, free Black Americans couldn’t serve on juries, weren’t hired for better-paying jobs and were denied public education.

Anyone interested in American history will appreciate this richly rewarding book.

Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor’s latest American history is sweeping, beautifully written, prodigiously researched and myth-busting.

Five hours after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, his son Robert Todd Lincoln wired David Davis, one of the president’s closest friends and an associate justice of the Supreme Court, to come to Washington “to take charge of my father’s affairs.” At the same time, Lincoln’s two devoted secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, assembled the president’s papers, including Lincoln’s private notes to himself, called “fragments.” In Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President, Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White selects 12 of the 109 known fragments, places them in their historical context and analyzes their representations of the president’s life and thoughts.

Almost every fragment begins with a problem Lincoln was facing, and it’s fascinating to see how he grappled with each one. A few fragments may have been first drafts for speeches, but most are reflections that never reappeared elsewhere. Among the issues Lincoln examined are slavery, the birth of the Republican Party, God’s role in the Civil War and how to be a good lawyer.

Lincoln frequently tried to see things from his opponents’ points of view. In a fragment on slavery, Lincoln does this by giving three justifications for being pro-slavery. Then he shows the basic contradictions within each reason and demonstrates how race, intellect or interest could easily be turned around to make the enslaver the enslaved.

Lincoln wrestled with his decision to join the Republican Party. As a longtime Whig, he questioned the meaning, mission and challenges of the new party. To sort out his thoughts, his fragments reveal that he turned to the U.S. Constitution and the historical record, two sources he often used when analyzing a problem.

A fragment on the Civil War begins, “The will of God prevails.” Both the Union and the Confederacy claimed God was on their side, but that couldn’t be true. As Lincoln meditates on how God acts in history, he writes that “it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.”

These glimpses of Lincoln’s thinking offer us a fresh way to view him. White’s commentary is excellent, and anyone interested in Lincoln will want to read this book.

In a must-read book for anyone interested in Abraham Lincoln, a scholar analyzes the president’s most personal notes to himself.

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