Henry Clay: The Essential American
David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler (2010)
Having just finished a 400-plus book on the venerable statesman Henry Clay, I feel as if I’ve taken a survey course on American politics, complete with a field trip to Clay’s Ashland estate in Lexington, Kentucky in December. During a career that spanned four decades and ten presidencies, Clay (1777-1852) served as a Congressman, Senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State, beginning his term on the eve of the War of 1812. At the time of his death, he was serving as a Senator, and though wracked by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, he passionately worked on his final, great compromise, legislation he hoped would repair the cracks in a crumbling Union. Though he succeeded in his task, less than a decade passed before the United States dissolved into Civil War.
As a career politician, much of the book revolves around the intense (and sometimes venomous) politicking that went on during Clay’s four decades of public service, including three unsuccessful, and often contentious, bids for the presidency. Once again, reading history proves that dirty politics is by no means a modern game.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period of Clay’s life, a fascinating pivot point in U.S. history. Henry Clay is often regarded as the finest orator of his day and the greatest senator in U.S. history; this extensive yet readable biography does much to illuminate why, as well as fill in the important moments in an oft forgotten period of American history.
Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation
Peter L. Bernstein (2006)
When on vacation, I like to read books set in the places I’m visiting, so this past summer while on a road trip through New York state, I eagerly took the opportunity to read about the Erie Canal. I’m intrigued by canals, their role in history, as marvels of engineering, and visually, as manmade rivers cutting through countryside and industrial landscapes.
Wedding of the Waters fulfilled on all counts, educating me on this fascinating and crucial piece of U.S. history. Author Peter Bernstein extols the important role the Erie Canal played in the the political, social, and economic development of New York state and the westward expanding empire of the United States, as well as bourgeoning cities like Buffalo, fortunate to be included on the route, while other towns, like Black Rock were bypassed and consigned to fade into history.
Construction of the Erie Canal, a monumental (and thought by some a monumentally foolhardy) undertaking, was begun in 1817 and would eventually cover a distance of 363 miles and 565 feet of elevation difference. The canal was officially opened in 1825, celebrated with a grand procession of flatboats traveling from Buffalo to Albany, and then down the Hudson River, where water from Lake Erie was ceremonially poured into New York Harbor. New York City and the Empire State were never the same.
Ten years ago, I was inspired to read a biography of George Washington and I so enjoyed my re-education in early American History that I decided to challenge myself to read a biography of each U.S. president in chronological order. To widen the scope of interest and have more fun, I expanded my reading challenge to include a work of both non-fiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. I dubbed it My Presidential Reading Project.
Certain presidents are easier to cover than others. It comes as no surprise that Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson have a wealth of books to choose from. Other POTUS prove a real challenge, with a scarcity of biographies in the library (outside of the children’s section) or a selection limited to a few 800-page tomes of dry historical record. Finding works of American popular fiction published during the first dozen administrations has been an enjoyable hurdle. How else would I have read the first American best seller (Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson, published in 1791) or the first American gothic novel (Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown), published in 1798 when John Adams was in office?
With each presidential biography I tick off the list, I’m building on knowledge gleaned from previous books, which helps to reinforce what I’m learning (at least for a little while.) The additional non-fiction books from each era fill in areas of particular interest and provide a richer picture of the social history of each period. Sometimes these titles are sparked by something I’ve read in a biography, while others are added to my growing Presidential Reading Project list from personal recommendations, published reviews, and book store browsing over time.
At this point in the project, having read a fifth of the way through the 44 U.S. Presidents, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies, as presidents and politicians from the beginning of our country’s history grapple with issues all too familiar to modern-day readers, a thought which is fascinating, dismaying, and weirdly encouraging. On the lighter side, reading best-selling fiction stretching back to 1790 has been a real hoot.
Five years ago, I added a travel component to my presidential project, incorporating visits to presidential homes, birth places, and burial sites. Without this project to spur me on, I never would have visited Lincoln’s boyhood home in Knob Creek, Kentucky (a surprisingly moving experience); Calvin Coolidge’s Homestead in Plymouth, Vermont, where he was born, raised, and sworn in as President; or Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Virginia, and the room where the Father of the Constitution spent a winter researching and formulating ideas that would develop into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
History has always been a favorite subject of mine, so giving myself this presidentially focused, forty-something-step course in U.S. history has, over time, developed into an entertaining, engaging, and ever-evolving project. But it’s time to step it up–at the rate I’m going, I’ll need to live to 106 to complete it.
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Drew Gilpin Faust (2008)
Three summers of road tripping to Civil War battlefields has driven home the horror and carnage of 19th-century warfare. Death and dying was an omnipresent fact of life during the course of this dark chapter of U.S. history: A family member dying in a military hospital far from home, a generation of young men from one small town obliterated in a single battle, or a family farm caught in the cross-hairs of battle, their home turned into a makeshift hospital, the parlor an operating room, and the front yard a temporary cemetery.
How society viewed death and grappled with it in practice on such an unprecedented scale is a fascinating aspect American cultural history and the subject of this excellent book. At a time when ensuring a so-called “Good Death” was of utmost importance, to this life and the next, such a war, in which loved ones died alone and far from home, possibly buried in mass graves, and without any last words to or from their families, was a horror previously unimaginable. From this era came a rise in the industries of undertaking and embalming, improvements in cataloging and transporting the dead, and the formation of national and Confederate cemeteries. Gilpin Faust explores the practical, social, and spiritual aspects of a society forced to deal with death on a simultaneously massive and intimate scale, an interesting lens through which to view history.
In his most recent book, Tony Horwitz shines the historical spotlight on John Brown, giving a comprehensive and lively account of the man and his mission. While John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is long credited as a prequel to the Civil War, it’s usually relegated to a brief paragraph or two in the history books. Here, Horwitz gives this important chapter in U.S. History its due in an entertaining book that breathes life into Brown’s character and illuminates the crucial role Brown played in forcing America to deal with the issue of slavery.
Midnight Rising differs from Horwitz’s previous work in that it lacks a thread of the present day weaving through the historical account. (In Confederates in the Attic he used Civil War battlefields as markers of contemporary manifestations of the conflict. Blue Latitudes and A Voyage Long and Strange read like historical travelogs.) Here, he presents a straight history lesson that is no less engaging. A fascinating book about an incident that gripped the nation in its day, foreshadowed the passionate beliefs and bloodshed of the Civil War to come, and is now a nearly-forgotten footnote in U.S. history.