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Book Review

Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson, Knopf Publishers, 2003, ISBN 0-375-41428-2

Before the recent renaissance of Andrew Jackson scholarship brought on by HW Brands’s 2005 biography, cultural historian Andrew Burstein( America’s Jubilee) tackled Old Hickory’s impulsive nature in a slender but effective volume.  Heavier biographies  like Jon Meachem’s American Lion, borrow extensively from Burstein’s unflinching look at the 7th President, a historically tragic figure: “Every tragic figure requires a flaw rooted in good intentions, and Jackson’s was his incessant pursuit of virtue in the political realm, where virtue, so greatly desired, can scarcely exist.”

 

According to Burstein, Jackson’s life was defined by conflict, much of it his own doing.  Jackson suffered from a “corrosive vanity” that demanded utter loyalty from those around him.  Jackson’s burning pride, rooted in the harsh realities on the Tennessee frontier, caused him to place a “defiant honor” above all other virtues.  Burstein explains how honor and an “incessant need for redress” nearly ruined Jackson’s public career following the murder of Charles Dickinson.  The book adeptly displays Jackson’s varied understanding of loyalty and how it caused him to make questionable, if not dangerous relationships; for example, his misguided defense of John Eaton and the nefarious negotiations with Aaron Burr, expose the darker side of Jackson’s character.  Jackson’s impassioned virtues produced two rocky terms as President- the raucous persona of “Old Hickory” was popular with the newly enfranchised “common man,” but his careless policy decisions were ultimately  destructive.

 

Recent attempts at comparing Jackson to Washington are quickly negated by Burstein’s incisive summation of Jackson’s place in our history, “Washington appointed to his cabinet the greatest talent he could find; Jackson appointed men whom he expected to think like him and do what he said. Washington knew his intellectual limitations and took considerable time to reach decisions, while the more impulsive Jackson made it appear…that he was somehow the recipient of a pure light of inspiration.”   Driven by the desires of honor, loyalty, and redress, Andrew Jackson cut a jagged path through the formidable years of our republic.  Burstein’s analysis provides valuable new insight into the mind of a man shrouded in democratic mythology.

 

 

Gordon Sheaffer

James Madison Preparatory School

Tempe, Arizona.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Burning Hatred

The rivalry between Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay defined American… political history during the Age of the Common Man.  But this competition was far from standard, civil political discourse.  Clay and Jackson despised each other.

Merely a Military chieftain

Jackson infamously described Clay in the following vitriol:

“He’s the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of his God….nothing too mean or low for him to condescend to…(Clay) is the Judas of the West.”

Just Sour Grapes?

Clay never believed Jackson to be fit for public office:

“He is ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt, and easily swayed by the basest men who surround him.  I cannot believe that the killing of two thousand Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies a person for the various difficult and complicated duties of the presidency”

 

Clay feared an unpredictable and potentially dangerous man… was using his martial popularity to win the nation’s highest office:

 

“But the impulses of public gratitude should be controlled by reason and discretion… I was not prepared blindly to surrender myself to the hazardous indulgence of a feeling… I solemnly believe General Jackson’s competency for the office to be highly questionable.”

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It Takes Guts

A time for action…running the gauntlet

David Glasgow Farragut had guts…and it showed in his decision to push past the forts protecting New Orleans.  For seven full days, the Union navy had shelled Forts Jackson and St. Philip.  Some ships were shaken to pieces by the repeated concussions, well over 15,000 shells were fired.  Farragut had enough by April 24, 1862, ordering his ships to steam past the forts at 2a.m.  Aggressive action was lacking in the Union war effort through most of 1862.  Farragut’s decision was precisely the type Lincoln had been waiting for.

Confederate defenses approaching New Orleans

Farragut’s fleet took damage… but the Confederates had no answer for the boldness of the move.  Once past the forts, Farragut’s ships easily defeated a makeshift fleet sent to meet them at the mouth of the harbor.  A desperate attempt to set Farragut’s flagship on fire was also stymied and the city was his for the taking.  At noon on April 25, 1862, Farragut climbed onto the levee of New Orleans.  Four days later, 10,000 Union troops occupied the city.

Forget heroics, it just takes guts

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Be the Man

Teddy Roosevelt was America… no one better defined what it meant to be an American.   Roosevelt brought Parisians to their feet on April 23, 1910 clearly stating what it took to be a republican (not a member of the party.)  His words have lived on influencing everyone from Richard Nixon to Nelson Mandela.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Larger than Life

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Looking to the Future

Lincoln gave his last public address on April 11, 1865… and reconstruction was on his mind.  He was just back from Richmond, the front, and high level meetings with Grant.  But, he was ready to bring his nation back together- to “heal the wounds” as he stated in the Second Inaugural.

Final days

Final days

By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mold from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.”

 

There was difficult work ahead and Lincoln anticipated a new battle… with members of the opposition and his own party.  Three days later, Boothe’s treachery had far reaching effects no one could have foreseen.

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Four Decades of Reading

Ageing leads to reflection… 42 years have passed and reflection reveals a life devoted to the study of history.  A career in education has shown how rare academic commitment can be…. all I have ever wanted to do is history.  These books inspired, taught, and frustrated me along the journey. ..

Civil War chess master

Civil War chess master

  • American Heritage History of the Civil War-Narrative by Bruce Catton.  Little more than a coffee table dust collector in most homes, the copy in my parents’ home was well worn.  Richly illustrated with historic photos and informative maps, it was the perfect introductory course in Civil War studies.  Luckily, video game consoles weren’t available during the early days spent reading Catton’s crystal clear prose.
  • Band of Brothers- by Stephen Ambrose.  WW2 stories from my Grandfather inspired me to learn more about the greatest generation.  Ambrose showed me the power of primary sources- there are hundreds utilized in this harrowing tale of Easy Company’s combat experience.  All of the vitriol aimed at Ambrose (much of it jealousy) causes us to forget what a great storyteller he was.
Uncle Steve and Maj. Dick Winters

Uncle Steve and Maj. Dick Winters

  • Red, White, and Black- by Gary Nash.  The book that deconstructed the mediocre history education I received in high school, Nash’s study opened my eyes to New Left historiography.  The colonization of North America was more complicated than Pilgrims, John Smith, and Ponce Deleon; Nash’s vision challenges the cereal box standard that passes for history in many high schools.
  •   The Killer Angels- by Michael Shaara.  Historical fiction at its very best, Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the battle of Gettysburg is steeped in history.  Shaara exposes us to the battle through the eyes of its key participants, a riveting format often imitated, but never equaled.  Growing up just an hour from the battlefield, this novel helped bring it to life better than any audio tour.
  • Lincoln’s Virtues-by William Lee Miller.  An “ethical biography” of our greatest President, Miller departs from the typical Lincoln canon.  Rather than recounting Lincoln’s deeds, Miller attempts to explain the actions by examining the history of his belief structure.  This book is essential in understanding the man behind the myths.
  • The Radicalism of the American Revolution- by Gordon Wood.  Spend enough time in college history courses and you’ll get the impression that the American Revolution was stale, conservative, and not all that revolutionary.  Wood sets the record straight in a compelling study that makes a brilliant counter to the anti-Americanism of Howard Zinn.  The work of Wood is so much more valuable than a passing quip by Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.”
Don't believe anything Matt Damon says

Don’t believe anything Matt Damon says

  • Gettysburg: The Second Day- by Harry Pfanz.  Richly detailed tactical study of the crucial day at the battle of Gettysburg that is essential reading to students of the battle.  Pfanz does more than explain the complicated troop movements; he brings the battle to life with the memories of the men who were there.  I spent many a Summer afternoon tramping the field with a well worn copy of Pfanz’s masterpiece in my hands.
  • The American Mind- by Henry Steele Commager.  Trying to explain the central American consciousness seemed an impossible task, but Commager’s signature study managed to frustrate a generation of history students.  He should be admired for valuing stories above statistics, personalities over presumption, and a firm belief in American exceptionalism.

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Hidden Treasures

Summer vacation is just around the corner … and if historic sites are on your calendar, maybe these will peak your interest.  Plenty of history can be found off the beaten path and the interstate…

Officer’s row, Fort Sisseton

  • Fort Bowie, ArizonaFort Sisseton, South DakotaFort Bowie was the focal point of campaigns against the Chiricahua Apaches and Geronimo for over 20 years.  Located in the ghostly Chiricahua mountains near the historic Apache Spring, Fort Bowie is a pivotal piece of frontier history.  Historic Fort Sisseton was one of the first frontier posts in the Dakota territory.  Newly preserved, the Fort stands as one of the best examples of 19th century frontier military posts.
  • Little Big Horn National MonumentShiloh National Military ParkDramatic views, haunting scenery, moving memorials-Little Big Horn has it all.  The site of Custer’s last stand needs to be seen to truly appreciate the drama of the Plains war.  Shiloh is one of the best preserved battlefields in the country.  Visitors can walk the 1862 battle lines with little, if any, interference from the modern world.
  • WheatlandMontpelier;    James Buchanan stands as a controversial figure in American history.  His home stands in historic Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Visiting Wheatland can provide insight into the life of America’s only bachelor President.  James Madison’s home has been rescued from the nightmare of the Dupont ownership and restored.  Montpelier is a worthy addition to any visit to Central Virginia (to see another famous home there, perhaps….)

Madison’s getaway

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