Here's the Deal: "FDR" (1.5.21)
As much as I read about the presidents, for years I stayed away from Lincoln and FDR. There are thousands of books about each man, breaking them down on a molecular level from hundreds of perspectives. (Do you wonder if Lincoln was secretly gay? There are books for that!) I didn't know where to begin.
But FDR turns up in a lot in the biographies of other presidents: JFK, LBJ, Truman, Hoover, Eisenhower, Wilson, etc. The public-school version of FDR has him pegged as the savior of America, and maybe even in the world. But contemporaries who worked with or against him found him confusing. There are plenty of anecdotes where he seems to be an arrogant bully, an egomaniac or a ruthless partisan, more than a statesman; at points he squashed people in his way and showed no remorse for his actions.
The contradictions are pretty fascinating, so a few years ago I picked up "The Age of Roosevelt," Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s famous three-volume biography, at a used book store. When I finally got around to starting it, I was dismayed that it seemed more like the work of a publicist, and that it smelled very bad. (When you buy a 60-year-old book for $1, you get what you pay for.) I gave up pretty quickly.
But one evening this summer, after a few drinks, I got totally wild, ordered Jean Edward Smith's "FDR" on Amazon around 1 a.m., then forgot all about it. About a month later a mystery package arrived, and now you get to read about it!
It's a solid biography, first published in 2007. The paperback comes in at 636 pages, which isn't overwhelming for a guy who served three full terms, reinvented the compact with American government AND designed his own wheelchair. The first half covers everything up to Inauguration Day in 1933; the last half is FDR's 12 years as president, ending abruptly with his death. (There is no wrap-up; FDR dies on page 636.)
The first half is fascinating. FDR was more or less raised as an only child (his half-brother was decades older) and a momma's boy. While not mind-blowingly rich, he never had to worry about his personal finances a day in his life. He is renowned for his optimism, but it's probably easier to be optimistic if your bad choices and habits are cushioned by a huge pile of money.
He enjoyed all the trappings of society -- an elite prep school and a Harvard education were a given -- and many of his attitudes were sustained by a lack of consequences. FDR had considerable mental gifts, but there was no driving force compelling him to be an excellent student. Smith offers the fascinating insight that FDR, the architect of the modern American state, struggled with abstract thought and avoided it whenever possible. He also seemed to have very little in the way of regrets, at least when it came to politics. When he made a decision, he didn't agonize over whether it was the right decision.
Smith implies that FDR's career blueprint was cousin Theodore. Franklin was trained as a lawyer and had a pretty cushy Wall Street job, but he was ultimately bored by it. Thanks to Theodore, his last name was a brand that opened the door to public life. TR, 26 years older, had been in the New York Assembly, served as the assistant secretary of the Navy, got elected governor of New York, then finally served as vice president before entering the White House. FDR was a Democrat, but his name recognition and ability to self-fund political campaigns made him a blue-chip recruit for party hacks.
Elected to the state senate, Franklin seemed to be grandstanding for publicity. Many lawmakers in Albany thought he was arrogant and ill-informed, and he did plenty to confirm that bias. But as a Roosevelt he had no problem getting headlines or second chances. As he figured out the game he became less abrasive to fellow Democrats and more selective in the battles he fought. FDR's reward for his work in the campaign of 1912, supporting Woodrow Wilson and New York Democrats in general, was TR's old post in the Navy department. He was following the blueprint.
This is all intercut with his marriage to Eleanor, a woman who was both impressive and, in many ways, socially stunted by a very awkward upbringing. Their relationship seemed odd from the start, with ER backing off of traditional marital roles and FDR doing very little to understand or accommodate his wife. They had six children in rapid succession, and then their marriage fell apart as FDR starting to bang ER's secretary. By the time he contracted polio in 1921, they had a functional political partnership instead of a real marriage and were barely serving as parents. (The five children who survived to adulthood had a total of 19 marriages; they were hot messes.) They were, ultimately, very selfish people who supported each other for mutual benefit.
Polio tweaked FDR's worldview a bit, as his unsuccessful attempts to recover use of his legs took him to a spa in Georgia where he spent a lot of time with "regular" people. Or at least, that's the narrative that plays out for Smith.
My beef with this book is that it's a little too uncritical. From the introduction, Smith establishes his belief that FDR did in fact save the world, and that he was a sincere champion of the common man. It's debatable. He was not the first mean politician, but he did elevate personal attacks and partisanship to a whole new level. Lots of jerky presidents managed to work through proxies; FDR was extra political and made himself the mouthpiece. His management style often involved pitting subordinates against each other, then opportunistically backing one in the moment; people working in his Cabinet sometimes felt confused or betrayed when FDR would big-foot them.
And the numbers suggest that you can be skeptical about FDR's success in fighting the Great Depression. An explosion in federal spending and programs didn't do all that much to erase unemployment and stagnant growth. FDR's cheery attitude supposedly bolstered the nation -- and there are absolutely millions and millions of people who swear by that fact -- but FDR also very aggressively manufactured that narrative and used the resources of the federal government to parrot it.
As a result, the chapters on the presidency aren't particularly compelling, and they read more like a summary than a biography. Battles over New Deal programs, in which FDR was mainly negotiating with his own party (thanks to sizable Congressional majorities), are reduced to a few pages. Most of FDR's lieutenants don't get particularly detailed portraits and there's not a great sense of FDR's quarterbacking.
Smith does devote a chapter to the court-packing fiasco and accuses FDR of hubris, but doesn't particularly dwell on what it illustrated about his overall, politics-based approach to governance. And when we get to World War II, there are lots of unanswered questions. We now view WWII as a moral cause, but FDR avoided using his immense political capital to involve the United States, since it wasn't a political winner in the early going. As Europe begged for assistance, FDR didn't attempt the hard sell to the American people. Japanese internment and the relative silence on the Holocaust get a few pages, but that's it.
So: Smith does a pretty brilliant job setting up FDR's personality and style in the first half, but once he's in the White House there's not much of a payoff, in terms of analysis. I wanted more about FDR the person instead of the FDR the myth.
In other words, I avoided an FDR biography for years because there was too much to read. When I finally settled on a book that wasn't ridiculously long, my major complaint was that it wasn't long enough.
History is great!
Song of Solomon: "12 Years a Slave" (11.25.20)
Lots of people are bummed about missing out on family this Thanksgiving. Not to diminish that suffering, but Solomon Northup has them beat.
A few weeks ago I was walking on Independence Avenue and stopped to read a historical marker planted in front of a federal building. It noted the former location of one of Washington's most notorious slave pens -- in plain view of the Capitol. And it pointed out that this particular slave pen was integral to the narrative of "12 Years a Slave."
I haven't seen the movie, but the book version, first published in 1853, is very readable, not too long and totally free. SOLD!
As a bonus, it's riveting. Northup was a free black man in upstate New York; he had a wife and three kids. In early 1841, while his wife was working out of town, he was approached by a pair of white travelers who convinced him to join their traveling "circus" for a few weeks. (He was a talented violin player.) When the trip took them to Washington, the capital was consumed by the funeral of William Henry Harrison. Northup was persuaded to stick around a few extra days, and the rest is awful history.
The first part of the narrative relates his abduction: He was likely drugged, then sold by his traveling companions to a slave dealer. His first attempts at demanding his freedom were met with severe beatings and outright denials of reality; within weeks he was frightened off the notion of asserting his true identity. Before long he was shipped South, first through Richmond, then to New Orleans. He was renamed "Platt," and sold into the world of Louisiana plantations.
The second part -- the bulk of the story -- is narratives and observations from the 12 years that followed. Northup gets philosophical in one or two spots, but his primary motive is documenting the reality of "the peculiar institution." He walks you through the daily routines for cotton and sugar plantations, tells you the living conditions and punishments he dealt with every day, and paints portraits of the slaves working alongside him.
When he describes particular episodes, they're usually tied to a specific master. Northup speaks kindly of his first owner, William Ford, but winds up being sold to an abusive drunk carpenter named Tibeats. When "Platt" resists Tibeats' attempts to kill him, and even escapes into the woods for a few days, he's sold to Epps -- who is slightly less homicidal but still plenty awful. Northup and his fellow slaves are tortured and abused on a daily basis; Epps sometimes forces them to dance for his amusement. Northup regularly draws the task of whipping the other slaves; he got so good with the whip that he could make it look convincing while missing by a few inches and sparing his friends.
There's a matter-of-fact quality to the narration, and Northup even musters some understanding for the white people around him. Considering Epps' son, he realizes that any boy who sees slaves treated worse than animals on a daily basis could never grow up to see him as a human. There are also a few passages that are downright heartbreaking, including Northup's liberation. When he finally finds a trustworthy ally to deliver letters to his family and friends in New York, an appointed agent of the governor shows up to take him home. He has brief goodbyes with the slaves who he has lived with for a decade -- and then leaves, never seeing them again. He goes home, but they have no recourse.
At the time, a slave narrative like this was eye-opening to readers. "12 Years a Slave" was published a year after "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and many people took the real-life memoir as evidence of the authenticity of the fictional narrative. (Both stories take place in the same part of Louisiana.) Frederick Douglass had published his first memoir in 1845, but unlike Douglass, Northup was enslaved in the deep South.
It's less hard-hitting today, since the brutality of slavery has now been well documented. But reading it in 2020 really does drive home the ways that slavery dehumanized an entire race. To get your head around post-emancipation history, it's worth it to read in detail where so many people were starting from.
Plead the 5th: "James Monroe"(11.23.20)
You may be a star, but if you mostly hang out with superstars, no one will see you shine. (There's an anti-inspirational poster here just begging to be made.)
For his entire adulthood, James Monroe hung out with superstars. Some call him the last Founding Father, but he's more like the Founding Kid Brother.
He dropped out of college to fight in the American Revolution, serving as a teenage officer under George Washington himself. When he got back into a classroom, he studied law under Thomas Jefferson himself. When he entered public life, he was a confidant of James Madison himself. Monroe was seldom the first to do anything; his most amazing roles were hand-me-downs from his older contemporaries. And like true older brothers, those contemporaries took him for granted or Monroe fell out with each of his famous friends at one point or another.
The end result is that we maybe don't appreciate Monroe as much as we should. Tim McGrath sets out to right that greivous wrong with "James Monroe," the most extensive biography of the fifth president in decades. He pored over thousands of letters, dispatches and political screeds -- so you don't have to!
It's not the most riveting political biography ever written, but it makes a pretty solid argument for Monroe's place in history. There are a few main themes:
Monroe actually wasn't the best. He was a remarkable individual, but each of his superstar colleagues outshone him in some way. Washington was a better leader, Jefferson had a more brilliant mind and Madison had a more analytical mind. In fact, when he was working as a diplomat Monroe could be a bit peevish and petty. Monroe's superior virtue, later in life, was his realtively even temperament -- he had been through enough that he figured out how to handle people who had once acted the way he did.
Monroe was a political creature. As the first American political parties formed, Monroe was a true partisan. He was happy to dump on the Federalists at every opportunity and had no problem with the federal government becoming an extension of his party. Later in life, he mellowed out -- after the Federalists were essentially destroyed, Monroe's presidency featured an "era of good feelings" where he tried to incorporate some Federalist ideas into the Republican platform. It created a huge schism within the Republican Party, but what can you do.
Monroe was a prisoner of the plantation system. He was in the "middle class" of Virginia planters, having modest amounts of lands and slaves. He never really devoted much attention to the management of his plantations, and like Jefferson and Madison, he fell into a lifelong debt spiral. Monroe lived well beyond his means -- sometimes out of pride, sometimes out of professional obligation -- and had that stress hanging over his head for his entire adulthood. His reliance on slavery for income also made him incapable of dealing with it effectively. Like some of his famous contemporaries, Monroe claimed to hate the institution and the slave trade, but didn't pursue emancipation.
All these play out over a career that is pretty stunning, in terms of its depth. Monroe's military exploits early on elevated him to elite status in Virginia politics. He spent some time in state government, then when the Constitution was written, secured appointment as one of Virginia's first U.S. Senators. George Washington sent him overseas to serve as minister to France. That didn't go well, but it didn't derail his career -- within a few years of his return he was governor of Virginia. He headed to Europe again, as a diplomat for President Jefferson. That also ended in frustration, but Monroe's overall competetnce and connections kept him relevant.
When President Madison found his secretary of state lacking, he turned to Monroe as a replacement. When, amid the war of 1812, the War Department was in shambles, Monroe stepped in to organize things there. He was an easy choice to become the fifth president.
As for accomplishments, Monroe had a few. He was a longtime advocate for acquisition of the Mississippi River and Florida; he eventually played key roles in both, helping to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and, as president, overseeing the Adams-Onis treaty. He helped America emerge from "provincial backwater" into a global player, by steering the development of the Monroe Doctrine. And while it's not a proactive accomplishment, he did push America toward a reckoning on slavery by facilitating the Missouri Compromise.
McGrath is a fairly engaging writer, but sometimes there's only so much you can do with the source material. Diplomatic history from the early 19th century is a total slog. Monroe, working as a diplomat in England, France and Spain, was often negotiating with no knowledge of current events at home. (It took weeks for communications to cross the ocean.) There was political intrigue happening, but a lot of times the players had no idea who they were screwing over. Several times, Monroe felt like his superiors in Washington hung him out to dry, and it took MONTHS to figure these things out. I just read the book and I'm not sure I've figured them out, either.
The most lively parts have to do with military history; McGrath gives nice accountings of Monroe's limited involvement in the Revolution -- when he was shot at the Battle of Trenton, in particular -- and Monroe's attempt to clean up the mess in the war of 1812. There are some fascinating parts on Monroe's dealings with Andrew Jackson, and his partnership with John Quincy Adams.
And I do admire McGrath's refusal to sugarcoat Monroe's legacy. Although Monroe was there at the beginning of the nation, he was ultimately a transitional figure. His politics were the bridge between the Founders and the Jacksonian era; he put a lot of stuff in motion without being domineering.
It's probably not a book for the casual history fan, but it does have some bite.