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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.

Fathers and Sons: "When Lions Roar" (10.11.20)

We look to history for inspiration. And there is nothing more inspiring than people born to immense wealth and privilege who, against all odds, wind up famous.

Which is to say, I just finished Thomas Maier's "When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys." It's an engaging sprint through 50 years of history, painting side-by-side portraits of fathers and sons.

From the good side of the Atlantic, we have Joe Kennedy and his brood. Across the pond, it's Winston Churchill and his only son, Randolph. The two families crossed paths constantly from the 1930s through the 1960s, with a relationship that ran the gamut from friendly to hostile.

The quick version:

Joe Kennedy, shady Irish-American businessman worth millions, aspires to be president one day, despite the immense anti-Catholic bias he'd have to overcome. He also wants his kids to be important.

Winston Churchill, half-American British nobleman and Renaissance man, wants to be Prime Minister. He also envisions big things for his son.

And we're off! At first the families have somewhat friendly relations. In the '30s, mutual friends bring Joe and Winston together, and Joe uses his business ties to help Winston invest and rake in money. Things get sour when Joe becomes the ambassador to England in 1937. Joe thinks it would be stupid for America to fight Hitler, while Winston, the leader of the opposition party, is shouting every day about the threat posed by the Nazis. When war finally breaks out, Winston winds up as Prime Minister -- and Joe falls from grace as a defeatist jerk.

On the Kennedy side, this shifts the spotlight to Joe's kids, who figure out the very delicate task of taking advantage their father's money and connections while distancing themselves from his politics. JFK in particular had a deep admiration of Winston, modeling a lot of his rhetoric and thinking on the example of the British leader.

On the Churchill side, Winston never leaves the spotlight; even after losing the PM spot after the war, he regains it in the 50s. Randolph aspired to be everything his father was: a brilliant speaker, a member of parliament, an accomplished author. But he never really lived up to the expectations everyone had of Winston's son. He essentially drank himself to death in his 50s and had a very complex love-hate relationship with his dad.

Maier spins a LOT of plates in this book, as he lays out the motivations and missteps of all the players. The two families did mingle alot; not only because of Winston's prominence in global affairs, but because Randolph became a close friend of the Kennedy sons (despite hating their father). Also in the mix: Joe Kennedy's daughters, Winston Churchill's daughters, the close friends and associates of each clan, FDR and his oldest son (who was partner to shady business deals with Joe Kennedy), and Aristotle Onassis (who was friend to both families).

For all the complexity, it's highly readable, broken down into digestible themed segments. If there's a big question hanging over the narrative, it's why the father-son dynamics were so different in each family. Joe Kennedy is sort of the bad guy in this story, but he figured out how to elevate his sons when his political career crumbled. Winston Churchill was a world-beater who wanted the best for his kids, but somehow fell short as a father.

It's interesting stuff, no matter who you're rooting for. Other takeaways:

* In this book, marriages are a farce. Almost everyone is cheating on a spouse or having an affair with a married person. The only exceptions are Winston Churchill and RFK. There are several accounts of high-ranking U.S. officials cheating on their wives with the spouses of prominent Brits. Pamela Churchill, Randolph's wife, slept with FDR aide Averell Harriman; Randolph resented this even though he was cheating on Pamela mercilessly.

* For all the mess about anti-Catholic bias, Joe Kennedy and JFK were, ironically, not good Catholics.

* I don't understand how Winston Churchill had the time to run a government, paint, write very long books, and engage in social functions. People like Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt seemingly had 10 extra hours in each day.

* I'm not a huge fan of the Kennedys, but they had awful luck. This book features the JFK and RFK assassinations, Kathleen Kennedy dying in a plane crash (with her British lover), and Joe being reduced to vegetable status by a massive stroke. If he enjoyed his sons' triumphs he never got to express it.

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