Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Hopeful History of America

A couple of months ago I wrote about my purchase of Bill Bennett’s history book, America: The Last Best Hope (Vol. 1). I promised a review of the book when I completed it. I actually completed the book a few weeks ago, but events have conspired to keep me from writing about it.

Please refer to my original post for Bennett’s six reasons for writing the book. This first volume covers the exploits of the early European explorers down to the gathering storm that would become World War I. Future volumes are promised.

Bennett says that his book is intended not only to convey correct facts in their proper context, but also to do so in a manner that makes the book enjoyable to read. I am no especial history aficionado. I didn’t particularly care for history during my primary and secondary education. Nor did I have much concern for it during my undergrad years. Interest in history is something that has sort of grown on me during the ensuing years. Given this perspective, I found Bennett’s book quite a page turner. For me, it was very enjoyable to read, so I felt that Bennett had achieved this goal.

The book is 525 pages long. It includes a separate bibliography for each chapter. Bennett spends 29 pages on the early European explorers and 31 pages on the early colonial period, before launching into the American Revolution. While Bennett covers the causes, prosecution, and initial outcomes of the war in only 45 pages, he does a very good job of selecting and assembling pertinent information in a coherent manner that flows very well and provides a well rounded handling of the subject.

Bennett follows this up with a fine 26-page discussion of the framing of the Constitution. In doing so, he provides important insights into the personalities of key individuals, as well as the backgrounds of the competing interests and philosophies that went into the founding of our nation. Bennett does not gloss over the slavery issue, but he put it in its proper context. He explains that the compromise on this issue was very likely essential to the formation of the Union, but that the basic morality of it would chafe until it exacted a terrible price.

Throughout Bennett’s discussion of the Revolution, the founding of the nation, and the beginning years of the Republic, the figure of George Washington looms large. Bennett does a good job of providing insight into Washington’s personality, but Washington himself seemed to have a stoic shell that withstood attempts to get inside.

I found Bennett’s discussion of the development of our two-party system highly intriguing. Bennett keeps this thread running off and on for well over 100 pages, weaving it through a variety of topics. He explores the personalities, ideologies, and the societal issues involved. The roots for two parties developed during Washington’s first term among his cabinet members and inner circle. Washington and Hamilton heading up the faction that eventually became the Federalists, and Jefferson (a truly amazing and unique individual) and Madison heading up the Democrat-Republicans.

With the passing of Washington and Hamilton, the Federalist movement waned to the point that there was only one major party with two factions, with the Federalists more or less as a third party. Eventually the Whig Party arose in opposition to the direction Andrew Jackson had taken the Democratic Party. During this era, Washington politics was dominated by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Up until this time, all major parties included slave owners and slavery advocates. Bennett does a masterful job of discussing the variety of events and circumstances that eventually caused public sentiment in the North and the South to divide so sharply over this issue. The Republican Party rose from the ashes of the Whig Party with opposition to slavery as a major platform component.

Bennett makes particular note of the fact that extremists on both sides of the slavery issue pushed matters to the point that the topic was taboo to debate politically. The abolitionists demanded that all slavery cease immediately, although, this would leave slaves economically unable to fend for themselves. They viewed any debate about slavery as a discussion with the devil. Slavery hard liners in the south, known as fire eaters, would not brook any discussion of slavery, because it was obvious that they were on the losing side. Any debate was tantamount to a declaration of war to these people.

Left in the middle were the vast majority of Americans that thought that there could be an amicable way to eventually bring the practice to a close without economical devastation of the South. When a Republican won the 1860 election, despite promises of seeing to the interests of the South, fire eaters took their ball and went home. Unwilling to even risk debating slavery, seven states decided to secede from the Union. (Don’t take these few oversimplified lines as a representation of Bennett’s handling of the secession of the South. Read the book yourself.)

The events preceding the Civil War, the war itself, and the war’s immediate aftermath consume over 150 pages of Bennett’s book. Bennett clearly believes that these events clearly defined (and perhaps redefined) us as a nation, perhaps even more than the Revolution and the founding of the nation. Bennett’s handling of the war is gripping (at least it was to me), but the painful horribleness of it all flows freely to the reader through Bennett’s pen. Throughout it all, the legendary figure of Abraham Lincoln is explored in ways that Washington defied. This great communicator (albeit with a somewhat nasally tenor voice), was repeatedly underestimated by those around him (both his supporters and opponents), but Lincoln understood this and continually used it to his advantage. The fact that we have a Union today is largely due to Lincoln’s single-minded personal commitment to this principle.

Bennett openly laments the fact that Reconstruction was so poorly handled and was stopped well before achieving many of its goals. Part of this was due to Lincoln’s assassination, and the ascension of those that rejected his mild policies toward the rebels in favor of harsh policies. Part of it was due to the fact that Americans were tired of the whole matter and simply wanted to get on with life. The upshot was a century of enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws.

I enjoyed Bennett’s discussion of the Gilded Age. Looming large in this discussion is the larger than life figure of Theodore Roosevelt, whose personal efforts transformed the American political scene for decades afterward. Roosevelt was another truly unique and amazing individual. He believed in the vigorous life and he lived what he believed. He always commanded the center of attention in every situation in which he found himself.

A short time after becoming U.S. Vice President, Roosevelt became President when William McKinley was assassinated. He was elected to a second term, but declined to run for a third. He was a war hawk, but he defined the progressive movement. While he was wildly popular with the public, his progressive politics did not endear him to his Republican Party machine. After a term away, he returned to try to take the nomination from his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. When he failed to do so, he formed the Progressive Party, splitting the Republican vote and allowing Woodrow Wilson to win. Although the Progressive Party was short-lived and was based pretty much on Roosevelt’s personality, this split permanently changed the GOP.

Bennett wraps up his book by discussing events leading up to World War I. This handling is not as full featured as some of his other discussions, but I presume that he will handle it more fully in the beginning of his next volume.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I very much enjoyed reading America: The Last Best Hope. I heartily recommend it. Bennett does not always delve into detail, but he has a knack for including details that are interesting and that lend well to the progression of the story line. Bennett’s writing style is interesting and enjoyable to read. He promised not to hide America’s warts. Indeed, he explores them because he feels that our handling of them is what has made our nation what it is. But, true to his promise, Bennett promotes an informed patriotism.

Bennett hopes that his book will inspire a love for America. I think he accomplishes this goal. I hope that many people will read this book and treasure it. I look forward to the next installment in the series.

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