Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Some Recent Reads

William Thomas, Unsafe for Democracy: Word War I and the U.S. Justice Department's Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent.

This book was an eye opener. I always knew that the World War I Alien and Sedition Acts were major setbacks to civil liberties, but I did not realize how bad it was. Through a detailed examination of the records from the National Archives and other sources, Thomas demonstrates that the effect of the Justice Department's crack down on dissent far exceeded the number of indictments. Instead, agents preferred to threaten and cajole those suspected of disloyalty, often visiting them suspects at their homes or place of work. It seems a good portion of the disloyal statements were uttered by drunks (telling an agent you were drunk seemed to get you out of trouble). It was not just running down President Wilson or praising the Kaiser that could get one into trouble. Those who did not purchase war bonds or donate to the Red Cross were equally suspected of disloyalty.

Alan Crawford, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.

Twilight covers Jefferson's post-presidency. To me this book really bought him to life, demonstrating a human side that is often lost when discussing Jefferson the august author of the Declaration of Independence, first secretary of state, leader of the Democrat-Republicans, and third president of the United States. Here we see Jefferson the family man who wanted to protect his extended family, even though his benign efforts could back fire. Such as when his personality overshadowed those of his proud southern grandsons-in-law. They took refuge in the bottle and became abusive to their wives, Jefferson's grand daughters. One even mauled Jefferson's favorite grandson. In the final years Jefferson suffers many tragedies and his finances were a total mess. Finally, he continued to grapple with the issue of slavery, a problem he acknowledged but could never solve.

Jonathan Alter, Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

I recently finished Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment, his account of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the famous 100 days that ran from March to June 1933. During this time FDR and Congress created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Industrial Recovery Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, regulated corporate reporting, and took the United States effectively off the gold standard, among other things. Alter’s central argument is that this flurry of legislation changed America in two fundamental ways. First, it re-wrote the social contract, with the federal government now assuming responsibility for insuring economic and social welfare. Second, FDR dramatically transformed the role of the presidency. In addition to chief executive, the post-FDR presidents had to act as director of the national legislature as well as cheerleader. This last role has had an enormous impact on the performance and popularity of FDR’s successors.

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