Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Warren G. Harding

When Indiana governor Mitch Daniels delivered the Republican response to President Omaba's state of the union address I couldn't help think of another mid-western paragaon of conservativism, Warren G. Harding. I always felt Harding has received a bum rap by historians. Sure there was the Teapot
Dome scandal, the worst case of corruption in the White House before Watergate replaced it at as the crime of the century, and Harding should justly be condemned for that. Many other knocks on him, however, seem overly gossipy. These stories circulated in abundance after Harding's death in 1923. There are stories that he fathered a love child, drank in the White House, had no clue what he was doing, and he suffered from a downright murderous wife (and that was only one theory of his death). Presidential conspiracy theories did not orginate in Dallas in 1963. Historian Robert Ferrell has done some good work debunking many (emphasis on not all) of the stories negative concerning Harding. Historian Robert K. Murray made a demonstrated some of Harding's positive attributes as a president. While niether inflate his significance, their combined (and uncoordinated) vision is of a more constructive leader than is normal. Harding played an important role in American politics, one that has not received due attention. He was the first conservative president in the modern sense. What I mean is that he ran on a distinctly anti-liberal (or anti-progressive) platform promising to undo some of the work of his predecessors. Campaining on the slogan of "Normalcy," he wanted to turn back the clock to the start of the century, presumably to right after the Gold Standard Act of 1900 and before the assassination of fellow Ohioan William McKinley in 1901. Harding campaigned on cutting taxes, reducing business regulations, and rejecting global security organizations. This platform would work appeal to conservatives just as well today.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

James A. Garfield

It seems that James A. Garfield, our 20th president, who served only 7 months in 1881 is undergoing something of a revival lately. I recently read two highly laudatory books on Garfield. I already posted on Adam Goodrich's 1861: The Civil War Awakening. The other is Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic. Both works portray Garfield as a learned man and lover of the humanities, who was true to family and friends (despite one marital infidelity) and an excellent father, despite being a hard working, patriotic, driven man. One gets
the sense that he was out of place in the political profession during he Gilded Age. Born into impoverished circumstances, compounded by his father's early death, Garfield rose through education and hard work to hold the highest office in the land. His rise was downright Lincolnesque. The tow-path canal boy ranking right there with the rail splitter in the pantheon of heroes to the American Dream. I have always had sympathy for Garfield. Although shot in early July, he did not die until the end of September. He was only 49 years old and left behind a devastated and young family. The Garfields were the only White House occupants between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to have small children. Even more tragic is that he would have survived the incident had not his criminally negligent doctors ignored emerging medical science and subjected their patient to painful and harmful treatments. They probed and starved him. The idiots did not even know where the bullet was! Alexander Graham Bell tried to help locate the bullet with a gizmo that was sort of a metal detector, but it never seemed to work. I found the intersection between Bell and Garfield one of the more interesting parts of Millard's book. One could also tie into this the fact that experimental air conditioners were installed to comfort the stricken president in the hot Washington summer. That contraction also failed to work as intended, but I find it interesting that the spirt of inventiveness that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age rallied to the dying president. What is even more striking is that this spirit failed in the most important way when the doctors ignored recent discoveries and maintained the ancient methods of the past. Garfield had a short term, serving only 7 months as a president (during his 3 months on sickbed he signed only one state document). Most of the time was spent fighting Senator Roscoe Conkling and Vice President Chester Arthur over the New York spoils. Garfield was winning that battle, but it is hard to predict if he would have sought a more comprehensive Civil Service reform, or if his battle with Conkling would have been more inline with his predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes's policy of self-serving, selective, and executive driven reform. It was Garfield's assassination by "disappointed office seeker" that led to the Pendleton Civil Service Act.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Life with History

John Hicks's My Life With History was one of the worst books I have ever read. If nothing else he proved that historians do not lead the type of lives others might find interesting. Hicks included many letters to his wife in the late 1930s, which had little to do with history. I was already at the end of my rope with this particular writer anyway. While I had little to quarrel with the Populist Revolt (which at least presented an interpretation), I found another one of Hick's work to rank among the worst books I have ever read. His account of the 1920s, The Republican Ascendancy, is one long editorial in support of the Democratic Party. It's mission so clouded out the historical account, it is laughable. I am not sure what primary sources were available to Hicks when he wrote this book, but he made substantial use of only one manuscript source, the papers of Hiram Johnson. Hicks's standing in my eyes fell even lower when I read in Peter Novick's classic account of 20th century historiography, That Noble Dream, that Hicks wanted to drum historians out of the profession for not supporting FDR. Not surprisingly he was on thin ice with me already when I wasted time with My Life With History. That Hicks did not warn me off the entire genre of historian memoirs is something of a miracle. I have read several others since. I enjoyed those of William McNeill and Forrest McDonald. Neither got bogged down in personal details and kept their focus on what they wrote, how they wrote it, why they wrote it, how they responded to criticism from others, and other like relevant matters. I would say that C. Vann Woodward's Thinking Back is still the benchmark of historian memoirs. It is a thorough discussion of his career as an historian and the historiography of his writings. Recently I finished my latest effort, John Morton Blum's A Life With History. Blum writes about his own writings, but not as much as I would have liked. While he includes a few reviews of his work, he really does not engage his critics. Instead, Blum focuses much more of his attention on what it was like to be a historian in the Ivy League, with an entire chapter dedicated to his term as department chair. One thing struck me over and over again while reading A Life With History. His life as an Ivy League historian and mine as a community college adjunct could not be further apart and still remain in the same profession.