Monday, December 26, 2016

Henry Adams's 2016

I must admit that I have never been a huge fan of The Education of Henry Adams. Adams comes across to me as the guy who rants on Facebook about how everything always sucks. Yes, you know who I am talking about. We all have at least one of these people in our social media relationships. Bear in mind that I first read Adams in pre-internet and pre-social media existence, but the sentiment that he was a chronic complainer who cast all in the bleakest terms. Worst of all, to me at least, is that Adams was an entitled elitist from one of America's premier families. He tarred and feathered President Ulysses Grant most vigorously in The Education. "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant," Adams wrote, "was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin." 1. Ouch! Granted that Adams was writing about himself and using only several episodes from Grant's Administration to tell his own memoir, The Education shaped historiography of the eighteenth president throughout the twentieth century. If you want to see an example of a twentieth-century mugwump/progressive historian using Adams as a guide, read Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish, a biography of Grant's secretary-of-state. Nevins gave no quarter. As one of my history instructors at St. John's University used to say, "give the poor guy a break, he's dead." While I would never posit that Grant was a great or near-great president, I have felt for some time that he deserves to be considered a better president than how Nevins and other twentieth century historians depicted him. Brooks Simpson, Jean Edward Smith, Joan Waugh, and Ronald White, among others, have given Grant a more sympathetic treatment in recent years. A disappointed office seeker himself, Adams focused on Grant's appointments, which, to be honest, were unconventional. On the other hand, Adams gave almost no attention to Reconstruction, the area where twenty-first century historians are giving Grant more credit than in the past. Having said all this, in the last couple of months I feel a growing sense of sympathy for Henry Adams. In the wake of the nasty, brutish, and, protracted 2016 presidential election, I think I better understand the pessimism with which Adams viewed his own times. 
1. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 249.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Classroom discussion on Frederick Douglass, The Narrative Life

I like to assign a guided book review in the US survey I (pre-Columbus to 1877) night course that I teach at Front Range Community College. The students complete a ten page paper based on the book and we spend a class session discussing it. Honestly, this is the most enjoyable class of the entire semester for me. I have assigned books on the Federalist Papers, John Brown’s Raid, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, the Black Death, and the Holocaust, for this and other courses I have taught in the past. This semester I assigned Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Although written in 1845, it is very readable, powerful, graphic, and direct. Douglass was the most famous fugitive slave of the day and he dared to reveal that the slaveholders’ perception of themselves as enlightened paternalistic protectors of their slaves was nothing less than a poorly designed and cynical self-deceit. Instead of caring for their “property” by providing medical care, housing, clothing, food, and guidance as slaveholders publicly professed, Douglass showed how they violently abused and dehumanized the slaves. The Narrative Life recounts, among other things, that slaves received an inadequate quality and quantity of food, clothing, and housing from their masters. Nakedness, lack of bedding, and eating from a trough were among the methods that the slaveholders used to dehumanize their slaves. The students receive a much better depiction of slavery from Douglass than they can from the textbook or my lectures.

My fellow teachers know that each class or cohort seems to have its own personality, and this definitely comes out in discussions such as these. Previous classes have honed in on Douglass’s fight with Covey, his escape, and the dehumanizing nature of slavery to both slaves and slave holders. In the discussion this past Monday night, my current class focused more specifically on Douglass’s perseverance, resilience, and determination to escape slavery. They read The Narrative Life as a self-help manual that imparted some important life lessons. It was more than a history text to them.

The most interesting comments, however, questioned Douglass’s version of history. Some students felt that Douglass portrayed himself as the hero of his own life and gave little credit to others for any help they might have given him. Although brief, our discussion on the inherent subjectivity of autobiographies and memoirs touched upon the possibility that not everything Douglass wrote was necessarily true. Events could have been misrepresented by design or unintentionally. Douglass, too, had biases and political motives. We also considered how Douglass could have been protecting those who might have helped him. Southerners would strike back at Douglass by attacking those they could get their hands on, if they only knew who to attack. Overall, I was heartened by how much they got out of this book about slavery and American history, and, also, their cautious approach to consuming information. We need to be on our guard now more than ever.   

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Rest in Peace Ralph Branca

Rest in Peace Ralph Branca. The former major league pitched died on November 23 at the age of ninety. Branca compiled 88 wins to 68 loses over a twelve year major league career with the Dodgers, Tigers, and Yankees. His best season was in 1947 when he won 21 games. Yet, Branca will be remembered for only one moment on October 3, 1951 when he surrendered a walk-off home run later to be dubbed "the shot heard around the world" to Giants slugger Bobby Thomson, the Staten Island Scot. The moment will forever be linked in our neuro-associations with Giants announcer Russ Hodges screaming, "The Giants win the pennant!" Although I was not born until nearly twenty years after the event, it is just as much a part of my memory because I have seen and heard the epic replay so many times. Even worse for my father, who was ten years old in 1951 and diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, to have to re-live that terrible movement. He never said a word, but he got red. As a Yankees fan who was the same age when the Yankees staged their epic comeback in 1978, I understood that Thomson was the "Bucky F***in Dent" of the 1950s. However, I don't think that Red Sox pitcher Mike Torrez sits in the memory as much as Branca. Perhaps, the Dent home run was such a freak occurrence that Torrez was viewed to be as much a victim as anyone else in Fenway that sunny day. On the other hand, Branca spent the rest of his life in the shadow of that one pitch. His life defined in public memory, quite literally, as the summation of only a couple of seconds during a ninety year life. There is something not fair about that. From an historical perspective, I think he took all the blame for the Dodgers's epic collapse in 1951. They were up by over a dozen games in August when the season was only 154 games. They weren't supposed to lose! Branca took all the heat on that one pitch for all that frustration that built up in Brooklyn, as if he lost the threw away the whole season on that pitch.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A trivial error in Jimmy Carter's White House Diary?

Browsing through Jimmy Carter's White House Diary  I came across the following entry made on October 5, 1979: "Carl Yastrzemski came by, and I congratulated him on his 3,400 hits and 450 home runs. He's a nice guy." The only problem with this entry is that at the end of the 1979 season Yaz had 3,009 hits and 404 homers. Why the discrepancy? In the grand scheme of a presidential diary gives witness to an eventful term in office that included a stagnant economy, rabid inflation, energy shortages, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran hostage crisis, and an historic agreement between Egypt and Israel, among many other events, a baseball player's stats are a trivial matter. That the numbers President Carter provided in his diary are essentially the numbers that Yaz compiled at the conclusion of his career in 1983 (he had 3,419 hits and 452 home runs) inclines me to assume that there was probably some fact checking error in the publication process. As an historian, however, it is always alarming to find such errors, even if they  seem unimportant. However, I have no doubt that Yaz is a nice guy.

The presidential daily diary on the Jimmy Carter Library website for this date notes: " The purpose of the meeting was to congratulate Mr. Yastrzemski for becoming the first American League baseball player to hit 400 home runs and 3,000 hits in a lifetime." After the three minute meeting with Yaz, his wife, agent, a friend, and two others, representatives of the Lief Ericsson Society International were shuffled in for their three minute session in the oval office.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

100 years ago, William Temple Hornaday and the Migratory Bird Treaty

One hundred years ago this week the United States and Great Britain ratified the Migratory Bird Treaty, which extended protection of migratory birds from the Rio Grande to the arctic. William Temple Hornaday was instrumental at several key points on the road to this landmark act of international conservation.

His first important contribution was to call a dinner of key conservationists in September 1912 to discuss the stalled Weeks-McLean bill. Led by John Burnham of the American Game Protection Association (AGPA), sportsmen lobbied for a bill to protect migratory game birds. In other words, their proposed legislation would protect only birds that hunters wanted to shoot. Hornaday was critical of this approach. For starters, he felt that the bill was too narrow in focus. He advocated a bill that protected all migratory birds, including non-game song birds. Moreover, he did not trust Burnham who represented an organization that was funded by the gun and ammunition manufacturers. This was more than a conflict of interest. Hornaday believed Burnham and his overlords posioned the very soul of the conservation movement and threatened the future of American wildlife. Because of his zeal, Honraday and Burnham had several public and acrimonious skirmishes in the the last couple of years -- indeed, they would spend the next two decades in a protracted knock-out, drag-out fight that led to a lawsuit . At the September dinner Hornaday and T. Gilbert Pearson advocated the expansion of the bill to include all migratory birds. They conveniently waited to vote on it until after Burnham had left. Those who remained voted to accept their revision and the bill was recast to protect all migratory birds.

Hornaday lobbied hard throughout the fall of 1912 for the bill, and his greatest contribution was his seminal book, Our Vanishing Wildlife. Unique in the early conservation canon as a work dedicated exclusively to wildlife conservation, Our Vanishing Wildlife was written in a strident moral tone, full of exclamation points and sarcasm, and with the full-throttle vigor of the most successful muckrakers. Hornaday shined a bright light on the "army of destruction" as he called, which included the game hogs and market hunters, but also the sportsmen whom Burnham represented at the AGPA. Our Vanishing Wildlife had one significant drawback, however. It used racism to argue for migratory bird protection. Southern Congressmen opposed the Weeks-McLean Act because it would extend federal power into an area that had always been reserved to the states. To counter this, Hornaday depicted African Americans, Native Americans, and Italian immigrants in the worse possible light as game hogs extraordinaire. Photographs showing groups of southern blacks walking armed across a field was clearly designed to provoke the worst fears of the Jim Crow era in the hope that the Southern Congressmen would support the bill. In the end, it was a parliamentary maneuver that secured protection of migratory birds. The measure was tucked in an appropriations bill, and signed by President William Howard Taft in the closing minutes of his administration in 1913. Taft later commented that he would not have signed the bill had he known the migratory bird protection measure had been added to it.

Not surprisingly, conservationists were worried about the future of migratory bird protection. It passed Congress through legislative sleight-of-hand and the president who signed it stated he would not have done so had he known that the migratory bird protection provision was buried in the bill. Congress was already backing away by not providing the necessary funds for implementation or hiring the required game wardens. A constitutional challenge seemed imminent, and conservationists  feared that the conservative United States Supreme Court would strike down the measure. As an alternative to amending the constitution Senator Elihu Root of New York recommended a treaty as a way to ensure constitutionality of migratory bird protection. Under article VI, a treaty becomes the supreme law of the land. This approach made great sense because international borders made no more difference to migratory birds than did state boundaries.

The Wilson administration was cool to the idea and had to be pushed into negotiations. Conservationists suggested approaching Mexico, but political instability and revolution eliminated that possibility. By necessity, the United States turned to its northern neighbor, Canada. Great Britain managed the foreign affairs of Canada. With war waging in Europe, a treaty about migratory birds had low priority. If anything pushed Britain to consider the treatyl it was simply to appease the United States. Still negotiations dragged on.

Hornaday grew impatient with the slow progress of the treaty. On February 12, 1916 he walked into the United States State Department in Washington and demanded to know the physical location of the treaty. The clerk found a receipt that he had been delivered to the British embassy the year before. Hornaday proceeded to the British embassy. The treaty, he wrote to Theodore Palmer of the Biological Survey (forerunner of the Fish and Wildlife Service), "by an accident had been filed without any action, and forgotten!" Although Hornaday had a penchant for publicly exposing and embarrassing rivals, he chose not to publicize the bureaucratic mishap at the embassy. This was not the time to embarrass a treaty partner! "Of course you will immediately recognize the necessity of saying nothing whatever about the accident at the embassy," Hornaday added to Palmer.

Hornaday's visit to the embassy got the treaty back on track. Six months later both powers ratified it, although it took another two years for Congress to pass the necessary enabling legislation. In 1920 the United States Supreme Court upheld the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) in the case of Missouri vs. Holland, thus preserving one of the most important pieces of wildlife protection in American history. In 1936 Mexico and the United States signed a migratory bird treaty.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Voting for the least objectionable candidate: Roosevelt in 1884

As Republicans debate their party's nominee and consider their support, I am reminded of Theodore Roosevelt's conundrum in 1884. In one of the most (in)famous American presidential elections Republican James G. Blaine of Maine ran against  Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York.

Blaine was notorious as a corrupt politician with a history of scandals. But he was very popular with large segments of the party who dubbed him "magnetic man" and the "plumed knight from the state of Maine." The son of a civil service reformer, the young Theodore Roosevelt was deeply troubled by the party's choice of candidate. He had backed George Edmunds, a senator with most reform credentials, to be the party's presidential standard bearer, but he was in the minority. Roosevelt saw the Republican Party as the champion of nationalism, fairness, morality, and the good old republican virtue of the founding generation. Blaine with his corrupt bargains, kickbacks, and patronage dealing, was a repudiation of all that Roosevelt believed that his party stood for.

What to do? Should they remain loyal to the party or bolt and join the small group of reformers that became known as the mugwumps? For a man with his political ambitions, this was a very difficult choice. Voting for the Democrats, the party of rum, romanism, and rebellion, as he saw it, was not much of an option. While Cleveland had a reputation as an honest politician, his private life was marred by the kind of scandal that would have repulsed Roosevelt. In 1884, Roosevelt was stuck where many find themselves to be in 2016, which is to say they are trying to figure who is the least objectionable candidate to vote for.

Roosevelt compounded his difficulties when he vented about Blaine to a reporter in what he thought was a private conversation. Pressured by all sides, especially those reformers of his social class who naturally expected they would join them, Roosevelt discussed the options with his friend Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. After deliberation, they concluded it was best to hold their noses and support the party's nomination. After all, what was one election, with their careers before them. They spoke on the party's behalf on the campaign stump, even if they did so lukewarmly and neglected to mention Blaine's name.

In the short term, this was a disaster for Roosevelt. Hounded by both the reformers and the party regulars as turncoat and flipflopper, Roosevelt withdrew from politics. He went west to start a second career as a rancher.

Of course, Roosevelt was able to re-build his political career. He took a hit for the party by running as a sacrificial candidate for mayor of New York City in 1886, an act that reestablished him as a party loyalist. As biographer Kathleen Dalton argues in Strenuous Life, Roosevelt redefined party loyalty as a manly, masculine virtue. He restored his standing with reformers by his bold support of civil service reform from his position on the Civil Service Commission, which he won, oddly it might seem, as a political reward for his vigorous support of Benjamin Harrison. Roosevelt even investigated Harrison's law partner in Indiana!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dreaming of Franklin D. Roosevelt

I feel fortunate that I have very vivid dreams. Over the course of my life, I have had several dreams with presidents in them. Once, I was helping Ronald Reagan from a car into one of our family’s favorite restaurants in Manhattan, Ye Waverly Inn in the Village (that’s Greenwich Village for non-New Yorkers). BTW, they have the best chicken pot pies! In another, my wife and I were meeting with Woodrow Wilson. I was some sort of cabinet secretary for Health and we were trying to convince the president to support funding for a new hospital project. I rode a roller coaster with George W. Bush (well, that one might be easier to interpret than the others). He was wearing a suit in the roller coaster, which obviously means this was some sort of non-recreational, business ride. Over the years, LBJ, Lincoln, Nixon, and Obama have made their appearances.


On Sunday night I had a dream with FDR. I was over tired when I finally went to bed and greatly aggravated because my car driver’s side window regulator (the doohickey that makes the windows go up and down) broke late that night. I had been watching the Ken Burns Roosevelt videos on Netflix that evening. In my dream I was sitting at table in a small apartment. The table cloth was checkered. There were no colors in this dream, it was more sepia toned. FDR was sitting next to me with that big smile and he made be a hero sandwich. Sliced it. Wrapped it. Gave it to me, saying “here is your sandwich.” I thanked him profusely. Put my arm around him, and promised that I would vote for something. Not sure if I pledged to vote for him in an election or if I was supposed to be a Congressman or not.   

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thomas Jefferson, the Press, and the Second Inaugural Address

American political figures have always felt antagonism toward the press. The emergence of multiple forms of digital and social media, the continuous, around-the-clock reporting, and the ease in which information can be accessed might have created a variation of scale in recent decades, but earlier politicians were just as frustrated with the "media" of their day, and just as prone to lash out, as well as lapse into self-pity from having their words misconstrued.

In his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson delivered the following stern rebuke to the press:

"During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation."

He went on to add that his re-election was a essentially a vote of no confidence of the press and its lies, and that no "salutary coercions of the law" in the form of defamation prosecution should be needed. It should be noted that this was less than a decade of the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which gave the federal government power to prosecute attacks on the administration and president. President John Adams, who signed the infamous acts, felt, in part, that the press had abrogated its responsibility to inform the people through their vituperative attacks on him and the policies of his party. Jefferson rode resentment of the Alien and Sedition Acts all the way to the White House. Yet, after his first term he was just as frustrated with what he saw as the unjust attacks on his own person and administration. Granted, it is highly unlikely that they would have included the same people, even if they spoke in general terms about the press. Adams meant the  Democrat-Republican partisan press, whom he considered Jacobins who would spread anarchy, chaos, and revolution. Jefferson referred to the Federalist partisan press, whom he considered monarchists who wanted to stifle the freedoms won in the American Revolution, bind the people to feudalism, and end the experiment in representative self-government. No wonder, both men thought their opponents would destroy the Republic! Sound familiar?!?

On a side note, I find Jefferson's complaints rich in irony. There is a poetic justice in an opposition press holding his feet to the fire. In the previous decade, he was instrumental in forming an opposition press to President Washington, and may have been one of the original "leakers" by providing information from within the government to his allies in the press.

Note: The above quotes are taken from Thomas Jefferson, Writings (NY: Library of America, 1984), 521-22.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Blizzard of 1888 
As a reminder that there have been other blizzards in the northeast, I am sharing this article I wrote for The Encyclopedia of New York State, edited by Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), p.190.
Perhaps the most famous snowstorm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888 is sometimes referred to as the “Great White Hurricane.” The storm deposited as much as 50 inches of snow from northern Virginia to Maine. In all 400 deaths were attributed to the Blizzard of 1888 and almost 200 ships were lost. There are no adequate figures to reflect the monetary losses, but the entire northeast was immobilized for a week. Buildings, rail lines, and telephone and telegraph lines sustained heavy damage.  
The Blizzard of 1888 began as an inauspicious low pressure system off the coast of North Carolina. When the system drifted eastward on Sunday March 11, the National Weather Service (NWS) estimated it would continue its path out to sea. As a result, the NWS predicted moderate rain and winds for the Atlantic coastal region from Virginia north to Maine. The NWS lacked oceanic monitoring facilities and had no way of knowing that instead of following its predicted course, the storm had moved due north. Furthermore the storm gained power on the open Atlantic and the barometric pressure dropped dramatically. The storm had turned into a cyclone.
Sunday, March 11, 1888 was a mild day on land with spring-like temperatures in the mid-fifties. Ships at sea were the first to feel the effects of the storm. Captains piloted their ships as best they could to the most accessible safe haven. At Lewes, Delaware, a port hub of the Pennsylvania Railroad, ships started arriving into the harbor at nightfall just as the storm did, creating chaotic and dangerous conditions. In all thirty-five ships were destroyed in the harbor. In the late afternoon rain started falling in Washington, D.C., and by evening, the downpour was torrential. During the night the rain turned to snow. Rain also began to fall in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and across New England. No one sensed that a major blizzard was imminent.
When the northeast awoke on Monday morning, March 12, they were startled to see a blizzard. Strong, bitterly cold winds blew frozen shards of snow horizontally, reducing visibility, and making it nearly impossible for man or beast to walk in the conditions. The snow downed telegraph and telephone wires, cutting the east coast, including Washington, D.C. off from the rest of the nation as well as from each other. Trains could not pass through accumulations of almost 50 inches of snow or the drifts which could be as high as 10 or 12 feet. Up and down the eastern seaboard commuters were stranded, including the New York City elevated trains which were stuck on the tracks with passengers helplessly trapped inside. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, DC, and New Haven, Connecticut were all incapacitated by the blizzard, which reached as far inland as Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Business virtually halted and essential goods and services, such as daily coal or milk deliveries, could not be made. Rural homes were equally affected, with the occupants locked in by the snow unable to get out or tend to their animals. Cases of extreme kindness, such as residents helping stranded commuters, were mixed with incidents of extreme greed, as in the case of carriages giving rides in New York City for 50 dollars.    
For most areas affected by the blizzard, snow fell continuously for about 24 hours, and once it stopped, repair crews were dispatched to fix the downed telegraph lines and get the railroads running again. It would be another 48 hours before the trains were moving, even on a limited basis. The storm continued across the Atlantic. Although the system, which the Europeans referred to as “the American Blizzard,” hit England and Germany its energy had dissipated and it caused only losses of livestock.

The Blizzard of 1888 was one of the most important natural disasters in American history and there were several significant outcomes. First, telegraph lines were moved underground to prevent another national breakdown in communication. Second, New York City realized that the elevated train lines were too vulnerable to the weather to meet the demands of the national commercial and financial center and began the process of constructing a subway system. Finally, the NWS realized that it needed better oceanic and atmospheric monitoring, and placed stations in Nassau, Bahamas, Bermuda, Newfoundland, as well as on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best reads of 2015

I read so many good books this past year. Here are some of my favorite reads from 2015. 

Best book: 

James Morton Turner, The Promise of American Wilderness (2012). This is my kind of book! Turner does not give an intellectual discussion of wilderness. Instead, he examines how political process of the 1964 Wilderness Act shaped the definition and concept of wilderness. From this angle, wilderness has had many diverse and varied meanings over the last fifty years. Coming from an urban/suburban environment, I have always had great difficulty identifying with very precise meanings of wilderness. As a kid growing up in Queens, Forest Park felt as much like wilderness to me as Hetch-Hetchy Valley did to John Muir. The fact that the Act left some wiggle room in a definition of wilderness, essentially putting it in the eye of the beholder, gave it great strength and flexibility. This, however, created some conflict, which is at the heart of The Promise of American Wilderness. Turner chronicles not only the debate between those who wanted to protect wilderness and those who did not, but also the complex disagreements among different environmental groups and as well as between national and local organizations. There needs to be more work like this. The Promise of American Wilderness was my best read of 2015.  

Honorable mentions:

Leon Fink, The Long Gilded Age (2015). So much for Rebecca Edwards etal. and the Long Progressive Era. Fink reminds us that the economic system of the Gilded Age was hotly contested ground between labor and management. Their struggles shaped the socio-economic system as it emerged. He makes a case for contingency in that outcomes could have varied. In my humble opinion, Fink's workers had much more of a fighting chance than say those that Steven Fraser depicts in The Age of Acquiescence (2015). Fink also shines an international perspective on the era, and makes the case that labor would have benefited from doing so as well. For example, he argues that during the Homestead strike, American workers should have sought allies with British unions. Denying Andrew Carnegie his respectable safe haven in Skibbo Castle and applying public pressure on him in Great Britain could have yielded positive results. This is just one example of Fink's use of contingency that will surely generate thought.  

Elizabeth Sanders, The Roots of Reform (1999). I see this as something of a complement to David Sarasohn's The Party of Reform (1989). Both seek to turn the Progressive Era on its head. In the latter case, the author roots the reform spirit of the era in the Democratic Party, not the Republicans. Sanders further roots the reform movement in the agrarian/populist tradition, not the urban middle class. It was the farmers, she argues, who drove the Progressive movement. They had a broad vision for a democratic society, which was at odds with the much more narrow, restrictive, and conservative scope of the Gompers labor movement. 

Richard White, Railroaded (2011). Long ago I read an essay by Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) that argued that among the transcontinental railroads, only the Great Northern was a success because it did not accept any subsidies from the Federal government. The other railroads were corrupt, poorly managed boondoggles that survived only because the government propped them up. Rand was making a libertarian case against state interference in business. White likewise argues that the railroads were nothing more than a fraudulent scheme, although he comes at it from the left with a strong post-2008 perspective. Playing with house money and supported by public bailouts, White argues that the transcontinental railroad system was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme to route money from the public treasury into the pockets of select investors. And they were select investors who conned others (including their former pals) when it suited them. The amoral, apolitical railroads backed whatever best served the financial interests of their investors. As where previous generations of historians saw the completion of the transcontinental railroad as a triumph of American progress, White sees a complicated, bloated, unnecessary, and unsustainable system that sapped the treasury for decades. It was, in short, a national tragedy in his telling.     

Mark W. Summers, Ordeal of the Reunion (2015). Summers is one of my favorite historians. He is a master dealing with sources and he has a great sense of humor. Summers is one of the few historians who really does make me chuckle out loud.  Summers makes a case that Reconstruction was more of a success than we tend to view it. He argues that the primary purpose of Reconstruction was to bring the union back together after the war without slavery or a slave power. In this, he stresses, it succeeded. There really was little political will even at the height of Radical Reconstruction to completely re-make southern society. Ordeal of Reunion examines the importance of the west (as a source of conflict and investment that drained the north of political and economic will), the economy (especially the Panic of 1873 which devastated the south, especially freedmen), and corruption (which was a real problem in some Reconstruction governments). This will give me a new perspective for when we get to Reconstruction in class much later this spring. 

Lastly, non-History:

Thomas Merton, The Seeds of Contemplation (1962). I picked this up in September after seeing Pope Francis's speech before Congress. As a Catholic I had some passing knowledge of Merton, but I had not read anything he had written. Seeds is a powerful book. It is not something one reads start to finish. Instead, one reads it slowly a paragraph at a time. I have spent weeks contemplating a single paragraph in this remarkable book.