Thursday, August 25, 2005

History Book Reviews

Combined review of three excellent biographies of three of the nation’s founders that also allow the reader to “witness” the events that these pivotal leaders helped put into motion.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, His Excellency, George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis, and John Adams by David McCullough are three historical biographies acquired by the SPC library in the last year. All three deal with “a founding father” of the nation and rely heavily on primary source documents (many from each of the American leaders' personal correspondence or other contemporaries’ writings about them) for their information. Of the three books, Ron Chernow gives the most detail about his subject.

Chernow acquaints his readers with lesser known aspects of Alexander Hamilton, a man whose main publicized roles in the formation of the government were as a major promoter of the United States Constitution and the establishment of the United States Treasury. In the book the reader learns about Hamilton’s childhood contact with slavery in the British West Indies which made him an abolitionist, his rise to General during the Revolutionary War, and his close relationship with George Washington for whom he was Aide de Camp. Hamilton’s death at the hands of Aaron Burr seems almost foretold as you read about the occurrences that preceded the duel between the two men.

In His Excellency, George Washington the author, Joseph Ellis tries to demythologize the “father of our country,” for himself and his readers. Washington’s first military service during the French and Indian War is presented not in a glowing a light but with an eye to the future of a true soldier and leader. Hard decisions had to made in Washington’s time by the commander in chief as anytime when wars are fought, and Washington’s difficult choices are covered by Ellis as well as Washington’s social position as a Virginia planter and stakeholder with vested interests in the American Colonies.

American history becomes much more meaningful when discovered by reading the words of the men themselves as when McCullough quotes John Adams’words when he replied to Thomas Jefferson concerning the Constitution’s roles for the presidency and Senate: “You are afraid of the one, I the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have full, fair, and perfect representation [in the House]. You are apprehensive of monarchy; I, of aristocracy. I would therefore have given more power to the President and less to the Senate.” Adams’ beliefs in fairness, his conscience, and his dedication to the country’s survival are reflected throughout the book. Unpopular when he left the office of President, Adams kept the country on a course that avoided a war with France and gave the nation a less troubled time in which it could take root and grow despite his stance against the majority view. For an excellent picture of the founders’ personal lives, the early days of idealism, war and debate over the American experiment in democracy, all three of these books will intrigue the reader with the personal experiences of Hamilton, Washington, Adams, and to an extent Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with the three is discussed at length in each book.

Pat Barbier (Librarian at Clearwater Campus)

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