Look in almost any grade-school American History textbook and you'll find, highlighted in bold, the term "the Revolution of 1800, referring to the fouLook in almost any grade-school American History textbook and you'll find, highlighted in bold, the term "the Revolution of 1800, referring to the fourth U.S. Presidential election. In these hypothetical textbooks, you'll find an explanation referring to the electoral victory of Thomas Jefferson over John Adams, and how the peaceful transition between two opposing parties demonstrated the strength of the new American democratic tradition. This isn't false, the peaceful transition between the Adams administration peacefully abandoning power in favor of a rival is certainly a landmark event, but it's not the complete story.
For one thing, a peaceful transition of the executive may have been important on a symbolic level, but does this justify the term Revolution? There had already been one peaceful transition after a disputed election. Granted, Adams succeeded Washington after the latter's retirement, not electoral defeat, and Adams was seen as Washington's sucessor while Jefferson was Adams replacement. But there had been peaceful transitions between two opposed groups vying for control of the House of Representatives. Additionally, the transition itself didn't occur until March of 1801. In fact, due to the tie between Jefferson and his vice presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, Jefferson wasn't officially certified as the president-elect until February. So if the term only concerns the peaceful transition, why isn't it known as the Revolution of 1801? So, if you go by our textbook's definition, the Revolution of 1800 becomes more like the Important Symbolic Gesture of 1801.
However, if you broaden the meaning of the definition both parts of our bold term work a lot better. There are plenty of elections that at first glance seem vastly more important. The results election of 1860 was the direct cause of the attempted secession of eleven states*, and thus the Civil War. The election 1932 led to an remarkable growth in the authority of the federal government. A few years ago, liberals like myself used to daydream about an alternate timeline where President Gore had fixed global warming, invented flying cars, and legalized cannabis while Commissioner Bush was doing his best to deal with the steroid scandal in baseball. What's more, you can endlessly play the what-if game with other elections, if X would have won in Y then A would have happened instead of B. Meanwhile, the changes signified and subsequent effects of the 1800 election were probably inevitable. Despite this, the 1800 election is probably the most important presidential election in American history. That's because it didn't just involve a change in theory, or politics, but a change in the conception of what government was and how popular sovereignty was supposed to function.
* I say attempted secession, because the United States never recognized the right of the eleven states to secede, and since we won the war, our terminology wins. I said United States and we although I have lived most of my life in the South and ancestors who fought on both sides, I live in the United States, not some made-up confederacy that nobody recognized. As you might guess, some people don't love these views down here.
Elkins and McKitrick's The Age of Federalism is probably the most comprehensive account of the dozen years of constitutional government before this change that will be written in my lifetime. Every major political situation that occurred during the Washington and Adams administration is dissected to its base elements and examined from every angle. The authors display a exemplary command of the major figures of the era and are able to offer remarkable insight on their actions and belief, even when the authors believe they were clearly wrong, showing a real sense of empathy not usually seen in works of history done by academics. The book itself is just over 750 pages not, including notes. This may seem long enough, but it reads as a much longer book. It took me twice as long to read as I thought it would. This isn't because it's hard to read, or non-engaging, but because it is literally crammed dense with information. If you're looking for full biographies, an account of how people lived in the 1790s, or non-essential anecdotes that provide texture, look elsewhere. This is pure, uncut history of high-politics.
The main theme in The Age of Federalism, is the emergence of primeval political parties. At the end of the era, these were firmly established and accepted conceptions, although they were still a very far thing from our modern conception of political parties, which didn't really start emerging until the 1820s. Regardless of how far these early parties were from modern ones, they still symbolized a vast difference from what existed a dozen years before. One of the primary goals of the authors of the U.S. Constitution was to establish a form of government that would, by balancing power between different branches, and impose several removes between individual voters and government, work as a check against the formation of political parties. This is somewhat remarkable, so I'll repeat myself: Not only was the Federal Government not designed to operate under a partisan system, it was designed for the express purpose of preventing a partisan system from emerging. That's right, the U.S. Constitution in a real and significant way had failed a a little over a decade after it was ratified.
Repugnance at the idea of political parties was a sentiment that can be traced back to 17th century England, and was a belief all but universally held by the Revolutionary generation at the time of the signing of the Constitution.** I put a qualifier in the last sentence, but the truth is, as late as the middle of the last decade of the 18th century, someone who came out in favor of political parties would be controverting not just a widely held position, but a longstanding and universal tradition.
**Madison discussed the acceptability of factions in a large republic in Federalist No. 10, but two things need to be noted. First, he's far from saying factions are a positive thing, he's saying they're inevitable, and a large republic will have a diluting effect on faction. Also, the idea of political parties are quite different from factions. Factions are concerned with the acquiring the ends, while political parties are concerned with the means.
So if everyone agreed that political parties were an unqualified bad thing, how did they nonetheless come about. What are Federalists? What are Democrat-Republicans? The story starts at the time of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, Federalists supported ratification; while Antifederalists opposed it, at least without some alterations. Over the next twelve years, the details of Federalism may have changed, but the basic summary remained; they were the proponents of the Federal government. As you can see the Federalists were more a group of men of a common persuasion than proponents an organized ideology. The Anti-Federalists didn't just disappear, nor did they seamlessly transition into Jeffersonians. Some were elected to Congress and were instrumental in the passage of the Bill of Rights.
After the ratification of the Constitution there wasn't anything resembling political parties. A good deal of this had to due to the figure primary figure in the Federal Government, the universally respected George Washington***. The spark that led to their formation came in the early 1790s. This was provided by Hamilton's plans to finance the debt and establish a national bank. The lines in this argument were drawn were largely determined by an individual's home-state. If you were from South Carolina you were likely in favor, if you were from Virginia you were likely against it. The opponents of the measures never really had a great chance, but the argument is notable for Madison's arguments that the Constitutions only granted the Federal government limited powers expressly written in the Constitution. In all likelihood, Madison didn't really believe this, but was grasping at straws. It explicitly contradicted things that he had written just a few years earlier, and he didn't really press this line.**** Funny that we're still dealing with the ramifications of this desperate lunge.
***Elkins and McKitrick do a particularly good job of fostering an appreciation for George Washington as a President. Not only was he faced with monumental decisions, he had to determine the way in which those decisions would be decided and then put into effect. That his instincts were so consistently right on a wide array of issues, from commerce to etiquette, is frankly remarkable. The esteem he was held in by his own contemporaries is somewhat remarkable as well. It's somewhat well-known that Washington was unanimously elected president in 1788-89 (as well as in 1792). What's less known is that there was no organized resolution or movement behind this. It was just inconceivable that the job could go to anyone else rather than him. Jefferson, who could be unsparing of his enemies, even after they died, and never really saw eye to eye on Washington privately remarked that Washington's "character was, in mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in a few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great."
****Elkins and McKitrick do the best job I've witnessed of reconciling the James Madison of 1789 and the James Madison of 1791. Previously, other books almost make it appear that he cowed to Jefferson after the latter returned from France, but his real motivations are more nuanced, and perhaps more craven than that.
What was really behind these issues was another question: who do you like better, England or France? This question was somewhat simpler, but tended to provoke a much more emotional response than assumption of state debt might do on its own. Of course the 1790s were not a particularly good time for a country to be divided on this issue. The Jeffersonians, particularly the Virginians, were motivated by a visceral hatred of England, and English culture. Jefferson in particular was seemingly unable to think of any issue concerning the English in a rational way. (Much like he was unable to look at any issue concerning the French in any sort of negative way. Elkins and McKitrick demonstrate ably how these two tendencies made him a pretty terrible Secretary of State.) From the start, any attempt to increase relations with Britain, or to improve commercial relations between the two countries, could only be the work of liberty-hating pseudo-aristocrats, bent on subverting the popular sovereignty and establishing a monarchy and nobility in the United States. At first this bias was somewhat one-sided, but with the increasing radicalism of the French Revolution, Hamiltonians began to cast the Jeffersonians as radical Jacobins who wished to install Jefferson as dictator.
This animosity was crucial to the development of political parties. It took a long time for the Jeffersonians to grow comfortable with the concept of acting as an opposition party. Partisan behavior was antithetical to the mores of society and how government was supposed to work. Democratic Societies which were forming across the country around this time were widely rejected across the spectrum, not because of what they did, but because of the fact that they existed at all. The mere act of forming a group of politcally like-minded people was a subversion of popular sovereignty. If these men were going to take up any activity that was described as partisan, it couldn't be just because the other side took different positions on the issues. It had to be because the others were actively working to crush liberty. Or the others were looking to install a dictatorship of the majority. The rhetoric in newspapers didn't get poisonous in order to win elections, it got poisonous because that was the only way it could justify itself.
Therefore, by Washington's retirement, there were two clearly developed opposing ideologies. The Federalists were still the party of the government.*****, and their candidate was Washington's logical successor, Vice President Adams. Meanwhile, the opposition party united behind Jefferson. That's about as partisan as things got. There was no real partisan electioneering in 1796.
*****History textbooks like to refer to Washington as not a member of a political party. But being that the Federalists were the party of the government, to which there was a clear opposition party to for the entirety of his second term, I believe it's just as accurate to call Washington a Federalist as it is to call Jefferson a Democratic-Republican.
Pretty soon into the Adams administration, the internal logic of Federalism began to fall apart. As I have said, the Federalists are best understood as the supporters of the government, but if you had to identify an intellectual leader of Federalism it would be Alexander Hamilton. Up to this point, Hamilton had a pretty remarkable record of brilliance, and at the very least being on the right side of history. Indeed, I have read plenty of books that attempt to justify Madison and Jefferson's opposition to Hamilton's policies, but I have never read an adequate defense of whether they were right.****** But around this time Hamilton began a series of what can only be described as baffling missteps. First, he appeared to have attempted to influence the vote in South Carolina in an effort to have Thomas Pickney, the Federalist Vice Presidential candidate, elevated to the Presidency above Adams. Hamilton always denied this was his goal, but he wasn't convincing, least of all to Adams who developed an implacable hatred of Hamilton that would be passed down in his family for generations. Adams was a bit irrational in this hatred, he would refuse to entertain advice from Hamilton, even where they matched his own convictions of what should be done.
******One could say that The Age of Federalism favors Hamilton, but I think the analysis is completely even-handed and fair. Jefferson, Madison and others might come off as biased, naive, parochial, and/or shortsighted, but that may be because they were.
Compounding this situation was the fact that Adams had retained Washington's last cabinet, made up mostly of allies and close friends of Alexander Hamilton. These cabinet members became convinced, which were strengthened due to Adams' prolonged and inconvenient absences from the capitol, that they didn't serve at the pleasure of the President, but that the President was an obstacle to their effective administration of the government. This eventually led to a breaking point where Adams dismissed the cabinet in a huff, thereby alienating a large wing of his supporters. The party of the government no longer supported the head of the government.
Adams can appear to be a weak-willed and equivocating president. One who claimed to act in a rational search for balance but who often acted in a vindictive and spiteful manner. This can be argued the other way though. What is clear is that he was the worse person to be in the leadership of the Federalist party in 1800. He repeatedly claimed that he was not interested in being a leader of a political party, but his refusal to take the smallest babysteps to repair the breach among those who would be his supporters, or to ensure some sort of organized effort behind his candidacy was a political death-wish. Therefore the Federalists faced an unprecedentedly organized and resolute opposition with an extremely weak candidate. With a few more votes at the right time in the right place, Adams would have won the election. But that it was that close is pretty remarkable.
But, even if Adams had been a stronger candidate, even if he was reelected, it's still an open question of what purpose it would serve. The eventual triumph of the Democrats over the Federalists was basically inevitable. This is because of something more inevitable than quality of candidates or party unity. The Federalists were the party of the Revolutionary generation. They believed in diluting out the elements of faction, in a type of natural aristocracy, virtue in the old sense of the word, "that quality under which he fulfills the totality of his nature in service of the republic." That conception was with the advent of the first generation of American born shortly before, during, and after the Revolution. This new generation had a different conception of how democracy was supposed to work, and what the meaning of virtue is. We're still living with these new conceptions today. And it's not surprise that within another dozen years of 1800, Federalism would be all but completely irrelevant.
The Age of Federalism covers much more than the rise of political parties, but I've gone on long enough. I can't help but mention a long chapter on the unmitigated disaster that was the initial development of the District of Columbia. The authors persuasively argue that choosing to build a capitol on sparsely populated swampland retarded the country's political, social, and cultural development for over a century. On the matter of accessibility, I don't think the book requires an expertise on the era. The authors don't dwell on introducing each issue, but they provide adequate summaries. Really, if you have enough curiosity to even pick this thing up you should be fine. There's a lot in the book that deals with the finer details of commerce and banking, which many people might find dull. It's not exactly my cup of tea either, but I thought it was presented in an engaging manner.
The twelve years encompassing the Washington and Adams administrations are perhaps the most unique in the annals of American government. The Age of Federalism provides a meticulous account and illuminating analysis of this era. ...more
I'm reposting this review today because the e-book version of this is on sale at Amazon for $2, or a .0005¢ per page. Tempting me to buy an electronicI'm reposting this review today because the e-book version of this is on sale at Amazon for $2, or a .0005¢ per page. Tempting me to buy an electronic copy of a long book I've already read, that I probably won't ever read again.But if you haven't read this one, I really recommend it. Re-reading my review I found a handful of pretty bad grammatical mistakes, leading me to question my long-held disbelief in proof reading. Hopefully, corrected the most glaring one's and I apologize for not catching them earlier.
Maybe it's just a function of my age, I was three at the time, but the 1988 election has never really seemed that notable to me. I may be a child of Reagan, but George H.W. Bush was president when I first grasped a notion of what a president was, so I may have seen the '88 election through an aura of inevitability. Politics and opinions aside, George Bush will always be the bedrock for my conception of president. '88 seems the Young Americans of presidential elections, a not particularly noteworthy event wedged between two groundbreaking eras (Reagan Revolution/"Ziggy" and Clinton Administration/"Berlin Trilogy.")* Does such a seemingly foregone conclusion as Bush beating Mike Dukakis deserve such a massive tome? Because Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes is certainly foreboding. 1,047 pages filled with tightly packed text in a small font. That 1,047 pages is earned too, there's not stat padding commonly found in history books. Because the book is based off of original reporting there is no bibliography, end notes section, or even an index.** I'm a political junkie, as soon as I read about this book I knew I would end up devouring it. But this amount of work devoted to a not particularly interesting election which resulted in a one-term presidency may seem indulgent to those with a less fervent fascination.
First off, all indications otherwise, it's not entirely accurate to say What It Takes is about the '88 election. In fact, judged as a history of the '88 election this book is a disappointment. I'll get into what exactly this book is shortly, but to give you an idea of what we're dealing with, the results of the Iowa caucus, the first actually meaningful raw data of '88 campaign, are first discussed on page 867. That leaves 180 pages for, well... 1988. Cramer's main narrative closes before the national conventions, and his 30 page epilogue opens up on Election Day.
Obviously this would be a problem if the book solely aspired to be a blow by blow account of a political campaign. So, if the book isn't a piece of conventional history or straight-up journalism, what is it? Cramer's goal in writing this book were to examine what type of human willingly puts himself through the process and the effect of process on the human. To do this Cramer, starting in 1986, spent a baffling amount of time with six potential candidates, four democrats and two republicans. Those candidates were Bush, Bob Dole, Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Biden. The access that the text hints at is extraordinary in itself. The behind the scenes account Crammer was able to get almost demands a behind the scenes account itself.
The book is basically a close third person narrative of each of the six candidates. Cramer isn't trying to be objective, instead he gives the reader something like a 'candidates eye view' of the events. He effectively inserts the reader inside the heads of one of the candidates. Because of this, the book is extremely sympathetic to each of the six main figures.*** In many ways the book is an exercise in empathy, and readers are more likely to empathize with a book's characters when they, at some level, like the characters. Politics aside, Cramer mostly succeeds in this. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of What It Takes is that it not only convinces the reader to like six politicians, but that the reader likes six politicians who are adversaries. He does this by interspersing biographic episodes into the narrative. The reader gets to know each of the candidates. These episodes are much more focused on the upbringing and family life of the candidates than their political history. For instance, more space is dedicated to the Congressional career of Prescott Bush than George Bush. What It Takes is concerned more about where each of the candidates are coming from than the specifics of the their political career. The book is concerned with the broad process rather than the details, so Cramer is able to avoid getting into specific issues which would detract from a reader's sympathy. Cramer doesn't interrupt the narrative to interject any editorializing or different perspectives. Cramer may use the events of the narrative and the candidate's biography to subtly hint at specific character flaws. But these flaws are human flaws, not the frivolous and general sound-bite associated gaffes and misteps obsessed over by the media in modern elections. The only way one of the candidates will be directly criticized is through another candidate. Through this narrative technique, a specific criticism will seem unfair in one chapter and then justified in the next.
What It Takes is mainly concerned with depicting the personal struggle with the process of a presidential race. As such, the actual events leading up to the '88 election are mere background to the more personal drama Cramer is interested in. The actual 'history' of the campaign weaves in and out of Cramer's narrative as it suits the story. Some stuff is dealt with in detail, some stuff is ignored altogether. The '88 election is to What It Takes as to the Napoleonic Wars were to War and Peace. That being said, it's worth noting that the quality of the work is lessened during the last few hundred pages. Again, considering the parameters of the book, this isn't surprising. The book is entirely based on original journalism, so the quality of the work inevitably depended on the access Cramer was able to achieve. Once votes started being cast, Cramer's access to the remaining candidates must have been severely curtailed. Another thing worth considering is that this book was published in 1992. I think it's fair to criticize Cramer for inadequately anticipating future readers. For a book that sets out to be about something timeless in the way America selects its leader, it can often be weighted in the time it was written. Throughout the book there are dated pop culture references and sly allusions to events that would take place later that modern readers may not catch. Also, I know I have been stressing that the book is about the process more than the specific events of 1988, but Cramer's almost complete neglect of the general election**** make a 1,000+ page book seem incomplete. I'm not asking for a couple hundred pages, but when we leave the main narrative Dukakis is up by double percentage points before the conventions and then we cut to Bush giving his acceptance speech. I'm not sure if he was facing publishing deadlines or what, but even 20 pages of summary would have been nice. Wolfe's The Right Stuff, for instance, is about much more than the history of the Mercury Program, but all the same, still manages to be somewhat comprehensive about the subject it is using as a simulacrum of larger trends. The absence of this here is the reason I'm docking a star.
I was going to go into the specifics of the 1988 election, but I've gone on long enough. Suffice it to say, whether it's Cramer's writing or the candidates themselves, the six main figures are written in a vibrant and compelling manner. The book works as a character study of six compellingly different, but somewhat similar, figures who had the courage or the egomania or the delusional capability to think that they should be Commander in Chief, and the willingness to serve, or, at least the egomania, to put themselves and their family through the process. I gained much more respect and insight on George H.W. Bush, my bedrock president.***** Bob Dole figures simultaneously fully justifies the Norm McDonald SNL sketches and becomes so much more.******What It Takes presents real questions about how American democracy works. The most surprising thing about the book is how Cramer treats the political media, which comes off as a sort of demented Greek chorus, insisting on snooty comments on a candidate's sex life and focused exclusively on perceived character issues while Athens burns. Cramer depicts the media as obsessed with chasing the hot story or the daily soundbite at the expense of substance. George Bush was able to get elected by producing quality b-reel and spouting drivel because his team figured out the game. Gary Hart, who comes off as a less sleazy Bill Clinton, was hounded from the race by faux-Puritanical press whose real motive was moving copy. Dukakis, an effective bureaucrat but a lousy politician, was able to coast to the nomination and never forced to get his head out of his ass until Bush started hammering him with Willie Horton.
Cramer begins the book asking who would want to be President knowing what they would have to submit themselves to. Since '88 the process has only gotten noticeably worse. With few exceptions, Warren Beatty's prophecy, made after his friend Gary Hart had to bow out of the race after the Donna Rice scandal have come true: "When forced to show all, people become all show." What It Takes shows that there is a healthy portion of egomania that drives someone to office, but there is also, or at least there was a generation ago, healthy portions of decency and commitments to serve. Whether that's always going to be the case, or is the case even now, remains to be seen.
* To extend this completely ridiculous analogy of Bowie albums to U.S. presidential elections: '72 =The Man Who Sold the World(probably just because of the song), '76=Hunky Dory, '80=Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, '84=Diamond Dogs (and not just because of the song), '88=Young Americans, '92=Station to Station, '96=Low, '00=Let's Dance. This makes sense to me, but to explain it I would need 5,000 words and hours of spare time.
** Which given the wide cast of characters, around a dozen important campaign officials in each of the six different campaigns, would have been useful.
*** Fair warning: What It Takes is much more indebted to Tom Wolfe than Theodore White. The text is full of gonzoisms that can be well-placed or irritating or both. For instance, Cramer uses a variety of techniques, keywords, and phrases to distinguish each of the candidate's perspective (Examples: use of the third person, the preamble Argh, and phonetic Midwestern drawl for Dole; brash, cockiness for Biden; repeated use of the word neat for Gephardt). Cramer also uses a healthy portion of italics and elipsis to simulate stream of consciousness. Generally, this didn't bother me but I found myself sometimes wishing he would tone it down just a little bit.
****About 10 pages of the 30 page epilogue deal with Bush and Dukakis immediately after the election, and involves some reference to the general campaign.
******If George W. Bush was born on third base and thought he hit a triple, H.W. was walked on favorable calls, earned a hard earned steal of second, and reached third on a sacrifice fly.
****** If it was on Youtube I would have linked to the Bob Dole on Real World sketch. ...more
When we read this in High School, we stopped after Act III Scene II, which bothered me at the time, and still does. But looking back, there was probabWhen we read this in High School, we stopped after Act III Scene II, which bothered me at the time, and still does. But looking back, there was probably a good reason for Mrs. Ryan's decision. Julius Caesar must have been the Return of the King of the late 16th century, with momentum building to a suspenseful climax followed by two more acts, with little suspense, that dawdles on and on, and leaves you in the theatre, your smuggled candy long disappeared, your parking lot high long since worn off, praying for the credits to roll maybe after this scene... but no!!!
Hence, the relatively low rating for a Shakespeare play. I enjoyed rereading the parts we did cover, particularly the Marc Antony funeral oration, which a young Marlon Brando completely owned. Well worth checking out....more
Nancy Isenberg has a valid argument that Aaron Burr has been grossly misjudged by history. However, her restoration is tainted by her devotion to theNancy Isenberg has a valid argument that Aaron Burr has been grossly misjudged by history. However, her restoration is tainted by her devotion to the man. Isenberg's Burr is a brilliant, progressive, selfless hero who deserves a spot on the pantheon of America's founders. His enemies were small, vainglorious, hypocrites who only served their own interest. She attacks other writers, such as Ron Chernow, for upholding the standard story. Isenberg may have a point, but I think the truth lies somewhere between Chernow's version and her own version of history.
At some point, I realized that I no longer trusted the credibility of Isenberg's version of the facts. This started when she described the Jay Treaty. The Jay Treaty was widely criticized at the time but the majority of recent scholars have recognized the pragmatism behind it. The young republic had to make certain tough concessions to Great Britain but it was worth it in the end. Eventually, a large segment of the contemporary American populace recognized the benefits of the treaty, and the Jeffersonians were actually hurt by their continued denunciation of it. Isenberg does not attempt to delve into any sort of nuance whatsoever. Instead, she accepts Jeffersonian propoganda for what it is, using it to highlight Burr as a hero of the masses, and his opponents as craven elites. This type of sloppy history persists throughout the book. Isenberg's Federalists are villains, except when they are supporting Burr. Whenever Burr dirties his hands he is being a rational, whenever his opponents do they are playing dirty politics.
Fallen Founder seems at times to be more devoted to restoring Burr's reputation than being solid history. For example, Burr went from being a consensus Republican vice presidential candidate in 1800 to being blacklisted completely and humiliated in the New York Governor's race in 1804. There must be more to this than Isenberg's attribution of scheming of Dewitt Clinton and Thomas Jefferson. She also whitewashes Burr's activities in the western frontier that led to his treason trial. While his actions may not have justified the government's prosecution, he was definitely up to something not completely legal and legitimate. Isenberg paints Burr as a great progressive, years ahead of his time in woman's rights, but she only glosses over the fact that he was a slave-owner for the majority of his life. Sure, many of the founders owned slaves but their modern biographers don't attempt to make them out to be modern defenders of liberty.
Isenberg also never really proved that Burr belongs with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and others in any supposed pantheon. Burr served with decent distinction in the Revolutionary War but played no part in the debate over the Constitution. Burr seems to be no more or less principled than any other politician in that era. Like most politicians, he seemed to let his principles fluctuate with the times. His greatest accomplishments, other than his treason acquittal and his duel with Hamilton, seem to be his coalition building efforts, which invite comparisons with Martin Van Buren. The argument could be made that, if anything, Burr was a politician ahead of his time and a less successful Van Buren.
There are some joys in the book. If condition yourself to look past some of Isenberg's apparent biases, there is some interesting stuff, particularly about 1790s New York politics. But Isenberg lets her affinity for her subject get in the way of solid history. It really is a shame, because Burr's story at least deserves a balanced, objective telling. ...more
One of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known asOne of the most interesting things about history is thinking about perspective. Very few people lived their lives with an intention of being known as a villain of history. Yet I think all of us fall into the trap of thinking of the past in moralistic terms sometimes. This is a function of generations of storytelling and cultural indoctrination. There are facts that we don't ever necessarily learn, or at least can remember learning, that we don't pause to consider.
My favorite thing about Wolf Hall is how it turns previous conception of a much discussed period of history on its head, while maintaining complete plausibility. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I always thought of Thomas More as a great man of learning and advocate of free speech, while Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless, unprincipled yes-man. Mantel effectively exploits facts to make you completely reverse your feelings about the two characters. In truth, More was a religious fundamentalist, the man tortured and executed people who strayed from the Church's dogmatic beliefs, hardly a free speech advocate. Cromwell's rise to power would be inspiring if it occurred today, all the more so that he did it almost 500 years ago. Mantel almost does too good of a job of making Cromwell likable, but you are completely ready to buy it. I didn't realize this until I watched the film A Man For All Seasons and found myself becoming upset with its portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. I think this is Mantel's greatest accomplishment, she reverses 500 years of preconceived notions.
The book isn't a necessarily easy read. Mantel throws you into the world and she doesn't give you a ton of exposition or remind you who characters are and how they relate to each other. I frequently had to consult the character list and the genealogical charts at the beginning of the book for a reminder. One night, I stayed up until 4 reading the wikipedia entry on the War of the Roses to refresh myself on that subject. (I actually highly recommend potential readers doing this. Mantel frequently references the events and it also gives you good context of why the production of a legitimate male heir was deemed such an immediate necessity.)
The title Wolf Hall is taken from the estate of the Seymour family, minor characters in the novel. But the title accentuates what I would consider the theme of the novel, which Cromwell repeats to himself several times over the course. Homono homini lupus, man is wolf to man. Mantel's Cromwell is presented as a precursor to the modern politician. This is a hazardous occupation in a time where political missteps had much graver consequences than potential resignation accompanied by a lobbying gig as a fall back plan. In this way Wolf Hall could be labelled a political thriller. One of the thrills in the novel is how Cromwell manges to, excuse the bad joke, keep his head on his shoulders. Watch Cromwell survive the political crushing of his patron and political mentor. See him hazard the stormy rapids that was the Boleyn family. Marvel as he clashes wits with the great Thomas More.
What makes this even more effective is the novel is very well written. Mantel does a great job inhabiting familiar characters and making them come to life. Unlike other fictional works that have dealt with the same period, none of the characters are cliched or one dimensional. Her Henry VIII is my favorite depiction of the much depicted monarch since Robert Shaw's. Here, he is temperamental and often child-like, but also as intelligent and goodhearted. And as a rule, any confrontation with the Boleyn sisters will likely be very entertaining. As it was for Henry, though in a rather different way.
The plot tends to revolve heavily around such such confrontations. There will be plot movement, but most of the time it sets the scene for another meeting between Thomas and Anne, or Cardinal Wolsey, or Thomas More, or the Earl of Norfolk. Nevertheless, my favorite chapter of the book was one of the first, "An Occult History of England." This chapter is mostly exposition, but it works brilliantly as a kind of "how we got here."Combining politics, history, and legend, it reads like something Rushdie could have written.
I enjoyed Wolf Hall much more than I expected to. Although I know how the story ends for all the characters, the novel kept me entertained until the end. Now that I think about it, the novel really reminds me of Robert Caro's first two LBJ biographies which detailed Johnson's rise to power. While they don't retell the traditional hero's journey, a non-mythical path to power can be more worthwhile and just as entertaining epic....more