Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day Reviews

It's a good day to be an American. I was glued to the television this morning watching the inauguration of 44th President Barack Obama. It was beautiful to see the hope and tears on so many faces around the entire country watching him take the oath. His speech was absolutely amazing. If you didn't watch it, you can read the transcript of it here. What an amazing country we live in! The hand off of power was completely peaceful. How many other countries can have so many former leaders watch with smiles the swearing in of a new leader and political rival. President George W. Bush said that today is a great day for America. Amen!

I've been reading a lot of biographies about the forming of our country, and I thought that today was a perfect day to share a few of them with you.

Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison
by Richard Cote is one of the best biographies I've read from this era. Dolley was raised as a Quaker by a man who gave away all of his slaves and then lived with the financial downfall that came from that decision. She married a handsome young lawyer named John Payne who soon left her widowed with a young son. ThePaynes had moved to the newly formed city of Washington, the nation's capital, and during their marriage she was introduced to political circles. A natural born hostess, Dolley was introduced to James Madison, a man several years her senior, and the two developed a powerful affection and love for each other. Dolley was a vital part of Madison's political career. He was a quiet man in public and preferred his privacy, but Dolley won over everyone she came into contact with, smoothing over ruffled feathers and making his presidency a success even after a hated war. Dolley is best known for rescuing George Washington's portrait from the White House before it was burned by the British during the War of 1812, and Cote does a wonderful job of using that instance as a touchstone for Dolley's life. Her courage and spirit saved several American artifacts and gave the people hope in the days to come. Sadly, Dolley's son was a complete profligate and drunkard who gambled away the family fortune, and because she trusted him with her finances, she ended her life in abject poverty and debt-ridden. She was a lady to the end of her long life and Cote does the reader a great service in sharing her story.

Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of the First American Spy
by M. William Phelps is an interesting and enlightening look at a much mythologized character from American history. Nathan Hale sounds like the kind of young man every parent wants for a son. Smart, loyal, and devoted to his family and friends, Hale attended Yale as a young man and soon determined to to become a teacher. He worked at two different school districts before signing on to the Colonial Army. Hale was driven by a desire to defend his country's liberty as shown through letters to his friends and family. Phelps portrays him as the stereotypical All American boy with a great deal of faith. Reading about the quest General Washington sent him on seems a bit like watching a train wreck happen. It seems ill thought out and doomed from the start. Hale was well known throughout the area as a teacher and took his own identification papers with him to appear as a teacher looking for work as he went through British territory to gain information about their troops and movements. Phelps offers an alternative way for Hale's capture instead of the usually accepted betrayal by a Tory cousin. I've read evidence for both, and Phelps' seems viable. Hale probably never said the words attributed to him: I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country. The words are similar to those from a play by Cato and were attached to him well after his death in a newspaper article. Hale was stoic and loyal to his country to his ignominious end by hanging. The saddest part of the book for me was the lack of outrage after his death. His brother was forced to track down Nathan's regiment and do his own investigation to try and discover what happened to him. There were no newspaper articles or declarations released by Congress or Washington. The war went on, and Hale's death was nearly forgotten for several years until a newspaper wrote an article about him and his death birthing the legend that we all read in history books today. The book loses its power toward the end and drifts just a bit. That said, Phelps illuminates the true story of one of the first American martyrs.

Samuel Adams: A Life
by Ira Stoll shines a light on a forgotten Founder of America. Samuel Adams who has become best known for a brand of beer is one of the least discussed American Founding Fathers, but it was his words that helped form the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and organized the Boston Tea Party. Adams, a cousin of second President John Adams, was a deeply religious man and those beliefs shaped every aspect of his life. Every letter and article he wrote had a basis and reference to God and the Bible. That faith led him to believe that America had certain rights that were being denied by the British, and he wasn't afraid to speak his mind in several newspaper articles about them. He served Massachusetts as a representative for much of his life and helped draft its groundbreaking constitution which helped form the foundation for the American Constitution. Adams did have some prejudices against Catholics and Quakers, but was rather enlightened about the paradox of Americans demanding their freedom while owning slaves. Stoll does a remarkable job of revealing Adams' beliefs through his personal letters as well as his public ones, but he doesn't cover Adams' personal life with as much depth. His children are rarely mentioned, so his relationship with them and his family is undefined. The book loses its focus a bit after the forming of the Constitution, and it was a tough slog through the last chapter or so. Adams is a fascinating part of American history with an incredible amount of drive, and Stoll does a great job of capturing that. As a rather poor man without the money of Washington and Jefferson or the education and culture of John Adams, Adams is a relatable, everyman kind of American hero.

A quick update on my Uncle Howard. Bad news: he now has a staph infection in his mouth and the site of the port in his stomach. Good news: yesterday he blinked his eyes in response to questions and squeezed his son's hand. Today he nodded his head just a bit. We're taking each small step as a victory.