Character sketches of movers and shakers—and even Quakers—who influenced the development of the postrevolutionary republic.
Historian-journalist Langguth (Our Vietnam, 2000) turns in a book that in many ways resembles the old Landmark series of biographies for younger readers, but that nicely complicates our understanding of many iconic figures; his treatment of George Washington’s death, for instance, is both moving and unexpected, since Washington approached it with a touch of irony as well as bravery. In Langguth’s pages, set in a time when what it meant to be American was very much open to debate, the likes of Jefferson and Adams—John Quincy as well as John—engage in floor-shaking arguments, while more than a few shots are fired by privateers and duelists and old-fashioned thugs; farther afield, men such as Andrew Jackson, Tecumseh and Zebulon Pike busily carve out reputations for themselves, Aaron Burr plots war against Spain and William Hull leads the charge against the foe. William who? Exactly: Langguth does a nice job of introducing to modern readers characters who had influence in their time but are mostly forgotten today, such as Hull, “short, stout, and the survivor of a stroke,” who led an American invasion of British Canada at the beginning of the War of 1812. It did not end well, as did so many episodes in that strange but probably inevitable conflict, which the young U.S. was very lucky to survive. Langguth adds notes to the customary legends—finishing off Oliver Perry’s “We have met the enemy, and he is ours” message, pointing out Henry Clay and John Calhoun’s obsessive dislike for the English and most other people, and charting the careers of players who would move on from the war to do other things, such as the British naval officer who wound up as Napoleon’s captor on St. Helena (“Cockburn found Bonaparte sulky; the former emperor considered the admiral insulting”).
An engaging survey of interesting times.