A thrilling history lesson filled with pistol waving in the Senate, “backroom confabulations,” the death of a president and...



Wholly enjoyable study of an earlier era of intense political partisanship.

Historian Bordewich (Washington: The Making of an American Capital, 2008, etc.) recounts the amazing story of the cliffhanging compromise hammered out in both houses of Congress in 1850 that pitted the rival pro- and antislavery factions against each other and saved the country, temporarily, from dissolution. The war with Mexico four years before had added 1.2 million square miles to the western United States, while slavery, thanks to the cotton gin, had exploded exponentially. Would the new territories comprise slave states or free states? How to maintain the balance in the Senate and House of Representatives between them? Bordewich portrays a colorful cast of characters—Democrats, Whigs, Free Soilers and abolitionists—whose passionate rhetoric attained lyrical heights and brought the debate about America’s very identity to the forefront. Chief architect Henry Clay, in ill health and at the end of an eminent career, brandished a fragment of George Washington’s coffin and warned his colleagues of the dire consequences of disunion. Urging forbearance on both sides, Clay laid out the components of a plan accounting for the admission of California and New Mexico without restrictions (meaning they would decide themselves about slavery), resolving the disputed borders with Texas, abolishing the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and soothing Southerners’ concerns over fugitive slaves. Warring factions—on the South, led by senators John Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, and on the North, led by Daniel Webster and William Seward—threatened to defeat the omnibus bill, until the rhetorical arm-wringing by the “steam engine in britches” Stephen A. Douglas squeezed a compromise and the necessary passage. Acquiescence to the Fugitive Slave Law, however, would henceforth haunt the lawmakers.

A thrilling history lesson filled with pistol waving in the Senate, “backroom confabulations,” the death of a president and old-fashioned oratorical efflorescence.

Pub Date: April 17, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4391-2460-4

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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