Monday, July 26, 2010

The First President Harrison

now finished:
Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time
by Freeman Cleaves

Most of us know little to nothing about the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison. Those of us who held onto anything from U.S. History class remember the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!" which would help us remember that John Tyler was the tenth president if only we even remembered that "Tippecanoe" refers to Harrison in the first place. Others may recall that W.H. Harrison had a grandson, Benjamin, who also became prez, and that W.H. was the president who served the shortest term in office because he got sick and died one month in, often blamed on delivering his long inaugural speech in the freezing cold rain with no hat, coat, or gloves.

Friends, country folk, listen up: there is so much more to William Henry Harrison! The presidency was an afterthought for him. Seriously. It came after a long, productive life, in which he was a successful military general on the frontier (uh...that would be Indiana/Michigan/Illinois) a legislator, an ambassador, and a judicial employee (all 3 branches of government!) He was basically kickin' it back home in the Ohio/Indiana area and taking care of his various wayward children, sons' widowers, and the like when his friends who hated Jackson/Van Buren rustled up a presidential campaign for him.

W. Harrison is fascinating. He made friends with a bunch of the Indians on said Midwest "frontier." They respected him and he them, although as a general for the U.S. he was in charge of taking their land. Side note: Tecumseh is thoroughly awesome and my new hero. I'm talking, to the point that I would name a kid after him hero. I cannot wait to learn more about him. (Like, by reading this.) So, our boy William H. H. could be said to have dealt somewhat "honestly" with the Indians, in comparison with others. Question for discussion: would it have been worse for him to bribe/hire/manipulate the Indians into being mercenaries as the British did, or to pretend to deal fairly with them while really taking their land (I'm looking at you, Jackson!), as opposed to what he did do, which was fight them "fairly" for it (to the extent that any war/killing is fair, but you know what I mean) as well as to honor peace agreements that were made as he tried to scoop up as much land as possible for the U.S.?

I mean - obviously, "Manifest Destiny," as the westward expansion eventually came to be known, is kind of a crock of shite, another blatant attempt of those who have power to use God propaganda to make the masses submit to their will while getting fired up about it. But, if one believes that the U.S. or whoever has a "right" to explore/fight for land instead of just backing off and leaving Indians alone, and that person goes about it with all the accepted "rules of warfare" and such, how can that be any worse than, say, blitzkrieging into any country with oil under its sands while convincing the masses that "they" all want to hurt "us" and "our way of life"? Also, taking land really doesn't begin to explain W.H. Harrison. He was in the army and on the frontier for quite sometime and rose to be a beloved general, but he did a bunch of stuff in the War of 1812 - telling the British to stop encroaching. And those British were using the Indians to fight their war against the Americans for them. William Harrison totally invited chiefs over to his house and chatted.

Anyway, he was seriously famous way before anyone thought to randomly make him president at age 68. We always hear the story of his one-month presidency as a kind of "Oh, too bad, he died before he could do anything." Hardly!

It was also fun to read about him going to Colombia, as U.S. ambassador to the newly independent country that had kicked out Spain. I've been there! He even traveled to visit my favorite sight, the salt cathedral Zipaquira, outside of Bogota. And, get this, on the way there he stopped off at Curacao, where I've also been! ('Cause he was on a ship of course, duh. But he spent some time there.) How many Americans, besides me and William Henry Harrison, have been to Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Washington D.C., Curacao, and Colombia? I bet it's a small group of us!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Done With Martin Van Buren

now finished: Martin Van Buren (The American Presidents Series) by Ted Widmer

Yikes, do I need to catch up! I suppose it's time for some brief summaries, back dated to approximately when I finished the books. As careful readers will recall, I abandoned a Martin Van Buren tome almost 300 pages in -- it was that bad, and that long (600-some odd pages). I did learn a lot from it, laboriously, and so when I subsequently read the Widmer bio of Mr. Van B, from the American Presidents series, I had a good, solid, in-depth background, so I can't be accused of reading only a brief surface account.

The book was good! Well-written (what a relief!) in a very engaging style, the opposite of academic prose. Funny, informative, and really pointed out the struggles and possible motivations of Martin without slamming him or taking his side with blind devotion. In fact, I truly recommend it, and not just for people interested in history or presidential dorks like me. I recommend it for the writing and the insight into a major transition this country made, from being a post-Revolution new kid on the block to a modern, working country of the 19th century that would have to deal with crises. Big ones.

Martin Van Buren is unjustly overlooked. I don't even mean that to defend him, necessarily, but just to say that he played a far larger role than he is given credit (or blame) for. He basically invented the Democratic party - at least as much as Jackson if not more so - and the system of party loyalty. It's interesting because on the one hand, many of us roll our eyes at the whole two-party system and party loyalty that leads to things like entirely predictable votes in Congress, nasty campaign ads, and a whole lot of ignorance about actual issues (let alone no chance for independents and 3rd parties). But reading these books about Martin helped me see how they saw the party loyalty as a positive thing to counteract the blind regional loyalty of North vs. South, especially at a time when the volatile issue was slavery and nothing else was going to get done if you just had that split all the time.

Also, Martin lived for some time after his presidency. He had always had the ability to gather support on these mysterious journeys he would take, traveling through the farthest reaches of New York state, or into the South, to talk with important figures and win them to his side. He continued his little journeys post-Presidency, including being the first prez to visit Chicago. On his way there, he stopped at some random town in Illinois for the night, and the town officials wanted to bring out their biggest guns to impress/entertain the ex-President. They brought a rising young political star to the tavern, one Abraham Lincoln, and he and Van Buren totally hit it off and talked politics 'til the wee hours of the morning. Van B recalled it as one of the most pleasant nights he'd spent in his life. Who knew?

More fun facts: he is sometimes portrayed as a pro-slavery villain, but he was really more of a pro-not-losing-the-tenuous-alliance-with-the-South villain, as explained above. He did come out against slavery later in his life. Furthermore, he was not an upper class man, and his family of Dutch speakers, who had intermarried only within the Dutch immigrant community for several generations, made up the name "Van Buren" when they arrived here, because it sounded important and no one in the "new" world would know they weren't some noble household. Ha!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Accomplishing and Abandoning

now finished: En el tiempo de las mariposas by Julia Alvarez
now abandoned: Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics by John Niven
now reading: Martin Van Buren - The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer

Yes, it's true. After 285 pages of my first MVB attempt, I totally abandoned ship. I just couldn't do it anymore. It was painful. I really hope the professor historian dude who wrote it got tenure out of it, because I just cannot in good conscience recommend it as a book to read. This is not to say there was not interesting information in it. I actually learned a lot about Van Buren, and some of the things I had already learned about him from my JQA and Jackson bios were fleshed out, and that was cool. But it was overly wordy while still being really dry, a dastardly combination. It was put together like a typical academic endeavor: impressive research piled upon impressive research, with lots of unnecessary terrible writing in lieu of getting to the point. Occasionally an interesting passage or a clever turn of phrase would show up, just the way they would occasionally show up in those research papers you wrote at 4 a.m. in college. Doesn't mean the whole thing was well done.

I've moved on. I even took it back to the library yesterday already, so the deed is done. I am now reading an incredibly different, short Martin Van Buren bio (but I feel no guilt about reading a short, light one, having given many weeks of my life to 285 pages of the long, awful one).

In other news, I finished En el tiempo de las mariposas (that's In the Time of the Butterflies to some of you). It's pretty crazy how no one in the U.S. knows a damn thing about Trujillo or the Dominican Republic or the Mirabal sisters (las mariposas), who were brutally murdered. I really want to read another Julia Alvarez book after reading that. She has a vivid imagination and a great writing style and storytelling sensibility.

Lots more reading to do in July!

Also, on today's Here and Now (that's a public radio show, y'all), I heard Jack Murnighan talk about his book Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's Greatest Hits. I have idly considered reading that book before, but today I was really digging some of the stuff the author said, particularly his intense, effusive praise for War and Peace. (See the header of this blog, please, thanks.) Made me want to revisit The Book again. Gotta do some serious plowing through the 600 books on my to-read list first, though....