January 11, 1755 – Birthdate of Alexander Hamilton & Review of “Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation” by John Ferling

John Ferling, a respected scholar of the American Revolution, sets forth the ideological differences between two of our most influential Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Hamilton, and recounts the poisonous enmity between them that arose as a result. The story is relevant even today, since the bitter partisan divide America is now experiencing is quite similar to that which threatened to tear apart the fabric of the country apart in its infancy.

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Ferling provides a more dispassionate (i.e., less hagiographic) portrait of the two men than many recent biographies. He is quite good at laying out the philosophies of these two great thinkers, and showing how much they both contributed to the tenor and construction of the new nation. Nevertheless, when it comes to dissecting the personal characteristics of the two men, Ferling goes easier on the shortcomings of Jefferson than he does on Hamilton, even making Hamilton sound a bit like he verged on insanity toward the end of his life.

Hamilton was certainly more volatile and impulsive than Jefferson, but the actions instigated by each of them ended up mirroring the other’s. The main difference, in my view, was that Hamilton was more open about his feelings and actions than Jefferson; Jefferson’s behaviors could be just as egregious, but he cleverly operated almost exclusively behind the scenes, using sycophantic lackeys to do his dirty work (most notably: Virginia Congressman William Branch Giles, newspaperman Philip Freneau, and future presidents James Madison and James Monroe). As Ron Chernow observed in his 2004 magisterial biography Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was a “proficient political ventriloquist” who was “skilled at using proxies while keeping his own lips tightly sealed.” He used other men to hound Hamilton and discredit him, through whatever combination of truth and lies were necessary to accomplish that goal.

In spite of all the time and effort spent by each of these men in attacking the other, they also managed to make major contributions to the establishment of the American Republic. It was largely thanks to Hamilton that the nation was able to grow strong enough to overcome the defects it suffered when bound only by the Articles of Confederation. But Hamilton’s vision included the possibility of a nationstate bound to a plutocracy.

As for Jefferson, it was his radical egalitarian vision (at least in theory) that put into words the dream of equality of opportunity that still inspires those seeking freedom from oppression. (Nevertheless, no matter what interpretation later generations made of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a racist who “believed that blacks were slow, lazy, oversexed, less capable than whites of reasoning, and on the whole an inferior race.” They were, however, suitable for sexual exploitation. Although he claimed he wanted to abolish slavery, he did not want blacks, once freed, to remain in the country.)

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Ferling devotes some space to trying to explain Jefferson’s hypocritical divide between his professions about slavery and the actions he did, or rather, did not, take. Like other historians, Ferling makes a number of excuses for Jefferson. He does, however, admit that Jefferson absolutely would not consider emancipation without expatriation of freedmen and that “he refused to denounce the spread of slavery, and in private he made it clear that if the Union was torn asunder over the issue, he would stand with the South in defense of slavery.” Still, Ferling suggests that Jefferson was no worse than Washington, writing: “Like Washington, Jefferson made a conscious decision to keep others enslaved so that he might live the sumptuous life.”

But there were crucial differences between Washington and Jefferson on slavery. Washington, even Ferling admits, stated that if the Union broke up, he would move to the North and side with them, not with his home state of Virginia. Ferling does not go into Washington’s position on slavery in depth, presumably because it is beyond the purview of the book. But Washington not only struggled more with how to deal with slavery during his life, but would have freed his slaves at or before his death if he had been able to do so. Under the dower laws of the time, many of his slaves either belonged to Martha, or were married to slaves belonging to Martha. He refused to break up slave families, and Martha had no inclination to free her slaves. (After her husband died however, the slaves, who knew that Washington arranged for them to be freed when Martha died, were looking a little too happy for Martha’s comfort level, and she became uneasy that they would try to advance the date of her death. After a year, therefore, she freed them herself.) In contradistinction, Jefferson stipulated that only five of his slaves be freed even upon his death (all of them were from the Hemings family).

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

Regarding the invective and undermining engaged in by each man against the other, it is my distinct impression that Jefferson was the more venomous of the two, and did the most damage. His tactics, however, allowed him to escape the judgment of his fellows (and of history) more unscathed than did Hamilton.

Evaluation: Ferling breaks no new historical ground, but he is a spritely writer about an endlessly fascinating subject. He gives a much more balanced view of Jefferson than many other biographers, and does an excellent job in condensing and illuminating the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton. If you are interested in the contributions of these two powerful and formidable men to the American project, this book makes a great introduction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2013

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Review of “1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History” by Charles Bracelen Flood

This terrific contribution to Lincolniana manages to convey reverence for Lincoln without falling into the tempting trap of hagiography that so often characterizes books on Lincoln. Furthermore, although it’s a story familiar to many, Flood tells it in a most entertaining way, from a refreshingly objective perspective.

Flood has said in interviews that he believes there are only two years in American history that are absolutely critical, pivotal years: The first was 1776 and the second was 1864. This last full year of Lincoln’s life wrenched the President and the public from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other: for a while it looked like the North had lost the Civil War, as disasters and dead bodies mounted on the battlefields. Then Sherman took Atlanta followed by Savannah, and Sheridan tamed and reclaimed the Shenandoah Valley. Similarly, Lincoln’s prospects for winning a second term went from absolutely zero to overwhelmingly positive. And throughout this entire whip ride, Lincoln was manipulating everything and everybody he could, behind the scenes.

Abraham Lincoln, February, 1864

A little background: the Civil War started just five weeks after Lincoln’s first inauguration on March 4, 1861. By 1864, close to a million Union soldiers faced 700,000 Confederates. Also by that year, some quarter million Union soldiers were already lost from all causes. In addition, more than 100,000 had deserted.

Politics in the North was mainly divided into four camps: the “conservative” Republicans who supported Lincoln’s approach; the “Radicals” who thought Lincoln was too conciliatory toward the South; the “Peace Democrats” who wanted immediate peace negotiations and compromise with the South; and the “War Democrats” who were willing to keep fighting but did not care about the status of the slaves.

1864 was the year of some huge battles, including the Wilderness Campaign and Cold Harbor, in Virginia. The stories Flood tells about these battles are just awe-inspiring, even if you’ve heard them before! In one instance, Lee rode up in front of his troops to spur them on, and it took three men to wrestle him back to safety. Sheridan too, at Cedar Creek, rallied his retreating men when he “soared above the barricade on his massive black horse, landing in an open area. Wheeling [his horse] Rienzi around where his soldiers could see him for a hundred yards in either direction, he bellowed, “‘Men, by God, we’ll whip ‘em yet! We’ll sleep in our old tents tonight!” And they did. In Cold Harbor, one soldier wrote in his diary: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.” The diary was found on his body. In mid-July, when D.C. was in danger of attack by the Confederates and Grant’s army was far away, some 2,800 wounded solders left their hospital beds to march to Fort Stevens, north of Washington. As Flood reports, “Many limped and most had bandages somewhere on their bodies, but they all carried muskets.”

Philip Sheridan

Lincoln’s desire to get reelected was never far from his mind, and even influenced his war strategy. (It was more than just a “desire” – he felt no one else was capable of being elected who wanted to keep the Union intact.) Benjamin Butler was deemed to be an incompetent general, but Lincoln wanted him kept busy in the field, because it was thought he might head up his own campaign for the presidency. So Butler amassed failure after failure, with yet more lives lost. Grant wanted to get rid of him, but he knew Lincoln wanted him handled with kid gloves. Finally they compromised; Butler was sent off “to await further orders” (which of course never came). (Lincoln first tried to co-opt Butler by sending someone to offer him the vice presidency. Butler laughingly replied that “I would not quit the field to be Vice-President, even with himself as President, unless he will give me…[assurances] that he will die or resign within three months after his inauguration.”)

Benjamin Butler

Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, was another potential threat to Lincoln’s reelection. Chase, favored by many Radical Republicans, saw the election results of 1860 (in which he also ran) as a hideous mistake, and hid his thirst to be president from no one. Chase was contemptuous of Lincoln. Although Lincoln’s origins were humble, Lincoln the man was nothing of the kind when it came to his sense of intellectual superiority, and he didn’t hesitate to let others know this. Chase burned with resentment over the presumption of such a bumpkin! As for Lincoln, he wasn’t so fond of Chase either, but thought he would do a good job at Treasury. More importantly, however, for Lincoln, with Chase serving in the Cabinet, it would be too awkward for him to come right out and challenge in the 1864 presidential election the man it was his duty to serve.

Salmon Chase

At the Republican convention in June, Flood gives evidence that Lincoln himself desired, and worked for (surreptitiously), the nomination of Andrew Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate. Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, was the only senator from the states that seceded who remained loyal to the Union. Lincoln felt his nomination would have powerful symbolic importance. In one sense his selection would be a concession to the South and evidence of the rewards of staying in the Union. In another, it would be “something of a political offensive into the South to parallel the military advances.” And finally, Lincoln thought that to nominate a Southerner who was a Union loyalist would prove to England and France (in danger of recognizing the Confederacy as a separate country) that America as one country was still viable.

Andrew Johnson

Most people know that during the War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. (Habeas corpus, or the Great Writ, is the legal procedure by which prisoners can challenge the legality their detention; it was designed as a protection against the government from holding people indefinitely without showing cause.) But the extent to which his administration had people jailed questionably is not as well known. Not all of the people who landed in prison had engaged in “seditious” behaviors. Sometimes, however, the extra vigilance was justified. The Confederate Secret Service, operating in Canada, came up with a number of plots to destabilize the North. Confederate sympathizers in the North also worked against the government. One notable plan Lincoln discovered in 1864 involved a conspiracy by a secret organization to stage an armed insurrection, taking Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri out of the Union in a second secession. This “Northwestern Confederacy” would then hopefully attract membership by Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas. Then, they would form a partnership with the South.

With all his problems of state, Lincoln had trials on the home front as well. Mary had become more and more unstable since the death of their second son Willie in 1862. She eased her anxiety by having séances conducted in the White House, and by compulsive shopping, once buying 400 pairs of gloves in three months. She also bought several shawls for $650 each and a cashmere for $1,000. Meanwhile Lincoln wore the same ratty, ill-fitting suit every day, and carried out affairs of state in worn carpet slippers. He did not give money to Mary for her shopping; rather, she “appropriated” it from other funds. As an example, in return for splitting half the money with her, she got the Superintendent of the White House grounds to come up with fake receipts for flowers, trees, bushes, and equipment. Soon she expanded her scam into the White House kitchen.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Meanwhile in the South…. In November of 1864, on the day Lincoln was getting reelected, Jefferson Davis was proposing to buy 40,000 slaves from their owners, so they could fight in the army … to help preserve slavery. …

A final note on Lincoln’s last full year: On Christmas Eve, his friend Orville Browning convinced Lincoln to go in on a cotton deal that might have made Lincoln a million dollars. The gray trade in cotton and tobacco had proceeded throughout the war; it was in the interest of both sides to ignore it. Lincoln just had to writes passes for the middlemen to go back and forth to the South unharmed through Union lines. Flood said it was “legal but perhaps an unethical conflict of interest,” and it probably would have been a huge scandal had it gone through. Ironically, when Lee evacuated Richmond three months later, he burned the warehouses that were to provide goods for the deal, so it was never consummated.

Orville Browning

Flood’s Lincoln is not a saint. Rather, he is a real human being who is not only inordinately compassionate and patient, but also a brilliant and savvy manager who compromised his standards when necessary to achieve his goals.

Evaluation: Even if you aren’t a maniacal fan of Lincoln and the Civil War as I am, I can’t imagine not enjoying this book. Flood is as fully readable as Doris Kearns Goodwin, but where Goodwin falls short in objective reporting, Flood excels.

Rating: 4.7/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2009

Review of “Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics shaped the History of Medieval Europe” by Charles Freeman

The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire marked the end of state-sponsored polytheism, but the practice of honoring saints, in particular through the veneration of their relics, still amounted to a sort of polytheism. Charles Freeman writes that unless one gets within the mentality of medieval Christians, who believed in a variety of spiritual forces emanating from long dead saints’ body parts or clothing, “medieval religion does not make much sense.” This is not to say it makes much sense to post scientific revolution thinkers in any event.

Relics were immensely important to medieval life, but their role has been largely underestimated or even ignored by modern scholars. However, documents surviving from earlier than the 17th century are replete with accounts of miracles and the saints who allegedly performed them. Moreover, many cults continue from those days and some “sacred” objects are still venerated.

Freeman traces the perceived importance of relics to the writings of Augustine of Hippo (also known as “Saint Augustine”). Augustine himself did not write much about relics, but his theology was extremely pessimistic, positing that the vast majority of humans will suffer for eternity. Somewhat surprisingly, his texts became almost as authoritative as holy scripture, and for centuries later Catholic Church leaders followed him in reveling in the vileness of human nature. Freeman writes that Augustine’s “God was a much less rational and less stable deity than that conceived by the philosophers.” This God was, however, amenable to pressure from the likes of the Virgin Mary or the saints.

[Augustine was quite down on the subject of women: lust was filth, erections were sinful, and women were the cause of it all, given their putative weaker brains and lack of self-control. But fortunately for Mariologists, Augustine believed that the mother of Jesus “conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever.” This redeemed her in his eyes and exempted her from his blanket condemnation of other females.]

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Mary, and of course her son, were thought to be able to intercede with an otherwise vengeful God. But saints were usually the go-to intercessors of choice however, since they were “local” – somewhat like appealing to the government representative of one’s political district. The devout routinely erected shrines to holy men and women, often including an article of their clothing or a body part. Moreover, the relics were perceived to be effective, frequently being the “cause” of some miracle. Writing objectively about such matters is tricky for modern authors. Freeman observes:

. . . we are entering a world where there are thousands of accounts of undecayed bodies, resurrections of the dead, healings and the opportune deaths of those who have offended the dead saint or the monastery or church that he or she was protecting.”

Freeman does not express his disbelief in the stories that he passes on — he doesn’t have to. The modern reader just takes it all in with a grain (or in some cases a mountain) of salt.

Some churchmen in the late Middle Ages were skeptical of the efficacy of many of the relics, but the relics were such a good source of revenue that the clerics continued to encourage their veneration. To describe the 1300 years from Augustine to the Scientific Revolution as a time of credulity is a gross understatement. And whether the kings, princes, bishops, and abbots who promulgated relic veneration were delusional or charlatans did not matter. They found a laity predisposed to believe preposterous stories — anything to avoid the fires of hell or purgatory.

The foot reliquary of St James (To minimize theft, relics were stored and displayed in special containers called reliquaries.)

The financial incentives to manufacture false relics were just too much to resist. As a result, Europe was deluged with items purporting to be connected with Jesus, the apostles, or later saints. Even the Muslims in the Holy Land got in on the relic business after the First Crusade, claiming to have found traces of Jesus’s blood and the head of Adam, inter alia.

John Calvin, the influential French theologian during the Protestant Reformation who helped found the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, also noted the plethora of false relics, excoriating the duplicitous practice in a famous treatise published in 1543 chronicling multiple sightings of a “unique” putative relic in several different places throughout Europe. He wrote that he saw so many pieces of the True Cross they would fill the hold of a cargo ship. Regarding all the pieces of the Crown of Thorns, Calvin suggests that the thorns must have sprouted…. And of the Virgin’s milk, he wryly observed: “Had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers.”

On the other hand, much good came of efforts to house this abundance of relics. For example, King Louis IX of France took out a loan to acquire a great many finds (including the proliferating Crown of Thorns), and then constructed the magnificent Sainte Chapelle in Paris to hold them. Other towns and cathedrals also owed their development or enrichment to the profits from pilgrims coming to see the relics.

Sainte Chapelle, located in the center of Paris – interior shot.

In sum, the community of the supernatural formed a very real part of the medieval world. For centuries, there was no questioning of the power of relics. Freeman was perhaps most struck by the intensity of worship at the shrines that were said to house the relics. In spite of the fact that man, being subject to original sin, was unworthy of salvation, it was hoped that God just might be inveigled into relenting. God, Freeman explains:

…was not an abstract, rational being. God and rational behavior do not go hand in hand in the Middle Ages — what could be more irrational than to forgive some sinners but not others on a purely arbitrary basis or let them off years of purgatory on the purchase of an indulgence — yet his irrationality meant that he might be cajoled by the intercession of the saints.”

Evaluation: This is a fascinating examination of the role of relics in early Christianity, augmented by a provocative analysis of the influence of early theologians such as Augustine. Freeman’s prose is accessible and lucid. Rather than giving us a dense treatise as some other authors might have done, he provides an entertaining and enlightening glimpse into medieval times in Europe.

Moreover, Freeman writes about fantastic events and quixotic beliefs with only the barest hint of skepticism, and is all the more effective for doing so. The history he relates reminds us of the importance of rational thought as an antidote to superstition. Or perhaps, the shelf life of all those relics just happened to expire at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution.

Maps and illustrations are included.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Yale University Press, 2011

Review of “Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914” by John Hendrix

I think this fictionalized account of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 does an excellent job of summarizing for kids not only the background of World War I but some of the moral and philosophical issues of war.

Charlie is a young British soldier who writes home to his mom to tell her about the impromptu truce and Christmas celebration that day between British and German soldiers. On that day, the soldiers entrenched along the French-Belgian border met in the center of “No Man’s Land” between the two armies. They each buried their dead, and then found themselves wishing each other Merry Christmas. Before long, they were exchanging food and gifts.

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They even started playing a game of football with an empty biscuit tin as the ball. [An actual match was played between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment of Germany and Scottish troops, with the Germans winning the match 3 to 2.]

truce_3_football

At the end of the day the Major appeared and was furious at the men, ordering them to be ready to fire on the German trenches when he returned. Charlie writes his mother:

“…I suspect our side will spend the rest of the night aiming high above their trench, shooting at the stars.”

The book concludes with an Author’s Note, glossary, bibliography, and even an index, highly unusual in a picture book.

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The author, who is also the illustrator (and one with many, many awards), has create a hybrid of children’s book and graphic novel, which will appeal to the older group of children to whom this book is directed (the recommended age group is 8–12) as well as to adults. The epistolary style also contributes to the graphic-novel feel. The text mixes hand-lettering with standard text blocks, and the palette switches from luminous nighttime scenes done in blues, aquas and teals to more trench-and mud-appropriate colors for the daytime scenes.

Evaluation: This is an excellent book that will show kids the “human” side of war, and help raise up many discussion questions about war generally.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Abrams, 2014

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Review of “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine” by Ben Ehrenrich

Ben Ehrenreich is a writer and journalist who spent three years in the West Bank, staying with Palestinian families and listening to their stories, which he shares in this important book.

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We are into painting with broad brushes these days. For many people, Palestinian means terrorist, in spite of the small proportion of these men, women, and children who actually merit the label. But thanks in large part to the media, the equation of “Palestinian” with “terrorist” has eroded sympathy for their truly horrific plight.

Tragically, the Israeli government also does not distinguish between the two. In the summer of 2014, for example, during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, the UN reported that at least 2,104 Palestinians died at the hands of the Israeli army, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. An Israeli government official told the BBC, however, that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had killed 1,000 “terrorists” during the assault.

Whether the occasion is a peaceful protest over land appropriation, the recitation of a protest poem by a little girl whose best friend was killed by soldiers, or little boys throwing rocks in defense of their villages, the Palestinians are considered legitimate targets for tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and sometimes live bullets, imprisonment without charges, house raids, land grabs, and numerous measures to make their lives difficult, such as the closure of schools and hospitals.

What the Israelis have done to the Palestinians is unconscionable.

Unfortunately, the fact that “Israeli” is also conflated with “Jew” doesn’t help get a discussion going. How the Israelis act has little to do with the life of a Jewish grocer in France, or with a Jewish daycare or synagogue in the United States. As the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace recently wrote in an opinion piece for “The Washington Post”:

“It’s not discrimination to hold a state accountable for its violations of international law and human rights abuses. The state of Israel is not the same as the Jewish people.”

Nor does it help that Israel was set up (largely by Britain) as a place for Jews to go to escape the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe because no other country wanted to take them. [In the U.S., between 1933 and 1945 the United States took in only 132,000 Jewish refugees, only ten percent of the quota allowed by law, because of anti-Semitism in the State Department, in Congress, and among the public. Even children were denied sanctuary, on the theory that, as the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration said at a party, they would all grow up to be ugly adults.]

But the British even restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Still, enough came to create a conflict with the people already residing on the very small piece of land.

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No matter the difficulties of talking about it, though, ignoring the situation will only keep the fires burning in the Middle East and hurt us all. What happened to Jews before cannot justify what is happening to Palestinians now. But the rise once again of right-wing, exclusionary movements around the world (including inside the state of Israel) makes it hard to believe in a solution that will benefit all sides. More awareness is at least a step in the right direction.

Evaluation: Read this book and weep, for the cruelty that has begat cruelty, and the lack of easy answers. I wanted to stop reading, because it was so painful to hear. But that’s not the right answer. If you take away nothing from this book but the very complex nature of the issues in the Middle East, that will be a start. And maybe that understanding can lead someday to the salvation of people who have suffered for so long.

The author writes in his preface:

“I do believe that this book is a work of optimism, and of hope . . . because even in their despair, with no reason to hope, people continue to resist. I cannot think of many other reasons to be proud of being human, but that one is enough.”

The hardcover book includes a list of Dramatis Personae, a glossary of Arabic terms, maps, photos, and extensive footnotes.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardback by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This book is read by the author, who did an excellent job. Some authors have no skill for a dramatic presentation of their work, but Ehrenreich manages to convey passion, despair, respect for his subjects, and hope for a better world in spite of everything.

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12.5 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Random House, 2016

Review of “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” by Paul Tough

This book describes a radical approach to the problem of educating underprivileged students, and the one endorsed by President Obama: The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

The author, who covered the project’s first five years for the New York Times Magazine, thoroughly documents the nature of poverty in black America to give readers a sense of what founder HCZ Founder Geoffrey Canada was up against. While this book is rigorously researched, it does not read like a sociological treatise. Rather, it is engrossing and engaging, and has you rooting not only for Geoffrey Canada but also for the people of Harlem who so generously shared their struggles with the author.

In 1999, Geoffrey Canada began planning a poverty-fighting project that would cover the twenty-four-block zone of central Harlem (eventually expanded to a ninety-seven block area) with the biggest problems: crushing poverty, unemployment, crime, high homicide rates, young single parents, bad schools, and children who were for the most part doomed to failure.

The statistics of the HCZ were grim. More than 60% of children lived below the poverty line, and three-quarters of them scored below grade level in reading and math. Tough writes:

The average white family in Manhattan with children under five … had an annual income of $284,000, while their black counterparts made an average of $31,000. Growing up in New York wasn’t just an uneven playing field anymore. It was like two separate sporting events.”

Canada’s idea was to create a safety net for these children, to save them from more poverty, from prisons, or even an early death. He started with a third grade, and was shocked and overwhelmed to see all the parents who swamped the auditorium in Harlem for the first lottery drawing to reserve a space in “The Promise Academy.” One of the most stirring passages in this book is the speech made by a friend of Canada’s, the Reverend Alfonso Wyatt, to these Harlem parents:

I want to tell you something that maybe you don’t know. … The people who run prisons in this country are looking at our third-graders. They look at their test scores each year to begin to predict how many prison cells will be needed twenty years from now. … And so I want the people in this house to tell them: You will not have our children!… ‘Let me hear somebody say it,’ Wyatt called out, and he led the crowd in a chant: ‘You! Will! Not! Have! Our! Children!’”

Canada wanted these kids to have the same chances as the kids in Manhattan. But his goal was daunting. Researchers found the dysfunction of ghetto families to be the result of generations of discrimination, isolation, and cultural decay. As a result, ghetto residents tend not to qualify for many jobs in the modern economy that require high levels of education and technical expertise, and the lethal vortex of poverty continues to hold them in its grasp.

Most importantly from Canada’s standpoint, decades of study reveal that the difference in academic achievement begins very early – before kindergarten! Tough reports:

By middle school, the gap between avid readers and reluctant readers has grown into a chasm.”

Much of the gap stems from the depth of exposure to language: not only is the number of words the child hears important, but the kind of words and statements (“encouragements” versus “discouragements”) as well.

Cognitive skills have a complement in non-cognitive skills (also lacking in the poor) that also confer advantages in both education and in the job market. These include: the confidence to deal with institutions, authorities, and situations; patience; persistence; ability to follow instructions; ability to delay gratification; and the sense of entitlement that comes from positive parental involvement in both children’s education and in activities and recreations. Training for both kinds of skills is an integral part of The Promise Academy.

Canada with Students from the Promise Academy

In sum, to change the trajectory of a poor child in an inner-city neighborhood, research shows you need to do the following:

1. intervene early in the child’s life
2. continue to intervene throughout adolescence
3. give him extra time in school and extra support outside of school
4. involve his parents if possible but be prepared to compensate for their absence
5. focus on improving his cognitive skills but also nurture his non-cognitive, social, and emotional skills

Finding that advantages as well as disadvantages accumulate, Canada decided – when he was finally able to expand – to begin his program with a “Baby College” for prospective parents. From there, kids went to the Three-Year-Old Journey, then Harlem Gems prekindergarten, and then on to the Promise Academy. Canada called this the conveyor-belt approach:

“The way Canada sees it, the middle-class children he wants Harlem’s kids to compete with are surrounded by a cocoon of support – educational support, emotional support, medical support – that starts at birth and never stops.”

Geoffrey Canada

He describes his project’s aims using a basic principle of Newtonian physics: what he wants to do is build enough positive momentum so that kids can escape the downward spiral of poverty in Harlem and reach “escape velocity.” What he does not want to do, however – and here is how he differs from KIPP – is to strip the kids of the good aspects of their black or Spanish cultures. Rather, he wants to “contaminate” Harlem with positives and combine the best of both worlds. [The Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP is a nationwide network of free open-enrollment college-preparatory schools in under-resourced communities throughout the United States. KIPP schools are usually established under state charter school laws.]

Canada emphasizes that one could say the desire to help the poor has nothing to do with “morality.” In fact, he avers, is in the country’s best interest to help these kids: it will save money on the costs of social programs for the poor, and add tax money from more workers.

Fittingly, the book ends with the creed that the students of the Promise Academy recite:

I promise to always dream out loud, to lift my head and be proud. And never end up a face in the crowd.”

Note: As of the author’s writing in June, 2009, Congress had not approved the White House’s request for planning grants to go to community-based non-profits interested in applying to start a Promise Neighborhood.

Evaluation: I have always been interested in the enduring problem of poverty, as well as the challenges of education. If either or both of these subjects interest you, I believe you will find this book quite rewarding.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008

Review of “1917: Vladimir Lenin, Woodrow Wilson, and the Year that Created the Modern Age” by Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman’s 1917 was published this year in observation of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and of significant developments in World War I. The unifying theme of the book is to contrast the actions and characters of the two most influential persons on the world stage that year—Woodrow Wilson, president of the U.S. from March, 1913 to March, 1921, and Vladimir Lenin, who served as head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1924 and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924.

The author states that one mission of the book is to show how “these two intellectuals and dreamers” managed to overthrow traditional geopolitics and alter the distribution of world power. For Wilson’s part, he got Congress to declare war on Germany in spite of his campaign promises to keep the country out of war. After the war was over, Wilson’s words stimulated nationalist quests around the world, much to the Allies’ chagrin, and to the benefit of Lenin, as will be explained below.

Lenin successfully established the world’s first one party state dictatorship which he imposed on a vast and diverse country on the basis of an ideology some historians have, to account for its success, likened to a religious cult. Certainly the Soviets adapted some of the tropes of religion (Lenin loves the little children!) to push their agenda.

Perhaps more importantly, Herman avers, the age was “shaped as much by what Lenin and Wilson aimed and failed to do as by what they succeeded in doing.” Both worked for a new world order, and both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were indeed changed radically, but not in the directions either of them intended or foresaw.

Two (only somewhat) lesser players in Herman’s drama are Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Alexander Kerensky, the principal rivals of, respectively, Wilson and Lenin. Herman contrasts the hard headed, realistic approaches of Lodge and Kerensky with the more theoretical and utopian approaches of Wilson and Lenin. But while Lodge, through his influence in Congress, prevailed in curtailing Wilson’s agenda, Kerensky was pushed aside by Lenin, who succeeded in overthrowing Kerensky and his democratic government.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

Ironically, Wilson was on the winning side of the war, yet he failed to achieve his long term goals of setting up an effective multinational agency to maintain the peace. Lenin, on the other hand, not only overturned a long ruling monarchy, but successfully set in motion the entrenchment of a completely new kind of state. Herman attributes Lenin’s relative (compared to Wilson’s) success to his extreme ruthlessness and willingness to use “revolutionary violence” to achieve his ends. Herman might also have mentioned the very different natures of the polities each man strove to direct. Lenin, in a way, had more “freedom” to exercise his will in his non-free society than Wilson did in his democracy with the shared power of different branches of government.

Europe Post WWI

It is also relevant to Herman’s theme to note the observations of historian David Reynolds, the author of in The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century. Reynolds points out that after the war, Wilson not only did not make himself any friends abroad, but unwittingly aided the cause of Lenin and communism. By lecturing Europe on the need for “self-determination” of minorities, Wilson roiled up anti-colonial agitators and alienated most of the other world leaders. They scoffed at Wilson for his hypocrisy and excoriated him for not understanding the effects “his seductive words would set in motion.” In response to the hostility of the Allied leadership against Wilson for stirring up trouble without knowing what he was talking about, Wilson not only backed down, stating that he had spoken “without the knowledge that nationalities existed….” but acquiesced in the imperialist policies of his allies. That precipitated a backlash against Wilson throughout the world outside America by the people as well as their leaders, with disillusioned nationalists turning to communism. Reynolds argues, “Right across the colonial world, in fact, Leninism gained from Wilson’s shattered credibility.”

Woodrow Wilson returns from the Versailles Peace Conference on July 9, 1919.

Evaluation: 1917 was certainly a pivotal year in history, with the legacy of both Wilson and Lenin affecting the political climate long after they left the world scene. Herman’s account provides an interesting way to frame some of the most important events that shaped the 20th century.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017