Review of “Heirs of the Founders: The Epic History of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, The Second Generation of American Giants” by H. W. Brands

The period from 1815 to 1825 is often referred to (sometimes ironically) in American history as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Maybe. But the next 35 years were anything but. The interim between James Monroe’s presidency and the Civil War was marked by extreme sectional division over many political issues, including protectionism v. free trade; annexation of new territories (Texas, California, and Oregon); and state nullification of federal law. But lurking behind these controversies was the overarching problem of slavery.

The Constitution of 1789 never explicitly mentioned slavery, but that institution was entrenched and enshrined in the very marrow and character of the southern states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, engineered largely by Henry Clay, temporarily settled the issue of where slavery would be permitted in the United States, establishing the Mason-Dixon Line as the boundary between free and slave states. But as a result of the Mexican War of 1846-48, the United States greatly expanded its territory to include Texas, California, and what is now Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. As new states were to be admitted to the Union, would they be free or slave-holding?

H. W. Brands tells the story of a somewhat neglected period of American history in Heirs of the Founders. The subtitle of the book names the three towering figures that dominated the political arena during the period between the last of the Founding Fathers and the Civil War: Henry Clay of Kentucky; John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Curiously, although the three came to be known as the “great triumvirate” and each of them sought the presidency to one degree or another, none of them ever achieved it.

“The Great Triumvirate: Clay, Webster, and Calhoun

Webster was an unsurpassed orator who forcefully advocated for the northern or free states interests on the floor of both the Senate and the House; Calhoun was the most formidable expounder of southern or slave state positions; and Clay was the man most responsible for working out various compromises that held the Union together for 40 years. But in the last of these agreements, the Compromise of 1850, the slave states achieved nearly all they had advocated. Even Webster accepted the expansion of slavery into new states, chastised the North for not cooperating in returning fugitive slaves to their southern masters, and criticized abolitionists and “extremists” for hurting their own cause. Nevertheless, the Compromise lasted only 10 years.

All three of the triumvirate had died by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. Calhoun surely would have supported the South’s secession. Webster probably would have supported the North’s military action to prevent the dissolution of the Union. And Clay would have striven mightily, but most likely unsuccessfully, to preserve the Union.

Brands’ book is part pure history, part biography. Because it deals perceptively with the issue of the extent of federal power and other sectional and ideological debates, it is surprisingly timely.

I listened to the audio version of the book, unabridged on 12 CDs (15 listening hours) read capably by Eric Martin.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Published in hardcover by Doubleday Books, 2018 and in audio by Random House Audio, 2018


June 13, 1919 – Death of Cher Ami, Carrier Pigeon & Hero of Verdun

The Lost Battalion is the name given to the nine companies of the United States 77th Division, roughly 554 men, isolated by German forces during World War I after an American attack in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. Roughly 197 were killed in action and approximately 150 missing or taken prisoner before the 194 remaining men were rescued.

For the survivors, food was scarce and water was available only by crawling, under fire, to a nearby stream. Ammunition ran low. Communications were also a problem, and every runner dispatched either became lost or ran into German patrols. Carrier pigeons became the only method of communicating with headquarters. Cher Ami was a carrier pigeon, one of 600 employed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. On his last mission – conveying a cry for help from The Lost Battalion on October 4, 1918, he was shot by enemy fire. In spite of being severely wounded, he still returned to his loft with the critical message.

Cher Ami
Armed Forces History, Division of History of Technology, National Museum of American History

Cher Ami delivered the following:


The commanding officer of the Lost Battalion, Major Charles White Whittlesey, was unsure if any of the carrier pigeons had actually made it through. But he believed that his orders to hold this position still applied, because the position was the key to breaking through the German lines. The men held their ground and caused enough of a distraction for other Allied units to break through the German lines, which forced the Germans to retreat.

Major Charles White Whittlesey

Cher Ami had been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and had a leg hanging only by a tendon. The pigeon was tended to by army medics, and was considered a hero of the 77th division for helping to save the lives of the 194 survivors.

For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre.” He was returned to the United States where he died on this day in history as a result of his injuries. He was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931 and received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Pigeon Fanciers for his war service.

June 11, 1859 – Comstock Silver Lode Discovered in Nevada

The Comstock Lode is a rich vein of silver ore located under the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, a peak in the Virginia Range in Nevada (then in western Utah Territory at the time of discovery). It was the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States, and named after American miner Henry Comstock.

1864 Map of the Gold Hill Lodes

The Online Nevada Encyclopedia reports that of the total ore taken out from the district, some 57 per cent was silver, and the remaining 42 per cent was gold.

News of the discovery drew people from across America who traveled to the area to stake a claim. Mining camps turned into commercial centers, including Virginia City and Gold Hill. At one time Virginia City had a population of 40,000 people. Today it’s America’s largest Historic District.

On June 11, 1859, after the Comstock Lode was discovered [this is the date given by Mines and Quarries 1902 by the U.S. Census Office, William Mott Steuart, United States. Bureau of the Census, 1905], resolutions were passed calling for a constitutional convention of settlers to appoint five delegates of this district, and to adopt a set of laws. Many of these laws were modeled after California’s mining customs, because of the large number of pioneer Comstock miners who came from California. The laws dealt with crimes and their punishments, as well as rules for mining and land claims.

“Mining on the Comstock”, 1877 print depicting the mining technology used at Comstock

In 1861, in an act of congress organizing Nevada into a territory of the United States, the district mining rules and customs were recognized as valid and binding under the territorial legislature of Nevada.

The Territory of Nevada existed from March 2, 1861, until October 31, 1864, when it was admitted to the Union as the State of Nevada. Prior to the creation of the Nevada Territory, the area was part of western Utah Territory and was known as Washoe, after the native Washoe people.

The Online Nevada Encyclopedia suggests that the history of the Comstock Lode can be broken down into three main periods:

1859-1865: The Years of Litigation. Miners and corporations went to court to fight over mining claim boundaries and whether the lode consisted on only one, continuous vein of ore or splintered into many veins. During this six year period, miners removed an estimated $50 million in ore from the earth, but about $10 million of that sum was spent on litigation.

1865-1875: The Bank Crowd. Representatives of the Bank of California, based in San Francisco, achieved dominance over the Comstock. The Bank Crowd also built the Virginia and Truckee Railroad from the mining area, drastically decreasing transportation costs, and practiced vertical integration, much like such eastern industrialists as steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and oil titan John D. Rockefeller.”

1875-1881: The Bonanza Group. Four Irishmen led by mining superintendents John Mackay and James Fair discovered by far the richest ore bodies in the Comstock in 1873.

As Dr. Roger D. McGrath, contributor to Irish America Online writes:

The Irishmen had discovered the heart of the Comstock Lode – ‘The Big Bonanza.’ For the rest of their lives they would be known as the Silver Kings.

By 1875 the Silver Kings had become fantastically wealthy. The Consolidated Virginia was paying monthly dividends of a million dollars, equivalent to 20 million in today’s dollars. From 1873 through 1882, the Consolidated Virginia yielded some $65 million in gold and silver, and paid almost $43 million in dividends.

The Silver Kings all lived riotously well and died with multi-million-dollar estates.”

The Silver Kings: James G. Fair, James C. Flood, John W. Mackay, and William S. O’Brien.

Peak production from the Comstock occurred in 1877, with the mines producing over $14,000,000 of gold and $21,000,000 of silver that year (about $329,393,750.00 and $494,090,625.00 today).

Deep underground exploration and mining continued sporadically until 1918, when the last of the pumps was shut off, allowing the mines to flood up to the Sutro Tunnel Level, approximately 1,640 feet beneath Virginia City. (While there was a scarcity of water on the surface, there was an excess of water underground in all the mines with continuous danger of flooding. Adolph Sutro conceived the idea of running a drain tunnel under the Comstock Lode from the lowest possible point, and work commenced in 1869. All mining from 1920 to present has taken place above the Sutro Tunnel level.)

Sutro Tunnel, 1896

Exploration and production on varying scales and in varying locations have been undertaken on the Comstock Lode in every decade since its discovery. Today, the Comstock Lode is being explored by Comstock Mining Inc. of Virginia City, Nevada, which has consolidated control of approximately 70% of Comstock mining claims.

June 8, 1783 – Eruption of Volcano in Iceland Changes Course of History

On this date in history, the Lakagigar volcano in southern Iceland began an eight-month eruption. As Forbes Magazine explained:

During the next eight months, an estimated 14 km³ (about 3.7 quadrillion gallons, enough to fill 330 feet deep valleys entirely) of lava poured out from 135 fissures and volcanic craters near the town of Klaustur. The lava from the fissures ended up covering an estimated 2,500 km² (965 square miles) of land, which threatened to overrun not only many farms but also the entire town. The newly formed chain of volcanoes was named later Laki.”

It is estimated that perhaps a quarter to a third of Iceland’s population died through both the direct effects of the eruption, such as lava and poisonous gases, and the ensuing famine. But there were wider-ranging impacts as well. An estimated 120,000,000 long tons of sulphur dioxide was emitted, about three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006. This outpouring of sulphur dioxide during unusual weather conditions caused a thick haze to spread across western Europe, resulting in many thousands of deaths throughout the remainder of 1783 and the winter of 1784. The haze of dust and sulphur particles thrown up by the volcano was carried over much of the northern hemisphere, destroying crops and causing livestock to starve. Volcanic ash carried away by the wind also poisoned the sea.

In the years after the eruption the climate in Europe continued to deteriorate. Forbes reports:

From 1783 to 1785 accounts from both Japan and America describe terrible droughts, exceptional cold winters, and disastrous floods. In Europe, the exceptionally hot summer of 1783 was followed by long and harsh winters.”

According to the UK Guardian:

The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789.”

Sources cited in Wikipedia state that in North America, the winter of 1784 was the longest and one of the coldest on record. It was the longest period of below-zero temperatures in New England, with the largest accumulation of snow in New Jersey, and the longest freezing over of Chesapeake Bay, where Annapolis, Maryland is, then the capital of the United States; the weather delayed Congressmen in coming to Annapolis to vote for the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolutionary War. A huge snowstorm hit the South; the Mississippi River froze at New Orleans and there were reports of ice floes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Laki today: the central fissure of Laki volcano, Iceland

June 6, 1944 – Normandy Invasion & Review of “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945” by Rick Atkinson

June 6, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary since the D-Day landings, the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Why yet another book on the battle for Western Europe in World War II? As Atkinson explained in an interview:

I think lists 60,000 hardcovers on World War II. So that is a daunting thing. On the other hand, I think the greatest events in human history are really bottomless. So for World War II, the archive is stupendous. The U.S. Army records alone for World War II weigh 17,000 tons, and even the best historians have not done more than just scratch the surface. The story is such that 500 years from now people will be writing and reading about it.”

Atkinson set a high standard for popular military history in his earlier books about the American involvement in the Western Theater. He has succeeded once again in The Guns at Last Light, the third and last volume of his Liberation Trilogy.


The Western Allies of World War II launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they assaulted Normandy on the northern coast of France on June 6, 1944. The invaders were able to establish a beachhead as part of Operation Overlord after a successful “D-Day,” the first day of the invasion. This book covers the period between D-Day and the final Allied victory.

Atkinson sprinkles his narrative with relatively unknown (at least by me) small-scale anecdotes without ever losing view of the major strategic issues faced by the allies. Moreover, nearly every chapter contains at least one excellent map to guide the reader through the details of the geographical maneuvering of the armies.

A major theme discussed throughout the book is the bickering that took place among various generals and political leaders about the correct strategy to defeat the Nazis. Churchill bitterly opposed the Allies landing in Southern France after the Normandy invasion, preferring instead bolstering the attack in Italy. Although Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed that an American (Eisenhower) would be Supreme Commander of the allied forces, they apparently never fully convinced British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery that he should not be (in some cases, was not) in command. An even pricklier “ally” was the imperious Charles De Gaulle, who managed to provoke the enmity of every non-Frenchman with whom he dealt. One British wit said that a staple of De Gaulle’s diet was the hand that fed him. Eisenhower once told George Marshall, “Next to the weather, the French have caused me more trouble than any other single factor. They even rank above landing craft.”

The supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, crossing the English Channel en route to Normandy from southern England on June 7, 1944

The supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, crossing the English Channel en route to Normandy from southern England on June 7, 1944

Some of the fascinating details that vivified the narrative included:

  • Prior to D-Day, the Allies identified senior German railway officials for assassination by the French resistance in order to complicate enemy logistics once the invasion took place.
  • GI’s who received the Medal of Honor also received a $2 per month raise.
  • American dentists extracted 15 million teeth (more than one per soldier) from the men serving in the military during the war.
  • American soldiers smoked more than 1 million packs of cigarettes a day, an addiction that strained shipping resources. Dwight Eisenhower himself smoked four packs a day. When his blood pressure rose too high, he banned doctors from taking further readings, lest they order him home.
  • Soldiers learned to make do with what they had. On one occasion, German soldiers, lacking white flags with which to surrender, waved chickens instead. G.I.s forced to retreat across the Moselle River fashioned water wings from inflated condoms.
  • Churchill was said to speak French “remarkably well, but understands very little.”
  • The U.S. Army hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons (battle fatigue, shell shock, or PTSD) during the war, including as many as one in four during the Battle of the Bulge.

Atkinson is even-handed in his evaluation of the actions of key leaders, which often means he is highly critical of them. Montgomery and De Gaulle are seen as capable, but monumentally egotistical. Patton is shown to be an able tank commander, but occasionally very unwise, as with his unimaginative tactics to take the city of Metz.

George Patton, the U.S. Third Army commander, seen here after his promotion to four-star in 1945. (U.S. Army Military History Institute)

George Patton, the U.S. Third Army commander, seen here after his promotion to four-star in 1945. (U.S. Army Military History Institute)

Evaluation: This book can serve as an excellent introduction to the war in Western Europe for readers unfamiliar with those events, but it can also be edifying for those who have read a great deal about them. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2013

Note: As stated above, this is book three of a trilogy about the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. The first volume, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, received the Pulitzer Prize. The second volume, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 also received wide acclaim. A multimedia website about the three books and their subject matter offers an interactive time line of the war; maps from all three volumes, historical videos, photos, and other documents.

A French woman welcomes an American soldier on November 25, two days after French and U.S. troops liberated Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.

A French woman welcomes an American soldier on November 25, two days after French and U.S. troops liberated Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.

June 4, 1940 – Churchill Declares “We Shall Never Surrender”

The Dunkirk evacuation, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk in the north of France. The operation commenced after large numbers of Belgian, British, and French troops were cut off and surrounded by German troops during the six-week long Battle of France.

A pause in the German attacks between May 27 and 4 June allowed the evacuation of over 300,000 British and French troops from the beaches – turning what was in reality a colossal military disaster, as the International Churchill Society records, into what came to be seen as a success: the saving of most of the allied forces by thousands of ‘little ships’ (fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) that ferried men to the destroyers waiting offshore.

Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation

As was true throughout the war, Churchill rose to the occasion to “rally the troops” on the homefront in a stirring speech that still can give readers or listeners goosebumps. On this date in history, he said to the House of Commons:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

You can read the entirety of the speech here.

Winston Churchill flashes the sign for victory

May 31, 1912 – Birth of Chien-Shiung Wu, “The First Lady of Physics”

Keep that title in mind: first LADY – it plays a large part in this amazing story.

Chien-Shiung Wu (May 31, 1912 – February 16, 1997) was born in China, leaving home at age 11 to compete for a place in a boarding school with classes for teacher training; she was ranked ninth among around 10,000 applicants.

After graduating at the top of her class in 1929, she studied in a university, first majoring in mathematics but later transferring to physics. She was encouraged to pursue her PhD abroad in the U.S., and eventually settled on the University of California at Berkeley. (She originally intended to study at the University of Michigan but heard that women were not allowed to use the front entrance of the student center – they had to use a side entrance.)

Wu applied for a scholarship at the end of her first year at Berkeley, but there was prejudice against Asian students, and Wu was instead offered a readership with a lower stipend. Nevertheless, Wu carried on with both her education and with research. She did work on beta decay, a subject on which she would become an authority. She also investigated, using the cyclotrons at the UCLA Radiation Laboratory, the production of radioactive isotopes of xenon produced by the nuclear fission of uranium.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Wu completed her Ph.D. in June 1940. In spite of impressive recommendations, she could not secure a position at a university (Asian and female: two strikes against her), so she remained at the Radiation Laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow.

As Scientific American reported:

While many of her colleagues at Berkeley had been recruited for the war effort, Wu was not asked to join, despite her considerable knowledge of atomic physics. Neither was she asked to remain on at Berkeley in a more permanent role. It was an unfortunate reality that Wu encountered discrimination for being female at a time when most of the top American universities still refused to accept women, either as students or professors. During wartime, she also faced significant ethnic racism.”

Wu was however able to join the Manhattan Project’s Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories at Columbia University in March 1944,The role of the SAM Laboratories, headed by Harold Urey, was to support the Manhattan Project’s gaseous diffusion (K-25) program for uranium enrichment.

In September 1944, Wu helped solve a problem encountered at the newly commissioned B Reactor at the Hanford Site. Physicist John Archibald Wheeler suspected that a fission product, xenon-135, was causing difficulties. Physicist Emilio Segrè, who had worked with Wu at Berkeley, remembered Wu’s work on the radioactive isotopes of xenon. When Enrico Fermi told him about the Hanford reactor problem, Segrè said, “Ask Miss Wu.” Wu had an unpublished paper on xenon-135 and handed over a draft to help fix the problem. Her work demonstrated that xenon-135 was indeed the culprit, and the problem was solved.

Physicist Emilio Segrè, an integral member of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos as head of the group focused on radioactivity

After the end of the war in August 1945, Wu accepted an offer of a position as an associate research professor at Columbia. In 1949, Wu’s husband Luke Yuan, also a physicist, joined the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the family moved to Long Island. Wu remained at Columbia for the rest of her career. She became an associate professor in 1952, a full professor in 1958, and the Michael I. Pupin Professor of Physics in 1973.

Of all her accomplishments, Wu is best known for conducting the “Wu experiment” in 1956, which contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation of parity. The discovery of parity violation was a major contribution to particle physics and the development of the Standard Model of physics.

Chien-Shiung Wu in 1958 at Columbia University

As Scientific American explains:

Simply put, parity states that nature does not favor right or left. If you watch a girl throw a baseball through a mirror, the laws of physics will be the same both for the girl and for her mirror image.”

But in 1956 renowned theoretical physicist Richard Feynman floated an idea to his colleagues: What if the parity rule were wrong? Fellow theoreticians Tsung Dao Lee of Columbia and Chen Ning Yang of the Advanced Institute for Study in Princeton believed the “law” could in fact be wrong but did not know how to test it.

Lee approached Wu for advice. Wu immediately got to work designing experiments to test the law of right-left symmetry. At last, on January 9, 1957, Wu and her team were successful.

The next day, The New York Times heralded the “shattering of a fundamental concept of nuclear physics” on its front page. As Maia Weinstock writing in Scientific American pointed out:

The parity results were so spectacular that they garnered a Nobel Prize that very same year, but not for Wu. In October 1957, the Nobel Committee announced that Lee and Yang had won the physics prize ‘for their penetrating investigation of the so-called parity laws which has led to important discoveries regarding the elementary particles.’

Wu was bitterly disappointed. It was not the first time theorists would win a Nobel while a key experimentalist who did the crucial work to back them up did not.”

Chien-Shiung Wu, 1963

Wu garnered a number of other honors, however, including the 1975 National Medal of Science and the 1978 Wolf Prize in Physics (the latter is considered the second most prestigious award in the sciences, after the Nobel Prize). But as the author of an article in The New Inquiry observed:

The popular historical narrative of the Manhattan Project presents it as a masculine, western enterprise, fitting the image of the young, white, male soldier on the battlegrounds of the two world wars. Yet the work of Wu, among many others, shows that the narrative was more complicated than that. Women, non-white, and non-Western people made vital contributions to the Manhattan Project and the physics underlying it. They disappeared from the history of the project as it was used to reinforce the image of the US as the leading Western superpower, both politically and scientifically. The forgotten history of Wu is one where state politics meets gender politics to the detriment of our understanding of scientific development.”