Friday, August 15, 2014

Forgotten Presidents, Unforgettable Books

By Jeff Burns
            Even though I teach American history, it’s sometimes hard to generate a lot of excitement in class when we get to the Gilded and Progressive ages, roughly 1880 to 1910.  Odd, since there was a lot going on during that time, the closing of the frontier, the rise of big business, and the beginnings of American imperialism.  America changed from agricultural to industrial and stepped out onto the world stage like never before.  The face of America itself was changed as waves of new immigrants arrived, making tremendous contributions to the country as they assimilated.
            In spite of all this, the period can be kind of a blur for students.  I sometimes call it the “forgettable president” era, since most of the presidents of this time were rather weak executives, overshadowed by the big business tycoons of the day.  They tend to blend together in a bearded mass, and many Americans today are hard-pressed to remember their names.  Lately, however, I’ve read some really great books that bring a real vibrancy to the era.
            Two of the books are about the two lesser known presidential assassinations:  Garfield and McKinley.  Candice Millard wrote Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, about James Garfield and his assassin, Charles Guiteau.  Millard’s previous book River of Doubt (reviewed in another blog) tells the story or Theodore Roosevelt’s Amazon expedition.  Destiny of the Republic is, in many ways, every bit as exciting.  She tells the parallel stories of the two men.  I never really knew much about Garfield; after all, he was president for only a few months.  Millard paints a picture of an outstanding man of character, willing to stand up for his principles.  He was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. On the other hand, Charles Guiteau was a mentally ill man who, in his mind, was doing God’s will by killing the president.  While the stories of the two men are fascinating in their own right, the story doesn’t end there.  After the shooting, Garfield lingered for months while there was an intense power struggle erupted among the doctors, a power struggle that ultimately cost his life.  Millard tells the story in riveting fashion.

            The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller is another page-turner, about Leon Czolgosz’ assassination of William McKinley, but it’s much more.  It is a thorough history of the United States at the turn of the century, with full accounts of the Spanish American war, the war in the Philippines, the Haymarket Square Riot, and Emma Goldman and the anarchist movement.
            Pulitzer prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism is the typically epic work that we expect from her, nearly 1000 pages researched and written over a decade. Goodwin tells the stories of TR and Taft, two great men with two vastly different approaches to politics and the presidency, who were best of friends until politics drove them apart in 1912. She interweaves their stories with the rise of the muckraking press.


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