Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

As a teacher, I have attempted to engage students in learning about the Oregon Trail in a variety of ways, including playing the Oregon Trail video game.  So, I was genuinely excited to read about Rinker Buck’s journey to travel the epic trail.  I found the book to be a quick and easy read that tells the story of Buck and his brother Nick, and Nick’s Jack Russell terrier, Olive Oyl making a modern day crossing of the Oregon Trail.

As a reader, I was in awe of Buck’s attempt to travel the length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way—in a covered wagon with a team of mules.  Such a journey had not been attempted in more than a century.  The fact that so much of the trail is still accessible was quite the revelation.  As an East Coaster, many of our original trails and pioneer roads are long gone, replaced by modern roads, cities and suburban sprawl.

Buck gives an overview of the Oregon Trail, which spans two thousand miles and crosses six states from Missouri to the Pacific coast. Once Buck sets up the history of the trail, he then begins the narrative of the crossing. Buck and his brother set out from St. Joseph, Missouri, to travel to Baker City, Oregon, a journey that would last four months.

The book can be broken down into three distinct parts, a journal of the trip, an all-around history of the trail, and the relationship Buck had with his father.  As a reader, I most enjoyed the journal and historical aspects of the book.  Believe me, you will have a good idea of what it takes to change a wagon wheel or how precious water can truly be.  In the beginning of the book, Buck talks about wanting to do the crossing alone.  However, as the book unfolds, it is hard to imagine this journey being possible without the aid of his brother Nick.  Indeed, the banter between the two is quite fun. 

I would highly recommend this book. It is very entertaining, as well as educational. The reader will be transported to an earlier time and a chance to “Go West!” Plus, you will learn more about what many of the Great Pioneers had to endure to make such an arduous journey. If you are like me and love the idea of taking a great road trip, I would enthusiastically recommend picking up this book.  It is definitely worth a read!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Author Spotlight: David O. Stewart

By Jeff Burns

David O. Stewart became a writer of history after a long legal career in Washington D.C., and his legal training and career provide an interesting perspective in his work.  His first book, The Summer of 1787, is about the tumultuous constitutional convention, and he was inspired to write it by a Supreme Court case he was working on.  His second book, Impeached, is about the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson and was inspired by a judicial impeachment case he worked on in 1989.  His third book, American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America, is about Burr’s alleged conspiracy to commit treason by creating his own personal empire in the Louisiana territory and the trial that resulted.

All three books were great sellers and accumulated praise and acclaim.  Summer was awarded the Washington Writing Prize for best book of 2007, and Stewart received the 2013 History Award of the Society of the Cincinnati as well.  In 2013, he released his first historical fiction novel, The Lincoln Deception, about the John Wilkes Booth Conspiracy.  His most recent book, Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America is a unique biography of the fourth president, told in terms of five pivotal personal relationships, each of which was crucial in some way to the development of the United States.

Whether it’s the result of his own personality and interests or the result of his legal training and career, Stewart is not the typical historian.  His books are different and fresh, well worth checking out.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unwrapping Madison’s Gift

By Jeff Burns

Quick, name a founding father. (Yes, I know that’s not a PC term, but anyone who knows me would agree that PC is one of the last descriptors that anyone would use for me.)  You probably immediately thought of Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson for example. And because you are intelligent and interested enough to follow the Histocrats, you probably thought of James Madison too.  However, I’d be willing to bet that he wasn’t the first name that crossed your mind.  What do you know about “Little Jemmy” as he was nicknamed?  Many people know that he was the smallest president to date (hence his nickname), standing at 5 ½ feet or less and barely crossing the 100 pounds threshold.  They know he was the fourth president, and that he led the United States into the War of 1812, becoming the only sitting President to actively command troops in war during the disastrous British invasion and occupation of Washington D.C.  They probably also know that his young and vivacious wife, Dolly, was a social butterfly and society trendsetter who heroically oversaw the rescue of important objects in the White House. 

Some people, though, may not remember as much about his pre-presidential career, his leading role at the Constitutional Convention, not only in the writing of the Constitution, but also in its ratification as advocate and co-writer of The Federalist essays.  In Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, historian David O. Stewart seeks to restore Madison to his proper place in the framer/founder pantheon, as one of the most important, if not the most important. 

As Stewart points out, Madison’s contemporaries recognized his importance in the founding of the United States; more cities and counties in the country have been named after Madison than after any other presidents. However, over the years, the soft-spoken, seemingly introverted, bookworm has been overshadowed by other figures.

Stewart accomplishes his goal by exploring Madison’s relationships with 5 important figures, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Dolly Madison, and James Monroe, writing about each relationship separately.  He uses letters and documents (plenty of notes and citations) by and about Madison and each of the other figures to create an elaborate picture of the relationship and how that relationship was crucial in shaping the direction of the young country.  According to Stewart,

“Madison’s Gift” was the ability to work with each person, in spite of occasional differences and rivalries, and to make compromises and adjustments on order to reach his ultimate goal of a self-sustaining constitutional republic.

Madison’s relationships were very fluid.  For example, he worked extremely closely with Alexander Hamilton in the development of the Constitution and the ratification struggle, but them found himself a leader of the political party formed specifically in opposition to Hamiltonian ideas.  Through the first years of the Washington administration, Madison was the chief presidential advisor, but he found himself pushed aside as Hamilton became closer.  Madison and Monroe were close friends but also intense political rivals at times.  And of course, Dolly brought a tremendous personal change in the older, stoic Madison, drawing him out of his shell.

Madison’s Gift is a very interesting book that accomplishes the goal of restoring Madison to his rightful place, and the reader gains insights into the personalities of all the characters.  Learning about them through the deep personal and political relationships they shared brings them to life in a way that other histories and biographies might not.