Presents of the Past:
How do you Hang onto the Past?

Washington Post Book World, December 3, 1989

1) see also

2) see also


by Simon Schama
948 pp; Knopf; $29.95.

by Drew McCoy
Cambridge University Press; $29.95.

by Benjamin Brown French
University Press of New England; $39.95.

by Bill Gilbert
Atheneum; $22.50.

by Rick Atkinson
Houghton Mifflin; $24.95.

by Martin Gilbert
Holt; $29.95.

by John Keegan
Viking; $24.95

by Richard M. Ketchum Random House; $29.95.

by Otto Friedrich
Holt; $24.95.

EXCEPT FOR SEX, nothing in history has been so overpublicized as the French Revolution, which began with the Rights of Man but spiraled rapidly downward into bloodshed and terror. Anyone interested in following this tragic trajectory -- from the fall of the Bastille to the death of Robespierre -- need only read Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Knopf, $29.95), one of the mesmerizing reads of this or any other year. The book's compelling power does not lie in its provocative thesis; revisionist views of the French Revolution have appeared before.  But Schama, who teaches history at Harvard, is that rare thing in America, a scholar who can write -- in this case about violence and intrigue, politics, culture, even economics -- with the grace, clarity and wit of a good essayist and the rolling storytelling skill of a great 19th-century novelist. Just before Danton was guillotined he said to the executioner, "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It is well worth the trouble."

So, even at 948 pages, is Citizens.

James Madison is the man to whom, more than any other, Americans owe thanks for a Constitution that has not only survived for two centuries but still supports a government with enough power to run a country and maintain a Bill of Rights. In 1787 Madison displayed a unique understanding of the great issue of freedom versus order. There would be no Union, no grand experiment in democracy, no United States of America at all, he knew, if there was no Constitution. But there would be no Constitution unless the power of the slave states was accommodated.

As we all know, the deal was made, the democracy was born, the Union thrived, but with the cancer of slavery at its heart. Madison, one of the most learned and lucid of men, followed politics with care from 1817, the year he retired from the presidency, almost until his death in 1836. And he soon was forced to confront the flawed and shaky evolution of the ideal republic he had hoped to create. How perceptively he did that is the subject of Drew McCoy's splendid book, The Last of the Fathers, James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge University Press, $29.95), a subtle, shapely and intriguing meditation on Madison's life, personality and political theory.

These were melancholy times for the diminutive ex-president, a man who hated slavery but could not find an acceptable way to free his own slaves, nor any satisfactory solution to the institution of slavery itself, though he optimistically worked for the American Colonization Society which aimed to free slaves and ship them to Liberia. The original Union man and a believer in political compromise, Madison had later joined Jefferson in espousing states rights and establishing partisan party politics in government. Once retired, he saw federal power expanding during Andrew Jackson's presidency, a spoils system that made politics steadily more savage. Even worse, his own early states' rights arguments were being twisted to justify the right to slavery in the South, and to threaten the sacred Union with secession.

As president during the War of 1812 Madison had not been a strong leader, partly because he so scrupulously believed that, even in an emergency, the executive should never overstep its bounds. After Andrew Jackson, few presidents were so scrupulous. But the one who was to abuse executive power most shamefully would do so to save a Union divided precisely on the issue of slavery. Twenty-eight years after Madison's death, Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and baldly posed a question that still has not been definitively answered: whether a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can endure.

On Nov. 19, 1863, Benjamin Brown French, then commissioner of public buildings in Washington, D.C., was listening at Gettysburg. Like most of the thousands gathered for the battlefield ceremony, French was more impressed by Edward Everett Hale's lengthy oratory than by the president's few words, although he reported a great outpouring of adulation for Father Abraham.

Brown kept a journal, partly in Chester, N.H., but mostly in Washington, from 1828 when Andrew Jackson came to power till his own death in 1871. It ran to 17 volumes. Now reduced to a single highly readable book, Witness to the Young Republic: A Yankee's Journal (University Press of New England, $39.95), and equipped with footnotes and fine directional essays, it offers a remarkable amount of detail for the years that followed Madison's death about anything and everything from the cost of getting a tooth pulled to the dueling habits of congressmen. The nation was gripped by Manifest Destiny, fought the Mexican War and saw itself torn apart by the polarization between abolitionists and slave owners. For the ghosts of Jefferson and Madison, of course, the cruel irony was precisely that the Union was eventually saved because the centralizing, mercantile development and the growth of presidential power, which they both eventually deplored had made the federal government strong enough to destroy the states rights, agrarian South.

If nobody except slave owners, who wanted slavery to go on forever, knew what was to be done about blacks, starting as early as the American Revolution few white Americans had real doubts about what to do with Indians -- buy their lands or kill them off, but in any case keep pushing them westward ahead of each new wave of settlers. One of the very best books of the year, Bill Gilbert's God Gave Us This Country (Atheneum, $22.50) watches such policies play themselves out, in the Ohio Valley, from the 1780s to the end of the War of 1812. In the process Gilbert creates an admiring but measured biography of the greatest Indian leader, the Shawnee Tecumseh, who was killed in 1813 during the battle of Moraviantown. Gilbert also uses the proven haplessness of the militia and settler fighting forces to challenge what he sees as the standard myth that Americans were great impromptu guerrilla fighters, who could drop their hoes and pick up their muskets and blow any enemy away. The latest variation of this delusion was tested in the Vietnam War, in its early stages at least, which serves as the backdrop for The Long Gray Line (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95), Rick Atkinson's remarkable exploration of the lives and subsequent careers of several members of the West Point class of 1966. Dedicated to soldiering and to Duty, Honor, Country, they fared ill though bravely, in a Southeast Asian war that could not be won, and they were isolated anachronisms, sometimes literally spat upon, in counterculture America.

For the past 20 years we have heard that war is bad, that career soldiers are consequently bad too, and that discipline and authority are pure tyranny. Atkinson's book does honor to these men by taking them seriously.

World War II is mostly remembered as the last just war, in which you could tolerably distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, and the good guys won. As its 50th anniversary rolls around, the war seems likely to launch much nostalgic military prose. Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill's multi-volume biographer, has just brought out a doorstopper book, The Second World War: A Complete History (Holt, $29.95), and his peerless countryman, John Keegan, author of The Face of War and The Mask of Command, will soon follow suit with The Second World War (Viking. $24.95).

Keegan's book is better and more decisive; Gilbert's, organized chronologically, offers many horrifying and touching personal notes as well as the global sweep of combat and cruelty.

But before trying either, Americans probably ought to read Richard M. Ketchum's The Borrowed Years, 1939 to 1941 (Random House, $29.95). A popular historian and magazine editor, Ketchum was a freshman at Yale in 1939 and he reminds us that history provided America with a bit more than two years to get its act together before being forced into World War II.  His very long, but beautifully readable book combines personal memoir with sharp, anecdotal history to recreate a country we tend to forget, numbed by the Depression, complacently anti-Semitic, and, except for the East Coast and the White House, pretty thoroughly isolationist and anti-military. The Borrowed Years recounts how the country was wheedled and finagled by a brilliant president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, into helping the British resist Hitler and into a semblance of readiness for an unavoidable global war.

Ketchum invokes such things as popular songs and the New York World's Fair of 1939 which I remember personally. Inevitably his book stirs in the mind a question that anyone who passes 40 wonders about -- how do you hang onto the past?

Serious history is one way, of course.  Museums help too. But personal memories, and the imaginative connections which let us make history our own, for the most part reside in the unreliable terrain of the human heart whence they can be satisfyingly invoked for the rest of us only by the most skillful writers.

One such is Otto Friedrich.  His book, The Grave of Alice B. Toklas and Other Reports from the Past (Holt, $24.95), offers a series of essays dealing with matters as different as the history and fall of Monte Cassino in World War II; the trial, in 1864, of Sgt. William Walker, "a young black soldier who believed in the United States government's promise of equal rights" and was executed for mutiny; seeing "Parsifal" with his daughter, Molly; and being young and poor in Paris in the late 1940s. Anyone who cares about writing, or is touched by recollection, will like this book.  It is often said that a writer has made a subject his own. Friedrich has made so many subjects his own, in ways so humane and learned, so precise and imaginative, so quirky and sometimes moving, that I do not know another like him.