Posts Tagged history

“Lincoln’s Boys” Is A Fine History, Plus a Good Biography of Lincoln’s Young Secretaries

Joshua Zeitz’ LINCOLN’S BOYS: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image is about Abraham Lincoln’s two young Presidential aides, John Hay, and John George Nicolay (called George by most who knew him). Technically, they were secretaries, though they wielded far more power than that lowly title would seem to grant, almost acting more like joint chiefs-of-staff. And as such, both Hay and Nicolay had a unique perspective when it came to Lincoln, one that has been given short shrift by many other historians.

lincoln's boys coverSimply put, Hay and Nicolay weren’t just Lincoln’s secretaries. They were also his main biographers, collaborating on the massive ten-volume LINCOLN: A HISTORY. (Today, we’d call this an authorized biography, as it was the first biography of Lincoln written with the full approval of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and the first that had access to all of Lincoln’s Presidential Papers.)

But when both men met Abraham Lincoln, they had no idea what their lives would be like. In the late 1850s, they saw Lincoln as an able politician, someone who had charisma and smarts. Both Hay and Nicolay worked on behalf of Lincoln even before they were picked to become his secretaries . . . and it was because of Hay’s previous friendship with Nicolay (as Nicolay was slightly older and a bit farther along in his career) that Hay was picked at all.

So there was a lot of serendipity at work here. Lincoln didn’t seem to have done in-depth background checks on Nicolay and Hay, as any serious Presidential candidate would do today; instead, he liked Nicolay, so when Nicolay hinted delicately that it sounded like there might be more than enough work for two men, Lincoln figured it made sense to hire two personal secretaries rather than one.

That put these two young men squarely at the center of the biggest events of the day, including the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and of course, the saddest event of them all — Lincoln’s assassination.

Both men were bright, able, good writers, and were intensely loyal. They enjoyed being around Lincoln, which was just as well as both tended to put in 80-hour weeks in support of their President. (Presidential staffs were not only smaller back then, but also far more hands-on, too.) And this was a big help later on, when Robert Todd Lincoln — Abraham’s sole surviving son — tapped them to write his father’s biography, because Robert Lincoln knew Hay and Nicolay would not distort what his father had done as so many others were already trying to do.

You see, Lincoln was always a towering figure — from the time he took office until his untimely assassination, Lincoln strode like a Colossus. Yet he was a mortal man, with the failings of any mortal, and he also was a consummate politician — something many people of Lincoln’s day and afterward didn’t want to admit.

While Hay and Nicolay were loyal and believed in Lincoln, his politics, his morality, and his ethics with all their hearts, they also knew he was not a demi-god, nor a deity figure. So writing LINCOLN: A HISTORY was to them not just a labor of love — it was a labor of necessity.

Zeitz does an excellent job putting all of this in context. The politics of the day, the problems of Reconstruction after the Civil War ended, and also the difficulties these two young men had as they matured, married, and went on with their lives and careers were described in a way to make all of these matters personal.

Which is what history truly is, if you think about it long enough. It’s the story of what powerful people do during a crisis — and while history is always shaped by the victors, it sometimes can be badly distorted.

Because Nicolay and Hay were honest men, they did their best to show Lincoln as a man. Full of talent, yes, and possibly the best President we’ve ever had . . . but still a man.

And because Zeitz is an honest biographer as well as an honest historian, he was able to show Lincoln in a brand-new light by showing Lincoln through the eyes of Nicolay and Hay.

Mind you, the story of these men in and of themselves was more than worth the price of admission. Both were extremely interesting to get to know — Hay had the wider fame in his time, going on to become Secretary of State and a big name in Republican Politics, but Nicolay possibly had the happier life, as he and his wife Therena were truly devoted to one another. Best of all, both men did as their gifts allowed: they wrote, they edited, and they became their best selves, all while retaining a truly remarkable friendship based on their service to the greatest American of their time, Abraham Lincoln.

Bottom line? LINCOLN’S BOYS succeeds at being both an interesting biography of these two ambitious, driven men (Hay and Nicolay) and as an excellent overview of the political history of Lincoln’s time. And as such, it sheds much new light into Lincoln, his personality, and his politics, from a completely unexpected angle.

In other words, if you enjoy history, politics, Abraham Lincoln or any combination thereof, you will enjoy LINCOLN’S BOYS.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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“Why Nations Fail:” Excellent in Every Way

WHY NATIONS FAIL by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson combines history, economics, and political science to come to grips with one, central question: why do nations fail?  And if there is a root cause, what, if anything, can be done to keep more nations from failing?

In the process of examining that central question, Acemoglu and Robinson discuss known history and come up with some rather startling conclusions.  

To start with, nations generally have two different types of economic structures, “extractive” and “inclusive.”  The extractive type of economy (contemporary China, the Mayans, the Soviet Union, Great Britain prior to the 18th Century) is one where there is a cadre of elites that “extracts” all the wealth from the country, but doesn’t set up a good infrastructure so everyone can benefit from it.  Note that in extractive economies, a middle class may still arise, but the country’s ruling elites typically will not care about them; they are solely in it for themselves.

The inclusive economies (contemporary Botswana, the United Kingdom historically and today, and the United States among them) want everyone to succeed; further, an inclusive economy fosters innovation and what’s called “creative destruction” — that is, new ways of doing things cheaper or better are encouraged, even if it will temporarily cause distress in a formerly solid manufacturing sector.  A middle class is not only typical in inclusive economies, but is actively encouraged by progressive policies of taxation and legislation.

And the reason for the difference in extractive and inclusive economies, while it seems basic, comes down to one thing: politics.  This is illustrated very early on, when Acemoglu and Robinson discuss the differences between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.  They’re just over the border from each other and really would be one city if circumstances were different, but because Mexico has historically had extractive economies and the United States historically has had an inclusive one, the difference between Nogales (U.S.) and Nogales (Mexico) is stark.

You see, in Mexico, no one really cares if businesses prosper; there isn’t a good way to collect taxation (which is one of the main “motivators” for a society to want to encourage a business-friendly environment); mostly, businessmen have to take chances they wouldn’t in the United States and, more importantly, pay bribes frequently in order to keep their businesses open.  Doing these things is not conducive to running a healthy business, to put it mildly.

And, of course, in the United States, business owners do not have to worry about most of that; the state of Arizona and the country of the U.S. wants businesses to have the chance to succeed, which is why business owners don’t have to pay bribes on a regular basis.  Business owners, for the most part, do not have to risk life and limb in order to run their businesses, as they often must in Mexico.  And because the United States has a system of taxation in place, a business owner knows exactly how much he’s going to have to pay the government, which is another plus compared to Mexico.

Another excellent example was the difference between South Korea and North Korea; the South Koreans have an inclusive economy, one other countries want to participate in.  They highly educate their people; they have a system of taxation that works for them; they are a lawful place where it’s free to associate, free to innovate, and of course it’s a place that allows — maybe even encourages — the “creative destruction” necessary in order to encourage new businesses and new ways of thinking, which is one reason why South Korea is at the forefront of the world’s (inclusive) economies.

But the North Koreans — ah, what a mess they are!  The people there are downtrodden; the country is run by elites for elites, and it is clearly an extractive economy.  Most people are at subsistence level.  Few people get decent, or even adequate, education unless they’re a member of the elite group that’s running the country.  And the country’s infrastructure is so bad that if Korea ever again becomes one country (as West and East Germany did), the South Koreans know they will have to massively upgrade the North in just about every possible respect in order to help the poor souls who live there.

There are many examples in WHY NATIONS FAIL that are drawn from history, economics, and political science that will more greatly illustrate this central premise: it’s not so much where you live that counts, but what sort of political system you live under as to whether or not your life is going to be bearable — or awful.  And while the United States is currently an inclusive economy, there is one example of a formerly inclusive economy — South Africa prior to 1935 or so, when the black farmers were encouraged rather than vilified and obstructed — going backward and becoming extractive (South African under their “apartheid” regime), so I’d definitely not want the U.S. to “rest on its laurels” after reading this book.  There is a constant need for vigilance on the part of any country’s populace in an inclusive economy in order to keep elections fair and free, or the potential exists for elites to arise in the United States in the same way they arose in North Korea, the Mayan Empire, or during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

WHY NATIONS FAIL is an excellent book that explains economics, politics, and history in a highly readable way without sacrificing intellectual vigor.  It is outstanding in every possible way, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.  When it’s released on March 20, 2012, go grab a copy right away — you’ll be glad you did.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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