Books: “The Giant”

January 16, 2013

Cardiff - 3 In a book I reviewed here last year, Amy Reading wrote, in effect, that people are easily conned partly because they want to be conned — they want the hoax to be true. No doubt that was at play in 1869 when a gypsum statue was passed off on thousands of people as  either the corpse of a centuries-old prodigy or the artifact of a culture that thrived in upstate New York in antiquity.  This monstrosity is the subject of Jim Murphy’s new book, The Giant and How He Humbugged America.

This book is one of several Murphy has written for a young-adult audience, but it is entertaining reading for adults of any age. Murphy recounts the incident in which a ten-foot figure of a naked man was unearthed on a farm in Cardiff, N.Y., by workers who ostensibly were digging a well. The “discovery” almost immediately attracted public attention and just as quickly inspired a debate about what the colossal figure was — a body, a primitive work of art, a fake.

The owner of the farm, William “Stub” Newell, quickly set up an exhibition tent on his property and people flocked to see the marvel.  Soon there were investors and then more investors and shares in the giant changed hands again and again. It was clear to those with an interest that the potential of this attraction was too big for at tent on a farm, and they took the giant on the road.

Among those who saw the possibilities in the Cardiff giant was the famous showman Phineas T. Barnum, who tried to buy his way in.

PHINEAS T. BARNUM

PHINEAS T. BARNUM

When he was unsuccessful, Barnum found a sculptor who could provide him with a duplicate giant, and he and his phony behemoth went into business, competing with the original phony, as it were. The stakeholders in the true fraud, if you get my meaning, took legal action to stop Barnum, but they failed. The giant that really emerged from the pit in Cardiff drew between 35,000 and 40,000 when it was exhibited in Syracuse, but when it went head-to-head with Barnum’s creature in New York City, it ran second best at the box office. Meanwhile, the sculptor who had provided Barnum with his version of the giant turned out at least four more.

The story is full of colorful characters, not the least of whom was con-man George Hull, the “father” of the giant, so to speak.

This all may seem rather silly to us post-modern people, although some of our fellow post-moderns fall for some pretty  tall tales, especially those get-rich-without-leaving-your-home schemes.

Murphy points out that as silly as the Cardiff caper was, it really wasn’t funny, when one takes into the account the people who were deceived and made into fools and the people who were cheated out of their hard-earned money while a few others pocketed big profits.

cardiff - 4

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Books: “Hallucinations”

December 30, 2012

Dr. OLIVER SACKS

Dr. OLIVER SACKS

I have often had the experience, as I am about to fall asleep, of seeing for a fleeting moment the image of a familiar person and hearing that person speak directly to me. Although I am always aware that the image and the voice are not real, they always seem to be real.

Phenomena of that kind are the subject of a chapter — “On the Threshold of Sleep” — in Hallucinations by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author. In this latest of his many books, Dr. Sacks discusses the wide range of circumstances under which some folks (many folks, as it turns out) see things, hear things, even smell things that do not exist in objective reality. These are not sights, sounds, or aromas that the hallucinator voluntarily conjures up in his or her own mind, but rather the products of extraordinary activity in various parts of the brain.

The hallucinations Dr. Sacks writes about may be associated with medical conditions that include epilepsy, narcolepsy, and partial or total blindness, and they may be associated with the use of certain drugs. What they usually are not associated with, Dr. Sacks writes, is mental illness. In fact, many people who experience hallucinations are aware that what appears real to them is, in fact, not real.

CHARLES BONNET

CHARLES BONNET

The condition Sacks explores first, setting a context for the rest of the book, is Charles Bonnet Syndrome, or CBS, which was first identified by an 18th century Swiss naturalist. Persons with CBS have deteriorating or deteriorated eyesight, and they have hallucinations that in a sense fill in the gap of visual sensory input. These hallucinations may be superimposed on the impaired visual field or they may fill in the blind spot of people who have lost sight in half the visual field. Sacks provides this contrast between hallucinations of this kind and dreams:

“Dreamers are wholly enveloped in their dreams, and usually active participants in them, whereas people with CBS retain their normal, critical waking consciousness. CBS hallucinations, even though they are projected into external space, are marked by a lack of interaction; they are always silent and neutral—they rarely convey or evoke any emotion. They are confined to the visual, without sound, smell, or tactile sensation. They are remote, like images on a cinema screen in a theater one has chanced to walk into. The theater is in one’s own mind, and yet the hallucinations seem to have little to do with one in any deeply personal sense.”

waynetownindiana.com

waynetownindiana.com

Dr.Sacks has spent his professional lifetime collecting case histories from his own interactions with patients, from his reading, and from correspondents who have shared their experiences with them. In this book as in most of his previous ones, he uses that knowledge to illuminate the growing understanding of the human brain.

Meanwhile, the subject matter of this book reminded me of the poem by Hughes Mearns:

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

That poem is called Antigonish because it was inspired by a ghost story in the Nova Scotia city of that name. Mearns, an educator who believed deeply in cultivating the creativity of children, wrote the lines for a play called Psyco-ed while he was a student at Harvard. It was published as a poem in 1922.

WILLIAM H. SEWARD

WILLIAM H. SEWARD

If the Chicago Tribune had it right, William H. Seward was the prince of darkness.

In 1862, when Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state and the Civil War seemed as likely as not to permanently destroy the federal union, the “world’s greatest newspaper” knew whom to blame. Seward, the Tribune said, was “Lincoln’s evil genius. He has been president de facto, and has kept a sponge saturated with chloroform to Uncle Abe’s nose all the while, except one or two brief spells.” The Boston Commonwealth was about as delicate in its assessment of Seward: “he has a right to be idiotic, undoubtedly, but he has no right to carry his idiocy into the conduct of affairs, and mislead men and nations about ‘ending the war in sixty days.’ ”

This demonic imbecile, as some editors would have it, is the subject of Walter Stahr’s comprehensive and engaging biography, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. Stahr has a somewhat different take than the Tribune’s Joseph Medill. While Stahr acknowledges that Seward was overly optimistic about prospects for the federal government to prevail over the seceding states, and while he acknowledges that Seward sometimes turned to political chicanery and downright dishonesty, he also regards Seward as second in importance during the Civil War era only to Lincoln himself.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Seward, a former governor of New York and United States Senator, was by Stahr’s account, very close to Lincoln personally, which probably contributed to the rancor directed at Seward from others in the government who wanted the president’s attention. Their relationship was interesting in a way that is analogous to the relationship between Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton in the sense that Seward was Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Seward’s presidential ambitions, which were advanced by fits and starts by the political instigator Thurlow Weed of New York, are well documented in this book. But, as Stahr makes clear, Seward’s disappointment at losing the nomination to Lincoln did not prevent him from agreeing to serve with Lincoln at one of the most difficult periods in the nation’s history nor from serving him loyally.

As important an office as secretary of state is now, it was even more so in the 19th century, because its reach wasn’t confined to foreign affairs. It wasn’t uncommon for the secretary of state to be referred to as “the premier.” At first, Seward’s view of the office might have exceeded even the reality; he seems to have thought at first that he would make and execute policy and Lincoln provide the face of the administration. Lincoln soon made it clear who was in charge, and he and Seward worked well together from then on.

LEWIS PAYNE

LEWIS PAYNE

Seward’s service in Lincoln’s administration nearly cost him his life on the night that Lincoln himself was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. One of Booth’s accomplices, Lewis Payne, forced his way into the house where Seward was lying in bed, recovering from injuries he had sustained in a serious carriage accident. Payne, who was a wild man, tore through the place, cutting anyone who tried to stop him, and he attacked Seward, slashing his face. Payne fled the house — he eventually hanged for his crime — and Seward survived.

After the double trauma of Lincoln’s death and Seward’s own ordeal, it would have been understandable if Seward had withdrawn from public life. Seward wasn’t cut of ordinary cloth, however, and he agreed to remain at his post in the administration of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was an outstanding American in many respects—he was the only southern member to remain in his U.S. Senate seat after secession, and he gave up the relative safety of the capital and took his life in his hands when Lincoln asked him to serve as military governor of Tennessee — but he was not suited for the role that was thrust on him by Booth.

ANDREW JOHNSON

ANDREW JOHNSON

Stahr explores the question of why Seward stayed on during the troubled years of Johnson’s tenure. He infers,  for one thing, that Seward agreed with Johnson’s idea that the southern states should be quickly restored to their place in the Union without the tests that the Republican majority in Congress, and especially the “radical” wing of the party, wanted to impose. Stahr also writes that Seward believed that if Congress succeeded in removing Johnson on impeachment charges that were politically motivated it would upset the balance of power in the federal government for decades to come.

I mentioned Seward to a co-worker today, and she said, “of the folly?” She was referring to the purchase of Alaska, which Seward completed during Johnson’s administration. Stahr writes that much of the press supported the purchase of “Russian American” at first, and although the term “folly” was tossed about later, prompted in part by Seward’s further ambitions for expansion, the epithet was never widely used.

FRANCES SEWARD

FRANCES SEWARD

Alaska was only one of Seward’s achievements. He was a skillful diplomat who was equipped to play the dangerous game that kept Britain and France from recognizing the Confederate States of America. Although he may have underestimated the threat of secession and the prospects for a protracted war, he was at Lincoln’s side every step of the way—playing a direct role, for instance, in the suspension of habeas corpus and the incarceration of suspected spies without trial. He was not an abolitionist—and in that respect he disagreed with his outspoken wife, Frances— but Seward was passionate about preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. He believed that black Americans should be educated. He did not support fugitive slave laws and even illegally sheltered runaway slaves in his home in Auburn, N.Y.

Seward was a complicated character who stuck to high moral and ethical standards much of the time, but was capable of chicanery, deceit, and maybe even bribery if it would advance what he thought was a worthy purpose.

A world traveler, he was one of Washington’s leading hosts, known for his engaging manner, and yet with his omnipresent cigar and well-worn clothes he appeared to all the world as something akin to an unmade bed. Henry Adams, who admired Seward, described him as “the old fellow with his big nose and his wire hair and grizzled eyebrows and miserable dress” who nevertheless was “rolling out his grand, broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language.”

Books: “Isaac’s Army”

November 10, 2012

Warsaw came as a surprise to me. Because of my uneducated impressions of Eastern Europe, I expected the city to be grim, but it was not. Warsaw was lively, handsome, well-swept, festooned with parks, and imbued with the spirits of such as Paderewski, Chopin, and Wojtyla.

But as satisfying as it was to see the city thriving, it was impossible to escape reminders of its darkest days, when it was occupied and devastated by Nazi Germany — and its Jewish population virtually exterminated — a period that is described in vivid human detail in Matthew Brzezinski’s book, Isaac’s Army.

Brzezinski, who has been a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, concentrates in this book on the walled ghetto in which the Nazis confined hundreds of thousands of Jews in subhuman conditions until most of the poor people were either worked to death, killed by hunger and disease, shot to death in summary executions, burned to death in their homes and hiding places, or shipped off to death camps.

I saw remnants of the ghetto in Warsaw, but it seemed almost like an abstract idea. In Brzezinski’s book, however, the depth of the depravity with which the Nazis and their collaborators treated Polish Jews comes through with shocking force.

Brzezinski is particularly interested in a relatively small group of Jewish men and women who recognized from the beginning that the Nazi presence was an imminent danger to their community and were not willing to stand by and let the Germans proceed unhindered. The writer relates the stories of about a dozen individuals who were in that category. They belonged to underground paramilitary organizations that struggled to maintain some semblance of resistance to their persecutors. These folks defied and undermined the Nazi attempt to isolate the Jews and ultimately, in 1943, participated in the uprising that stunned and momentarily humiliated the SS when the “supermen” entered the ghetto with the object of leveling it.

Unfortunately, as Brzezinski relates, Polish Jews were not of a single mind about how they should respond to the Nazis or whether  they should respond at all. They also were sharply divided over issues such as Marxism and Zionism.


They were frustrated by the fact that so many people and nations were indifferent to their plight, and they had to resort to bribery and subterfuge to accumulate even the poor excuse for an arsenal they had to defend themselves against the combination of Adolf Hitler’s insanity and his military machine. Their situation may have been hopeless to start out with, but Brzezinski shows that some of them would not give up hope or, at least, would persist in their  struggle against the Nazis even when hope was gone. While this book, on the one hand, records one of the worst examples of human cruelty, it also records one of the best examples of human resilience. The account of a  few score sick and starving Jews escaping the ghetto by stumbling for hours through a sewer laden with human excrement, corpses, and rats is disgusting to the imagination. At the same time, it is uplifting to know that people who would not concede their right to dignity and justice were willing to undergo even that in order to deny Hitler his dream of eradicating Judaism in Europe.

Nellie Forbush (Kelli O’Hara) and the navy nurses sing “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair” in the Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific”

On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

JAMES MINCHENER

The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.

Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.

EZIO PINZA and MARY MARTIN

The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”

This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.

RICHARD RODGERS and OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN

We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.

South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.

What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.

GROVER CLEVELAND

Some colleagues and I were traveling to Caldwell College recently, and just before we turned off Bloomfield Avenue onto the campus, I pointed out a cottage across the street. “That’s the birthplace of Grover Cleveland,” I said. Someone in the car might have grunted — I’m not sure — but otherwise there was no reaction.

How could this be? Cleveland was the only president born in New Jersey and one of only two who died here. But we get to count him twice, because he was both the 22nd and 24th presidents. And nobody cares?

OK, he wasn’t Mr. Glamor — no Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or either of the Roosevelts. In fact, he was part of that lineup of boring personalities from Rutherford B. Hayes to William McKinley. Even his non-consecutive terms aren’t enough to make his name a household word, or even vaguely familiar.

Grover Cleveland’s birthplace

Well, my colleagues might disregard Cleveland, but he gets a lot of attention in Kenneth C. Davis’s new book, Don’t Know Much about the American Presidents. Davis reports that Cleveland was only four years old when his family moved to New York and that he didn’t return to New Jersey until after he had retired from the presidency.

Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, was president during a period of violent labor strife in both of his terms and near economic calamity in his second. It the era of robber barons, rampant corruption in business and politics. The United States was still on the gold standard at that time and nearly ran out of reserves before Cleveland struck a deal in which J.P. Morgan, the Rothschilds and other financial interests bought American bonds, in several sales, to replenish the gold and stabilize what was then largely a free-market economy.

GROVER CLEVELAND

Davis gives final grades to most of the presidents he writes about, sparing those who died too soon after taking office and Barack Obama, who hasn’t yet served a whole term. Cleveland gets a B, not because he was a visionary or an inspiring leader, but because he was scrupulously honest and because he was the first president since the ill-starred Andrew Johnson to stand up to Congress and restore at least some of the prestige and power the presidency had lost after the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

PEYTON RANDOLPH

Davis provides some context for his discussions of the 44 presidential administrations with an opening section on how the presidency, more or less as we know it, was created. He points out that the title “president of the United States in Congress assembled” was conferred on 14 men — including John Hancock, who held the title twice — before the election of George Washington as the more succinctly named “president of the United States.” The first of these was Peyton Randolph of Virginia, who presided over the Continental Congress in 1774. Davis explains that the failures of the Articles of Confederation made it clear to many American leaders that the government needed a strong executive presence, but determining what that executive should consist of was problematic. There was no model to base it on, and many Americans were wary of a strong executive because they feared abuse of power and the possibility of the kind of hereditary succession they had left behind in Great Britain. Indeed, he writes, one of the reasons Washington was a favorite to take on the newly fashioned presidency was that he had no heirs. Davis follows his presidential profiles with a section in which he discusses what the office has become and what should be done with it.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

With its compact chapters and its career highlights and timelines, this book provides a means of scanning the whole sweep of American history from the adoption of the Constitution of 1787 to the present. The book also reminds us of the wide range of personalities who have occupied the presidency during that period, from the brooding and self-sacrificing Lincoln, whose murder plunged even some of his bitterest enemies into despair, to the handsome but hapless Franklin Pierce, whose spineless failure to deal with the crisis that led to the Civil War left him in such disrepute that he was the only former president whose death was not officially mourned.


When I was teaching English grammar and composition at a New Jersey prison, one of my students told me about a visit he had received from his grandmother. “She told me she got the first letter from me that wasn’t all one sentence! That’s your fault, Mr. Paolino!” It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me.

Tony Danza as Tony Banta in “Taxi

I have never been a full-time teacher, but I have taught many college classes over the past 40 years or so, and in some cases the students really weren’t prepared for college. In recent years, I taught a lot of remedial English courses; the number of kids who need remedial English after graduation from high school is quite a scandal.

My experiences gave me a little extra appreciation of this book — I Want to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had — written by the actor Tony Danza after he spent a year teaching an English class at Northeast High School in Philadelphia.

Danza, who first became a nationally known figure for his portrayal of cabbie and boxer Tony Banta in the TV series Taxi, writes that he had always harbored an ambition to be a teacher. When his most recent TV show was cancelled, he decided to fulfill that ambition. According to him, he loathes reality TV and did not intend for his experiment to become a television series, but it happened anyway.

TONY DANZA

The A&E network set out to create a series based on Danza’s stint in the classroom, but Danza writes that it was an uneasy relationship because the network wanted drama and was willing to stage it if it didn’t occur naturally, and Danza writes that he wanted the camera to record only what happened in the normal course of events.

Danza taught a double class … two 45-minute periods with the same students. But he had to show up in the morning at the same time as the other teachers and take on all the obligations they had outside the classroom: truancy duty, coaching sports, chaperoning dances, and attending planning meetings and in-service programs.

Not everyone in the school was happy to have him there, and there were several instances in which he got into trouble for violating procedures. For example, he took his students on a field trip to Washington, D.C., but he didn’t tell their other teachers that the kids would be absent from school that day.

Danza was feeling his way in teaching an English course for the first time, but it sounds as if he became a pretty creative instructor, particularly in the way he presented literature and prompted the students to see its relevance to everyday life. In that urban setting, Danza writes, he came face to face with the problems that   many kids lug around with them every day, kids with dysfunctional families, kids who live in an atmosphere of violence, kids with no self esteem. And, of course, he came face to face with the impact such problems have on teachers.

Danza, who writes that he was a problem student at a Long Island high school, rode an emotional roller coaster at Northeast, sometimes parenting troubled kids, sometimes losing his temper — not an unusual experience for him — and sometimes succumbing in tears.

Danza came away from Northeast with some strong feelings about public education being underfunded, and about teachers and administrators being under appreciated, under compensated, and stymied by bureaucratic interference.

Of course, I didn’t accompany Danza to Northeast High School, so I can’t vouch for everything he writes about his time there. What I especially like about this book, though, is that it seems to be written in his voice. Anyone who is familiar with Danza as an actor can hear him speaking these words, and that makes them seem all the more credible.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

My master’s thesis focused on an aspect of the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. As a grad student at Penn State, I had access to the stacks at Butler Library in order to do some of the research. That would have been a good thing for a person with singleness of purpose, but not for an undisciplined scholar like me. The route to the “Jo” section of the stacks took me through the “Je” section, where I frequently stopped to browse through the papers of Thomas Jefferson.  I have always found his intellect irresistible, and he has had an important influence on my writing. Accordingly, my research in the “Jo” section took a lot longer than it should have.

Jefferson, of course, had his flaws, just as we all do. His biggest one, unfortunately, ruined the lives of hundreds of people over several generations — the people he held in slavery, this herald of equality for “all men.”

That’s the topic of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” a book by Henry Wiencek scheduled for publication in October.

MARTHA WAYLES JEFFERSON

 Jefferson, by Wiencek’s account, carefully constructed a society of slaves to do the work at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation estate in Virginia. Those slaves, like slaves on many other properties in that era, were arranged in a sort of hierarchy based on several factors: Jefferson’s assessment of their potential, the nature  of the work they were consigned to, and their relationship to Jefferson. That’s “relationship” in the literal sense, because many of Jefferson’s slaves had a family connection to his wife, Martha. That relationship originated in a liaison between Jefferson’s father-in-law, Thomas Wayles, and one of his slaves, Betty Heming. There were several children born of that relationship and the whole lot, Betty included, became Jefferson’s property when Wayles died. One of those children was Sally Hemings, with whom, Wiencek and many others believe, Jefferson himself was intimate long after Martha Jefferson had died. That subject has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as researchers have tried to determine with certainty whether or not Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings. Wiencek presents arguments on both sides but is convinced by the evidence in favor of paternity, including contemporary accounts of household servants bearing a striking resemblance to the lord of the manor himself.

The MARQUIS de LAFAYETTE

Sexual relationships between masters and slaves were commonplace. If Jefferson and Sally Hemings had such a relationship it would not be nearly so remarkable as the fact that Jefferson owned slaves at all. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Tommy J wrote that. He also publicly denounced slavery and mixed-race sexual relations and argued for emancipation and citizenship for black Americans. He simply didn’t apply those principles to his own life and “property.” Privately he argued — although he knew from the achievements of his own slaves that he was lying — that he didn’t believe black people were capable of participating in a free society, that they were, in fact, little more than imbeciles. He compared them to children. Wiencek writes and documents that Jefferson once even privately speculated that African women had mated with apes. (CP:  Mr. Wiencek points out in his comments below that Jefferson made this observation publicly.)

Perhaps Jefferson was trying to make himself feel better about his real motive for keeping people in bondage: profit. He had meticulously calculated what an enslaved human being could generate in income, and it was enough for a long time to allow him to live a privileged life, entertaining a constant train of distinguished guests and satisfying his own thirst for fine French wines, continental cuisine, and rich furnishings.

TADEUSZ KOSCIUSZKO

Jefferson wasn’t the only “founding father” to engage in this behavior. James Monroe, James Madison, and George Washington all kept slaves; Washington freed his only in his will. (CP: This is true but out of context, as Mr. Wiencek explains in his comment below.) It is often written in defense of such men that they had grown up in an atmosphere of slavery and were simply products of their time. That’s an idea that Wiencek debunks, both because Jefferson himself had so often excoriated the institution of slavery and because he had been urged by some of his contemporaries to free his slaves. In fact, Jefferson was upbraided by the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution, who visited the United States in 1824 and bluntly expressed his disappointment not only that slavery was still in place but that Jefferson himself was still holding people in bondage.

Wiencek also reports that at the request of the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who also had participated in the Revolution, Jefferson assisted in the preparation of Kosciuszko’s will in which he left $20,000 with which Jefferson was to buy and free slaves. When Kosciuszko died, Jefferson refused to carry out the will.

Wiencek’s book is a good opportunity to take a close look at how slavery was constituted, how enslaved men, women, and children lived in Virginia in the early 19th century. But its real value  is in stripping away the veneer that has been placed over men like Jefferson in an effort to legitimize modern political philosophy through a distorted view of the purity of their motives and personal lives.

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

A man of about my grandfather’s vintage was telling me that he once owned a house in Brooklyn and the candy store on the first floor. When I asked what had become of the property, he brought his hands together in a loud clap and said, “Mr. Hoover.” The implication was that he had lost the house and store as a result of the Great Depression and that the Great Depression was Mr. Hoover’s fault.

The history of the economic calamity of the 1930s is complex, and while Herbert Hoover’s approach to it is open to criticism, it is simplistic to argue that he was responsible for the losses suffered by millions of people. Unfortunately for Hoover, most Americans who can identify him at all are likely to describe him as the president who failed to solve the Depression. And that means that most Americans have forgotten — or more likely have never known — that Hoover was a great public servant and, in several instances, an American hero. As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up: Hoover organized the evacuation of Americans from Europe at the outbreak of World War I; he organized the delivery of millions of tons of food to Belgium after it had been invaded by Germany; he ran the commission that made sure American food supplies were conserved so that there would be enough to supply U.S troops in Europe during the war; he ran the administration that fed millions of people in Central Europe after the war; he oversaw the government response to the Great Mississippi Flood in six states in 1927; he organized a program that fed school children in impoverished occupied Germany after World War II; and under presidents Truman and Eisenhower he headed two commissions that successfully recommended reorganization and efficiencies in the federal government.

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Hoover had his failings and even his dark side, but the country’s ignorance of  his accomplishments — to say nothing of  his long career as an engineer and businessman — is out of whack.

Hoover is not alone in this. John Quincy Adams’ legacy has suffered a similar fate, as Harlow Giles Unger explains in a biography of the sixth president that will be published in September. Adams’ presidency was a dud, but he otherwise led one of the most outstanding public lives in the history of the country. He was the son of brilliant parents — Abigail and John Adams — and they expected big things of him. Unger reports, in fact, that John Adams, the second president, expected his son to eventually follow  him into that office, after getting a classical education and learning and practicing law. John Q. grew up in the midst of the American Revolution; in fact, he and his mother were eye witnesses to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Defining events in his life, though, were successive trips to Europe with his father, who was engaged in diplomacy. Those trips led to a career in diplomacy for the younger Adams who was not excelled by anyone serving in that capacity before or since. He later served as secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe and again did outstanding work, including his authorship of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He was, Unger argues, one of the most important experts on foreign affairs in American history.

ABIGAIL ADAMS

John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency without campaigning for the office, and in a certain sense he wasn’t elected at all. The wildly popular war hero Andrew Jackson won more popular votes in the election of 1824 but not enough electoral votes to carry the day. Henry Clay threw the election into Adams’ lap by instructing the Kentucky delegation to vote for Adams, who had not won an electoral vote in that state. When John Q took office, he named Clay secretary of state, which was a much more powerful office then than it is now. Although it would have been out of character for Adams to have conspired with Clay in order to gain the presidency, that’s how many Americans read it, Unger writes, and it got Adams’ administration off to a poor start.

Adams had an ideal that would  sound odd to Americans today: he believed that principle was more important than party. Tell that to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. Adams carried this idea to extremes, going to the mat first with his own Federalist party and then with the opposition Republicans on one issue or another. As a result, he really had no party, while Andrew Jackson was building the new Democratic party into a meaningful force. He also gave no thought to even conventional patronage when he appointed his cabinet, and so he was, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “surrounded by assassins.”

The short version is that Adams’ presidency didn’t amount to much, and he left office in a significant funk after losing the election to Jackson. But he was invited to run for Congress from a district in his native Massachusetts, and so he became one of three presidents to hold public office after leaving the White House. (The others were Andrew Johnson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate and William Howard Taft, who was appointed chief justice of the United States.)

Adams spent 17 years in the House of Representatives and it was, as Unger recounts in dramatic fashion, a wild scene. Adams hated slavery, which he had first seen up close when he traveled to Poland as a teenager. The House leadership didn’t want the subject broached in the chamber and passed rules to prevent the word “slavery” from being uttered or petitions against slavery from being presented. Adams fought furiously against this procedure, violating the rules repeatedly, and demanding over and over to know, “Am I gagged? Am I gagged?” He eventually became a highly respected figure in the House, even by those who disagreed with him, and reputedly was one of a handful of the best who ever served there.

SS Amistad

During this period, Adams also got involved in the legal case of a group of more than fifty African men and women who were being transported as slaves from one port in Cuba to another when they seized control of the ship, the Amistad. The ship was taken into custody in American waters, and the Africans on board sued to keep from being returned to bondage.

Adams gave a seven-hour argument before the U.S. Supreme Court which, although most of the justices were hard-nosed southern slave holders, ruled unanimously that the Africans should be set free.

In recounting Adams’ career, Unger provides a close look into the life of the distinguished and patriotic Massachusetts family: the relationship between John Q. Adams and his redoubtable parents, and between John Q. and his wife, Louisa, who at times lost patience with the demands her husband’s public service made on family life.

Unger’s book brings this good and great man back to life at least on the printed page. It was a life that deserves much more attention than it gets.

JOE GANS

Prize fighting was part of my growing up.

My parents associated with some people who were connected to the boxing game: a promoter, a ring announcer, a cut man. At times, Mom and Dad would attend fights; I remember Mom coming home after one of those occasions with flecks of blood on her pink suit. Apparently they were at ringside.

In those days, the 1950s, we could watch fights on broadcast television, and we saw Carmine Basilio, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Archie Moore.

Then, as now, I was a little schizophrenic when it came to boxing. I liked watching fighters like the ones I named, but I didn’t approve of boxing and thought it should be banned. I thought, and think now, that an enterprise in which the object is to knock your opponent senseless has no place in a civilized society.

WILLIAM GILDEA

Boxing was, in fact, illegal in most of the United States in the period discussed in William Gildea’s book, The Longest Fight. Where it was legal, one of the most prominent practitioners of “the sweet science” was Joe Gans, Gildea’s subject, the lightweight champion of the world and the first African-American to hold a world boxing title.

Gans held the lightweight title from 1902 to 1908 and he won the welterweight title as well in 1906. A native of Baltimore, he was strikingly handsome, well spoken, witty, courteous, and charming. Those qualities plus his nearly matchless skill in the ring attracted a large following, including white folks in numbers that were unusual for a black athlete in the days when Jim Crow was in such full vigor that racial epithets and garish cartoon figures of black Americans were commonplace in daily newspapers.

A postcard promoting the first Gans-Nelson fight.

Gildea recounts that Gans put up with plenty of abuse during his career, but he had learned the wisdom of restraint, and he practiced it in and out of the ring. When a white opponent spat in Gans’s face while the referee was going through the ritual of instructions, Gans bided his time until the fight began. His demeanor in everyday life was disarming, and he won over many people who otherwise would have included him in their overall prejudices about black people.

Gildea reports that people such as promoters and managers took advantage of Gans, because they knew a black athlete had no recourse and often was risking his life just by climbing into the ring with a white boxer.

”BATTLING” NELSON

In what was arguably the biggest fight of Gans’s career — the “long fight” referred to in the title of this book — the manager of Oscar “Battling” Nelson insisted that Gans submit to three weigh-ins on the day of the contest, and under unheard of conditions. Gans just stood for it. No one, he knew, wins at the weigh-in.

That fight took place in September 1906 under a broiling sun in the Nevada desert town of Goldfield. Gans defended his lightweight title against Nelson, whom Jack London called “the abysmal brute” for both his free-swinging style and his penchant for dirty tactics like groin punches and head-butting. Nelson was also an unapologetic racist who made no bones about his revulsion for Gans and black people in general. It was a fight to the finish, and the finish didn’t come until the referee disqualified Nelson for a low blow in the 42nd round, after two hours and 48 minutes of combat.

By that time, Gans had beat the tar out of Nelson whose face, Gildea writes, was almost unrecognizable, but if Nelson had one positive attribute it was that he could take punishment, so he was still standing when the referee made Gans the winner.

Gans during one of the three weigh-ins before the fight in Goldfield.

Gildea describes the “fight to a finish” in episodes running through the book, interrupting the account from time to time to relate other aspects of Gans’s career and private life, including the two dives he acknowledged, his warm relationship with his mother, his romantic ties, his establishment of a Baltimore hotel and saloon that was a drawing card for a stylish crowd, both black and white, and his early death.

Gildea, whose carefully crafted narrative makes this book especially enticing, clearly explains the quality that made Gans a perennial winner.  He blocked his opponents’ punches, moved as little as possible, threw a punch only when he saw an opening. And when he did punch, the blow was short and direct — in fact, Gildea writes, Gans introduced the technique of reaching out to touch his opponent and freezing the distance in his mind.

Gans is largely forgotten today, but as Gildea demonstrates, he was an important figure in the history of boxing and, more significantly, in the history of black citizens in the United States. Like the black men and women who were the first to venture into other fields, Gans took a barrage of slings and arrows for the team, and he did it with style.