Hamilton- The National Bank

Hamilton noted in 1790- Industry is increased, commodities are multiplied, agriculture and manufacturers flourish: and herein consists the true wealth and prosperity of a state.”  


“The tendency of a national bank is to increase public and private credit. The former gives power to the state for the protection of its rights and interests, and the latter facilitates and extends the operations of commerce amongst individuals.”

The prosperity of the young American state… depended on our ability to obtain credit around the world.  The great irony of a credit rating is that you need debt to obtain one.  Hamilton created the National Debt to build our credit, he proposed the First National Bank to solidify our investment markets.  The battle with Jefferson over the creation of the bank was ideological rather than financial.


Madison battled the creation of the… National Bank in the first Congress.  He supported Jefferson’s belief that the future of America was rural and agricultural- not urban, industrial, and commercial.  The Bank’s  charter expired in 1811- as war with England loomed.  Madison watched as the void left by the bank led to inflation and a collapsed currency- financial turmoil that nearly cost America the War of 1812.


The Second National Bank was chartered… in 1816 and signed into law by James Madison.  The wisdom of Hamilton’s proposal had come full circle.  The Bank’s most ardent opponent came to see its economic value.  These concerns clearly outweighed the ideological objections of the Jeffersonians.

Four and Half Decades of Reading

Birthdays often lead to reflection… 45 years have passed and reflection reveals a life devoted to the study of history.  A career in education has shown how rare academic commitment can be…. all I have ever wanted to do is history.  These books inspired, taught, and frustrated me along the journey. ..


  • American Heritage History of the Civil War-Narrative by Bruce Catton.  Little more than a coffee table dust collector in most homes, the copy in my parents’ home was well worn.  Richly illustrated with historic photos and informative maps, it was the perfect introductory course in Civil War studies.  Luckily, video game consoles weren’t available during the early days spent reading Catton’s crystal clear prose.
  • Band of Brothers- by Stephen Ambrose.  WW2 stories from my Grandfather inspired me to learn more about the greatest generation.  Ambrose showed me the power of primary sources- there are hundreds utilized in this harrowing tale of Easy Company’s combat experience.  All of the vitriol aimed at Ambrose (much of it jealousy) causes us to forget what a great storyteller he was.


  • Red, White, and Black- by Gary Nash.  The book that deconstructed the mediocre history education I received in high school, Nash’s study opened my eyes to New Left historiography.  The colonization of North America was more complicated than Pilgrims, John Smith, and Ponce Deleon; Nash’s vision challenges the cereal box standard that passes for history in many high schools.
  •   The Killer Angels- by Michael Shaara.  Historical fiction at its very best, Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the battle of Gettysburg is steeped in history.  Shaara exposes us to the battle through the eyes of its key participants, a riveting format often imitated, but never equaled.  Growing up just an hour from the battlefield, this novel helped bring it to life better than any audio tour.
  • Lincoln’s Virtues-by William Lee Miller.  An “ethical biography” of our greatest President, Miller departs from the typical Lincoln canon.  Rather than recounting Lincoln’s deeds, Miller attempts to explain the actions by examining the history of his belief structure.  This book is essential in understanding the man behind the myths.
  • The Radicalism of the American Revolution- by Gordon Wood.  Spend enough time in college history courses and you’ll get the impression that the American Revolution was stale, conservative, and not all that revolutionary.  Wood sets the record straight in a compelling study that makes a brilliant counter to the anti-Americanism of Howard Zinn.  The work of Wood is so much more valuable than a passing quip by Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.”

Gordon Wood historian 2006

  • Gettysburg: The Second Day- by Harry Pfanz.  Richly detailed tactical study of the crucial day at the battle of Gettysburg that is essential reading to students of the battle.  Pfanz does more than explain the complicated troop movements; he brings the battle to life with the memories of the men who were there.  I spent many a Summer afternoon tramping the field with a well worn copy of Pfanz’s masterpiece in my hands.
  • The American Mind- by Henry Steele Commager.  Trying to explain the central American consciousness seemed an impossible task, but Commager’s signature study managed to frustrate a generation of history students.  He should be admired for valuing stories above statistics, personalities over presumption, and a firm belief in American exceptionalism.
  • For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought the Civil War- By James McPherson.  Nothing ends speculation, conjecture, and bad theories like research, and this book is research personified.  McPherson utilize over 10,000 primary sources to provide readers the most comprehensive study of why men fought in the Civil War.  A direct refutation of Linderman’s “Embattled Courage,” McPherson shows that courage, patriotism, and friendship still motivated men even in the darkest days of the war.


The Best Biographies of Bill Clinton

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

CarterCoinFrom my very first impression of Bill Clinton to my most recent he has always struck me as the quintessential politician – for better and for worse.

But that – as JFK, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and others have proven – can be the perfect recipe for a great biography.

Almost two decades have passed since Clinton’s presidency ended but the Clinton “aura” has never quite faded. Since he left office, his wife has served as a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. For nearly thirty years they have been hard to miss and uncommonly controversial.

I read three biographies of Clinton – each of them remarkably balanced – and was delighted to find a combination of two that provide excellent insight into his childhood and political career, up through his two-term presidency. But if anything about his life is abundantly clear, it’s…

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Understanding Calvin Coolidge

Presidential History Blog

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was the quintessential New Englander: quiet, determined, and living a well ordered life.

Meet Calvin Coolidge: The Man Behind the Myth

In 1960, more than 25 years after Coolidge’s death, a small volume of essays about him was collected by Edward Connery Lathem. Long out of print, it is a marvelous little treasure of personal sketches, written about Coolidge by those who knew him. Some knew him very well; others more superficially. All however, offer aspects of “Silent Cal” that are not only delightful to read, but offer wonderful insights into the man himself.

There are about three dozen of these character studies, easily read in ten or fifteen minutes. Most are well written; some are wonderfully written.  All of them, taken as an entity, present a more complete understanding of President John Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) than any of the standard biographies, including a classic…

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Frontier Feud

Searching for the causes of the War of 1812… will invariably lead to the Indiana frontier.  William Henry Harrison was granted power by President Thomas Jefferson to negotiate with the Indian nations (13 treaties and over 1 million acres.)   Harrison orchestrated the Treaty of Ft. Wayne in 1809, granting US settlers unlimited access to the Wabash river valley.  Three of the major Indian nations signed the treaty, but the Shawnee and their leader, Tecumseh, did not.  Harrison suspected trouble from the Indian upstart and moved quickly for a conference in August of 1810.  Tecumseh arrived at Harrison’s frontier home, Grouseland, with over 400 warriors in full battle garb.  Tensions were high as the Shawnee war chief declared the treaty of Ft. Wayne illegitimate.  Tecumseh argued that all Indians spoke with one voice, therefore, all tribes had to agree with the treaty.  Harrison refuted this notion, pointing out that the Great Spirit gave all Indians different languages, or ‘tongues.’  As Tecumseh continued to shout threats at Harrison, warriors and soldiers alike made ready for combat- Harrison drew his sword (legend has it, he promised to kill Tecumseh) …cooler heads prevailed, but Tecumseh was determined to reach out to the British.


Two subsequent meetings did nothing to ease…tensions between the two men.  American settlement continued, the Indian alliance grew, and British intervention only further alienated the two sides.  News of the Anglo/Indian alliance prompted Harrison to march an army North to disperse an alliance settlement along the Tippecanoe creek.  Tecumseh was not with his followers that November in 1811.  He was on a recruiting mission to the south, leaving his inexperienced brother in command.  Shawnee approached Harrison’s camp on November 5 to propose a meeting;  Harrison accepted, but shortly after, the warriors launched an attack.  Militiamen and US regulars defended the camp for over two hours, before dragoons charged into the retreating warriors turning the battle into a rout.  Harrison’s forces pursued and later burned the Indian settlement.  The Tippecanoe legend was born.


William Henry Harrison became a national hero… as news of the battle spread to the East.  The British intervention outraged American politicians, a clear sign of yet another violation of American sovereignty.  The frontier feud was far from over.  Tecumseh took his confederation North to strengthen the bond with Britain.  Harrison would get another chance to kill his nemesis.

Movie Review: Denial-2016

“Denial”  2016- Directed by Mick Jackson.  Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment.


Director Mick Jackson and star Rachel Weisz do their best to dramatize the libel suit brought by discredited historian, David Iriving, against American scholar Deborah Lipstadt.

British law places the burden of proof upon defendants in libel cases, thus awarding Lipstadt (Weisz) and her lawyers, played by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson, the opportunity to attack Irving’s credibility.  Timothy Spall portrays the world’s most notorious Holocaust denier with appropriate aplomb, with a touch of skeevy.

David Hare’s screenplay is wrought with dramatic moments, but they ring hollow as the characters recite the historical importance of what the viewers are witnessing.  Weisz is strong, as usual, portraying Lipstadt’s fish-out-water experience in the British legal system with touching vulnerability.   Lipstadt’s ordeal is an interesting academic issue, but Hare is unable to bring it effective dramatic weight.  Not every interesting historical debate requires screen-time to tell the story.

Irving was(and remains) reprehensible, but the film lends him too much credibility.  By 2000, Iriving’s reputation as an historian was already in tatters.  The libel suit against Lipstadt was simply a publicity stunt by a disgraced has-been.  Lipstadt’s victory over Irving merely confirmed what the historical community already knew.  The legal tensions portrayed in the film are at times overwrought.  Rather than a great victory for Holocaust remembrance, Irving’s rebuke by the British courts was simply a final nail in his academic coffin.


Gordon Sheaffer- 2019

James Madison Preparatory School

Jacksonian Errors

Proponents of Andrew Jackson’s policies cite his… veto of the rechartering of the Second National Bank as a victory for the ‘little guy.’  Old Hickory was defending the interests of  States and the common man against the wicked monopoly held by the ‘monstrous’ bank.  A closer examination of his storied veto message reveals  inconsistencies in Jackson’s motive.

“these polices(of the Second US Bank) created of bond of union among the banking establishments of the nation erecting them into an interest separate from that of the people.” 

Trivializing the momentous

Was Jackson opposed to the Second National Bank… or banks in general? The veto message is not clear, and his advisers didn’t discriminate in their policy making.  It is difficult to imagine that educated politicians of any era could have such a rudimentary understanding of finance-  cash is good, credit is bad…. The political motivations for killing the Second National Bank far outweighed any economic or egalitarian rhetoric put forward by Jackson and his cronies.


The antebellum economy was built upon credit… 80% of all transactions and transfer of goods involved extensions of credit- banks were vital to this financial system.  Jackson’s political gamble to win reelection was that the reduction of available credit would not have much effect on American commerce.  The Second National Bank was at the center of a complicated web of notes, loans, credit, and specie… Jackson’s policies were about to tear it apart

Religious Freedom Within Reason

Thomas Jefferson was the author of religious freedom in America… as the First Amendment borrows its language from his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.  Like all men of the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed it was built upon the individual.  The individual was born free to worship, or not, in anyway he saw fit.

“…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”


Jefferson clearly draws the line between the public citizen and his private religious beliefs… the freedom to worship remained a private decision- not to be propagated in the public sphere.  Jefferson acknowledged the dangers of a state-sponsored religion, but he also realized that religious zealotry could threaten civil liberties.


He cautioned his friend, James Madison:

“The declaration that religious faith shall be unpunished does not give immunity to criminal acts dictated by religious error.”

The Best Biographies of Ronald Reagan

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

CarterCoinA good rule-of-thumb suggests that 25-30 years are required before sufficient time and historical distance have passed to take the true measure of a presidency. By that standard, Ronald Reagan may be the most recent president whose tenure we can objectively assess.

And while I’ve enjoyed almost every moment of this 2,180 day (and counting!) biographical journey, Ronald Reagan is the president whose biographies I’ve most looked forward to reading. After all, he’s the first president whose time in the White House I distinctly remember.

Over the past 2½ months I read a dozen biographies of Reagan including three traditional biographies, one “character study”, a two-volume series by Lou Cannon, a two-volume series by Steven Hayward and a four-volume “biographical coalition” by Craig Shirley.

It was a fascinating undertaking, to say the least…

* * *

* “Reagan: The Life” (2015) by H. W. Brands – this is…

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January 18, 1865: Lincoln Note to Blair

Almost Chosen People

Lincoln v. Davis

After Francis P. Blair returned to Washington from Richmond with a note from Jefferson Davis indicating a willingness to enter into negotiations, go here and here for background on Blair’s mission and his meeting with Davis, Lincoln had a decision to make.  Refuse to enter into negotiations and that would anger both moderate Republicans and Democrats.  Enter into negotiations, and both mainstream and radical Republicans would be dismayed.  Lincoln hit upon a shrewd response.  He would enter into negotiations, but he would couch his agreement in such terms as clearly to indicate no weakening in his resolve to preserve the Union:

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