Enlisting her research skills as a historian and her rhetorical arguments as a lawyer, Annette Gordon-Reed has written The Hemingses Of Monticello (W.W. Norton, $35), a revolutionary book that successfully topples the received wisdom of the white-male-historian establishment for two centuries. Such scholars as Dumas Malone and Joseph Ellis, who has since recanted, had rejected out-of-hand the possibility of any sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings or of the issue of any progeny. In refuting their rejections, Gordon-Reed builds on the 1997 DNA evidence of one instance of racial mixing between the Hemingses and the Jeffersons, but the strength of her argument resides in the rich oral histories she has uncovered in her research of African-American primary sources. These freshly discovered papers not only enrich our knowledge of the world of Monticello, but also of the development of slavery in Virginia during the 18th century. Gordon-Reed’s work is a milestone in historiography and has been nominated for the National Book Award.
In Giants: The Parallel Lives Of Frederick Douglass And Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, $30), John Stauffer, Chair of the American Civilization Department at Harvard, writes that Lincoln and Douglass “led strikingly parallel lives.” They read from the same core of books: Shakespeare and English poetry. They were both “dazzling orators” (back before such activity became suspect). Stauffer shows that the difference between being born in bondage to another man and being born the son of a very poor white man is greater than Lincoln thought when he was young. But there were similarities: both men were denied a formal education, both had to do hard manual labor for a living. While Douglass never knew who his father was, Lincoln did not love or respect his father. Stauffer writes about the development of these men’s ideas and their rise to political heights, but he resists the temptation to tell all. The book is remarkably compact with 300 pages of text and, Lincoln lovers take note, almost 100 pages of footnotes.
I began H.W. Brands’s biography of Roosevelt at the end of the summer, before the economy completely collapsed, and was struck then by the parallels between FDR and Obama. Both were young men when they set the Presidency as their goal; both were optimistic and realistic; both had a brilliant sense of timing; both were open to policy differences and were good listeners.
The similarities and differences are made clear in two excellent biographies of the twentieth-century President who navigated the deep waters of the Depression and saved capitalism by his innovation. Each of these books demonstrates that FDR, with his remarkable openness and optimism, reinvented the relationship between government and the private sector. He took action, and if that didn’t work politically or administratively, he did something else.
Both of these books are absorbing and read easily. Each has gathered a vast amount of history into manageable form. If there is a difference, Brands’s book is organized more by theme and Smith’s is more chronological. As his title implies, Brands views Roosevelt as a radical, in the sense of being willing to break from the past. There were few institutions then to mitigate the blows that rained down on individuals and society.
Here is Brands: “… the style of Roosevelt was intensely personal. Roosevelt didn’t ask Congress to cut the budget; he asked Congress to let him cut the budget. He spoke to the American people directly asking them to trust him. “
And Smith: “Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy was similar to his conduct of domestic affairs: intuitive, idiosyncratic, and highly personalized. Just as he divided the New Deal’s relief effort between Ickes and Hopkins, he split diplomacy between Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles.”