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.
A stimulating argument that citizens need to act as watchdogs over the honesty and competence of our federal government, The Limits Of Power (Metropolitan, $24), by Andrew Bacevich, offers a thoughtful, sobering, and fresh re-assessment of the past 60 years of American politics and economics. As citizens, Bacevich believes, we have ducked such basic responsibilities as defending our country; we have too few soldiers for too many wars. We have redefined freedom as “just another word for nothing left to buy.” Bacevich invokes the 20th-century liberal theologian and activist, Reinhold Niebuhr, to buttress his call for a return to responsible citizenship. Citing Niebuhr’s warning that our dreams of omniscience, born out of arrogance and delusion, posed a potential deadly threat to America, Bacevich adds, “Today we ignore that warning at our peril.”