Review of Russell Shorto's "Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom," Chicago Tribune (December 6, 2017)
Contrary to popular belief, the American Revolution wasn’t a war between England and America. It was a civil war within the British Empire, with causes and consequences reaching around the globe. Its key players included Americans who fought for the king, Britons who fought for the colonists, Portuguese Jews, Dutch Calvinists, Spanish and French Catholics, African Muslims, Iroquois polytheists, natives and Europeans, slaves and free men, men and women.
Review of Daniel Mark Epstein's "The Loyal Son: The War in Benjamin Franklin's House," New Republic (July 3, 2017)
In late 1772 Benjamin Franklin received a startling package from an unknown sender. It was a collection of letters from several high-ranking colonial officials in Massachusetts written to Thomas Whatley, an assistant to Britain’s prime minister. Their subject was the ongoing unrest caused by the Stamp Act, which imposed the first direct taxes on colonists, and by other legislation the people in Massachusetts judged oppressive and tyrannical. The officials reported that the colonists had started an insurrection: The king’s property was being vandalized and his officers harassed. Mobs controlled the streets, forcing British soldiers to seek safety on an island in Boston Harbor. Only a strong show of force, the officials insisted, would restore peace.
Op-Ed: "'Nuclear Option' Is Short-Sighted," Albuquerque Journal (April 10, 2017)
Last Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans employed the “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules to make it impossible to filibuster Supreme Court nominees. The move cleared the way for Neil Gorsuch to be confirmed to the highest court on Friday and to be sworn in this week. It’s a decision that Republican senators will likely regret. So will we.
Review of Michael J. Klarman's "The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution," New Republic (September 29, 2016)
Throughout the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention labored to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new frame of government. While the convention nearly broke down several times over slavery and the apportionment of representation among the states, by late September the delegates had achieved their goal and produced a new constitution—the one Americans still live with. No delegate was completely satisfied with the process or the results; of the 55 who attended the convention only 39 signed the finished document. Overall, though, the signers were pleased with the system they created. James Wilson of Pennsylvania judged it, “The best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.” Next, the Constitution was sent to the states to be debated and, the Framers hoped, ratified.
Review of Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf's "'Most Blessed of the Patriarchs': Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination," New Republic (May 10, 2016)
At a 1962 White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, President Kennedy remarked, “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” The witticism is apt, yet we might wonder if Jefferson ever dined alone. So large and varied were his accomplishments and failings, and so profound his contradictions, he might appear to us as a whole community of geniuses and devils rather than a single man. The title of a major 1996 biography, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis, reflects the challenge. Although Jefferson’s capacious inner and outer life is as well documented as anyone’s from the revolutionary era, he remains a mystery.
Review of Sarah Bakewell's "At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others," Newsday (February 26, 2016)
Here’s a startling thought. Consider what you are doing right now without realizing you’re doing it. For example, you are reading the English language written in the Roman alphabet, even though thousands of languages and writing systems have existed, and you would just as easily use one of them instead if you had been born in a different time or place. You are probably flipping pages of a newspaper or clicking through a website rather than, say, turning through a scroll or listening to these words spoken out loud. And there’s a good chance you are wearing pants and a shirt rather than a grass skirt, kimono, sarong or toga. In fact, if you had been born elsewhere, everything about you might be different.
Review of Geoffrey Cowan's "Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary," The Boston Globe (January 9, 2016)
Amid the audacious (and highly watchable) political mudslinging of the presidential primary season, it’s easy to forget that these contests are a relatively recent invention and that since their inception they have been an uneasy mixture of philosophical substance, party infighting, and outrageous theatrics. Enter Geoffrey Cowan with his timely and enjoyable new book, “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.” Cowan, a lawyer and academic, was a major force in reforming the Democratic Party’s nominating process after its turbulent 1968 convention, giving him unique insight into the complicated politics and personalities of the great Republican upheaval of 1912, which saw the creation of the modern system.
Essay: "Second Thoughts on The Sun Also Rises," Critical Mass (January 6, 2016)
In the spring of my senior year of high school, I became absorbed in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises in a way that has no parallel in my experience as a reader. It’s the story of road trip taken by a small group of British and American expatriates from Paris to Pamplona, Spain to watch the running of the bulls. I retain a hyper-vivid memory not only of the book but of the experience of reading it. After school I would sit outside at the wooden picnic table on the grass in our yard. The neighbor had a forsythia bush that cascaded over the fence along one side. It was just coming into bloom, and each day the fence would become more and more yellow. The temperature was slightly too cold to sit outside comfortably. I would drink hot tea with milk and sugar and wear a thick wool sweater. I remember the blue mug and the steam swirling up from the tea. The sun felt warm on my face and hands even though the bench was cold beneath me. I remember the cover of the book, the texture of the paper, and the type on the pages. Sometimes I feel that I could almost read whole paragraphs from the images in my memory. I have no idea why the novel grabbed me like that, or why the recollection of it remains so clear.
Review of Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen's "Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality," The Des Moines Register (September 7, 2015)
On April 3, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in the case Varnum v. Brien that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. On that day, Iowa became only the third state to permanently legalize marriage between people of the same sex, and it was the first state where the highest court ruled unanimously in favor of marriage equality. Today, after six years of same-sex marriage in Iowa, and in the wake of this summer’s landmark decision by the U. S. Supreme Court, it’s easy to forget the drama and significance of Varnum. Fortunately, former Register reporters Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen have written "Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality" (University of Iowa Press, 2015), a highly engaging and informative history of the case and its effects on Iowa and the nation.
Review of Joseph J. Ellis, "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789," Minneapolis Star Tribune (May 14, 2015)
When the Continental Army and its French allies won the culminating victory against the British at Yorktown in 1781, what had they accomplished? They won independence, certainly, but what kind? The question remained whether the United States would be a single nation or a confederation of 13 sovereign nations.
Op-Ed: "Court's Same-Sex Marriage Ruling to Define Our Time," The Des Moines Register (April 25, 2015)
On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, perhaps the most important civil rights case in a generation.
Review of Charles Slack's "Liberty's First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech," Minneapolis Star Tribune (March 27, 2015)
In the autumn of 1798, Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in prison. He was the first person convicted under the new Sedition Act, recently signed into law by President John Adams. It was now a crime “to write, print, utter or publish … false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” As a reckless critic of Adams and the New England political elite, Lyon made an irresistible target.