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Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Patriot by Charles Cerami

I was in the library, fresh from dropping off my newest slate of returns, when I took the chance to wander through the biography section. It’s rare that I ever go to the library with any specific intent on what I’m going to pick up (I believe the last time I did that was to pick up a copy of Cesar Milan’s Be A Pack Leader, which was excellent), and this time was no different. I was rummaging through the shelves, and nothing in particular was catching my eye. I was about to pack it in when my eyes finally fell on Banneker. I had no specific memory of the name, but it rang a bell. A cursory glance of the inside cover told me all I needed to know, “… he humiliated Jefferson…” SOLD!

Benjamin Banneker was born a free man in Maryland in the early 1730s. From an early age he was regarded as something of a whiz, and local people from all over town were asking him for his help with their accounts at the tender age of six. His family wasn’t well-off, but nor were they destitute. His parents ran a small but growing tobacco farm and instilled in him a healthy respect for work, and allowed him to pursue his intellectual pursuits so long as he still did his work on the farm. His mother was a freed indentured servant, and made sure that her children would be able to read.

Benjamin’s first love was the mystery of space and the stars. Until racial prejudices became more extreme, it was common for young Benjamin to do his farm work, sneak a quick nap, and then spend most of the night making observations about the stars and later, notes about movements and his personal theories about what was what.

As Benjamin grew older, his family came to depend on him more and more. By this point he was somewhat obviously a prodigy (he had hand-crafted a clock with wooden gears), and perhaps with an eye toward exposing their son to greater horizons, they sent him to Baltimore one summer to sell the family’s tobacco at market. This trip would bring both tragedy and salvation to young Benjamin.

The tragedy would occur in the form of being truly exposed to the wide world of racism. To help with the wagon and animals, Benjamin’s uncle came along with him on the trip. In an episode whose horror I can’t begin to imagine, they’re beset by slave catchers. Now, Benjamin is able to convince them that he’s free and that his papers are genuine — but his uncle isn’t so lucky. His uncle is beaten and taken away by the slave catchers, never to be seen by Benjamin or anyone in his family ever again. As if that wasn’t enough, upon bringing his tobacco to the Baltimore market, the merchant more or less says he’d be within his rights to throw Benjamin in irons for stealing such excellent tobacco. As a result, Benjamin is forced to sell the crop at a fraction of its value to avoid imprisonment. 

Understandably, for the rest of his life Banneker seemed riddled with fears that everything could be taken away from him at any time.

But, it was in Baltimore that Banneker made a connection whose impact would forever change his life… it was here he was introduced to the Ellicotts, a prosperous family of Quakers whose sons had an interest in everything scientific and mechanical. This family became something of a surrogate sponsor for Benjamin’s education, as they were constantly lending him their books, and their old equipment (such as old telescopes), and these things would allow him to achieve a depth of understanding that seems absolutely impossible for such a humble scientist in the early 19th century.

As Benjamin grew older, he seemed to embody the idea of the absent-minded professor. He toiled on his farm only as long as needed to assure his survival, and then spend the rest of his time reading books, following planetary movements, watching the Ellicotts build water mills, and writing what notes he could. 

His big break occurred when he was drafted by the Ellicotts to assist in the surveying of what would become Washington, D.C. The idea that a black man would be part of such an important undertaking certainly produced a lot of uncertainty, but Ellicott had complete faith in Banneker as his chief assistant. Banneker apparently had the most important job — the job of making sure that the lines struck the day before were continued exactly the next day. In order to do it, in once again required staying up late hours into the night to make sure that the measurements of the stars were where they should be and that the work could proceed apace the next day.

After the surveying of the Washington grid, Banneker decided to follow one of his lifelong dreams, again with the helping influence of his friends the Ellicotts. Banneker long desired to make his own almanac, complete with tide charts and other astronomical information. He had spent most of his life compiling the data, and with the Ellicotts willing to go to bat to secure some printers, Banneker decides to go ahead and write the damn thing. The Almanac becomes a surprise bestseller, in large part because of the uniqueness of the author. He almost instantly becomes something of an abolitionist hero, and Banneker is suddenly inundated with visitors and letters. It is also around this time that he starts hearing gunshots right outside his door in the middle of the night.

Perhaps it was something about Jefferson’s hypocrisy that made Banneker write a letter to him. Perhaps it was a new-found pride from the success of his Almanac. Perhaps it was simply a reaction to the constant racism he’d experienced that finally needed expression; whatever the case, he sent Jefferson a handwritten copy of his almanac with a note which said in part:

“…although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” 

Jefferson, with his standard two-face, welcomes the letter and forwards it to a friend in Paris while later writing about how much of Banneker’s “achievements” were probably just Ellicotts’.

I alluded earlier to Banneker’s uncanny knowledge of the cosmos. It’s absolutely impossible to know how much knowledge Banneker was able to accumulate, because shortly after his death his cabin was burned down, taking with it everything he’d written that hadn’t been on loan to Ellicott at the time. I, for one, find it absolutely incredible that he had correctly deduced that most stars likely had planets around them, and that there could even be life on those other planets. That is some serious out-of-the-box thinking for a humble astronomer farmer. I only wish we could have had a deeper look into the life’s work of a man who was so capable of rising above the conventional expectations to see what might be.

Four Stars

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I grabbed this book the same day I picked up Banneker as it was actually a featured bookend at the edge of the young adult section. I was actually shocked at how faithfully the book followed the movie (previously reviewed). It did have the welcome addition of fleshing out the character of Harry Wotten, but otherwise was more or less exactly as depicted in the movie.

It’s an easy read, and an entertaining one at that. Four Stars, same as the movie which it spawned

Hamilton by Ron Chernow

As a starter, if you could only read one book about Alexander Hamilton, this is the one you want to pick up.

Having covered a good cross-section of Hamilton’s life in the previous review, I’ll only add a couple salient points here.

The book does an exquisite job of establishing the team of Washington and Hamilton as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. During the Revolution, Washington routinely trusts Hamilton to get jobs done, going so far as to allow Hamilton to issue orders on his own initiative as if they came from the hand of Washington himself. As the French become more involved in the war, Hamilton acts as the prime translator between Washington and the French, also being sure to communicate the spirit of the meaning of the words and not just the rote translation. There is such a multitude of uses that Washington trusts to Hamilton, and no other, that when Hamilton decides to leave, Washington goes almost to the point of saying the war might be lost without him. But Hamilton is young, eager to prove himself, and desiring a chance to prove himself in battle, not work a desk for the war. Washington reluctantly releases him from his service, and they begin a largely benign estrangement which lasted a few years.

One thing that the Revolution taught to both men was the complete inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation. Wars take a lot of logistical support, and so much of Washington and Hamilton’s time was spent begging for supplies and money that they became, in my words, hateful of the government as it stood. Wars are tough enough, but then combine those difficulties with a government incapable of providing more troops, furnishing supplies, or paying their soldiers, and it becomes no wonder they might harbor negative feelings about the sovereign.

One thing that constantly astounds me reading books on Hamilton is how prolific he was. He was, for example, running a thriving law practice, and organizing the Federalists in New York when he wrote his share of The Federalist Papers. As the Secretary of the Treasury, he managed to organize his department from scratch into a functioning whole seemingly overnight (interesting side note: Washington had an aid as President, Jefferson had four secretaries at the State Department, Hamilton had over 200 employees). In addition, Chernow describes Hamilton as, essentially, Washington’s Prime Minister, because Hamilton certainly had the President’s ear, but seemed to have his hands involved in absolutely everything. 

One thing I want to add here is that Hamilton’s time at the Treasury seems to be above reproach. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, and the Republicans in Congress got it in their heads that he was stealing from the Treasury. They ran several investigations against him (at one point trying to get him dismissed by making him do a full audit in a tiny deadline, which he managed to do with no trouble), and never once found him guilty of any wrong-doing. In fact, his time in public service only served to bankrupt him, because he felt that continuing to work while working in public service would only lead to compromising conflicts of interest. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own pension to avoid having a conflict regarding the Revolutionary War debt speculators.

Also, and I know I beat this poor horse to death, but Jefferson is a piece of shit. Again, this book laid out loads of hypocrisy by Jefferson — as Governor of Virginia during the war, he abandoned office and ran from the British, yet calls Hamilton a coward. Jefferson owns slaves, yet calls Hamilton lazy! He hates everything Washington is doing in foreign policy, but he won’t resign his job at State, and pays State funds to a publisher to talk trash on Washington… There’s plenty more, and a lot of them seem completely petty, but I’d like to move on to a few closing points.

When Jefferson becomes President, he still hates the Bank and the Treasury, and appoints his friend Albert Gallatin as Treasurer and tells him to look into things and see how corrupt Hamilton made it. Gallatin was no friend to the Bank, nor Hamilton, but his final report should remove any doubt about the corruption charges:

” [this is the most amazing department in government]… Hamilton did such a perfect job organizing the Treasury that it will be a sinecure ever after for whoever holds it.” 

This book was easily a five star masterpiece. Eminently readable, with a great cross-section of stories about many different Founders, it does wonders to make the wide cast of characters seem knowable on a personal level. We still might not be able to understand why a genius like Hamilton would allow himself to be blackmailed and destroyed by a whore, but no one knows anyone well enough to understand every impulse that goes through their head. In the end, it’s a great biography that shows a man all too human.

One final anecdote that made me do a genuine laugh out loud.

Hamilton, in his final years, is designing his dream home. As he so often does, he goes into exact details of minutia, from number of bricks for the walkway and number of trees for the yard. In his customary thoroughness, he writes to a botany professor for advice:

“… I admit, I am as unfit on this topic as Jefferson is to helm the nation.”

Thanks for reading, next up we’ll have The Guns of August and Clarence Darrow.


Posted March 21, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming

This was a good book, a mixed biography of my favorite Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and his long and increasingly disintegrating relationship with Aaron Burr. As such a book is inevitable to do, it also crosses paths with Madison, Jefferson, and some other notable figures from America’s Founding generation.

The focus of the book is on Hamilton’s late career as an increasingly overworked and politically irrelevant New York lawyer. His days in government are now largely behind him, as his chief benefactor, George Washington, has passed on. Hamilton, without Washington’s support, finds himself increasingly marginalized by the dwindling support of the Federalist Party as well as the ascension of the Jefferson Republicans. In addition, his political star is largely destroyed in a sex scandal, to which he takes the odd step of “setting the record straight” by explicitly detailing what sexual scandals he is guilty of, and which innocent. As a politically diminished man, he finds that his former wealthy supports have now largely fled him, making him work long hours as a lawyer to avoid defaulting on his debts.

In contrast to Hamilton’s collapse, during this same period Aaron Burr’s star is on the rise. He’s been able to thread the delicate needle of New York state politics (which largely consists of not pissing of the Clinton-Livingston alliance, which runs the entire state as if it was their own private province), and has managed to build an electoral base within the state that will allow a Republican victory in the election of 1800.

Of course, in this case, that victory is anything but an easy one. Burr and Jefferson deadlock in electoral votes, and it’s left to the House of Reps to sort out the mess. The ballots go on multiple times, with Jefferson and Burr tying on every vote. At this point, Hamilton steps in and brokers a deal with Jefferson: If Jefferson will agree to leave the Bank of the United States alone, Hamilton will use his remaining influence to swing the votes in his favor. Jefferson agrees, and eventually becomes President.

This incident has two consequences. First, Jefferson moves into the Presidency without trusting his Vice President. Second, it is an example of Hamilton interfering in Burr’s affairs.

Moving forward, the relations between Burr and Jefferson during the first few months of their presidential tenure is formal, but very civil and polite. Burr is invited to Jefferson’s parties, and publicly they seem to be good company. However, behind the scenes, Jefferson is constantly working to undermine his vice president as well as find some way of getting rid of him. Burr, meanwhile, is actually doing some credible work on his own. He’s probably the first VP to do anything to expand the power of the position by taking an active role as President of the Senate. During his tenure, he makes sure that the entire Senate body works according to established rules of decorum and procedure. His attention to detail and civility in the Senate earns him a wide array of friends, which furthers the growing breach between him and Jefferson, the latter seeing his viper VP’s political base growing, and not trusting him to use it to further the administration’s goals.

The Louisiana Purchase essentially destroys anyone’s hope of challenging Jefferson for the Presidency in 1804 (ironically, a purchase made easy by the resolute success of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States). In addition, by the time of that election it’s officially open-daggers between Burr and Jefferson. As a result of Jefferson dropping Burr from his ticket, Burr feels he has but one option left open to him — running for Governor of New York.

The state politics are too intricate to get into here, but Burr runs a competent campaign, but is no match for the men against him — Hamilton working to undermine Burr, and Clinton-Livingston working to eliminate their new rival for control of the state, as well as Burr’s questionable involvement with a range of real estate scams, Burr’s candidacy is doomed.

So, at this point, Burr’s career is now rock-bottom. He’s almost finished with his tenure as VP, and he has but one political prospect going forward — war. Burr had a distinguished career during the Revolution as a capable commander who was capable of earning victory over the Redcoats. However, he has one chief rival to his claim for command of America’s armed forces during time of war… Alexander Hamilton, the man that Washington put in charge of the nation’s defense during the Whiskey Rebellion, has a claim which is above reproach. To add to Burr’s woes, his debt is now likely to blow up in his face, as his political offices were the only things holding his creditors at bay.

So, in what essentially seems to be a contrived argument over political slanders, Burr and Hamilton agree to duel. Hamilton, who has lost a son to a duel, is reported as saying he won’t fire at Burr. There are only two things we’re sure that happened after the duel — Hamilton was murdered, and Burr escapes unscathed.

The aftermath is an interesting one. Burr’s conduct forces him out of New York, and he eventually returns to D.C. to some very enthusiastic applause from people who hated Hamilton. Oddly enough, his last major act as VP involves him presiding over the case of Justice Samuel Chase, who is being impeached because Jefferson and his supporters don’t like his rulings (the fact that he may have been insane, seemingly irrelevant). With Burr presiding over the trial, it becomes clear beyond a shadow of doubt that Jefferson is trying to impeach the man for political, rather than professional, shortcomings, and Chase is acquitted as a result. It’s an interesting end to Burr’s VP career, because he managed to stop an impeachment that Hamilton had been urging his friends to vote against, for the very reason of it being shameless politics intruding on the judiciary.

So, after he leaves the Vice-Presidency, Burr runs west to join forces with Gen. “Judas” Wilkinson. Wilkinson is an active double-agent on the Spanish payroll, and for a long while he baits Burr with offers of possibly forming their own confederation in the American West. Eventually, however, he decides he needs a show of loyalty to Washington to keep suspicion off his back, so he throws Burr under the bus and lets him get arrested for treason. The ensuing trial lets Burr off the hook, and he dies in large obscurity in New York in 1836.

I’d give the book three stars. It’s an interesting read, and one that does justice to an interesting chapter in American history. That being said, there’s nothing particularly amazing about it.

Some stray observations:

I hate Jefferson. Seemingly every book about this era can’t help but make you conclude he’s a complete hypocrite. The slave-holding writer of, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ” can never come off as anything but a hypocrite. In addition, while he railed against the Alien and Sedition Acts (which allows the shutting down of newspapers, among other things) while he was outside of office, once he was in office he had no qualms about using them to his own ends.

There’s a funny anecdote in the book about Martha Washington’s cat. Apparently this cat humped everything that moved, at which point she gave it the nickname, “Hamilton.”

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

In large part a book of mini-biographies, this book was written by JFK while he was interred at a hospital for several months recuperating from back surgery. In this book, JFK seeks to illustrate a few examples of politicians obeying the dictates of their conscience instead of making the “right” move politically by playing ball. The book contains about a dozen or so examples of politicians who displayed such courage, on topics ranging from slavery to Union to adoption of the silver standard. Some of the biographies it contains are fairly obscure to modern audiences, but it contains a few entries I’d agree with, namely Daniel Webster, and Sam Houston.

Briefly, Webster sacrificed his immediate legacy and career by speaking in eloquent defense of the Compromise of 1850. His speech began with the immortal line, “Mr. President, I wish to speak not as a Massachusetts man, nor a Northern man, but as an American.” Webster’s speech goes on to testify to something which was the hallmark of his legacy, namely his being a Union man first and foremost. The speech succeeded in its aim, and prevented the Civil War from breaking out for almost a decade. Himself close to death’s door, John C. Calhoun was so impressed with Webster’s ability to keep the country together that he remarked, “he deserves the presidency.”

Of course, Webster’s perceived capitulation to the Slave interest was vilified throughout the North and New England. Despite his critical efforts in preventing the outbreak of Civil War, Webster has to resign his Senate seat, somewhat disgraced.

The story of Sam Houston is a worthy one in its own right, but I’ll refrain from expounding too deeply upon it. In way of brief summary, the man was a friend of Andrew Jackson and had a long military career under his belt. He was a central player in Texas’ fight for independence, as well as the two-term president of the short-lived Republic of Texas. After the annexation, he served as one of Texas’s senators, and also as the governor of Texas during the outbreak of the Civil War. While governor, he worked tirelessly to prevent the state’s succession, and in doing so almost got himself lynched by an angry mob. Realizing that he had done all he could do to prevent the succession, he resigned and spent time trying to rally the citizens against the war, saying to a crowd:

“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”

Overall, I give this book a three. It was nothing earth-shattering, nor particularly compelling to recommend it. After reading it in its entirety, I found the most interesting feature of the book was JFK’s ability to delicately address the Southern Slavery issues in such a way that he comes off as condemning them, but without doing so explicitly nor doing so in such a way as to re-open old wounds. I felt that this aspect of the book showed more of the acumen of the author than was probably ever intended.

3 stars.

The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I had such high hopes for this book. Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite of the books I had to read in high school, and I was hoping that the book hailed as that author’s masterpiece would finally earn a five-star rating from me, but it was simply not meant to be. While certain aspects of the book were quite interesting, I found that others dragged, sometimes painfully so. (As a favor to my readers, I won’t go into depth as I typically do so as to not spoil anything should any of you find yourself reading it). I always enjoy Dostoyevsky wrestling with issues of faith, and this book offers plenty of it, but at the end of the day, it simply doesn’t work as well as I would’ve hoped.

4 stars.