The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Book Review)

History has the potential to be our tutor in humility. I will not claim any excellence in humility, but I will say that what humility I have is in large part due to reading history.

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg is one of the better historical tutors as it exposes to us not only the lives and actions of our leaders but also the times, controversies, and cultures in which they led.

History can be dull and dry – because the writing makes it so, or the topics are mundane, or because we fail to see what it has to teach us. Yet history can also be exciting and insightful – history teaches us truths like:

  1. Those we judge today as scoundrels or imbeciles are oftentimes our heroes of yesterday.
  2. What seems the only way, the right way, frequently proves the wrong way with the passing of time.
  3. We are greater and worse than those who came before us – leaving us to consider, will we search out the sins of our generation and forsake them or will future generations look back at us in dismay?
  4. We repeat our past with variations. We are not the first to face such a dilemma, nor are we likely to be the last.
  5. People operate within a personal and cultural milieu; their actions are heavily weighted by their experiences and a little more listening, a little more grace, can go a long way towards understanding and appreciating the other.

Lets look at a few examples and I will share some of the lessons I learn from these historical truths:

  1. Anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon. John Adams supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts which specifically targeted immigrants. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Anti-immigrant movements are not a new phenomena nor should one dismiss such movements as intellectually crippled, for great minds have supported them.
    2. Question for Consideration: Who were anti-immigration policies focused on? (Hint: Those who now proclaim themselves proudly and truly American were oftentimes the very individuals opposed in the past, e.g. the Irish)
  2. Nor is suppression of freedom of speech a new phenomenon – as John Adams used one of the laws in the Alien and Sedition acts to suppress political opponents. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Freedom of speech has been threatened by great leaders in the past; it is not a new threat, nor does it being threatened mean that we are imminently facing its extinction.[1]
    2. Question: Who else in American history has constrained the rights of American citizens? (Hint: Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus; under FDR during WWII we placed over 160,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps)
  3. Under Andrew Jackson we were the perpetrators of horrific acts of human rights violations as we manhandled Native Americans.[2] (pg. 261)
    1. Lesson: While we should oppose human rights violations around the world, we should not pretend that we are above such abuses.
    2. Question: What other atrocious acts have been committed under the authority of the United States? (Hint: Look for our purposeful infection of individuals in Latin America with a horrible disease, we are talking 20th century; also some of the regimes we have supported despite their genocidal human rights violations)
  4. Ulysses S. Grant fought for African American civil rights but his endeavors were not lasting enough to offset the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, which violently enforced segregation and subjugation. It was with 700,000 Southern African American voters that Grant won the election; but, fast forward a short time into the future and African American civil rights would again be suppressed – including the right to vote. (pg. 278)
    1. Lesson: Americans allowed slavery to endure for a lengthy period of our history and when it was ended there was hope of a new equality, but we failed to protect those who were vulnerable and ensure that might didn’t make right…it was our inaction that allowed subjugation of our fellow members of humanity to continue on.
    2. Question: What other sorts of racism surfaced later in American history? Have we seen any recently? (Hint: Look for riots not just in Southern states but Northern as well – I’m looking at you, New Jersey, for one)
  5. There is something to be learned from Ulysses S. Grant whom Felzenberg notes as the only president “to apologize in his farewell message for his personal and policy failings.” (pg. 285)
    1. Lesson: It requires a deeper dive into U.S. Grant’s personality and circumstances to determine whether this apology came from a healthy place and whether it is something to be imitated by others. At first glance, though, we behold a refreshing humility for one of our elected leaders – the ability to admit one’s own incompetence.
    2. Question: What other American leaders have apologized for their actions? What is true about the character of these individuals as opposed to those who refused to apologize or did so in a belittling manner? (Hint: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may be a good start)
  6. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt America placed into concentration camps (and thereby abandoned the constitutional rights of) 120,000 Japanese Americans (60%+ were American citizens). (pg. 314)
    1. Lesson: Even if our cause is right we are capable of making grave mistakes that permanently and negatively affect the lives of others.
    2. Question: Have we placed other individuals into concentration camps or otherwise significantly curtailed their liberties? (Hint: Look into the historical treatment of the mentally ill and of those who were ill with HIV/AIDS)
  7. John F. Kennedy, in some ways an astute and successful leader in foreign affairs badly bungled the American-backed invasion of Cuba (pg. 355), and his numerous dalliances with the opposite gender could have been disastrous for national security. (pg. 356).
    1. Lesson: As we consider who will be most careful with our national security it is important to remember that heroes of the past had their great weaknesses as well.
    2. Question: How was John F. Kennedy’s health while in office? (Hint: Look into the consequences of his wartime injuries [WWII] and how this was handled and hidden during his time in office)

What historical books have you read? What lessons have you learned from specific historical events? What questions have historical events raised for you?

  1. [1]Not that I am suggesting we should stop fighting for freedom of speech or be aghast at attempts to deny it, only that in historical context our doomsday predictions are usually not fulfilled.
  2. [2]Some balk at the idea of the United States mistreating Native Americans, insisting this was brought on by their own misbehavior. Even if we were to grant this premise, we would still have committed many acts of atrocious violence against Native American civilians. Sixty thousand Native Americans died traveling the Trail of Tears! (pg. 263) It may also be worth noting that this horrific behavior was opposed by individuals such as American hero, Davy Crockett. (pg. 264)

Book Review: The Money Men (H.W. Brands).

Portrait of Nicholas Biddle by William Inman
Nicholas Biddle, Image via Wikipedia

I’d never heard of Henry William Brands before reading The Money Men. Despite the late introduction, I suspect that his books will now appear high on my reading list – if they are even able to approach the fascinating quality of this small volume. I do not recall the last time I have read a non-fiction book as voraciously as I have consumed this petite volume – in fact, there are only a few fiction thrillers I can think of which I have consumed in such a compressed fashion.

The Money Men is part of the Atlas Books / W.W. Norton Enterprise series in which “distinguished writers tell the stories of the dynamic innovators and the compelling ideas that create new institutions, new ways of doing business and creating wealth, even new societies.” I will be keeping my eyes open for other volumes in this series as well – hoping that they compare to The Money Men. Especially peaking my interest are Rich Cohen‘s The Record Men: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock & Roll, Tim ParksMedici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteen-Century Florence, and James Buchan‘s The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas.

But let us move on to a discussion of the book proper. It was published in 2006 and is a small hardcover book with attractive dustcover. Contains a total of 239 pages, but the first 206 contain the main narrative with additional resources filling the remaining pages – endnotes, a list of suggested further reading, and the indexes, etc.

The volume consists of a Prologue and Epilogue and five long chapters in-between. The first chapter entitled “The Aristocracy of Capital” discusses the nature of money and financial policy during and following the American Revolutionary War with a significant emphasis on  Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Chapter 2 continues the thread by telling the events that led up to and the consequences of Andrew Jackson’s decision to end the national bank and Nicholas Biddle‘s (Bank President) extreme efforts to ensure the bank’s survival.

Chapter 3 tells the story of the American Civil War and how it changed the face of financial policy – in part as a consequence of a stronger federal government and the needs of wartime finance.

Chapter 4 tells the story of the severe speculation in gold in the post-Civil War era under President Ulysses S. Grant and Chapter 5 concludes the story by recording the times of J.P. Morgan and his significant effects upon finance.

The volume reads in a very easy manner – it is both professional and yet accessible. At the same time, my endeavors to understand financial history and policy are still not complete and while The Money Men has filled in some gaps, it does not provide the complete picture I had hoped to garner. That is not to say anything negative of the volume – for it is not a primer in financial history or policy.

I oftentimes judge the quantity of a volume on several factors, such as:

  • How well the volume holds my attention.
  • How quickly I read the volume.
  • How much new or interesting information the volume provides.
  • The clarity with which the author writes.
  • The extent to which I underline, highlight, and write comments or other notations into the text.

By all of these measures, H.W. Brand’s The Money Men deserves the highest praise. The one thing I would like to see is an article by Mr. Brands analyzing the recent financial recession (2008 and on) in light of the historical story he weaves in The Money Men.

Brands remains largely neutral throughout his work and yet in the Epilogue I thought I detected an echo of approval for the economic system at the conclusion of his history. Is this a correct interpretation of his Epilogue? If so, could Brands provide us with additional insights or reflections based on recent events?

For anyone who is interested in history, finance, or politics, I would add this to your “must read” list. It is an excellent and fascinating read!