Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review: A Child of the Revolution: William Henry Harrison and His World, 1773-1798

A short book review on a biography I read in 2014 of William Henry Harrison on the anniversary of his death in 1841.

A Child of the Revolution: William Henry Harrison and His World, 1773-1798 A Child of the Revolution: William Henry Harrison and His World, 1773-1798 by Hendrik Booraem
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book's subtitle makes it clear that this is not a full biography of William Henry Harrison. It just covers the first 25 of his 68 years. Most books about Harrison cover his better documented life after 1798 such as his second military career and/or his later political life through his Trivial Pursuit worthy death in 1841, so this is a nice addition. The author notes that there is scant primary source material on Harrison's early days. Therefore, much of what is in the book is somewhat speculative at times yet Booraem provides ample evidence to support those assumptions.

What little records there are of Harrison's life before 1798 are obtained form a variety of sources and then compared with Harrison's own accounts written decades later as he was ramping up for a Presidential run. Much like today, folks running for political office like to fluff up the old résumé a bit and cast a better light on some of their more youthful indiscretions. Harrison was no different so we must take his words from the 1830s with some caution as most autobiographical accounts should. For those early gaps, Booraem takes Harrison's words, known events, customs and other evidence of the period and constructs educated theories of some of Harrison's early life and whereabouts. He does a fine job at it.

Any student of William Henry Harrison's life or the early American Republic should consider this required reading to better understand how the son of a well off slave owning Anglican Virginian planter who signed the Declaration of Independence can be transformed into an abolitionist, a military man, and a politician.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Presidential Profile Wax

The Ohio Irish Five
Happy St. Patrick's Day! Did you know that 22 U.S. Presidents had Irish roots? Five of them were from Ohio! More than any other state. I know what you are thinking though. You see Ben Harrison to the left and are wondering why William Henry isn't there. Ben was Irish on his Mothers side.
This concludes the Irish portion of the post. Feel free to use this trivia at your St. Patrick's Day shindig tonight.

Last Summer I became aware of a collection of 35 “Presidential Profiles” 7” vinyl 33 1/3 RPM records from 1966 that were released with their very own coin! This was very exciting.
Each one commemorates President’s Washington through Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was POTUS #36 but non-consecutive Grover Cleveland was included once. As he should be.
Being a fan of oddball Presidential items, I managed to score a set (minus the original medallions) for the low low price of $22.49. That was a pretty good buy since a single record seemed to be selling anywhere from $5 to $25. The pricier ones were usually sealed and contained the 1.25 inch high relief
bronze medallion. Each coin has a profile of the President on the obverse and an eagle and the words “Presidential Commemorative Medallion” on the reverse. Still yearning for a sampling of the coins I found a lot of 12 being sold separately for $10.95. That would have to do. So $33 bucks overall and some change still wasn't bad.

For as many of these I found on eBay, there was very little information found online about them but I did manage to dig up some details.
William Henry Harrison reverse
These were given out to children as promotional items by savings and loan banks. I guess this was to get kids interested in opening savings accounts and making going to the bank with their parents exciting by studying Presidential history. It's hard to believe this didn't catch fire. "Get the new Beatles record or go to the bank with Mom?...hmmm"

The recently martyred Kennedy kicked off the series in April 1966 and then it's random batches, Jackson, B Harrison, Jefferson, JQ Adams, Grant, Tyler, etc. I suppose the release order was chosen to prevent a run on the "big" Presidents like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc. and then have a drop off for more obscure Presidents like Harrison, Tyler, Polk, etc. This went on until ending with the current LBJ in July 1966.

The records were released by a company named Kayson’s International Ltd. I can’t find much info on Kaysons but they seemed to be a Japanese based company that also sold china in the 1960s. This may have been the company's only foray into record distribution as I don’t see any other titles with their label other than this series.

The material itself was written by Walter C. Dallenbach (1937-2014) who later became the Southern California Press Secretary for Senator Eugene McCarthy in his '68 Presidential Campaign. He eventually broke into Hollywood and wrote scripts for hit shows such as Adam-12, Rockford Files, Law and Order. Based on the time-line, this stuff was probably some of Walter's first script writing.
bronze coins included with each record

The narration was done by the then well-known Art Baker (1898-1966) who appeared in over 40 films but was best remembered as the host of the 1950s television program "You Asked for It". It looks like Art died the year they were released making this his swan song.

The foldout sleeve includes important dates in the president’s life and while in office. Each record had an original color portrait of the President painted by Reynold Brown (1917-1991). Mr. Brown produced US Government posters during WWII and over 250 movie posters between1951 and 1970 such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Creature from the Black Lagoon. When you look at the portraits you can definitely see that influence and style. Have a look at them all here.

I had to borrow a turntable to listen to them so I went ahead and converted them to MP3s while I did that. Now you can listen to them too! I wish I kept better notes along the way but hearing them was like stepping back in time to those old grade school documentaries. Overall the audio style was very atypical of their period with the lordly narration and corny music. I didn't denote any political bias of any particular President. One thing I jotted down in a scribbled note was the complete lack of any mention of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal policy. Not a word.
Each track follows the same pattern where we eventually hear, as the subtitle suggests, each president "speak". Other than Art's narration no one is credited for the other voice work and we don't hear the actual President's voice until Hoover. The first President to be recorded was in fact  Benjamin Harrison in 1889. I imagine there wasn't enough material or good quality material until the 1920s.
1975 Bicentennial LP re-issue
There are a few mistakes on the liner notes. Again with Jackson, he was "Old Hickory" not "Old Rough and Ready", which was Zachary Taylor. Andrew Johnson is listed as Republican. While Johnson was the VP for Republican Lincoln, Johnson was a Democrat. This was a choice to help ease tension with the South. That seemed like a pretty big mistake on both counts.

In researching I learned that the records were repackaged in 1975 as twelve LPs or cassettes (with no medallions) for the upcoming US 1776 Bicentennial with the tag-line "American Revolution Bicentennial 1776-1976". Featured prominently on the originals, there is no mention of Art Baker on the 1975 LPs. That made me kind of sad to discover but I suppose they didn't want these 10 year old records to seem so dated for a new generation. Kids must have wondered what happened to Nixon and Ford.
This was a fun little project. I always enjoy seeing how history was portrayed in other time periods. As I mentioned before, it was interesting that Jackson's Indian Removal policy was not mentioned in his legacy. This was 1966 after all. While some controversies were noted, these biographies do read, or rather listen, a bit like the safe naiveté of a pasteurized 1950s era text book.
In case you missed the links above, listen to the MP3s here and view the full gallery here.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: A History of Jonathan Alder: His Captivity and Life with the Indians

A History of Jonathan Alder: His Captivity and Life with the Indians A History of Jonathan Alder: His Captivity and Life with the Indians by Larry Nelson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't believe I just got around to reading this book that I've seen sourced in other history books many times. I've read a few other captivity narratives but this one is right up my alley in that it mostly happened in Madison County Ohio near Columbus. In fact, when I was in the middle of reading it, I happened to be off work for Christmas break so I took advantage of that timing and combined my hobby of geocaching and made the 90 minute drive to visit some of the places mentioned, including Alder's 210 year old cabin and final resting place . It's always great when history becomes a hands on experience.

Alder's 1806 cabin in Madison County
Since Indians in that period had no written language we have to rely on what was told to Europeans and Americans regarding day to day life. Many times that is filtered through misinterpretation, misunderstandings, or prejudice. Alder was captured by Shawnee in Virginia and adopted by Mingo at eight years of age in 1781. He assimilated and was treated well so I think we get a pretty accurate look into his experiences, good and bad. Nelson's version denotes other versions and additions of the story by others in an italic font to what the author believes is the truest account of Alder's life. The actual story of Alder's story is a bit complicated and the author explains this in the introduction.

Alder voluntarily left his adopted Mingo family in 1805 as white settlers arrived after the Treaty of Greenville. He reunited with his birth family in Virginia and returned to Ohio with them and his new wife 1806. He served as a Captain in the War of 1812. After the war he became a farmer and befriended the famous pioneer Simon Kenton. Alder lived out his days in Madison County Ohio until his death in 1849.

We learn so much about regular life as an Indian in Ohio in the early 19th century from Alder's excellent narrative. Nelson also provides additional footnotes throughout the story that detail further what Alder was referring to at times or what he meant when in the vernacular. Definitely do not skip out on those notes if you get this version of the book.
Alder's grave in Madison County

All in all this is a very easy read and should be required reading for any student of history of the early United States and the old Northwest Territory.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Review: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero

As previously stated, I've decided to post some of my short Goodreads reviews of 4 or 5 star history books I've read over the last several years. Why? Well for one the work is half done and I don't have to edit them that much. Also, it's a good way to showcase how captivating history can be by praising great history authors and their books.

The first post of 2017 has nothing to do with Ohio history although Ohio played a vital role in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement during the 19th century.

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American HeroBound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to read this book in May 2016 when it was announced that Harriet Tubman's likeness would share the $20 bill with Andrew Jackson. I really didn't know much about her other than the typical abolition stories most of us get from a grade school history class.

Much of Harriet's story had only been told orally by Tubman and exaggerated by others over the years. Thus, the book is peppered with speculative adverbs such as maybe, possibly, perhaps, etc. I find this to be understandable since Tubman was illiterate, and Larson backs her assertions up with other writers words and letters along with other good source material to fill out the narrative.  The author also debunks some of the long held beliefs such as putting her number of trips at 13 and 70 slaves feed vs 19 trips and 300 slaves freed. An amazing feat nonetheless. I feel this is a truthful, captivating, and well written biography, but it's much more than that. It's a story told in context.
Kate Clifford Larson fills in some of the gaps in Harriet's story with an explanations of how the class and social system operated in 19th century America. This is crucial in order to understand how enslaved people were able to move about and operate on the Underground Railroad undetected. I think most of us envision the plantation system in the deep South, like Roots. But in Maryland, slaves could be hired out to work at other farms and were even allowed to visit extended family unsupervised for periods of time. Slaves were even permitted to marry free blacks. This wasn't done out of sheer kindness. The children of a slave/freeman marriage still belonged to the slave master. This act was more or less an investment. They knew that if a slave had a strong extended family, they were less likely to run away. If slaves caused trouble, they might be sold to a much crueler master in the deep South away from their family.
As if the moral problems of legal slavery were not bad enough, some slave owners cheated the system as they saw their livelihood slowly disappearing. As abolitionists made progress with Americans on the idea of emancipation, at a certain point selling your own slaves in Northern states became illegal. Instead of freeing or manumitting them at a certain age as the law dictated, some masters would simply sell them to illegal Southern slave dealers and claim they ran away. It was rare for a slave owner to be prosecuted for this.

It is unfortunate that despite Tubman's heroic accomplishments assisting slaves to freedom and later working for the Union Army, she was still quite poor and struggled in her final days and even dismissed by others after her death due to her race and social status. Tubman was a brave courageous woman who did much to help make this country truly "equal". One of America's greatest sins was kicking the can of slavery down the road until finally the lives 600,000 Americans would be sacrificed to end that system.

From what I've read about Jackson, he wouldn't like this one bit, but being famously anti-bank, one wonders how he made it on the $20 bill himself. In fact you likely would have to get into the second half of the 20th century before you would find a US President who would have been OK with this. Maybe Kennedy, but not with the Jim Crow South in the 1960s. Times and attitudes change and I'll be glad to see Tubman on the $20 bill, even if it is over 100 years after her death.
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