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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Ron Chernow’s eponymously titled biography of Alexander Hamilton is nothing short of epic. At a brisk 731 pages (not including extensive notes and index), Chernow’s tome is not something to lug around in airports or while lounging on the beach. Nevertheless, Alexander Hamilton is a titillating read about one of our nation’s foremost founding fathers. And unlike his compatriots Washington and Jefferson, the academic work on the first secretary of the treasury is comparatively absent, which makes Chernow’s work more illuminating.

Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies to an unwed couple, forever casting the future founder as an immigrant bastard. Despite his humble origins, young Hamilton was able to secure passage to North America and attend King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City. His studious years were spent assiduously arguing the colonies’ grievances against the tyrannical King George III. As war between Great Britain and the colonies erupted, men in greater situations saw talent in Hamilton and within five years of first arriving in America he became General Washington’s aide-de-camp throughout the American Revolution.

As Washington’s right-hand-man, Hamilton corresponded with the Continental Congress, fellow generals and field commanders, and anyone else who was needed to conduct the war. Though Hamilton endlessly prodded Washington for his own field command, the commander-in-chief needed Hamilton’s oral, written, and persuasive skills to help him conduct the war. Plus, Hamilton was fluent in French, a skill that also proved valuable in communicating with the marquis de Lafayette. Eventually Washington capitulated and assigned Lt. Colonel Hamilton a command during the Battle of Yorktown, where he fought valiantly and captured two redoubts.

Hamilton again proved invaluable to Washington when he served as the nation’s first secretary of treasury. Unlike the other cabinet members, Hamilton had exclusive access to the first president and was in a position to truly shape policy. As treasury secretary, Hamilton strengthened the federal government by having it assume states’ debts, by creating its first federal bank, by establishing a Coast Guard and by emphasizing the notion that a strong central government is vital for the fledgling nation to succeed. As the years grew, the bond between mentor and mentee tightened and Washington heavily relied on Hamilton for guiding the nation. Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, grew disillusioned over Hamilton’s influential access and the two became bitter rivals, ideologically opposed to one another. While Hamilton believed that Jefferson’s de-centralized, states-rights’ philosophy would inevitably lead to anarchy, Jefferson accused Hamilton for either attempting to re-establish American colonialism under Great Britain or conspiring to engender a homegrown American monarchy. No evidence has surfaced to support Jefferson’s claims.

Hamilton’s confidence inspired many men to invest in his talents; it has also established bitter rivals. Newspapers in the 1790s had more in common with 21st-century blogs than 20th-century periodicals; they were loose on facts and heavy on gossip. Hamilton endured character assassination after character assassination because of his heavy influence in Washington’s administration. Since Washington was too revered to be the target of smear tactics, Hamilton bore the brunt of the Republicans’ verbal assault. Like the lawyer he was, Hamilton responded to these attacks the only way he knew; he refuted them in writing and exploited weaknesses in his opponent’s political philosophies.

Pride got the better of Hamilton in one career-defining instance. Hypersensitive of being accused of being a cheat or an embezzler, Hamilton was livid over accusations that he swindled the Treasury and stored funds for himself or, that he was funding a British uprising. His opponents supposedly held some evidence—covert payments to a Mr. Reynolds. The evidence proved less nefarious, though no less scandalous. Mr. Reynolds extorted money from Hamilton so that he would keep secret the affair that occurred between Hamilton and his wife. Eventually the cat was let out of the bag and Hamilton’s political career was forever tarnished.

Chernow vividly describes the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and the cunning Aaron Burr. Though Burr was just one of Hamilton’s many enemies, he felt especially scorned after losing the New York gubernatorial race. Though Hamilton’s influence was probably inconsequential, Burr blamed him for his loss. Additionally, Hamilton slighted Burr’s character in the presence of a Dr. Charles Cooper and stated he possessed an even more “despicable opinion” of Aaron Burr. Burr, wanted to reestablish his political career, sought revenge and challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton reluctantly accepted, though secretly declared he was not going to aim and shoot at Burr. Burr had a different set in mind and shot Hamilton in the lower right abdomen. Hamilton died 34 hours after the duel on July 12, 1804.

Cherow’s Alexander Hamilton is exhaustive in scope and definitive in its detail on the first treasury secretary’s life. Ron Chernow successfully depicts Hamiton’s self-sacrificing contributions to the fledging years of the United States.

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Eichmann in Jerusalem Book Cover

"Eichmann in Jerusalem" by Hannah Arendt

When the Israeli secret service kidnapped Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960, they expected to capture a monster. Instead Israeli psychologists were surprised to examine someone who they claimed were more normal than they. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt explores the concept of evil and discovers that Eichmann’s philosophy did not possess an irascible hatred toward Jews. Instead, Eichmann’s evil was less complicated, less ideological. The source of Eichmann’s crimes was not so much the supposed claim that the Germans were of a superior race than non-Germans, but rather the lack of thought with which drove Eichmann’s actions.

Adolf Eichmann was an officer within the SS, the much-maligned officer corps that was responsible for both expulsing the Jews from German territory and eradicating their existence. In other words, the SS-led by Heinrich Himmler-organized the ghettos, the concentration camps, and provided the logistics in getting the Jews there and killing them. Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel within the SS, provided the transportation for Jews to leave German territory and later the trains that delivered countless Jews to their death camps. Modeled after the Nuremberg Trials, the tribunal organized in Jerusalem charged Eichmann with “crimes against humanity” for orchestrating the logistics that transported millions of Jews to their deaths.

Surprisingly, Arendt objects to much of the trial’s procedures. The defense did not have the same preparation as the prosecution. While the prosecution had numerous lawyers, Eichmann for the most part had one defense attorney, Dr. Servatius. Moreover, the trial made no attempts to hide the overt reality that its purpose was much loftier than simply to provide justice to Eichmann. The trial served for posterity, to remind future generations of the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews. While Eichmann was a Nazi and a member of the SS, he could not possibly have solely shouldered the burden of the millions of deaths caused by the Nazi regime. By adopting all of the Holocaust as evidence against Eichmann (after all, Eichmann planned the logistics to get the Jews into the camps), Eichmann became a scapegoat for the Nazis and the German people in general.

Instead Arendt seeks a stronger explanation for Eichmann’s crimes. She summarizes the societal effects of a totalitarian government and contrasts it with the rules of a democratic society. Evil is thoughtlessness; it is a sort of “going with the flow” in a totalitarian government. In a democracy, people normally behave the rule of law and, for the most part, are only tempted to break the law. Most people do not succumb to those temptations. However, in a totalitarian society, this idea is turned on its head; corruption and evil become the norm and those elements in those environs shape people’s behaviors. People here only flirt with the idea of behaving morally and most people simply carry out their functions. Eichmann only knew to carry out his orders and to follow the rule of law (which was Hitler and his wish to exterminate the Jewish people) because society’s norms under Nazi Germany were allowed to shape his consciousness.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is a very weighty exploration of morality and much is crammed in its thin 298 pages. Arendt discusses the validity of the Jerusalem court, the complicity and lack of leadership in the Jewish councils that aided the Nazis to perform their atrocities, and the European countries that either complied or refused to extradite their Jews. France refused to expulse their Jews and Denmark refused to comply with any of the oppressive laws of Nazi Germany. But what is most interesting that supports Arendt’s thesis is that, after a short two years, the Nazis who resided in Denmark after its occupation no longer supported anti-Semitic actions and even sympathized with the Jews. It seems that once the Nazi functionaries were removed from the societal constraints imposed by Hitler, they were able to regain their moral consciousness.

In the end, Eichmann was convicted and hung. Hannah Arendt does not disagree with the court’s rulings, but the methods with which they were undertaken. Firstly, the methods with which Eichmann was obtained were questionable. Argentina did not have appropriate extradition laws for former Nazi officials to Jerusalem and Germany would not have taken him. Thus, Israeli officials illegally grabbed Adolf Eichmann and forcefully brought him for trial in Jerusalem. Secondly, the prosecution and defense did not have equal access to resources. The prosecution had more lawyers and was able to utilize documents the defense did not always have access to. Thirdly, the evidence brought forth by the prosecution did not necessarily have relevance to Eichmann’s actions. Such evidence was presented most likely in order to provoke emotion than to indicate Eichmann’s culpability of the crimes against the Jewish people.

Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of Adolf Eichmann’s atrocities during the Holocaust and the subsequent trial is an insightful work because it examines both the interrelationships of totalitarianism and moral consciousness within the self and global society’s responsibilities to bring those who commit these horrific crimes to justice. Any student of humanity, ethics and moral justice needs to grapple with these issues and Eichmann in Jerusalem provides a compelling framework to learn about the depths of morality, the human conscience, and how people’s worldviews are shaped within a totalitarian government.

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Columbus Day has a way of creeping up on you. No one really plans for it and yet some of us are fortunate enough to have the day off. They have a parade in New York, but no one really watches it. In my opinion Columbus Day is a rung or two above Arbor Day in the hierarchy of American holidays.

Just don’t tell any proud Italian I said that. For some reason, Italians take their Christopher Columbus seriously. Never mind that Italian city-states Genoa and Venice passed on funding his voyage; or that it took him three voyages to even suspect he landed somewhere else that was not Asia; or that he carted a couple hundred Tainto Indians back to Spain as slaves; or that he was stripped of his Admiral of the Ocean Seas title and shipped home in chains. Without Columbus, none of us would have learned “1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in grade school.

I do find it perplexing that the Spanish don’t take as much pride in Columbus as do the Italians, especially when one realizes that his discovery shifted the focus of trade away from the Mediterranean (which the Italian city-states controlled) to the New World (which the Italians never acted upon). Columbus’s conquest jump-started Spain’s foothold in America and dominated the West Indies for nearly two centuries. Until the mid 17th century, Spain profited almost exclusively from the Caribbean sugar and tobacco plantations. Not to mention the purging of the Aztec gold coffers, as well.

Whether Columbus was a great man or not, I cannot say but he did change the course of history. And I’ll happily take a day off to celebrate that.

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