MixedThe Wall Street Journal... the opposite of the narrow caricature Adams imagined. It is a sweeping narrative history of the Revolution that attempts to include everyone—slave and free, men and women, prosperous businessmen and indebted farmers, immigrants and Native Americans—into a single story of different people struggling for freedom ... Mr. Holton emphasizes the stories of obscure individuals whom the new nation excluded, disappointed or dispossessed ... In bringing many obscure sources to light, Mr. Holton, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and the author of an acclaimed biography of Abigail Adams, demonstrates an impressive range of erudition. But his imaginative sympathies don’t extend to the primary subject of his narrative, the political and military struggle for independence. Mr. Holton adopts a conspicuously listless attitude toward this epochal event, describing the pivotal moments and the key figures as if fulfilling a contractual obligation. The result is a bit like reading a steamy romance as retold by a Victorian moralist: The basic story is the same, but most of the enthralling details are suppressed ... Mr. Holton’s concern for the obscure and downtrodden enriches his portrait of the Revolution, but he often undermines his purpose with interpretive claims that are exaggerated or downright fanciful ... Instead of reckoning with the reality of slavery and honestly celebrating the resilience of its victims, Mr. Holton offers a fantasy of power wielded by the powerless. This is a very different caricature than the one John Adams imagined, of a Revolution that began with Dr. Franklin’s electric rod, but it is a caricature nevertheless.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe Broken Constitution reflects [Feldman\'s] formidable gifts. His account of the legal controversy surrounding Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus is masterly. It exemplifies Mr. Feldman’s talent for explaining complex legal matters elegantly and conveying what is important without condescending to the general reader ... The Broken Constitution is more than an account of the Civil War as a constitutional crisis. It is also, as Mr. Feldman writes, \'a portrait of Lincoln as a constitutional thinker.\' And here the book suffers from a serious weakness—namely, an unwillingness to take the president’s own understanding of the Constitution seriously ... The compromise with slavery, on this account, is the defining feature of the original Constitution. This view comes across as a crude simplification ... His narrative improves markedly as he describes the constitutional questions that Lincoln confronted in waging the war. In riveting detail, he shows how Lincoln assumed powers almost indistinguishable from those of a military dictator ... Mr. Feldman shows an admirable regard for a vital constitutional principle but little awareness of the chaos and carnage Lincoln confronted ... To dismiss those earlier aspirations as a mere tolerance for slavery flattens our formative national tragedy into a moral melodrama. Slavery contradicted the foundational ideal of the American republic. But re-establishing free government by military conquest entailed a new contradiction, one that Mr. Feldman doesn’t see and Lincoln couldn’t avoid.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalIf Republicans were willing to deny the federal government the power to abolish slavery, why did the South bother to secede? James Oakes’s The Crooked Path to Abolition provides an effective answer to this question. As shocking as the Corwin Amendment seems today, it merely expressed what was already “implied constitutional law,” as Abraham Lincoln himself explained. Virtually everyone, including abolitionists, agreed that the federal government had no constitutional authority to abolish slavery directly ... Mr. Oakes, a distinguished Civil War historian and a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, describes the development of these constitutional antislavery strategies concisely and clearly. At just over 200 pages, his book contains more insightful analysis than countless massive tomes on the antislavery movement. Indeed, historians have generally slighted the strategies that Mr. Oakes emphasizes in favor of the absolutist position taken by the radical abolitionist movement, whose most prominent champion was William Lloyd Garrison ... In this book and in his earlier work, Mr. Oakes has provided a compelling rebuke to scholars who confuse moral clarity with moral fanaticism, the position that is most effective with the one that is most extreme. Slaveholders had no reason to fear those who denounced the Constitution as a proslavery compact. But they rebelled and destroyed themselves in fear of those who invoked it as an instrument of universal freedom.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"The Zealot and the Emancipator relates these familiar events skillfully without pretending to offer new material or original interpretations. The final 150 pages gallop through the Civil War, quoting extensively from Lincoln’s most famous works, with cursory paragraphs providing context. But Mr. Brands, who has written about nearly every era of American politics, seems to recognize that the contrast between Brown and Lincoln offers a lesson that has never been timelier. Prudence and idealism are complementary virtues. And zeal unencumbered by a concern for consequences is indistinguishable, in practice, from bloodlust.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... [a] richly detailed history ... While vividly recounting the inauguration itself, Every Drop of Blood doubles as a selective history of the entire era that Lincoln’s speech helped define. Each chapter advances the story chronologically, from the evening before the inauguration to the evening after. But within each chapter, the narrative ranges widely in place and time to describe earlier events in the war and in the lives of those affected by it. The effect can be somewhat disorienting. Perhaps this small vice is the necessary price of the book’s considerable virtues. In elegant, episodic detail, Mr. Achorn captures both the immediate experiences of those who attended the inaugural and the recent memories that colored everything they saw and felt, heard and said.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a gripping narrative that offers a revelatory perspective on the combined origins of two nations ... Mr. Chaffin establishes the contrast between his two subjects, implicitly and effectively, by describing their wartime service to the American cause. The parallel portraits make for both compelling drama and instructive history ... The subtitle of Mr. Chaffin’s book refers to \'the friendship that helped forge two nations.\' That claim is a bit misleading in the case of America, since, as Mr. Chaffin acknowledges, the two men barely qualified as acquaintances until Lafayette returned to Paris in 1785, more than a year after the end of the Revolutionary War. But over the next four years their paths converged.
RaveForbes... packs very 2019 language tics into the internal dialogue of the eponymous character, Gideon, a liege knight with a love of dumb jokes as large as her biceps. It reads as easily as browsing a Twitter feed (it adds equal parts hyperbole, dark humor, and sarcasm, and then occasionally removes the odd grammer convention), but with the character-based emotional heft of a novel ... doesn’t come across as gimmicky or slipshod. If you enjoy browsing memes or joking with friends, you’ll enjoy this prose ... a totally goony fun page-turner that really needs to be on everyone’s reading list this fall.