One Answer to Two Frequently Asked Questions

A year does not pass before I am asked what books, other than the Bible, most influenced me in my early years. Another interesting question I also am called upon to answer, especially at this time of year — what was my favorite Christmas present? My family always celebrated Christmas and it was certainly a highlight of the year for me and my siblings. The answer to both questions above happily intersected on December 25th, 1962. It was on that day, after I had recently turned ten years old, I received under the tree The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War.

The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War.png

The Centennial commemoration of the War Between the States was in its second year. I, as a ten year old, had gotten a “whiff of the powder” in second grade when a classmate showed me some postcards he had gotten from his grandmother who lived near Gettysburg. My first exposure to the existence of the war had come a year earlier when my grandfather showed me a daguerreotype image of one of my ancestors in his uniform, taken in 1864. I read a few age-appropriate books on the Civil War for a couple years, played army, wore kepis, and began collecting toy soldiers; I also tried to persuade my friends to wear gray instead of blue (still do). But after getting the American Heritage book for Christmas, I was hooked for the rest of my life on the study of history, especially Civil War history. I have not sought a cure.

The book fell under the editorship of Richard Ketchum who is best known for writing good books on the War for Independence — Saratoga, Yorktown, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton — writing till he died in 2012 at the age of eighty nine. The actual narrative text of the American Heritage book came from the pen of Bruce Catton, who became the best-selling author of Civil War books of the 1950s and 60s. Of course now I know about his effusive Northern biases with which I occasionally take issue, but his writing style, as a professional journalist, at times took my breath away and seized my imagination. The real clinchers for me, however, were the illustrations and maps. I scoured every page till I could identify every image, many of which have reappeared over the years in other media contexts. The original photos, political cartoons, broadsides, and paintings suffused the text with a sense of the reality of the past. The colorful maps of the battles, from a bird’s eye perspective, brought about my Christmas, 1963 collection of toy soldiers (ever after known as “the Civil War Set”), arranged in similar formation on the bedroom floor.  

Why bore you with these reminiscences? Just this — you never know when providence will cause a book to so animate your consciousness and desires so as to define the direction of your life and lead to your future calling. Some pastors are called to Gospel ministry through the reading of the Bible. Novelists and writers of various kinds have been inspired at a young age by a book they read, motivating them to become literary men or women. Most historians can name the book that fired their imagination and desire. Not every calling begins this way, but some do. The books we put in the hands of young people really can have an impact for the rest of their lives, sometimes from an early age, some not till they are in college. I know of certain deplorable and anti-Christian books, that I will not name here, that have led young people into lifelong writers of novels and stories of like kind, or have inspired them to abandon the teachings of their family and church to pursue goals unworthy of Christians. I wonder what the five racks of books at Barnes and Noble, labeled “teenage paranormal romance,” are inspiring today’s teenagers to become? I am glad my parents had already taught me that “whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God,” before they wrote “to Billy, from Mommy and Daddy, on December 25th, 1962.”

26 December, 2013

The Forgotten Conservative

Book Review: The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John M. Pafford, Regnery, 2013

Few Presidents of the United States have been so thoroughly self-conscious about applying the Constitution to their calling as Chief Executive, than “Honest Grover.” In the perennial list of great or near great Presidents issued by academic historians, Cleveland usually ranks below the middle. One of the reasons for that seems to be that he did not try to expand the power of the Federal Government, create new runaway bureaucracies, micromanage the economy, take bribes for favors, or sign off on vote-buying government giveaways. Grover Cleveland is the subject of several excellent biographies especially Allen Nevins’ Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage in 1932, but he remains unknown to most Americans today. Thus, the need to rediscover the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, a need requited in this new political biography.

 Grover Cleveland

Raised in a devout Christian family, Stephen Grover learned his Bible and his catechisms, knowledge that would be helpful to him throughout his life. His first elected office was as Sheriff of Buffalo, New York, traditionally considered a den of political corruption and bribery. It also presented daunting challenges that a young lawyer would likely find distasteful. The law said the sheriff was responsible for the execution of malefactors convicted of capitol crimes, and Grover carried out his duty literally. His honesty and diligence led to the governor’s chair, prompted by fellow Democrats and reformist Republicans looking to dismantle corruption in high places, regardless of party.

Elected President of the United States in 1884, Cleveland became the only Democrat between James Buchannan and Woodrow Wilson to lead the nation, and he was probably the most Constitutionally savvy since John Tyler. Cleveland would veto more bills than all his predecessors combined, citing lack of authorization by the Constitution. He advocated the gold standard, tried to protect Hawaii from imperialistic American jingoes, came down hard on organized labor when it turned violent, and fought for fairness to the American Indians. His admonition to the nation that “while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people” would today raise outcries of shock, outrage, and ad hominem irrationality galore. Unfortunately, so would his timely reminder of God’s Providence proclaimed in his second inaugural: “Above all, I know there is a Supreme Being who rules the affaires of men and whose goodness and mercy have always followed the American people, and I know He will not turn from us now if we humbly and reverently seek His powerful aid.”

Cleveland, however, was swimming against the tide of Progressivism that was engulfing his party and, though he won his second term in office, a severe economic downturn hit, resulting in his party abandoning sound money and turning to a new leader in William Jennings Bryan. The Republicans won the next four elections. No longer in office, Cleveland retired to live out his life in the quiet and intellectually stimulating environment of Princeton, New Jersey, where he is buried in a modest grave which simply has his name and dates carved on it. He was a modest, honest, forthright, and courageous Conservative man and President, whose example could well bear repeating in our own day.

Originally posted September 8, 2013 at The American History Guild