Below are two book reviews I wrote for amazon.com. The first book is about New York City under Dutch rule, the second is about the making of Washington D.C.
THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, by Russell Shorto
New York was a clearing house, a company town, a financial exchange, “a great natural pier ready to receive the commerce of the world.” It was also diverse, tolerant, multiethnic, upwardly mobile. From the beginning, Manhattan Island, a.k.a. New Amsterdam, was all of these things and more, while destined to become the financial center of the world, or, as the title implies, “The Island at the Center of the World.” According to the author, New York was “the prototype of the kind of society that would be duplicated throughout the country and around the world.” He adds: “It was no coincidence that on September 11, 2001, those who wished to make a symbolic attack on the center of American power chose the World Trade Center as their target. If what made America great was its ingenious openness to different cultures, then the small triangle of land at the southern end of Manhattan Island is the New World birthplace of that idea, the spot where it first took shape.”
If you’re a reader of early American history, or of history in general, or interested in the financial tools that made the Netherlands the world’s first financial giant and New Amsterdam its most-profitable off-shore enterprise, this book is a must-read. The author Russell Shorto is a fist-rate historian, writer, and story-teller.
It’s all here: how Manhattan was purchased from American natives for what amounted to $25, how the Dutch trading post turned Dutch town mirrored the Netherlands, and how it was eventually taken over by the English and renamed New York. As in any good story, there are heroes and villains, plot twists, and a myriad of fascinating details that shape the narrative and give it richness. It’s about the world of trade and how it grows an empire, an empire not just of money, but of ideas, that recognizes racial and religious tolerance as a necessary and key element to its success. The opposites—ignorance, bigotry, religious and racial intolerance—are business killers. Two of the most fascinating characters are feisty Peter Stuyvesant, the original Peg-leg Pete (one of his legs was shot off by canon fire), the autocratic director who in the end was forced to turn Manhattan over to the English; and Adriaen Van der Donck, who emerges as a forgotten American patriot whose clashes with Stuyvesant laid the foundation for New York City and helped shape American culture.
The Dutch heritage of New York and America is unique and long lasting, not merely in business practices, but in name places—Yonkers, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Bowery, Staten Island—and in some of the things we enjoy eating—cole slaw, doughnuts, cookies, crullers, and waffles. Looking for a good story about New York and its place in American history, this is it.
WASHINGTON: THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CAPITAL, by Fergus M. Bordwich
As cities go, until recent times, Washington D.C. was a failure. As late as 1950, the daughter of sitting American president Harry S. Truman called the nation’s capital “little more than a country town.” Ten years before the Civil War, in 1851, a visitor described Washington as a city of “houses without streets, and streets without houses.” In other words, for most of its existence, Washington D.C. was little more than an economic and cultural backwater that happened to be the seat of the federal government. Thomas Jefferson, who more than anyone was responsible for the creation of Washington D.C., preferred it that way. He hated cities. Oh, he loved what they offered—gourmet food and French wine, booksellers, art galleries, universities, museums, and arresting architecture. But he hated more what they also offered—commerce, banks, stockbrokers, and factories. Cities were corrupt and dirty places that interfered with his vision for America, as a nation without cities, of gentlemen farmers who worked their own plot of land. The idea of creating a city from scratch—of starting over, as it were—appealed greatly to a purist like Thomas Jefferson. His vision for the nation’s capital was not as a city in the traditional sense—as a marketplace—but rather in the Roman sense, as a forum. Business and banking? It had no place in Jefferson’s second-coming of the Greek Acropolis. Jefferson's vision was that of an anti-city, where politicians road their carriages unimpeded on tree-lined avenues to and from the Capitol.
Fergus M. Bordwich’s well-researched book makes for a ripping good story, about how and why the nation’s capital was moved from New York City to a pasture on the banks of the Potomac, and how it evolved from shanty town, to slave capital, to what it is today—the symbol of American freedom and democracy. If you have the slightest interest in U.S. history, or in how the dirty world of politics gets things done—for good or ill—this book is highly worthwhile. Equally as good, the author knows how to tell a good yarn. I read all 276 pages in three sittings, and enjoyed the journey.
It’s tempting to wonder exactly what Jefferson thought of his city when the federal government moved there in 1800. Apart from the business of running the nation, it offered little in the way of housing, entertainment, higher education, or even of obtaining a decent meal. About the only buildings of substance were the White House, the Capitol, and the treasury, built mostly by slave labor. There were a few boarding houses (and bordellos), and the rest was pastureland and a patchwork of farms. Until the Civil War, about the only commerce was the buying and selling of slaves. Alas, Washington D.C. was, by the time of the Civil War, the nation’s slave capital, where arriving foreign dignitaries bore witness to the daily buying and selling of slaves within a block of the Capitol Building. The author quotes historian Garry Wills: “The capital was placed where no professors from a university, no Quakers, no sophisticated financial operatives would rub up against slaveholding natives . . . No major harbor would give a cosmopolitan air to the place. Here president after president would preside over an executive mansion maintained by slaves. Can one imagine a succession of twelve slaveholder presidents if the capital had remained in Philadelphia? The southerners got what they wanted, where the most honored men in the nation were not to be criticized because they practiced and defended and gave privilege to the holding of slaves.”
The story of Washing D.C. is an American story, reflecting our nation’s progress. The miracle of Washington, and of our nation, is that it’s been self-correcting. Leadership changes. Democracy learns from its mistakes, no matter how wrong or how damaging. It’s painful to read about but encouraging, too. However slow, progress is made.