Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose

Monday, December 29th, 2008

The following is a review I wrote on about the book, “Undaunted Courage”, by Stephen E. Ambrose.

While the main purpose of this book is a biography of Meriwether Lewis, the author includes all of the influential characters, events, and setting of the early 19th century United States, starting with the third President, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s vision of America is a country stretching from sea-to-sea.  It is as if Jefferson had an almost divine image of America.  This is a special land, entirely different from the Old World in Europe, which is precisely why it was so important for the United States to lay claim to the continent, and effectively remove the presence of British, French, or Spanish military forces.

If Jefferson were alive today, I think he would not be pleased with the United States’ military presence in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.  Jefferson’s Republicans would likely have held an isolationist view of our sovereign nation even up to today.  Americans do not belong in the Middle East today any more than British and French forces belonged in North America in 1903.

I was surprised to learn that Jefferson had originally thought that American Indians could be “civilized”, and become active citizens of the United States, whereas African Americans could never fully “assimilate” in Jefferson’s views.  Throughout the journeys of the Corps of Discovery, Lewis and Clark presented each tribe with a special speech, to inform them that they “have a new father”, and invited their chiefs to visit Washington and meet Jefferson.

This story predates the Trail of Tears and other stories of American genocide against Indians.  However, one quote from the book puts an interesting perspective on the attitude of Americans’: “How can an Indian tribe lay claim to thousands of acres of land that they ride across twice per year?”  Although Jefferson intended confine American settlers to the land east of the Mississippi, and allow the Indians to keep all land west of it, history has shown that no executive power was able to stop the progress of American Pioneers.

The stories of Lewis’s activities had a familiar feeling to me.  For example, while preparing for the expedition, Lewis contracted a boat builder to construct a large “keelboat” to travel up the Missouri river.  The contractor was very slow, constantly drunk, and failed to show up many mornings.  It reminded me of contractors that I’ve dealt with in my business, who have no sense of the urgency required by the customer.

As an outdoorsman, I was captivated by the adventures encounted by the party in the wilderness, all documented with great detail and passion by the author.  I have traveled through the rugged rocky mountains, armed with the most sophisticated technology of the 21st century.  Even now, it is no easy endeavor.  However, this party of soldiers made their way up the rockies, navigating by compass and sextant, hunting with muzzleloader, camping without shelter, and sewing clothing from buffalo hides.  Lewis was in his late 20′s, the same age as I am now, and he was co-captain to a group of 30 or so army privates, and navigator in a wilderness that no white man had ever been in before.  These feats alone are truly amazing!

In addition, the author makes sure to mention the importance of Sacajawea during the trip.  The majority of the party was made up of young adult men: American soldiers trained in hunting and survival.  However, in the group was this teenage Indian girl, who spoke no English whatsoever, and had her baby with her the entire journey!  How did she feel to have traveled for two years with this expedition?

I strongly recommend this book to readers who have a thirst for history of early United States, and also for those who have a keen interest in wilderness exploration and survival.  Many of the hunting and survival skills practiced by Lewis’s hired hunter, George Drouillard, can still be applied by today’s big game hunter and survivalist.

This amazing book has turned me onto further reading about the politics of Jefferson and James Madison, and how the “original Republican party” was meant to shape this country’s future.  I look forward to learning more.

Undaunted Courage (cover)

James Madison, Militarism, and the Motives of the Radical Jihadists.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

On a surprise trucking mission from Aspen to Carbondale this morning, I was listening to the Con Man ask questions about radial Jihadism, including an obvious question: “Why do they hate us?”

A caller had called in with three quotes from James Madison.  I was surprised to draw a connection from the radio show to two books that I recently read.  Neither one was specifically about Madison, but both contained new information that I had digested.

One book is Undaunted Courage, by Stephen E. Ambrose,  and the other is Nemesis by Chalmers Johnson.

In Undaunted Courage, Madison was the Secretary of State to President Thomas Jefferson.  As president,  Jefferson provided a vision to his cabinet:  to ensure that the United States would have sovereignty from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and that no European power would pose a threat to that.  Simply put: North America belongs to the United States, and no army of Britain, France, or Spain would be tolerated near her borders. (Obama was recently quoted, as claiming to provide “a vision” for his cabinet to carry out.  To my amusement, this quote was highly criticized by right wing talk radio.  I will let you draw your own conclusions)

In fact, when Madison traveled to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans (Jefferson never imagined the entire Lousiana territory was up for sale at the time) from France, Madison also carried a message from Jefferson to Napoleon.  That message informed him that should France station a single soldier in New Orleans, the United States would consider it an official act of war.

Now, back to the question of the day:  Why do the radical Jihadists hate us?  Could it be because of our presence in the Middle East?  Jefferson had a Manifest Destiny about the soverignty of the United States in North America (which is why Napoleon, being the smart man that he was, assumed that the American pioneers were going to spread out all over Louisiana anyway, so he might as well make some money off of it). Our federalism was designed to be the opposite of the imperialism of European Nations.

However, now the United States has military bases in over 30 countries across the globe!  This includes Germany, Austrailia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Egypt, Italy, Spain, Britain, and Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.  (Surpring to me: not in Mexico.  Not surprising to me: not in France!)

How would you feel if there was a Colombian military base in Nebraska?  How about an Egyptian base in New York?  A Japanese base in California?  Israelis in Colorado?!

“Hell no!” is what any sensible citizen of any nation will say.  Could you imagine?   With that said: what is our place to station troops in another country?  Jefferson would be appalled at such an idea.

In Nemesis, the author opens up about “Militarism and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government”, claiming “The United States has been continuosly engaged in or mobilized for war since 1941.”

Johnson (as well as the caller on Conniff’s show) quotes Madison:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Madison also said:

In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.


Madison knew the threat of militarization (and fear that the U.S. would ever be in control of another military dictator such as King George III), which is why he and his peers incorporated a very important balance of power in the Nation’s governing document.  According to the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war, and the President is the commander in chief of the military.

However, the Bush Doctrine changed all that.   This power was stripped away from the Legislative Branch and rewarded to the Executive Branch, thus throwing the fragile balance of powers defined by the Constitution.  The President can now use the military, (as well as CIA operations designated as so “top secret” that they cannot even disclose budget spending dollars to Congress!) to preemptively strike against any sovereign nation believed to be harboring “terrorists”.

Putting the final straw on the militarization outrage is the most striking, shocking, and appalling news to me this week: The Pentagon’s plan to deploy 20,000 troops in the U.S. for domestic security. Specifically, the 3rd Infantry, 1st Brigade — a combat brigade!

This act ensures that the President will have the resources necessary to enforce martial law instantaneously, at any time, for any reason.  On January 20th, Madison’s fears will be realized when George W. Bush transfers a military dictatorship over to Barack H. Obama.

We may as well have just burned the last copy of the U.S. Constitution.