Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion

I learned about Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion, by Robert Morgan, on a fellow blogger's site and thought it sounded perfect.  I am a westerner and love learning about the role the West played in the development of the U.S.  The structure of the book really worked for me--each section is on a different individual who helped shaped the West in one way or another.  Many of their stories and histories overlap, but I liked being able to focus on a single individual and learn about his story and role one at a time.

The book covered Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams.  While the subtitle promises to feature villains as well as heroes, I think this is overstated.  In a way, I didn't see anyone as really a hero or a villain.  They all were admirable to a degree--some more than others--and they all took part in activities that could be seen as questionable, and many did things that were downright dishonorable and reprehensible.  For the most part, all were well-intentioned and patriotic and loyal to their cause, but oh, so human!  They engaged in petty squabbling, they turned away from what they knew was right (e.g., abolishing slavery, acknowledging the rights of Native Americans, stealing land from Mexico and Britain and France), but they had a vision and acted to make that vision a reality.

The only one I didn't really know about before reading the book was Nicholas Trist, and I found his story to be among the most interesting.  Gifted with incredible talents and skills as diplomat and administrator, he was also hampered by incredible shortcomings--an inability to speak in public and a knee-jerk defensive reaction to any type of criticism that resulted in him writing long (>160 pages) letters of rebuttal (makes Mr. Darcy's letter to Elizabeth Bennet seem like child's play).  He married Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, and was an executor of his will, as well as one of his proteges.  

I also didn't know much about Sam Houston, so I really enjoyed learning about this dynamic, gregarious man, and now want to read a full biography of him.  Everything I knew about Polk I had learned from the Jackson bio I read last year, but Morgan didn't paint a glowing picture of this Machiavellian president.  I absolutely fell in love with General Winfield Scott, "Old Fuss and Feathers," and would love to read more about him as well.  And then, I've always had a soft spot for John Quincy Adams since I watched the John Adams mini-series--my goodness, a diplomat to Russia at age 14, and he swallowed his pride and served as a congressman for years after he lost the presidency!  And, I daresay, he was the "noblest Roman of them all" but letting his 1928 campaign supporters smear Rachel Donelson Robbiard Jackson, Andrew Jackson's wife, was shameful.

I did like the way the author drew on and quoted from a host of historians, many whose names I recognized but whose works I never read.  I tend to read more recent historians, but that doesn't make the research, opinions, and scholarly work of their predecessors less valid.

Incredibly, this book was not part of any of the various reading challenges I have signed up for this year.  I read it just because and is one of the reasons I am behind schedule on those same challenges!

William Ranney, Daniel Boone's First View of Kentucky, 1849

1 comment:

  1. This one sounds like a book that I would very much enjoy. I am glad that ultimately the author choose to show the good and the bad in people who are covered. That is really the only credible way to portray history.