Friday, November 11, 2011
"A Treasury of Great American Scandals" - Michael Farquhar
Ten of our less appreciated first citizens, as well as their eccentricities, are celebrated here. But not a word will be said about Millard Fillmore, who has become so famous for his obscurity that, strictly speaking, he no longer qualifies as obscure. (113)
This book was fantastic. I'll just start there. It's well written, clever, entertaining, engaging, and informative. I believe that anyone would quite enjoy this book, even were they not a self-proclaimed history nerd like myself.
We had a joke in the history department at university: it's not truly an academic work on history until it has a subtitle. Farquhar didn't let me down. The subtitle of this book? "Tantalizing True Tales of Historic Misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and Others Who Let Freedom Swing." There's some alliteration, some puns. Just beautiful. You couldn't ask for more from a subtitle.
Farquhar has separated the book into "categories," which are introduced by means of an illustration with an amusing caption. (For example, the illustration for the first category about historical family disputes, shows Benjamin Franklin with his son. The caption says: "Benjamin Franklin back when he still liked his son.") The categories span a wide range of scandals, including the above about family disputes and disagreements, and ranging to what Farquhar calls "The American Hall of Shame" dealing with things like traitors and Richard Nixon, who is so easily admitted to the Hall of Shame that his chapter structure is purely sentence-long introductions to horrific quotes.
Some new thoughts that I will take away from this book: LBJ was kind of a dick and so was Benjamin Franklin. Really, quite a few historical figures were more dickish than I had previously thought. Some were not; I'm thinking specifically of Joe McCarthy, who I've always considered to be a horrible human being. Also, quite a few of our historical figures were exhumed several times. There's a whole category, in fact, of people who were dislodged from their initial places of rest. Awkward. Another takeaway, many problems that we experience in today's political atmosphere are not new problems. Almost from the day of the foundation of our nation, there's been mudslinging and scandal. I have yet to determine if that makes me more hopeful or more cynical about our political path.
One of my favourite portions is from a chapter about Woodrow Wilson. Although Wilson projected a dignified, strong exterior, he turned a bit mushy when courting his second wife. A mushy president is not the best part of this chapter. There was apparently an article in the Washington Post about this courting, and in the article (on the front page, no less) it stated that "the president spent much of the evening entering Mrs. Galt." Obviously, it was meant to say that he was entertaining her. Hilarious.
Another great story is that of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury. He was the governor of New York in the early eighteenth century, and as Farquhar writes, "believed that since he was the colonial representative of Queen Anne (Britain's monarch at the time), he bloody well ought to look like her." As a result, he often took to dressing in female garb.
I appreciated the expansion of several scandals of which most of us are probably already aware: the Salem Witch Trials, Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr, Nixon. I think it would have been simple to stick with those same old familiar stories. What makes this book unique from others similar to it (at least the ones that I have read) is the introduction of quite a few anecdotes to which I had never been privy.
Farquhar creates graceful transitions and lovely tie-ins to previous chapters. Although separated as mentioned before, the book in no way feels disjointed. He also contributes two amazing appendices in the back of the book. One lists all of the presidents, general information about them, and then at least one "distinction." The second is a brief timeline of the United States.
Quick, worthwhile read, even if history is not your favourite. If you're interested, Farquhar also wrote a book titled A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors. While that is a lot of commas (and I'm not sure how I feel about that), he does use the Oxford Comma at the end there, so I'll forgive it. Plus, he's a delightful writer. I've certainly added it to my list.