Winston Churchill, with a Little Bit of Luck

Hero of the Empire, by Candice Millard, zeroes in on a low point in Winston Churchill’s life—when he was taken prisoner during the Second Boer War in 1899.

Captivity was antithetical to Churchill’s whole nature. Granted, it’s antithetical to most people’s nature, but Churchill was especially poor at enduring such a state. As Millard explains, while other prisoners kept in shape, Churchill neglected to exercise and, uncharacteristically, struggled to maintain his concentration while reading.

Escaping, however, gave him the sort of struggle he needed, and the danger seemed to rejuvenate him.

I highly recommend Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill for the full details. Millard provides great insight into the character of young Churchill (only in his twenties at the time), as well as a general introduction to the history of South Africa at the dawn of the twentieth century.

But as this book focuses on one small part of Churchill’s long life, I just want to focus on one small part of that small part.

Churchill’s escape, though originally devised by a couple of other prisoners whom he had to leave behind, would never have happened without his own courage, initiative, and resourcefulness. The ultimate success, however, also depended on a little bit of luck.

Bad luck, inevitably, also played a role. Churchill’s plan to board a passing train at night fell through because, as a wartime measure, all trains were forbidden to run after 7 p.m. He considered asking native Africans for help, since they hated the British slightly less than they hated the Boers. He started to approach what he thought was a group of natives but couldn’t bring himself to follow through.

“Churchill continued walking for about a mile in the direction of the fires, struggling with his fears and doubts, and then he stopped, overwhelmed by a sense of the ‘weakness and imprudence’ of his plan,” Millard writes.

Churchill would later write that he was “completely baffled, destitute of any idea what to do or where to turn.”

“This time, for perhaps the first time in his life, he was paralyzed with indecision,” Millard writes.

Somehow, the clouds of doubt lifted—“by no process of logic,” Churchill later said—and he continued on toward the fires, his sense of purpose renewed. But as he neared, he realized he wasn’t approaching a camp of native Africans. He was approaching a coal mine.

This, too, carried risks, perhaps even greater risks, but Churchill was simply too exhausted to withdraw and resume wandering. He had the sense that doing so wouldn’t end well for him.

So he approached the nearest house and knocked on the door.

A man answered, and Churchill improvised a lie about having had an accident. The man wasn’t buying it, though, and Churchill soon saw no other option but to take his chances and tell the truth.

Millard quotes the man as saying, after Churchill revealed his identity, “Thank God you have come here! … It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

The man’s name was John Howard. He was hired to run the coal mine and had been living in the Transvaal for years, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen. His British origins had excused him from fighting in the war, and his current standing had allowed him to remain in the area.

Howard, at great personal risk, organized the ultimately successful efforts to smuggle Churchill to safety. Had Churchill knocked on any other door that evening, his fate—and possibly the later history of World War II—might have turned out very differently.

“By an incredible stroke of luck, Churchill had stumbled upon one of the few places in the 110,000 square miles of the Transvaal where it was still possible to find an Englishman,” Millard says.

This got me thinking about a key difference between nonfiction and fiction. One of Pixar’s rules of storytelling states, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”

Absolutely true. Whenever a lucky break saves a character in any work of fiction, it just comes across as hollow and can lead to the story feeling pointless and unsatisfying. It might even break suspension of disbelief entirely.

But in nonfiction, when a real-life coincidence saves a real person in a real situation, it’s amazing. And it’s fascinating to consider how the arc of history hinges on some lucky breaks along the way. This is, of course, in addition to a whole lot else, but serendipity is part of the historical equation, too.

Churchill’s successful escape required his own initiative, the help of other capable people, and a pinch of that secret sauce, luck.

Just a Few Generations

I stumbled across an interesting news clip on YouTube. John Tyler, born in 1790 and president of the United States from 1841 to 1845, still had two living grandsons as of 2019.

Not great-great-grandsons or even great-grandsons. Grandsons.

Watch the video here:

At least one, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., has passed away since then. Still, it’s remarkable to consider how a mere three generations could stretch from the founding era to the present.

The feat was made possible by Tyler marrying a much younger woman as his second wife, and then their son doing the same thing.

It’s a reminder that American history isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things.

When I was working as a reporter for the Herald-Progress newspaper years ago, I liked to browse through the paper’s archives when time allowed. The office had original, physical copies going all the way back to 1919.

In a 1929 edition of the paper, I found a picture of an elderly man shaking President Herbert Hoover’s hand. (Unfortunately, this isn’t something I can link to.) The caption said this gentleman had shaken hands with every Republican president going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln.

Two of my grandparents were already born when that photo was taken. I found it fascinating that my grandparents were alive at the same time as anyone who had met Lincoln. The math made sense and wasn’t any real surprise, of course, but I don’t think I had consciously worked it out before coming across that visual evidence.

The past—at least, the U.S. past—isn’t as remote as we tend to think.

In any case, Tyler is a president I haven’t read much about yet, and I need to rectify that at some point. The latter half of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, he was the first vice president elevated to the presidency following a president’s death in office (William Henry Harrison in this case), and I’m sure there’s more to him than that. Let me know if you’ve read any great books on Tyler (or anyone from that pre–Civil War era).

Tyler and I, it turns out, are fellow graduates of William & Mary. Granted, he was there many years before me—or perhaps it wasn’t so long after all.

The Founders’ Fears

We all have our doubts, and so did America’s Founding Fathers.

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, a recent book by Dennis C. Rasmussen, examines precisely what the title describes. But it’s not as depressing as it sounds.

The bulk of the book focuses on four key founders and the major doubts they experienced later in life. George Washington feared the rise of partisanship. Alexander Hamilton worried that the government wasn’t vigorous enough. John Adams, the first to become disillusioned, didn’t think people were virtuous enough to sustain the republic. Thomas Jefferson, highly optimistic for a long time, eventually came to dread that slavery would tear the country apart.

Each one, as well as other founders, became disillusioned about the United States’ ability to endure. Though they all sacrificed much to give the new country the best possible chance, they were increasingly doubtful they had built something that would last.

Given the serious issues that plagued the young nation throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—tensions with France, the War of 1812, slavery, and so much more—how could they not have doubts?

An excess of certainty can often be creepy, so, in a strange way, it’s reassuring to see how these important historical figures understood their own limitations. They all knew that perfection was unattainable, so they instead aimed for something that might work despite its faults. But there was no way of knowing that it actually would work, and certainly not for 230+ years and counting.

Rasmussen closes his book by focusing on a fifth founder, James Madison, who survived until 1836, allowing him to witness close to half a century of the Constitution in action, withstanding all sorts of challenges from various directions decade after decade. And though not free of doubts himself, Madison remained generally optimistic about America’s prospects.

“[Madison] did occasionally harbor some real worries and experience some palpable disappointments, as might be expected, but these concerns were never so deep or lasting as to lead to disillusionment with the political order as a whole or to despondency about its future,” Rasmussen writes.

Rasmussen speculates about why Madison was the exception to the rule, citing temperament as one likely explanation. But another was that he “had lower expectations than most of the other founders regarding what was politically possible, and he pointedly refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Madison was a realist, even more so than the other founders. He understood partisanship was going to happen and that men were not angels, and he held more balanced views about centralization and decentralization of power than Hamilton and Jefferson.

James Madison

The most appealing reason Rasmussen puts forth, however, is Madison’s longevity.

“Long experience had, moreover, persuaded Madison beyond a doubt that the American form of government was preferable to the alternatives—throughout history and around the world—and he sought to convince (or remind) his fellow citizens of that basic but crucial fact,” Rasmussen writes.

The fact that Madison was a participant or at least an interested observer throughout decades of turbulent situations, and yet still died confident about America’s future, inspires hope.

Rasmussen quotes Madison’s final advice to U.S. citizens: “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished & perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise.”

I never expected a book about disillusionment to be so uplifting. It’s worth a read.

The Graciousness of Grant

The surrender at Appomattox has the ingredients for a great one-act play.

The two leads are perfect foils. The defeated general, a living legend to his men, is fifteen years older and held a much higher rank than the victorious general the last time they met, many years earlier (an encounter the older man doesn’t even remember). The victorious general, a failure in civilian life, shows up in “rough garb,” by his own admission, in sharp contrast to the defeated general’s polished ceremonial attire.

The victorious general begins with friendly chitchat, to which the defeated general responds cordially. But the defeated general can’t hide his grave demeanor; the fate of his men depends on this rough-hewn, middle-aged failure sitting across from him. Will he be vengeful? Will he push for punitive measures against the Southern army? Or will he show mercy?

Painting by Thomas Nast

Fortunately, General Ulysses S. Grant chose to be merciful and kind to Robert E. Lee and his army. Without excusing the Confederacy’s wrongdoings, Grant was able to emphasize with his opponents and remember their humanity.

Grant later wrote in his memoirs, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

As Ron Chernow describes in his superb biography, Grant, the Union general came prepared with terms, but he drafted the specific language on the spot. “Grant trusted to the moment’s inspiration,” Chernow writes.

The terms included the following: “The Arms, Artillery and public property to be parked and stacked and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them…This done each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes not be disturbed by United States Authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.”

The U.S. government would have been within its rights to charge Confederate soldiers with treason and put the recovering nation through a lengthy series of trials. But that would not have facilitated healing, nor would it have moved the country forward.

Chernow notes that Grant chose not to ask Lee to surrender his sword. It wasn’t just to avoid making a martyr of the man; Grant also didn’t want to humiliate him.

“With no tinge of malice, Grant’s words breathed a spirit of charity reminiscent of Lincoln’s second inaugural address,” Chernow says.

Lee accepted the terms with only minor revisions. “It is more than I expected,” he said.

Grant also arranged to provide food for Lee’s hungry troops.

“Grant showed genuine compassion for the Confederate soldiers, saying he assumed most were farmers and wanted to plant crops to tide them over during the winter. To this end, he issued a directive that rebel soldiers who owned their horses or mules should be allowed to take them home,” Chernow writes.

Chernow also notes how pleasantly surprised the Confederate troops were, as many were expecting punitive measures from Grant. Chernow quotes an unnamed soldier as having said, “The favorable and entirely unexpected terms of surrender wonderfully restored our souls.”

To avoid wounding the Southerners’ pride, Grant even halted the celebrations of his own men while both armies were still in the area.

James Longstreet, a Confederate general, visited Grant at Appomattox. Grant offered him a cigar, and they renewed their friendship over a card game they used to play.

According to Chernow, Longstreet said, “Great God, thought I to myself, how my heart swells out to such a magnanimous touch of humanity! Why do men fight who were born to be brothers?…His whole greeting and conduct toward us was as though nothing had ever happened to mar our pleasant relations.”

“Grant’s courtesy at Appomattox became engraved in national memory, offering hope after years of unspeakable bloodshed that peace, civility, and fraternal relations would be restored. It was a fleeting, if in many ways doomed, hope, which may be why it has had such staying power in the American imagination,” Chernow writes.

And true, Grant’s good manners did not foreshadow a smooth Reconstruction period, and that’s one of history’s many tragedies. But Grant behaved exactly right on April 9, 1865, showing us how to treat our defeated enemies as friends, and how forgiveness is more important than punishment.

“Such was Lee’s unrivaled stature that his acceptance of defeat reconciled many diehard rebels to follow his example. At the same time, it was Grant who set the stage for Lee’s high-minded behavior by treating him tactfully, refusing to humiliate him, and granting him generous terms that allowed him to save face in defeat,” Chernow says.

The surrender could indeed make a great play, one that combines aspirational ideals with tragic undercurrents.

The enemy of my enemy is not a trustworthy friend

History is more interesting with additional points of view, and that’s what The Daughters of Yalta accomplishes.

Written by Catherine Grace Katz, the book recounts the Yalta Conference from the perspectives of three eminent daughters: Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s favorite child; Anna Roosevelt, FDR’s daughter who was tasked with guarding the secret of the president’s ailing health; and Kathleen Harriman, daughter and most trusted confidante of U.S. ambassador Averell Harriman.

Their inclusion adds greater depth to the history, and Katz does an excellent job of getting inside everyone’s heads, fathers and daughters alike, to present the personal dimension. For example, we get a sense of how Winston was haunted by Europe’s failure to achieve a lasting peace after the previous World War.

The book also shows the friction within the U.S.-British-Soviet alliance, and how the Soviets were generating the bulk of that friction. The Americans and British were indeed swimming with sharks to defeat the Nazis (sharks who were previously allied with the Nazis, who of course could also be described as sharks themselves).

On one hand, the Soviets showed excessive hospitality at Yalta. Their guests’ most casual wishes were granted. Sarah Churchill mentioned how lemon would go nicely with the caviar she was eating, and wouldn’t you know it, a lemon tree appeared on the premises the next day.

But the wish-granting had a dark side. The Soviets were spying on the Americans and British. They planted non-metallic bugs and installed microphones to eavesdrop on their guests.

“They steered FDR toward their listening devices in the Livadia gardens by tidying certain garden paths, so he could manage them in his wheelchair, practically guaranteeing that they could follow his every move,” Katz writes.

Soviets would transcribe private conversations and report summaries to Stalin in advance of meetings.

The NKVD secret police were an ominous presence at the conference. Katz explains that they were “an elite force of terror under Stalin’s leadership. The agency became the secret police and assassination squad. It made the supposed enemies of the people, whether political dissidents or an entire ethnic minority, disappear.”

Kathy Harriman had already learned to be suspicious of the Soviet government, and she was not alone in her concerns. Working as a newspaper reporter in London, she was tasked with covering press conferences given by leaders of exiled European governments, such as those of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

“At these press conferences, the issue that raised the most immediate concern was not Nazi aggression, but rather Britain’s new alliance with the Soviet Union. The exiles were not pleased with the sudden rush of support for Stalin in Britain and the United States,” Katz writes.

“The exiled Polish leaders were particularly vocal. They argued that Stalin would look for any opportunity to seize Poland and install a de facto Soviet regime. Kathy believed them. Not until the late summer of 1944 would Averell realize that Kathy had been right to listen.”

Even before the conference, Kathy Harriman experienced the Soviets’ duplicity firsthand, though she didn’t realize it until later. She and several other journalists were invited to Katyn Forest in Russia to observe a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Polish soldiers.

What had actually happened was that the Soviets executed nearly 22,000 Polish citizens in 1939. This included “soldiers, intellectuals, and aristocrats — anyone who might have the means and desire to actively resist Soviet rule,” Katz writes. 

“With so many ‘enemies of the state’ in their clutches, the Soviet leaders realized they had a prime opportunity. They could begin liquidating the Polish ruling class, thus making it easier to control the country once the war was over.”

Stalin ordered the executions, and the Soviet agents tampered with the evidence to make it look like the Nazis committed the massacre. The Soviets then fooled the journalists, including the skeptical Kathy Harriman, into believing their innocence regarding this particular atrocity.

“The Nazis committed countless crimes against humanity … but the Katyn Forest massacre was one crime they did not commit,” Katz says.

She later adds, “No matter how much the British and the Americans abhorred the atrocities the Soviets committed, defeating the Nazis remained paramount.”

The Daughters of Yalta is an excellent, insightful book. I’ve provided only a glimpse of it. Read the whole the thing!

John Hancock, America’s first proto-president

Long ago, I was an assistant manager at a clothing store. For reasons that were never sufficiently explained, whenever I completed a refund transaction, I had to get the signature of one of the other employees—in addition to my own and the customer’s, resulting in a most impressive triple-signature document.

One day I asked a 21-year-old co-worker to sign one of those receipts, and she said, “All right, I’ll give you my John Hancock.” Then she stopped and thought for a moment, wondering aloud, “Why do they call a signature a John Hancock?”

John Hancock

I immediately responded, “John Hancock was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence, and he signed it really large.”

She laughed, clearly not expecting anyone to actually know such a thing. “OK, nerd.”

(And I didn’t even mention that the guy presided over the Continental Congress, or that he’s a character in the hit Broadway and motion picture musical 1776.)

My response—and, I believe, valid question—was, “But wait, who doesn’t know who John Hancock is?”

Naturally, this led to a poll among the other employees who happened to be there. To my dismay, only two others were familiar with the late Mr. Hancock. One was a friend of mine from William & Mary, thereby doing nothing to dispel the “nerd” allegation. In fact, that was the rebuttal: “Oh, well, you two went to the nerd school.”

So we were apparently disqualified. The other was a high school junior whose history class had only just covered the Revolutionary era.

The high school boy answered, “Oh! He signed his name big enough that the king could read it without his spectacles!” That may just be a myth, but close enough.

There were several others working that day, all in the teens through 20s range. None of them had the slightest clue who the man was, and they were all astonished that anyone would know this seemingly random piece of trivia.

I may have been ahead of the curve by knowing an entire thing or two about Hancock, but I didn’t know nearly enough.

Recently, I read a full biography on the man in question, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger (2000). Turns out, Hancock is much more than a signature. He was an important figure leading up to the American Revolution, and as president of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777, he was essentially the first chief executive as the colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence—in a sense, the first proto-president of the United States of America.

According to Unger, what made Hancock indispensable as the Continental Congress’s president was his skill as a moderator, which he honed at Boston town meetings, in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and at the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

“In all three, he had often reconciled Tories with Whigs, radicals with conservatives, and rural interests with urban interests. Congress elected John Hancock unanimously. He considered his election as president of Congress the greatest honor of his life,” Unger writes.

Impartiality was vital to his role as president, and his neutrality earned him the respect of the delegates.

Unger says, “He was the perfect president, with some appeal to all factions but favoritism to none. He understood everyone’s point of view. His experience as moderator and legislator appealed to moderates; his wealth, business position, and education appealed to conservatives; and his defiance of British authority in Boston appealed to radicals. And what appealed to all was his vast experience directing a large organization, namely the House of Hancock.”

Unger emphasizes the importance of Hancock’s broad appeal, as the states were anything but united before the Declaration.

Additionally, after the delegates voted on each matter, the task of executing fell to the president, as did the responsibility of communicating with the leaders of each colony.

Hancock had to “supervise the acquisition, collection, and shipment of money, arms, and ammunition that Congress approved for transfer to the army. Congress legislated, but President Hancock executed,” Unger writes.

Also, Hancock’s wasn’t merely the first signature on the Declaration of Independence. For about a month, his signature was the only one on the document, and “it constituted tangible evidence of treason that would have cost him his life if he had been captured,” Unger says.

One of his final accomplishments as president was helping guide the Articles of Confederation to adoption. Though far from perfect (as we now know with our historical hindsight), the Articles were a necessary stopgap measure at the time.

“His imminent departure evidently forced delegates to recognize how important his mediative skills had been in holding Congress together. Without him, many delegates would have deserted and shattered the unity essential to effective prosecution of the war. In his absence they would need a contract to bind them together,” Unger says.

So that’s a little more about Hancock, and that’s still just a glimpse of the man behind the signature. Read Unger’s book for a more thorough portrait.

Lincoln and empathy

A. Lincoln has a great little anecdote. In the grand scheme of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it’s hardly more than a footnote, and it takes up less than a page in the paperback edition.

Early in his career, Lincoln ridiculed an opponent and felt bad about it.

It really shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given how nasty people can get toward each other when arguing online, it’s worth highlighting.

According to Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln, then 31, was campaigning for William Henry Harrison and speaking against Martin Van Buren during the 1840 presidential election. That summer, a young Democratic politician named Jesse Thomas criticized Lincoln at a debate.

The criticism angered Lincoln. Though not initially present, once he got word Lincoln made his way there and was given time to respond, and he attacked back. “His attack quickly moved beyond the content of Thomas’s remarks,” White writes.

Lincoln resorted to imitating Thomas’s voice, gestures, and walk, making a caricature out of the man. And the crowd loved it. Their cheers fueled Lincoln’s mockery of his opponent, at the time blinding him to the pain he was causing Thomas.

Thomas eventually fled the scene in tears, and the incident became known as “the skinning of Thomas.”

“Lincoln was mortified,” White writes. “Sometime later he found Thomas and offered an apology. The young Lincoln, the man who prized reasonableness, struggled to control his emotions when he felt he was wronged.”

Lincoln succumbed to the heat of the moment and took things too far. The impulse to fight back is an understandable one, but he erred in how he did so. 

The important thing, though, is that he realized his error and learned from it. After ridiculing Thomas, Lincoln put himself in his opponent’s head, remembered his humanity, and acknowledged the pain he caused. This helped him steer clear of such immature, hurtful attacks later on in his career, which might very well have done more harm than good by undermining the causes he fought for.

It’s worth remembering whenever someone on the internet says the “wrong” thing.

Where no one had gone before

I recently watched and enjoyed For All Mankind on Apple TV. The series presents an alternate history in which Soviet cosmonauts landed on the moon before American astronauts. The first season is excellent; the second is a mixed bag, but at times excellent.

The series got me curious about the actual history of the space program, so I picked up Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger (2017).

Though the Apollo 8 mission is the centerpiece of the book, Kluger also recounts the history of the U.S. space program leading up to the first lunar flight, and he spends time getting to know Apollo 8’s crew: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Kluger does so in a clear, narrative form, even throwing in some dialogue to bring the scenes to life.

The book goes into gritty detail about how challenging and claustrophobic space travel can be—the constant danger, the cramped quarters, the stale air, the utter lack of privacy, and the absence of proper restroom facilities and the resulting indignities. At first glance, biological necessities do suck much of the romance out of exploration, but such details help illustrate what a tremendous, aspirational feat this whole mission was, with an abundance of courage, effort, intelligence, ingenuity, humility, and competence needed to make this voyage happen.

NASA achieved something unprecedented by sending three people far enough into space to view the entire Earth as a single, whole entity. Previous astronauts and cosmonauts had seen the Earth from space, but never so completely.

Kluger writes, “Now, however, Borman, Lovell, and Anders could see the planet floating alone, unsupported, in space. The Earth was no longer the soil beneath their feet or the horizon below their spacecraft. It was an almost complete disk of light suspended in front of them, a delicate Christmas tree ornament made of swirls of blue and white glass. It looked impossibly beautiful—and impossibly breakable.”

The mission occurred in the context of the Cold War, and competition between the United States and Soviet Union provided a motivating factor. But it seems to have quickly become about much more than trying to one-up a rival power.

Ultimately, Apollo 8 became an achievement for humanity, one that tapped into a shared thirst for exploration and discovery. The 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon’s orbit brought together the then-largest audience to view a single broadcast. Never had so few been heard by so many. For that matter, never had anyone been heard by so many. Interest in this mission united people from varying countries, backgrounds, and beliefs. Men were flying around the moon, and it was amazing.

The crew chose to read a Bible passage during the broadcast, one from Genesis. I appreciate the choice, not so much for the religious context, but just the idea of reading an ancient text while doing something that had never been done before. When the Genesis story was first written down, the idea of sending people into the heavens was nothing but a distant fantasy, utterly unobtainable.

But what was once impossible is now part of history.

After the flight, Borman predicted that scientists would someday station themselves on the moon, like they do in Antarctica. “I’m convinced it is no longer whether we’ll do these things, it’s a question of how long it will take and how much we’ll spend,” he said. “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit, and I hope we will never forget that.”

Outside of fictional TV shows, that moon base clearly hasn’t come to pass … so far.

Judging Washington in context

Henry Wiencek shows us the right way to judge historical figures in his book, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2004).

Wiencek examines how George Washington’s views on slavery evolved throughout the course of his life. As a young, ambitious man, Washington uncritically accepted slavery, but at the end of his life, he amended his will to free all his slaves and provide for the younger ones’ education. In between, he gradually acquired scruples about slavery, such as when he realized that perhaps it was wrong to split up families when selling slaves.

The author doesn’t let Washington off the hook for participating in such an evil system. For example, Washington was once callous enough to raffle off slaves as prizes, and Wiencek doesn’t shy away from informing his readers about it. But he also gives credit where credit is due, painting a three-dimensional portrait of “a man of his time and ahead of his time,” as the jacket blurb in my edition describes Washington.

Washington never evolved on the issue as much as we would have liked him to. He was quite possibly the one man in America with the moral authority to provide real leadership and make real headway in ending slavery, but he failed to do so. Nevertheless, he increasingly questioned his own beliefs even as his own family remained firmly pro-slavery, which was a feat in its own right.

Read these books back to back.

In the introduction, Wiencek starts at the end, with Washington’s decision to free his slaves. The author writes:

“It was an astounding decision. As he sat in his study—a room that one visitor called ‘the focus of political intelligence for the new world’—Washington felt the isolation of the man who can see what others cannot or will not. He was a man who had discovered that his moral system was wrong. He had helped to create a new world but had allowed into it an infection that he feared would eventually destroy it.”

Throughout the book, Wiencek illustrates how degrading, inhumane, and brutal slavery was, and he explores the culture surrounding the horrible institution. He mentions one slaveowner, Robert “King” Carter, who would have his overseers cut off slaves’ toes so they wouldn’t run away—a practice that received the blessing of the law in 1705.

We all understand that slavery was a historical atrocity. An Imperfect God helps show us how it was an atrocity. At the same time, the book, through Washington, foreshadows young America’s ability to improve.

Coincidentally, not long after I read this book, I read Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the history and the historical fiction was stark indeed, revealing how the novel sanitizes slavery to an offensive degree. 

As a novel, Gone with the Wind is brilliant. As historical fiction, it’s fiction. The novel depicts an idealized version of the antebellum South, as well as the destruction of that idealized world. That makes for a great story, but we have to take it for what it is—an entirely fictitious story set in an alternate reality.

I likely would have reached similar conclusions even without having read Wiencek’s book. But fortunately, I did read the nonfiction first, and it enriched my experience reading Gone with the Wind

To those who haven’t already read them, I recommend both books—but start with the actual history.

Lenin’s red flag

Vladimir Lenin was the sort of person who should never, ever have been given any power. His ruthlessness during the Russian Revolution makes that clear, but he foreshadowed his cold-blooded disregard for human life much earlier.

In 1891-92, Russia’s Volga region experienced its worst famine in many years. According to Victor Sebestyen in his biography Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror, more than 400,000 people died over the course of the famine, either starving to death or contracting typhus or cholera.


“The central government did almost nothing to help the millions of starving peasants who poured into the towns begging for food,” Sebestyen writes.

This was, of course, not yet Lenin’s government. (And he wasn’t yet calling himself Lenin, but I’ll use that name here for simplicity’s sake.) Nevertheless, as a private individual, Lenin showed no sympathy for the famine’s victims. Relief campaigns were launched, but he had no interest in such efforts.

“For him the important thing was that the famine would weaken the autocracy and might further the cause of the Revolution. The thousands of people who died of hunger were simply unfortunate casualties of a war against Tsarist oppression,” Sebestyen writes.

Lenin was pretty much alone in this line of thinking. His callousness disturbed even his sisters, who were normally supportive of him.

His sister Maria is quoted as saying, “Vladimir Ilyich, it seems to me, had a very different nature from Alexander Ilyich [their late brother]. Vladimir … did not have the quality of self-sacrifice even though he devoted his whole life indivisibly to the cause of the working class.”

Sebestyen says, “He would shrug off accusations that he was inhumane, using an inflexible logic and a cold interpretation of Marxism which Marx himself would never have countenanced.”

He goes on to quote Lenin as saying, “It’s sentimentality to think that a sea of need could be emptied with the teaspoon of philanthropy. The famine … played the role of a progressive factor.”

After Lenin gained power, another food shortage occurred in 1918. The Bolsheviks didn’t cause the problem, but they, led by Lenin, amplified the pain and suffering.

Sebestyen notes that there were very few rich peasants in Russia at the time, but that didn’t stop Lenin from using them as scapegoats. The dictator branded rich peasants as “kulaks” and accused them of hoarding grain and starving Russia on purpose.

“The kulaks are the rabid foes of the Soviet government … these bloodsuckers have grown rich on the hunger of the people. These spiders have grown fat out of the workers. These leeches have sucked the blood of the working people and grown richer as the workers in the cities have starved. Ruthless war on the kulaks! Death to all of them,” Lenin said in a speech.

Lenin first expected the peasants to sell their grains to the government at an insultingly low price. The peasants, naturally, refused. So, Lenin established the Food Commissariat and unleashed armed requisition brigades on more than 20,000 villages within a couple of months.

As Sebestyen describes it, the brigades engaged in brutality—torturing peasants, stripping them, sometimes even killing them. One Bolshevik official compared the brigades’ work to “a medieval inquisition.”

Some Bolsheviks worried that the brigades were too harsh, to the detriment of the party’s reputation. Lenin did not relent.

Lenin’s instructions to Bolshevik chiefs illustrate a toxic combination of heartlessness and ruthlessness:

“Comrades, the kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity. The interests of the whole Revolution demand it, for the final and decisive battle with the kulaks everywhere is now engaged. An example must be made. 1.) Hang (and I mean hang, so the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2.) Publish their names. 3.) Identify hostages … Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know, and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks.” 

In a postscript, Lenin added, “Find tougher people.”

According to Sebestyen, at least 3,700 were killed during the first year of food requisitions, and some villages were burned down. These extreme measures had little effect on the overall problem, and yet they set a terrible precedent.

He writes that “campaigns against the kulaks and forcing farmers at gunpoint to produce for the State became a feature of Soviet life for decades to come.”

Anyone who perceives utility in human suffering can’t be trusted to wield power with the necessary humility and compassion. Whatever good intentions Lenin may have had for Russia’s future, he quickly invalidated them with his willingness to dispose of people for his ideological cause.

In hindsight, the warning signs were there years before his ascension.