Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Joint Musings: Lions of the West Epilogue - John Quincy Adams

Lions of the West
 A couple of months ago, Kari from Five Borough Books asked me to read Lions of the West:  Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion with her and participate in a blog discussion about the book.  I jumped at the chance, not only because I wanted to get even more in-depth on this historical era, but also because Kari is really pretty awesome. 

Lions of the West presents short biographies of eight men who were integral to the process of America expanding west across the North American continent.  Kari and I chose to discuss each man in-dept over the course of a few weeks.  We started the discussion here with the chapter on Thomas Jefferson.  Below is our discussion of the book's epilogue and final thoughts about the book as a whole.   Hopefully, it piques your interest enough to delve more into American history and understand the complex relationships that existed, and continue to exist, between so many different cultures.

For links to every discussion we have had on this book, please see my "Books Reviewed by Title" tab.

John Quincy Adams:  Old Man Eloquent

Aarti:  I was really surprised by this biography being the epilogue of the book.  The whole way through, Morgan describes the inevitable westward spread of America and makes clear to us that this is what the people wanted.  And then, in the epilogue, he basically said, “Oh, just kidding!  There was a big contingent of people who did not want us to spread west” and then presents the argument against it.  I did find it interesting the way that westward expansion butted up against the debate on slavery.  I didn’t realize the two were tied so closely together, but it does make sense.  I loved that Adams was against westward expansion because he didn’t want to keep delaying the slavery question and just wanted to abolish the institution.

I think this is an important point of tension that is often missed when we discuss American history because it’s such a touchy subject.  I knew that every new state added in the south had to be balanced by a state added in the north to ensure that the numbers were even and no one side could overbalance the other.  But I didn’t realize just how encroaching slavery had become, and I’m glad this epilogue put that into perspective, though I would have preferred to see it woven through the whole book rather than just tacked on at the end.  There is such a string of racism throughout Westward expansion, of whites thinking they were better than the Native Americans, and that they were better than the Mexicans, and that they had a God-given right to the entire continent.  I think this epilogue on Adams was the only place where this really was acknowledged in this book.

Kari:  I actually remembered this from American History in high school! I knew that western expansion pushed right up against the Civil War, so the issue of slavery had been boiling. However, I have to question the motivations of the separate sides. Issues of morality aside (yes, slavery was horrible, but I don’t want to speak on the ethics of the issue right now), slavery was also a symbol of opposing ways of life between the north and the south. And as we spoke in the Trist chapter about the nation’s founders and those who followed their beliefs opposing a new type of country run by “schemers, con men, and salesmen,” that’s what they feared would come if the south and its way of life would take over the country. I’m sort of conflicted in my own analysis of this;  obviously the north (and the ideals of Trist and Jefferson and Madison) did win the war which clearly altered the path of the country, but the country also eventually developed in a way that Trist and others would have opposed to—a country where any man can succeed. That sounds very confusing, but I just wonder what the opinions and allegiances of these people would have been after the Civil War.

Aarti:  Hmm, and I wonder if the South had won, and the whole “gentleman farmer” ideal had continued onward, if we would have been a very different country than the one we did become.  I don’t know if Trist and the others were against any person succeeding, exactly- but I do think they had a much more idealized view of how people would succeed than the one that actually came about.

Kari:  Yes, I think you’re right about the success factor. And I think it’s like you stated earlier in the Trist chapter that it doesn’t seem like America ended up living up to the expectations of its founders. Or at least, it developed down a different path than the one they intended.

What struck me the most about Adams was how methodical and regimented he was. Do you remember Morgan’s quick overview of his daily schedule? He’d wake up before 5, exercise for 2 hours, read and write until breakfast, then work from 9 to 5. He attended church twice on Sunday, read the Bible at least once a year, often in another language. I read things like this and think, where did they find the time for all this? The amount of knowledge absorbed by persons like Adams is astounding. (Trist was similar in his studies with Jefferson.) And then I realized they had far fewer distractions, mostly of an electronic nature, that keep us, in the modern world, busy and entertained. That doesn’t really have too much to do with the west, but it was just interesting!

Aarti:  I don’t know if they didn’t have other distractions, really.  I mean, Adams also had a lot of servants- he didn’t have to cook his own meals or clean his house or wash his clothes.  He didn’t have a 1.5 hour commute to and from work.  In some ways he had a lot more spare time.  It’s funny- I saw the same things you did in that portion of the chapter, but what stood out to me was that he only worked from 9 to 5.  Granted, that is probably not true (I assume he worked longer hours than that), but I just don’t know anyone in this country that has ever had a full-time job that was only 9 to 5.

Kari:  Ha, well I must be one of the lucky ones, because I say, “Peace out,” to my desk at 5 on the dot! (Sidenote: when do you think it developed in society that working hours were “9 to 5”? I also noticed how that was specified in this chapter and thought it a little odd for the time period and the title. I mean, he wasn’t some marketing manager, he was President. I assume that is a full-time job!)

I think Adams represented the last of “Old World” America. He was the last to hold on to the ideas of America’s founders (and people like Trist), and he made decisions based on fear of what the country would become should it continue expansion. He saw the issue of slavery as integral in dealing with this division, and he was right; it could’ve been dealt with earlier. But as we’ve learned, America is a country obsessed with commerce, and also an easily distracted one. I liked how Morgan pointed out the moments of distraction in American history that just diverted focus from the major issue needing attention.

Aarti:  Yes, I think Morgan somewhat redeemed himself in my eyes in this epilogue :-)

Concluding Thoughts

Kari:  As I mentioned in a comment to a post earlier, I am glad that I read this book with a reading partner! Having someone to discuss it with really deepened my analysis. We’ve noted how much bias Morgan has interjected in his writing, but when parts of this book got slow in reading—and parts did get slow—I’m afraid that had I been reading it alone, I would’ve gotten lazy and just started taking his words at face value. I think any nonfiction, and especially history, needs to be read with an awareness of the voice and perspective of the author. So much interpretation is dependent on perspective that it is hard to get a full story from just one voice.

Aarti:  I am SO GLAD we read this together, too!  You really grounded my thinking sometimes when I was ready to be very judgmental, and I appreciate that :-)  And I, too, probably would have given up on the book (I kind of did, if I am honest about the amount of skimming I did) and missed out on reading the epilogue, which was so illuminating to me!

I agree that this book makes so clear that one perspective on history is really not enough to go on.  I think Morgan made his biases much more obvious than other authors, but it’s important to note going into everything that events can be interpreted and misinterpreted and reinterpreted in so many ways by different people.

Kari:  I did enjoy this book, despite having some issues with the way the author often took things. To be honest, I don’t care to read anything about the Mexican War because he dumped that on us SO OFTEN that I am tired of reading about it! I think Morgan could have edited some chapters a bit. The Polk one, in particular, got a little ridiculous with its actual lack of focus on Polk. Overall, the biggest thing I found lacking from this book was the broader picture. Morgan focuses so highly on these nine people—and I understand that was his point—but with little context as to the mentality of the rest of the country. When did western expansion fever hit? What kinds of people were for or against it? What was public opinion about Indians or Mexicans or any of the wars in which these individuals were involved? There are many topics I’d like to explore further after reading this, but many I can leave behind as well.

Aarti:  Yes, that bothered me, too.  We never got an over-reaching idea of westward expansion and its effects on America.  We just got a whole lot of Mexican War.  I don’t think the book delivers on its stated premise/promise, which really bothered me a lot.  I also think it was far too biased for me to take it as fact.  But it did make more clear to me that America has a lot to answer for, historically, that we are not taught in school.  And it did reignite my interest in Native American history, which I appreciate.  But I think there was so much more that Morgan could have done with this that he did not, and that left me ultimately disappointed.


  1. I should read more books by this but..(I would be bored ;)

  2. I found that while reading Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States that he was extremely biased in his thinking and writing, and I wonder silently to myself after reading this post: how much do authors of this type of book really get set on their own ideas and concepts versus what the book promises to present. It sounds like parts of this book were fascinating, but other parts were clearly written with an authorial slant. In the end, this is a book that I would probably enjoy picking through, but not fully reading.

    Great job, you two!

  3. I loved this discussion between the two of you. As a person with a history degree I am ashamed that I don't know more about this time period and topic in US History. I'll definitely add this one to my list.


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