Book Reviews

Have you ever wondered about the women who ran the households of the Founding Fathers while they Declared Independence, fought the Revolutionary War, drafted and ratified the Constitution, and then governed the fledgling United States?

We know quite a bit about Abigail Adams, in large part because of the vibrant letters she and husband John wrote each other—letters that include Abigail’s famous admonition to “…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”  (John responded, ”As to [her] extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.” Those Founding Fathers were indeed a product of their times!)

But Abigail Adams is the exception.  More often, modern efforts to construct narratives about these women founder because of the lack of contemporary evidence.

Martha Washington destroyed the letters she and George wrote to each other.  James and Dolley Madison wrote few letters because they spent little time apart.  One summary of biographical information about Alexander Hamilton’s wife admits, “[m]ost of the information on Elizabeth Hamilton must be gleaned from biographies written about her husband.”

Similarly, little beyond the essential facts is known of Martha Jefferson. Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson who is now generally acknowledged to have borne 6 children by him in the years after Martha’s death, has garnered more attention, and fictionalized accounts have sought to pierce the dual curtains of race and gender.

The late sociologist Elise Boulding referred to the silence of the historical record about women as the “underside” of history.  Boulding contended that women have always been equal actors on the stage of history but that the record of our parts routinely evaporated when the script was eventually written down.  We are left with a partial story, a play with half of the lines missing.

A More Obedient Wife by Natalie Wexler is a wonderful endeavor to fill in a few of these lines.

After clerking for Justice Byron White (full disclosure: she passed off the baton of “female clerk in the chambers” to me in mid-1985), Wexler worked at the Supreme Court Historical Society on a Documentary History of the early Supreme Court.  While there, she came across letters written by Justices James Wilson and James Iredell of the first Supreme Court and by their wives, Hannah Iredell and Hannah Wilson.

James Wilson of Pennsylvania, in addition to being one of the first Justices, signed the Declaration of Independence, was an active participant at the Constitutional Convention, and gave a speech in the ratification process that is widely regarded as being at least as influential at the time as The Federalist Papers.

James Iredell of North Carolina, though not a participant in the essential events of the Founding, was an early Patriot who strongly supported the Constitution and served on the Supreme Court even before North Carolina’s ratification became effective (it did so only with the adoption of the Bill of Rights).  On the Court, his solo dissent in Chisholm v. Georgia formed the basis for the Eleventh Amendment.

Wexler became interested in writing biographies of Hannah Wilson and Hannah Iredell, but she realized that it wasn’t possible: “There simply isn’t enough information to work from; women’s lives weren’t considered important enough to document in detail.”  Instead, she wrote a novel that weaves together excerpts from actual letters and fictionalized accounts based on historical research.  The result is a vivid and grounded picture of the early Supreme Court and its social context.

Yellow fever in bustling Philadelphia; land speculation of the “frontier” on a scale that makes Wall Street today look timid; slavery in everyday life; debtor’s prisons; frequent pregnancies and fatal childhood diseases; early travelling requirements and conditions for the judicial circuits; current afflictions such as alcoholism and agoraphobia as seen through 18th-century eyes; the arranged marriage of the Iredells and the infatuation of the Wilsons—all of these bring to life the Supreme Court (and the United States) in its infancy.

When I suggested to my book group here in Omaha that we read A More Obedient Wife, I could tell that they were humoring me in selecting it: How interesting could a book about the early Supreme Court be!?

When we met last week, however, the verdict of this group of mostly non-lawyers was that Wexler’s book was a great read as well as a window into an unfamiliar part of history!

More than that, it provides a perspective on important historical events that too often goes missing—the perspective of and from the underside.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

I like to go into book stores every once in a while and walk around, glance over titles, perhaps read a page or two. But I always come across that shelf full of old classics like Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights and feel a little ashamed for having not read the majority of them. I mean, these are classics for a reason. They have been analyzed, criticized and immortalized for decades and yet I can’t find a few hours out of my day to sit down and appreciate these works of art? Thankfully they’re also assigned readings in most college level Lit classes.

So last semester I had the chance to read The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s first and only novel. This was written in 1891 and, seeing how Wilde was an Englishman, I was thinking it was going to be written in that thick, almost indecipherable language of the time. (Have you ever read some of Poe’s earlier work? I can go pages without understanding a single thing of what’s going on.) Instead it was written in a pretty straight forward, almost minimalist prose that was intelligent and yet easy to read.

Wilde was a bit of a dandy back in the day and his characters, seemingly reflections of himself, are all privileged Englishmen with nothing better to do than sit around painting all day, going to the opera in the evening and then clubbing at night. It reads a lot like a Bret Ellis novel: rich kids dabbling in drugs and murder with homoerotic undertones thrown in for good measure.

The novel is about Dorian, an impressionable boy with a beautiful face that is captured perfectly in a painting by Basil, a painter that falls in love with his muse.

He paints a portrait of Dorian that takes on all the physical wear and tear of the hedonistic life style the boy leads while Dorian’s own visage remains untouched by father time or mother nature. A twisted and ugly scowl appears in place of the peaceful expression, a supernatural transformation that Dorian keeps secret out of shame as much as fear.

The one influencing Dorian’s carefree way of living is Basil’s friend, Lord Henry, a connoisseur of art whose dialogue is full of aphorisms and immoral theories. It’s Henry’s personal views that make the novel so memorable. I can imagine the things he says being quite taboo in those days (the novel was originally banned in England before Wilde did a re-write and censored much of the language).

Still, the ideas are as fresh today as they were 120 years ago. Quips like “To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul” and “I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects” are rich with nihilism and realism and make for a good read. (A quick one, too, considering it’s under 200 pages.) As for the twist ending, I won’t ruin it for you. That’s what cliff notes are for.


This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America
By Ryan Grim • John Wiley & Sons, Inc. • 2009/2010 • $24.95 hardcover; $15.95 paperback • 272 pages

Americans really like to get high, and they’ll go out of their way to do so even when the government threatens to punish them.

That’s the theme that comes through strongest in Ryan Grim’s This Is Your Country On Drugs, a look at the relationship among Americans, the drugs they use, and their government.

The author, a relatively young man, isn’t shy about his own history of casually using and enjoying drugs, particularly hallucinogens. He discovered in the early 2000s that LSD was nowhere to be found—not only could he not find any for himself but statistics showed acid use was down in general.

Investigating further, Grim found that several factors had come together to make LSD unavailable. One was a success in the war on drugs: The DEA nabbed a longtime leading supplier, Harvard graduate William Leonard Pickard. Surprisingly (or not), another major factor was the breakdown of the LSD distribution system after the Grateful Dead disbanded, the band Phish stopped touring, and the groups’ concerts could no longer serve as major trading venues.

With LSD mostly gone, Americans didn’t stop seeking mind-altering experiences. They just turned to other substances that weren’t illegal, such as the herb salvia (still legal and readily available in most states), which offered even more intense trips.

Grim shows that this sort of thing has happened many times in U.S. history, both before and after drug prohibition began with the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. One drug goes out, others come in. In the 1980s, for example, the Reagan administration decided to focus on fighting marijuana. That made pot expensive, so people switched to other drugs, including crack—a substance that might never have been invented but for Reagan’s antidrug policies.

The book also shows how government’s attempts to discourage drug use through propaganda often fail.

For example, in one chapter Grim considers the government’s D.A.R.E. program, in which police visit schools to teach students about drugs, and reports (as have others, including the Government Accountability Office and Surgeon General’s office) that the program has been a failure. Children who go through it tend to use drugs more than other children because the education makes them less afraid. Yet the program persists because it’s popular—with police and with parents who are relieved of the burden of talking to their kids about drugs themselves.

Anti-marijuana ad campaigns that have cost taxpayers more than $1.5 billion since 1998 also failed to produce any decline in minors’ drug use. Eventually marijuana use did drop, but not because of the ads; rather, kids began participating in more structured after-school activities and doing more of their socializing online. They didn’t stop using drugs, though. They just started taking illicitly obtained prescription pills instead.

Other chapters consider such topics as the harmful effects of the drug war on people in other countries and the relationship between the drug war and U.S. foreign policy. There are also detailed examinations of Americans’ history of using amphetamines and cocaine. And Grim looks at drug prohibition’s unsavory origins. For example, he shows how DuPont helped push marijuana prohibition to eliminate hemp as a competitor to its synthetic products, and he explores the role of bigotry against blacks and immigrants in the move toward prohibition.

All these chapters don’t really fit together neatly; Grim goes from one topic to the next without much transition. And he doesn’t explicitly push any public policy conclusions.

But his main themes come through clearly. One is, again, that Americans like to get high. Another is that what we’ve been told in propaganda from Reefer Madness to “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” ads isn’t quite true—doing drugs might not be a good idea, but most drug users don’t become crazed addicts. Another theme is that the war on drugs hurts a lot of people, from would-be medical-marijuana users, to poor South American coca growers, to the many young black men in prison.

The book is not a comprehensive guide to the evils of the drug war—things are actually worse than Grim suggests—but for people looking for a highly readable look at America’s relationship with drugs, This Is Your Country On Drugs is a good place to start. That’s true even if, like me (but unlike the author and millions of our fellow Americans), they would never do drugs themselves.

This book review first appeared in the December 2010 issue of The Freeman.



The Conservative Assault, by Erwin Chemerinsky


One of the CockleBur contributors, Erwin Chemerinsky, is releasing a new book entitled, The Conservative Assault On The Constitution (Simon & Schuster, October 2010).  Below is the Amazon book review.  To order the book, click here.

“Over the last few decades, the Supreme Court and the federal appellate courts have undergone a dramatic shift to the right, the result of a determined effort by right-wing lawmakers and presidents to reinterpret the Constitution by reshaping the judiciary. Conservative activist justices have narrowed the scope of the Constitution, denying its protections to millions of Americans, exactly as the lawmakers who appointed and confirmed these jurists intended. Basic long-standing principles of constitutional law have been overturned by the Rehnquist and Roberts courts. As distinguished law professor and constitutional expert Erwin Chemerinsky demonstrates in this invaluable book, these changes affect the lives of every American.”

Here is what others are saying:

“Erwin Chemerinsky knows the Constitution as a legal scholar and the Supreme Court as a lawyer who represents clients there. It’s a rare and powerful combination that makes him uniquely qualified to write this disturbing and persuasive book about the impact of the current Supreme Court’s approach to constitutional interpretation.”

     Linda Greenhouse,  former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent

“Our Constitution depends on the courts to keep it alive; we all depend on Erwin Chemerinsky to remind us why that is so important. This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about preserving our constitutional birthright.”

     Susan N. Herman, President, American Civil Liberties Union