A major reason that I began writing a blog in 2011 was to discuss writing — specifically, my plans and ruminations for carving out a writing career, modest though it may be. Accordingly, I want to talk about my writing plans for 2017. I have two works in the pipeline.
Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History
I am completing a book on political assassinations throughout American history for Carrel Books, an imprint of New York-based Skyhorse. Titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, the work is slated for publication in August 2017. As of this writing, I am approximately two months away from completing the manuscript.
As I discuss in the book, violence has been employed to achieve political objectives throughout world history. Taking the life of a perceived enemy is as old as mankind. Antiquity is filled with examples of political murders, such as when Julius Caesar was felled by assassins in 44 BCE. Thus, while assassinations and assassination attempts are not unique to the American way of life, denizens of other nations sometimes look upon the US as populated by reckless cowboys owing to a “Wild West” attitude about violence, especially episodes involving guns. In this book, I focus on assassinations and attempts in the American republic. Nine American presidents — Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan — have been the targets of assassins who did more than merely plan an attack. They acted. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was also a target shortly before he was sworn into office in 1933. Moreover, three presidential candidates — Theodore Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, and George C. Wallace — were shot by assailants. In addition to presidents and candidates for the presidency, eight governors, seven U.S. senators, nine U.S. House members, eleven mayors, seventeen state legislators, and eleven judges have been victims of political violence. Yet not all political assassinations involve elected officials. Some of those targeted, such as Joseph Smith, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., were public figures who influenced political issues. But their cases are instructive because of their connection to, and influence on, the political process. No other nation with a population of over 50 million people has witnessed as many political assassinations or attempts. Why has the United States — a country constructed on a bedrock of the rule of law and firmly committed to due process — been so susceptible to political violence? I address this and other questions as I examine twenty-five instances of violence against elected officials and public figures in American history.
I have another book in the proposal stage. The working title is Congressional Lions: Influential Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History. I intend to begin researching and writing the text after I complete Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History.
Readers who wish to understand major episodes in American “Whig” political history can draw upon a rich body of literature on virtually every influential leader and event since the colonial era. Presidents of the United States, in particular, have received enormous scrutiny and attention. Scores of biographies of the nation’s most famous presidents line the shelves of bookstores and libraries — notably tomes on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.
It is little wonder that American historians and political scientists emphasize presidents and their administrations. Because public attention often focuses on the words and deeds of the men who serve as the chief magistrate, researchers and writers find a ready-made audience for their works. Moreover, the actions and reactions of a single executive appear tailor-made for a narrative exploration. In a world where complex events can be traced to multiple causes and competing historical interpretations, focusing on the actions of a single individual and his close group of advisers appears to create order out of chaos.
Yet presidents, even the great ones, do not act in a power vacuum. The American system of government requires the three theoretically coequal branches to share power. In some instances, members of the legislative branch have been as influential, or more influential, than a particular president in crafting public policy and reacting to world events. Nonetheless, the contributions of political actors in the legislative arena seldom receive the same level of attention and appreciation as the presidents who serve as their contemporaries.
To rectify this historical oversight, at least partially, this book will examine influential members of Congress throughout American history to understand their role in shaping the life of the nation. In some sense, designating a specific number of members of Congress — in this case, 38 individuals — as worthy of inclusion in the book is somewhat arbitrary. A case can be made for delving the lives and influence of, say, 10 congressional stalwarts or, alternatively, casting a wider net to include 50, 75, or 100 legislators. With 38, however, the number appears large enough to discuss a wide array of figures across the broad expanse of American history and yet small enough to provide crucial details about a subject’s political influence.
This type of book can be organized in several ways. The most obvious and probably least helpful method would be to divide the chapters into a strict chronological listing, but such an approach does not allow for an effective comparison among and between figures. Institutional conditions and the recipe for success can vary widely over time. Another possible approach would be to discuss legislators according to their leadership styles — autocratic, participative, transformational, transactional, and the like. Aside from the problem of characterizing leaders that sometimes rely on more than one style, this work is not first and foremost a study of leadership, although such issues will be discussed, as appropriate. Rather, the book seeks to understand how and why certain members of Congress stood out from the crowd and helped shape the nation through public service. In some instances, a member’s leadership style or use of institutional power played a pivotal role in his or her success. In other cases, the historic symbolism of a member’s congressional service was crucial.
Instead of providing a strict chronological listing or a critique of leadership styles, the book is organized into three distinct sections: trailblazing legislators, influential leaders, and congressional “firsts.” In Part I, trailblazing legislators were those members of Congress who sponsored or championed legislation that fundamentally affected the lives of Americans for years to come. Carter Glass, for example, is not a household name, but he greatly influenced the development of American fiscal policy. He was the principal architect of the Glass-Owen Federal Reserve Act of 1913, creating the Federal Reserve System. He also co-sponsored the U.S. Banking Act of 1933, commonly known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated the activities of banks and securities firms.
Trailblazing legislators need not be progressive champions. Some pioneering legislative achievements were targets of fierce criticism, but they nonetheless represented important, albeit controversial congressional milestones. Consequently, Stephen A. Douglas, author of the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act, is included in the book even if the statute he authored ultimately proved to be a major precursor to the U.S. Civil War. Glass, Douglas, and the 12 other trailblazing members of Congress discussed in Part I altered the lives of Americans for generations and forever affected the history of the republic.
Part II covers effective congressional leaders — Speakers of the House of Representatives as well as majority and minority leaders in both chambers. These figures were not always associated with landmark legislative achievements, but they used their leadership positions to shape the policy agenda. Their influence on the institution, for better or worse, significantly altered the trajectory of American politics and government. Examples include Thomas B. Reed and Joseph G. Cannon, two powerful House Speakers whose legacies were mixed, but who undeniably exercised enormous institutional power and control.
Part III highlights figures that did not always enjoy longevity in office or sponsor significant legislative initiatives, but they became important symbols of diversity and inclusiveness in the U.S. Congress. Hiram Rhodes Revel was the first black man elected to Congress during Reconstruction, and Oscar De Priest was the first black man elected to Congress in the post-Reconstruction epoch. Jeanette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. Gerry Studds was the first openly gay member of Congress. Whatever their successes or failures as legislators, the members of Congress discussed in Part III influenced the history of the nation by virtue of their service.
The selection of a specific figure was not influenced by a figure’s party affiliation or political ideology. Some members of Congress were obvious choices. Henry Clay, the legendary nineteenth century statesman and four-time presidential candidate, served as a congressman, senator, and secretary of state during a public career that spanned from 1806 to 1852. His unparalleled negotiating skills helped to forestall secession and civil war on more than one occasion. No less an icon than Abraham Lincoln said that Clay was a preeminent figure in the American political pantheon owing to “a power and influence which belonged to no other statesman of his age and times.” Similarly, Clay’s contemporaries in the so-called “Great Triumvirate,” Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, were political giants of their epoch. No book on influential members of Congress could fail to include these seminal figures.
In most instances, the men and women who will be included in this book towered above their legislative colleagues. The Radical Republicans of the 1860s — Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin Wade, and Charles Sumner — if not quite as successful as the Great Triumvirate, nevertheless left an indelible mark on the history of the United States. “Uncle Joe” Cannon ruled as the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives with an iron fist. Sam Rayburn, Everett Dirksen, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Mike Mansfield also demonstrated an uncanny ability to use their legislative leadership positions effectively. An effort will be made to include figures across the expanse of American history even if this means that some deserving figures are omitted.
The book does focus on the biographical details of these 38 lawmakers. Instead, it will highlight their legislative accomplishments or the circumstances surrounding their congressional service. Having said this, separating their biographies from their achievements would be a fruitless enterprise. Accordingly, the book will discuss the context in which these people lived and worked, but the focus will be on their political influence.
I have pitched the proposal to Lexington Books, an imprint of my long-time publisher Rowman & Littlefield, on January 3, 2017. Stay tuned.