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The Story of Writing Where the Light is Dim: Sixth Anniversary


I began writing my blog six years ago this month. As amazing as it seems to me, this marks my 149th posting. As I have done every July since 2011, I want to update readers on my writing efforts during the past year. Accordingly, this entry will serve as a progress report on my activities during 2016-17.

I have two writing projects in the works.

Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History

As I mentioned in previous postings, I recently completed a book on political assassinations throughout American history. Carrel Books, an imprint of New York-based Skyhorse, will publish the work in November 2017. The schedule originally called for an August publication date, but I fell behind in my proofreading and indexing chores. Sometimes I am too ambitious given the demands on my time. In any case, the folks at Skyhorse were terrific. They adjusted the schedule with nary a discouraging word.

Titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, the book poses a series of questions. First, 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? Attacks on public figures were rare in colonial America. When violence occurred, it usually resulted from riots by mobs or from duels such as the famous incident between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. The first attack on a major political figure did not occur until an assassin attempted to shoot President Andrew Jackson in 1835.

The rarity of political violence early in the history of the republic raises several additional questions. Why did violence against political figures increase during the nineteenth century? Did the nation’s culture or politics change and, if so, how? Did political violence increase during the twentieth century and, if so, why? What, if anything, can be done to reduce or eliminate such attacks? The book addresses these questions by examining 25 instances of violence against elected officials and public figures in American history.

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.

Stay tuned. Future blogs will discuss the book in more detail.

Congressional Lions

I am working on a second book. Tentatively titled “Congressional Lions,” the manuscript is due at Lexington Books in August 2018, with an early 2019 publication date.

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, “Congressional Lions” 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 will be 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 will cover 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 will highlight 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 will not 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 will write more about “Congressional Lions” in 2018. In the meantime, suffice it to say that my writing career, such as it is, continues its slow, steady progress.


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez