Cabot and TR: Friendship For the Ages (and History Books)

One is hard-pressed to think of a more durable and historically important friendship between politicians than that between long-time Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and President Theodore Roosevelt. For more than forty years the two helped each other personally and professionally, and socialized, individually and with their friends and families. Of great value to the historian, they also wrote to each other all the time. The pair had an outsize impact on American politics and policy. Yet until Laurence Jurdem’s The Rough Rider and the Professor, there has never been a systematic study of their relationship. This work of popular history is a welcome and valuable contribution.

Jurdem is an adjunct professor of history at two institutions and a writer of articles and books. He knows his way around the scholarship and how to craft accessible and rigorous prose. While much has been written about Roosevelt and Lodge, the heart of The Rough Rider and the Professor is a close study of the Lodge-Roosevelt correspondence at the Massachusetts Historical Society. An indefatigable correspondent, Roosevelt’s letters crackle with energy and are well known to many scholars. He did not edit his correspondence after the fact. Lodge, trained as an historian and a professor at Harvard, was cut from a different cloth. He scrupulously edited and when he published a two volume set of his correspondence with Roosevelt, judicious trimming to present their relationship in a particular light. Accordingly, not many scholars have spent the time in Boston studying Lodge’s unedited correspondence. Happily, Jurdem put in the effort. The book highlights the deep personal connection between the two men.

Lodge, born in 1850 to a patrician New England family, was one of the first Americans to receive a PhD in history (after his law degree). Well known as a historian with many published works, Lodge surprised his family and friends by pursuing a career in electoral politics. He was in Congress for six years and represented Massachusetts in the US Senate for 31 years. Early in Lodge’s career he led an unsuccessful effort to improve voting rights for Black Americans in the south. Later in his career he led the resistance to keeping the United States out of the League of Nations. Lodge first met Roosevelt in 1884 as both men were involved in Republican politics and the potential nomination of James Blaine as presidential candidate. The hit it off immediately.

Roosevelt also came from a family known for public service. Born in 1858, Roosevelt’s biography is well-known, from his pursuit of the strenuous life after fighting childhood asthma, to the tragic death of his first wife and mother, to his time in the Dakotas and service in the US Army. He truly was a larger than life figure. Roosevelt attended Harvard years after Lodge and while they were both active in politics and public life, their paths did not cross until Lodge wrote to TR. Once they met in person, they bonded through interest in party reform, US history and politics, and a shared sense of commitment to service. Immensely talented and driven men, they forged a connection that lasted throughout the years, through agreement and disagreement, triumph and tragedy.

Jurem’s book is strongest on the early years of the friendship and the powerful ways in which party loyalty and structure shaped the arc of careers. Lodge’s age and influence were of great value to Roosevelt, whose early political aspirations were often thwarted. He was, after all, far too much of a force of nature to fit neatly into organizational strictures. Lodge knew how to play the game, how to work friendships and barter. Roosevelt was much more direct and his greatest source of agency came from the amazing ways in which he connected with people of all stripes and backgrounds. For both, and really all politically ambitious Americans at the time, knowing how best to navigate the ways and mores of party were essential. The GOP, as a big tent major party, frequently struggled with factionalism, regionalism and the pressure of this or that internal group. Being able to disagree, drive change, and yet still come together and act collectively is a skill that party membership demanded and developed.

As Lodge became more secure in the Senate and Roosevelt ascended to the presidency after the assassination of Present McKinley, their friendship remained but it was marked by understandable professional distance. Here, Jurem’s book is on less secure ground, especially as the swirl of national politics forced frequent realignments re-realignments. What stands out, however, is that the men and their families consistently found time to connect with each other.

The Rough Rider and the Professor is a well-researched and well-written joint biography of a very important friendship. Perhaps best read and appreciated by those with an interest in some background in late 1800s and early 1900s American politics, the book offers a valuable contribution to understanding American political history. It is also interesting in and of itself on the subject of friendship – what was possible then, and for the curious, what might be possible today.

David Potash

The Defender: A Powerful Voice for Black Americans

The story of Chicago’s The Defender, perhaps America’s preeminent Black newspaper of the 20th century, is the history of race and racism in the city and the nation. It’s been an extraordinarily important publication, an essential voice for Black community and a tireless advocate for racial justice and agency, for over a century. Ethan Michaeli’s hefty book, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, is a sprawling account of the newspaper, strong on personalities and affection. It is tome at 633 pages, yet is still leaves at least this reader with questions. More than a history of a business, Micheali’s volume shines a provocative light on the intersection of The Defender, those that made it, the stories that it told, and the communities in which it was read.

The Defender was the brain child of Robert Abbott, a fascinating Black entrepreneur from Georgia who visited Chicago’s 1893 World Colombian Exposition as a young man. Among his many skills, he was a talented singer and a member of the Hampton Quartet. Abbott, impressed with the city’s Black professionals and keen on the opportunities he saw in the growing metropolis, decided to move to Chicago and become a lawyer. Plans changed as Abbott’s law career did not take off as expected. Knowing a bit about printing from a relative, Abbott judged that the city’s growing Black community needed a newspaper. Borrowing money and leaning on friends and acquaintances, he started The Defender in 1905 with an initial print run of 300. His offices were in his landlady’s dining room. The paper, with a mission as a defender of Abbott’s race, was truly a visionary enterprise. From those small steps, Abbott’s drive, brilliance and amazing work built the organization and a paper with international impact.

Initially read on the South Side of Chicago, The Defender was passed from reader to reader. Importantly, the newspaper was picked up by Pullman porters, many of whom lived or traveled through Chicago, increasing its scope. Over time, Abbott attracted a cadre outstanding journalists and writers, like Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes. The paper was tireless in its attention to racism, opportunity and justice. It was relentless in its descriptions and criticisms of lynchings and other injustices, especially in the South. The paper investigated and reported factually racist atrocities and lynchings, in direct contrast to what white publications printed. Abbott and members of the papers were harassed and threatened, but they pressed on, unfazed. The paper’s work accelerated the political and cultural organizations of within Black Chicago, and was an extraordinarily important factor in the Great Migration. Abbott and the paper initiated the Bud Billiken parade in 1929, a celebration that has grown to being the nation’s largest African-American parade. It is a wonderful August event, and Michaeli cleverly draws the reader into his work by opening with a young Barack Obama at the event.

John H. Sengstacke, Abbott’s nephew, took over the paper in 1940 followings Abbott’s death. The Defender played a key role in politics and race issues at the city, state and national level through World War II, pushing hard for civil rights and the integration of the military. Facing strong competition from other Black newspaper by this time, Defender journalists and editors were prominent and active. That key scope extended through the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. Political and cultural leaders needed the newspaper’s attention, especially as more Blacks voted and acquired wealth and influence. It is difficult to overstate the key role that The Defender served in keeping Black communities informed and engaged.

Michaeli’s book describes all of this very well. He’s a talented writer with a good eye for detail. Consistently using the paper as a primary source, he has rich material to engage the reader. And as The Defender was active across the continent for decades, there’s more than enough history to reference and recount. Michaeli’s attention to the violence and prejudice that The Defender covered very strong. He appreciates, as did the newspaper’s staff and readership, the harsh realities of Black Americans. He underscores, too, that racial justice was only achieved through suffering and struggle. The book offers a powerful reminder of just how constant racial bigotry and violence were a prominent throughout the twentieth century.

On the other hand, the lengthy book could have been more effective with greater attention to context and history. Michaeli does reference some of the important historical scholarship that helps to explain the big picture, but I did not come away with the sense that he was comfortable crafting his history in that realm. I understand that this would have changed the book. Nonetheless, for those not familiar with twentieth century American history, or the history of Chicago, The Defender moves quickly and makes assumptions. Some of this is simply how the author approached the material. Michaeli, a white University of Chicago English major, took a job as a copy editor at the Defender a year after graduation in 1991. He stayed at the paper for five years, working his way up to journalist, and learning about Chicago, racism, and American history along the way. Five hundred pages into the book – its structure is chronological – Michaeli introduces himself, writes about his ignorance of race and history, and explains his journey to understanding through his job and the work of the newspaper. As he notes, the experience “filled in so many blanks in American history left by the textbooks of my youth and showed me how things really work.”

At the start of the 1900s, America had more than 20,000 newspapers. Many of these publications represented communities ignored by mainstream presses. Their function was much more than reporting the news. These newspapers were critical in the development of group identity and political mobilization, particularly as the country wrestled with issues of suffrage, political participation, and the meaning of being an American. Now read mostly by graduate students, the vast majority of these papers have long been assigned to archives, their readership and influence waning over the decades. The Defender had a much greater impact than most and has lasted longer than most. It still exists online and still has an important voice. Michaeli’s book goes far in telling that story.

David Potash

Evangelicals and American History

Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is an outstanding work of history. A hefty 700 pages, the book is comprehensive without losing voice or focus. It’s a pleasure to read. It’s also the kind of work that should be read by many. Understanding the evangelical tradition in the United States is essential to deeper comprehension of American culture and politics.

Fitzgerald is a Pulitzer prize winning author and journalist. Her aim here is to give a comprehensive review of the evangelical movement from the First Great Awakening in colonial America through the present. The book’s focus, though, is on more recent events, from the 1970s to the present. It is a work of synthesis and integration. Fitzgerald has read the scholarship extensively. The Evangelicals has a learned feel to it but it is not pedantic.

Evangelicals are Protestants who believe that the Bible is the ultimate religious authority. They come from many traditions. Evangelicalism is an expansive term and it has changed over the years. Common to all evangelicals is enthusiastic preaching of the gospels. The origin of the term comes from Greek for “good news.”

The books is not just about religion. It explains the thread of the evangelical movement, and its leadership, with great awareness of the political environment. Fitzgerald’s focus give us a much better comprehension of what is, and who is, the Christian right. Perhaps the book’s greatest argument and takeaway is that regardless of the waxing and waning of the Christian right in the past fifty years, the movement’s underlying values – the spirit that animates it – were forged in the nineteenth century. Historical knowledge is essential.

The book, in fact, made me want to go back to the classroom to teach history. The evangelical tradition in American has been important for centuries. I have taught survey courses and reading The Evangelicals has highlighted to me just how important. The book offers and extremely helpful lens for understanding.

David Potash