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It’s not clear what understanding one is supposed to gain from this list, but as Mulaney pointed out, it will give your dad something to talk about at dinner. McCullough then contrasts the majesty of the Building Where All These Things Happened by also talking about how “acoustics in the hall were erratic, mainly terrible,” and begrudgingly, obligatorily mentioning that “yes, there were the African-American slaves who did much of the work on the Capitol.” It feels as though McCullough considers the real shame as letting people who were enslaved participate in such a magisterial process and not their enslavement itself.
It’s an apt observation for how others handle the issue of slavery as well. Ellis spends an unreadably long time puzzling over whether slavery was a “Greek tragedy” (“inherently unsolvable for reasons beyond human control”) or a “Shakespearean tragedy” (“susceptible to solution with the right kind of leadership”). Aside from this question being evidence that Ellis wants a fictionalized narrative rather than historical understanding, it’s simply stupid. Nonetheless, he’s sure to conclude that it was a Greek tragedy and that he can’t really blame his beloved founders for anything. The argument elides the obvious fact that the only reason it was “beyond human control” was because so many people involved in the country’s founding were, like, slave owners. But I guess Ellis thinks they couldn’t help it.
Goodwin does nothing quite this lazy, but her vision of the presidency of James Buchanan is characterized by a failure of leadership somehow independent from his belief in the rights of states to allow their citizens to own slaves. In fairness, this never feels like genuine belief so much as an attempt to force the narrative of Leadership — the most inherently daddy book of the bunch — into shape with a sledgehammer. Buchanan’s failures only pave the road for Lincoln’s greatness, and the issue of the Civil War or slavery itself is much the same. In Leadership, the idea of “politics” disappears so that Goodwin can explore “fundamental questions” like, “Are leaders born or made?” (you won’t believe it, but the answer is both!).
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