Category Archives: History

William Bernstein – The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created

William Bernstein – The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created

Last year I read Bernstein’s history of trade, A Splendid Exchange, and enjoyed it immensely. This book has a broader focus—the rise of modern global prosperity. Bernstein is an excellent popular writer, and should be read more widely. He doesn’t go into the same depth as other scholars on the subject such as Julian Simon, Deirdre McCloskey, Joel Mokyr, Stephen Davies, Nathan Rosenberg, Henri Pirenne, and others. But his genial delivery and general ethos of openness and dynamism coupled with a coherent historical narrative make for an excellent read.

Bernstein’s background is in finance, and books from that genre are usually charitably described as snake oil. Rare exceptions include non-sensationalist buy-and-hold advocates such as Burton Malkiel of A Random Walk Down Wall Street fame. While I’ve not read Bernstein’s financial advice books and likely never will, he is an excellent historian. I hope he writes more in that vein.


Henri Pirenne – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

Henri Pirenne – Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade

Of Pirenne’s three best-known books, also including Mohammed and Charlemagne and Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, this one, from 1925, is probably the strongest on its analysis of institutions and how they changed over time. The Pirenne Thesis is essentially that economic isolation caused the downfall of Roman civilization. Not barbarians, or Christianity, or decadence, as many other historians argue. It was a combination of economics and closed cultural attitudes among Europe’s Mediterranean neighbors. Centuries later, a gradual return to economic and cultural openness led to the high medieval ages, and eventually the Renaissance. Pirenne’s line of thought can easily be extended to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age, and today’s debates over trade and immigration, where Pirenne has most influenced this writer.

This book focuses on the rise of the city. Cities require a lot of support, and do not emerge fully formed out of a vacuum. They have numerous economic and cultural preconditions. One of the major ones was shaking off feudal shackles. This was a long, gradual process with many degrees. It was a spectrum, not an on/off switch. City residents were often former serfs; remember the famous saying, “city air makes one fee.” This was a legal concept, not just an attitude. An escaped serf who lived a year and a day without being captured was legally freed.

City residents answered to neither king nor lord, at least during the period Pirenne studies in this book. But there was more to the story of cities than a simple rejection of feudal authority. City workers did not grow their own food. They relied on specialized work and trade with outside farmers to put food on the table. This was not possible without requisite population density, infrastructure, and a cultural openness to commerce and technology.

Most societies are neophobic; city life required almost a neophilia. Once this happened to a small degree, a virtuous circle emerged. Improved productivity made people more prosperous and more accepting of bourgeois social norms. This further reinforced the process, and so on. This mishmash of factors, with arrows of causality pointing every which way, are why people began to live in cities rather than farms and villages, eventually paving the way for modernity.

William Manchester – The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

William Manchester – The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

This book has come under fire for being loosey-goosey with the facts, so take it with a grain of salt. The larger story is true, though, and a lot of fun to read about. The Oxford English Dictionary is one of Britain’s proudest cultural accomplishments. It took 70 years to compile. One of its largest contributors was also an American. Worse, he was literally a crazy person who committed murder and worked his lexicographical magic from prison.

John McWhorter – Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

John McWhorter – Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

McWhorter’s larger thesis is both kindly and curmudgeonly. Languages change over time. This is fine; deal with it. In this book, McWhorter applies that philosophy to the history of the English language. How did Old English become Middle English? The big historical reason was the Norman conquest of 1066. By about 1100, a generation had passed since the invasion. The Normans, who by then made up as much as 10 percent of the population, had had enough time to have their linguistic impact, importing grammar and continental vocabulary along with themselves.

But the invaders also had to learn the Old English the natives spoke, and the resulting Middle English is a messy hybrid of the two cultures and languages as they met and mixed in a completely ad hoc manner. Everyone knows how difficult it is for adults to learn a new language; McWhorter argues that a big part of this change is, as with so many other things, simply adults screwing things up. Conquerors and natives also often intermarried, and simplifying language by mostly stripping it of elaborate verbal conjugations and gendered nouns helped these new families communicate with each other.

There was also some precedent for this simplified grammar in nearby Celtic languages, further helping matters. So if you ever wondered why English, for its many other quirks and complexities, is mercifully simple in those areas, that is part of the reason why. It is a mixture of cultural exchange, nearby precedent, necessity, and language’s inborn tendency to change over time.

Arthur Conan Doyle ­- The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle ­- The Complete Sherlock Holmes

The audio version, narrated by Stephen Fry, is a delight. I enjoyed the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC series a few years ago, and Fry’s radio programs on Victorian culture sparked an interest in reading some primary source material. Though lengthy—four novels and countless short stories—this collection made driving, exercising, and doing chores go by much more quickly. I also followed along on the Kindle edition, which is free.

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Those two cities being London and Paris. Their differences in character were put in stark contrast by the French Revolution; cool London and hot France could not be more different. Dickens’ characters find themselves in the middle of all kinds of duality. Not just Revolution and ancien regime, but rich and poor, young and old, and past and future all come into play. Dickens, while occasionally sappy, conventional, and a little too PG-rated to give a truly vivid picture of the times, still manages to convey good insight about the value of keeping a level head during turbulent times, even as his characters tend to be studies of contrast rather than nuance.

Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Amity Shlaes – Coolidge

Presidents are often unremarkable people. They also often make for uninteresting biographies–Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson being a notable exception. Biographers also tend to glorify presidents who are in office during wars or economic disasters; most presidential rankings reliably improve when reversed. The best presidents are the ones who do little, and thus do little harm. They help quiet and stable times stay that way. They are also often forgotten—as, frankly, presidents should be. The executive branch has long been too powerful and too glorified.

That is precisely why Coolidge makes an interesting subject, and Shlaes does a good job with the material. Lyndon Johnson had a president’s typical bad qualities almost to the point of caricature; Coolidge’s quiet and calm make him come across as the anti-LBJ.  He almost comes across as though he did not want to be there. Yet he still willingly climbed the ladder: Massachusetts State Representative, Mayor, State Senator (and President of the State Senate), Lieutenant Governor, Governor, Vice President, and President. Pretensions to the contrary, he was a career politician. Part of his reputation comes from the fact that he first became President accidentally, when President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in 1923. Coolidge ran for and won his own full term on purpose, though he declined to run for a second.

That contradiction–that “I don’t want to be here, but I made it my life’s work to be here”–is a source of unresolved tension. Coolidge is a bit of a sphinx, and not necessarily in the Silent Cal way he was remembered. Shlaes’ biography focuses more on politics than personality, which suits her subject’s personality. But it would have benefited from more analysis of this part of Coolidge’s character.

Coolidge was also surprisingly tech-savvy. Shlaes notes that not only was Coolidge the first president to give a public address on radio, it was not a one-time experiment. He gave more than 500 radio speeches during his presidency, or roughly two per week, which is quite loquacious for a man nicknamed Silent Cal.

Coolidge was also not the free-market hero some libertarians have made him out to be in recent years. Shlaes is quite plain about this, yet has been accused of writing a free-market hagiography. This made me reluctant to pick up her book, and I’m glad I was not ultimately dissuaded. Coolidge, despite his penny-pinching reputation, did not shrink the federal government. It merely grew more slowly under his watch than under Woodrow Wilson or Herbert Hoover’s. If Coolidge was laissez-faire, it was in comparative terms, not absolute terms. He was also no free trader. He used powers granted him under the 1922 Fordney-McCumber tariff bill, which passed when he was vice president, to raise trade barriers. In proportional terms, Fordney-McCumber was an even larger tariff increase than the more famous 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff.

To Coolidge’s credit, he was progressive on racial issues by the standard of his time, intentionally declining to nominate known Ku Klux Klan members to any position in his government. Though Coolidge was not particularly vocal on racial issues, that was seen as a deliberate statement at the time.

Coolidge also gave his activist Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, a long enough leash to enact a host of interventionist measures. These presaged Hoover’s doubling of real federal spending, one-third money supply contraction (and accompanying rapid deflation), and Smoot-Hawley that would follow when Hoover succeeded Coolidge.

Outside of politics, Coolidge seems to have been a decent man. This is also rare among presidents. He was a loyal husband, and did not mix very well with the philandering Harding. He was also a caring father, and he lost a son, age 11, while in office. The boy cut himself while playing outside on the White House grounds and the resulting infection, easily curable today with penicillin, was mortal. Coolidge mourned deeply, well beyond what the stoic standards of the time allowed. He never seemed quite the same after the loss. The happiest moment of his presidency seems to have been a family vacation he took out West, far removed from day-to-day affairs. His retirement was similarly slow-paced, though rather lucrative, with several board memberships and a weekly column paying for an upscale home. He would live there until his 1933 death, four years after leaving office.