Olasky Books

Five Fine History Books

The best biography I’ve read the past year is Elizabeth Varon’s Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South (Simon & Schuster, 2023). Robert E. Lee saw northern victory resulting from a brutal turning of soldiers into cannon fodder, and did not admit that slavery was wrong. But James Longstreet, Lee’s right hand after Stonewall Jackson died, joined the Republican Party after the war and courageously wrote, “The only true solution for Southern troubles is for the people to accept cordially and in good faith all the results of the war, including the reconstruction measures, the acts of Congress, negro suffrage, etc.”

For Longstreet, acceptance meant treating freed slaves as human beings, not chattel. He urged southern whites to “extend charity if they expect it in return.” Longstreet said blacks could join the police force, be on juries, and vote. He stood shoulder to shoulder with black leaders. Critics said Longstreet “set an example of social equality by mingling socially with the negroes.” Sadly, few southern whites followed him into purportedly “a lower depth of shame and degradation.”

One reason the North won the civil war: Roughly 600,000 of the two million soldiers in the Union Army were immigrants, and about 360,000 more had at least one immigrant parent. (Only several thousand men born abroad were in the Confederate army.) Starting in the 1870s that stream became a mighty river: Steven Ujifusa’s The Last Ships From Hamburg (Harper, 2023) tells well the story of how entrepreneurs, mainly Jewish, inaugurated cheap voyages across the Atlantic that brought millions to the U.S.

Then as now, a debate raged. Human rights advocates like Jacob Schiff portrayed prospective eastern European immigrants as enslaved persons who needed the emancipation proclamation that a pro-immigration policy provided. Founders of the Immigration Restriction League like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge feared that immigrants would degrade America’s genetic stock. Anti-immigration forces won the Washington battle in 1924 and passed restrictions that lasted for four decades.

Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland (Viking, 2023) goes back a century to the peak of power for the Ku Klux Klan: Calling itself a Christian group but hating blacks, Jews, and Catholics, the KKK in 1924 was probably the most powerful social and political faction in America. Klan leaders were kingmakers not only in the south but in Indiana, Colorado, Oregon, and other states. Then the fever broke, as rapacious treatment of women by Klan leaders showed millions they were misled.

British historian Tom Holland’s Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age (Basic, 2023) expertly and elegantly takes us back two millennia to the greatest power the world had ever seen. He tells a great story that, among other things, shows the difference Christianity made. We might think, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, that all are created equal and endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but all those rights depend on a sometimes secularized but basically biblical understanding. As Holland shows in Pax and his previous superb book, Dominion, those rights were not self-evident in the Greco-Roman world of slavery and sexual abuse. 

Returning to the 2020s: Patrick Ruffini’s Party of the People takes readers (as the subtitle says) Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP (Simon & Schuster, 2023). Ruffini provides street-level observations of the blue shift among educated suburban conservatives but the more-than-compensating “working class” red shift, including the huge movement among Hispanics. Most striking is the chapter about “Realignment on the Rio Grande,” as communities where the Republican Party did not exist a few years ago may very well have GOP majorities this fall.

Briefly Noted

Karl Zinsmeister’s The Brothers (Mountain Marsh Media, 2024) vividly describes life before the Civil War. He shows how three lively Tappan brothers — Arthur, Benjamin, and Lewis — fought despair, energized the anti-slavery movement, and developed a variety of Christian philanthropies.

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins by Denis Alexander and Alister McGrath (Kregel, 2023) includes twelve personal accounts by those who applied critical thinking to the doctrines of Richard Dawkins. They looked at Christian faith with the goal of disproving it — and found themselves captivated by it. Andrew Leland’s The Country of the Blind (Penguin Press, 2023) is a sensitive memoir about gradually losing sight.

Gay Talese’s Bartleby & Me (Mariner Books, 2023) conveys the reflections of a master stylist. Julie Kalman in The Kings of Algiers (Princeton, 2023) narrates the little-known story of entrepreneurial Jewish families in the Mediterranean world two centuries ago. David Bahnsen’s Full-Time (Post Hill, 2024) is a succinct and thoughtful look at Work and the Meaning of Life.

My new book Pivot Points (P&R, 2024) describes an early journey from Judaism to atheism to communism to Christ, and my later running toward (and sometimes walking away from) adventures: University of Texas tenure, compassionate conservatism, a Christian college in the Empire State Building, WORLD magazine editing.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.