Thomas Kidd’s excellent and tightly-written Thomas Jefferson (Yale University Press, 2022) notes that our third president “touted frugality” in government, but his personal life was different. (As John Adams put it, “Jefferson has a habit as well as a disposition to expensive Living…. He could not Subdue his Pride and Vanity.”)
This becomes poignant in relation to the slaves Jefferson owned. Kidd notes that in some years more than 20 percent of Jefferson’s $25,000 annual presidential salary went for wine. (Five thousand dollars in 1804 is the equivalent of $130,000 now.) In 1804 Virginians could purchase a prime male field hand, ages 18-30, for $200 or so. If Jefferson had cut his wine bill even in half, he could have freed a dozen slaves each year and given them the opportunity to stay for wages or pursue their happiness elsewhere.
I realize the situation was complicated, and Kidd is positive about other aspects of Jefferson’s life, but it’s striking that Jefferson in essence cared more about buying things (and drinking fine wine) than about putting into practice the principles he eloquently formulated. Jefferson died in 1826 some $2.6 million in debt (in today’s money). Paying down that debt on Jan. 15, 1827, meant selling (according to an ad) “130 valuable negroes,” sometimes breaking up families.
Jeremy Schipper’s Denmark Vesey’s Bible (Princeton, 2022) shows one result of Jeffersonian thinking: With many slaves despairing of ever becoming free, some in South Carolina gravitated to Denmark Vesey, who had won a lottery and used the cash to purchase his freedom. Vesey in 1822 plotted an insurrection but plantation owners learned of his plans, arrested anyone involved, and hanged him and 34 others. Officials destroyed Vesey’s writing but Schippers skillfully reconstructs Vesey’s ideas — many based on biblical teaching in Exodus — from the writings of his executioners.
A century later, African-Americans were legally free but socially oppressed. They often found their most valuable sympathizers among another group also fighting bigotry: Jews. Robert Cherry’s Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) shows—among other things—how Jews helped blacks reach white audiences with jazz and subtle anti-racist programming by Jack Benny and others.
I’ve thought that giving drug addicts clean needles was uncompassionate and even cruel, but Maia Szalavitz challenges my thinking in Undoing Drugs: How Harm Reduction Is Changing the Future of Drugs and Addiction (Hachette, 2021). She hasn’t convinced me, but her argument for legal changes and needle exchanges, and her opposition to “tough love” conventions, is important to consider.
Former CIA analyst David McCloskey’s Damascus Station: A Novel (Norton, 2021) is both page-turner and educator about Syria. Set a decade ago as that nation fell into chaos, it illuminates both spy tradecraft and the extreme viciousness that kept the Assad regime in power while other governments (only 90% ruthless) fell. McCloskey’s American hero and Syrian heroine become sexually involved, against Agency policies, and that adds a personal urgency to CIA attempts to learn about the regime’s use of chemical warfare and discern who’s on top in a capital ruled by fear.
Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells: West Africa From the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (U. of Chicago Press, 2019) protests Africa’s “continued exclusion from ‘world history.’” Green describes trade patterns of the kingdom of Kongo in the 17th century, when it exchanged ambassadors with Brazil: Manikongo Garcia II, a devout Catholic, relished carpets and tapestries from Europe, cloths from India, silver utensils from South America, and pearls from the Caribbean. The slave trade led to new power configurations and the rise of fiscal-military states, with 19th century imperialism the final acid in the stew.
From Strength to Strength by Arthur Brooks: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half Of Life (Penguin, 2022)includes good advice, such as “The work you do has to be the reward” and “Do the most interesting thing you can.” I’m glad to see confirmation that suffering is not in vain, that as raw smarts decline wisdom can increase, and that long marriages can bring joy as husbands and wives move from romantic love to companionate love without losing the former.
Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament (Baker, 2022) could have been a dull tome, but Jonathan Bernier turns it into a detective story. He covers the alternatives that other scholars propose but comes down on the side of early composition: The Gospel of Mark written about a decade after Jesus’s crucifixion. Matthew, Luke, and most of Paul’s letters within another decade. Just about all the NT books, including Revelation, written before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.
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