Naming A Justice

It has always been politics as usual

Supreme Court vacancies have provoked fierce, colorful—and wholly partisan—battles since the earliest years of the Republic

When Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the United States Supreme Court, politicians and pundits across the country bewailed the President’s succumbing to “politics” when selecting Marshall’s replacement.Read more »

The Organized President

When Jefferson wanted a job done right, he did it himself

What reader has not been infuriated at having to look up something in a book with no index? Serious books written in this century usually are indexed. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this was not the case, and one reader of the time was so annoyed by the lack of indexes in his books that he supplied a number of them himself. Read more »

Understanding The S&L Mess

At its roots lie fundamental tensions that have bedeviled American banking since the nation began

Bank failure is as American as apple pie. The first American failure took place in Rhode Island in 1809, when a bank capitalized at forty-five dollars issued eight hundred thousand dollars in bank notes, a sum equal to more than seventeen thousand times the resources behind it. In the 1990s the latest bank failure, alas, almost certainly took place less than a week before you began reading this article, as another savings and loan association was taken over by the government. Read more »

The Founding Wizard

Two hundred years ago the United States was a weakling republic prostrate beneath a ruinous national debt. Then Alexander Hamilton worked the miracle of fiscal imagination that made America a healthy young economic giant. How did he do it?

One price of political greatness is to be forced to campaign even long after death. The Founding Fathers, particularly, have been constantly dragged from their graves for partisan purposes. The shades of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison have been invoked right up to the present by American politicians seeking to add luster to their own political agendas. Read more »

The Public Schools And The Public Mood

Since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again. Here an eminent historian traces the course of school reform and finds that neither conservative nor liberal movements ever fully achieve their aims—which may be just as well.

In a historic meeting at Charlottesville, Virginia, last September, President George Bush and the nation’s governors promised to revitalize America’s public schools by establishing “clear national performance goals, goals that will make us internationally competitive.” Their language recalled the document that had inspired school reforms earlier in the 1980s, A Nation at Risk.Read more »

The Wimp Factor

A year ago we were in the midst of a presidential campaign most memorable for charges by both sides that the opponent was not hard enough, tough enough, masculine enough. That he was, in fact, a sissy. Both sides also admitted this sort of rhetoric was deplorable. But it’s been going on since the beginning of the Republic.

Just before George Bush announced his running mate in 1988, a one-liner going the rounds was that he should choose Jeane Kirkpatrick to add some machismo to the ticket. Until midway through the campaign the embarrassing “fact” about Bush, as revealed in a spate of jokes, cartoons, and anecdotes gleefully reported or generated by the press, was the candidate’s “wimpiness.” A wimp, of course, is effete, ineffectual, somehow unmanly. Real men, the diametrical opposite of wimps, are war heroes and government leaders, especially combat pilots and spy masters. But wait!Read more »

Liberté Egalité Animosité

When the French Revolution broke out two hundred years ago this month, Americans greeted it enthusiastically. After all, without the French we could never have become free. But the cheers faded as the brutality of the convulsion emerged—and we saw we were still only a feeble newborn facing a giant, intimidating world power.

There were two great revolutions against European monarchs in the late eighteenth century. In the first, the French nation helped Americans achieve their independence from George III. Without that help our revolution could not have succeeded. Yet when the French rebelled against Louis XVI, Americans hailed their action, then hesitated over it, and finally recoiled from it, causing bitterness in France and among some Americans. Why had the “sister republics” not embraced each other when they had the opportunity?Read more »

The American Christ

He was a capitalist. He was an urban reformer. He was a country boy. He was “Comrade Jesus,” a hardworking socialist. He was the world’s first ad man. For a century and a half, novelists have been trying to recapture the “real” Jesus.

The two most popular novels in nineteenth-century America were Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880) and Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps (1896). (In fact, Sheldon’s book remained the dominant twentieth-century best-seller right up until Peyton Place overtook it in the late 1950s.) Although the first of these two books is set in ancient Palestine and the second takes place in the contemporary American Midwest, they are dominated by the same central character, Jesus.Read more »

Sexual Complications of the Presidential Kind

Did you know that John Quincy Adams pimped for the czar Alexander I of Russia while he was serving as the American minister in St. Petersburg? Some journalists claimed to know that fact during the notably scurrilous campaign of 1824. But historians have tended to remember the even more foul allegations brought against Andrew Jackson by an unscrupulous journalist, Charles Hammond, since there was a kernel of truth in the stream of filth directed at Jackson.

Lost Horizon

A hundred and fifty years ago, a sea of grass spread from the Ohio to the Rockies; now only bits and pieces of that awesome wilderness remain for the traveler to discover.

Behind my grandparents’ house, the house in which I was born, rose a high pasture, little used in my boyhood and then only for grazing a few head of cattle. Crowned by tall weeds and scarred by runoff gullies, it was my first prairie, the one that still drifts behind all my images and notions of that phenomenon even though it was only forty or fifty acres bounded by timber and bean fields.Read more »