Tag Archives: American History

James J. Hill: Empire Builder by Michael Malone

Summary
  1. Jim Hill was one of the great railroad tycoons, founding and expanding what eventually became the Great Northern, today the Burlington Northern. His incredible persistence, competitiveness and focus on quality infrastructure and lowest cost per ton helped him dominate his competitors and amass one of the great fortunes in American history.
Key Takeaways
  1. Hill came from a modest Canadian background
  2. Began his railroad career with a regional carrier in Minnesota but his ambition soon compelled him to create a trans-pacific railway
  3. Was a tireless worker, often working himself to ill health
  4. Could not delegate and was a taskmaster
  5. Continually aimed to plow earnings back into improving the railroad infrastructure and besting the regional competition
  6. Had a different strategy than the other railroads – he built slower but it was all quality, at lower cost by finding the easiest route (which allowed him to charge lower prices), well capitalized (allowing him to fare better than his competitors during economic downturns)
  7. Was able to tap into new markets and add new tonnages to his trains (lumber industry in NW became a huge source of profits)
  8. By 1900, Hill had become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America
  9. Hill eventually started using his influence through politics and newspapers but his business was always his main concern
  10. Great Northern (GN) soon started venturing into the maritime world on the Pacific and mining of iron ore in Minnesota. Hill was ahead of his time in seeing the potential opportunities Japan and China offered and the iron ore ranges near Lake Superior eventually supplied 2/3 of America’s mined iron ore (booming with the steel industry)
  11. 2 major competitors were the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway
  12. During the 1893 downturn, Hill worked with Morgan to acquire Northern Pacific (NP). Due to monopoly regulations, it wasn’t acquired but the railroads worked together to improve business and decrease competition. Eventually, Morgan came to accept the inevitable and respected Hill so much he made him head of NP
  13. Like anybody else, Hill owed as much of his success to luck, timing and chance as his aggression and self confidence
  14. Hill was blind to the threat of automobiles and asphalt roads on his railroad business
  15. Towards the end of his career Hill’s arch rival was Edward Harriman, one of America’s most prominent businessmen but somewhat obscure because of his shady business practices
  16. In 1901, Morgan and Hill were able to convince Burlington to be acquired and were able to add another important leg to their empire
  17. Soon after, after nearly losing control of Northern, Hill and Morgan formed a holdings company, Northern Securities Company, so that takeover attempts would be nearly impossible. A couple years later, the Supreme Court would deem that it violated the Sherman Anti Trust Act and the GN, NP, Chicago, Burlington and Quincy would be merged into Burlington Northern instead of into the Northern Securities Company
  18. Teddy Roosevelt played a large role in this time in breaking up some of the super corporations (monopolies) such as Standard Oil and American Tobacco
  19. Hill had major success with iron ore and lumber in Washington but was frustrated by his maritime venture to Japan
  20. Biggest passion besides railroads was agriculture and helped with research and land grants in order to make the mid west and pacific northwest some of the most productive agricultural lands in the country
  21. Hill turned towards philanthropy towards the end of his life
  22. Died of blood poisoning and at the time of his death every train on the Hill lines stopped for five minutes to pay their respects
  23. Hill’s influence on his lines lasted well into the 1950s with his sons and Ralph Budd leading the company. They experienced more frustration than Hill had due to wartime regulation and reprivitization of the railroads
  24. Hill was described as having “a sort of lunar dualism” – positive traits were quite remarkable (quick intelligence, analysis, power of will and personality, unparalleled work ethic and commitment) and negative attributes were mirror images of the positive (extreme irascibility which often turned to rage, willfulness that could turn to ruthlessness, cold manipulativeness used on politicians and others and a preoccupation with purpose at hand that he sometimes lost sight of the broader perspective)
What I got out of it
  1. Incredible story of persistence, business acumen, strategy and boldness in creating one of the more dominant railroad lines in US History, the Great Northern (today Burlington Northern Santa Fe owned by Warren Buffett). Along with his incredible work ethic and determination, Hill was manipulative, irascible and ruthless but overall did incredible things and perhaps no other man has had as much of an impact on the Midwest and pacific northwest as Hill has had.

Reagan by H.W. Brands

Summary
  1. Good biography on Reagan, his childhood, acting career, presidency and post-presidency. Impressive man who was in office during some of the most volatile times in America’s history

Key Takeaways

  1. Reagan’s father was an alcoholic but his mother was a saint
  2. Reagan gave one speech on behalf of US Senator Barry Goldwater which propelled him into the political scene. This speech did more for his political career than any of his other speeches. It moved him from a moderately successful actor and spokesperson to a promising candidate
  3. Elected governor of California just a couple years later with little experience. Determined to reduce the role of government and taxes and give back more power to the states
  4. Reagan was a hesitant candidate but when elected as party representative for the republicans, he was all in
  5. Reagan was extremely charismatic and natural at connecting with people but one of the oldest running candidates in US history
  6. Reagan divorced his first wife and was not very close to his children. He later married Nancy whom he had two children with
  7. Reagan lost the 1976 presidential race to Richard Nixon who eventually resigned because of Watergate and Jimmy Carter took over. Although he was very old he ran again in 1979 and beat Carter after Carter had some all time low record ratings
  8. Nancy Reagan was very hands-on with her husband and persuasive when she needed to be
  9. Reagan beat out Bush for the Republican nomination and took him on as his VP To become the 40th president in 1980
  10. Reagan was incredibly innocent and self confident and his willingness to ask silly sounding questions reflected this
  11. Governors have to learn foreign policy on the fly when they are elected president. Reagan had his hands full with the USSR and Cuba (and Nicaragua to keep it from becoming another Cuba and Poland from getting run over by USSR)
  12. Reagan’s lowering of taxes didn’t work initially and business taxes had to be raised eventually but later personal taxes were lowered
  13. Reagan also had his hands full with Israel, the PLO, Lebanon
  14. Reagan was stuck between allies of Argentina and UK over the Faulkand islands
  15. Reagan had a dream of a nuclear free world but had to protect the US from the Russians with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which came to be known as Star Wars was the first step
  16. Mondale ran against Reagan in 1986 and although he made Reagan’s age an issue, Reagan overcame it and crushed him
  17. Reagan received a lot of flack for visiting holocaust sites
  18. The Reagans believed in astrology and coordinated their de idioms with horoscopes and a woman in SF’s opinion on good planetary timing
  19. Reagan spent a lot of time dealing with the Russians and Gorbachev given the strained relationship and fight for supremacy / nuclear control during his presidency
  20. One of Reagan’s great skills was knowing what the most important task was, focusing on it completely and delegating the rest 
  21. Reagan loved order and regularity, especially with his schedule. He never reported to bullying but rather laid down his opinion and reasons and convinced people that way
  22. SDI and the arms race were the main points of contention between Gorbachev and Reagan
  23. The sale of weapons to Iran to release hostages caused uproar in the media and even more so when it was discovered that some of that money went to Nicaragua to fund the Contras
  24. In Berlin, Reagan pleaded with Gorbachev to tear down the wall separating eastern and western Germany. It took some time but thanks to glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev agreed and it was eventually torn down
  25. Peace from a position of force is weak regardless
  26. Reaganomics – called for widespread tax cuts, decreased social spending, increased military spending, and the deregulation of domestic markets.
  27. SDI was never resolved but towards the end of Reagan’s tenure the relationship between the US and Russia drastically improved
  28. HW Bush won the nomination in 1988 and ran with Dan Quayle. They beat Dukakis
  29. Just a couple years after leaving presidency, Reagan’s Alzheimer’s took away most of his memory
  30. Died June 5, 2004 at 93 and was the oldest president in history
  31. One of Reagan’s heroes was FDR and there are many parallels to draw between the two
  32. Reagan brought back confidence in America from its citizens by building up the defense and economy and the fall of the USSR helped as well
  33. Known as ‘The Great Communicator’
  34. Volcker was head of the Fed and his policies stunted the us economy and helped Reagan get elected
What I got out of it
  1. Father was a drunk, mother was lovely, had a moderately successful acting career, got into the political limelight after a very successful speech for Barry Goldwater, was a successful Governor for California, became President in 1980 and had HW Bush as his VP, worked extensively with Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament and SDI, two big goals in office were to lower government spending and defeat communism, known as The Great Communicator for his charisma while presenting, soon after leaving office came down with Alzheimer’s and lost much of his memory

Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot by Bill O’Reilly

Summary
  1. O’Reilly once again does an amazing job detailing the life and context behind the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald. Camelot refers to how people around the world considered the president and his life – an idyllic place where nothing could go wrong.
Key Takeaways
  1. The similarities between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are eerie
  2. Kennedy had medical issues throughout his life and twice was read his last rights
  3. Lee Harvey Oswald is a communist and when Kennedy is sworn in he has defected and is in Minsk. He soon realized he wants back to America. He was a sharpshooter in the army
  4. When JFK was 26 his ship, PT 109, in the South Pacific was destroyed by the Japanese. In a leadership role but uncomfortable in this position. He finally takes charge and realizes only he can save his men. This changes his thoughts on leadership forever
  5. Bay of Pigs – April 1961. A covert invasion to try to overthrow the Cuban government. Embarrassing failure and although has backing of American people, makes two powerful enemies – Castro and the CIA director, Alan Dulles who is fired soon after
  6. JFK was very close with Frank Sinatra but after his mob ties were confirmed JFK quickly cut all ties
  7. JFK had many extramarital affairs, Marilyn Monroe being the most renowned. They began flirting right after he won the presidency and it soon turned physical. Jackie knows and is disgusted as she thinks JFK is taking advantage of an emotionally hurt woman. He soon distances himself though to avoid controversy
  8. Oswald returns from Russia in 1961 to Dallas
  9. LBJ gets tasked with traveling the world and loves being most powerful man in any room outside of America
  10. Civil Rights are full blown in this time. The president and his staff keep a close eye on MLK as they like his message about racial equality but are also worried that he is a communist sympathizer
  11. Cuban Missile Crisis – Kennedy finds out in October 1961 that Russia has installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. This is the biggest challenge he has yet to face. He takes a strong stance against them and Oswald takes great offense since he believes that the USSR has the right to protect the communist island from the U.S. This is what Khrushchev believes too and thinks JFK’s use of quarantine vs blockade (act of war) is cowardly. Khrushchev tells his ship to ignore the blockade, believing JFK will back down like he did in the Bay of Pigs. JFK holds firm and Khrushchev relents a little bit. JFK promises not to invade if the missiles are removed and will allow their nuclear missiles in Turkey to remain. After 13 long days, Russia relents and disarms the missiles, ending the Cuban Missile Crisis
  12. Oswald is getting increasingly violent with his wife and starts collecting guns. He is soon fired and on April 10, 1963 he decides he needs to kill someone. He decides to target walker, an ex-military man who is starkly anti-communist. He missed completely but manages to not leave any clues
  13. After much practice and planning, Oswald feels ready to carry his plan through. At 12:30 PM on November 22, 1963 Oswald sets up at the Texas Schoolbook Depository where he worked and shot Kennedy. He let off three rounds, 1 missed completely, 1 went through his neck but would not have been fatal and the last exploded his skull. He manages to escape the building and walks away. About an hour later a cop stops to question him and Oswald kills him too. He then tries to hide in a theater but is caught and taken to jail. Jack Ruby, a man with mafia ties and who owns several strip clubs is extremely upset by the assassination and decides to take action and ends up killing Oswald himself
What I got out of it
  1. I always knew the popularity of JFK and Jackie but had no idea they were the first power couple and were revered everywhere they went. O’Reilly describes JFK’s growth as a leader while President and how his assassination kicked off a series of events that rocked the 60’s and 70’s.

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Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by Bill O’Reilly

Summary
  1. O’Reilly details the end of the Civil WarLincoln’s dream of a nation once again unified and his untimely end at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Booth is an extremely charismatic actor and very racist and can’t stand the fact that Lincoln and the North have come out on top. This book is engaging and exciting and brings to life one of the murders that changed America forever.
Key Takeaways
  1. John Wilkes Booth was a charming and successful actor but is a blatant racist, confederate sympathizer and hates Lincoln and everything that he stands for. He has compiled a group to organize the killing of Lincoln. At the presidential inauguration he lunged at Lincoln but is stopped quickly
  2. From the beginning Lincoln decides to take a lenient position when dealing with southerners. Wants to unify states and punishing severely would only hurt the cause. This angered many northerners who had revenge on their minds. Lincoln is the most despised president ever and receives daily death threats but does not take too much precaution, preferring to live his life on his own terms
  3. Booth rehearses for the kidnapping of Lincoln but it falls through. He then takes matters into his own hands. No president has been assassinated up to this point and Booth loves this idea of going into history
  4. For all the calm Lincoln portrayed to the public, he was extremely anxious and slept terribly – often having nightmares. At 56 he was exhausted and 35 pounds underweight
  5. Mary Todd Lincoln had an emotional disorder and was prone to severe mood swings. Lincoln totes on her but knows she is just one tragedy away from losing her mind
  6. When the plan shifts from kidnapping to murder, Booth blackmails the other conspirators
  7. Booth plans everything down to the last detail and has his conspirators kill Secretary Steward and VP Andrew Johnson.
  8. Lincoln is killed on April 14, 1865 on the idea of March. After Booth shoots him, he means to jump out of the state box onto the stage but trips and breaks his leg but still manages to escape the theater
  9. Lincoln does not die immediately and is taken to a home nearby but there is nothing they can do. Lincoln dies the next morning at 7:21 AM and Vice President Andrew Johnson is sworn in as the 17th president.
  10. Lincoln’s body is loaded on a train for Illinois and along the way 30M people pay their respects
  11. The other conspirators are caught and either hanged or sent to prison for life. Mary Surratt is the first and only woman hanged by the U.S. Government
  12. Mary never recovered and her mental disposition spiraled downward until she died at the age of 63. Robert Lincoln became a successful lawyer and Tadd Lincoln died at 18 of a rare heart condition
What I got out of it
  1. Amazing detail around the lives of Lincoln, Booth and Booth’s co-conspirators. Understanding the background story of these people really makes it come to life and brings you back to a different time. If you’re interested in American history or biographies, this is a great read.

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The Autobiography of Black Hawk by Black Hawk

Summary
  1. Black Hawk was the leader of the Sauk American Indian tribe and this autobiography recounts his memories growing up, his people’s values and traditions, the wars he fought in, his experience working and fighting against/with Americans and Europeans, his eventual surrender and his travels throughout the United States. 
Key Takeaways
  1. Interesting account of time period, wars, relationship between Native American tribes and Europeans. These people had very different mindsets in terms of goals and outcomes. Native Americans followed their hearts and natural emotions whereas the British would follow their strict laws (go into battle knowing they’d lose and pretty much sacrificing their men whereas the Native Americans saw no shame in retreating to fight another day). 
  2. Their concept of right and wrong different too – Indians want to do right their whole lives whereas Europeans can be sorry about what they’ve done right before they die and be fine
  3. Basically Americans deceitful and liars who took great advantage of Native Americans’ low alcohol tolerance and used it during treaties and bartering
  4. The Sauk knew they were not the most powerful but were always grateful –  “Grateful to the great spirit every time I take a drink from the spring”
  5. Does not believe that land can be bought or sold as it is not theirs
What I got out of it
  1. Fascinating autobiography from a man who saw the world much differently than most Americans did and still do. Much more in tune with nature and the land and would not sacrifice the land for anything. I think we can all learn to be a little more grateful and in touch with the world around us as Black Hawk was.

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1776 by David McCullough

Summary:
  1. David McCullough outlines the actions and strategies of both the British and the colonists leading up to the independence of America in 1776.
Key Takeaways:
  1. Introduces King George III and the conditions in England prior to and during the deployment of British troops to Boston. King George was a simple person and not pretentious which I found unusual for an English King
  2. Depicts the conditions in America and outlines the leaders of the army and a few who were representing the colonies. It described the American army to be made of undisciplined, poorly armed volunteer force of farmers. The army’s morale was decreasing continually until the New Year, 1776.
  3. The British army had the advantage of good discipline, artillery, leaders, and hygiene over the rugged Continental Army.
  4. Independence initially was not the goal of the rebellion but simply protection of one’s liberties
  5. George Washington was known for his extreme self control. He was at first very disappointed and distraught at the caliber of men in his army and was very unsure if he was the right man to lead the colonial army
  6. Washington had an incredible ability to see things as they were and not as he wish they were
  7. Washington led his troops across the Delaware river to attack the British in Trenton. There was extreme weather and delayed them but they went on. It was a huge success for the Americans as they beat the Hessians and British. However, it would be more than 6 years after a treaty was signed with the British in 1783 in Yorktown 
  8. Support from Spain and France was vital. Washington’s ability to learn from his mistakes and to encourage his army were his biggest strengths. He never forgot what was at stake
What I got out of it:
  1. An extremely enticing read which draws the reader in to this extremely important historical time. Interesting to note how unsure the battle was the entire time, that Washington was doubted by his top men and was often unsure of his own ability. However, by never losing his temper, he was able to see things as they truly were, instead of as he wished they were and made better decisions because of it.

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