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Heroes, Historical Consulting, and Marquis James

The roots of historical consulting lie in the early to mid-20th century when corporations began to see their stories as an asset even as professional historians grew more specialized and less interested in institutions. Two biographers led the field. Alan Nevins attempted to craft compelling and contemporary history that met academic standards. Marquis James, on the other hand, favored more historically remote subjects and a more sensational approach.

Marquis James grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the “Cherokee Strip,” the newly opened Oklahoma Indian lands where rapacity (toward both native Americans and less fortunate settlers) was part of daily life. In the 1910s James became a journalist, reaching the height of the profession in reporting on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” that pitted legends William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow.

Then James began the work that had an immediate impact on American popular history, writing biographies of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, and John Nance Garner (Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president). In these works, James demonstrated both an enduring strength: the ability to tell a good story; and fatal weakness: the tendency to see the heroic individual as the locomotive of history.

In 1941, in telling the life story of Alfred I. DuPont, James turned from political biography to business history. Two insurance company histories and books on Texaco and The Bank of America followed. James did meticulous research, but he invariably interpreted his sources to the credit of larger-than-life characters above all else.

This preference for the heroic made James a celebrated author in his day (he won two Pulitzer Prizes in the 1930s) and a forgotten one in ours. For in building up his heroes, James stripped away historical complexities, including the possibility that the bald-faced exploitation which American culture countenanced, and in which many of its legends participated, was anything but heroic.

It seems that at least one of Marquis James’s clients figured this out. In the late 1940s, J. Peter Grace, CEO of the chemical company that his grandfather had built by stripping Latin American countries of guano, commissioned a business biography of the founder.  But when James completed the manuscript, Grace buried it, apparently realizing that documenting in admiring prose the exploitative underpinnings of the W. R. Grace & Company would undermine already fragile relations in Latin America. Merchant Adventurer: The Story of W. R. Grace did not see the light of day until 1993, a year after J. Peter Grace stepped down as CEO.

Today, historical consulting involves much more than the writing of books as it did in the days of Marquis James. And it also must involve much more than reflexively repackaging the one-dimensional legends and self-promotional stories that may have passed as history in an earlier day.

Late Nineteenth: Today’s News Ripped from Yesterday’s Headlines

In 2003, after Behind the Backlash was published, I needed a break from cutting-edge historiography. But I still yearned to read history. So when I encountered a copy of In the Days of McKinley, I bought it. Margaret Leech’s classic (it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960) was the book that had first started me thinking about graduate school more than fifteen years earlier. I rediscovered what had fascinated me in history before I had been trained: the importance of individuals, the strivings of groups, the exhilaration people experience as they are making history, the disappointment they feel after realizing that “history” has had its way with them, and the power of a story well told. I plunged into a personal curriculum of classic popular history.

When I first checked In the Days of McKinley out of the library, I had been a rock musician. Now, rather than performing for audiences I was working with computers, which made songwriting and multi-track recording much easier.

In 2004, the curriculum and the computers gave rise to Late Nineteenth, a historical concept album (I thought of it more as a play) that began with Alfred Thayer Mahan before a chalkboard at the Naval War College and ended with a handful of Ohioans gathered around a country store stove telling stories about the recently assassinated president.

Today the themes that seemed so refreshingly past in 2004 have become depressingly present. So if you are interested in today’s news ripped from yesterday’s headlines—things like political scandal, populist politics, tariffs and protection, an extraordinary split in one of the two major parties, and an attempted march on the Capitol—give Late Nineteenth a listen on the streaming service of your choice.

Free Markets, National Security, and the Defense Production Act

Even as the United States entered World War II, automakers and other companies hoped for business as usual. It made no economic sense for consumer goods manufacturers, demand-starved through the Great Depression, to stop producing—war or no war. But the conquest of Europe and then Pearl Harbor convinced even the staunchest free marketeers in Congress that there were times when the common good had to override market mechanisms.  The results were the first and  second War Powers Acts of 1941 and 1942 which gave the Executive Branch the ability to control broad swaths of the economy in the national defense. Among these powers were the ability to fix wages and prices, ration goods, provide loans and antitrust exemptions, and among the most controversial, the right to allocate materials to industries considered a priority. The Best Made Plans, my biography of Robert R. Nathan, the economist at the center of the World War II planning effort, details the resulting struggle between the Executive Branch, industry, and the military over priorities, allocation, and defense production.

Although the War Powers Act lapsed in the postwar years, when the Korean Conflict began, Congress was quick to heed lessons recently learned. The result was the Defense Production Act of 1950.  At first its powers were nearly as sweeping as those in place during World War II, but Congress gradually removed the most controversial. Renewed many times since 1950, the Defense Production Act has been used regularly by the Executive Branch to bring resources to bear on projects broadly considered to be in the national defense—which, today as in 1941, are often enterprises that market mechanisms alone deem unworthy of investment. Recently invoked by President Trump to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, the Defense Production Act remains in force at least until 2025.

Corky

“Corky:” A Telling Holiday Tradition

It takes minimal equipment: a table, a glass, and a champagne cork. This game began by accident a few years ago and has become a family tradition. It’s a simple thing that says a lot about our family culture. We usually ignore the living room and gather in the kitchen with good food, drink, and the occasional activity. We’re all fiercely competitive, and my daughter prefers literal diminutive names. (Her pets were “fishy,” and “tabby;” our game is “Corky.”) In researching a biography or corporate history that is also a family story, this is exactly the kind of telling tradition I look for. If anyone ever writes about my family, they’d better mention Corky.