Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

July 4, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

4th of July Special: Don’t Despair! #TheConstitution

It worries me – dear Bacon friends – when you despair for our country. I’ve had conversations with several of you lately. Lend me your ears, if you will, for a moment! It’s a great day to be inspired by Joseph Tartakovsky, author of The Lives of the Constitution: Ten Exceptional Minds that Shaped America’s Supreme Law.

Tartakovsky’s recent essay in The Wall Street Journal is a beautiful reminder of how much we have to be proud of – to hope for – and to work for. I’ll begin by quoting from that piece. It led me to his book, which I’m dropping everything for right now.

From The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July 3d:

Since 1789 the average life span of national constitutions world-wide has been 19 years, according to scholars at the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, “We the People of the United States” are now well into the third century under our Constitution. We’ve lived under the same written charter longer than any people on earth. We’ve had regular federal elections every two years, uninterrupted even by the Civil War.

Yet America’s Founders had serious doubts about the durability of their “experiment.” Alexander Hamilton, in an 1802 letter to Gouverneur Morris, wondered why he had wasted his best years defending our “frail and worthless” charter. In 1832 Chief Justice John Marshall, near the end of his 34-year tenure, lamented in private correspondence that “our Constitution cannot last.”

You might think America’s track record in the subsequent 200 years would inspire greater confidence. Yet many people today feel, as they have after many fraught elections, that the president is either a savior or the harbinger of doom. So it’s worth reflecting on why the Constitution has endured.

There is, first, its text: It is rigid enough to restrain excesses, yet flexible enough to accommodate innovations. It is so terse that you could fold it into a paper airplane (though the guards at the National Archives would prefer you didn’t). It presumes that both governors and the governed will act mostly responsibly. But as Robert H. Jackson, a future Supreme Court justice, explained in 1937: “Checks and balances work as effectively on spite, jealousy or personal ambition as they do on patriotism or principle.”

The Framers also created the world’s first constitution to institutionalize the principle of human equality. Consider that it was an immigrant who put the words “We the People” into the Constitution. He was James Wilson, the brilliant but forgotten Scottish-born founder who taught that under monarchy, in the “attempt to make one person more than man, millions must be made less.”

Popular rule had become more than a slogan. Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 from France, where the crowned heads at Versailles dared not mingle with their people. He was astonished to meet state governors who had kept their day jobs as farmers. Later Tocqueville visited Andrew Jackson in the White House, where the president himself, with no servant in sight, served glasses of Madeira.

America’s progress in respecting the real implications of equality has at times been slow, even glacial, especially with regard to race. As early as 1876, black fathers in Kansas sought to have their children admitted to schools on equal terms with white children. Yet Brown v. Board of Education would not come for another 78 years. The truth that justice will be forever approximated but never achieved is reflected in the paradoxical words of the Constitution’s preamble: the aim of forming a “more perfect” union.

That impossibly shrewd phrase suggests that Americans have a miraculous thing that we must nevertheless strive to make better. In the 1940s, we interned Japanese-Americans out of misbegotten wartime racial hysteria. But we also apologized for it in a 1998 law that was co-sponsored by then-Rep. Norman Mineta. As a child, Mr. Mineta had been taken to an internment camp in Wyoming. He went on to serve 20 years in the House and five years as secretary of transportation…

Constitutionalism is not a mere institutional form but a culture—a set of sentiments, habits and assumptions, a permeating spirit that animates an otherwise lifeless paper scheme. Without this instinctive loyalty, the Constitution’s checks and balances are barricades of foam and counterweights of butterfly’s breath. It is not in having a constitution that our strength lies, but in cherishing it. So long as we keep the faith, our Constitution will be displaced no sooner than an ant tips over the Statue of Liberty.

I wish I could include the whole article! Email me if you want my copy (or subscribe to the WSJ)..

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Enter Tartakovsky’s book:

From David Lat’s recent article in Above the Law:

The Constitution is, you could say, “having a moment.” Thanks to our controversial president, clauses and concepts that don’t get much love — like impeachment, the pardon power, and the Emoluments Clause — are suddenly in the public spotlight.

In Constitutional Law courses, the story of our founding document often unfolds through cases, from Marbury to Brown to Obergefell. But we must remember that it’s also the story of people — We the People, who brought the Constitution into being and who live under its principles.

So if you want to intelligently discuss the latest constitutional issues triggered by the current administration, then you need to understand the people behind the provisions — which is where a notable new book, The Lives of the Constitution by Joseph Tartakovsky, comes in. I recently interviewed Tartakovsky… about his work.

DL: Like many of our readers, you started your legal career by clerking for a federal judge and working at a top law firm, but now you spend your days in a very different way. Tell us a bit about your transition from lawyer to author.

JT: Thanks, David. For four years before law school I was a journalist, writing for magazines and newspapers on literature and history, and an editor at the Claremont Review of Books. By the middle of law school I knew that I wanted to see constitutional law in practice. After three great years at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, in San Francisco, I joined the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, as Deputy Solicitor General. Perfect for me, since no state gives you a better vantage to see federalism and the separation of powers as they look in real life. Nevada is 86% federal land, so collisions with the U.S. authorities are frequent and tense. Meanwhile, over many nights and weekends, I labored away on The Lives of the Constitution. This makes me, unavoidably, an author, but I still see myself as a lawyer, just one with an almost uncontrollable preoccupation with history.

DL: The conceit of The Lives of the Constitution, telling the story of our nation’s founding document through biographies of ten great individuals who influenced its development, is an excellent one. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Joseph Tartakovsky

JT: I believe that the story of the Constitution is not merely the story of court cases or theories of interpretation. It is the story of human beings; of Americans; of our politics, culture, economics, elections, wars, depressions, struggles, victories. Plutarch, in his history of the Greeks and Romans, proved that the best way to capture a civilization is to pick a number of figures who did exceptional things and then to follow them through their adventures in life. Examining an individual’s life gives you insights that you’d miss if you just read, say, the documents they wrote. For instance, you can’t understand Alexander Hamilton’s constitutional thought without studying his revolutionary war service.

DL: You’ve picked ten important and influential individuals to profile — but given the longevity and significance of the Constitution, you had to leave many out. Can you share with us how you settled upon these ten figures for the book?

JT: I wanted to recount the history of America from founding to present and to introduce readers to unknown stories. I have famous but misunderstood people, like Alexis de Tocqueville and Woodrow Wilson, and largely forgotten folks like James Bryce and Robert Jackson. Above all I went for people who said striking things that teach us something enduring about our constitutional history.

For instance, I first heard of Ida Wells-Barnett, an ex-slave who became our leading anti-lynching crusader in the 1890s, when I read her remark that all black families ought to have a Winchester rifle in a “place of honor” in their home. There’s a lot of constitutional history packed into that statement. I have a chapter on James Wilson, the most important framer no one has heard of, who produced a volume on our Constitution that is as good as the Federalist. And Justice Stephen Field, a Gold Rush lawyer appointed by Lincoln, made arguments about the right to work and regulation that failed to carry the day but that, a century after his death, are now being adopted by courts.

For more of David’s terrific interview with JT, click here.

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From an interview at Joseph Tartakovsky’s website:

Q:   What’s the biggest misconception about the Constitution?

A:   That faithfulness to the Constitution is simply a matter of ventriloquizing the forefathers. Would it were possible. We rightly revere the Founding Fathers, a glorious generation whose genius did more than any other in history to teach humanity about free government. But as James Madison said, “doubt and difficulties” in interpreting the Constitution would inevitably arise.  To say the least. Once the Constitution took effect in 1788, the Founders fell out bitterly on question after constitutional question: the President’s power over foreign policy, the legality of the federal bank, the scope of free speech and the Commerce Clause, and so on. To me, far more illuminating than the founders’ agreements were their disagreements. We honor the men of 1787 most faithfully by trying not to speak in their name but rather to engage in the far harder task of trying to be Americans of their kind—to approach constitutional dilemmas with their intelligence, learning, and patriotism.

Q:   You write about some famous figures, like Alexander Hamilton and Woodrow Wilson. Why cover this territory?

A:   Alexander Hamilton and Woodrow Wilson provide timeless constitutional lessons. And both are misunderstood. Hamilton has always played second fiddle to Thomas Jefferson. Yet it was Hamilton’s vision of the Constitution, not Jefferson’s, that prevailed. Hamilton gave us the interpretation of a Constitution of breadth, power, flexibility, fit for a nation destined to overmaster the world. The boasts of every State of the Union speech, from our imposing, far-flung military to the President’s stewardship over the economy, were Hamilton’s dream, and Jefferson’s nightmare. Yet Jefferson has a marble temple erected to him in D.C. and Hamilton just barely kept his place on the $10 note. Even with the musical, plainly, his reputation is still not secure.

Woodrow Wilson gets the opposite treatment. Here is a president who has been out of office for 100 years and yet is blamed for everything from undermining the Constitution’s separation of powers to masterminding the present administrative state. Right or wrong, Wilson is fascinating as a president who also spent 25 years as a constitutional scholar and historian. In particular, few Americans ever spoke so eloquently about the question of how to adapt the Constitution to the predicaments of later ages. “The Constitution was not made to fit us like a straightjacket,” he said. “There were blank pages in it, into which could be written passages that would suit the exigencies of the day.” That’s a view of the Constitution that Americans will always wrestle with, even those who disagree.

Q:    What is important about Ida Wells-Barnett?

A:   Ida Wells-Barnett was a black woman born a slave in Mississippi in 1862 who, by the 1890s, was undisputed as the greatest journalist-crusader in American history against lynching. She helped awaken the nation’s conscience to brutality and sadism of the South’s treatment of its black citizens. Her efforts began (but hardly ended) the march toward actually enforcing the Constitution in favor of penniless and terrorized blacks. Wells-Barnett was also a suffragist. The saga of women’s rights from Seneca Falls in 1848 to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 is the richest illustration of how profound constitutional change is instigated by ordinary Americans. I find people like Wells-Barnett, or her friend Susan B. Anthony, something like unacknowledged founders. Anthony, for instance, died years before Americans ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. But it makes no sense to describe her as anything but a framer of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Q:   This book covers our whole history, but it’s only 220 pages. Why so short?

A:   Doing the research needed to write a work of history and law renewed my appreciation for brevity in books. My goal was to write something instructive, entertaining, and short. We’re all busy. Most nights, before turning to my book, I read to my little girls at bedtime. Toddler books are usually about 12 pages. One even had 12 words. They served as models.

Q:   What advice do your figures have for Americans today?

A:    First, the best antidote to hysteria is a good dose of history. The Constitution has been pronounced dead more or less constantly since the beginning of the republic. Yet the truth is that in earlier eras our predecessors suffered worse strains and faced deadlier enemies. The past gives us a sense of proportion and a chance to avoid repeating our worst mistakes. Second, self-government gives us more than any other form of government, but it also requires more of us, too. James Wilson, a figure in my book—and the most important founder you never heard of—taught that we had a duty to cherish the Constitution, if we wanted it to last. “There is not in the whole science of politics a more solid or a more important maxim than this,” he said, “that of all governments, those are the best, which, by the natural effect of their constitutions, are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles.”

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Happy 4th, Bacon friends!!

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Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears! Love you Mary Jo Shankle and Dara Russell, recent co-chairs of Frist Gala.

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Top image credit here.

Last image credit here.

June 27, 2018
by jenniferpuryear

True Crime: The Feather Thief

It’s fun to pull for the bad guys in a summer flick, especially when they’re not Too bad. I just rewatched Ocean’s Eleven – George Clooney! Matt Damon! Brad Pitt! Even without popcorn and a coke, this was a good way to spend a few hours getting in the mood for Ocean’s Eight. Nothing lately has made me happier than pulling for the young vagabond Han Solo and the anti-heroine Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

If true crime is more your style, you’ll want to know about an intriguing new book by Kirk Wallace Johnson, The Feather Thief. Sara Bhatia returns to Bacon today for an in-depth, spirited review.

From Sara:

I love stories about museum heists. They are sentimental crimes, with burglars risking all in the hope of acquiring an item of exquisite beauty or inestimable worth. Of course, that assumes that the loot is an item of great value – like a precious gemstone or Munch’s “The Scream” (which has been stolen twice!). But feathers?

Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief is a fascinating true crime story about a brazen theft of exquisite tropical bird feathers from a natural history museum on the outskirts of London. The narrative reads like a thriller, but the book’s most impressive contribution is Johnson’s ability to place the crime within its historical context. Other reviewers have drawn comparisons to Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, with its similar unmasking of a subculture of collectors teetering on the edge of the law, and the author’s brooding on the nature of obsession.

The facts: in June 2009, Edwin Rist, a 20-year old American flautist studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music, boarded a commuter train to a London suburb. He walked to a satellite location of the British Museum of Natural History, which housed a world class ornithology collection filled with rare birds of incalculable historic and scientific importance. Under shadow of night, Rist broke a window on the second floor of the museum, and entered. Eluding security guards, Rist spent hours in the ornithology collection and stuffed 299 tropical bird skins valued at $1 million into a large suitcase. He made his escape, and took the pre-dawn commuter train back to his London flat.

Edwin Rist, photo from The Daily Mail

During the 18 months between the execution of the crime and Rist’s apprehension, he made tens of thousands of dollars selling complete bird skins and packets of plucked feathers. But while Rist certainly profited financially, his motivation for the crime was more intriguing – he desperately wanted the feathers for his own collection. Rist burgled the museum in pursuit of his art.

In addition to being a musical prodigy, Edwin Rist was a world-class tier of decorative fishing flies. In past centuries, fishermen constructed brightly colored ties as baits for fly fishing; today fly-tying is a highly stylized art form with virtually no relation to function. An elaborate salmon fly can take 10 hours to create and may feature dozens of different materials, such as polar bear fur, and most importantly, exotic feathers.  A specimen crafted by a master tier can sell for $2,000. They are genuinely works of art. As a teenager, Edwin Rist was among the most accomplished fly-tiers in the world. In the small, tightly knit international community of fly-tiers, Edwin Rist was a rock star.

More specifically, Rist was a member of an elite group of fly-tiers inspired by the Victorian practitioners who perfected the craft.

The first elaborate fly Rist learned to tie, at 14, was “the Durham Ranger,” a tie invented in the 1840s (the instructions for tying a fly are charmingly referred to as “recipes”). While the feathers Rist first used were mundane and from easily accessible domestic species, Victorian recipes called for more exotic combinations. Johnson writes, “The fly was like a snapshot of the British Empire at midcentury – employing plumes shipped up by Ostrich farmers in the Cape Colony, Blue Chatterer and Indian Crow extracted from British Guiana, and Golden Pheasant crated in the port of Hong Kong.”

Alas the materials available to 19th century fly-tiers are no longer readily nor legally available. Twenty-first century tiers may crave rare feathers from Resplendent Quetzals and Birds of Paradise, but those feathers derive from endangered and protected species.  Johnson describes Rist and his peers in the world of fly-tying as “marooned in the wrong century… The new tiers were dedicated to an art form that could no longer be practiced without great difficulty.”

Contemporary fly tied by expert Muzzy Muzeroll

So today elite fly-tiers seek alternative sources for rare (and often illegal) feathers. They haunt estate sales and antique stores looking for old stuffed birds and decorative plumes from ladies’ hats. Rist once persuaded the Bronx Zoo to send him feathers from the annual molt of its tropical birds. While these novel approaches occasionally succeeded, they are unreliable sources of material. So most elite fly-tiers use easily available substitute feathers from game and breeder birds, even while coveting rare and pricey authentic feathers.

But for the truly passionate, there’s also a lively – and largely unregulated – trade in illegal feathers. The CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), with 181 signatories, has sought to protect 33,000 species of plants and animals, including 1,500 bird species. Yet CITES has focused on larger, more lucrative targets, like rhino horns and elephant tusks, while doing little to regulate the trade in bird skins and feathers. At trade shows and on eBay, tiers can purchase exquisitely colored rare feathers from illegal sources. A set of six tiny Indian Crow feathers no bigger than a fingernail could cost $100. Johnson does a fine job exploring the ways in which the Internet – for better or worse – has created a subculture of fly-tiers and provided a platform for only loosely regulated sales of feathers and bird skins. They even have a term for this passion: feather porn.

Edwin Rist was both a contributor to and a beneficiary of this subterranean culture of fly-tiers obsessed with rare feathers. In online forums for fly tiers, he learned techniques and developed his own distinctive ties, and found sources for rare feathers. At trade shows, he connected with peers fueled his passion to acquire vast quantities of gorgeous and exotic feathers to practice his art. A chance conversation alerted Rist – an American – to the British Museum of Natural History’s world-class ornithography collection in the London suburbs. Within his first semester at the Royal Academy of Music, Rist had forged academic credentials for himself in order to gain entry to the collection and plot his burglary. Through the online world, he found a market to sell stolen product.

While many readers will no doubt be riveted by Johnson’s recounting of the actual heist, my favorite chapters were essentially sidebars to the main plot. After laying out the essential details of the crime, Johnson spends the first third of the book down various rabbit holes, with chapters creating the context for the “feather frenzy” of the 19th century, which gave birth to the art of salmon fly-tying.

For instance, the Victorian passion for fly-tying converged with the 19th century mania for collecting and interest in the natural world. This era saw the development of natural history museums, and dozens of scientific societies dedicated to exploration and discovery. Sparked by Charles Darwin, naturalists circled the globe collecting specimens; royal societies named hundreds of new species each year. Johnson devotes the opening chapter of The Feather Thief to Alfred Russel Wallace, who created the field of biogeography, through his meticulous recording of the geographic distribution of species. Dozens of his bird skins – painstakingly tagged with scientific and geographical data still useful to scientists today to study the impact of pesticides and global warming, for example – were among those looted by Rist from the Tring collection.

Alfred Russel Wallace

And there’s a terrific chapter on the rage for feathers in fashion, sparked by Marie Antoinette, whom Johnson terms “patient zero for the feather fever.” Johnson charts the fashion fad, but more importantly, describes the devastating impact on tropical bird species. It’s hard to fully comprehend the impact of this feather craze – Johnson notes “by 1900 eighty-three thousand New Yorkers were employed in the millinery trade, for which some two hundred million North American birds were killed each year.” With the diminishing populations of birds – and particular, exotic birds of the tropical islands – the value of the feathers soared. In 1900, an ounce of Snowy Egret’s feathers cost $32, compared with $20 for an ounce of gold. On the commodities market, feathers were second only to diamonds in value. Remarkably, when the Titanic sunk in 1912, the most valuable and highly insured merchandise on board was forty crates of feathers.

I found all the chapters on the historical context for the feather craze fascinating – who knew feathers could be such fun? Like a great documentary film,  a great non-fiction book can immerse you in a subject you never thought you cared about. Passion is contagious.

And yet, The Feather Thief is not quite a great book. The retelling of the facts of the actual crime doesn’t demand book-length treatment, in part because, once arrested, Rist readily confessed. This is not a whodunnit. Without the many side-bars of discussion on historical context and the fly fishing community, the story of the heist itself could easily have been an article in the New Yorker, rather than a full-length book. That’s okay with me, though, because I loved all the historic filler. What I liked less, though, was the back end of the book.

The final third of The Feather Thief shifts to first person voice, as the the author, Kirk Wallace Johnson, inserts himself into the story. Johnson stumbled upon Rist’s strange tale while fly-fishing in New Mexico and became fascinated by Rist’s strange crime and the dark underworld of illegal trade in endangered species and feathers. For three years following Edwin Rist’s lenient sentencing – a stiff fine with no jail time – Johnson took up the mantle of an investigative journalist, and he documents his research in great detail.

I frankly found this final section the least satisfying part of The Feather Thief. Johnson is unable to transcend his own biases – he evinces a clear sympathy for the pilfered museum and the case for scientific inquiry (me too!) – to allow the reader to empathize with Rist’s failed quest. Rist’s lenient sentence is based on a diagnosis of Asperger’s, which Johnson deems spurious. Instead, he brands Edwin Rist as an unscrupulous thief with little interest in the consequence of his actions. This may be an apt characterization, but is less compelling to a reader.

Part of the thrill of a good heist story is rooting for the bad guys. In The Feather Thief, we never really get to know Edwin Rist, despite his tepid cooperation with the book (Johnson scored a single marathon interview which revealed surprisingly little). There’s not much attention paid to character development. Johnson holds Rist and the fly-tying community at arm’s length – the best books about obsession work because the reader grows to identify with the obsessed, or to at least empathize with their obsession.

But ultimately the back third of the book is unsatisfying because Johnson’s detective work failed to bear much fruit. Without notable investigatory triumphs, these chapters fall a little flat – it’s like reading a detailed description of a researcher’s dead ends.

Nevertheless, The Feather Thief was a fine read – a thoroughly engrossing look at a quirky crime and a fascinating subculture. Johnson’s forays down historical tangents – the development of Victorian museums, the impact of the railway and the democratization of fly fishing, the scientific uses for 200-year old bird carcasses, and the feather frenzy of 19th century fashion, to name a few – were fabulous. Johnson successfully illustrates the strange subculture of fly-tying enthusiasts, and is particularly compelling in his portrayal of Rist’s crime and as the inevitable outcome of passionate hobbyists gone amok. His explorations of the nature of obsession and his finger pointing at the fly tying community for its complicity in Rist’s crime were equally intriguing. Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating book.

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Bonus from Sara!  “Art heists are hot at the movies this summer. I’m gathering my girlfriends to see Ocean’s 8 (with a fabulous all-female cast), which centers on a plot to steal a $150 million diamond necklace from the Met Gala. And my husband and I loved American Animals, a dramatized true story about a group of bored college students in Kentucky who plot to steal James Audubon’s Birds of America, the most expensive book in the world, from the rare books section of the university library. Campy, fun, and audacious.”


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Bacon contributor Sara Bhatia lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two nearly grown sons. She volunteers as a docent and community educator at the Newseum (DC’s museum dedicated to the First Amendment). This fall, she will return to school to earn a master’s degree in Museum Studies at George Washington University. In preparation, she’s been staking out the DC museum scene, visiting a museum a week, looking for ideas for a master’s thesis, and maybe planning a heist or two.