Category Archives: 5-Star Reviews

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Americans like to praise themselves for their ability to recognize, and to rise above their prejudices; to eventually do the right thing by those that have been oppressed and marginalized in our society. We praise Abraham Lincoln for emancipating the slaves; we praise Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for eventually achieving women’s suffrage; we praise Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and most especially Martin Luther King Jr. for Civil Rights advances in the 1960s; and we revere the genius of the founders for producing governing documents that lend themselves to an interpretation that asserts more freedom, more compassion, more equality, and more liberty for our citizens. We use this praise to assert a progressive vision of America and its institutions.

Each of those mentioned above, along with many, many others, are deserving of the praise accorded them. But, instead of using their example as proof of the worthiness of our system, what we should perhaps be doing a lot more of, is asking why we always seem to get into situations where change requires the extraordinary efforts of extraordinary people to accomplish it. Why can we not EVER learn from past experience to keep us from making the same mistakes over and over and over again?

I do think a system that produces men like Thurgood Marshall, Harry T. Moore, and Charles Hamilton Houston certainly must have its admirable qualities, and I think that is in part attributable to the foresight of the founders. But we are also a country that cannot seem to learn from its mistakes. We tolerated discrimination and violence against African Americans for far too long, and still tolerate it. We are the same country that allowed travesties like the subject of this great book, the “Groveland Boys” case, to occur (only a decade before I was born), and we seem to be sliding back into an ethic that again condones prejudice and discrimination.

Martin Luther King Jr famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would love to believe that, and I hope it is true, but my faith in that notion is being sorely tested. Books like this one, shine a very bright light on our history, and force us to face the notion that we should not only be praised for overcoming our own evil, but rather should be criticized for allowing it to fester for so long.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King is an absolutely superb book. A beautifully and tightly written narrative, it recounts the events surrounding the Groveland, FL rape case in 1949. Four African American men – Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – were falsely accused of raping 17 year old Norma Lee Padgett. Railroaded by a racist Sheriff, the odious and evil Willis V. McCall, a racist judge Truman Futch, and a go along to get along prosecutor Jesse Hunter ,the four men were convicted of the crime despite there being no evidence other than planted shoe impressions, and the word of Padgett herself.

Parallel to this narrative is a history of Thurgood Marshall and his time as lead council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Eventually the two stories intersect as the NAACP takes on the case of the “Groveland Boys, ” taking it to the Supreme Court twice, and eventually the office of the Florida Governor.

While this is a historic event whose outcome is well known, it is not a story many have heard before. The narrative style of the book demands some level of uncertainty as to its outcome for it to have the full effect. So I won’t be providing any spoilers here. This is ironic because knowing the level of racism in the south, the sway the KKK still had over whole swaths of the region, including Lake County, FL where this takes place, the ending seems foreshadowed. Still, there are enough twists and turns in the story to more than keep your attention and turn this into a genuine page turner.

I think part the author’s intention with this book was to inspire us with the stories of men like Marshall who were able to use their intellect, morality and persistence to overcome injustice from inside the system, and with the courage of the Groveland Boys themselves who, despite having to endure what can only be described as torture – both physical and mental – asserted their innocence knowing to do so would almost certainly result in their deaths.

I was inspired by them. But contrary, I believe, to the authors further intention, this did not lead me to believe in the efficacy of our system, or that it inevitably bends us toward justice. From my perspective, it is just the opposite. Justice is achieved despite our system. Only through the courage of people like the heroes in this story, who had to overcome a system stacked against them at almost every level, do we ever make progress toward a more just state.

This book is must reading!

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The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

I read this book many years ago during a militant pro-environment, animal rights phase of my life. Much older now I decided to pick it up again and see if I feel the same way about now as I did back then. I can’t say that I do in exactly the same way, but I admit it did stir the desire I think everyone has, to get a hold of some cause and devote to it so totally that almost any action taken on its behalf is seems justified.

The “Money Wrench Gang,” was written by Edward Abbey, a noted militant environmentalist with anarchical leanings, in 1975, and is credited by some as the inspiration for the Earth First movement which gained a foothold in the 1980s. It follows the adventures of four restless, environmentally minded eccentrics; a mildly Libertarian surgeon and his nurse/girlfriend/companion, a Jack Mormon river guide with three wives, and a slovenly, profane former Green Beret and Vietnam veteran with the all time great character name of George Washington Hayduke.

Brought together on a guided river tour, the four bemoan a system that is increasingly destroying the remaining untouched open spaces in the American West. They decide the only way to halt its degradation is by hitting those who profit from it where they hurt – their pocket books.

Dubbing themselves the Monkey Wrench Gang, they embark on a campaign of direct action, destroying the implements used by the system to effect environmental destruction – road construction equipment, power lines, railways etc. All the while they manage to stay a step ahead of some of the cartoonishly funny law enforcement personnel looking to catch them. They eventually escalate their attacks in a way that has profound effects for their future and for their ability to keep up their campaign.

And that is as far as I go so as not to spoil it for folks who have not read it.

Abbey’s writing style is by turns straight forward and insistent, allegorical, and at times, particularly when describing the environment the Monkey Wrench Gang is trying to save, quite lyrical. The book is often humorous and ribald, even as it tries to make a serious point. The characters are colorful, bigger than life ,and boldly drawn by Abbey, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Still, the overall effect is really inspiring. And, it is never boring.

I am older now, and no longer see things as black and white (though the Age of Trump is sorely testing me there), so I don’t think tactics such as these are useful in real life. But damn, sometimes I really wish they were.

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ImaginedCommunities



As someone who has studied American history almost exclusively, I found Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson to be a refreshing and highly readable look at the cultural origins of, and theoretical explanations for, the rise of nationalism. Though often referencing histories and cultures with which I am unfamiliar, Anderson does a nice job of explaining their relevance to the overall theory he is trying to explain, in a way that doesn’t require extensive, or even passing knowledge of their origins. Perhaps as a result of my relatively limited experience with the histories of cultures outside of the United States, I found some of his conclusions relative to how American historical experience bolstered his arguments, to be somewhat questionable. Most specifically, his rejection of Tom Nairn’s view that nationalist movements have been popular in character and have made an effort to “induct the lower classes into political life,” is contrary to most of what I have read. (Anderson, 48) I also had some difficulty with his description of the American failure to absorb Canada and the existence of an independent Texas Republic, as examples of a comparative failure to form an English-wide-America, and with his simplistic description of the American Civil War as a simple contradiction of economies between North and South. Lastly, though I largely agree with his assertion that nationalism did not arise from “self-consciously held political ideologies,” I would argue that in the case of the United States this might be underestimated.

Anderson divides his book using three broad themes. First, he posits a definition of nationalism in which he introduces his theory of an “imagined community.” Second, he describes the cultural origins of nationalism as the result not of “self-consciously held political ideologies,” but as cultural systems that came earlier, specifically, religious community and the dynastic realm. It was the breakdown of these communities, along with a changed perception of the character of time and space, Anderson argues, that opened the door to the rise of nationalism. Lastly, he describes the confluence of events that gave rise to nationalism, how it became modernized and was replicated, and how it manifested itself at different times and in different regions.

Anderson has developed his theory of the rise of nationalism as an answer to three paradoxes that he describes as having “perplexed” other theorists of nationalism. These are, the “objective” modernity of nations as historians see them versus their antiquity as seen by nationalists, the concept of nationality as a socio-cultural concept versus the surety of its “concrete manifestations,” and the political power of nationalism versus its philosophical incoherence. (Anderson, 5) In part, to explain these paradoxes, Anderson proposes the following definition of nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (Anderson, 6) Nations are imagined because its citizens will never know the vast majority of their fellows, it is limited because it exists within finite boundaries, and it is sovereign because it was born “in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” (Anderson, 7) Within time and space the nation’s members view themselves as part of a broad community, moving together through time.

Anderson describes nationalism in relation to its antecedents – religious community and dynastic realm. He argues it is the breakdown of these that provided the opening for nationalism to rise. He also Religious communities were bound together through the use of symbols and sacred texts. A universal understanding of the sacredness of their language as mediated by the intelligentsia gave cohesion to religious communities. Exploration of the non-European world and the loss of confidence in the uniqueness of this sacred language explains, in part, the gradual breakdown of these religious communities. Concomitant with this were changes in the nature of the dynastic realm. These were characterized by centers of power, specifically in the person of a monarch. By definition, these communities were “porous” and indistinct. By the 17th century, the legitimacy of these dynastic monarchies came into question in Western Europe. In addition to this breakdown Anderson also contends the rise in popularity of the novel and newspapers caused conceptions of time and space to change. Rather than time being simultaneous, or as he describes it, in “messianic time,” the idea that everyone in society was moving forward as a community through calendrical time became dominant.

Preceding the rise of nationalism was the interaction between capitalism and communication, specifically the printing press. Anderson argues capitalism was important because the explosion in print distribution abetted the revolution in the use of vernacular languages. This provided a path for the use of language as a way to centralize political and governmental administration. Print languages created a unified way to conduct trade and communicate, thus altering and widening the conception of community.

While extraordinarily important in Anderson’s thesis this confluence of capitalism and print did not in and of itself lead to the rise of nationalism. One must also look at the formation of creole communities in the new world, and why they formed conceptions of their own nation-ness before it took hold in Europe. He defines creole nations as those created and led by people who shared a language with those against whom they fought to gain their independence. He concentrates primarily on those nations formed in opposition to the Spanish empire, with some discussion of the American break with Great Britain. He attributes this rise of nation-ness to a number of factors: the attempts at control by the “metropole” gave rise to an “us vs. them” mentality; the spread of ideas related to the enlightenment; the “willingness of the comfortable classes to sacrifice themselves; the improvement in trans-Atlantic communications; and the rise of the newspaper which “implied [a] refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time.” (Anderson, 52, 63)

Anderson then observes that with the successful formation of nation-states in the new world came the beginning of an era of nationalist expansion in Europe. Specifically, the widespread distribution of print media and the growing strength and particularization of vernacular languages allowed these proto-nations to replicate or “modularize” the example of new world liberation to complete their own nationalist formation.

Anderson takes issue with the views of Tom Nairn, who, in a Marxist critique of nationalism, argues that “nationalist movements have been invariably populist in outlook and sought to induct lower classes into political life.” (Anderson, 48) Rather, Anderson contends, in many proto-nations it was the fear of lower-class mobilization, “to wit, Indian, or Negro-slave uprisings,” that spurred the drive for independence, (Anderson, 48) Most of his examples here involve nations attempting to break away from the domination of Madrid. However, he also uses the United States as an example of this, pointing out “that many of the leaders of the independence movement in the Thirteen Colonies were slave-owning agrarian magnates…who in the 1770s were enraged by the loyalist governor’s proclamation freeing those slaves who broke wi6th their seditious masters.” (Anderson, 49) As I know little of the independence movements in Central and South America I will not dispute Anderson’s contentions with regards those nations, however, as it relates to American independence I do question the definition of the lower-classes as simply Indians and Negro-slaves. Certainly they were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, however, there was an entire class of yeoman farmer and mechanic who I would consider lower class. Howard Zinn (author of A People’s History of the United States) would disagree. He views this class as a proto middle class, designed, in part, to buffer the wealthy from the demands of the lower class. While a conventional interpretation of the American Revolution notes the common cause the wealthy and lower classes made to defeat the British – an interpretation I agree with – Anderson and Zinn would likely argue they were making common cause to protect their economic interests on the backs of the poor who ended up doing most of the fighting. There is some truth in this, although studies specifically looking at the motivations of the militia and Continental Army find it tracks very closely to the rhetoric extolling liberty and freedom that is the conventional wisdom.

Ultimately Spain was unable to establish a Spanish-wide community in the new world, largely due to limitations of technology and an inability to control a region so large. Anderson uses the failure of the United States to assimilate Canada, and the temporary existence of an Independent Texas Republic as evidence the United States was unable to create an English-American wide community parallel to the Spanish failure. I question his conclusion here. The failure of America to assimilate Canada was not the result of the backwardness of capitalism or a lack of “technology in relation to the Administrative outreach of the empire.” (Anderson, 63) The American failure to assimilate Canada was a largely a military one, combined with a lack of will. Had Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec in 1775 been successful – as it nearly was – Canada would very likely be part of the United State today. Had the United States had the political will to commit the resources necessary to wage a true war against the British in Canada in 1812 it is not inconceivable at least part of Canada would have been ceded to the United States as part of a peace settlement. The limits of “administrative outreach” are belied by the subsequent expansion to the Pacific, and the successful war against Mexico. Anderson also uses the example of the American Civil War to further support his point regarding the limits of the “bonds of nationalism.” (Anderson, 64) He argues that the combined effects of rapid expansion and economic differences resulted in this conflict. Again, I question this assertion. The issue of slavery was primary. Had it not been there is no evidence this rupture would have occurred. The conflict over slavery had economic aspects certainly, particularly in the debate over the relative merits of a free-labor vs. slave-labor economy. And there were certainly issues related to the rapid expansion of the country, but these were primarily political and related to the expansion of the slave power into western territories. None but the most rabid southern nationalist actually desired the break. It was only the perceived (not actual) inflexibility of those opposed to the expansion of slavery west that induced them to feel otherwise. I really don’t think Anderson made a particularly compelling case for the limits of capitalism and the deleterious effects of “administrative stretch” using the United States as an example of it.

Lastly, while I agree with his rejection of “self-consciously held political ideologies” as a cause for the rise of nationalism, I do think he might have pointed to the experience of the United States as an exception that proves the rule. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the break with Great Britain was cloaked in ideology. Notions of liberty and republicanism were central to involving all classes in the effort. The success of Thomas Paine’s publications and the use of slogans such as “taxation without representation,” show that at least at a popular level, ideology was an important ingredient in the rise of American nationalism. Now, Zinn and Nairn would likely argue these assertions of fealty to liberty and freedom were propaganda designed to lull the masses into compliance. That it was ironic that a country fighting for natural rights would still deny them to most of the population even after independence is not lost on me. However, as an explanation for the rise of nationalism it really does not matter what the reality of these assertions were, it only mattered what people believed they were. And there is ample evidence Americans of all classes internalized them, and still internalize them as the (often shallow) regard American’s have for the popular notion of the founding shows.

Overall this is really compelling reading. Like the work of Gary Gerstle in American Crucible, this really makes you look at nationalism in ways that challenge common conceptions. With the exceptions I noted above I found Anderson’s thesis very persuasive. Once read there is little chance you will read any account of America’s founding and growth in the same light.

 

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Murder



Written in the style of a murder mystery, Suzanne Lebsock in A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial has given us a work which is both entertaining and learned. The way a good mystery leaves something unresolved at the end of each chapter, so does Lebsock, turning what could have been an interesting, but dry, look at race relations in post-reconstruction era Virginia, into a real page turner. More importantly however, she has written a book that gives a real life glimpse into the economic, social, and political lives of both blacks and whites in rural Lunenberg, Virginia following the Civil War. And although not explicitly stated by her, I am of the opinion that in exploring this set of events, Lebsock is reflecting the racial consequences of the new south ideology given voice by C. Vann Woodward, primarily in his works, Origins of the New South and The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

A Murder in Virginia centers on the murder of one Lucy Jane Pollard, wife of farmer Edward S. Pollard. Her body was discovered a few feet from her home, Lucy Pollard had been “murdered with an ax on a sticky June afternoon in 1895”[1] Suspicion immediately and predictably fell on black suspects, and within two days, “though no physical evidence linked them to the crime, six black women had been arrested for her murder.”[2] Later, a black man, Solomon Marable was also arrested. As Lebsock shows us, the arrest of these black suspects was the last predictable thing about this case.

Contradicting earlier looks at the new south which have tended to take an optimistic view of the post reconstruction period, emphasizing north-south reconciliation following the end of military reconstruction, and taking a sympathetic view of the redeemers (the men who helped restore white supremacy), C. Vann Woodward takes a decidedly darker, and less continuous view. Following reconstruction, and as a result of the compromise that put Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House in exchange for southern home rule, northern monied interests combined with southern Democrats to restore white rule in the South. With the failure of southern populism and its initial appeal to racial harmony, southern conservatives used the bogeyman of black domination to frighten poor whites into line. From then on, blacks saw the rights they had gained during and immediately after reconstruction fade away, and eventually saw the installation of Jim Crow throughout the south.

This process was not instantaneous however, leading to one of the more controversial aspects of Woodward’s work; his contention that race relations during this period were in flux, and were much more flexible than was generally thought. A Murder in Virginia reflects this flexibility, where aside from the initial suspicion that the murderers were black, and the worries they would be lynched on the way to trial, nothing about this case seemed to go the way we would expect based on our normal assumptions of the nature of race relations after the Civil War. This is evidenced throughout the book. There is the casual nature of the relationships between blacks and whites; with Lucy Pollard making dinner for one of the accused who worked on her farm. And one is struck by the power of John Mitchell, the black man who led the effort to defend the accused women, who was a member of the Richmond city council, an editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, and who rubbed shoulders with many of the most powerful white men in the city. Also interesting were the number of former confederate lawyers who were willing to help the women with their defense, the impartiality of the Virginia Supreme Court in ordering retrials, the decision of Judge Samuel F. Coleman to order a new trial for the defendants, and the efforts of Governor Charles O’Ferrell who later called out the state militia to protect the defendants against possible lynchings, and pardoned defendant Mary Barnes. Even Lunenberg county officials, who had initially convicted the women and defended that conviction through the appeals process, demonstrated some fairness by protecting the defendants from harm and eventually dropping the charges. The penultimate evidence for the complex nature of race relations reflected in this book is that with the exception of Solomon Marable, who was eventually executed, all of the defendants, through the efforts of both black and white supporters, either had their charges dropped, or were pardoned.

One must be careful not to overstate the level of black-white harmony during this period. As white dominance began to reassert itself one could see the undercurrent of racism that presaged Jim Crow moving closer to the surface. It was this racism that led the women and Marable to be arrested in the first place, and though the county and state took pains to protect them, the very fact they needed protection spoke volumes about the racism of local whites. It was also at this time that we saw the Danville riots take place, and a commensurate rise in Klan violence.

Lebsock’s book is also important for the glimpse it gives us into the lives of blacks during this period. She highlights the changing role of black women, looking at their movement from their prescribed sphere of hearth and home that characterized their lives for much of the nineteenth century, to their entrance into the public. Specifically she tells the story of Rosa Bowser and Marietta Chiles, education pioneers and the founders of the Richmond Women’s League, formed to aid in the defense of the Lunenberg women. She also looks at how blacks adjusted economically during this period, highlighting the importance of the household economy to their survival, characterized by home gardens, the raising of farm animals, and the bartering that was necessary to purchase necessities. On the day of the murder one of those accused, Pokey Barnes, was bartering for chickens. As Lebsock observes, “this was the hidden economy of the poor, a ceaseless exchange among women who struck deals in person and moved goods, one house to another, on bare feet.” [3] She also provides insight into the mutual dependence between white landowners and black tenants, who, in exchange for a piece of land, agreed to work that of the owner. The importance of this arrangement is evidenced in her narrative by the fact that Wilson Abercrombie, the husband of defendant Mary Abernathy, continued to work for Edward Pollard after the murder.

One of the great strengths of this book is the way Lebsock marshals her resources, particularly contemporary newspaper accounts. They provide a significant part of the narrative, as the press played an important role in winning new trials for the Lunenberg women. Particularly important was her use of the Richmond Planet, Richmond’s black newspaper run by John Mitchell. By mining this resource, Lebsock is able to underscore the truly vital role played by this publication.

As a piece of history I am not really sure if this book breaks any new ground; I don’t believe it does. It seems as though the narrative reflects well-known views on the nature of the south during this period. However, I have very few criticisms to make. The book is well organized, especially important given the number of people she was obliged to include in the narrative. Particularly helpful was the “List of Characters” she provided at the beginning. I found myself referencing it a number of times as I read this. Overall then this is an extremely well written book with a style that will appeal to the casual reader as well as those with a deeper interest in the history of the Jazz Age and in race relations.

 

 

 

 

[1] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003), p.13

[2] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia, p. 42

[3] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia p. 140

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WashingtonsCrossing

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In Washington’ Crossing, David Hackett Fischer has given us a fresh view of the events, motivations and consequences surrounding the New Jersey Campaign of 1776, pitting the British and Hessian army under General William Howe against the Continental Army and attached militia under General George Washington. Extremely well written and extensively documented, using numerous primary and secondary sources as well as many very helpful maps, Fischer has produced a book that, in my opinion, will be definitive on this subject for many, many years. Not only has he given us an extremely detailed and lucid account of the military maneuvers encompassed by this campaign, but he has also elucidated a cogent framework for understanding the motivations of the two armies, the leadership styles of the commanders on each side, particularly Howe and Washington, and the effect of this campaign on the future success of the American army. In addition, and most importantly for the accurate representation of historical events, Fischer has challenged many of the long held beliefs we have about certain aspects of this campaign and its participants.

The driving narrative of this work is the detailed description of the New Jersey Campaign of 1776. Contained in it are numerous corrections of long held beliefs about the campaign and its participants. Fischer begins with a description of the participating armies and their motivations, devoting one chapter each to the Americans, British regulars, and Hessians. Over the years stereotypical notions about the motivations of the British and Hessians have taken root. Our need for a villain in every story has led us to demonize not only the British and Hessian armies , which are thought of alternatively as a tool of a tyrannical dictator, and a brutish mercenary army, but also men such as Charles Cornwallis, William and Richard Howe, and Johann Rall. As Fischer makes clear, though flawed in many ways, these men were honorable and were trying to do their best to serve their countries. In many cases, particularly with the Howes and Cornwallis, British leaders sympathized with the Americans and were working not to defeat them utterly, but to bring them back to their loyalty to the crown.

It has become fashionable to denigrate the motivation of those fighting for American independence. For many, it is a trite cliché to say they were fighting for freedom and liberty, yet as Fischer shows, along with other factors, these notions were the primary motivator for most Americans. Fischer does an excellent job of not only describing the structure of each army, but also in taking an objective look at each of the participants, highlighting the positive and negative attributes of each.

As Fischer describes it, the British Army was not only “one of the finest ever seen,” but was also an army full of paradoxes.(Fischer, 33) As an institution and as its “regimental badges and colors proclaimed, it served the King. (Fischer, 33) Yet, it was actually a creation of Parliament, subject to re-authorization every twelve months. As occurred later in the United States, the British people were very proud of the accomplishments of their military, yet were distrustful of a standing army and “kept it on a short leash.” (Fischer, 33) In organizational terms, it was both bureaucratized and decentralized, more like an army of separate tribes, with their own rules and customs. Most importantly however according to Fischer, is the mistaken notion that the British army was simply the bludgeon by which King George III intended to defeat America. In reality, for the British army, like their American counterparts, the war “was a clash of principles in which they deeply believed.” (Fischer, 50) Primary among those beliefs was loyalty to the British monarchy. As Fischer points out British soldiers swore a personal oath “to be true to our Sovereign Lord King George.” (Fischer, 50) For these soldiers, this loyalty and the rituals that celebrated it represented Ideals of loyalty, fidelity, honor, duty, discipline, and service…” (Fischer, 50)

The motivation for the Hessian armies in America, though different from those of the British and Americans, was nevertheless quite different than the simpleminded pursuit if money that is ascribed to them by most people. While the army was paid handsomely for their services in America, this was not their prime motivation for agreeing to serve. In reality, the Hessian army was created as part of an enlightened culture that prized “reason and order, fidelity and loyalty, discipline and regularity.” (Fischer, 54) Friedrich Wilhelm II viewed his Hessian army as a school of discipline, and encouraged all able-bodied men to join, even those of aristocratic families. The result was the largest army in proportion to population in the world. And, while the average Hessian underwent far stricter discipline than their British and American counterparts, their motivation, according to Fischer were the values of “order and discipline…service and honor.” (Fischer, 61)

As noted above, it has become almost cliché to say that those fighting for American independence were doing so for freedom and liberty. It has become fashionable to ascribe motivations of greed and selfishness as the primary motivation for these soldiers. As Fischer makes very clear, this is simply not the case. He has marshaled an impressive array of primary evidence that clearly indicates that Americans were primarily fighting for their notions of freedom and liberty, first to regain their rights as Englishman, and later to gain their independence from Britain altogether. Fischer does not discount other inducements. For the soldiers from Marblehead, Massachusetts, for example, profit was most definitely on their mind in their desire to return home and join the privateers plundering British shipping. And, clearly, the depredations committed  by many British and Hessian soldiers during the New Jersey campaign motivated thousands of men to join the militia. In addition to making a persuasive case that these notions of freedom and liberty were the driving motivations for most American soldiers, Fischer does an excellent job of describing how men  from different parts of the country viewed those notions, and then tying that to a description of how George Washington was able to adapt to this and create an American way of fighting.

Notions of freedom and liberty in 1776, for which most Americans fought, was understood differently based largely on where one resided. From “the collective rights of New England, [to] the reciprocal rights of Philadelphia Associators, the individual rights of back country riflemen, and the hegemonic rights of the Fairfax men,” all viewed freedom as their primary motivator. (Fischer, 364)  As Fischer ably demonstrates, George Washington, largely as a result of his experiences in the French and Indian War, was able to accommodate these different views and in so doing create an American way of “war-fighting,” characterized by the notion that all the American army had to do was to survive, by a willingness to take chances with success, with a prudence in risking the lives of the soldiers, a reliance on religion as a motivating factor, and most unique of all, a concern for popular opinion. It is this last, Fischer argues, which characterizes an army subservient to civilian authority.

At the center of this new way of fighting was George Washington. It was his ability to accommodate himself to its realities that made this new way successful in the end. This is evidenced by the way in which he took advantage of the New Jersey militia following the victory at Princeton; by submerging his moral distaste for the lack of discipline among the militia and allowing them to engage in the type of guerrilla war that brought success.This Forage War caused almost as many enemy casualties as did the New York and New Jersey campaigns combined. It was also evidenced, according to Fischer, by the style in which Washington conducted his councils of war. In contrast to Cornwallis’ which were characterized by extreme deference and a pre-ordained outcome dictated by Cornwallis himself, Washington’s reflected a “diversity of cultures…the pluralism of elites…a more open polity…a less stratified society, and especially by expanding ideas of liberty and freedom.” (Fischer, 315) In his councils, Washington encouraged a free exchange of ideas, listened more than he talked, and took freely from the ideas of others. The result was an enthusiastic consensus for the course of action, of which the decision to attack Princeton in an excellent example, and more importantly, a growing respect and admiration among the officers for George Washington as their leader.

delaware

Emmanuel Leutze’s iconic painting depicting Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.

The heart of Fischer’s book of course is the detailed narrative of the New Jersey campaign itself. It is often very easy to get lost in the description of battles and maneuvers, especially if one does not have a military background. However, Fischer was able to describe the campaign in a very detailed way that did not leave me totally confused. Important here were some very well placed battle maps which aided in the comprehension of the detailed narrative. In addition, Fischer was able to dispel some well established misconceptions about this campaign, and to illuminate some aspects of it that were overlooked. Most importantly as I described above, are the myths surrounding the motivations of the different participants. However, events such as the Second Battle of Trenton and the Forage War, almost universally ignored in other works, are described in detail here. The myth persists that the Hessians were nursing hangovers when Washington attacked. Fischer clearly demonstrates that this is not true, and in so doing elevates what the Americans accomplished, as well as dispelling the notion that the Hessians were incompetent. He also shows that the Americans did not lack ammunition, and in fact, were better armed in many ways than the Hessians. He also takes issue with those who mock the notion that Washington would be standing in the Durham boat as they crossed the Delaware River as depicted in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting, noting that had he been seated, it would have been in a puddle of frozen water. Finally, is the notion that Washington was more lucky than gifted. As Fischer makes clear, Washington learned from his mistakes in the New York campaign, and clearly out generaled his opposition.

He concludes his book with an excellent summary, along with a description of the importance of this campaign. Disputing the notion that these were symbolic victories, Fischer notes that the New Jersey campaign inflicted severe damage on the British and Hessian armies. It was also of course a shot in the arm for the American cause. As the result of these victories, Washington was able to force the British from New Jersey, cause British leaders to look to the defensive, and most importantly, it allowed Washington to recruit enough men to carry on the fight, It also instilled in the American public a new confidence in heir army and its leaders, particularly Washington, and it gave the army new confidence in themselves.

Fischer also includes an excellent section describing the humanity in which American leaders fought. It was not enough to win, but it was necessary to win “in a way that was consistent with the values of their society.” (Fischer, 375) In contrast to the attitudes of many British and Hessian leaders, this meant quarter would be granted to all who surrendered, and that prisoners would be treated humanely. While there were those who did not agree, Washington set the standard.

There is little to fault in this book. It is extremely well sourced, clearly written, and makes very persuasive, almost unassailable arguments. Fischer includes an exhaustive appendix that includes many details not found in the main narrative, and the index is one of the best I have seen.

Very highly recommended.

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1659305



 

This was one whoppingly dense book. A monumental work. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is an exhaustive biography of Martin Luther King and his leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization formed to use  nonviolent methods to force the end of legal and societal racism in the United States. This book is not an interpretive work but a straight up recounting of King and the SCLC. It is way too dense and detailed to do describe in detail. I will however provide a couple of impressions from what I learned reading it.

Despite this being a straight up narrative the book was engrossing. It is dense but well structured to insure readers don’t get lost. It does require a good memory however as literally dozens of significant actors are introduced throughout the book. I did find it necessary to backtrack occasionally to remind myself who I was reading about. My only complaint was the lack of pictures. I realize it is not necessary to understand the narrative, but when you are dealing with people you may not be familiar with there is a natural interest in their appearance. I found myself using the Google Image link quite a bit. Also, fair warning, the book is long…over 600 pages of dense text followed by 200 pages of index, bibliography and end notes.

One of the first things that struck me about Martin Luther King and his involvement in the Civil Rights movement was both his initial reticence at getting too involved, and the almost continual doubts he had about his role in the movement, his ability to lead such a  movement, and the possibility for success using methods of non-violence. The narrative starts with the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, AL city bus to a white patron in 1955, and the boycott it initiated. King, then the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery hosted a meeting held to discuss what to do about the arrest of Parks. New to his congregation and somewhat reluctant to get involved, King was nevertheless elected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) organized to protest the segregation of public transportation in Montgomery. King was chosen, according to Parks, because “he was relatively new to the community and so did not have any enemies.” After the successful conclusion of the boycott the MIA and other groups formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to take the lessons learned in Montgomery and apply them throughout the country. King, whose eloquence, intelligence, and vision became apparent during the bus boycott was chosen as its first President. Despite this rapid elevation to the head of what would turn out to be one of the most effective civil rights organizations in the country, King  to harbored severe doubts about his ability to lead it. Some of these doubts were well founded

Throughout his leadership of the SCLC King continually doubted he would be able to carry out its mission. He doubted his skill, he doubted whether or not he had the intestinal fortitude to withstand the brutal criticism and abuse he knew would be coming his way, and he doubted whether the country would ever be ready for black equality. At each juncture however, King relied on his faith to prop him up. He had no doubt God wanted him to lead the movement for equal rights which gave him the comfort, and the confidence, to move forward.

He was not a perfect man, and his several flaws caused many problems over the decade after Montgomery. He was a womanizer, continually unfaithful to his wife Coretta Scott King. Eventually he became aware the FBI had been bugging his room during his many liaisons. The possible exposure of this information worried him constantly, but it did not induce him to give up on the behavior. He lacked the ability to discipline subordinates which caused him to retain people who clearly should have been shown the door for incompetence. His loyalty to those he considered his most trusted advisers led him to retain contact with at least two former communists, the publicity of which could have destroyed the movement. And he lacked time management and organizational skills, and allowed himself to be distracted from the effort of the moment by new challenges. The history of the SCLC is replete with projects started but not carried through as it spread itself too thin. It was only the force of his personality, his ability to get and retain loyal followers, and the moral example he set in not giving in to the many forces that were threatening to kill the civil rights movement that allowed it to be as successful as it was.

A second thing that is really brought home is the level to which the federal government, particularly the F.B.I, tried to disrupt the civil rights movement. Virtually every hotel room King stayed in was bugged by the F.B.I. without warrant or justification. The F.B.I. was constantly aware of King’s movements, and had recordings of several of his extra marital liaisons that J. Edgar Hoover hoped to use against him that only the intervention of Lyndon Johnson prevented. They had developed several informants within the movement, including at least one on the SCLC payroll. The F.B.I. would use knowledge of SCLC strategy to try and disrupt their events presaging the “ratf**king” that took place during the Nixon administration. I had always known the F.B.I. was monitoring King, but I had no idea it was used to the extent it was. It is surely one of the least appreciated stains on our national character.

King’s relationship to Johnson was a fascinating one. Allies during the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Johnson and King managed to get the most sweeping expansion of legal rights for blacks since the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. Yet King did not trust Johnson, with good reason. Johnson was committed to civil rights, but not in the way King wanted him to be. And Johnson had other priorities as well, the most significant of which was the Vietnam War which King abhorred and criticized extensively, and which caused the final break off in communications between the two. It also caused King a lot of trouble with the movement as well. The Johnson-King relationship would be a fascinating topic for a book on its own.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the great men of the century. I don’t think anyone else could have accomplished what he did with the forces arrayed against them that King had to endure.  The aspects of his character that allowed the movement to succeed as much as it did are well known, and so did not surprise me as much as his flaws, which are lesser known. They are more than compensated for however,  by his courage, intelligence, fortitude, and moral vision. Any progress we have made in race relations in this country can be traced back to what King accomplished. The honors he receives today are more than justified. He was however, as the book makes plain, just a man. A man with many flaws (as we all are). These flaws sometimes caused he and the civil rights movement problems. I appreciate the author not trying to clean up his image, or downplay his flaws. It is much better to idolize someone despite them than to pretend they don’t exist.

Highly Recommended!

 

 

 

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DogWhistle



I found this book by turns fascinating, illuminating, and infuriating. I find it’s conclusions so dispiriting that I am having trouble even writing about it, and yet if what it asserts is true it is far better it sees the light of day than if we continue to sweep it under the rug. In a nutshell this is a history of racism in politics. It’s thesis is simple; racism isn’t disappearing, it’s adapting. The author traces racism as a political tool from the period after reconstruction when the South was able to return most blacks to a form of defacto slavery, through the overt racism of the Ku Klux Klan, and finally to the type of coded racial appeals pioneered by George Wallace and Barry Goldwater that is so intertwined with today’s discourse most don’t even view it as racism anymore. In the end the author posits a potential way to combat this form of racist appeal that he hopes will lead the way to a truly post-racial society.

Today’s coded racial appeals have their genesis in the actual racism of slavery certainly, but also in the backlash against newly “freed” blacks during the Reconstruction period. With the assassination of President Lincoln any hope for an orderly integration of blacks into society at something approaching equality was lost. President Johnson, after a briefly furious backlash against southern elites he accused of starting the war, embarked on a program of reintegration of southern states on largely the same terms they had been members prior to it. The main difference of course was that the institution of slavery had been destroyed. However, Johnson’s overly lenient terms allowed southern states to re-institute a system of defacto slavery. This included the share cropper system which forced many former slaves back into the control of their former masters. In exchange for a plot of land on which to live and grow crops these former slaves were required to pay the landowner a percentage of their yield. These terms were often so onerous that any thought of upward mobility was abandoned in an effort to simply get by. In addition to share cropping a far crueler form of defacto slavery was initiated. Convict leasing became a way to force blacks to work without wages on terms that in many ways were worse than their condition under slavery. The system was simple; blacks were arrested for minor or non existent offenses and then sentenced to excessive terms of hard labor. Their labor was leased out to private individuals with payment made to the state. This became rampant in Alabama and Mississippi, with a significant portion of the male black population forced to work against their will and without pay. We see this reflected even today with African American males incarcerated far beyond their percentage of the population. At this same time blacks were the target of violence, mainly in the South but also in the North. The Ku Klux Klan became one of most powerful political groups in the country. Their influence including a campaign of intimidation and murder, kept blacks from exercising their civil rights for nearly a century. The result of this post war backlash and return to defacto slavery was to set blacks significantly behind other segments of society in terms of upward mobility, income, and education. It was later efforts to ameliorate this condition that gave rise to the coded racial appeal that results, to this day, in a system in which whites purposely vote against their own economic interest in order not to be equated with those they few as inferior.

Few people today remember that in his first run for Governor George Wallace was actually endorsed by the NAACP. He was, for the time, a racial moderate, unwilling to use the type of overt racism that had become the norm for politicians in his home state of Alabama. After losing this first run at that office to an opponent who had no trouble using such appeals, Wallace commented to an aide that next time he ran  he wouldn’t let anyone out-ni**er him. And he didn’t, though in a unique way that would have repercussions down to today.

George Wallace

Alabama Governor George Wallace

This was a time, the late 1950s, when the type of overt racism still practiced throughout the south was becoming less acceptable. Wallace discovered however, that he could still appeal to the racist sentiment in his state by playing to the fears many whites had of being equated economically, and particularly socially, with blacks, whom they viewed as inferior. So he couched his racism as freedom of choice and states rights. This tactic was later picked up by Barry Goldwater in 1964 as a way to equate social welfare with aide to minorities. Whites began to view welfare, which objectively would benefit them as well, as a program to elevate blacks to an equal social status. Richard Nixon took this strategy to another level, with a purposeful campaign to appeal to Southern Democrats to join the Republican party, echoing and amplifying Goldwater’s themes. Later, Ronald Reagan expanded this to include social issues such as gun rights, abortion, and affirmation action. This strategy worked to perfection as the South is now solidly Republican. Kicking off his 1980 campaign  in Philadelphia, MS, site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1965, Reagan’s unmistakable message was that the Republican Party was the party of states rights, and of white Americans. It was at this time racists began using a tactic previously employed by Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall; the notion of a color blind society.

During his campaign for civil rights Martin Luther King often expressed his hope that American would one day become a color blind society, where the content of a person’s character would be more important than the color of their skin. Thurgood Marshall arguing in Brown vs Board of Education echoed the same theme advocating against the doctrine of separate but equal. Twenty years later Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan took this theme and deployed it in the cause of race coded political appeal. What King and Marshall meant by a color blind society was not only one in which skin tone was not a factor, but one in which society took steps to redress the wrongs committed as the result of institutional racism. For them economic justice was just as important (or more important), than ending the overt racism they were experiencing. Nixon and Reagan perverted this concept by conscribing it to mean discrimination solely based on skin color. The societal condition of each group was not the result of racism, but other factors and thus whites should not feel obligated to redress those wrongs. Thus affirmative action no longer meant offering a way for oppressed minorities to catch up, but as discrimination against whites. Welfare, affirmative action, voting rights all became evidence of discrimination against whites. Color blindness no longer means equal opportunity for all, but a lack of concern for structural racism when implementing public policy. This is where we are today, where any suggestion that coded racial appeals are in fact racism is met with howls of protest from the accused who assert they are merely trying to do what’s best for country regardless of race, and in fact it is the accusers who are “playing the race card.” Republicans, and some Democrats, have perfected not only the dog whistle appeal, but at fighting back against accusations of racism. It is what spawned the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s and what spawned the Tea Party movement in 2009.

So what can be done about this? The author proposes a solution, and uses the infamous Willie Horton ad deployed by George H.W. Bush in 1988 as evidence of what can work.

WillieHorton

Wilie Horton

In 1988 Republican Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush found himself trailing in the polls by 17 points to Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Needing something to energize his dispirited followers Bush deployed the now famous Willie Horton ad. In it viewers are introduced to Willie Horton of Massachusetts, a convicted murderer who was allowed to leave prison as part of a weekend furlough program. On one of these occasions he didn’t return from his furlough. Instead he robbed and assaulted a young white couple, beating up the man and raping his fiancee. Oh and of course, Willie Horton was black. The ad played on every racial stereotype one can imagine, primarily the fear among whites of white women being sexually assaulted by a black man. It also linked being soft on crime with race, as the face invariably used when one of these types of appeals are deployed, is one of color. The ad worked beautifully at first. Overwhelming numbers of white voters did not see anything racist about it and viewed it only as evidence of Michael Dukakis’s sorry record on crime. It didn’t matter that he had not started the furlough program, or that it worked in the vast majority of cases. All people saw was a bestial black man terrorizing whites.Bush caught up in the polls. That is not the end of the story however.

A backlash against the ad began to germinate, with some in the media beginning to quietly question the purpose of the ad. Eventually, Jesse Jackson called it out for what it was, publicly. This produced the usual howls of protest from Republicans that Democrats were playing the race card. But a curious thing happened, polls began showing that more and more people began seeing the ad as racist. The more it was explicitly called out the more folks that looked at it in that way. Eventually “Willie Horton” became a catch phrase for race baiting. According to the author this reaction lights the way to a solution for this problem. Rather than cower in fear of being called a racist for calling out racism, the solution is to publicly and loudly decry dog whistle politics at every turn. The more it is exposed he asserts the more it will be recognized when it occurs with the result being its efficacy as a political tool will decline. This of course can lead to a whole host of positive results the primary one being whites, afraid of being classified with those the view as inferior, will no longer view blacks that way, and will stop voting against their own economic interest. Liberal government can again reassert itself with the country as a whole its beneficiary.

While not lengthy this book is fairly dense, with closely packed interlocking arguments that I have not done justice too here. The author is often critical of Democratic politicians as well, especially Bill Clinton, but also ironically, Barack Obama who he felt has internalized some of the racial coding he is criticizing. He acknowledges this could be for political reasons. I find his solution a bit naive as he does not deal with the structural problems with our system in which a minority of voters, well funded and homogeneous, can effectively set the agenda. I also think he is a bit too tough on President Obama, and a bit too sanguine about the opportunity for a liberal Renaissance had the President had the courage to lead it.

Overall however, I find the book deeply depressing. It makes me ashamed to be an American in many ways as I cannot believe, 150 years after the end of slavery, that we are still dealing with this crap. And I have to admit, I do not see an easy way out. Still though a very valuable book that I am glad I read!!

Highly Recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

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RisingTide

Don’t let the title fool you, while the focus of the book is the great 1927 flood (an event overlooked today), this is a book about the Mississippi River and man’s attempt to live with and in some cases tame it. Full of rich descriptions of men and women whose lives were shaped by the river and the 1927 flood, and of powerful men who tried to control and profit from it, including one who became President,  this book really grabs you from the outset.

Starting with early attempts to erect bridges over it, to map its courses and devise ways to keep it from hampering economic growth in the Mississippi Delta, through its role during the Civil War, and how it affected economics, culture and race relations in the south, the Mississippi River itself is a character in this story, with a personality all its own. This is expertly brought to life by Barry.

Most fascinating for me was the many ways in which the 1927 flood so profoundly changed the character of the deep south, and how in many ways it set back nascent progress on race relations. In order to combat the flood blacks were forced to work, shoring up levees, hauling supplies and digging trenches, all at gunpoint and without adequate food and shelter to sustain themselves. In many places (particularly Greenville, MS which in many ways was the epicenter of the flood), white leaders, aided and abetted by the Red Cross virtually re-instituted slavery. Prior to the flood, through the cooperation of local blacks and the relatively enlightened views of its leaders, particularly LeRoy Percy (a central figure in the latter half of the book), race relations had seen improvement. The flood, and the reaction of the white leadership to it nearly destroyed all that.

It also profoundly reshaped the labor system in the South. One reason why white leaders were so eager to keep blacks under foot during the crisis was to prevent them from leaving the Delta where they were the primary source of labor. However, once the waters had receded and it became apparent promises of restitution from local leaders and from the federal government were not going to be forthcoming, many blacks began migrating to the north. This caused a huge problem for large landowners who relied on the labor blacks provided, and from their percentage of income from sharecropper activities. It certainly helped hasten the transition to a de facto free labor system which had only existed in name only up until that time; a transition that continues to be a very painful one for the region.

Also interesting is the affect the flood had on presidential politics, and on the eventual shift in the relation between the federal government and her citizens that we saw under President Franklin Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge’s Commerce Secretary of Commerce was tasked to coordinate the government response to the flood. It was his work, and the positive press he received from it that propelled him to the White House.

Hoover was tasked by Coolidge to coordinate the efforts of mostly private organizations as they attempted to deal with the enormous human suffering that was the result of the flood. Coolidge himself refused to set what he considered a dangerous precedent by providing the type of government disaster relief we take for granted today. As a result he was the focus of extensive media and public criticism for what was viewed as a heartless reaction to the crisis. All the while Hoover was being  lionized in the press as the only member of the administration willing to do something about the crisis. Coolidge’s opposition to government relief, however, was a policy with which Hoover totally agreed. However, it also foreshadowed the disastrous way he reacted to the Great Depression.

In hindsight the resources brought to bear by Hoover were wholly inadequate, and in many case failed to provide even minimally  adequate relief. It was this same strategy that he used as President, to try and relieve the suffering experienced by so many during the Great Depression; a strategy that failed miserably and gave rise to FDR and the more active governmental role he implemented. It was also the beginning of the end of the alliance between African-Americans and the Republican Party.

I found very little to criticize in this book. Occasionally  Barry provided a bit more detail, particularly about financial matters, than was probably necessary to make his point, but that is a minor quibble. Overall highly valuable book, about a significant even in American history that is often overlooked. Highly recommended!!

 

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CampDavid

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David is a really well written and exciting account of the thirteen days these three leaders spent at Camp David hammering out one of the most significant agreements in human history – the Camp David Accords. The description of the personalities of the three men was the most fascinating part of the story, most particularly how their backgrounds motivated them and informed the way the approached these negotiations. It really brought into relief how damaging an adherence to dogmatic religious belief can be, but also how an enlightened religious outlook can bring about great change.

Begin, the most truculent of the three, and the most dogmatically religious, on several occasions, threatened to scuttle negotiations over what most would be consider relatively minor points, but which for him were a point of religious pride. Carter, used his religion as a way to give him strength during the negotiations which nearly broke down virtually every day, and which only succeeded due to the force of his intellect and persistence. Sadat viewed himself as a man of destiny who had been born for this moment. It was this conviction that kept him from walking out of negotiations with Begin who he had grown to despise.

The author expertly weaves the biographies of the three men, along with other major players throughout the narrative. It is through these biographies that one comes to understand the intractability of the problems plaguing the middle east.  That Carter was able to pull this off was nearly miraculous, and I think underrated now as an example of Presidential leadership.

I actually don’t want to get into too much detail here because though the outcome is well known, how they got there is fascinating and reads like a thriller in Wright’s capable hands – so I will leave it there. Highly Recommended!!!

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35100

“Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James  McPherson is widely considered to be the best one volume history of the American Civil War era ever published. When I first read it twenty years ago I came to that same conclusion. Re-reading it again now has not led me to alter my opinion. If you are looking for a comprehensive survey of the cultural, political, economic, and social landscape of the period, the nature of which all fed into the ultimate decision by the South to try and leave the union, this is the book you should read.

The Civil War revolved around the issue of slavery. Despite “controversy” over that notion among a segment of our population and in the popular media, very few credible historians would still argue that the peculiar institution wasn’t the issue that drove the South to secession. But why slavery became the catalyst it was is much more complex. The decision made by our founders to “kick the can down the road” and not deal with slavery in the Constitution, along with changing gender roles, increasing religious ferver, a bifurcation in the economic systems of the North and South, and ultimately the struggle over expansion of the slave power into the west culminated in this greatest tragedy of our history.

All of this is expertly dealt with by McPherson in a smooth, very readable way. And while it is clear what he blames the ultimate cause of the war on, he is scrupiously fair in the way he deals with every side of the question, criticizing where it is warranted and praising when it is deserved. Ultimately, he concludes that secession was not the second revolution that is often portrayed, but rather it was the North that was in the middle of a revolution – a cultural and
economic one. By insisting that the South follow it away from the conservative, agrarian, hierarchically dominated culture that had previously dominated western society – particularly some of the discredited traditions that were a part of that culture (mainly slavery) – it induced the South to resort to war to protect it.

There were a couple of minor criticisms I had with the book. First, McPherson accepts without question the brilliance of Robert E. Lee’s military genius. There has been a bit of a re-assessment of that assumption in recent years that calls it into question, much of it persuasive in my opinion. McPherson certainly had the resources to make that analysis himself. Secondly he seems to accept the results of the Appomattox surrender as an example of American exceptionalism, in that both sides immediately laid down their arms and reconciled with little effort. More recent work has cast substantial doubt on that assertion.

These are minor criticisms however; in my opinion this book should be required reading for anyone studying the Civil War era.

Highly Recommended!!!!!

 

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Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

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On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

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From Bucket Authors


New Bucket Books

An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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