Category Archives: Non Fiction

Apollo 8: The Trilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger

Very well written pop history. Kluger also co-write Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 with Astronaut Jim Lovell that the movie Apollo 13 is based on. He is a clear fan of the space program and that shows through in this book. There is very little here NASA’s public relations office would disapprove of.

It is a straight ahead history of the December 1968 mission of Apollo 8, focusing primarily on Frank Borman, commander of the mission, with a somewhat lesser focus on the other crew members – Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. He also spotlights some of the managers, technicians, and engineers at NASA who made the mission possible, particularly Cris Kraft, Gene Kranz, and Jim Webb.

Kluger does a nice job with the narrative that does keep you interested throughout. If your sole interest is the mission itself and not the messy crap that happens behind the scenes when human beings are involved, this is the book for you. It was engrossing in that sense.
If you are looking for more behind the scenes stuff, the political and turf wars at NASA, how the Astronauts interacted with each other and with NASA, the finger pointing after the Apollo 1 fire, and more than a superficial look at the private lives of those involved, there isn’t too much here.
If you are looking for an deeper analysis of Apollo 8’s impact on America and the world, you won’t get much of that here either; Kluger begins with the assumption that the mission had a positive, even transcendent impact.

An example of this is his treatment of the Astronauts’ famous Christmas message from the moon in which they read passages from the Book of Genesis. Kluger treats this as a defining moment in the flight, and doesn’t even attempt to question whether it was appropriate. In fact Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s most hated atheist, sued the U.S. Government claiming it violated the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. And while the suit was dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction, NASA never allowed it to happen again. As an atheist myself I have to say I wince a bit when I hear those transmissions, and in my view O’Hair had a case. But in truth I was not all that bothered by it. It was a different time, a dangerous time, and though the passages have no effect on me (other than eye rolls), I can see they were welcomed by a weary world at the end of a very bad year!

In any case, the point is Kluger is not attempting to provoke a debate, or to look at the space program in a wider context. He is telling the story of the Apollo 8 flight to the moon, and that’s it.
In this he succeeds admirably. If that is all you are looking for, it is well worth a read.

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book. Besides the book, Kluger’s recorded interview with Frank Borman is included as well as an edited version of mission transmissions. A nice bonus!

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Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape by Mark Lee Gardner

An excellent addition to the literature surrounding the life of Jesse James and the history of the James-Younger Gang. Very well written, its primary focus is on events leading up to their raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, MN, and the factors that influenced their decision to conduct a raid so far from their Missouri base. It does not claim to be a full biography of James or the James-Younger gang, but it does include enough back story to put their actions into proper context. The book is not perfect for reasons I will mention below, but is well researched, and exceedingly readable.

Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang are one of those historical Rorschach tests that usefully expose the biases of different segments of society. Whether one views the gang as heroes, anti-heroes, or villains often is a function of life experience, education and economic circumstance. For many the gang represents a rejection of political correctness, and of those viewed as elites trying to dictate how people should lead their lives. For others, they are an embodiment of the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War; a committed band of unreconstructed rebels, refusing to concede the end of their dream of an independent confederacy based on states’ rights and slavery. For still others, they represent an American version of the Robin Hood myth (for which there is no evidence). And lastly, for some, particularly descendants of their victims, or those who intellectually reject the notion that robbery and murder are in any way romantic, the James-Younger gang were simply killers, unable to get past Confederate defeat, compelled to continue the terrorism they practiced as bushwhackers under William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War.

For me, they are closer to the latter description. The more I read about them, the less I am inclined to view them as anything other than criminals. I recognize they are products of their experiences, but that does not make them admirable. That isn’t to say however, that I don’t find them fascinating. I think they do embody an aspect of the Civil War South that I think is important to understand. In states like Missouri and Kansas, the Civil War was a guerilla fight, one which pitted neighbor against neighbor in the most brutal way imaginable. In this it was much like the Revolutionary war as experienced in the southern back country – brutal and personal. The legacy of that fight is with us today.

Other than my general interest in virtually anything historical, I also have a personal interest in the James-Younger gang. One of the employees shot by them in the failed raid on the First National Bank in Northfield, MN – Alonzo Bunker – is a branch on my family tree. He was the son of my Great-Great-Great Grandfather. Growing up, we always heard stories about the relative who was shot by Jesse James, and my Great Grandfather who I knew as a child, had met him. Bunker wasn’t actually shot by James, but by gang member Charlie Pitts; still it was close enough to the truth to pique my interest growing up.

Most books on Jesse James and the James-Younger gang tend to take an admiring view of them. Authors invested in “Lost Cause” mythology are more likely to take a charitable view of their criminality, often excusing it as a justifiable response to some wrong they suffered, such as the botched Pinkerton raid on their home that killed their brother Archie, and severely wounded their mother. Other authors, who have a romantic view of the West and Western lore, seem unable to resist the lure of the “brave and daring” Jesse James. This has combined to make the outlaws pop culture heroes. Rarely are movies made about them, for example, that do not depict them as heroes or anti-heroes. A great example of this is the well-made but severely flawed “Long Riders,” produced in 1980. All of this makes it difficult to get to the truth about them and their activities.

There are a few even-handed treatments of them that try to get to the truth about their actions, and that attempt to put them in a political, cultural, economic, and psychological context. One of the best of these is Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles, who does a nice job of digging into the political climate in post war Missouri that allowed the James-Younger gang to operate with virtual impunity.

The subject of this review, falls somewhere in between these types. As the title of the book suggests, with its focus on the escape of Jesse and Frank James, rather than the capture or killing of the other six gang members, the author sometimes betrays a sneaking admiration for the outlaws. On the other hand, he doesn’t shy away from highlighting their brutality, detailing some of the murders committed by them during and after the Civil War. And, it is clear he admires the townspeople of Northfield who did what no one else had done, fought back against the gang. He movingly highlights the heroics of some of the townspeople, particularly Joseph Lee Heywood who was killed by Frank James after he repeatedly refused to open the bank’s safe.

Northfield celebrates this event to this day, with its annual “Defeat of Jesse James Days,” one of the largest town festivals in Minnesota.

Gardner is an excellent writer. The book, written in a narrative style, was at times a real page turner. His research is detailed, and seems spot on, illuminating many aspects of the Northfield raid that I had never read about before. For example, I had always known bystander Nicholas Gustafson was killed in the street outside the bank; shot in the head. What I did not know was that he did not die right away. In fact, he was able to get up, walk away, speak with others, and clean his wound. He actually died several days later as his brain began to swell. Most depictions of the event have him lying dead in the street. It was these kinds of details which really elevated the book. His chapters detailing the raid itself and the subsequent manhunt are among the best I have read. And he does an excellent job of teasing out interesting portraits of some of the lesser known actors in this drama, including 16-year-old Oscar Sorbel, the “Paul Revere of the Northfield Raid,” whose persistence eventually led to the killing of gang member Charlie Pitts, and capture of Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger.

On the other hand, the portions of the book detailing the early days of the James’s and Youngers as Confederate bushwhackers during the Civil War, and their early criminal career, weren’t as detailed. It is adequate to set up the events leading up to the Northfield Raid, but not much more. This doesn’t detract much from the power of the book however. Gardner is not attempting an exhaustive biography of the outlaws and so only provides what is needed to put the Raid itself into some context. He is also not explicitly attempting to put them into a larger political or social context. He does provide some of this though as an organic part of the narrative. What he chooses to highlight and incidents he describes do help one form a rudimentary political and psychological profile of the gang. A good example of this is the gang’s alleged reaction when they found out Adelbert Ames, a Union General, Reconstruction Governor of Mississippi, and son-in-law of the hated Benjamin Butler was living in Northfield, and had considerable holdings with the bank. The desire for sweet revenge against one who they believed had forced Yankee rule on the South and negro equality on the country may have become one reason for choosing Northfield as the target.

There were problems with the book. Occasionally the narrative dragged a bit, particularly when recounting the gang’s robbery of the train at Rocky Cut near Otterville, MO. He occasionally apes conventional wisdom, such as his dismissal of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency as a scandal ridden failure; an assertion that has been cast into significant doubt by Grant scholars.  And, as I noted earlier, he occasionally betrays a sneaking admiration for the outlaws that I find unnecessary. Not enough to cast doubt on the objectivity of his narrative, but worth mentioning. Overall though this is fine reading, a book any history nerd would enjoy.

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American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White

Another in a series of books attempting to restore the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant into proper historical perspective. Undoubtedly the most popular man in America at the time of his death in 1885, his reputation has taken a beating in the years since the end of Reconstruction. Due to a combination of Northern exhaustion after 15 years of Civil War and Reconstruction, and a purposeful campaign by Southern historians and heritage groups looking to recast the war as anything other than a fight to retain the institution of slavery, many myths about Grant have taken hold in popular imagination.

Ronald C. White, in American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, has given us a very accessible, and personal, biography of Grant that puts to rest many of the myths about him that have gained a foothold in popular memory since his death. He also provides what I consider to be one of the best reviews of Grant’s Presidency that has so far been published; one that puts it into proper historical context given the many challenges he faced after the disastrous Johnson years.

At the moment of his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most revered man in America. He had shepherded the Union war effort to ultimate victory, had completed two terms as President, which, if not spectacularly successful in hindsight, had done little to diminish his popularity, and he had riveted the nation with his heroic struggle against time, as he raced to complete his memoirs before the ravages of throat cancer took his life. Those memoirs, completed only five days before his death, are the widely acknowledged gold standard among military autobiographies, and their popularity restored the Grant family fortune. The country went into deep and prolonged mourning after his death, with 1.5 million people attending his New York funeral. Despite this though, By the end of the 19th century, Grant’s reputation had undergone a large, and largely negative, change.

Ask the average person today what they know about Ulysses S. Grant and you are as likely to hear that he was a “butcher” and a “drunk,” as you are to hear he was the preeminent military figure of the Civil war whose skill and strategic genius saved the union. As with most myths however, the truth is far more complicated. And in the case of Grant, they are almost universally incorrect. White does a very good job of separating fact from fiction with regards to these myths.

One of the most pernicious of these myths surrounds Grant’s alleged drinking problem. It is supposedly the cause of his forced resignation from the Army, and was at the root of any setback he experienced throughout the war. Grant didn’t discipline his troops after the initial victory at Belmont, so he must have been drinking. Grant wasn’t prepared for Albert Sidney Johnston’s attach at Shiloh, so he must have been drinking. Grant unwisely ordered a last assault at Cold Harbor, so he must have been drinking. And on and on and on…

Politics too played a part. Rumors that Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 because of his drinking allowed rival Generals, usually those annoyed that Grant’s success was getting in the way of their glory, to raise the specter that he had fallen off the wagon and should be replaced, with the usual recommendation being that the replacement should be the one making the charge.

White deals with these rumors in a very effective way. Rather than devoting a whole chapter on the topic, which to me has the effect of elevating their credibility, he simply deals with them within the timeline of the narrative. He does not assert Grant did not drink – he clearly did – he simply notes there is no convincing evidence that Grant routinely drank to excess, or that his drinking had any effect on his military performance. Contemporary evidence, other than repeated rumors, are almost non-existent. Every person sent to Grant’s command to investigate these rumors, reported back they had no basis in fact. So the reality then, as White shows, is that while Grant was not a teetotaler, he did not have a serious drinking problem. And there is not a scrap of evidence drinking ever had an effect on his performance during the war.

Another persistent myth about Grant relates to his military skill. Southerners, eager to elevate their participation in the war as a heroic struggle against a marauding north intent on trampling rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, had to come up with ways to explain their defeat that didn’t involve admitting any fault with their (lost) cause. From this sprang first, the assertion that Southern soldiers were superior to the northern counterparts. Whereas they portrayed themselves as selfless warriors merely looking to defend hearth and home, Northern troops were depicted as the lackeys of money grubbers looking to strip the South of its wealth, or, as so eloquently put by Shelby Foote, Confederates believed “one Southern soldier was worth ten Yankee hirelings.” Ironically, an argument could persuasively be made that the reality was exactly the opposite. Confederate soldiers were fighting so the landed gentry could maintain their way of life, one that depended on slavery. It was the North that was fighting for a concept – “Union.”

The second, and possibly the most important part of this effort to recast the war, was the importance of demonstrating the superiority of Confederate Generals. The post war south wanted heroes to latch on to. They had to be portrayed as honorable men, fighting for a righteous cause. They also had to find an explanation for their defeat other than the superiority of their northern counterparts. This was particularly true with their most idolized figure – Robert E. Lee.
Southerners dealt with these needs in two ways. First, they asserted the only way the North could have defeated the South was through brute force and overwhelming numbers. At no point, they asserted, were southern generals outmatched, or southern troops outfought. They simply lacked the resources needed to win. Secondly, in order to elevate the character of their hero Lee, they had to deflate that of the man who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.

White doesn’t deal extensively in what ifs related to the manpower argument. The South certainly had the resources it needed to win the war had it employed an effective strategy. It didn’t. He does debunk the notion that Grant was victorious solely through the application of overwhelming force. After all, the North had that same advantage from the beginning of the war, and were not able to defeat Lee. Only when an able General, one who understood the strategies needed to overwhelm Lee, took command, were they able to win. The fact is, as White shows, northern troops were equally as brave and skilled as their southern counterparts; and Grant was superior to Lee, particularly as a strategic thinker. Lee was myopically focused on the eastern theater, while Grant viewed the conflict as a nationwide one. Where Lee cared little for what happened in the west, Grant realized that success there made victory in the east more attainable.

White does a very effective job debunking most of the negative assertions about Grants military ability. He does not do this by ignoring Grant’s failures (e.g. Cold Harbor), or by denigrating the ability of Robert E. Lee. He presents an effective, though not ground breaking review of Grant’s efforts up to his elevation as General in Chief, and provides a very fair analysis of events after that point.

The only conclusion that can plausibly be drawn from available evidence is that Grant, far from being a butcher of men, was in fact a skilled tactician and strategist, who made effective use of his resources. He put in place an effective strategy for winning the war, and executed it with considerable skill. Robert E. Lee did present the toughest resistance Grant had come up against during the war, but Grant was more than equal to the task. His casualty rates during the Overland Campaign were appalling of course, but that was the expected result of the type of fighting needed to bludgeon the South into submission. Always on the attack Grant was guaranteed to suffer more casualties. But as a percentage of his Army they were no worse than Lee’s. And if one looks at the entire war, Grant lost considerably fewer men while in command than Lee did.

Following Lee’s surrender, Grant’s role changed. He entered the political realm, first as General in Chief under the volatile Andrew Johnson, then as interim Secretary of War, and finally as President. White provides an excellent review of this time, far better than most biographies of Grant which tend to rush through this period.

For many years, Grant has ranked near the bottom of the list of effective Presidents. But in recent years, as historians have begun to take a more dispassionate look at his two terms, that ranking has improved. White does what many biographers have not, examined his Presidency in the context of the challenges he faced.

As President, after two year of conflict under Andrew Johnson who aided the South as it tried to reassert white dominance, Grant faced a daunting task. Not only was he trying to repair the country, he was trying to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Ambivalent about slavery before the war, Grant became a staunch supporter of full citizenship for former slaves after it.

He made significant progress pushing back the Ku Klux Klan, and successfully navigated the rough political waters that went along with military reconstruction in the South. Many assert, including I think the author, that Grant should be considered the first Civil Rights President. Strong evidence for this includes the views of Frederick Douglass, who had a tepid opinion of Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of blacks, but strongly support Grant’s. The support of Jewish leaders as well, who were insulted by Grant’s infamous General Order #11 in 1862 that singled out Jewish traders for condemnation, but who came around to view him as an ally, is another piece of evidence in favor of that view. And not only was he a proponent of full rights for African Americans, but he tried to install a liberal policy regarding Native Americans, believing the government had trampled on their rights.

As events eventually overtook the country, and weariness after 15 years of war and the conflict of Reconstruction set in, much of what Grant did and tried to do, was rolled back by subsequent administrations. It would be nearly a century before blacks were able to get restored to them anything close to their full rights again. But, Grant’s efforts here were noble, and were for a time successful. He deserves credit for that.

Grant also had to deal with several economic issues during his administration. Early in his first term, wealthy speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market. Grant intervened to stop them just in time, the result of which was Black Friday, a panic that led to months of financial devastation. White argues Grant’s quick action should be credited. While that is true, I think he goes too far in absolving Grant here. He either didn’t realize or didn’t want to realize, that he was being used by Gould and Fisk. Had he been more diligent, he might have been able to terminate their machinations without the subsequent panic.

White also gives Grant too much credit for the way he dealt with the depression of 1873. The crisis, which was the result of over speculation in railroad stock, led Grant to further contract the money supply in order to prevent over inflation. White implies this was the correct move in that it kept inflation from getting out of hand. However, at the same time it caused interest rates to rise, which hurt those in debt (as Grant acknowledged and agonized over), and severely limited the amount of money available to companies with growth plans. Those actions probably prolonged the downturn.

White compares Grant’s steady, no nonsense reaction to the crisis to Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s, as he tried to cheer lead the economy into action, which White implies was a less effective strategy. This is not a good comparison. Grant’s reaction was to the immediate crisis as it occurred, while FDR’s was to an economy that had been in depression for three years, and which had sapped the countries will. A more apt comparison would have been to Hoover, whose reaction was much the same as Grant’s, a refusal to apply stimulus, thus prolonging the crisis.

White also deals effectively with the numerous scandals that occurred during Grant’s two terms. Seemingly unable to believe anyone he had known and trusted could act duplicitously, he was slow to remove corrupt officials, and remained loyal to those taking advantage of their relationship with him for far too long. Grant was personally incorruptible, but was seemingly blind to corruption around him until it instigated a crisis. This is the reason Grant is ranked as a middling President rather than an above average one.

Overall I think anyone with an interest in Ulysses S. Grant would enjoy this book immensely. It is generally fair (with the exceptions I noted), and effectively deals with the many myths surrounding Grant and his career. He does a nice job of tying Grant’s life as a boy and student at West Point to his later action as General and President. He does a nice job of recounting Grant’s career, and his service in both Mexico and in the Civil War. He provides a very lucid account of Grant’s Presidency that puts it into the context of the challenges he faced. He also gives a great account of Grant’s world tour after his White House years, and a very moving one of his final death struggle.

Most importantly, it is very well written

There are flaws, some of which I noted. He was at times quick to give Grant the benefit of the doubt in cases where there was an equally plausible counter argument. He also seemed to take great pains to portray Grant as a devout Christian. He was a believer of course, but I don’t think religion played a particularly important role in his life. And finally I think he gave Grant too much credit for his reactions to the gold crisis in 1869 and the depression of 1873.

Still, highly recommended!

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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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Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Every battle is the “bloodiest”, or most “sanguinary”. Every storm is a historic deluge that always seems to occur just as some momentous turning point is about to occur. Every secondary, or little known event, is in reality the pivot on which [fill in the blank’s] fortunes depend, and of course George Washington is the “greatest horseman of his generation.”

These and many other cliches are standard for works of popular American history. They engage the reader, build suspense, and imply new or unusual interpretations of allegedly well-understood events. In reality however, they seem cherry picked as a way to propel a chosen narrative, rather than providing evidence for a well crafted hypothesis.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick makes excellent use of these, and other techniques to produce an admittedly well-crafted narrative review of its subject, that nevertheless, left me disappointed.

Philbrick, in my opinion, is one of only a handful of preeminent authors of popular American History. He has a gift for narrative only rivaled by David McCullough. I have enjoyed several of his previous works, including In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, and Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. With the exception of the last of these, they involved subjects with which I had little or no familiarity. I enjoyed them because of this fact, because of their narrative style, and despite their heavy use of the same type of hooks he uses in Valiant Ambition. I appreciated his book on Bunker Hill despite having more than passing familiarity with the topic, because he placed the event in its proper context, not elevating its importance beyond where it should be. In that work, he didn’t artificially elevate the importance of certain events to create tension. Unfortunately, with Valiant Ambition, he seems to have gone out of the way to do just the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a well-crafted book, which effectively weaves a dual biography of George Washington and Benedict Arnold’s Revolutionary wartime experience into a pretty seamless story. But there just isn’t much new here that has not been covered in numerous other books on these two men. His heavy use of the artificial build up of events, along with his liberal use of the cliches mentioned earlier, left me with a “been there, read that” feeling.

Philbrick uncritically uses quotes and passages attributable to Washington, Arnold, and many of the people they interacted with or who were affected by their actions, to convey the intended narrative effect. In some cases they are used to assert something without really having to research whether it was true or not. So when he notes that George Washington was generally understood to be the “greatest horseman of his generation,” he was in fact using a passage written by Thomas Jefferson as evidence. Obviously there is no way Jefferson, or anyone at the time, could prove such an assertion. Yet Philbrick makes it without any context behind it to help convey a sense of gravitas around Washington.

Prominent men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote not only for an immediate need, but to make sure posterity interpreted their actions as they wished them to be. Whether it was a letter, a diary entry, or public conversation, they knew, and indeed hoped, their words would be shared. Using them without context, and without a close examination of the motivations behind them, leaves the interpretation susceptible to later contradiction. I understand why Philbrick does this, I just wish he had not done so so widely and uncritically.

I don’t want to overdraw the point however. There are place in the narrative where Philbrick does provide critical context, such as when analyzing the assertions by Benjamin Talmadge that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s plans to turn over West Point to the British was the fault of Arnold himself. Philbrick makes a persuasive case that the fault lay with John Andre, and that Talmadge’s assertions were designed to deflect blame from the failure of his spy network. In addition to this, in a few places, Philbrick hints at a deeper analysis of events than a simple narrative of them provides. I wanted more of this.

As a narrative work, Philbrick doesn’t make a real attempt at a more detailed analysis of the reasons for the Revolutionary War, or for Washington and Arnold’s participation in it. Given the number of books that essentially give the same narrative of these events as Philbrick’s (though admittedly with less skill), I wish he had instead applied his considerable talent to a deeper look. An exploration of the economic, cultural and political climate that gave rise to the Revolution or the motivation behind the participation of landed gentlemen such as George Washington, and of those who had acquired wealth through their own exertions such as Arnold, would have been fascinating. I would have liked a more thorough look at Arnold’s motivations for treason, not only based on his writings and actions, but on an analysis of what kind of hold identification as an American had for the average citizen, and how that affected Arnold’s decision and the reaction to it. He does hint at some of this, talking about the role economic class played in motivating those who supported independence. He also, briefly, dives more deeply into criticism of George Washington’s generalship. And he posited an interesting theory that Arnold’s treason actually brought together a country that was rapidly falling apart as the war dragged on. I just wish we had gotten a lot more of this kind of analysis throughout the book.

Overall I did enjoy this, if for no other reason than Philbrick is such a skilled writer. If your knowledge of Washington and Arnold doesn’t extend much beyond what you learned in school, this is a good place to start. If you are more familiar with the subjects though, this doesn’t provide much in the way of new insight, and may leave you wanting something new.

 

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

LincolnGrantLincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

Purporting to look at the relationship that developed between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, “Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the War” by Edward H. Bonekemper III reads more like a perfunctory dual biography. There is little here to be gained that isn’t covered in better and more comprehensive works, or previous books by Mr. Bonekemper. There are two exceptions however. First, he provides a surprisingly engaging account of the “overland campaign,” which encompassed battles that pitted the Union Army of the Potomac against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia between April and June 1864. The campaign ended with the siege of Petersburg, VA by troops under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Bonekemper deftly describes the challenges faced by both Grant and Robert E. Lee, the strategy each employed, and a nice analysis of the result. He might consider writing a separate book on the topic.

A second area in which this book rose above a simple surface level biography of Lincoln and Grant is contained in his excellent summary chapter. Though meant to be both an analysis of the Lincoln-Grant relationship and a dual character study, most of the book was not devoted to that task as I noted above. However, what was provided, condensed into the summary chapter was surprisingly compelling. He identifies a number of characteristics Lincoln and Grant had in common, and noted representative situations that demonstrated how these common traits were manifested in their working relationship. A relationship Bonekemper asserts, that developed into one of complete mutual trust. These included adaptability acquired from a common western upbringing, decisiveness, clarity of communication, moral courage, and perseverance. Few would quibble with the assertion each man possessed these traits. Indeed, one only need review Lincoln’s orations and Grant’s written orders and memoirs to see that clarity of communication was a gift they shared. Bonekemper describes these with clarity as well. It highlights the point that this analysis was too diffuse in the body of the book to make a real impact on the reader. It may have been better as an academic paper.*

As with his other books Bonekemper’s honestly stated goal is to revive the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant. With a so blatant initial bias readers inclined to the opposite view may dismiss the valid points he makes out of hand. Also, he may consider whether he has gone to the well one too many times by making Ulysses S. Grant the subject of his work. Parts of this book appeared to be lifted, almost verbatim, from his previous books.

Well written overall but not much new save the exceptions I noted above.

*  I see Bonekemper has written a Kindle Single on this topic. May be the condensed version that I think would be more impactful. I am going to read it and report back.

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3.0 rating

BonekemperUlysses S. Grant: A Victor Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

Edward H. Bonekemper III is moving rapidly to fill the role of Ulysses S. Grant’s chief academic defender, attempting to reverse what he views as decades of ill-treatment at the hands of “lost cause” revisionists and the apathetic historians that have accepted their version of Grant’s military acumen a priori. There is truth in this. There is no doubt Grant’s reputation has suffered since his death in 1885. Southern historians, needing to explain away the defeat of their hero and exemplar of Southern rectitude, Robert E. Lee in a way that did not signal an acceptance of the notion he was incompetent or out-generaled, began coordinated effort to cast aspersions on his military record. Thus was born the description of Grant as “butcher” and “drunk,” and the assertion his victories were only due to the application of brute force rather than tactical skill. Conversely, the man Grant defeated has been canonized, his victories celebrated as genius, his defeats blamed on subordinates or poor circumstances. An example of this bias until recently, was the way monuments to each were cared for by the National Park Service. Lee’s home at Arlington has been lovingly cared for, including a recently completed 6 year restoration. Ditto the hundreds of statues and historic sites related to Lee throughout the South, especially Virginia. By contrast, Grant’s tomb in New York City and his massive equestrian statue on the grounds of the United States Capital had, until recently, been allowed to deteriorate, with the former becoming a magnet for graffiti artists and the homeless looking for a place to sleep. It took a threat by Grant descendants to have his body moved to Ohio to get the Park Service to undertake a restoration. Other examples abound, including his treatment in popular culture and histories focusing on other topics in which Grant is a minor player. Rather than look at recent scholarship it is easier just to accept long held conventional wisdom.

It is not hard than, to sympathize with Bonekemper’s view that Grant has been given short shrift by historians and the public. And frankly, I share it.

On the other hand, by so specifically aligning himself with a specific version of history, Bonekemper runs the risk of criticism for lack of objectivity, and that those inclined to an opposite view of Grant will use it to dismiss his valid points. It’s why the word “hagiography” is often used disparagingly by historians. This book is hagiography. He also runs the risk of applying his bias to an interpretation of evidence that is not warranted. This is always a danger for historians, but for those more committed to arriving at a fair interpretation of the facts it is something that is more scrupulously guarded against. Having said all of that however, and having studied Grant’s career rather extensively, I didn’t see any glaringly obvious bias in the information presented.

The goal of this book is very simple, to refute the charge, first given voice by “lost cause” apologists and later incorporated into mainstream histories, that Ulysses S. Grant was a “butcher of men,” that his disregard for human life was such that he was willing to sacrifice his men in a series of incompetent attacks knowing he had an almost unlimited ability to replace them. This also implied that Grant’s abilities as a military tactician were limited at best, particularly when compared with those of Robert E. Lee. Here Bonekemper does a good job of marshaling statistics to refute that contention.

He argues, pretty convincingly, that Grant was far from being the butcher portrayed by detractors. Rather, he was actually a skilled tactician and strategist who deployed his troops wisely and judiciously. Grant always had in mind the dual goal of minimizing casualties while maximizing damage to the enemy. He recognized, as his predecessors did not, that winning the war was the fastest way to end the carnage, and that this would require relentless and nearly non-stop attacks against an often entrenched enemy. Previous opponents of Lee viewed defeat in battle as an opportunity to retreat and regroup. Grant viewed them as temporary setbacks and an opportunity to learn from hard experience.

Here the author highlights two data points to make his case. First, throughout the war Grant lost 37,000 fewer men than did Robert E. Lee. During the period when Grant and Lee were in direct competition Grant lost more men, but a smaller percentage of those engaged. He accomplished this while being on the offensive nearly the entire time. Second, during the period encompassing Grant’s appointment as General-in-Chief through to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox about a year later, the Union Army of the Potomac , fighting on the offensive for nearly that entire period, suffered fewer casualties than under all of its previous commanders combined, a statistic that, in Bonekemper’s view, not only vindicates Grant’s tactical and strategic skill, but also absolves him of the “butcher” sobriquet. I tend to agree with this. In fact, he argues by the standard applied to Grant by his detractors Lee deserves the butcher label  far more than Grant does. He does not apply that standard however, believing the well-being of the troops was a priority of both Lee and Grant. He just argues that Grant was the superior General. Another view I am persuaded best fits the evidence.

This in a nutshell is Bonekemper’s argument. The rest of the book is a largely perfunctory  and admiring biography of Grant.

This work is well written, and at times engrossing. The author’s admiration for Grant is clear, which in many ways is refreshing after so many decades of revisionist Grant bashing. His research and citation appears impeccable, although the reliability of casualty figures, particularly of Confederate forces, is often sketchy. Despite this however, he appears to be using up to date analysis on which he bases a very plausible interpretation. Where I had some trouble, as I mentioned earlier, was with the blatant hagiographic impulse he admitted to at the beginning of the book. Refreshing as this interpretation of Grant’s career is, for those whose bias is the opposite it gives a ready made reason to discount the solid analysis contained in it. He also takes great pains to assert the most charitable interpretation of some of Grants’s less admirable actions. This too provides an opening to discount the entire work.

For its direct refutation of misinformation regarding Grant’s military career this is well worth reading. As a biography of Grant it is perfunctory at best. There are numerous better options available.

 

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4.0 rating

ImpeachmentImpeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction by Hans Trefousse

Andrew Johnson is one of the most enigmatic and controversial presidents in American history. Depending on one’s perspective and place in time he was either the man responsible for the failure of Reconstruction in the south, or, the man who helped avoid a race war by steering a moderate course between advocates for full civil and political rights for African Americans and those that wanted to keep them in as close to a state of slavery as possible. Johnson has been the subject of many books, by many of the leading scholars of the Reconstruction era, including Eric Foner, who, for my money, is at the top of this list. Each looks at Johnson in different ways, interpreting his actions and the motivation behind them from different points of view. In one respect they all agree, Andrew Johnson was in inveterate racist whose racism shaped his views of Reconstruction and the proper role of the freedmen in the post-Civil War South.

In his book Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction, Hans Trefousse has produced an extensive and, in my opinion, unique view of Johnson and his presidency. He views Johnson’s motivations from the dual perspectives of Jacksonianism and racism, a perspective I haven’t seen before, and don’t entirely agree with. Trefousse acknowledges, as most scholars do, that Johnson’s intense racism made it impossible for him to “sympathize in any way with policies furthering racial equality. (Trefousse, 5) However, Trefousse departs from conventional wisdom which views Johnson as “inept and stubborn,” by concluding he was in fact sincere in his beliefs and a skillful, uncompromising tactical politician.

Andrew Johnson viewed himself as a “Jackson Democrat.” This implied, among other things, a belief in white superiority, a classical states rights view of the constitution, a rejection of secession as one of those rights, a bottom up view of politics including an often intense distrust of large monied interests, and like Jackson himself, a willingness to stubbornly stand one’s ground in defense of his beliefs, trusting in eventual vindication by the American people. Trefousse does not dig into Johnson’s motivations for his dislike of the slavocracy before the war, something that would not be a characteristic of a Jackson Democrat, but he does ascribe the others to him, and uses them to explain Johnson’s actions throughout reconstruction, especially in relation to the efforts to impeach him.

Andrew Johnson, “like Andrew Jackson, conceived of an America ruled by whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As guaranteed in the constitution, Johnson was devoted to democracy and viewed it as a precious gift. But, in his view the constitution was “written by white men, [and] he believed that its benefits were reserved for whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As Trefousse points out, evidence for this racism is abundant, ranging from disgust at seeing black troops stationed in Tennessee while he was its wartime governor, to his denunciation of the Reconstruction Bill of 1867 he described as a “measure to treat the suffering people of the South under foot ‘top protect niggers’,” to his annoyance at seeing predominantly black laborers working on the White House lawn. (Trefousse, 4) The primary expression of Johnson’s racism during this period however, was his stubborn determination to minimize the role of black’s in Reconstruction, and to maintain the domination of the white race. In furtherance of that goal, all through the Reconstruction period, Johnson acted on these racist principles, taking actions which he believed would maintain white domination in the reconstructed south, including his May 29, 1865 Proclamation of Amnesty which “inaugurated and extremely liberal policy of pardoning ex-Confederates,” and his call for white southerners to hold conventions for the purpose of organizing new state governments, thus disregarding demands for black suffrage. (Trefousse, 11) His racism would not allow a policy of land distribution to freedmen. As Trefousse observes, had Johnson wanted to “maintain the dominance of the white race… [he]…could not permit the transfer of land to the freedmen.” (Trefousse, 15) Consequently he established a policy of returning confiscated land to their Confederate owners in an effort to deny freedmen the opportunity to become landholders. In early 1866 Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, primarily for racist reasons, and in 1867 he vetoed the Civil Rights bill partially for constitutional reasons, but also because “it offended his racial sensibilities since it proposed to outlaw all discrimination between the races.” (Trefousse, 26) And, in 1866 he opposed passage of the fourteenth amendment to the constitution whose moderate purpose was to insure the equal treatment of all citizens under state law. As with the Civil Rights bill, Johnson objected partially on substantive grounds, but also because it gave rights to blacks which he did not believe they should have. In taking these uncompromising stands, Johnson passed up numerous opportunities to compromise with moderate and conservative Republicans that may have enhanced his political position. Instead, he chose to stand his ground, certain “that history and his country would ultimately recognize the purity of his actions.” (Trefousse, 6) Instead, while he was President, “[Andrew Johnson] would utilize the entire resources of his high office to keep the South a white man’s country.” (Trefousse, 29)

While racism was the primary reason for Johnson’s opposition to the equitable treatment of freedmen, it was not the only one. Another, Trefousse argues, was that Johnson, like Andrew Jackson, was devoted to an indissoluble Union and to the Constitution. He held a classic states rights position as did Jackson ascribing to the individual states sovereignty in most matters. He drew the line at state nullification of federal law and secession, neither of which he believed were sanctioned by the Constitution. This explains his loyalty to the Union; a view at odds with the majority of his former constituents in Tennessee. It also partially explains a number of his actions during Reconstruction including his veto of the Freedman’s Bureau bill, the Civil Rights bill, and his opposition to the fourteenth amendment. All of these actions Trefousse argues, were based on Johnson’s view of the proper role of the federal government; specifically, his belief that the constitution did not give the federal government power to define the terms of suffrage in the various states. It was also evident in the way Johnson worked to minimize the effects of military Reconstruction, replacing generals who were viewed as too radical. It was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by his challenge to the Tenure of Office Act. Designed to restrict Johnson’s control of federal patronage, the act forbade the dismissal of any Presidential appointee still in the term of their appointment without Congressional approval. Johnson, anxious to rid himself of Secretary of War Stanton, and in an apparent desire to test the act’s constitutionality, removed him from office, setting up a confrontation with Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives, who had been looking for an excuse to Impeach Johnson, used his violation of this act to do so. After shameful and unethical behavior on both sides, Johnson was ultimately acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

Where Trefousse departs from many other historians’ analysis of Johnson’s actions during this period, is in his interpretation of Johnson’s apparent stubbornness in the face of Republican pressure. Usually dismissed as the actions of a vindictive and recalcitrant politician, Johnson’s unwillingness to go along with Republican reconstruction efforts were actually politically calculated to achieve a very specific result. Every action he took, from purposely alienating his own ostensible allies by refusing to compromise on even the most moderate attempts to give basic civil and political liberties to freedmen, to risking impeachment over his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, was calculated, argues Trefousse, “to accomplish his own goals – to thwart Radical Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy in the South, “policies he truly believed would eventually be seen by history as correct.

At times it seems Trefousee has a sneaking admiration for Johnson. This is understandable. Certainty can be an appealing quality in a politician – at least initially. However, from the tenor and tone of the book as a whole, particularly in his extensive discussion of Johnson’s racism, Trefousse does not appear to have a high opinion of Johnson as a statesman. It is certainly clear he believes Johnson’s behavior during the Reconstruction period was harmful to the country. He notes more than once that because of the eclipse of the Southern ruling class, had Johnson acted more decisively, overcoming his racist attitudes, that “it would have been comparatively simple to enfranchise at least some of the Negroes in the former Confederacy,” (Trefousse, 7) Andrew Johnson was a Jacksonian living in a post-Jacksonian world and was unable to view things any other way.

 

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5.0 rating

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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4.0 rating

Ragefororder



In A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, Joel Williamson takes a unique look at southern racial violence, noting that “one of the great ironies of American history…[is that]…when the nation freed the slaves, it also freed racism.” (Williamson, 78) This resulted he argues, in physical and cultural segregation, and the unleashing of some of the most sadistic racial violence seen since the end of the Civil War.

Williamson begins his work with a brief review of the rise of slavery in America, noting the strenuous efforts southern whites made to make a place for blacks in their economy by trying to find a place for them in every aspect of southern life. One result of this was the creation of the Sambo image, a construction whites invented depicting slaves as “simple, docile, and manageable.” (Williamson, 15) He describes an almost Focaultian power discourse he calls the “organic society,” where whites could not “prescribe and enforce a precise role upon black people without prescribing and enforcing a precise role upon themselves.” (Williamson, 17)

The heart of A Rage of Order however is Williamson’s discussion of the evolution of white racial attitudes in the south after emancipation, particularly the interplay of three southern white “mentalities” which he uses to describe “intellectual atmosphere[s] of a distinctive, clearly identifiable quality.” (Williamson, 70) These mentalities, which became prominent at different times were: “Liberal,” which was strongest in the 1880s and argued that black potential was as yet unknown, but was encouraged by the strides blacks made under white leadership during reconstruction; “Conservative,” which had probably started in the 1830s and was the default mentality of most white southerners, always there, but would adapt into other mentalities to insure its survival. Conservatives held that blacks were innately inferior, and in order to help them survive it aimed at defining their place in American society; and “Radical,” the most violent and insidious of the mentalities, held that blacks, no longer under the yoke of slavery, would regress to their “natural state of savagery and bestiality.” (Williamson, 71) Radicalism, which was mostly responsible for the extreme violence and racism against blacks, included forced segregation, disenfranchisement, and the use of lunching and riots as acceptable political tools, was most prominent between 1897 and 1907. Williamson’s devotes most of this work to the effects of this radicalism and how conservatism responded to it.

The rise of radicalism is not easily explained. Williamson believes an effort by northern politicians, including some Democrats, to make a place for blacks in government, fears of the reintroduction of reconstruction, and economic and political upheavals characterized by replacement of the plantation economy by tenant farming and industrialization, were all contributing factors. Based on the amount of space he devotes to it however, it appears Williamson believes the primary cause was the interplay of economics and the Victorian model of gender roles. This Victorian sensibility cast men as the breadwinner and women as the protector of hearth and home. Unable to provide for their families during bad times, men could at least protect their women from the outrages of the “black beast rapist.” This despicable construction was the result of the deliberately fabricated Radical view of black retrogression. In this view, “the most significant and awful manifestation of [this] black retrogression was an increasing frequency of assaults on white women and girls by black men.” (Williamson, 84)

Williamson uses a number of biographical essays as a way to demonstrate the manifestation of these mentalities. He includes essays on Booker T. Washington, who took an accommodationist approach to race relations, and W.E.B. DuBois, who did not. Most interesting, but ultimately the least convincing, were biographies of three prominent radicals: Rebecca Latimer Felton, Benjamin Ryan Tillman, and Tom Dixon. In each case, Williamson tries argues for a psychological explanation for their turn to radicalism. For Rebecca Latimer Felton, author, feminist, and U.S. Senator (for one day), it was disgust at her prescribed role in Victorian society. For Benjamin Ryan Tillman, it was the paranoia that arose as his daughters came of age and his memories of plantation life as an adolescent surrounded by slaves. And for Tom Dixon, the author of The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman on which the movie The Birth of a Nation was based, it was the psychological resentment he held for his father and grandmother, and the role they played forcing his mother into an underage marriage. Implicit in the sketches of Felton and Tillman, and more explicitly in that of Dixon, is the notion that the psychological condition represented by these three was also present in millions of other southern radicals. Though interesting, it is a leap to extrapolate from these case studies a wide spread psychological explanation for radicalism in the south, particularly in the absence of any other evidence.

At times Williamson takes a somewhat sympathetic view of Conservatives and their reaction to Radicalism. He admires the way it presented a pliable public face, going along with many of the radical proposals, including segregation and disenfranchisement, waiting for the day when radicalism would subside. As such, Conservatism was nearly indestructible. Overall I found Williamson’s arguments to be fairly persuasive. The interplay of the three “mentalities” he describes, and the role of Victorian gender identification in the rise of Radicalism, was convincing. His assertion that psychology can be used to explain the rise of Radicalism for millions of southerners was unpersuasive. I also found his explanation for the decline of Radicalism, that Radicals realized blacks were not dying off or retrogressing as they predicted, unpersuasive. It seems to me by 1915 when Williamson dates the end of Radicalism, they had achieved all of their goals – segregation, disenfranchisement, and state sanction for violence. There was simply no longer a reason to maintain it, and so Conservatism again became dominant.

This book is impressively sourced, using primary and secondary sources as well as newspapers and manuscripts. It is easy to read with few lapses in the narrative.

 

 

 

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Current Bucket Status

Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Current Audio Book: The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum

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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