Review of: Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country, by Mardo Williams

Towards the end of his mother’s very long life, retired journalist and octogenarian Mardo Williams began collecting her reminisces of a long bygone time in antique rural America.  The result, three years after the death of Maude Williams at 110 years old, was a biography maudeand memoir of sorts, Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up with the Country, published in 1996 when Mardo himself was 91, and with encouragement from a writer’s group expanded by nearly 300 pages in the two years that followed. Mardo passed away in 2001, but a revised second edition of Maude was released in 2016, which I received through an early reviewer’s program.

In 1903, a pregnant nineteen-year-old Maude Allen wed Lee Williams and moved into a family homestead already more than a half-century old on farmland in remote rural Ohio.  There was no electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing.  Their second child, Mardo, was born in 1905; altogether there would be a total of four children born in every-other-year intervals. A mix perhaps of Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, Maude revisits a much simpler time in America when close-knit families worked and played together through hardship and celebration.  As a kind of primary source, the book is almost instantly fascinating as the narrative reveals in colorful detail how the Williams family went about their day to day lives – preparing food, keeping warm, washing clothes, doing farmyard chores, and the like – in a kind of primitive isolation. There is a pronounced charm to it, along with a certain heartwarming glow, especially in its survey of the more innocent America of Mardo’s childhood, replete with amusing anecdotes of Maude’s proverb-laced mothering, and Lee’s homespun practical jokes, as well as tales of long buggy rides to town or the occasional country fair, and winter sleigh rides to visit extended family and friends.

Yet, perhaps more fascinating is what is missing; that which remains unsaid. Primitive isolation: there is no doubt that sums up the farm where Maude and her family resided. But why? In 1903, Maude was living much like her grandparents would have lived. It was indeed remarkably similar to Little House on the Prairie, but yet it was early twentieth century America, on a farm in Ohio no less, hardly a desolate wilderness on the edge of the western frontier or a forgotten pocket of poverty in the deep south. And it hardly changed in the years to come. One day a telephone was installed, and the isolation was reduced, but not by much.  Maude had a cistern to collect rainwater for washing, but she did not get an indoor pitcher pump for it until the 1920s [p235]. Around that time, she finally went from a washboard to a “hand-propelled washing machine.” Lee got a car in 1920, and there are later stories of the children hanging out in the car in the evenings, listening to the radio.  Incredibly, there was no radio in the house until the late 1940s, just as the era of television dawned for the rest of the country [p12-13]. Maude thought it something of a miracle when the house was finally wired for electricity – in 1947 – when she and Lee were in their sixties! For twenty-first century Americans, there is perhaps a quaint rustic charm to the description of their privy, located a full one hundred feet from the back door, “. . . a two-holer equipped with a sack of lime . . . and a fly swatter,” and neatly accented with a Sears Roebuck catalog hanging from the wall – the pages of the catalog doubled as a “wish list” and as toilet paper [p34]. Of course, it is dubious that such charm extended to those who had to relieve themselves outdoors with no lights or plumbing day after day in every manner of weather. In 1960, three years after Lee’s death, and with the property in deep disrepair, Maude moved away. She was seventy-seven years old and had used an outhouse for the entire fifty-seven years that she lived there.

The careful anthropologist as reader cannot help but ask: why did conditions remain so primitive for Maude and Lee for some six decades?  It certainly did not start off that way. Lee’s family was apparently somewhat well-off, even sending Lee off to college. When he opted to drop out in favor of farming, Lee brought his new bride to a sprawling ten room house where his grandfather had lived, on land that included a barn, granary, windmill and more. His parents donated odd pieces of furniture to them. Three years later, Lee’s father paid to have the house repaired and renovated. This was a promising start for the young couple, and hardly abject poverty, yet by all accounts Lee and Maude lived a hardscrabble and weirdly anachronistic existence ever after. It appears that life was markedly different for others in their shared geography, who enjoyed at least some of the more modern conveniences conspicuous in their absence on the Williams farm. Long before he had his own car, Lee hiked through the mud to bum a ride to town in his neighbor’s vehicle, a town firmly anchored in the twentieth century, not trapped in the faded nineteenth where Lee and his family seemed helplessly glued. But again: why?  The narrative neither reveals the answer nor openly begs the question.  Was Lee an incompetent farmer?  There are vague hints that he may have been an alcoholic, but this is never fleshed out. Was he unlucky? Was he simply lazy? Or was the primitive state of things a kind of “hair shirt” Lee liked to wear? It is never made clear. Vast changes occurred in American life in the twentieth century, but life on the Williams farm essentially stood still.  The subtitle of the book, She Grew Up with the Country, is starkly misleading; the country grew up, but Maude was somehow left behind.

There is a telling photo on the cover of this edition of Maude.  Maude was only twenty-six, Lee twenty-seven; each look at least forty. Perhaps it was the times. Or maybe it was that hard life on that farm where every day was more like 1858 than 1908. For all of Mardo’s abundant nostalgia, it seems that in fact it was a life that none of the children really cherished, at least once they were old enough to juxtapose their world with the world outside.  The book contains vague references to their teenage years, but then the story fast forwards as all four children have married and moved away – for good.  Hard times and primitive isolation seems to have held very little appeal. It is never explained why neither Maude nor Lee attended any of their weddings.

Despite encouragement from the writer’s group, the second half of the book should never have been written.  It is less about Maude than about the extended family, including tales of murders, madness and alienation that have little to do with the themes of Americana resident in the first part of the narrative.  Until the last years of her life, her children seem to have been markedly disengaged from her. But Maude lived on and, at least at first, thrived in a whole new universe replete with such marvels as indoor plumbing, and color television, and jet travel to visit relatives on the other side of the country!  She does not seem to miss her days as a kind of cave-dweller. Still, she remained a simple soul, for better or for worse.  Maude proudly voted for fellow Ohioan Warren G. Harding in 1920, the first national election after women had won the franchise.  When President Bill Clinton sent her congratulations on reaching her 110th year, she did not hesitate to tell anyone who would listen that she had voted against him. The Williams’ hosted a stubborn conservatism that opposed even that which benefited them, as when Lee, barely scraping by, complained against the “hand-outs” of FDR-era WPA programs that partially subsidized his ever-struggling ventures.  Mardo, reveling in celebratory nostalgia for a life he clearly fled from on fleet foot as soon as he was able,  echoes these sentiments with not-so-subtle underscores.

Maude’s slow, tragic physical decline in the latter stages of old age is painfully chronicled in the final chapters. Much of what is revealed would better have been withheld. Despite the challenges of physical frailty, however, it seems like the best favor anyone ever did for Maude was to whisk her away from that farm and resettle her in a warm suite of rooms with a flush toilet and a refrigerator and lamps that switched on and off. Those who are entranced with romantic notions of a traditional pre-modern America never lived it.  Camping in the wilderness is indeed inspiring and comes highly recommended, but – for most of us – hardly recommended for each and every day. Maude spent much of her long life more or less camping, with four walls around her, while the rest of the world moved on.  Perhaps it was charming.  Probably, it mostly was not, as evidenced by the flight of her children at their first opportunities to flee.  Overall, this is hardly a great book, and Mardo – while a competent writer – was not an impressive author. But there are indeed parts of Maude, especially the first half, that are worth the read. If nothing else, it is a reminder that it was not that long ago that there were people who lived very different lives than we can easily imagine today. Nor, I should add, lives that we should, in our starry-eyed musings, miss too much.

Review of: The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, by Paul Andrew Hutton

Once upon a time, there were millions of Amerindians in North America of diverse cultures speaking a wide variety of languages and belonging to hundreds of different tribes and countless more clans. European pandemics decimated these populations at contact, apache-warsand disease continued to take a toll centuries later, while the introduction of horses, firearms and alcohol irrevocably altered traditional lifeways for a continent-wide distribution of native peoples that pursued vastly different strategies in diverse environments.  They had little in common except in the eyes of the white invaders who viewed them as an impediment to expansion, colonization and domination, so that by 1800 it is estimated there were only 600,000 Native Americans left. By the 1890s this number was a mere 250,000, and none of them lived free in their traditional societies. Today, most Americans only know of these largely extinct peoples from their caricatures as noble savages or bloodthirsty villains in the almost entirely mythical universe of the classic Hollywood western. Still, these films were so effective that many of the characters they popularized – Apaches like Cochise, Geronimo, and The Apache Kid, and whites in their orbit such as Kit Carson, Tom Horn and General George Crook – even if thoroughly fictionalized for the big screen, became nevertheless indelibly etched in our cultural memory. Thus, it is especially welcome to come to Paul Andrew Hutton’s stirring historical narrative, The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History, which resurrects the actual people and events, and way of life, so long buried in fanciful myth.

Population pressures had once driven a loose coalition of peoples known as Apaches into the Southwest. Like many native peoples, they operated without central authority, and despite relationships that implied far more significance to European observers than it did to them, tribes and clans occupied different geographies with diverse lifeways and were frequently hostile to one another with deeply embedded blood feuds. There were six major Apache-speaking groups: Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, Mescalero, Plains Apache, and Western Apache, with many sub-groups and clans within these, all politically autonomous.  Some of them made their way by raiding the settled agricultural peoples on both sides of the border between Mexico and the territories belonging to the United States that later would become Arizona and New Mexico, stealing cattle, horses and even people to be sold into slavery. For the Apache, Hutton underscores, raiding was distinct from warfare; there were sometimes casualties as a by-product of raids, but killing was not the intention.

Yet, Hutton, professor of history at the University of New Mexico and the executive director of Western History Association, does not romanticize his subjects. The Apache were fearsome and often brutal warriors, who frequently tortured their prisoners to death in horrific ways, such as staking them to anthills with their mouths propped open, flaying them alive, suspending them upside down with hot coals beneath their heads [p12], and tying them to burning wagons [p47]. Apaches were also sometimes known for murdering women and children, even in one report shooting down a pregnant woman with a baby in her arms and then bashing the infant’s head against a wall [p374]. But they had no monopoly on barbarism, as the deeds of a single clan or even a lone Apache were commonly taken as license by Mexicans and Americans alike to slaughter unrelated bands of men, women and children in retaliation. Scalping was initially not common among the Apache, who considered contact with the dead taboo, but Europeans turned scalps into currency for bounties, sometimes with the ears attached [p12-16]. General George Crook, who was actually a less barbarous adversary than many in the long war chronicled in this volume, leaned to the medieval by collecting entire heads and mounting them on posts for prominent display in camp.

The Apache Wars is a long, complicated yet generally fast-moving narrative of how random clashes between Apaches and American settlers in the Southwest ignited a lengthy, vicious conflict and ultimately ended up with the virtual annihilation of the Apache and the deportation of pockets of survivors. It began with the unlikely spark of the kidnapping of a red-haired one-eyed boy, Felix Ward, child of a Mexican woman and adopted son of a white settler whose ranch was preyed upon by Apache raiders (“the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History” in the subtitle). Felix, raised by Indians, grows up to be an amoral Apache scout in service of the U.S. Cavalry named Mickey Free, who as the book’s protagonist is emblematic of the phantom potential for assimilation among hostile forces that never really could be. Because all Indians were viewed through a single lens by their white adversaries, Apaches that settled into peaceful lifeways were randomly punished as severely as those who continued to raid. Likewise, to those who refused to capitulate, the “White Eyes” were reviled as one indistinguishable force, although this hatred was rightly fueled by the almost unimaginable lengths of treachery those whites were willing to stoop to in order to prevail. The legendary Cochise was invited to a parlay where he barely escaped assassination. The great chief Mangas Coloradas was taken prisoner, then taunted and executed.  He was scalped, and then his head was boiled so the skull could be taken as trophy, later gifted to a famed phrenologist [p101-02]. A famous mystic, Nock-ay-det-klinne, known as “the Dreamer,” who preached peace between the Apache and the whites, was held in great suspicion and eventually executed without cause by soldiers [p280]. Every agreement made with the Apaches was violated, and as elsewhere in the expanding United States, Native Americans humbled and forced into reservations fared no better than those who would fight to the last warrior.

There were some whites who were sympathetic to the Apache cause, including the famous scout Kit Carson, frontiersman Tom “Taglito” Jeffords and famed Civil War General O.O. Howard. There was often paternalism, but there was too an attempt at fairness and a sense of justice.  These men were a distinct minority. Some, like Indian agent John Clum, began with humanitarian ideals that sought to improve the often deplorable conditions in reservations, but ego and ambition got the better of him as he failed to recognize the inherent inhumanity of reservations as essentially concentration camps that were breeding grounds for disease and drunkenness. Nor did he account for the explosive nature of settling hostile tribes juggling long-simmering blood feuds within the same geography. His intentions hardly averted the disaster that his efforts were to spawn. Others, like Crook, took a more brutal approach but yet did not do so out of unclean motives; the Apache scouts that Mickey Free joined as a wing of the cavalry was a Crook innovation.  But most whites, soldiers and settlers alike, simply sought the extermination of the Apache and showed little reluctance in their single-minded pursuit of that goal.

What brings great beauty to the narrative of The Apache Wars is the tapestry of anecdotal tales that serve the study of history so much more admirably than the tedious concatenation of names and dates that often bog down other works.  There are two that are highly symbolic. In the first, we learn that Agent Clum had created a tribal police force at his San Carlos reservation, and that a Tonto chief named Des-a-lin, angry at a public rebuke from Clum for beating his wives, seeks revenge. Des-a-lin “. . . found Clum in his office and attempted to shoot him but was instead shot dead by his own brother – the police officer Tauelclyee. As the two men looked down at Des-a-lin’s body, Tauelclyee absentmindedly stroked his smoking rifle and said: ‘I have killed my own chief and my own brother. But he was trying to kill you, and l am a policeman. It was my duty.’ Clum warmly clasped his hand and assured the distraught man that what he had done was right, and that they would remain forever brothers and friends.” [p196] In the second, we follow the tragic attempts of Aravaipa chief Eskiminzin to cement peace with the whites, as he is twice betrayed and his people massacred. “Eskiminzin rode to a nearby ranch owned by Charles McKinney, a thirty-five-year-old Irish im­migrant . . . McKinney had long been a friend to Eskiminzin . . . The Irishman invited his old friend in to supper, and after dinner they sat together on the porch to smoke and talk of the troubling times. When the last smoke was put out, Eskiminzin rose, thanked his friend for his hospitality, pulled his revolver, and shot him dead at point-blank range. He then rode off into the mountains. “I did it to teach my people that there must be no friendship between them and the white man,” Eskiminzin sadly explained. ‘Anyone can kill an enemy, but it takes a strong man to kill a friend.’” [p140-41]

There is little tedium in Hutton’s exciting narrative, punctuated with much color and a plethora of blood and tears on both sides.  The Bedonkohe called Goyahkla that the Mexicans dubbed Geronimo deservedly has a central role in the story, and tragically all Apaches were afforded disproportionate punishment in retaliation for his depredations, both real and imagined, although he was an especially cruel and brutal fellow.  In the end too, all Apaches paid the price of being indigenous Native Americans in the way of white colonizers, first forced into reservations in often dehumanizing conditions and then deported vast distances from their homeland in order to make way for more white settlements.  Apache scouts assisting the cavalry, tribal police forces, peaceful reservation Indians – none fared any better and most fared far worse than the murderous Geronimo, who was to unpredictably ride in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade and to die an old man in his bed.

No review could properly cover all of the ground in this fine history. I received an uncorrected proof of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, with blank pages reserved for maps that I much yearned to peruse.  I also would have appreciated a biographical index of key individuals, since there are so many characters that populate the narrative over the decades. There are a few things I would take issue with: it is possible but probably unlikely that all of the key female characters were in fact “beautiful” as Hutton reports.  And there may have been some exaggeration in his effort to tie a number of well-known key events to his narrative, as he does in his attempt to link hostilities here with the birth of the Pony Express, which I judge to be stretching it a bit [p58-59]. But these are no more than quibbles in what otherwise deserves large measures of praise.

As Americans of the twenty-first century try to come to grips with the mass extermination of the aboriginal peoples that were the original occupants of these lands, it is most instructive to look to the existential sentiment attributed to General Phillip Sheridan – who makes an appearance in The Apache Wars – that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” that some maintain is a corruption of “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” but which hardly alters the principle. And it was a surprisingly common one among Americans of that era, even by allegedly more enlightened thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt, who despite later including Geronimo in that inaugural parade nevertheless plucked that theme with great vigor in an 1886 speech when he said that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are . . . And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”  The Apache Wars is a blueprint for how this conviction effected an obliteration of an entire people in just one corner of the United States.

Review of: In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A History of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, by Christian Marek

As a rule, I never review a book that I have not read to completion; I feel an obligation to the author to turn every page and absorb every paragraph.  But some books are not designed as cover-to-cover reads, so I believe that Christian Marek will forgive me for only reading about a third of his magnificent reference work, In the Land of a Thousand Gods: A land-of-a-thousand-godsHistory of Asia Minor in the Ancient World, prior to reviewing it. Originally published in German, this first English edition (translated by Steven Rendall) was written in collaboration with the late scholar Peter Frei, who duly receives cover credit for his contributions. Marek, professor emeritus of ancient history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, has spent a lifetime studying the ancient Mediterranean and specializing in ancient Asia Minor, and has been conducting epigraphical and archaeological fieldwork in Turkey for more than thirty years. The result is a superb work that is not only encyclopedic in scope but brilliant in depth and analysis.

In modern times, except for the European sliver that hosts Istanbul, most of the huge geography of the Republic of Turkey is located within the giant landmass of the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia.  The population today is primarily a Muslim Turkic-speaking people descended from the nomad Turks that, like the Huns and other similar ethnicities, once roamed the vast northern steppes and later moved south to conquer and dominate settled agricultural communities. But students of Classical history know that it was an entirely different universe in the ancient world.  There are traces of mysterious proto-cities from deep antiquity, and there is the impressive archaeological heritage in the celebrated Çatalhöyük Neolithic settlement that dates back to 7500 BCE. The original agriculturalists were most likely overrun and absorbed by Indo-Europeans from the Caucasus – the horse, wheel and chariot folks resurrected elsewhere by David Anthony – and native Hattians and Hurrians were to be supplanted by the Hittites, later to rise to prominence with their consequential Bronze Age empire that dominated Asia Minor but was lost to memory for millennia in the still unexplained cataclysmic collapse of that era of human history. Troy was part of that Anatolian peninsula on the strategic edge of the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) that provided access to the Black Sea, and the legendary Trojan War – if historic, as suspected (although Marek has his doubts) – either preceded or was coterminous with that collapse, which in addition to the Hittites brought down the Mycenaean Greeks, the New Kingdom Egyptians and the Kassite Babylonians. The remnants of the Hittite Empire fragmented into various powers over the centuries to come, but most significant to history is that the remains of earlier Bronze Age Mycenaean cities on the Aegean Sea were vastly supplemented by numerous Greek settlements along the coast that came to be known as “Ionia,” which later – along with the rest of Anatolia and the Near East – came to be dominated by the Persian Empire. The efforts of those Ionian Greek poleis to liberate themselves from Persian control sparked a war led by Athens and Sparta that unpredictably resulted in Persian defeat, leading to independence for the Ionian poleis and Greek dominance of the Aegean. Athens-Sparta rivalry in subsequent decades led to the Peloponnesian War that devastated the Hellenic world and so divided it that Philip of Macedon was able to crush and contain it. After his assassination, his son and heir Alexander the Great unexpectedly routed the Persian Great King and soon dominated all of his possessions, including Asia Minor, but his sudden death on the cusp of world empire meant that Greece, Egypt, the Near East and Anatolia became the trophies of his surviving generals, the Diadochoi, as well as their descendants, the Epigoni, so Hellenistic rulers ran roughshod over those lands for centuries, jockeying for power, until Rome got interested.  Much more blood of bystanders flowed but eventually it was Rome that absorbed all of that territory. As the huge Roman Empire grew unwieldy, a new eastern Roman capital was established at Constantinople (ancient Byzantium, modern Istanbul), ruling over all of Asia Minor and a good deal beyond it. When Rome and the western empire fell, this became the Roman Empire of the East, the Byzantine Empire, and a large chunk of it was Anatolia, although much of that was to fall away over time.  And all of that fascinating history occurred long before the Seljuk Turks moved in circa the eleventh century to bring Islam and the Turkic language to Anatolia!

If you judge that long paragraph – which is only an abbreviated summary of Asia Minor’s ancient historical narrative – as oversize, you can only imagine what a deep exploration would amount to.  So then try to imagine the thick volume that is Christian Marek’s In the Land of a Thousand Gods, which in its printed form makes oversize seem understated: there are in fact some 552 pages of type that can only be described as footnote size subscript, not including an appendix of 75 pages as well as a thick section of endnotes. The main narrative is equivalent to a normal text of approximately 1500 pages! In short, there is a lot of material. The good news is that every single sentence is welcome and substantial, as Marek applies fine historical inquiry and analysis to every paragraph, expertly guiding the reader from the Neolithic to the end of antiquity, meticulously and exhaustively. Do I recommend this as a book to take to the beach and devour over a long weekend?  Of course not. But if you are seeking THE definitive ancient history of Asia Minor, look no further: this is clearly going to be the gold standard on the subject for a long time to come. Don’t skip it!

Review of: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, by Alan Taylor

For some years, I have urged all those seeking a deeper understanding of our national origins to explore American Colonies, by Alan Taylor, an outstanding epic that broadly surveys not only those English colonies that later became the United States, but also the often-overlooked rest of North America and the West Indies, including the French, american-revolutions-a-continental-historySpanish and Dutch colonizers, as well as the Amerindians they supplanted and the Africans they forcibly transported and enslaved.  Some fourteen years after the publication of American Colonies, Taylor – who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for other fine works of early American history – has written a sequel of sorts: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.  This too is a must-read for all students of American history.

The plural implication in the title, American Revolutions, is deliberate. We tend to think of the American Revolution as a singular event, but in fact what occurred here in the latter part of the eighteenth century was a series of social, economic and political revolutions, both among its English inhabitants as well as cross-culturally. As in American Colonies, Taylor leans more to the “big history” approach to relationships and interdependencies frequently ignored by a more traditional historical methodology, thus revealing how events, ideas and individuals acting in one arena often produced striking consequences elsewhere.

Especially unintended consequences. The British decision to permit a French and Roman Catholic element to persist and be tolerated in that portion of Canada that was her prize after the French and Indian War generated a frustrating barrier to conquest and annexation for the English colonials in America who had helped prosecute that war, something rarely noted by other historians. Stymied in Quebec, their ambition for domination was far more cruelly successful elsewhere, and after Independence the British no longer served as a brake upon the territorial expansion of Americans hungry for new lands and utterly unsympathetic to its aboriginal inhabitants, whom they wantonly displaced and slaughtered with little reluctance.  The other great irony centered upon human chattel slavery, which the British retreated from and gradually abolished throughout the empire, yet which saw great expansion in a newly independent United States, especially in the southern states where it served as a critical component central to the economic model of plantation agriculture. Jefferson and Madison are often credited with the expansion of the rights of white planters and the increase in social and economic mobility that resulted in the abolition of primogeniture and entail that had formerly kept estates intact, but there was also the chilling consequence of suddenly facilitating the breakup of families as African-American human commodities could be sold to other geographies at premium prices.

This is the fourth Alan Taylor history that I have read* and I highly recommend all of them.  If there is a weakness it is that some of Taylor’s books get off to a very slow start and are frequently populated with a vast cast of minor characters that add authenticity but can bog down the narrative. That is happily not the case with American Revolutions, which adroitly opens with a discussion of an iconic short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,”** that serves as a metaphor for the dramatic societal shift that was the result of the toppling of British rule over the thirteen colonies.  That was one of those revolutions. But there were many more, especially in the after-shocks of this one that sent legions of despised loyalists to Canada, later followed by numbers of disenchanted rebels struggling in the economic morass that was the byproduct of revolution and separation from the empire; these were the building blocks of what came to be a nation north of the Great Lakes. That initial financial disaster begat the revolution of Hamiltonian fiscal policies that forged a new economy. At the same time, hints of early instability and fears of mob rule spawned a new revolution against the original loose federation of states under the Articles of Confederation that saw the propertied elite of those states come together to seize the reins of government and force a more structured and perhaps more conservative Constitution upon the masses. Still, the break with Britain irrevocably loosened social hierarchies and there was truly a revolution in this regard for citizens of the new United States – if they could count themselves as white males, but certainly not if they were women or blacks or Native Americans. The shift, for those white men, was underscored in what has been called the “Revolution of 1800,” as Jeffersonian Republicans came to power and the influence of the Federalists that constructed the new constitutional government first waned and then went extinct. There was indeed a great leveling in the game, if you were qualified by complexion and gender to play the game.

Taylor relates this saga in an extremely well-written and engaging narrative of complexity and nuance that never loses sight of all the action on the periphery, including the dramatic way the American Revolution resounded in monarchical France, upon slave insurrectionists in the West Indies, and even in the uprisings of Spanish Peru, as well as how these events sometimes echoed back on the new nation. He also reminds us not to look back from the union of “those” thirteen colonies and the creation of the United States as if it was destined to be; there were other English colonies to the Canadian north and the West Indian south that could well have been part of that union but are conspicuous in their absence. Most critically, he returns again and again to the horrific consequences that an independent United States had upon Native Americans and enslaved blacks.

A tragic constant was the almost universal disregard for the welfare and very lives of the Amerindians who occupied lands coveted by expansionary white Americans. Already decimated by Old World pathogens that devastated once thriving populations, their traditional lifestyles upended and reshaped by horses, guns and alcohol, and frequently used as proxy pawns by European powers struggling for control of North America, Native Americans found themselves ultimately powerless to avoid displacement and often extermination by shrewd and ruthless citizens of a new nation who justified brutal tactics on the grounds of race and religion and paternalism. Back when philately was my hobby, I recall owning the 1929 commemorative stamp honoring George Rogers Clark, the courageous soldier and adventurer of the Northwest Territories. American Revolutions reveals a far less heroic Clark who zealously executed Amerindians he encountered and declared that “he would never spare Man, woman or child of them on whom he could lay his hands.” [p260] In those days, South Carolina and Pennsylvania offered bounties up to $1000 for Native American scalps, “regardless of the corpse’s age or gender.” [p258] There is much more. “David Williamson, an accomplished Indian killer … [directed his militiamen to attack] … a peaceful Delaware village led by Moravian missionaries … [and] … butchered 96 captives – 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children – by smashing their skulls with wooden mallets before scalping them for trophies. The natives died while singing Christian hymns.” [p262] There were no repercussions for this hardly uncommon kind of white savagery on the frontier.

For African-Americans, the legacy was no less tragic. Despite the wishful thinking of some members of the revolutionary generation that human chattel slavery would wither over time, it instead gained new traction in an America unburdened by growing British guilt over what came to be called the peculiar institution, a sturdily intrinsic economic building block that was only finally dislodged by Civil War nearly a century hence. Meanwhile, few – north or south, or across the Atlantic for that matter – could ignore the paradox of Americans crying out in ringing rhetoric for a universal right to a freedom from tyranny while at the same time reserving the contradictory right to enslave others because of the color of their skin. And that irony was everywhere: “In New York City . . .  [in 1776] . . . Patriots toppled the great equestrian statue of George III and melted its lead to make 40,000 bullets to shoot at redcoats. In that blow for liberty, the Patriots employed slaves to tear down the statue.” [p161] African-Americans fought on both the British and American sides in the Revolutionary War, in hopes for freedom and a better life, but were in the end betrayed by each of them, although those that remained in America were by far the worse off. While sadly the United States in 2016 still contains apologists for slavery who sugar-coat its horrific brutality, their mythical revisionism does not bear historical scrutiny. In fact, recalcitrant slaves were routinely beaten, branded, and even killed, something known to others at the time if not advertised, but nevertheless rationalized by planter elites with a new brand of Christian paternalism: “At the first hint of resistance, these paternalists expected their overseers to practice the old brutality but less conspicuously. In barns and secluded spots, they whipped backs and inflicted ‘cat-hauling’: dragging a cat by the tail along the bare back of a trussed-up victim.” [p476]

Heritage historians of the conservative stripe no doubt loathe Taylor’s approach; they want to celebrate the birth of liberty in British North America and ignore what might clash with such righteous notions; massacred Amerindians and enslaved Africans uncomfortably get in the way.  There is indeed much to champion in the creation of the American Republic, but sound historical scholarship must include more than self-congratulatory patriotism. The history that was foisted upon me in schoolrooms of the 1960s contained precious little of that. Alan Taylor’s masterful narrative succeeds both in widening the lens and restoring the balance of what it was like for the actual people who lived those events, both the winners and the losers.

The advantage of having a fine home library is that I could randomly reach up on a dusty shelf and pluck down a volume of Hawthorne short stories to read “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” for the first time.  American Revolutions is an exceptional volume that I am proud to add to my collection of books on American history, and I highly recommend it to those who appreciate the complexity of historical studies as well as a truly fine analysis of the same by a gifted historian who never disappoints.

[*for the two other Alan Taylor histories that I have reviewed, see and]

[** “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is available online]

Review of: The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, by William E. Leuchtenburg

This review goes to press just three weeks out from the most consequential election in my lifetime, perhaps in the history of the republic. For those who might judge that hyperbolic, the-american-president-leuchtenbergconsider that a surprising number of eminent historians – including such iconic scholars in the field as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Harold Holzer, Bernard Weisberger, Joseph Ellis, and Sean Wilentz – have come together on a Facebook page “Historians on Donald Trump” to post video jeremiads as dire warnings against the election in November 2016 of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Add to that list renowned nonagenarian historian William E. Leuchtenburg, Professor Emeritus of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose own articulate video cautions us in no uncertain terms that: “What’s especially different about Donald Trump is that he is not a patriot. He has no sense of the American past and he doesn’t understand the achievements of this country. He has said we are a third world nation . . . we are not a third world nation! We are the envy of most of the world . . . and Donald Trump has no sense of the glory of the more than two centuries of the American republic or what we can take pride in today.” [full video at:]

Leuchtenburg, author of a numerous Presidential biographies and other works of American history, knows something about Presidents and seeks to showcase his decades of scholarship in the ambitious yet in many ways deeply flawed epic The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. I have read dozens of Presidential biographies, a favorite genre that if well-executed not only examines the specific figure but lends focus to an entire era of American history. In this election year, I was drawn to Leuchtenburg’s book because it promised a consecutive survey of twentieth century Presidents which presents a connectivity to the Oval Office ever lacking when each chief executive is treated in isolation.  The problem, of course, with a single volume approach is that even with a truly big book like this – The American President is 812 pages – there simply is not adequate space to do appropriate justice to each figure under consideration, especially when there are seventeen such figures and one of them is the historic giant of the century Franklin Roosevelt, and some of the others include such complex characters as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon. Typical “handbooks” of American Presidents end up as little more than a series of Wikipedia-like entries. Leuchtenburg the noted historian aspires to much more than that, and not unexpectedly falls short.

In the end, Leuchtenburg compromises and his portraits are an uneven swirl of careful biographical studies and sometimes awkward editorials which occasionally drift off to little more than polemic that leaves the nuance and complexity so critical to historical studies somewhere way off in the dust. This book has been criticized for not including footnotes, although Leuchtenburg reveals in the prologue that he was specifically asked not to annotate the volume as such.  That turns out to be an unshackling convenience for the author as his history is overshadowed by his summary judgement of the White House occupants that he considers. That my own politics and Leuchtenburg’s often coincide – I too find little to praise in the respective tenures of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — makes me no less uncomfortable as a historian with the license he grants himself to blatantly and often sweepingly pronounce sentence upon his subjects.

The American President does not start off that way. Indeed, his opening analyses of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson reflect a far more scholarly approach to his subjects, warts and all.  He rightly identifies Roosevelt, the accidental President (upon McKinley’s assassination), for playing the pivotal part in the reshaping of the office of POTUS for the twentieth century and expanding the role of the White House in national affairs, something not seen since Lincoln’s days in Washington during the Civil War. And TR in peacetime was in many ways to go far beyond Lincoln during armed insurrection, paving the way for a far more powerful Chief Executive. Without Teddy Roosevelt, the kind of imperial presidencies of a Woodrow Wilson or a Franklin Roosevelt or a Richard Nixon might never have been possible.

The author gives short shrift to Taft, probably deservedly, and cuts corners for the sake of brevity – unfairly I think – by combining Harding, Coolidge and Hoover to a single dismissive chapter.  A biographer of FDR in other volumes, Leuchtenburg expertly charts Roosevelt’s impressive accomplishments in leading the nation during the dark days of depression and war, crediting him for much but not failing to identify his various flaws and missteps, including the egregious court-packing attempt and the internment of Japanese-Americans.  Next, he attempts to make some sense out of the chaotic Truman era of dramatic peaks and valleys, acclaim and condemnation, although that probably is not achievable in the delimited space allowed.  Despite recent revisionist attempts to credit Eisenhower with more than his due, Leuchtenburg concurs with the consensus of historians that other than demonstrating appropriate caution in dangerous times, the popular Ike proved to be a fine general but a rather mediocre President whose two terms can perhaps best be summed up, in Stephen Ambrose’s words, as “the time of the great postponement,” because Eisenhower’s failure to act in so many critical arenas simply kicked the dangerous cans down the road of civil rights, urban decay, poverty and “a Cold War warming toward combustion.” [p385]

It remains somewhat puzzling given Leuchtenburg’s spot-on appraisal of Eisenhower’s legacy that he subsequently cuts John F. Kennedy so little slack and assigns him virtually no credit for juggling the huge basket of crises, both foreign and domestic, that he inherited in a world literally on the brink of catastrophe. JFK had a tragically abbreviated Presidency, but it seems utterly disrespectful to sum it all up in thirty-eight pages, most of it with derision, affording him only half-credit for Al Hunt’s tribute that “Kennedy’s skills may have saved 20 million to 30 million lives” in the Cuban Missile Crisis [p420] while dismissing JFK as “. . . a figure not of chronicle but of myth.” [p424] It is here, in Chapter 7, just about the midway point of this huge volume, where Leuchtenburg can be seen to begin to strain stridently at the leash of the academic and to yank his studied analyses more toward the unbridled and uncertain territory of the polemicist.

Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Lyndon Johnson is predictable and thus disappointing, crediting him with great domestic accomplishments while condemning him for the Southeast Asian adventurism that delivered the Vietnam debacle, without the careful autopsy of a Robert Dallek or a Robert Caro that would more accurately reflect the flaws of a figure of great ego and ambition who whatever his intentions stumbled mightily both home and abroad and whose worst legacy was to open the doors of the White House to Richard Nixon.  Leuchtenburg’s chapter on Nixon strips the latter of all complexity and marches a mostly vile cardboard cutout of an unbalanced man past us as he harnesses every ounce of the power of the imperial Presidency once shaped by Theodore Roosevelt for mostly benign purposes and puts it to work like a kind of criminal syndicate to achieve his corrupt and devious ends at all costs.  Everything the author presents here is chillingly accurate, but lost in the translation is the brilliance of the man.  Nixon was a kind of a demon, but he was nonetheless a far more complicated figure than the evil comic book villain that is showcased on these pages. Again for brevity, and especially unfairly in my opinion, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are afforded a slim chapter that hardly does either one of them justice.  Ronald Reagan earns more space in the volume, but much of it is a paragraph by paragraph revelation of how ill-equipped and unsuited to the office of the Presidency he was.  Today, Reagan is lionized on the right and has been mostly forgiven by much of the rest of the political spectrum for his dunderheaded reign, but Leuchtenburg does little to – like Rick Perlstein would gleefully do – wade through the layers of the man and his two administrations to identify why this is fact not editorial. And Leuchtenburg probably unfairly denies Reagan the one accolade he, as Richard Reeves has assessed, most deserves: it was Reagan who broke with his own administration to take Mikhail Gorbachev at his word that the stated intentions of the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War were genuine and not a hostile diversion.

To his credit, it is in the subsequent and final chapters devoted to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton that Leuchtenburg returns to his earlier more dispassionate approach to history seen in his treatment of TR and Wilson. He analyzes these men for their accomplishments and their failures, and rightly sums up why each stood on the very edges of greatness in office yet failed to achieve that because of their own unique but no less unshakable shortcomings. Finally, Leuchtenburg clearly blames Clinton’s incautious “sexcapades” with contributing to the loss of his successor, Al Gore, and what was to follow. This volume does not contain a chapter on George W. Bush, but there is no question that the author rightly recognizes the disaster of those years by citing editor Michael Takiff’s conclusion that “Bill’s dalliance with Monica [Lewinsky] . . . cost the nation not only what might have been . . . [in the concluding years of the Clinton Administration] . . . but what might have been done, and what was done instead, over the eight years that followed.” [p794] You don’t have to be a historian to recognize the merit in that estimation.

The American President winds up with an unremarkable epilogue, as if after all of those pages the author has simply run out of steam.  In retrospect, as a reader deeply invested in historical studies, I cannot help but wonder if Leuchtenburg’s own life’s trajectory proved to be a critical measure of his approach to this book.  Born during the Harding Administration, Leuchtenburg has lived through the Presidencies of all of his subjects save three.  Did a lifetime contemporary with the bulk of his protagonists put pressure upon his perspective as an historian and impact upon the appraisals in this volume?  Perhaps that is so.  Still, the value to this book, faults and all, is that it offers that continuous narrative of the Oval Office and reminds us that each occupant must first of all confront what has been left behind by his predecessor.  In these tumultuous times, it is also a cautious reminder that much, much worse things could happen to America than Richard Nixon. As Leuchtenburg concludes in his video on the “Historians on Donald Trump” Facebook page: “When I think of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency the words of Thomas Jefferson come to mind: ‘I tremble for my country.’”


[NOTE: Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States.]

Review of: The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

A stubborn incongruity to the again resurgent southern “Myth of the Lost Cause” is that the commitment to secession was far from universal.  In fact, about one hundred thousand white southern loyalists fought for the Union; except for South Carolina every state of the the-state-of-jonesConfederacy sent at least one battalion to join the northern ranks. More significantly perhaps is that there were multiple geographies where Unionist sentiment prevailed throughout the conflict, especially those where hardscrabble farming was far removed from the arena of the slave-holding plantation elite. Indeed, a great chunk of a cornerstone Confederate state broke off to become the new loyal Union state of West Virginia. A less well known locale is the subject of The State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the tale – a blurred mix of fact and legend – of how pockets of loyalists in Jones County, in eastern Mississippi, were led by the colorful Newton Knight to secede from the Confederacy and form the “Free State of Jones.” This book, which dates back to 2009, served as the basis for the 2016 motion picture featuring Matthew McConaughey, which has brought the story to a much wider audience.

Despite the title, Newton Knight – rather than the State of Jones – is the true central character, which forms both a strength and a weakness to the book. The strength is that a biographical figure serving as focal point often enriches an unfolding historical narrative. The weakness in this case is that the perspective is often severely delimited to that figure, which diminishes the wider view. The authors introduce us to Newton Knight in 1921, interviewed in the twilight of his days by journalist Meigs Frost. It is hard to know what to make of him, especially since much of what is known about him is derived from his reminisces and those partisans who were loyal to him. Was he a heroic figure with a strong moral core and loyalty to an unwavering ideological outlook?  Or was he rather an opportunistic scalawag, a narcissistic self-serving outlaw that constructed his ethical framework entirely to suit his own interests?  He seems to be a bit of both, and to their credit Jenkins and Stauffer largely tell the story as they have it and leave it to the reader to pass judgment, although overall Knight tends to come off as more of a sympathetic figure than not in the course of this account.

Newton Knight was apparently a larger than life character, imposing both physically by his great stature and otherwise by the strength of his disposition, which encompassed a devotion to his Baptist “primitive” faith, a personal aversion to alcohol and a moral opposition to slavery. Knight, like many others in Jones County, was a poor white dirt farmer who had little sympathy for the Confederate cause, especially because of his anti-slavery views.  Nevertheless, as the draft loomed, he joined the army and served as both soldier and hospital orderly. His service did not last long. Disillusioned, he deserted and teamed up with other Unionists as a guerrilla fighter, leading the “Knight Company,” the genesis of the forces that eventually broke Jones County off from the CSA and became what was later more or less formalized as the “Free State of Jones.”

Naturally, pro-Confederates viewed Knight and his band as traitors. And while the reader may be sympathetic to Knight’s cause, it is often difficult not to wince at his methods, which as a guerrilla frequently eschewed the rules of war to include bushwhacking and the assassination of opponents, in and out of uniform. Also, it becomes increasingly ambiguous whether Knight was really fighting for any cause other than what best suited Newton Knight.

Knight differed from the majority of southern Unionists not only in his opposition to secession but also in his stand against slavery and his views on African-Americans, which encompassed not only abolition but a kind of equality which would have been viewed at the time as extremely radical, north or south. Knight, who was married and had multiple children with his Caucasian wife, also became involved with an African-American former slave named Rachel with whom he sired many more children. While it was hardly unusual for southern white men to consort with black women in the antebellum era – slaveholders including such notable figures as Jefferson commonly (if hardly publicly) had slave concubines that they impregnated – Knight went a giant step further as he eventually also took Rachel to be his wife, and came to treat all of his offspring and various relatives, white and black, as full equals. This story spills over into the post-war period, with Knight serving as a despised Republican officeholder in the Reconstruction era.  This is perhaps the most captivating part of the book, as the “Free State of Jones” is left in the dust and we observe the tragedy in microcosm in eastern Mississippi as the south loses the war but essentially wins the peace, as Reconstruction gives way to Redemption, as the brief experiment of attempts at equality end ruthlessly as African-Americans are murdered, terrorized, dehumanized and turned into second-class citizens for a century to come. Yet, somehow Newton Knight not only weathers the calamities about him but thrives, carving out his own enclave for his ever expanding inter-racial family, which somewhat uncomfortably intermarries amongst themselves.  Hero or villain or a blend of the two, Newton Knight remained a fascinating and singular character throughout his long life.

Given the wealth of great material, this should have been a far better book, but alas it often falls flat.  I would chalk that up to the fact that there are two authors, which frequently is problematic in any such volume.  Audiophiles will tell you that CD’s never sound as good as vinyl records because the highs and lows are averaged out – Keith Moon’s percussion is simply not as dramatic on a “Who” CD as it is on vinyl; the passion is, if not lost, deeply compromised.  Something similar often occurs when two authors attempt to speak with a single voice in a narrative – in this case Stauffer, a Harvard professor of history, and Jenkins, an award-winning journalist – and here again what is most conspicuously diminished is the passion of the telling of the tale. Still, it remains a compelling story and despite this flaw I would recommend it.

Review of: The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John, by Bruce Ware Allen

Readers with a penchant for military history and a comfortable familiarity with the milieu of the sixteenth century Mediterranean world – often defined by the ongoing struggle for dominance between the Muslim Ottoman Turks and the (less-than-united) Christian European West – will likely relish The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John, by Bruce Ware Allen. It will nevertheless present The Great Siege of Maltaa challenge for the uninitiated. I came to this book as part of an Early Reviewer’s program, and I found it an uphill climb from the start because I am less than intimately familiar with this historical period.  A similar well-written, analytical volume centered upon events in the Peloponnesian War or the American Civil War would not have tasked me so, which thus has more to say about the shortcomings of this reviewer than that of the author.

As the title foretells, this work is focused upon the celebrated “Great Siege of Malta” by Ottoman Turks in 1565, which if successful could have served as a gateway into Sicily, Italy and southern Europe beyond. The heroes were the “Knights of St. John,” a multinational Roman Catholic military order dating back to the crusades which had been forcibly ejected by the Turks from their base on the isle of Rhodes some four decades previously. Allen devotes some time to setting the stage for the siege in an account that is unfortunately often dulled by passages pregnant with names, geographies and events that can be dizzying for the reader.  For example, a single paragraph introducing the naval hero Don Garcia de Toledo contains the following:

“He was … made a colonel of Spanish foot in Naples, and . . . led twelve thousand imperial troops against Franco-Sienese forces at Siena. Among his fellow officers were the one-eyed condottiere from Pavia, Ascanio Della Corgna; the Tuscan nobleman Giovan Luigi “Chiappino” (the Bear) Vitelli (a favorite of Garcia’s brother-in-law Cosimo de Medici); and Don Alvaro de Sande, all of them respected veteran commanders. He also served in Flanders and Italy. In 1560 he was slated to replace Medinaceli as viceroy of Sicily if the latter did not return from Djerba. By February of 1564 Philip had named him Captain General of the Sea (Andrea Doria’s old title), and when others (including the Djerba veteran Sancho de Leyva) had failed, ordered him to take the Moroccan pirate stronghold, the Penon de Velez de la Gomera.” [p86]

Conspicuous in its absence is a biographical table of the immense cast of characters, a historical timeline, and much more detailed maps, all of which would have been very useful to interested readers who are not scholars of the era and its key players and places.

The narrative takes a dramatic turn for the better once military events occupy center stage.  It is clear that Allen is an accomplished military historian who skillfully inserts the reader into the battlefield milieu. Much of the faults of the chapters leading up to the siege largely dissolve as the author adeptly explains weapons, tactics and events on the ground in the various military engagements for the extended duration of the siege and ultimate triumph of the Knights. The reader otherwise unfamiliar with this material at once finds a comfort zone as the experience of battle in the sixteenth century Mediterranean is expertly recreated by the author in careful but colorful prose.

The strength of Allen as a gifted writer and military historian clearly rescues this work from a dullness that seems to overshadow the first part of the book, although it should once again be underscored that those who are more comfortable with this era may not judge that portion of the narrative as harshly in this regard.  Certainly those seeking a competent exploration of the events surrounding the Great Siege of Malta should take up this book, for Allen indeed deserves much credit for his superlative skills as a military historian.

Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South … here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.  Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave … Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered … A Civilization gone with the wind …

The preceding is the title card screen prologue to a 1939 epic film that was so tightly woven into the fabric of popular culture that no American of my generation, or the two generations that preceded it, could be unfamiliar with it. Its musical score was as taraimprinted upon our DNA as were any number of snippets of dialog, such as the frightened slave Prissy screeching “De Yankees is comin!,” the antihero Rhett Butler uttering the scornful retort, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and the manipulative vixen Scarlett herself, in the final scene, voicing an irrepressible optimism with “Tara! Home. I’ll go home … After all … tomorrow is another day.” Tara.  That was the storybook plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara, the locus for the romantic legend in the novel by Margaret Mitchell and its movie adaptation, that title card writ large in an imaginary dimension where gallant giants walked the earth and dutiful slaves like Mammy and Prissy lived in terror of invading Yankees instead of in gleeful anticipation of fleeing to freedom in their lines.  And much more than a classic movie, Gone with the Wind served as the most successful paean to the myth of the “Lost Cause” since Birth of a Nation, with less malevolence and a much larger and more enduring audience.

In her highly original, thought-provocative study, Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, Catherine Clinton walks back from the Tara of that iconic spectacle to its historical roots in an antebellum era erased by war that then spawned a revisionism that has not only stubbornly persisted but has seen a disturbing late renaissance as a similarly fanciful emergent heritage claimed by present-day right-wingers wrapped in Confederate flags. The current generation of the latter not only promotes the justice of rebellion, but even imagines tens of thousands of African-Americans garbed in gray and willingly wielding carbines to defend the Confederacy!

The scholarly consensus is that a narrow slice of elite planters committed to an expansion of slavery brought on the secession crisis and subsequent Civil War that resulted in the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans. The north at first put men at arms only to preserve the union, although emancipation later became a war aim. The south lost the war but in some sense won the peace. As Reconstruction gave way to “Redemption,” former Confederates regained control of the south and the freed African-Americans – who had enjoyed a brief period of near equal protection under the law – were terrorized, murdered and reduced to a second class status that persisted into the 1960s and beyond. The defeated promulgated a myth of the “Lost Cause” that rewrote history to claim that the conflict was about states’ rights rather than slavery, focused upon the depredations of Northern carpetbaggers, and especially upon the imagined threats of black men preying upon helpless white women.  The “Lost Cause” was the creation mythology of this post-war south, and its vast success can be measured by the fact that its tissue of lies managed to convert much of the north in the decades to come, as reconciliation turned into a universal goal and the institutionalized abuse of African-Americans was rarely even acknowledged.

In Tara Revisited, Clinton focuses upon the plantation legend that is integral to central elements of the “Lost Cause” myth and turns it on its head. While she acknowledges there were indeed women like Scarlett O’Hara from families of extreme wealth who lived on large plantations with many slaves and busied themselves with social dalliances, her cohort comprised the tiniest minority of antebellum southern women.  In fact, plantation life typically meant hard work and much responsibility even for affluent women.  More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Plantations like Tara probably accounted for less than ten percent of the total, which is why its persistence in Lost Cause plantation legend is so notable. As such, Clinton takes us on a tour of the real antebellum south and the real white women who inhabited it: typically wives and daughters with no slaves who had very modest means, deprived of husbands and fathers away at war while they struggled to survive. Some worked in manufacturing to support the war effort, some volunteered to care for the wounded, some served as spies – for both sides – but most focused simply on keeping themselves and their families alive in a time of little food and great deprivation. She also reveals those who are often invisible to history, enslaved African-American women who lived hand-to-mouth in lean and dangerous times, most of whom were unable to escape to Union lines yet eagerly anticipated a northern victory that would ensure their liberation. Masters tried to instill fear in their slaves about the coming blue marauders, but most blacks saw right through this; if there was a cry of “De Yankees is comin!” it was more likely to be in celebration than distress.

Clinton also traces the growth of the legend of “rose colored plantation life” from its roots in a kind of forbidden literary tradition dubbed “Confederate porn” [p203-04] that glorified whites while demeaning blacks, to its central public role within “Lost Cause” theology from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind and beyond. The living breathing cheerleaders of this fantasy are the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an organization founded in 1894 to celebrate Confederate culture that continues to thrive today.  It is no coincidence that there was both a rebirth of the “Lost Cause” and a resurgence of Confederate heritage during the Dixiecrat resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The controversial Stars & Bars that was recently removed from the South Carolina statehouse was only first raised in 1962 by the then governor to protest desegregation. Since 1965, the UDC has coordinated an annual “Massing of the Flag” ceremony in Richmond on Jefferson Davis’s birthday in which the participants pledge “I salute the Confederate flag, with affection, reverence and undying remembrance.” [p186] There is of course for us in 2016 something both disturbing and surreal about this event, which seems to lionize the forces of rebellion while dishonoring the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in blue who died to preserve the United States, not to mention the millions of African-Americans who were first enslaved beneath this flag and then terrorized and degraded by it for a century afterward.

Catherine Clinton, who is currently the Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has a long resume as a historian that goes back to the PhD from Princeton that she earned with the completion of her dissertation under the direction of eminent Civil War scholar James M. McPherson.  She wrote Tara Revisited in 1995, and I cannot help but wonder if she is at all surprised by yet another generational resurgence of the “Lost Cause” as an element of contemporary right-wing politics.

I recently screened Gone with the Wind on DVD. In retrospect, it is not really a very good film and it does not stand up well over time; the acting is often histrionic, the dialogue overwrought. It is dwarfed by other notable films of the same era.  Unlike those of my generation, most millennials have probably never seen it. Yet, there remains a stubborn resilience in the notion of Tara, as underscored by the ongoing popularity of pilgrimage weeks in the south, “in which plantations recreate the Old South with costumes and other trappings,” and, as the author articulately observes, “in many ways embalm a departed south that perhaps never lived outside Confederate imaginations.” [p187] As such, the central theme of this well-written and eclectic work retains its relevance today.  I highly recommend it.

Review of: The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: A Case Study in Cooperation and Communication, 1951-1971, by Fred Altensee

It so happened that I finished reading The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement: A Case Study in Cooperation and Communication, 1951-1971, by Fred Altensee, in the same tragic week as the worst mass shooting in modern American history at Pulse, a gay nightclub in The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights MovementOrlando, an event no less emblematic of a hate crime than the Charleston black church massacre of the previous year. But most Americans, especially white Americans, do not recall – or do not want to recall – that until relatively recent times hate used to be baked into the quotidian course of existence for African-Americans in Florida and in South Carolina and throughout the south of the old Confederacy. This hate was most manifest in exclusion, and it was so mundane it was unremarkable – at least until a re-energized and resolute Civil Rights movement had the audacity to stand against it; then an appalled nation that did not really want to know of such things came to understand that red blood on black skin was the true emblem of the white unreconstructed south. As The Orlando, Florida, Civil Rights Movement aptly details, there were actually areas in Florida that an African-American could not visit without a white escort.  [p31] Yet, in the exploration of nuance and complexity that true historians thrive upon, in this fascinating analysis Altensee reveals that civil rights was not all rock-throwing and police dogs, and that Orlando offered a surprising alternative to conflict that slowly but successfully desegregated the public spheres of their police force and the school system.

Full disclosure: Fred Altensee received his Master’s Degree in History from American Public University one year before I did. As such, we are acquainted with each other through both the virtual world of online education and social networking.  Fred sent me a copy of this book and asked me review it.  I must admit I dreaded this as much as I do when a friend urges me to see his band play at a local bar and seeks my opinion of the performance: the notion of drinking poison rather than commenting is an attractive alternative. So it was with great relief and attendant pleasure that I read Fred’s book and found it exceptionally informative and revealing. This volume is a published version of the author’s master’s thesis, based upon extensive original research including his oral history interviews with surviving members of the first African-American officers to serve on the Orlando police force. Augmenting this authenticity is the fact that Altensee is a former police officer himself, and a current resident of Orlando.

The relationship of African-Americans and the police throughout the south was most palpably defined by a culture dominated by the Ku Klux Klan and a police force devoted to enforcing Jim Crow laws of segregation and discrimination.  Not only were blacks subject to being herded to the back of the bus and consigned to separate restrooms, but they were not welcome in many business establishments at all, and certain geographies were entirely forbidden to them, especially after dark. A failure to abide met not only with intimidation but often violence and sometimes death. That was the reality of the day. So what distinguished Orlando from many other locales was far less recalcitrance towards at least some forms of integration, and especially the establishment of biracial committees that achieved a major step forward as a handful of African-Americans were hesitatingly but nevertheless successfully added to the rolls of the Orlando police force.  By today’s standards, this was a baby step at best: black cops patrolled only black neighborhoods, could not carry guns, lacked radios or patrol cars and could arrest someone only insofar as they could escort the perpetrator to a call box and wait for white officers to arrive.  Black officers “could not arrest or even testify against a white person.” [p44-45] Yet, this initial integration was accomplished without court order or the national guard, an especially remarkable feat given the times. Altensee reminds us that:

In 1951, the same year Orlando hired its first African-American police officers, the Klan held two cross burnings in downtown Orlando . . .  In February, an African-American janitor was beaten and shot for allegedly entering the girls restroom in a white elementary school unescorted. A month later, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, his brother-in-law is beaten, flogged and shot to death – the only reported lynching in the United States in 1951. In July, an apartment building is dynamited after the owner rented an apartment to a black family . . .  in November, the Creamette Frozen Custard Stand . . .  is bombed for refusing to serve blacks and whites at separate windows. [p39]

Despite an environment of volatility and violence, Altensee’s studied analysis demonstrates that it was possible for cautious and respected members of the white and black communities to come together to achieve at least a foundation for long-term meaningful change. It is difficult for us to imagine or appreciate black police officers with no radios, cars or guns, but in Orlando in 1951 – and across much of the south – it was even more fantastical that there were black police officers at all!

The chief weakness of Altensee’s otherwise fine book is that as a thesis paper it is thus constricted in style and presentation. I would like to see it rewritten and expanded, as I suspect there is much more material that did not make the final cut given the academic audience. Also, the portion of the book devoted to desegregating the public schools does not receive nearly as much attention as the focus upon the police department, which probably deserves a book length treatment of its own. Another quibble is Altensee’s handling of the famous N-word, a despicable epithet hurled by a white supremacist like David Duke, a typical component to a song lyric by a rapper like Ludacris, a snatch of an excerpt from a Mark Twain novel, and a harmless colloquialism among black and brown people across America today. I’m with the late George Carlin on this one: it is just a word; it is the context that matters. But in the context of this book, as experienced by the African-Americans who had it used again them, it was extremely defamatory, intimidating, insulting, dehumanizing. Yet, in the narrative it appears as N________, which to my mind reduces the power of the word as an offensive curse, as it was then intended.  When asked about this, Fred notes that he abhors the word and would not spell it out in his own personal journal, and I can respect that.  But I can’t help feeling that by inserting it in euphemistic abbreviation the expletive loses the power to make the reader wince the way the subjects of such derision must have winced at the time.

These minor points aside, I highly recommend this extremely well-written and insightful slender volume.  I was truly surprised by how much that I learned from Altensee’s focused account of how one city in the segregated south managed to take positive steps towards a new future. Despite the recent terror at Pulse, Orlando today is light-years away from where it was in the mid-twentieth century, especially for the African-Americans who were once relegated to second class status, and of course there is no longer any novelty to blacks serving on its police force.  But racism remains a stubborn problem in the United States, and not only in the south, although the uneasy currents are perhaps more palpable there. Even today, while 29% of Orlando’s population is African-American, only some 16% of its police are, and we can hardly overlook the significance in these kinds of disparities.  Still, there is no doubt that Orlando has dramatically evolved from the days when it gingerly recruited a handful of black cops who were not even trusted with firearms.  Special thanks to Fred Altensee and this fine book for an opportunity to look back thoughtfully and analytically at times very different from our own.

Review of: New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, by Wendy Warren

Early on in New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, a telling story is related that dates back to 1638, not even two decades removed from the Mayflower, of an New England BoundEnglish colonist near Boston who owned three enslaved Africans – two women and one man – that he sought to turn into breeding stock.  When one of the females refused, he ordered the male slave to rape her in an attempt to impregnate her.  The rape victim went out of her way to report what had occurred to another Englishman nearby, who in his written account of their conversation seemed to show some sympathy; however, his very next journal entry was a humorous description of his encounter with a wasp.  [p7-8] It is clear that as property she otherwise lacked recourse under the circumstances. What does this one unusual anecdotal incident at the dawn of the colonial New England experience really tell us?  It turns out that it is far more instructive than the reader might at first suspect, as Princeton University Professor Wendy Warren’s fascinating new contribution to the history of slavery in colonial North America reveals in the pages that follow.

While many fine works of history in the past several decades have rightly restored the long-overlooked role of New England in the triangle trade that was central to the growth of slavery in the colonies, little attention has been paid to slavery as it actually existed in those northern colonies prior to abolition. The standard tale is that slavery never really caught on there, largely because the region lacked the climate and the crop for the plantation agriculture it was best suited for, and as such this untenable anachronism gradually faded away. There is so much truth to that summary that few have bothered to dissect the actual slave experience while it thrived in New England, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the southern colonies and the West Indies. This neglect has badly shortchanged the historiography of the origins of human chattel slavery in colonial North America.

By moving the focal point away from the traditional emphasis upon the Chesapeake, South Carolina, and the Caribbean, Warren has surprisingly uncovered how much slavery in New England actually had in common with slavery in those other more familiar locales. The rape story she opens with is unexpectedly emblematic of the institution of African slavery in the Americas. Slave women had no rights as property, and therefore no control over their own bodies, which meant they could indeed serve as breeding stock, a financial boon in Virginia even in Jefferson’s time as slavery became less profitable in the Chesapeake while prices soared for field hands on the cotton plantations of the deep south. It also meant that they could be compelled to sexual relations with their owners, which is why, as South Carolina’s Mary Chestnut drily noted in 1861: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children . . .”  That meant of course that English common law needed to be turned on its head, so that the children of slaves were condemned to inherit the condition of perpetual servitude from their mothers, regardless of whether their fathers were slave or free.  This was codified in Virginia in 1662 as Partus sequitur ventrem but Warren reminds us that it was already clearly understood as such in Massachusetts in 1638. [p156]

Interestingly, Warren also reveals that a 1690 Connecticut law mandating a curfew for “Negroes” managed to presage portions of the slave codes popular in the south by several decades. Massachusetts adopted a similar ordinance. [p201] The ambivalence towards the cruelties inherent to slavery is nevertheless also evident. When it became clear that owners were freeing slaves when they became too old or infirm to profitably toil as units of labor, Connecticut passed a law in 1702 directing slave-owners to care for elderly slaves, whether or not they had been freed, something otherwise left to arbitrary custom in the south. [p176] But apparently those in New England were not immune to the cruel and unusual punishments inflicted upon wrongdoers who happened to be African slaves:  Increase Mather chillingly reports that in 1681 the enslaved Maria, convicted of arson and murder, was burned alive at the stake. [p199] Regardless of geography, slaves were often underfed, and sometimes resorted to theft for sustenance. In Connecticut in 1699, a slave who stole “a bisket” on the Sabbath suffered the medieval punishment of thirty lashes and a brand to the forehead. [p211] Whipping and branding became quite common in the Antebellum south. Also echoing another common practice in the south, Warren reports that in 1698 hunting dogs were employed to track down a “Negro.” [p207-08] Warren reminds us that Amerindians were also enslaved, although this was much less widespread, but tellingly a 1697 broadside seeking a runaway Native American slave also neatly anticipates the runaway slave advertisements later so common in newspapers below the Mason-Dixon. [p212]

It is in her coverage of Amerindian slavery that Warren falls short, if only because she seems to promise more than she delivers.  The slavery of Native Americans, who were often sold to the West Indies, is a little-known element of early Americana and probably deserves a book-length treatment of its own.  Given the scant number of pages Warren devotes to the topic, she might have best simply left it alone. Yet, this is perhaps only a quibble when one considers how well the author succeeds in demonstrating that slavery was indeed integral to all geographies of the English colonies and was shockingly similar in its elemental form both north and south. That New England always seemed to harbor a certain sense of guilt about the immorality of slavery –and that it eventually acted to bring this heinous practice to an end – perhaps mitigates some of its culpability in perpetrating this great evil, yet by no means can that serve as an excuse to overlook or forgive its deep complicity in it.  Every student of the history of the institution of slavery and of early American history would benefit from reading Warren’s fine book.