Friday, August 31, 2012

Their American Cousins

Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War.  Random House.  958 pages.  2011

   English interest in our War of the Rebellion (1861-1865, otherwise known as the Civil War) is never ending.  Just consider a very few academics in our century: Sir Geoffrey Elton, the Tudor historian; the first book of Dom David Knowles, the  medievalist, was a general narrative of the Civil War; Professor William Frend, the late patristic scholar, under whose aegis my wife wrote her most of her doctoral dissertation.  In at least the last two cases this was combined with a fair measure of ‘pro-Southern’ sympathy.  In that they had a precursor in Lord Acton, who, with extreme simple-mindedness, equated the cause of the rebellious states with ‘liberty’ because states are a lower level of government than a nation, and who also believed that slavery would eventually die a ‘natural death,’ a belief, or wish, indulged in by many at the time (one strength of this volume is showing how many, including William Gladstone, fell for that delusion).    

   Amanda Foreman is something of an Anglo-American union herself, with an American father, English mother, English husband, American undergraduate degree, doctorate from Oxford, and an excellent biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire to her credit.   Now, this volume, a dozen years in the making, charts “a biography of a relationship or, more accurately, of the many relationships that together forms the British-American experience during the Civil War.” 

   “Many relationships” is key. Among the strengths of the volume is that a narrative of nearly a thousand pages is sustained without strain because the author moves easily between the actors of high politics and the obscure players, British and American, who ran blockades, shuffled money around the New and Old Worlds, conducted diplomacy, spied, and – on the British side – volunteered to fight on both sides. [Small World Department: I met a man last summer at a cricket match in England who had forbears who came over to fight for both the rebels and the Union. I looked them up, but they weren’t in the book.] This volunteering went on despite being forbidden by The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819. There is an excellent selection of photographs. Even more, the illustrations, largely by Frank Vitzetelly of the Illustrated London News, whose story is a thread throughout, give the volume the feel of a rich historical chronicle. There is also an excellent selection of photographs. The diaries of Benjamin Moran, a clerk in the American legation in London are well-exploited, showing Moran’s social and diplomatic frustrations, and his tetchy relations with Charles Francis Adams (and young Henry Adams). A counter-part figure is Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington, who moved from a position of insecurity, having followed a very popular minister, and a rough time with the new US Secretary of State, William Seward, to become a highly effective diplomat, an admirer of Lincoln and the Union cause. The sheer grinding nature of work in those days, without e-mails and faxes and telephones, writing everything out by hand, the incessant personal interviews, all of which made the working day so long, is very well portrayed. Because the author has such a large, and long, story to tell, she has taken the time to also provide good descriptions of most battles, even when her British subjects are out of sight, and thus a good military history of the War, which is wise in giving context to their involvement. I might also stress two matters toward the end of the book, the activities of Rebels passing back and forth from Canada culminating in a plot (worthy of modern terrorism) to burn down as much of New York City as they could, and the sense Foreman gives of how bleak much of 1864 still looked to the Union, from Lincoln on down, despite military successes, and Rebel weakness, and an improving diplomatic situation.

   Of course, any book has some weaknesses.  Vermont was never a “colony” (p. 21) nor was Washington a state until well after the War (1889 – p. 51).  Cotton played a key role, obviously, in the plans of the rebellious states and is often dealt with in the book; however, a chapter, or part of one, could have been dedicated to summarizing how much they were able to export, how much was bottled up by blockade, what revenues came in, etc.   The author is needlessly hostile to William Seward, especially early in the volume, characterizing him during his earlier Governorship of New York as having “behaved with shameless opportunism, courting the state’s large Irish vote with his vitriolic diatribes against England.”  Seward’s governorship included reforms of prisons and care for the insane, increased state aid for both public and private schools, and encouragement to immigrants.  Occasionally, endnote entries are long enough, and pertinent enough, to have gone into the text. 

   That leads to two matters which were not in the author’s powers.  It is cheaper these days to have endnotes, rather than footnotes, which is especially irksome in a book this long.  (Dr. Foreman’s extensive bibliography can be found on her website, not in the book, by the way.)  Also, my hardback copy began to split apart before I had finished it.  Never mind binding, they don’t even glue books together like they used to.  I should add that, in my case, this was exacerbated by the book being dropped during turbulence in mid-flight, spilt wine and all.

   However, this is an excellent history, and a good book always breeds thoughts.

   The first is how dangerous our history has been. We forget, as it were on purpose, that some form of war could have broken out internally, in 1798-1800, 1808, 1812-15, 1831, 1846, 1850, as if what happened finally in 1861 had no provenance. (The corollary is the uncomfortable thought that war was inevitable). The line of fissure on all of these occasions was where the line of slavery was drawn. People will say the war wasn’t “about” slavery, but about secession, which begs the question of why, then, “secession”? The two “sections,” slave and non-slave, were not significantly different, apart of course from that one massive difference of human slavery. The economies of each were thoroughly commercial, not subsistence, in nature (in other words, there was one big American economy). Both “North” and “South” were still overwhelmingly rural and agricultural, but the latter, too, had big, important, cities, like Charleston, New Orleans, Richmond, etc. just as the former had Boston, New York, Philadelphia. The position of free blacks had often grown worse, and the movement against the extension of slavery often was aimed at any blacks moving into new territories. Violence and oppression weren’t ended by the War; as much of the United States proceeded to act as if the War hadn’t happened, and the rebellious state were “redeemed,” blacks were increasingly shoved right back down to the bottom, until in the living memory of at least some of us, the Federal government finally acted – again, in the face of violence - on the presumption that these, too, were American citizens.

   At the top of this review, I called this war by its proper and primary name.  The position of the United States Government was that they were facing a rebellion.  The position of those rebellious states was that each state had somehow voluntarily joined a league of states and could just as voluntarily leave.  Never mind that the weaker document, the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution, spoke of “perpetual union”……..The pertinent sections of the Constitution run as follows:
Article 1, Section 9, clause 2:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

Article 1, Section Section 10 (entire):

Clause 1: No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.

Clause 2: No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Control of the Congress.

Clause 3: No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.

   I don’t need to bold the key words in the above citations; they speak for themselves.  They also emphasize why the United States could be so angry with Britain, or any state, conferring “belligerent status” on the Rebellion and why the issue of “blockade” became so tricky after the British did so.

   Finally, there is something of an implicit lesson telling us how relatively late the “special relationship” between the United State and the United Kingdom came into being.  The experience of the two World Wars (especially the second) of the 20th century can too easily be projected back further into our American sensibility than is warranted.  Not only was a (needless, stupid) war fought with the British from 1812-1815, but endless border disputes over Canada, the issues arising from the War of the Rebellion, etc., kept the two nations in friction until the 19th was turning into the 20th century.   The obvious cultural heritage of British laws, customs, and so forth took a long time to come into sync with our politics.  (An aspect of this is – was - the cultural ‘type’ whose intellectual formation, historical frame of reference, preferences in literature, etc. was overwhelmingly British – English, really – who at the same time had an abiding suspicion of Albion and acted on that suspicion in political life.  John Adams is the prototype of that, his son John Quincy wasn’t very different, and Charles Francis being posted to London continued the tradition.  Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. was probably the last of these, promoting American Empire in no small part to twist the Lion’s tail.  A further irony is that as a historian, he preferred Alexander Hamilton (not the type, at all) to any Adams, which disturbed relations with his chum, Henry Adams, not one whit.)

   I hope the durĂ©e will not be longue until Amanda Forman’s third book, but when it arrives we will be assured of its quality.  



Saturday, January 22, 2011

I'm Back!

   Well, it’s been over a year, I know. But sloth, family obligations, work, etc. – in other words, all the usual excuses have made it so. I would say thank you for your patience, but that would assume you were paying attention.
   I have renamed the blog A Citizen Paying Attention, which was my original idea for a title, until I decided it sounded pompous. I’ve changed my mind about that, but still hope to post monthly, in the spirit of the blog’s original title, Every Full Moon. You will notice actual advertising to the side of my beautiful prose. I must say that my host, Google, makes setting up advertising extremely difficult, even allowing for what a techno-rube I am. There is also a link to certain blogs and websites (again, all it says is blogs, more misleading information from Big G) at which I like to gander. You might, too, and I’m sure there will be future additions and subtractions. Soon, I will try to set up the mysterious RSS feed so that (if I understand this correctly) you can subscribe to my humble blog and induce others down the same garden path.
   Last year, I had hoped to review John Lukacs’ Last Rites and Leslie Mitchell’s biography of Maurice Bowra. Briefly, let recommend both books. Last Rites is, among other things, a fine summing up of that great historian’s historical philosophy. It is not, despite the title, his last (or latest) book. Mitchell’s life of Bowra, despite some weaknesses in interpretation (alas, my missing in-depth review!), captures nicely a great 20th century Oxford don, a flaming creature of a personality, and his many strengths and weaknesses. But that was then. Posted next month will be my review of Steven V. Riley’s Capitalism, Democracy, & Emerging Christianity.  The month after that will be my review of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary.     This is not a book review blog totally. Soon, I hope to have a long commentary on the legacy of Bush the Younger (not a review of his book) – which has to take in more context than just his presidency, including how and why it is that we seem to be just sitting here numb in the ruins. There will be other commentaries on other issues, in time, as well; still, there are the books and two coming out soon which, since I want to read them, I also wish to review them. Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire, about British volunteers, and British involvement in every other sense of the word, on both sides of our War of the Rebellion (oh, excuse me, our Civil War), is her first book in a dozen years. Before that (I think this will be the sequence), the great J.G.A. Pocock, eighty-six (86) years old, will have published the fifth volume of his great series, Barbarism and Religion, on Edward Gibbon, the making of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the world of Early Modernity that formed them. Of course, as regard this epic series, I have to declare in the spirit of Wayne and Garth, “I’m not worth!!!” and may content myself with linking to the appreciations of others.
   Finally, those you with a tenacious memory will recall my declaration of love for Beefeater Gin and the San Francisco Giants at the end of my original blog post last year. Well, on that second subject…I never thought I would live to see the day. The only touch of Hegelianism in my constitution was the expectation that if the Giants ever did win the World Series the immanent fulfillment of History would have been reached, and the world would end. Hasn’t happened yet, but we do have the rest of the Hot Stove League. In the meantime, repeat after me:

                               The San Francisco Giants are the Champions of the WORLD

   To repeat myself, I never thought I would live to see the day. Naturally, a lot was made of how Bay Area fans have lived and suffered all these decades. Let me add another dimension to that: the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. When Major League baseball came to the West Coast there was a more obvious attraction in the Northwest to the Bay Area (and northern California generally) than to southern California, and over time this made for a solid part of Giants Nation being in those two states – which also explains why there never was any great development of “regional loyalty” later to the Seattle Mariners. To someone like myself, with family ties to San Francisco – my parents and my siblings born there, relatives on both sides all over the Bay Area – this only reinforced matters. I have the dimmest of memories (showing my age here) of begin taken to old Seals Stadium by my Uncle Earl in what must have been the Giants second season in San Francisco, and of course there are a lot of Candlestick Park memories, not only of so many great Giants but opposing players like Stan Musial in his final season, Henry Aaron hitting a home run, and Frank Robinson (about whom more later). Finishing up college in Eugene, Oregon and living on there for a number of years after before moving to Portland, I must have watched hundreds of games from KTVU.
   Any Giants fan, then, must have the kind of memories I have. 1978: when the Giants led most of the season. 1982: with skipper Frank Robinson, when the Giants roared back winning almost two-thirds of their games in the second half of the season, finishing just a game behind the hated Dogs of L.A. 1986: the first full year of the Roger Craig-Al Lopez era, a repeat of 1978. 1987: an epic playoff series with the Cardinals. 1989: the earthquake and (unfortunately, but deservedly) being swept by the A’s. 2002: I remember Game 6, we are up 5-0 in the seventh inning, and on the verge of taking it all. Being a Giants fan, and therefore a pessimist, I am not, in the ordinary sense of the word, confident of victory. But, sitting up near midnight in Greenbelt, Maryland, watching this Pacific Time Zone Game, I allowed myself to think in the conditional mode (“What would it be like?” “How would it feel?”), with my mouth dry, my palms sweating, before the bottom fell out…..
   Giants’ fans carried all this with them this year, whatever the elements were that made for the extra confidence factor this time around. (The most touching moment for me after we won was when Joe Buck started running off the names of the San Francisco players who had never got to live what our guys did that night.) I had not thought, of course, to get anything to drink to celebrate that evening. So I headed to the store for, appropriately, a big Anchor Steam. In the car, on the CD I had left in to play, I listened to Sinatra singing “At Long Last Love.”

                              Is it an earthquake or simply a shock?
                              Is it the good turtle soup or merely the mock?
                              Is it a cocktail, this feeling of joy?
                              Or is what I feel the real McCoy?

                              Is it for all time or simply a lark?
                              Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park?
                              Is it a fancy not worth thinking of?
                              Or is it at long last love?

   Well, you think that didn’t sum up all those years and all those players and all those memories? Now, for me, that song will always be about this World Series, and relate to the Giants as much as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “Don’t Stop Believin.’”)
   As future Cooperstown resident Buster Posey said, our task is to do it again next year.
   This will be the sweetest Hot Stove League ever.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Welcome to This Blog

I will try to keep the personal introduction to this first posting of my blog short, but I think it is unavoidable to say something, and to say too little might be a form of inverted self-absorption.

My name is Bruce Cole (and I am not the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities). I am married, the father of three daughters, a Catholic, a nominal Democrat, and currently living in Nevada. I have written for several publications, though the bulk of my working life has certainly been spent in non-literary venues. I received my hard-won and undistinguished Bachelor's degree in History from the University of Oregon a long time ago, where I had the immense good fortune to be taught by the late, and undeservedly ignored, Thomas Payne Govan, who turned my interests toward the history of the Early American Republic.

I have entitled this blog Every Full Moon as a way of indicating that, at least at first, I will be posting once a month (whether or not that coincides with the arrival of full moons). The next posting will be my review of Last Rites by John Lukacs, to be followed (a month after?) by a review of Leslie Mitchell's biography of Maurice Bowra. (I have no apologies to make for these reviews being "late," as that is, I should hope, the prerogative of a rookie blogger.) I will also be making some occasional forays into commentary. I have set matters up so that folks are free to comment, thought I do not plan on publishing the comments as I do not have the time nor interest nor patience to referee debates among readers (assuming there are any). On the other hand, comments are very welcome, as they may stimulate further topics and their treatment. At some point soon, I will "monetize" the site with ads, and add a PayPal feature for those in a generous mood.

Finally, some attempt to state here something of my "position," with the sinking realization that a laundry list of interests, influences, etc. will A) only tell readers so much, B) risk sounding pompous, and C) be suffocating to write, at least for me. Nevertheless: I am in the Hamilton-Washington-Marshall-Lincoln (as opposed to the Jeffersonian-Madisonian-Jacksonian) tradition. My deepest interests are historical (and one of the reasons for the first review is to indicate the debt I owe to the historical philosophy of John Lukacs.) I have long been fascinated by the often hidden commonalities which are shared by "opposing viewpoints." Perhaps that is why (one reason why) as early in high school I got over "liberal" and "conservative" - not that those terms were or are meaningless, nor the opposition between those forces, nor that the claim to have transcended those terms isn't pretty common. A key to this has been the growing (yes, historical) realization and appreciation of, and commitment to, the communitarian, societal, civic republican - call it what you will - traditions as opposed to the lower-case libertarianism that forms the assumptions of so many people (the guns in this blog will aimed both port and starboard). This is also why theories of positive liberty mean something. The influence of Professor Govan has been lasting in this regard. Alasdair MacIntyre's philosophy as been a help here, modified by the insights of J.G.A. Pocock regarding the protean nature of the several , and conflicting, Enlightenment(s) that have formed our age for better and worse...

Now is when the incompleteness of list-making is overwhelming your humble scribe. I hope that I never even begin to lay out a "program" (however truncated) again. Let me conclude my introductory remarks by saying all the above postulates are hardly going to be rammed home with each posting and that I also love, among other things, Beefeater Gin and the San Francisco Giants.

Last Rites by John Lukacs. Yale University Press, 2009, 187 pages.

[ Watch this space]