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.