Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The wisdom of Abigail Adams (part 2)


“…remember the ladies…”

Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818)
Wife and counselor of President John Adams

If Abigail Adams had been named Absalom Adams, he surely would have been a conspicuously good candidate to be a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congresses.

Abigail was an indefatigable advisor to her husband, a deeply wise observer of public affairs, a patriotic supporter of the Revolutionary War and a staunch advocate of common sense and the public good.

In March 1776, when John was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail took care to include the following in one of her letters to him:

“…in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than your ancestors…”

Abigail was a remarkable American in the 18th century.


Source:
David G. McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 104.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The wisdom of Abigail Adams


“I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature,
and that power whether vested in many or few is ever grasping…”

Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818)
Wife and counselor of President John Adams



….and here’s more from the letter she wrote to John in 1775:

“The great fish swallow up the small and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.”



Source:
David G. McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 101.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Niddy-noddy, anyone?

In case you were wondering, this is a niddy-noddy:




Not sure if you need one, right?

Well, you might, if you’re a knitter, or if you spin your own yarn, that kind of thing….

Here's a demonstration by folks at The Woolery

The Natick Historical Society in Natick, MA, has one in its museum.

At least as early as the 15th century, the niddy-noddy was used to create and measure a skein of yarn: the spinner would rhythmically wrap the yarn around this eccentric device, and count off pre-determined lengths. The resulting loops of yarn could easily be slipped off the niddy-noddy, and knotted into a handy skein.

An historian of my acquaintance mentions that the niddy-noddy was a conveniently simple tool for grandmas and granddaughters to use in yarn-stuff teamwork in 19th century America; it seems that the young and old ladies paired up often enough to do this work that “Niddy-Noddy” became a grandmother-ish nickname in some regions….







….and btw, a niddy-noddy is featured in an early 16th painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder,” see it here.







Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Maskers" circa 1910....

There was a time when Thanksgiving wasn’t just about turkey and football.

I know, I know, sounds impossible, but….

As a frame of reference, Macy’s kicked off its Thanksgiving Day parade spectacular in 1924.

Before that, around the turn of the 20th century, each year around the time of the traditional November holiday, not a few youngish New York denizens got into the habit of getting really duded up in any makeshift costume they could put together, and cadging pennies from passers-by on the streets.These kids—they called themselves “maskers”—posed around 1910.

Sure beats today’s store-bought Halloween costumes….






Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving without football?


Thanksgiving without football?

Yeah, right.

Except, in 1762, it was a bit of a different story:

Readers of the Providence Gazette on November 13, 1762, would have spotted this good news, namely, a proclamation by Rhode Island Gov. Samuel Ward:

“ALMIGHTY GOD in the Course of His wise and gracious Providence, having vouchsafed many great and signal Favours to the Kingdoms of Great-Britain and Ireland, to the British Plantations, and to this Colony in particular, the General Assembly passed an ACT, appointing THURSDAY the Eighteenth Instant, to be observed as a Day of Public Thanksgiving . . .

“AND that the said Day may be religiously observed, as a Day of public Worship and Thanksgiving, without any Interruption, I do strictly inhibit and forbid any servile Labor to be done thereon, and all Manner of Sports and Pastimes.”


Americans wouldn’t get around to organizing the National Football League until 1920, so that last bit about forbidding “all Manner of Sports and Pastimes” probably wasn’t a great big deal to the Rhode Islanders in the middle of the 18th century….

Y’know, the bigtime sports and pastimes in the colonial era were winners like ninepins, cockfighting and dueling, I guess folks could pass on these for one day without too much pain….







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

“…the commotions in America…”


A war by any other name....

It seems not everyone in London languished in post-war pain for years and years after the American colonists won the Revolutionary War.

Shortly after the November 20, 1785, death of Sir James Wright, the last British royal governor of the colony of Georgia, a London newspaper commented on his colonial service in his obituary:

“… As he presided in [Georgia] for two and twenty years with distinguished ability and integrity, it seems to be a tribute justly due to his merit as a faithful servant of his king and Country. Before the commotions in America, his example of industry and skill in the cultivation and improvement of Georgia was of eminent advantage…”


We call it the “Revolutionary War.”

The late 18th century obituary writer in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser called it “the commotions in America.”

I guess there was some small comfort in taking that point of view….











Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Just in case….


….you were wondering “What the heck is the real name of the Marquis de Lafayette?” here’s the actual moniker of this great friend of America during the American Revolutionary War:

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, Marquis de La Fayette

OK, carry on.








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book review: Statue In Search of a Pedestal

Book review: Statue In Search of a Pedestal: A Biography of the Marquis de Lafayette
by Noel B. Gerson (1913-1988) 
Dodd Meade & Company, New York, 1976
244 pages

I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Gerson entertains by re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions.


There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.

Was Lafayette a great man? Gerson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Gerson, like other Lafayette biographers, repeatedly attests to these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”

I feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Gerson describes but does not 
adequately interpret.

Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”

Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Gerson says that Lafayette’s campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “was largely responsible for the American victory at Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general; in fact, it was manifestly an American and French victory at Yorktown. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau, de Grasse and others arrived with sufficient land and naval forces before he participated in the final assaults.

In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention. However, Gerson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.

Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.

For my taste, this is a breezy and dispensable biography of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de la Fayette. Gerson was a prolific writer (325 books during his lifetime). This one is not one of his well-remembered works. It is a quick and easy read, especially if the absence of footnotes doesn’t bother you.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

“We, the people”….ummm


Here’s an historical tidbit about the First Continental Congress that you won’t find in the Wikipedia article on it.

All but one of the 56 delegates were rich—well-connected, ambitious and rich. They were anything but a cross-section of the people in the British colonies who, in 1774, were getting cranked up to rebel against King George III.


The First Continental Congress was convened in September 1774 by 12 of the 13 colonies (Georgia sat out) to consider American responses to the British Intolerable Acts, which were intended to punish the people of Boston and Massachusetts after a little ruckus known as the Boston Tea Party.


In his 2002 biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, author Harlow Unger points out that the delegates were “the most privileged, illustrious men.”

Delegate Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, a failure in business before he turned to politics, was the oddball.

His fellow delegates included 12 prosperous farmers/planters, 30 lawyers, 11 merchants, one builder and one wharf owner.




For example, delegate George Washington of Virginia “owned sixty thousand acres and was arguably the richest planter in the south.”

This Revolutionary War sidebar has a familiar ring….







Reference:
Harlow Giles Unger, Lafayette (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002), 218.










Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Vox populi, non vox Dei

Here’s a little item that interests me: a proverb, or aphorism, that’s been turned inside out.

You may recognize this:  “Vox populi, vox Dei.” A common understanding of this is: the voice of the people is the voice of God. That is to say, the voice (or sentiment) of the masses , or of the nation, or of the interest group, is the voice of authority, or the manifestation of rectitude.
Turns out that, early on, the phrase was popularly demeaned as a corruption of reality.



Just for the record, here’s what Alcuin of York, an 8th century intellectual who advised Charlemagne and was a contender for smartest guy of his century, had to say:
“Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.”
Letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne in 798

Which means, as you know:
'And do not listen to those who keep saying, 'The voice of the people is the voice of God.' because the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness.'

I don’t like Alcuin’s haughty and perhaps politically-motivated dismissal of the sentiment of “the people.”

I wish I could argue that folks in general make a real effort to be well informed and make reasonable attempts to speak the truth in support of the commonweal.

The truth, sadly, lies somewhere between the two extremes, or it may be unrecognizable, or, you know, whatever….

Vox populi isn’t a standard of excellence….





Some Cherokee wisdom


Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership . . .


Book review: Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General
by Marc Leepson (b.1945) 
Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2011
202 pages

I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Leepson entertains by re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions.


There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.

Was Lafayette a great man? Leepson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Leepson amply demonstrates these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”

I feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Leepson fully describes but does not adequately interpret.

Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”

Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Leepson says that Lafayette’s campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “led to the victory at Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau and others arrived with sufficient forces before he participated in the final assaults.

In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention.


However, Leepson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.

Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.

A final note: for my taste, neither Leepson nor Gen. Wesley Clark (in his Foreword) lives up to the promise of sifting “lessons in leadership” from Lafayette’s battlefield and political exploits, or his largely exemplary personal character. I think the fact is that almost all of the notable events in Lafayette’s public and private lift were as much circumstantial as anything else. Certainly, in the worst of times during the French Revolutions, when he could have demonstrated compelling leadership for the lasting benefit of his countrymen and nation, Lafayette came up short.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

Who wasn’t a patriot?


Just how many Loyalists were there in the colonies when the shot at  Lexington was heard ‘round the world?

Colonial Loyalist
Well, no one knows for sure, but there were plenty of folks who remained loyal to King George III.
John Adams (in an 1813 letter) guessed that a third of Americans were not “with us in the revolution.”

Seems like that’s too high, according to a post by Michael Schellhammer on AllThingsLiberty.com, read it here.

Yet some historians have estimated the Loyalist segment among 2.5 million colonials ranged from 75,000 to over 400,000.

Another estimate is that almost 20,000 colonials fought with Loyalist or British regiments during the war. For comparison, about 100,000 patriots served with Continental forces, and many more fought with independent militia units against the British regulars.



The Loyalists had some impact in the fighting in New York and Connecticut, and at several key battles including Camden and the Cowpens, but they never came close to being the kind of organized, decisive military force that British generals vainly hoped for.

The British army commanders never had enough troops to beat the Continentals and their French allies, and the Loyalist units never tipped the balance for the King’s men.












Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, October 10, 2014

History, memory....what really happened?


Civil War historian Gary Gallagher offered his incisive thoughts about the difference between “history” and “memory” in a recent lecture.

I want to add some of my comments about “history that didn’t happen.” Nick Sacco also offers some comments on his blog, “Exploring The Past.” Sacco says “Too often . . . our memories can lead us to think of historical events as inevitable.” I think this is a vital point that too many historians, professionals and laymen, don’t give enough attention.

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group or a nation is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.




The folks who lived and made history in the past literally didn’t know how everything was going to turn out. Only we know that. Inevitably, that tends to color our judgment and understanding of what actually happened in the past.

Sacco paraphrases Gallagher: “. . . history students oftentimes confuse history and memory as being one in the same, and these confusions can lead to questionable interpretations of primary source documents. . . in any historical event there’s a certain sequence of complexities and contingencies that shape the outcome of that event (history). But how we remember that event (memory) can be at odds with what actually happened at the time.”

I disagree with one of Gallagher’s observations: “it doesn’t matter what happened, it’s what we think happened.” My own view is that what actually happened does matter. Quite often it’s not easy to know this in satisfactory detail, even with the investment of honest effort. There are far too many examples of mistaken or self-serving “memories” of a preferred version of history, with far too much political/social/economic damage done in the name of such perverted historical “truths”, and far too many bodies strewn on false, treacherous and perfidious memory lanes.


I think there is no preventive cure for this debasement of history.

I think there is only the honorable pursuit of understanding our past in its full, historical context, with willingness to welcome insight into what the actors thought they were doing, and how they justified their actions at the time.









Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book review: Lafayette


Book review: Lafayette
by Harlow Giles Unger (b.1931) 
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, 2002
452 pages

I’m a first-time reader of Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Unger entertains by re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to millions in America and France during the American and (several) French revolutions.



There is no doubt that, despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and aristocratic structures that prevailed.

Was he a great man? Unger, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Unger amply—even poetically—demonstrates these lifelong characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”

I also feel obliged to call attention to some countervailing factors that Unger fully describes but does not adequately interpret.

Lafayette put his money where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, uniquely among American commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”





Some biographers refer to Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Unger calls him a “hero” of Yorktown. Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he wasn’t the only French general. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau and others arrived with sufficient forces before he participated in the final assaults.



In France he repeatedly declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous intervention. However, Unger fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but, time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.

Was Lafayette a great man? Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance? Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation? Maybe not.

Just one other thing: Unger profligately demonstrates that Lafayette and Washington had a deeply affectionate man-to-man—explicitly, like father and son—relationship, by using far too many excerpts from their numerous letters. No biggie, but I had to stop reading them about halfway through the book….they bonded, I get it.







Wha?! Patriots without guns?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic….a little history


American schools have been around since the Boston Latin School was opened in 1635.

Yet, what we think of today as public education, K-12, hasn’t been around all that long.

In 1644 the Dedham (MA) town meeting established the first tax-supported public school. Of course, it was for boys only. For long decades, girls might learn to read (so they could read the Bible, for instance), but it wasn’t thought important for them to be able to write or do their ciphers.

Rural Oklahoma, early 20th century
In New England, in the 18th century, “common schools” were established, mostly in the form of one-room schoolhouses for students, who often paid a fee to the teacher.

For most kids, the development of reading, writing and math skills was mostly a family concern until about the middle of the 19th century. By that time, public education and public high schools were becoming common, and attendance was in the process of being made mandatory.

What was taught in this evolution of schools was largely a local concern, often tied to the training and interests of the teacher.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a nationwide standardized curriculum was established, mandating roughly the same array of classes that students are taking today: mathematics, English, science and history.

I guess you could say we’ve come a long way, baby….but I guess that Americans have never been less proud of our public education than we are today.

I wonder what an 18th century schoolmarm would have thought about the Common Core standards?

My guess is that she probably wasn’t giving passing grades to students who just weren’t getting it….that seems like the bottom line to me.












Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lexington, we hardly knew ye….


Ever been to the Lexington Green in Lexington, MA? You know the one, “shot heard ‘round the world” and everything….

I went there yesterday.

The storied Lexington Green—where a reckless farmer hiding behind the meetinghouse may have fired that shot—is a rather smallish triangle of grass at the western end of prosperous Main Street, it has a statue, a flagpole, a couple memorial rocks with inscriptions, and a young fella dressed in a marginally pathetic Revolutionary-era costume who did his opportunistic tour guide thing by blabbing rapidly (by rote) for five minutes about the skirmishing that got started early in the morning on April 19, 1775.

That’s about it.

The Lexington “Visitor Center’ is a claustrophobic gift shop with a tabletop diorama of the encounter, the painted figures are adequate enough, but the printed blurb about the “first battle for American freedom” is schoolboy patriotic language, not too inspiring….


I really thought the green would be a lot bigger, I thought there would be more historic stuff visible, I thought it would be more visibly engaging and more substantially respectful…….I think a fair comment is that the green is there if you want to go and look at it, ain’t much to see…..

I hasten to say that it was moving for me, personally, to stand on the ground where Capt. Parker and his 76 men bravely decided they weren’t going to let the lobster backs march through Lexington without at least getting the finger from American militiamen who were ready to defend their town and their farms….and I’m delighted to report that, except for the 18 dead and wounded from the original militia crew on the green, Capt. Parker’s boys reassembled a few hours later along the road between Concord and Lexington, and gave the regulars a few going away presents as they marched back to Boston…..




I know I’m 239 years late, but I want to say to Parker and those embattled farmers: “Thank you for your service to our country.”











Sunday, September 7, 2014

Insults…the good old days


Sadly, we don’t do insults any more in the high style of our Revolutionary forebears.

Time was when an insult went deep because the language was compelling, thoughtfully articulate and precisely erudite.

No F-bombs, no mindless political catch-phrases, no wearily crude sexual innuendos….

For instance, try this one for size:
“You vile, beslobbering rapscallion!”


Now that’s an all-in, I-dare-you-to-draw-your-pistol kind of insult, like as not your ancestor who marched with Washington against the British could have smacked down any lobster-back grenadier on any battlefield with this kind of bold talk and a trusty musket to back up the palaver….

Try it in the privacy of your own home.

When you feel comfortable, go ahead and use it at the office or at a party, see how it works out for you.









Monday, September 1, 2014

Book review: Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life


Book review: Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2014
371 pages, with index

If this is your first exposure to Harriet Beecher Stowe, you’re in for a robust telling of her story. From the first page to the last, you can’t doubt that Stowe cared deeply about most aspects of private life, her faith and the all-encompassing religious framework of the civitas. As a woman in the mid-19th century, she was a zealous missionary without portfolio.

Of course Koester gives comprehensive analysis of the writing and impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was a best-seller in the United States and in Great Britain. It moved multitudes to hate slavery or hate Harriet Beecher Stowe. It did not, despite President Lincoln’s mocking jest when he met Stowe at the White House, start “this great war.” It did help to clarify existing polemical doctrines of opposing camps.

Koester’s aim is to illuminate Stowe’s spiritual life and her very public commitment to advocating her faith and the importance of religious observance and conviction. If that’s not to your taste, reading this book will be drudgery. For me, it was illuminating.

For my taste, Koester mentions but does not usefully detail the context of other aspects of Stowe’s life and impact on American society. She was a woman who conspicuously did not abide by the social conventions that dictated a passive, private, familial role for women. She wrote and was published extensively (I was surprised to learn that she was a prolific writer, including novels, tracts and political broadsides). She had lots of contact with the great and near-great, including President Lincoln and Queen Victoria. Stowe more or less supported her extended family with her writing—it would be interesting to know how much money she made from her writing, because Stowe persisted in a socially risky career and lifestyle that might have been unattainable without a (relatively) high income. I suspect that Stowe was not one of the 99% in her time.



Koester nobly attempts to make her case that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a mover and shaker, non pareil, in the anti-slavery movement before, during and after the Civil War. I suggest that this is a circumstantial biography of a notable lady who was notably revered—and notably tolerated—by a great many of her contemporaries.

If the South had won the Civil War, I think it’s possible that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, would be more than a tad less familiar to us.