Monday, January 26, 2015

Book review: An Empire on the Edge

Book review: An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014
429 pages

Here is the short version of Nick Bunker’s thesis: King George and his government let the North American colonies slip from their grasp.

A newcomer to the history of the American Revolution might think that this book is a cockeyed way to learn about the “shot heard ‘round the world” and the consequences of the actions at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.

An informed student of the Revolutionary War probably will find much new material in Bunker’s relentlessly detailed An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America.

On our side of the pond, we don’t have much opportunity to consider the war or the revolution from the British point of view.

Bunker offers devastating detail about the ill-informed, patronizing, self-serving, doctrinaire and sometimes feckless actions of Lord North and the British government in the years that led to the sanguinary clash of British regulars and American farmers-militiamen on the road from Concord, through Lexington, to Boston on “that famous day and year.”

An Empire on the Edge offers an extensively documented case that the British leaders were largely ignorant of the scope and depth of colonial antipathy toward the various punitive measures that Britain sought to impose in North America, as early as 1765 (the Stamp Act) and continuing to the final, ill-fated steps to chastise the city of Boston after the notorious Tea Party in late 1773.

Further, Bunker describes the half-cocked military moves by Lord North and his ministers, in the years leading up to the disastrous outing to Lexington-Concord. The king and his government were not prepared to wage war successfully in North America, partly because they waited too long to believe that the colonists actually would fight, and partly because they disdained the colonials’ fighting capacity, and partly because they put higher priority on their Caribbean sugar colonies, and partly because they were pre-occupied with the military threat posed by France and various European intrigues.

Bunker does not speculate on a question that occurs to me: after that first shot was fired at Lexington, did the British really commit themselves to winning the war?

The king and his government made the commitment to fight. They did not, however, at any time before or during the war, commit all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to the military campaign to regain dominion in North America. At the commencement of fighting, a British victory was not immediately feasible. Perhaps it did not become feasible.

Bunker’s analysis of the planning and wrangling in Lord North’s war room suggests that the British wanted to win, but didn’t push the right buttons to bring victory within their grasp.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Technically, he was elected....

At last, in the mid-1770s, the American colonists actually rebelled against their king and mother country. One of the reasons for the Revolution was most Americans’ persistent belief that they were Englishmen, entitled to all the historical rights of the king’s subjects.

Among these historical, sacred and hard-won rights was the right to vote for men who would represent them in Parliament. You know, “no taxation without representation,” and so on.

It’s too easy to forget that only a select class of men were entitled to vote. Ladies, forget it. Poor and landless folks, in general, forget it.

Case in point: in 1788-89, only 43,782 gents voted in the election that put George Washington in the president’s office of the newly independent American colonies. In other words, less than 2% of the non-slave population of the colonies (roughly 2.4 million free, 600,000 slave) went to the polls.

Another case in point: in 1774, the man who led Britain into war with the North American colonies was re-elected to Parliament by 18 men in the town of Banbury, Oxfordshire.

Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, was King George’s prime minister. Lord North’s Tory government decided to call an early parliamentary election in the summer of 1774, to catch their political opponents off guard—a regular election would have been required in spring of 1775.

North had undisputed control of his Banbury bailiwick, the site of his venerable family estate. Only 18 Banbury men had the bloodlines and legal standing to vote. The prime minister’s agent “assembled them for supper, with wine and cheese and a bowl of punch, and they duly elected Lord North.”(1)

Sometimes the same old story peeks from the pages of the history books….

(1) Nick BunkerAn Empire on the Edge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 322.

The Declaration was a re-write

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Friday, January 16, 2015

“Liberty”?....what do you mean?

What did American colonists mean when they spoke of “liberty” and “independence”?

There are many dimensions of those words. In the context of today’s hyper, indulgent claims about the thoughts and opinions of the so-called “Founding Fathers,” I think it’s important to note that our current understanding of those two words is remarkably different from the way typical late 18th century colonists understood them.

For example:
“In the pre-revolutionary world of Washington and Lafayette, the notion of equality was almost literally unthinkable. Lafayette’s early opposition to slavery was as prescient as it was commendable, but neither he nor Washington considered slaves or Native Americans (or most other people) as even remotely their equals, whatever their stated principles. Distinctions of rank were implicit in the unspoken language of everyday life, imbedded too deep to be much remarked on even when they were pointedly felt, as they often were. Freedom, too, was a strange concept. In both the colonies and in France, the word ‘liberty’ usually referred to a traditional or newly granted privilege, such as an exemption from tax. Among the French aristocracy’s greatest complaints against Louis was the loss of such special considerations, or ‘liberties.’ The model of ‘independence’ that Washington held before him was that of the Virginia gentleman, whose property and wealth liberated him from the need to be dependent on anyone, even powerful friends. To declare one’s independence was to declare oneself an aristocrat.”

Neither “liberty” nor “independence” carried what we think of as familiar connotations within the modern liberal-conservative political spectrum. Indeed, in several respects, neither of those words was associated in colonial times with the ideologies, functions or practices of government.

The quote is from For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions, by James R. Gaines (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 12-13).

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sheesh! It’s just a piano….

Some people have too much money.

One of the two pianos used in Bogie’s “Casablanca” masterpiece went under the auctioneer's gavel recently—for $3.4 million.

For that kind of dough, you have to figure the new owner is thrilled beyond all human understanding to know that there is an authentic wad of mummified chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the keyboard….maybe Bogie put it there….

It’s a nice looking upright piano and all.

I gladly assume the buyer accumulated his/her obvious wealth in completely legal ways, so he/she absolutely has the right to spend it any which way.

I’m just saying that, f’rinstance, $3.4 million would buy about 425,000 books for poor kids who don’t have even one book in their homes.

Just saying.

…and here’s another thought: suppose it wasn’t Bogie, suppose Dooley Wilson (“Sam” the piano player) stuck that gum there? Is the piano really worth $3.4 mil?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The horses are gone, but....

I think it’s a good idea to reflect, every so often, on what life was really like in the past, especially the even slightly distant past that we may carelessly characterize as “the good old days.”

For instance, let’s talk about carbon monoxide, eternally spewing from the tailpipes of those infernal machines with internal combustion engines, and the accelerating destruction of our atmosphere, and global climate change and global warming and stuff….

Yeah, we can yearn for an earlier time when we weren’t cooking the planet.

Like 1900, before cars and trucks and airplanes were ubiquitous….

….when horses were everywhere, when it was superfluous to use the words “horse-drawn” when mentioning a carriage or wagon or trolley….

….when approximately 3 million horses were the transportation motive power in American cities….

….when all those horses were dropping 20-25 pounds of manure—each—every day….

….when the 15,000 nags in Rochester, NY, produced enough equine hockey pucks in a year to cover 
an acre of ground with a mountain of manure 175 feet deep….

….when everyone just stepped around or over the mounds of horse stuff, and nobody sued anybody about environmental impact statements and stuff….

Y’know, honestly, they just piled it up somewhere, that’s the way they took care of it.

‘Course, that’s the way we take care of a lot of our problems today.

Surprising as it may seem, most of the horses disappeared, but the horseshit is still with us.

See Jeff Jacoby's column in The Boston Sunday Globe, December 28, 2014

Check out this 1974 book by Otto Bettmann, The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible!

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The melting pot is real....

In some parts of the American South, about 1 out of 8 “white” people have at least one black ancestor.

We’ve always known that some black folks have a white granddad somewhere in the family tree.

Recently I read Clotel, or The President’s Daughter, by William Wells Brown. It’s reputed to be the first novel written by a black American. Brown, a former slave, published it in 1853.

In her foreword to the 1996 edition of Clotel, Dr. Joan Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had some white ancestry.”Brown extensively documented the well-known inclination of some white male slaveowners to rape their female slaves, and, with some regularity, produce mixed-race children.

We all know a little bit about dominant and recessive genes. Some children of black-and-white parents are very dark-skinned, and some are very light-skinned, and most are somewhere in between. The reality of “passing for white” has been known for centuries.

Now has offered a modern, complementary factoid: “…in a lot of the South, about 10 percent of people who identified as white turned out to have African DNA…” Researchers writing recently in the American Journal of Human Genetics used DNA analysis to characterize the ancestry of folks who think of themselves as white.

In South Carolina and Louisiana, about 1 out of 8 self-identified “white” folks have DNA from African-American ancestors.

Detailed DNA analysis showed that the initial white/black unions “…generally occurred in the early 1800s…”

As we all know, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings weren’t the only ones doing it.

1 -  p. xiii


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book review: John Adams

Book review: John Adams
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001
751 pages

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you don’t think the biography is the best way to do history. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a reason to change your mind a bit.

John Adams is simply a really good book. McCullough helps you to warm up to the man and to his personal experience in leading the Revolution and the first formative years of the American republic. Adams, our first vice president and second president, was among the few who were in the thick of it from the beginning, and he never shrank from doing what he expansively viewed as his duty to his new country.

McCullough’s prose is a delightful experience for the serious historian and the armchair dabbler who likes a good read. From cover to cover, this is a lush, genuine presentation of a man, his loved ones, his career, his commitment to do good works and his never-flagging appreciation that the object of government should be to do the people’s business and make possible a decent life for all.

John Adams was savaged by the earliest manifestations of partisan party politics, but he never stooped to play that game.

Too bad we don’t have someone like John Adams in a leadership role today.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

Friday, December 26, 2014

Clem Moore, meet Ernie Hemingway

You know this one: “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”

Clement Moore wrote it in 1823, almost 200 years before Santa went digital, it’s an iconic feel-good poem, it’s written to early 19th century tastes….

What if Ernest Hemingway had been moved to memorialize the domestic Christmas Eve experience?

James Thurber, America’s high-profile early 20th century humorist, asked himself that question, and decided to answer it in the pages of The New Yorker magazine in 1927:

“It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them…”

That’s how it starts, you can read the whole thing here.

If you’re a Hemingway fan, you should read the whole thing.

If you’re not a Hemingway fan, well, shoot, read it anyway for the hoot.

“…He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, “Merry Christmas and good night.” I went back to bed…”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Book review: Clotel, or The President's Daughter

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter
Introduction by Dr. Joan E. Cashin
M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, New York, 1996
191 pages

This is a workmanlike treatment of a subject that is a hardly imaginable foundation of early America: slavery.

It’s more a documentary than any modern understanding of a novel. Brown does a good job of character development for a limited cast of characters, including Clotel, the “mulatto” daughter of a black slave mother and a white father. The story of many aspects of slavery—disruption of families, cruelty of masters, the abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.

Clotel is a high impact read. Brown was born a slave in Kentucky circa 1818. He escaped, became an abolitionist and a writer in England, and was purchased by friends and freed in the middle of the 19th century. He published Clotel in 1853 as the first “novel” written by a black American.

It isn’t good reading. It’s harsh reading. It’s a terribly candid condemnation of a despicable fact of American history. It’s a catalog of shame and endurance and human spirit.

By the way, the subtitle acknowledges Brown’s unabashed reference to the story, well known in the mid-19th century, that Thomas Jefferson dallied with his slave, Sally Hemings, and had children with her.

Here are a couple items:

Prof. Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had some white ancestry.”1 Too many white owners forced themselves on their female slaves. In some parts of the South, a person with white lineage except for a black great-great-great-great grandmother could legally be sold as a slave.

Brown underscores the hypocrisy of slave owners who professed political, philosophical or religious convictions that were nominally opposed to slavery. For example, Brown states that in the middle of the 19th century, more than 660,000 slaves  were owned “by members of the Christian church in this pious democratic republic.”2

Slavery died hard. Writers like Brown helped to make it happen.

1 -  p. xiii
2 -  p. 187

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2014

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.

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.”

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….

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