Some Recent Reading (August 2016)

I do a lot of reading for the blog. You see a great deal of it in the period documents quoted extensively in just about every post. I also read full-length books by modern historians, which appear less frequently as such but always inform my writing. Now and then I even get my hands on journal articles. Astonishingly enough, a history blogger frequently reads history. Often, I have read that history very slowly. Historians can produce excellent prose, but most do not. The job is to communicate information and analysis rather than to have one on the edge of one’s seat with suspense. We all know everybody died at the end. I mostly muddle through, though I possess sufficient quantities of boringness that now and then a book really does grab me.

The past three books have gone rather differently. I developed a system. Did you know they divide books into chapters? I have ignored these things for ages, just reading until I get tired of it and moving on. This produced considerably inconsistency. Sometimes I would read for an hour or two, sometimes ten minutes. Over time I got the sense that often I made no progress through books, which served as a disincentive to continue. Three books back, I decided to try what I do for this blog. You’ve no doubt noticed that I have a preferred length for blog posts. Ideally, they run for about one idea and 300-500 words. I hit the one idea mark rarely, but the words much more consistently. I usually end up between 500 and 600. Wordy nineteenth century authors work against me. Then I stop, most of the time. I often could write more, and sometimes bank a few days ahead, but it feels like a good balance between the willingness of readers to push on in a conventionally short form medium like a blog and my own endurance. I feel done, but not exhausted, when I finish. I have settled on using chapters as a similar benchmark. If I finish a chapter a day, I have done my duty to research and can move on or continue as I like. Gentle Readers, your author has reached the third grade at last.

That dazzlingly complex routine has pushed me along through James Huston’s Calculating the Value of the Union. A genuine slavery scholar recommended it to me. Huston, despite his protests, writes very little new. The South had a massive investment in slave property with which it would not lightly part. What distinguishes his work comes more in the remarkably thoroughness of it. He has economic graphs and charts upon charts, which he carefully walks through in prose sections. Huston approaches the question as an economic historian to an almost maddening degree at points, insisting always on an emphasis in property rights and varying conceptions of them. In other words, antebellum white Southerners considered people an acceptable form of property. At times it verges on recreating the strange theory that great political disputes come down to men discoursing politely in high society, but he pulls from quite crossing the line. As such, Huston wrote a good book that I hesitate to recommend. It features far more numbers than people and discusses almost everything at a highly abstracted level. But if you like that kind of thing, or just love economic graphs, Huston has one hell of a book for you.

From Huston I went to an essay collection: Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation, edited by Matthew Mason and John Craig Hammond. You never know quite what to expect with these, as each chapter comes from a different author and addresses a different topic. I picked it up because I enjoyed Mason’s Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic, which argues persuasively that slavery constituted an important political issue long before either its otherwise anomalous appearance in the Missouri Crisis or the arrival of immediate abolitionism with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s. Mason’s book ends with at Missouri. The essays in Contesting Slavery reach from the 1750s to the 1840s, connecting the antislavery defeat in 1820 with the rise of militant abolitionism in the 30s and the re-emergence of more political antislavery in the 1840s. That puts Garrison and company in a much-needed context.

Along the way I also learned much more about the presence of early slave systems in the Old Southwest, which at least complicates the traditional understanding (which I have shared) that the founders simply chose not to bar slavery from the Lower South west of the Appalachians and so it came. Quite the opposite. Slavery already existed on the ground, if not on the scale that it soon would, and westerners of sometimes doubtful loyalty insisted upon it as the price for their allegiance. The weak federal government of the late eighteenth century had little power to either force them into line or enforce a slavery prohibition even had the will existed, though the will also did not exist.

Every essay has worthwhile things to learn; I heartily recommend the collection.

Which brought me to Eric Foner’s dissertation-turned book: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. I came warily to this book. I respect Foner tremendously as a historian, but his first book came out before my parents left high school and covers ground where you would expect subsequent scholars to frequently tread. I might pick up badly outdated ideas, or just see the original version of thought that has become so standard it appears everywhere; old news either way. I feared in vain. I have no doubt that some points of Foner’s have seen revision, but except for the dated language -Foner often refers to “the Negro” and “the race issue”- and a larger focus on direct political action than one would probably have now, it felt contemporary. Nor did Foner simply talk about ideology, though he organizes his chapters around ideological analysis and only does a chronological narrative within them. Rather Foner gave a relatively detailed account of just how the Republican party formed, warts and all. I saw him call it a book about how to build a political party a few years ago, via youtube, and it really is. The last few chapters even include some trailers for his more famous work on Reconstruction in the limits of Free Labor thought. If you want to understand Lincoln’s party before Lincoln led it, you do yourself a disservice not to get a copy.

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