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.

A Few Good Antebellum Political Surveys

Gentle Readers, I aim for transparency here. Where possible, I link you through to the primary sources I use. You can go and read them yourselves to see if I judge them fairly or not. I also try to quote generously so you have fullest context. There’s no reason anybody can’t just dive right into the primary sources and get history from there, but I also find secondary works indispensable. A good secondary source will not just give a narrative of events, and some don’t really do narratives as such, but also a generous helping of footnotes or endnotes to plumb for further reading. I have discovered most of the primary sources I use through these notes and hunting around the internet. A lucky search can land you free copies of even paywalled journal articles from recent decades that some kind professor put up for students’ convenience. But I advise getting some grounding in the secondary literature before diving in. This way you can learn the cast of characters, the major movements, and important background concerns that a primary source may simply assume familiarity with.

You can go to almost any bookstore and find a plethora of Civil War books, but the antebellum gets rather less coverage. So today I’d like to recommend some good survey texts, all of which I’ve used in one way or another in the course of writing. I know others exist, but I can only speak to those I have read. I have also restricted my list to books presently in print and present them in rough order of readability and friendliness to a layperson.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David Potter.

A classic of the field, Potter’s work shows its age in some places. His dislike for abolitionist rhetoric shows through more than once. In some places, he sounds very much like a grumpy white conservative in the Civil Rights Era. In keeping with common usage at the time, he refers to black Americans almost exclusively as Negroes. Potter has a very old school approach to history with a strong focus on political actors, which I share to some degree, but the nuts and bolts narrative communicates very well just what happened when and who did it. Potter covers the whole era in good detail for such a short work, including valuable insights about the nature of state and national loyalties and the connection between antislavery politics and nativism. Furthermore, he writes well and with a minimum of jargon. If you read only one of these books, read Potter.

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth Varon

Varon’s work only came out in 2008. She writes in a very modern, approachable voice. Don’t let her introductory words on schools of historiography and the rhetoric of disunion put you off. The opening gives the impression that one has in hand a history of ideas about disunion. While that remains a theme of the book, Varon devotes most of her attention to a general narrative. Between the greater sweep and changes in historical fashion, she spends much less time on detailed analysis of policy evolution than Potter does. However, she integrates intellectual, political, and even gender history into the narrative to a far greater degree. She and Potter will both tell you what happened and why, but Varon looks further under the hood. If gender history doesn’t sound like it has much to do with politics, then Varon’s work will prove otherwise. She has a keen eye for the use of gendered language in period sources, both by women seeking to legitimate their political involvement in antislavery causes and the counters by proslavery writers that they emasculated antislavery men. If you ever wonder what social history in its various modes has to do with more traditional approaches, reading Varon will tell you.

The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 and Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling

Recommending a two volume work takes a bit of cheek, I know. Bear with me. Freehling’s survey of Southern politics from independence until secession does not always make for the most engaging read. Freehling can write very well, but can also turn convoluted and lose you in a forest of his personal slang. If that doesn’t do it, then the cast of characters might. Both of these criticisms apply less to the second volume than the first. The first also has slave dialog written in eye dialect, which strikes me as on the edge of good taste even by the standards of 1990.

His forward to the second volume makes it clear that Freehling understands the major issues with his first and sought to remedy them. He succeeded with the dialect and uses fewer nicknames, but I still had several points where I had to hit the index or look elsewhere to help me keep the players straight. If you stick it out with Freehling, he will introduce you to a colorful cast of characters and the ways their personal lives informed their politics. He writes a great biographical sketch. Some reviewers think he goes too far in this, reducing everything to individual eccentricities, but to my reading he generally keeps a broader perspective. That perspective comes deeply informed by social history, including many insights into the minds of slaveholders and the ways in which their authoritarian habits at home influenced both sectional and national politics. The first volume, for all its problematic writing, earns its keep in the introductory chapters alone. There Freehling gives a tour of the antebellum South right down to the number of times you have to change trains.

I understand that Freehling’s explanation of Upper South secession does not meet with universal acceptance; I don’t know that he entirely convinced me with it. However, his running argument that the fear of dissent within the white South informed a great deal of sectional politics bears consideration. It doesn’t explain the entire South or hold true to the same degree at all times, but he convinced me that we should take it seriously as a factor in proslavery thought and action. We have far too an easy a time imagining the white South as monolithic. The fear of white dissent arose out of tensions within Southern society, so attention to it as a theme helps explain just why proslavery radicals both became extreme and gained followers as time went on. Freehling confines most of his writing directed at fellow professionals to the endnotes, but they make for informative reading in themselves and include at least one moment where he graciously admits to a flaw in his own work.

The Freedmen’s Patrol Review of Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast

Kansas can wait one more day. It’s been there since 1854, after all.

Back when I started this blog, in the savage age when the internet ran on carrier anomalocaris, I thought that I might review some books from time to time. I use quite a few regularly, in addition to period sources. Then a project to describe the election of 1860 turned into a short summary of major events leading to the war. How long could that really take? A week or two? By geological standards, that summary remains short.

Also in that distant past, I consulted Google to see what the internet had to offer in the way of Civil War blogging. Some guy out there made and photographed these amazing models of Civil War ships. Only later did it dawn upon me that Andy Hall did all that on a computer instead of with physical models. And then he wrote a book about the Texas blockade, a story featuring just those ships and the exploits of their crews.

So I had to have it. I went to my locally-owned, independent bookseller to get a copy on order. It’s a running joke there that I never want anything she actually has in stock. When she put Andy’s book into the computer, she got back the mysterious note that it was not available. The owner of the store had never seen that one before. Books came either in print or out of print, either in stock or out of stock. But she ordered it up anyway, just to see what would happen.

A week later it arrived. “Not available” must mean “available just like everything else.” Who knew? I took an unaccustomed walk out to collect it, but the ailing state of my calf muscles (Exercise and I don’t get on so well.) and my excitement prevented an uninterrupted trip home. I sat down in a park and read the Acknowledgements and part of the first chapter. It was worth the stop.

So let’s do this review properly, then:

Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast by Andrew W. Hall.

I have no prior experience with The History Press, but to judge from their catalog this book seems a typical offering. It weighs in at 141 pages, including endnotes and index. The text comes generously illustrated with both period photographs and drawings and the author’s maps and renderings of various ships. Unlike many histories, you could read it in a single sitting without doing much harm to your hindquarters or risking starvation. The clear writing will surprise no readers of Andy’s blog, but its frequent absence in the field makes it all the more appreciated.

I know relatively little about Civil War naval operations so most everything Andy wrote came as news to me. The work naturally focuses on his native Galveston, the premier port on the Texas coast at the time, but we do venture elsewhere when the subject warrants it. The war might have begun in 1861, but Andy takes us all the way back to the 1820s to briefly sketch out the history of Texas to that point and takes some time to lay out Galveston’s geography and the region’s economy for context. From there he moves into the opening of the war and the legal complications of declaring the blockade, something that international custom held could only occur between two nations at war rather than one nation suppressing a rebellion.

Then we come back to the Texas coast for the story of the blockade runners and their enemies. Andy gives us chapters on particular ships and their daring escapes. We read about their tactics, both clever and brazen. I found myself especially taken by the captain who dusted himself with flour and hid in a dark cabin, declaring that he had yellow fever. Nobody would want to inspect that vessel, right? A Navy officer and the ship’s surgeon boarded the blockade runner, but fell for the ruse.  So far, so good. But then:

Alden [captain of the USS South Carolina] was getting suspicious; he thought he recognized the schooner. He then went over to the schooner, opened the hatch to the master’s cabin wide to admit more light, and climbed down into the cabin to get a good look for himself. After a moment, Alden said quietly, “You’ve played this one out, Johnson, and you’d better get up.” Johnson immediately admitted the ruse.

Memorable stories like this flesh out the narrative spine of the book and provide the occasional welcome laugh along the way. In another we learn that William Henry Seward, alcohol, and diplomacy appear to have mixed memorably, if not exactly well.

To add to the history, Andy gives us the story of how the wrecks of some of the blockade runners have been rediscovered in recent decades. The actual ships can tell us things that written accounts neglected to share. I can’t say that I’d relish that work, groping blindly by touch in muddy, turbulent water and hoping to find an artifact rather than annoyed wildlife. But I’m glad that others, Andy included, get it done and so expand our understanding of the past. Catch him in the act on page 120.

Check it out. When the chance comes to combine fun reading and fun learning in one package, why pass it up?