Tag Archives: history

What Hath God Wrought: Some First Reactions

I recently finished Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. This 850 page tome describes Antebellum religious thought, the communication and transportation revolution, political transition, sectionalism, international policy, and more. It also includes brief descriptions of dozens of interesting Americans through this time period. This macroscopic and microscopic approach painted a vivid picture of life at that time. Good books take time to digest. I still imagine myself in that era; I still extract bits of our current era that evolved from then or remind me of then.

Let me highlight some macroscopic and microscopic points that resonated with me.

Big Picture: The Second Great Awakening

Spurred by advances in communication and transportation, the US experienced a transformation in religion. I drowned in terminology; there’s the congregationalists, the unitarians and the trinitarians, the post- and pre-millennials, the high and low Episcopalians, and the anti-mission Methodists.  There were the Utopian societies such as the Owenites, the Associationists, the Amanans (a refrigerator brand!),  and the Perfectionists (creators of Oneida silverware!). (My favorite podcast BackStory has a great episode about the history of utopias that covers several of these.)

I’d heard of the Second Great Awakening but wasn’t very interested. We have our evangelical movement today; I assumed it was similar, but they are so different. The Second Great Awakening spurred Abolitionism, literacy and education movements, and the first glimmers of the suffrage movement. Its ideal was self-improvement. Great Awakening thought led to the invention of the penitentiary, where criminals would improve themselves through penitence. Likewise, asylums were a creation of thoughts from the Second Great Awakening; although they seem brutal and cruel now, sending troubled people to (hopefully) peaceful shelters, asylums, was far kinder than locking them away. These ideas were so revolutionary that visiting them once was a form of tourism (see the first segment of this BackStory episode on vacations).

Big Picture: Slavery and White Supremacy

The more history I read, the more I see the centrality of white supremacy in our country. Slavery warped everything about the south, and consequently, many aspects of the country. It led to censorship of the mail. It led to the Congressional gag rule, which forbade discussion of petitions about slavery. (See the detail below of how John Quincy Adams got rid of the gag rule.)  It led the south to oppose infrastructure investments for fear that such programs would give the federal government too much power. The resultant lack of economic diversification made it impossible for the south to ever consider compromise.

Slavery held an iron-lock on the Democratic party, the party that won every election from 1828 through 1856 but two (the two elected Whig presidents both died in office and are the shortest and third shortest presidencies). To win the party nomination, a candidate needed 2/3 approval, which gave southern states a veto.

I found the passage pictured below most resonant of all. The passage suggests that, had Henry Clay won the election of 1844, the Civil War might have been avoided. Clay was the famous architect of 1820’s Missouri Compromise and 1850’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. After White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (in 2017) suggested that the Civil War occurred due to a lack of compromise, the passage struck me even more. Howe suggests that the war could have been averted–if the south had compromised. In this case, compromise would have been to accept federal support for infrastructure and gradual compensated emancipation. The book is riddled with the various compromises that the north acceded to. Eventually it was the north’s growth in population (due to the industrial revolution that they embraced and the south didn’t) that led them to be able to override the southern lock. Because the south had never compromised in the 35 years of the cotton market boom, they couldn’t accept the change in national power.

Yes, this is vastly simplified. Such “what ifs” fascinate me; how can I not see science fiction?

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Detail: John Quincy Adams single-handedly destroyed the Gag Rule through sheer force of personality

In January 1842, former president and now Whig congressman John Quincy Adams was censured for presenting a petition opposing slavery. For a weeks, he grandstanded in his own defense, embarrassing his prosecutors. (And “ruining” the career of chief prosecutor Thomas Marshall.) Rather than risk another week, the motion to censure was dropped. Adams then laid forth an additional 200 anti-slavery petitions. Shortly thereafter, the Gag Rule was officially rescinded. The Gag Rule forbade discussion of petitions against slavery from 1836-1844.

Detail: Margaret Fuller–feminist, editor, bad-ass

The little town of Concord, Massachusetts produced a lot of famous names in the 1830s– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thorough, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, to name a few. But the Transcendentalist that captured my imagination was Margaret Fuller. She wrote that women should live for themselves rather than for the sake of men (a new idea at the time, and one that we sometimes still seem to have trouble embracing). She wrote that women needed more avenues of opportunity to develop their talents, writing “let them be sea-captains, if they will.” She became an editor and writer at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. During the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, she  went to Italy and became one of the first foreign correspondents. In Italy she secretly married an Italian nobleman (her family disapproved) and had a child. Tragically, the three drowned just off Long Island in a storm on the voyage back to New York in 1850.

Detail: Dorothea Dix–the asylum’s advocate

In 1841, schoolteacher Dorothea Dix taught a Sunday school class at a prison in Massachusetts. She was disturbed to see “lunatics” locked up in unheated cells. She petitioned the state legislature for improvement. As she became dedicated to the cause, she learned that conditions in other states were often even worse. Dix travelled all over Canada and the US championing the cause of an asylum, where the indigent insane would receive treatment and care rather than incarceration. Although we have since seen the evils that can arise in asylums, their creation was motivated by compassion. Many of the social reforms of the Antebellum period were driven by women, as this was an acceptable form of social participation at the time.

Detail: Denmark Vesey–Leader of a doomed slave insurrection

Denmark Vesey was born a slave on St. Thomas. Living in Charleston in 1799, he was able to buy his freedom after winning the lottery. (What Hath God Wrought describes how slavery as an institution varied in urban and rural environments, and in the old south and new south.) He was successful as a carpenter, but nursed a grudge against white society. He planned an insurrection for the summer of 1822, planning to attack the city arsenal, take the masters’ horses, and kill all the whites in Charleston. The plan was detected, and the conspirators were arrests before any rebellion took place. 135 persons were arrested and 35 executed, including Vesey. Much of the conspiracy took place at the Charleston African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Church. If that name sounds familiar, it’s where Dylan Roof murdered 9 people in the summer of 2015. 200 years later, the congregation still reveres Denmark Vesey as a hero.

 

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Gudrun’s Postcards: A Little Girl’s Life and Death in a Bygone Era

In 1915, my great aunt Gudrun died of type 1 diabetes at the age of ten or eleven. It was one of those family health tidbits to mention to the doctor and little more. Insulin injections weren’t developed until 1922; before that, the disease was a death sentence.

A few weeks ago, I got to see Gudrun’s postcards. They were passed down through the family, but I had never seen them before.

The oldest postcards go back to 1909 or so, when Gudrun would have been 4 or 5. They’re from her sisters, who worked in big city Minneapolis, or her school mates. Many of them are undated and probably delivered by hand, as they have no stamps or postmarks. Many of the dates on the postmarked cards aren’t legible.

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Dear School mate. How are you. I am ok. We all have bad colds. Baby is learning to walk. From [unreadable] Larson.

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“Hello Gudrun–Are you taking good care of Mabel [my grandmother, who was an infant]? Agnes has got a good place assist with house work. The lady Mrs Baxter knows Mrs. Moore so well have been neighbors. Gets $3.00 a week. I was to get $5.00 but if I could do it but I ain’t going to kill myself for money am looking for another place now. Write soon. It’s kind of cold up there and [indecipherable]”-Unsigned, probably a sister in Minneapolis.

The last postcards are postmarked around Christmas 1914. I haven’t been able to find records of when Gudrun died, just that the year was 1915. Many of the postcards ask after Gudrun’s health, even well before she would have been ill. Health comes up in many of the postcards between six and seven year olds. Health was different in that era. One of Gudrun’s sisters would die from pneumonia a few years later as a high schooler. [Correction: the girl who died from pneumonia was my grandfather’s sister. One of Gudrun’s sisters died of an ear infection in the 1930s.] One of her brothers later died from an infected cut.

Postcards seem like they were routinely exchanged between young children. The spelling and handwriting on many of the cards is very young. Mail and trinkets of the greater world were probably a huge thrill in rural Readstown, Wisconsin, a town of 515 in 1910. Gudrun lived on a farm, and probably most of her classmates did too. Because many of the cards are undated, it’s hard to establish a time line. Did her classmates write more to her as she became ill? They sent cards for every holiday. There are birthday cards, Valentine’s cards, Thanksgiving cards, Easter cards, New Years cards, and Halloween cards. Many are un-themed. Sometimes a little friend sent a holiday card at an odd time, apologizing that it was the only card they could find.

We don’t know how long Gudrun was ill before she succumbed. Online resources suggest children lived from a few weeks up to a year. Around the time of Gudrun’s illness, doctors began to advocate a starvation treatment to reduce sugar levels and prolong life. In rural Wisconsin, Gudrun probably didn’t follow such a course of treatment, but maybe the general concept was present. Since ancient times, diabetes had been described for the sugary taste it gave to a victim’s urine, so the connection to sugar was well-known.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Gudrun. We don’t have any of the cards she sent. All of her correspondents and siblings are long dead. I look at her and wonder about her and what her life was like. The postcard designs are an insight into Gudrun’s era as well. Some feature Norwegian; she probably spoke some. The handwriting is exclusively in English. All but two or three feature illustrations rather than photos. Some have metallic foil and embossing. Some have half tone designs. I picked a few of my favorites.

Gudrun died over 70 years before I was born. What a wonderful record of her community and family and friendships this collection of cards is. Her life and death over a hundred years ago feels real through it.

 

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St. Louis: #1 in Civil Rights?

The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis has a new exhibit: #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis. I grew up in St. Louis and the title sounded ridiculous. #1? Every school in the state of Missouri requires students to learn about Missouri history in 4th grade. We learned about Daniel Boone and the Pony Express and the Dred Scott case. We didn’t learn about protests or sit-ins or bus boycotts. My school district was desegregated with busing in 1983. The events in Ferguson in 2014 don’t exactly suggest a racially-progressive St. Louis.

So how could the History Museum argue that St. Louis was #1 in civil rights?

It’s a quote. For the 1964 bicentennial of St. Louis, Nathan B. Young wrote an article calling St. Louis the #1 city in civil rights. He was the editor of the St. Louis American, a black newspaper. He argued that the civil rights Supreme Court cases that originated from the city and the civil rights actions in the city made St. Louis a prominent city in the movement. The argument is summarized in the 8 minute video from the History Museum below.

The history of civil rights in St. Louis

The exhibit covers all kinds of history I never learned. Missouri was a slave state. But there were protests seeking its admission as a free state in 1819.

St. Louis spawned four major Supreme Court cases.

St. Louis also had sit-ins starting in the 40s, was active in the 1940s March on Washington movement, and had very active NAACP and CORE chapters.

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I feel cheated that we learned so little of this rich history in school. Fortunately, that deficit is being recognized today.

If you have a chance to visit the exhibit, I highly recommend it. There are several actors playing period activists (ACTivists, get it?), and the woman who played Margaret Bush Wilson was amazing. Stylized portraits of the subjects were commissioned for the exhibit, which was really cool, and necessary in the case of some of the 19th century people with limited period imagery.

The exhibit is really upbeat and focuses on the fight for equality in St. Louis. The negative parts of history–the white flight and the reactionary racism–that’s not a part of this exhibit. It’s part of the story too, but they chose to portray a history that the city can rally around. So little of this history was in my curriculum; I hope that this exhibit and the work supporting it improves that deficit.

Book Review: The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration (Thomas Spencer 2000)

Rating: 3.5/5

St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 details a strange institution in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The Veiled Prophet celebration was St. Louis’ response to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras inverts the social order; the fool is king for a day, and the rich man mingles with the poor man. The Veiled Prophet celebration was created to reinforce the social order, to show the lower classes the differences between them and the leading luminaries. Veiled Prophet details the evolution of this celebration; it began in 1878 in response to a massive labor strike in 1877, and continues to this day, although less overtly political.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Starting in the late 1970s, The Veiled Prophet society organized the Fourth of July celebration in St. Louis. Until 1992, the celebration was called the VP Fair (today it is called Fair St. Louis). When I learned with bafflement that the VP stood for “Veiled Prophet,” I grew curious. The Veiled Prophet society is such an old tradition in St. Louis, but little talked about, due to lack of interest and the elitist threads of the society. But many of the most influential St. Louisans took part in this strange organization; it’s a part of St. Louis history and shapes today’s city. Many of you even know a queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball—Ellie Kemper, perhaps better known as Kimmy Schmidt.

THE GOOD

The Veiled Prophet society, to the extent folks even remember it today, has a reputation for being snobbish and racist. It was unsurprising to learn that the society formed to praise the strong hand of business in the face of labor unrest. (For more about 19th century labor unrest, Death in the Haymarket is a great book; I reviewed it here.)

Initially, the parade anchored the celebration, timed to revive the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in October. It was an attempt, although too late, to compete with Chicago. The Veiled Prophet was a robed man, his face hidden, that oversaw the parade. The first Veiled Prophet was Police Commissioner John Priest, an active foe of the prior year’s labor riots. After Priest voluntarily unveiled himself in 1878, the Prophet’s identity remained secret, revealed only once by a crazed caper in 1972.

The celebration evolved with time. Some decades the parade would be educational, others more lighthearted. With time, the Veiled Prophet Ball became the more important component; at its peak it was covered in minute detail in the local papers, and even broadcast nationally after World War 2. The Veiled Prophet character evolved too. Originally just a title, they eventually added a mythology of an exotic easterner.

The relationship between the organization and the media changed substantially with time as well. The Republic was owned by members of the society, and thus covered the events in detail. More recent coverage has been more critical.

I also enjoyed reading about the people involved, though there was less of this than I would have liked. David R. Francis, the man who brought the Olympics and the World’s Fair to St. Louis, was an active member. One of the first members, Alonzo Slayback, died after a fight with a newspaperman. The 1927 Veiled Prophet queen was, scandalously, already married at the time she became queen, and, even worse, without her father’s permission! In an interview in 1977, she mused that the society still hadn’t gotten over it.

THE BAD

Although Veiled Prophet is meticulously researched, it is fairly dry. It reads like a list of facts and newspaper archives more than a narrative. The roles of the people involved in the society are only lightly sketched. This meant the book was shorter, but less relatable.

Also absent is any local St. Louis history. The World’s Fair, the tornado of 1896, mayoral elections and politics, various strikes—these events do not appear in the book.

The book stays narrowly focused on the Veiled Prophet society, for good or ill. I would have preferred more context. This book is, for the most part, just the facts, and less interpretation than some other works of history.

OVERALL

This book is a 5/5 for content about the society and quality of sources. The writing quality is fine, but the narrow approach of the topic makes it a dry read. For someone interested in St. Louis history, it is well worthwhile. I found it less enjoyable and informative than I had hoped; I wanted to better understand St. Louis history, the Veiled Prophet context in that history, and how St. Louis differed from other cities in this respect. This book doesn’t offer a lot of interpretation for the reader. Not everybody wants that, but I was hoping for it.

Book Review: Santa Anna of Mexico (Will Fowler 2007)

Rating: 4/5

Will Fowler’s Santa Anna of Mexico is about Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the six-time president of Mexico. Santa Anna partook in most major events in the first 40 years of Mexican independence. Americans might know his as the cruel Mexican general of The Battle of the Alamo in Texas. He was a charismatic and wily man, entwined with and representative of the problems of early Mexico. He is hated today in Mexico, with no roads or statues to his honor; Fowler presents a complex man living through complex times.

WHY THIS BOOK?

  1. Santa Anna pops up in southwestern history. He was the general at the Alamo. He lost a leg in the Pastry War. He conned James Polk during the Mexican-American War. Eventually, I had to read his biography.
  2. Although the United States has only two neighbor countries, I know almost nothing about the history of either.

THE GOOD

Go look at the heads of state of Mexico on Wikipedia. For the first 30 years, only one lasted his whole term. 19th century United States sometimes seems dysfunctional; we’ve got nothing on Mexico. How did Mexico turn out so differently? This book helped me understand that a little.

Santa Anna’s biography is a great way to learn the (ridiculously complex and confusing) early history of Mexico. Santa Anna’s personal history parallels his country’s history. Fowler splits Santa Anna’s career into four stages: Hope (1821-28), Disenchantment (1828-35), Disillusion (1835-47), and Despair (1847-53).

Fowler portrays a complex Santa Anna. Santa Anna is blamed as the man who lost Texas, the man who lost the Mexican-American War (ceding half the country to the US), and the man who signed the humiliating Gadsden Purchase (ceding some more land to the US). He was also the Hero of Tampico, fending off a Spanish invasion, and the hero of the Pastry War, in which he lost a leg. In the Mexican-American War, he returned from exile in Cuba and valiantly fought when all others seemed paralyzed by infighting. The man had more lives than a cat. He was incredibly opportunistic, but he was also brave and believed in Mexico.

Fowler also describes Santa Anna as a caudillo. The caudillo, or strongman, is a political tradition in Latin America tracing to Spain’s colonial policies. The caudillo amassed money, land, and influence regionally; if his region was nationally influential enough, he would be nationally influential. Santa Anna became the caudillo of Veracruz, the large and crucial port of Mexico.

Donald Trump has been called the “Yankee Caudillo” in Latin American press. There are parallels. Santa Anna attacked the political parties as corrupt; he claimed to stand apart from the evils of partisanship and to fight for the people. Santa Anna stayed relevant with his wealth in Veracruz; likewise Trump stayed relevance with his global brand. Both men were constantly near power, but able to claim a mantle of purity. Like Trump, Santa Anna preferred to campaign (this time in the military sense). Santa Anna rarely held power for more than six months because he didn’t care to govern. (This is in contrast to other caudillos who held power for extended periods of time.) My understanding is admittedly superficial, but learning about Mexico’s politics gave me another perspective on American politics.

THE BAD

I struggled with the first few chapters. I was constantly consulting Wikipedia or a map. If you know little Mexican history, this book is absolutely readable, but it’s challenging.

OVERALL

Santa Anna is absurd, but Fowler explains him well. Santa Anna’s antics are so intimately a part of Mexico’s early struggles for democracy.

Santa Anna, like Mexico’s early failure, is so tragic. What could Mexico have accomplished if only they had achieved the stability of the early United States? Were the United States lucky to have achieved stability from the very beginning?

Finally, the caudillo concept provides insights into much of Latin America, and perhaps into the United States.

Book review: A Midwife’s Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich 1990)

Rating: 4/5

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 tells the tale of midwife Martha Ballard in 18th century frontier Maine. Every day for 35 years, Martha Ballard detailed the weather, her travels, her housework, her community, and her deliveries. If not for her diary, history would only have known Martha’s date of birth, the day she married, the day her children were born, and the day she died. Thanks to her diary, we have insight into her life and into the lives of frontier women in this time period. A Midwife’s Tale discusses rape, family conflict, the role of women in medicine, a family annihilation murder, women’s housework, sexual morays, and frontier life, among other things.

For content, this book is 5/5, it details a unique and wonderful document. For readability, I give A Midwife’s Tale a 3.5/5. Most of the difficulty of the book is inevitable; it has lots of original quotes.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Most history is written by rich older white men. In Martha’s town of Hallowell, Maine, two other diaries of the period survive, written by such men. Although she mentions the authors of these diaries multiple times, she barely appears in theirs. Her diary has roughly even numbers of men and women; theirs barely mention women. The wife of one of these men was a hatmaker; we know that from Martha’s diary, not his.

Martha Ballard’s diary is an ideal historical source. It’s a day to day documentation of her life, without narrative. It wasn’t written to entertain or titillate. It was private. To the extent that one person’s perspective and recording of the days can be honest, her account was.

THE GOOD

A Midwife’s Tale covers a range of topics. That’s part of its difficulty; it’s very broad. We learn about birth, medicine, illness and death, as one might expect from the diary of a midwife. We also learn about economics, debtors’ prison, family, the religious and political conflicts of colonial New England, sexuality, and crime.

Women of Martha’s era were tough. They had babies every other year, and said births typically kept them in bed for a week. They managed their own money, managed gardening and cloth making. Martha continued deliveries until her death at age 77, staying up long hours and traveling through all weather. She didn’t even begin her career until she was 50.

Colonial Maine is full of family squabbles, politics, and trysts. History is less chaste than we imagine when it’s recorded honestly; 38% of firstborns that Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. A few women even have multiple children out of wedlock, failing to marry at all. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, they are part of society too, and the fathers of their children are on the hook for support.

Martha moved to Hallowell at the beginning of the American experiment, and her life was full of changes from this. Her landlord had to flee to Canada for being a loyalist. She switches from shillings to dollars in her transactions. The town of Hallowell grew continuously while she lived there; it gave her much of her work. And the economics of her region changed with time. Her nephew was part of the Malta War, caused by economics conflicts of the Plymouth Company owning massive amounts of land and people chafing under this yolk.

THE BAD

This seems to be a recurring complaint for me, but there were too many people to keep track of. Is it too much to ask for a glossary of characters? This was especially bad in A Midwife’s Tale; people were referred to by more than one name or, with Martha’s tenuous grasp on spelling, said name could be spelled half a dozen different ways. Also, Martha had a large family and I totally lost track of who was related to her. A family tree would have been an asset.

A Midwife’s Tale is a slow and challenging read. Because Ulrich has to make (extremely well-researched) inferences, the details are presented with qualifications and caveats. While I appreciated the insight into the process of teasing  out the truth, it impacted the narrative flow substantially. This is less of a “bad thing” and more of a warning–this book makes the reader work.

 

OVERALL

This isn’t a book that tells you the narrative of a single event; it gives perspective on the lives of ordinary people as they traversed the many events of this time period. Life was complicated, but in many ways that are still recognizable today.

If you ever wonder about time travel, this book is probably one of the closest things we have to living a woman’s life in colonial Maine. It’s a unique work on a unique document and seems likely to be as timeless as the source document.

New Mexico History: The Battle of Columbus

Last week was the 100th anniversary of the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram (1/19/1917), in which Germany encouraged Mexico to attack the United States to keep them from participating in WW1. Ironically, the interception contributed to the United States entering the war in April. When we learned about the telegram in school as a child, the idea of Mexico attacking the US sounded laughable. In fact, Pancho Villa had attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico nine months before. At the time of the Zimmermann Telegram, General John Pershing was hunting Villa in northern Mexico in the “Punitive Expedition.”

At the time of the Battle of Columbus, Mexico was several years into the Mexican Revolution. After 35 years, the presidency of Porfirio Díaz collapsed in 1911. A string of leaders followed; Francisco Madero ruled from 1911 until his assassination in 1913. Victoriano Huerto and Venustiano Carranza controlled different parts of Mexico in 1913-1914. In 1914, the United States assaulted the port of Veracruz, with Wilson stating his desire to overthrow Huerta. The United States then supported the presidency of Pancho Villa’s rival, Carranza.

The reasons for the Battle of Columbus aren’t fully clear, but they were probably partially motivated by Villa’s need for munitions and by his irritation that the United States was supporting his rival. Early on March 9, 1916, Villa attacked Columbus with 500 men. The raid didn’t go well for Villa. 90-170 of his men are estimated to have died. President Wilson sent General Pershing into Mexico to hunt for Villa for nearly a year. He evaded capture and entered pop culture fame. At the close of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, he agreed to retire to the country. He was assassinated in 1923 after re-involving himself in politics.