Saturday, January 29, 2011

Charles Calhoun, Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail

Ever since I read Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy I have been waiting for a book of equal detail for the gilded age and progressive era, a time frame that is more-or-less my professional focus. I doubt that such book will ever be written. No publisher would risk such a fat tome on such a small audience. The last large book covering the gilded age was probably H.W. Morgan's From Hayes to McKinley. Since then there have been few books covering only the politics of the Gilded Age and they have lacked the detail and breadth of Wilentz's similar treatment of the early period. Richard Cherney's American Politics in the Gilded Age springs to mind, but that was published in 1997. Therefore, I was very excited to see that Charles Calhoun recently wrote a general survey of the political history of the period entitled Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail. As no brick and mortar bookstore carried it, I ordered Calhoun's book online.

Overall I really liked Calhoun's treatment of the era. He is something of a revisionist on Ulysses Grant, a group I count myself standing among. Earlier historians, such as Allan Nevins, were overly influenced by their mugwump sources and took a reflexively anti-Grant position. Nevins's classic biography of of Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish is an excellent example of this historiographical position. In my opinion these historians (and I have a lot of respect for Nevins) honed in too much on the Henry Adams talking points about Grant and ignored some of his more positive traits, such as his phenomenal ability to read public opinion, a point Calhoun gives the former general significant credit. Calhoun also is critical (although not overtly) of Grover Cleveland, a figure revered by the aforementioned Nevins. Cleveland liked to portray himself as a new type of politician who placed the needs of the people over those of his party. In fact, Cleveland's record is not as good as he believed. He made the normal patronage compromises other politicians made. In addition, his second term was a total disaster. Herbert Hoover did a much better job fighting the Great Depression than Cleveland did of the early economic catastrophe.

Calhoun does illustrate the unintended consequences of legislation during the era. Two cases illustrate this quite well.  The Pendleton Act, which created a professional civil service a limited patronage appointments, drove political parties to seek more money outside the system from special interest groups. The Lodge Force Bill, which was supposed to make it harder to illegally prevent against African Americans in the south from voting led white regimes in the former confederacy to legally restrict the franchise through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow mechanisms.  

Although I really liked this book I have three criticisms. First, it is way too short, less than 200 pages of text. Perhaps the publisher wanted it short and sweet, but for someone hungering for detail, this book did not deliver. Second, this brevity lead to some short cuts which raises questions by the reader. For example, when covering the 1893 depression Calhoun mentions that foreign investors panicked over the future of the United States currency and cashed in their bonds for gold, leading to a gold drain. However, there is no explanation as to why Europeans would have become so concerned about the future of the American currency. There are a several points like this in the book.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Recent Reads

Stephen Dando-Collins, The Great Fire of Rome.

Dando-Collins sets out to break a few myths. First, Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned. In fact, the Romans were totally unfamiliar with fiddles. What is true is that Nero was away from Rome when the fire spread violently and quickly from the circus maximus (the largest wooden structure of the ancient world) through Rome. When Nero received the first report of the fire, he was not concerned. Rome had fires in the past and he felt local officials could manage without imperial interference. Upon receiving a second, more accurate, report Nero departed for the capital. Second, Nero blamed the new sect of Christians and punished them harshly. Dando-Collins believes that if the repressive scape-goating took place at all, the targets were certainly not Christians, but followers of the Egyptian cult of Isis. They were quite unpopular and, hence, an easy target in Rome. When early Christian monks copied the ancient texts by candlelight they substituted Christians for Isis worshipers. As Dando-Collins points out, Romans in the time of Nero did not know at all of Christians; they did not distinguish followers of Jesus from other Jews. Finally, Dando-Collins paints a favorable portrait of Nero. The emperor made a strong and good faith effort to rebuild Rome after the fire. Romans did not appreciate his efforts because they did not approve of his changes to the building codes and thought their emperor appropriated too much for himself and his gaudy golden palace. Dando-Collins argues that Nero re-built Rome with impressive speed and gusto. If anything, his zeal and demand for money to rebuild Rome in the form of taxation on the provinces led to revolts, including the Jewish revolt. Dando-Collins is convinced that Nero did not start the fires. Others had motives to do so. But, the people were disposed to believe their emperor was capable of such a horrific deed. Why?  Nero was unpopular before the fire because he engaged in the unregal act of competitive singing, music playing, and poetry reading.   When the Gauls revolted, their leader cited the emperor's artistic performances as part of his rationale for challenging the mighty Roman empire. Yes, Nero killed his mother and half brother, but killing rivals was not entirely new in the Roman style of government. Dando-Collins is even more dismissive of Nero's (unearned) reputation for cruelty and repression. Nero did no more than enforce the law. Nothing more, nothing less.

I really enjoyed The Great Fire of Rome and would recommend it to anyone interested in Roman history.

Stacey Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life.

Early Roman historians did a number on Cleopatra. She was a something of a sex-driven witch doctor capable of casting spells, commanding snakes, and poisoning the hearts of men. Schiff seeks a more accurate persona and comes away convinced that Cleopatra was a strong willed queen, capable of subtle diplomacy, familiar with the violent methods of the Ptolemy dynasty, driven to restore the greatness of her realm, and an astute judge of strategy. She understood Egypt's place regarding the growing Roman world and sought to integrate the two in a way that empowered her. One great example of this was mothering Casarian, Julius Caesar's only son. Yes, Cleopatra employed sex as part of her diplomacy. In the end Cleopatra failed. She backed Mark Anthony who performed bizarrely in his civil war against Octavian (some blaming her). Having no desire to be marched through Rome in a triumph she killed herself.

Some reviewers on Amazon commented on how the Schiff went pages without mentioning Cleopatra with the effect of losing sight of the subject. While it is true that there is a lot of background material, it should also be noted that Schiff's central argument is that Cleopatra cannot be understood without this context. She was a product of the Ptolemy dynasty with a distinct method of ruling and her ambition was to restore her kingdom to its former greatness. Regarding long forays into Roman history, she was very much involved in the civil wars. Rome was the lion at the gate and she had to do what she could to keep it at bay. Roman policy was the only really important one for Cleopatra. Egypt's wealth and grain made it impossible for her, or any other ruler, to avoid entaglement in Rome's civil wars. These two influences shaped her life and reign. Instead of feeling lost in superflous material, I felt Schiff did an excellent job of compensating for the lack of material related directly to Cleopatra by vividly creating the physical and intellectual environment she inhabited.