Book Review: The Mighty Revolution, by Charles Lewis Wagandt

My purpose in reading this book was to learn more about the revolution of popular opinion against slavery that took place before and during the Civil War. The abolition of slavery by the adoption of a new state constitution in Maryland would count as a critical example of this shifting in opinion, presumably an inspiring one.

The Mighty Revolution certainly provides many of the facts attendant to this shift, but the presentation of them falls somewhat short of inspiring. Wagandt’s focus is the political realm of electoral hustings, factions, and patronage. The idealism is largely left out. There is more information here about schemes to capture the comptroller’s office than there are meditations on the meaning of freedom. Of course, idealism often depends upon pragmatism for its advancement, and The Mighty Revolution offers a detailed illustration of how ideas become reality in this country. We Americans should probably be grateful that we are able to alter our destiny by means of backroom deals and ambiguously-worded ballot initiatives, without recourse to the guillotine.

The narrative of The Mighty Revolution hinges upon three turning points. The latter two are elections: the November 4, 1863 election for state legislature and other offices that was marred by army interference; and the October 12-13, 1864 vote on the new constitution, abolishing slavery, that carried only after soldiers’ absentee votes were counted. Again, it’s not a very rousing story. The fact that the emancipationist effort succeeded in the 1863 election in part because of the lack of a secret ballot (the emancipationist party ballots were yellow, permitting the army to discard others) does not exactly inspire one to plan an additional Thanksgiving dinner — although it does say a lot about the commitment of the boys in blue.

The earlier and perhaps most important turning point is the April 20, 1863 mass meeting of the Union League at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, which does indeed herald the popular shift against slavery. “Never before in the war,” Wagandt writes, “had emancipation sentiments been advanced at a public meeting.” (p. 99) The Union League was “a civilian organization of obscure origins” that swelled as the war progressed. By 1863,

the Union Leagues extended their spheres of operations into the political arena….Preservation of the nation involved the fierce debate over slavery, a debate which found no sympathy in the conservative leadership of the Union Party [Maryland’s version of the Republican Party]. This created a need for some organized expression of aims among those who wished to move with, rather than against, the revolutionary times….Then there were politicians within the organization who tried to capitalize upon the League to further their ambitions.” (pp. 97-98)

The balance of Wagandt’s narrative describes the machinations of these ambitious politicians. As they “capitalized” upon the emancipationist sentiment of the League, they crystalized it and made it a reality. Such is the ugly beauty of our system.

Both in Maryland’s Civil War history and in Wagandt’s recounting of it, the focus on pragmatism over idealism affords only scattered suggestions that the white Marylander’s hatred of slavery translated into affection or even sympathy for the slave. In the early 1864 debate in the Maryland General Assembly that led to the constitutional convention, Henry S. Stockbridge, citing a letter from a former slave-owner’s son, asserted that abolition should be pursued because “it is right. Right between man and man – right before God.” (p. 194) A subsequent newspaper editorial called slavery “a great moral wrong, injurious to both master and slave.” (p. 203) A delegate to the constitutional convention named Frederick Schley voted in favor of the abolition article for reasons of “patriotism, justice, and humanity,” as well as for Maryland “honor” and popular “welfare.” (p. 225) Often it seems that Wagandt may be glossing over Marylanders’ anti-slavery arguments, perhaps in the belief that they are obvious and well-known, and perhaps because he’s more interested in the political maneuverings anyway.

For the most part, as emerges in these pages, the rationale behind Marylanders’ overthrow of slavery is couched in terms of class warfare and political jealousy. At their April 20, 1863 meeting, Union League members denounced slavery as “an instrument in the hands of traitors to build an oligarchy…on the ruins of republican liberty;” and they resolved “That the safety and interest of…Maryland, and especially of her white laboring people, require that Slavery should cease to be recognized by the law of Maryland.” (p. 99)

This refrain, that abolition was advanced as something that was good for certain white people, rings constantly throughout the book. No egalitarian sentiments are shown here to have been expressed, except in one ironic case:  Radical candidates from Allegany County in the vote on the constitutional convention on April 6, 1864 were said to have been “the real friends of the colored people” – by their opponents, and they subsequently spent much energy to deny the slander. (p. 217)

Still, for all the denial of common humanity that seems to have been necessary for its success, the overthrow of slavery was a success, and thus The Mighty Revolution should be counted as a valuable case study of the working reality of freedom.

Book Review: Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young Poet, by Yang Mu

Memories of Mount Qilai is a prose poem based on youthful reminiscences of Hualien and other places in eastern Taiwan. It (via this translation) is very beautiful and hypnotic, so much so that it will often make you think of other things, until you are turning the pages without absorbing or even reading the words. Yang Mu is an excellent poet, and some of his conventional, individual works are included here, including (from p. 159):

Carrying an oil paper umbrella
alone, I make my way down a
long, long and lonely lane in the rain,
pacing back and forth, hoping to encounter a
young woman knotted with sadness and hate
like a bud of lilac

However, if the cited shorter poems are emotionally compressed, with a high ratio of meaning to word, the prose poetry of the overall book is the opposite: meandering and unfocused, rather obscure. A chapter toward the end concerning a friend who committed suicide never seems to come to any point of power or intensity.

Still, though, some passages will differentiate themselves from the meandering flow and make an impression on you, such as (on p. 201)

The sound I heard, beyond being entangled in my own questioning, was the sound of bicycles braking high on the slope above the north end of the bridge, the sound of bicycle chains.

I knew it was the sound of school being let out. They must have lowered the flag, listened to the speech of exhortation, dispersed, and set off for home. Nine hundred male students were surging out, swinging identical book bags in the same color and with the same weight, their hats on their heads, in their hands, or, like mine, thrust into their book bags. I didn’t attend the flag-lowering ceremony today. Starting around noon, I couldn’t sit still, as a strange, unformed melody floated through my mind, as if from the other side of a high, dark, ancient wall someone abandoned himself to chanting for me a fragmented but still special and recognizable song of prudence, pronouncing words that were difficult to understand but occasionally stressing a certain expression, seemingly also what I frequently heard between sleep and wakefulness. I looked around me: the distant sky, sea, prostrate mountains, the aged banyan tree, hibiscus, canna lilies, and the beehive under the eaves, steadily growing larger by the day. ‘How am I to let go, be free, release myself, and be different from others?’ I repeatedly asked myself such silly questions and then when totally exhausted, ‘How can I prove that I am different from others?’ The blackboard was covered with proper nouns: ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ ‘feudal lord,’ ‘serf,’ ‘guild,’ ‘Galileo,’ ‘isolationism,’ and ‘indulgence.’

Of course, poetry is the best proof that one is different from others. In a passion of ‘unsociable eccentricity’ (on p. 142), Yang asserts, ‘My form of expression is my own….This is the best. No one else has come up with it before; it belongs entirely to me, appropriate, exact, and effective.’

Yang’s book is subtitled ‘The Education of a Young Poet.’

Book Review: “Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson,” by Agnes Grinstead Anderson

This book reveals what it’s like to be married to a mad genius. The author, “Sissy” Grinstead Anderson was Walter Anderson’s long-suffering wife. The text is her own reconstruction of diaries she’d previously burned, a fact which may convey a bit of the ambivalence she must have felt about sharing the fraught experience of her marriage. Evidently, she decided in the end on complete candor, and the result is very powerful.

Anderson remains my favorite artist, despite what I learned from reading this book. I suppose my prior understanding of him was that of a tourist (I am a frequent visitor to his namesake art museum in his adopted hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi), and I would often describe him to friends as a little “touched.” I learn from Sissy’s account, however, that he was neglectful and violent, far beyond what one would expect from an amiable eccentric. Perhaps this book will lead some readers to obsess on whether it’s permissible to enjoy his art, considering what a terrible husband (and father) he was; but I don’t believe the human experience is so neat, and the paradox is fitting that a man whose art has made me feel euphoric was also the creator of great pain and trouble for his own family.

Accordingly, one of my favorite parts of the book is toward the end, after the death of Walter (known as Bob), when Sissy, on exploring the house where he lived alone, discovers the “little room” (preserved and on display at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art), which he’d consecrated as a temple to the sun, replete with murals showing all God’s creation in its fluttering, creeping, and crawling sublimity. “The room is full of the presence of the Creator,” Sissy writes, “not the artist, although he is surely there, but God.”

Bob had kept the room padlocked. (p. 175)

Elsewhere: “I know now that the alienated must seek forever the means of reentry into the world of man. Bob was seeking, for some reason, through the simpler world of animals. ‘Dogs, cats, birds are holes in heaven through which man may pass,’ he said.” (p. 84)

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Book Review: Tap Roots, by James Street

I read Tap Roots hoping for an American story about the struggle for freedom and also for an always-timely memorial to Southern Unionism. I was partly rewarded by passages like this one:

Never was a stranger assembly gathered…. Scots and Irish, English and Germans, Cajuns and two Negroes — a tiny melting pot that must be tried by fire to prove to mankind that fire and blood can melt all races and blend them into a new being…. The scum of the South was represented. Fire can purify scum. The illiterate, the suspicious — they were there, too. Deserters and draft dodgers, abolitionists and Unionists — five hundred men with nothing in common except a burning fervor for freedom as they understood freedom.

(That last phrase, “as they understood freedom,” is pretty ominous, especially in a story about the Civil War South.)

For the most part, however, author James Street, despite his eagerness to tell the story of Southern Unionists and abolitionists, does so as a Southern and not as an American patriot, and no love of freedom can supersede his hatred for the Yankee. His unwillingness to concede the moral high ground to the Union spoils his narrative of Southern Unionists, whom he might otherwise have portrayed as standing on that same moral high ground. His “Unionists” are really only succeeding from the Confederacy, not remaining loyal to the Union, because, although the South was wrong, the North could not have been right. Therefore, Street’s novel ends up being not all that different from the usual Confederate apologia, brimming with assertions that Lincoln was a mere schemer, that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves, and even that Southern abolitionists were better than Northern ones. The latter group garners the vast majority of Street’s ire. Through his characters, he mocks the idea that his protagonists, Southern abolitionists, would have found common cause with their Northern counterparts, over something as obvious as a revulsion toward slavery:

Hoab said, ‘Some of our Tennessee members think we should join forces with the Yankee abolitionists. They say there is strength in union.’ ‘They are loonies,’ Keith said. ‘The Northern abolitionists are fools and we know it. Somebody ought to shoot Sumner. He’s doing our cause more harm than John Brown.’

In fact, nobody comes in for nastier abuse in this book than Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Henry Ward Beecher.

Of course, the ironic thing is that Street could have better vindicated the South by hating the Yankees less and developing his own Southern characters more as Americans with a universal conception of freedom. Alas, the defensive tone prevails. Street’s bitterness is that of the proud man (or child), directed against those who would expose his faults, faults of which he is well aware, which he insists he will address in his own sweet time, but which no outsiders can raise a peep about — especially since they’re just as bad, nyah nyah n’nyah nyah. I am reminded that Indian nationalism only took shape after the British banned the burning of widows in India. For fueling aggrievement, nothing beats being wrong.

Oddly, Street’s peevishness occasionally attains Marxist dimensions, as in:

‘I know and you know that slavery is not the root of this situation. We are going through another phase of our Revolution. Of course, slavery is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s as wrong to own a man as it is to work a child fourteen hours a day as they do in Massachusetts. But that’s not the point. the real clash is between artisans and farmers, the age-old clash of manufacturers and people who build up an agrarian culture, such as the South’s.’

and:

‘Queen Victoria’s antagonism for slavery has nothing to do with it. The English merchants who really rule that land will brush her aside if necessary.’

On reflection, it appears to me that Street’s coincidental Marxism makes sense. The theory of historical materialism is fully in keeping with the spiteful Southerner’s project of removing all morality and idealism from history, a project he takes on because he can claim neither for himself. If he can’t have the moral high ground, then no one else will, dammit. The idea that money makes the world go around is the common coin of all cynical minds.

Review of C.V. Wedgwood’s William the Silent

Given how thoroughly I was inspired by C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, it’s odd that I waited thirty-three years to read another of her books. Perhaps I didn’t think that anything could mean so much to me again, and I suppose it’s true that my susceptibility to inspiration was much greater when I was a recent high school graduate (when I read The Thirty Years War) than it is today. Having become set in my ways and no longer in the market for inspiration, I kept Ms. Wedgwood on the shelf, as it were, like a medicine I didn’t need. All this time, though, I never forgot her, sitting up there; and so finally, desiring nothing more than the pleasant buzz of a good read, I fetched her down, twisted off her safety cap, and fished out her 1944 opus, William the Silent.  Of course, I found it very inspiring, as all great work is.

William the Silent is set about a half century before The Thirty Years War and serves as a prequel to it. It narrates the first phases of the Netherlands revolt against Spanish rule, which began in 1566 and which did in fact contribute to the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. The conflicts that dominated the general age overlapped in their religious, political, social, and other aspects, and Ms. Wedgwood deals with the complexity equally well in both of her books. A typical passage from William the Silent includes the phrases “Whether Protestants or Catholics…controlled the French crown, the French monarchy remained the chief potential enemy of the King of Spain in Europe…. The religious issue, the fact that the Kings of France and Spain were both Catholics, was misleading.” (p. 150 of the 1960 edition) The chief overlapping conflicts, of course, were the religious and the political, and the question of which conflict would finally take precedence is, as Wedgwood shows, the key issue in the formative history of the Netherlands.

As to what determined how these conflicts would be resolved – in other words, what drives history – Ms. Wedgwood pays only lip service to materialist considerations. “At all times,” she writes, “some men will be moved by deep spiritual motives incomprehensible to the materialist, unpredictable and inexplicable in terms of politics and economics. It adds something to knowledge to know the economic thrust behind the Reformation, but it diminishes knowledge to see that and nothing else.” (p. 26) The prime movers of Ms. Wedgwood’s history are not economic forces but human beings. Elucidating their motivations is Wedgwood’s forte. She is no social scientist or statistician but a storyteller, and the story she tells is rich in drama.

The central character of William the Silent is its namesake. William of Nassau spent his childhood in the German county of that name and was educated according to the “rigid moral code, sincere, generous, and simple,” of his Lutheran mother, Juliana (pp. 10-11). As imbibed by William, this brand of morality remained a private affair and never mutated into the sectarian fanaticism that marked many of his contemporaries. At age eleven, by the unexpected death of his cousin René, he inherited the principality of Orange, in France, together with René’s more significant holdings in the Netherlands, and it was in the latter country that William grew to manhood as a rich, affable, Catholic aristocrat, ward and courtier to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-1556), who counted the Netherlands among his many dominions. William might have remained a courtier, had not Charles been succeeded by his intolerant son Philip, who ruled the Netherlands from Spain as King Philip II and who began scheming to purge the Netherlands of heresy. William of Nassau/Orange earned the sobriquet “The Silent” as he listened, appalled but passing no comment, to the French King Henry II’s divulging of Philip’s plans.

As Wedgwood asserts, William was temperamentally opposed to religious persecution. “He could never fully believe that God was either so cruel or so unreasonable as to damn men for their opinions.” His reaction to Philip’s policy was “not one of outraged religious feelings (he was a Catholic, so how could it have been?) but of outraged humanity. It seemed to him an unprovoked attack on a decent and trusting people.” In other words, Wedgwood concludes, it was “an immoral act politically [emphasis hers], contrary to the sworn duty of a King, whose function is to protect his people. He decided, then, not to champion the Protestants but to eliminate Spanish influence in the Netherlands, two very different things.” (p. 60) The balance of Wedgwood’s book measures William’s success at re-framing the religious conflict as a political (or national) one, as he sought to create in the Netherlands a liberal polity, tolerant of all sectarian beliefs.

It is not giving too much away to say that William largely failed in this endeavor. He was that most tragic of types: a man ahead of his time. “Even among his closest friends, even in his own family,” Wedgwood writes, “his religious position was regarded as unsound. His widely tolerant views met with no sympathy whatever.” (p. 194) In fact, despite his dream of a religiously-pluralistic Netherlands, William often found himself with little alternative but to resort to sectarian expedients in order to realize it. One wonders if Lord Acton (1834-1902) did not have William in mind when he observed that “friends of freedom have been rare” and that they are often forced to “associate themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differ from their own.” In William’s case, he came to understand “that only the narrow, intolerant, and fanatical can fight the narrow, intolerant, and fanatical” (p. 110); and he thereupon turned to the Calvinists, adopting their forms of worship personally and encouraging their militancy. As William hoped, Calvinism would become the servant and not the master of the national cause. “Holland was his fortress and the Calvinists his advance-guard, but from this base, he sought to bring once more into being the free, united Netherlands.” (pp. 127-128)

But the Calvinists, like most people, were more interested in their own power than in abstract notions of freedom and unity. They rampaged through Antwerp and other towns in 1566 and in Ghent in 1577, sacking Catholic churches and oppressing the Catholic citizenry. (pp. 85, 87-89, 183, 192) Contrary to William’s wishes, “the religious problem submerged the national” and “the Netherlands against Spain became the Calvinists against the Catholics,” as the Calvinist north and Catholic south drifted apart. (pp. 178-179, 199) William’s last desperate attempt to maintain cohesion was to place the country under the protectorship of the French (and therefore anti-Spanish) Catholic Francis of Anjou (1555-1584), but the latter proved to be as petty a man of the times as William was a great man in advance of them, and the project failed. By the time William passed from the scene, he had indeed fathered the future United Provinces (or “Holland”), but the greater Netherlands of his hopes remained unrealized. (The lost southern provinces became the separate nations of Belgium and Luxembourg.)

For having created two (or three) sectarian states, when he had wanted to create one inclusive state, William resembles Gandhi, who imagined one tolerant India but who got instead the religiously partitioned India and Pakistan. For having expended all the energy of his adult lifetime in the leadership of a disparate assemblage of self-determined peoples, William resembles Washington. Throughout her book, Wedgwood shows him constantly persuading, negotiating, compromising, and begging, usually before the proto-democratic estates of the various provinces or the Estates General. He always adhered to their forms and never abused the power they granted him. On the contrary, he worked himself half to death for them, prompting one contemporary to observe, “So charged with affairs of state, with labors and toils and troubles of all kinds from morning to night, he has no time even to breathe. (p. 158)

Even toward Philip, he upheld his loyalty for as long as possible, preferring only to remonstrate on behalf of the Netherlands’s ancient rights, until he became a reluctant rebel. However, it is his loyalty to his social inferiors in the provinces and towns that raises for us the most interesting issues. Viewing through William’s eyes his constituents, who were simultaneously his masters, Wedgwood notes that “They lacked education, vision, political experience. He did not naturally expect such gifts of the whole populace, for what sane politician does? But he could have wished for more of them among the middle and upper classes, on whose consent his authority was based.” It was of course the common people and their middle and upper class demagogues who thwarted William’s great plans for a liberal nation in which they could all peacefully live; and even in the defense of their own cities they were uncooperative, refusing, for example, his suggestions to lay in stores of food in anticipation of sieges. (p. 149) The various representative estates were chronically slow to provision the army, its members daring not to act until subordinate assemblies gave their approval. The problem, according to Wedgwood, was that “Burghers and lesser men were in control of the Estates, a group more representative of the country’s needs and interests, but still unused to the power which circumstance had given them, seeking always to diffuse and transfer the ultimate responsibility.” And then she says it:

There is something to be said for the easy assurance of those who have been born to rule; in a time of emergency a certain fearlessness, a certain indifference to criticism, is essential. Strongly as William believed in representative government, religiously as he laid his every action open to the Estates and the cities, behind all he did was an absolute self-confidence, the natural gift of the man who, from childhood, has expected to take weighty and responsible decisions on his own authority. (pp. 208-209)

Is Dame Wedgwood advocating here for aristocratic governance? It might seem that she is, in her book about a great man whose constituents didn’t deserve him. However, despite the phrase “born to rule,” Wedgewood is referring to virtues that were not in fact shared by the titled aristocracy and that were (and are) attainable to commoners. At most, she is extoling a natural aristocracy. As we know from the rest of her book, moreover, William’s career was that of a modern politician, not a medieval lord. He disposed of no serfs and commanded no vassals but was instead forced to appeal both to representative assemblies and to popular opinion. Above all, though, Wedgwood clearly admires William for more than his decisive leadership style. She admires him, rather, for his overriding liberality. In this respect, he was exceptional, even among aristocrats.

For all William did for his people and for all people, one of his greatest and most representative acts, in Wedgwood’s telling, came after the lifting of the siege of Leyden in 1574:

It was a moment for joy-bells, for speeches and congratulations, and the striking of commemorative medals. The relief of Leyden was something which must be remembered through all the ages, and by what monument could this be achieved? In his choice William revealed the constructive genius of his mind. The erection of a column, or the striking of a coin, means little enough ten years later. He sought instead a living monument which would grow with the reborn nation, and enlarge and refresh its national life. To commemorate the liberation of Leyden, he founded her great University, offering thus in the midst of war and destruction, of change and violence, a salute to the things which are true and enduring, the freedom of mind and the intellectual liberty for which he was fighting. (148)

As brought to life by C.V. Wedgewood, William the Silent is not just an aristocrat. He is a hero, just as C.V. Wedgewood is one of mine.