Book Review: Northwood, or Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

Written in open anticipation of the Civil War, Northwood, or Life North and South (1852) posits basic differences in character between Yankees and Southrons. Some character traits are caused by geography and climate, as in:

The universal necessity for constant labor or application to business, which yet happily exists in the New England States, contributes, perhaps more than any other cause, to preserve the purity of morals which distinguishes the inhabitants of that section of our country. Had the Puritans and their descendants been fed with manna and fattened with quails in their wilderness, they would, doubtless, long before this, have spurned the hand that bestowed the unsought favors. (p. 240)

In some cases, the climatic factor gives way to the social:

‘Your cool climate keeps your temperament cool; and the perfect equality subsisting in your society makes the controlling of the passions more indispensable than with us, where the overflowings of wrath may be poured out on the heads, and bodies too, of unresisting menials.’ (pp. 205-206)

The novel’s protagonist, Sidney Romilly, shifts back and forth between New Hampshire and South Carolina and thus tries both halves of the experiment on himself. The results he relates in a letter to an English friend:

‘As a fair parallel I will mention Napoleon the Great. Like him I was taken from humble life, to be the heir of a sovereignty; make what exceptions you please to my use of the term sovereignty, the southern slaveholder is as absolute in his dominions, or plantation rather, as the grand seignior, and when I had become accustomed to command, and my mind was weakened by indolence and enervated by dissipation, I was suddenly thrown back to my former insignificance, and compelled to dig for my daily bread. “O, what a falling off was there!”…. [However,] the activity which we are compelled by our situation to exert…operates to dispel the gloom of grief. Employment is an excellent comforter, and fatigue the best opiate in the world. I never slept so soundly since my childhood, and my slumbers are most refreshing. I awaken in the morning without any solicitude save just the business of the farm. I have no appointments to keep or engagements to escape, no punctilios of honor or intrigues of love. In short, could I fairly forget the last dozen years of my life, I think I might now enjoy the best felicity of which mortal men can, on earth, be partakers.’ (pp. 324-326)

Northwood’s author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, directly addresses the problem of slavery only toward the end of the book. While against the institution – as something that is bad for white people – she is equally against its violent overthrow and rather dreams, somewhat like Gandhi, of a swelling of (Christian) soul force that will compel slave-owners of their own accord to manumit their menials, educate and evangelize them, and then allow them to colonize and Christianize Africa. She holds no belief in racial equality (or amalgamation) and supposes black and white coexistence in America to be impossible.

Otherwise, Northwood is chock-full of little bits of wisdom I’m more prepared to accept. For example, it rebukes me for excessive romanticism by commenting favorably that a certain love-letter “was not an unmeaning rhapsody – alternately fire and frost; now breathing out his affections and now lamenting his destiny”… but rather addressed to the lady “as his friend and therefore entitled to his confidence – as a reasoning being and therefore able to understand his situation and assist him with her counsel.” (p. 207) It chides me too for my regrettable Machiavellian conception of respect, when it quotes Sidney’s report that “‘I am more respected and less feared; better, far better beloved, yet less flattered; have fewer followers and firmer friends.’” (p. 340)

In refutation both of Machiavelli and of the Chinese philosopher Han Fei, it supplies the Christian argument that love is superior to law: “Even God, reverently speaking, could not, by force, compel His rational creatures to be, in heart and soul, obedient to His law. Therefore, He sent His beloved Son to die for us, and thus, by His love, to move us to love, which includes obedience in return.” (p. 394)

Finally, the book has a few things to say about the general struggle between equality and aristocracy. On the one hand, it heralds the bitter reaction of the latter against the former that, in my humble opinion, has given rise to all totalitarian doctrine from Marxism to Nazism and that has constituted the chief driving force of history since the mid-nineteenth century:

‘Neither is it strange that the aristocratical spirit of the old world should be alarmed and revolt at the democratical influence which the new is so rapidly obtaining. We cannot expect those who pride themselves on an ancestry, whose pure blood has flowed through proud veins for many hundred years, will forget at once this fancied superiority, and look on what they call our plebian origin, without feelings of contempt.’

On the other hand – or perhaps on the same hand – these pages also note the development of a pseudo-aristocracy, arising among the plebians, that may, in spite of its origins, exemplify the reaction of the aristocratical spirit against the democratical one:

‘I do think the real English gentleman has more of dignity, and less of arrogance, than our purse-bound citizens. The Englishman is more proud, perhaps, but is free from that puffing consequence which is the most offensive part of the folly in our own countrymen. This may arise from the superiority of the former being established and acknowledged, whereas our own gentlemen are continually striving to maintain their precarious honors, and seem determined, by making the most of what they happen to possess, to indemnify themselves for the transientness of its continuance.’ (pp. 244-245)

It is ultimately the totalitarian, in his twentieth-century guise, who seeks to “maintain precarious honors” and indemnify himself against the transientness of democratical society by reimposing upon it a fixed hierarchial order, with himself at its apex.

In the meantime, the pseudo-aristocrats of Northwood, are described by Hale consistently as people of fashion. Examples of her use of the term are almost beyond counting:

His appearance, rank, and fortune, made his alliance a prize not lightly to be rejected by people of fashion. (p. 182)

Thus gently and almost imperceptibly, Stuart was loosening the chains which fashion had twined around our hero and restoring him to the freedom of that rational enjoyment which his soul was formed to appreciate but for which the Circean cup of luxury had nearly destroyed his relish. (p. 237)

Now he must put forth his own strength and depend on his own exertions. Yet strange as it may seem to those who connect felicity only with wealth, splendor, and distinction, he was never, in the proudest moment of his prosperity, when he was the star of fashion and minion of fortune, so cheerfully and equally happy as now, while confined to labor and living in obscurity. (p. 323)

He whispered to Sidney in great confidence that he fancied Miss Redington’s accession of wealth had already begun to make her dissatisfied with a residence in that unfashionable place and that he presumed she would soon depart for Boston. (p. 332)

I’ve always found fashion to be imposingly hierarchial, a ready means by which even Americans, who lack a true aristocracy, strive to concoct a false one. It’s therefore confirming to see how often Hale presents fashion as the antithesis of New England’s virtuous, egalitarian simplicity.

Book Review: Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer

As our republic is ground to nothing between the boulders of socialism and populism – the abyssus abyssum invocat of our two-party system – it seems pointless except as an act of masochism to read anything about its founding and early history. Our institutions of freedom have been so glibly discarded that books about them can amount only to quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, immersion in which would make anyone weak and weary indeed.

Neverthehoo, old habits die hard, and this year, with a gap in my reading list and with July Fourth approaching, I decided to re-read David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, which I’d assigned myself as a morale-booster in the years after 9/11. (External blows stimulated my interest in the history of American freedom; self-inflicted ones killed it.) I’d remembered Fischer’s book for its stress on the ideological aspect of the Revolution and can now report that my memory was in this case true. Washington’s Crossing illustrates how different people (not just British, Germans, and Americans but different groups of Americans such as New Englanders, Virginians, and backwoodsmen) took different views of freedom and related it differently to ideals of equality and social order. My favorite players in this story are the Philadelphia Associators, radical egalitarians, who went so far as to design their uniform to “level all distinctions.” (p. 27)

An important subplot of the book details how George Washington, accustomed to believe in “liberty [within] a system of stratification” (p. 14), became general of an army composed of men (like the Associators) who saw freedom in a different light. As such, Fischer’s book is a study of leadership. Now, leadership today has become something of a fetish, with a cottage industry of how-to courses and its own section in the bookstore. Understood vaguely, leadership can encompass both democratic and undemocratic modes of motivation. Washington’s stereotypical embodiment of leadership is something that should be subjected – as it is in this book – to careful analysis, to yield a more precise conception of how it should function in a democratic society. Fischer’s book starts with an image of Washington as leader – the one in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware – in which he is shown with a telescope, symbolizing “a statesman’s vision.” (p. 2) Someone who leads by virtue of his unique sense of vision calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Socrates opines that only he with the true view of reality is qualified to be king. Indeed it was quite common in the before time to believe that kings were crowned by a special endowment such as vision, and I hope that readers of this review know that such a belief is as obsolete as kings are themselves.

Thankfully, Fischer uses the picture of Washington as the true-seeing leader only as a starting point and argues in the rest of his book that the real Washington was a leader of a different sort. At one point, he distinguishes democratic leadership from its non-democratic cousins by quoting Washington himself: “A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove.” (p. 6) At another two places, Fischer draws important distinctions in his own words, remarking that Washington functioned “not only as a leader but a comrade in arms” and “more as a leader than a commander.” (pp. 251, 366) Elsewhere, Fischer employs a qualifier (“consultative leadership”), provides an example (“It was typical of Washington’s style of leadership to present a promising proposal as someone’s else’s idea”), and uses words besides “leading” to describe what Washington was doing (“listening, responding, encouraging, persuading.”) (pp. 265-266)

Since Fischer takes such pains to define Washington’s mode of leadership so narrowly, to the point of having to find better words for it, the reader may conclude that it scarcely warrants the term. (As for Washington’s using other people’s ideas, Fischer reports that the plan to attack at Trenton may have originated with Washington’s adjutant, Joseph Reed, and that the campaign that led to both second Trenton and Princeton was opened by the Associators – and not the officers but the men. If true, these cases stretch the definition of leadership about as far as it can go. [pp. 201-203, 265]) In fact, leadership has long been understood as a paradox, something so dependent on subtlety that it only functions in the absence of its assertion. Laozi’s injunction to “preside yet not control” (Daodejing, ch. 10) is typical of this paradox and seems to anticipate Washington.

The issue with Washington was that he initially failed to grasp leadership’s paradoxical nature and was thus forced to learn on the job. The first part of Fischer’s book is a catalogue of his slowness to learn. He ordered his troops not to plunder farmers, to no avail. He forbade them from visiting prostitutes, with the same result. He insisted that the Connecticut Light Horsemen get rid of their mounts and serve as infantry, causing them, after a brief period of conditional obedience, to leave the army (thereby depriving it of their service as scouts).  (pp. 85-86) Encountering a group of militiamen fleeing the British at Kip’s Bay, Washington beat their officers and dashed his hat on the ground. (p. 104)

The main crisis occurred on the eve of second Trenton, when many soldiers’ enlistments were set to expire. Washington’s expression of vexation on the occasion is interesting for its repetition of the word liberty, once as a cause and once as a curse: “‘The great and radical Evil which pervades our whole System & like an Ax at the Tree of our safety, Interest, and Liberty here again shews its baleful influence – Tomorrow the Continental Troops are all at liberty.’” (p. 270)

“If Washington hoped to remain in the field,” Fischer notes, “he had to persuade some of his veterans to stay with him.” In the event, Washington resorted to bribery and begging, authorizing a ten dollar bounty for an additional six weeks of service (another idea borrowed from someone else) and imploring his men,

‘My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with the fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.’

Two such appeals were necessary, and even then the deciding factor was individual soldiers encouraging each other to stay. As Fischer summarizes, “Only a few days before, Washington was infuriated with these men and ready to clap some of them in irons. Now he was leading them in another way. This gentleman of Virginia was learning to treat a brigade of New England Yankee farmboys and fishermen as men of honor, who were entitled to equality of esteem.”  (pp. 271-273)

There’s at least a little bit of American exceptionalism operating here. For a gentleman to address once-thought-of inferiors as fellow gentlemen and to give up commanding in favor of entreating them was truly extraordinary. (Fischer discusses the evolving use of the term gentlemen and shows that the deemphasizing of formal status and prevalence of consultative leadership would have been unthinkable in British ranks. [pp. 273, 315-316, 331]) Washington could only resign himself to egalitarianism in a polyglot Yankee society in which no one was entitled to tell another what to do. Others were forced to accommodate as well. The immigrant officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben wrote home to a Prussian friend, “You say to your soldier ‘Do this and he doeth it’; but I am obliged to say [to the American soldier]: ‘This is the reason you ought to do that’: and then he does it.” ( Sometime later, we are told, Abraham Lincoln, as a militia captain, once issued an order, only to be told to go to hell. (

For this reminder that, in spite of everything, Americans can’t be driven like cattle (and often, as we are daily reminded, speak out of turn), I’m grateful for my Fourth of July reading.