Sunday, June 19, 2016

Crisis in Freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts. By John C. Miller

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were the first successful laws passed in the United States to repress freedom of speech and eject foreign-born citizens from the country. Sponsored by the Federalist Party, and signed into law by President John Adams, these measures were designed to silence the Republican Party and critics of the federal government during a period of hostility with France.

It was conflict in Europe between the young French Republic and monarchist Great Britain which set the stage for passage of these US laws. The pro-British Federalist Party had signed Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain, inciting the ire of the French Republic and that of the pro-French Republican Party. Crisis in Freedom follows the events, beginning with the signing of Jay’s Treaty. John C. Miller proceeds to elucidate the use of the Alien and Sedition acts as an instrument of repression. Newspaper editors and writers were jailed; Americans born in Europe were deported; and several papers ceased to publish. He also examines resistance to these measures that led to the downfall of Adams and the Federalists in the following elections. Subsequently, one witnesses the decline and extinction of this once dominant party in the young USA.

It is a story with a happy ending, which the author presents in story form. Professor Miller’s dedication of his book reveals a decided preference for storytelling: “To Samuel Eliot Morison, in whose hands history becomes enduring literature.” This is not to say that Miller plays loosely with the facts. His narrative is comprehensively researched. The political nuances of the time, and intentions of the players, are fully discussed. Both the structure of the events, and the presentation of the historical figures, reveal the author’s desire to produce a work of history that also has artistic merit. The chapters are numbered in the manner of some novels, rather than titled with subjects. Miller presents the opportunistic villainy of the Federalists, and the heroism of their opposition, in a dramatic genre. In spite of this depiction, one will come away from Crisis in Freedom with an understanding that all is not black-and-white. There were honorable intentions among some Federalists, as well as disreputable behavior by some of their victims. But it’s hard not to cheer for those forces fighting for our First Amendment rights.

Not just the structure of the tale, but also the style of the writing is worth examining. Sometimes Miller is a bit self-conscious that he is creating historical “literature,” and not just plainly representing the past. As a result, he can get carried away with the drama of his narrative. For example, regarding the potential war between France and the US, he says of the Federalists “they resolved to fight gamely to the end…they proposed to show that at least the gentlemen of the United States knew how to die.” (Miller, p. 23). Blinded by the fluidity and passion of his own creation, Miller fails to recognize that the Federalist leaders knew they had no fear of personal bodily injury in combat. Then, as now, politicians sent working-class people into the rain of bullets to defend the brave words of national leaders. Information can become a casualty in historical writing where artistry is prized above empiricism. Fortunately, extravagant flights of words are made infrequent by the author’s conflicting dedication to relate history accurately.

Despite the occasional friction between art and fact, this is a well-told history of events. Miller achieves enough balance between his intentions regarding historical literature and presenting what actually happened. Despite some human error, he generally shows that these factors need not be in conflict. His study of the Alien and Sedition Acts is predominantly told accurately and well.

Miller, John C. Crisis in Freedom. The Alien and Sedition Acts. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Babylonians. An Introduction. By Gwendolyn Leick.

The Babylonians is a bland informative book. It’s the kind of book one would find in a college survey course on ancient Mesopotamian history. But it does fit the requirement if one is seeking a basic introduction to Babylonian civilization. Those who will read this book are primarily undergrads forced to choose an introductory history course, and non-fiction bibliophiles who desire unvarnished knowledge.

The straightforward content is arranged in five chapters. Chapter One presents the natural environment of lower Mesopotamia at the time that it was settled, locating the Babylonians in time and place. There is an important section describing the many thousands of clay tablets discovered by archaeologists. Though this section is out of step with the previous content in Chapter One, it is necessary that the author introduce this element early, given its immense importance to our understanding of this culture. Chapter Two is an overview of Babylonian history in the area from pre-Babylonian times to the end of that civilization (roughly 6000 BC to 323 BC when Alexander the Great dies). Chapter Three delves into the society and economy. Chapter Four is on religion. Chapter Five presents the material culture excavated by archaeologists.

All of the information herein is based upon artifacts and reading the numerous cuneiform tablets discovered at the dig sites. We are immensely fortunate to have such a rich collection of writing to draw upon for our understanding. Content of these tablets range from simple invoices of trade goods, to Hammurabi’s laws, to poetry. Granted, these tablets limit our understanding to the priorities of the wealthy in this culture, and those few who were literate. But having an insight into the thoughts of people who existed 4,000 years ago is invaluable.

Still, as with any ancient civilization, some modern interpretation, theory and guesswork, are necessary. In spite of the record presented by the tablets, there are holes in our picture. Gwendolyn Leick must fill those holes with some conjecture, but she is careful in her efforts. There is very little that one who is not a professional scholar of this period would find controversial in her conclusions. This does not mean that certain individuals will not find reasons to be outraged at various turns. One cannot read about an ancient culture without encountering war, slavery, economic inequality, sexism, divine hierarchy, religious superstition, ethnocentrism and the occasional massacre. It’s all part of our rocky development. There is even a section on a class of transgender priests that will inflame those to the right of the political spectrum (Leick, p. 113). Not to mention the fact that Babylon is presented in the Bible as the epitome of sin; and by current Fundamentalist Christians as an example of neo-pagan excess. But, if one is so thin-skinned as to become upset about a 4,000 year-old transgression of one’s personal values, then one richly deserves the outrage she feels. The original residents of Mesopotamia are long past caring.

The Babylonians is a dry, factual, evidenced-based read. But it provides both a window through which to view an ancient civilization and a foundation for further reading. The investment of time is only 160 pages, after which one may be satisfied that she has gained an understanding that provides enough information to round-out her knowledge, or that she wishes to delve deeper. Given that the subject is a culture with an extensive and varied written record, the opportunities for discovery are legion.

The Babylonians. An Introduction. Leick, Gwendolyn. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. By James Bradley.

The story around which The Imperial Cruise orbits, is a 1905 diplomatic mission arranged by President Theodore Roosevelt and led by his Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Its purpose was to visit both recently conquered nations and potential allies in the Pacific. Among its stops were Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and Korea. Along for the ride were seven senators, twenty-three congressmen, various military officials, some civilian officials, aides and a number of wives. Included among the party was the President’s fashionable and rambunctious daughter, Alice Roosevelt. She was “a novelty,” [arguably] “the twentieth century’s first female celebrity…when Alice went somewhere, the crowds and press followed.” (Bradley, p. 13). Throughout the book, the President’s daughter provides plenty of histotainment to give the reader temporary relief from painful topics that are more central to the book’s thesis.

The thesis itself is distressing. Bradley asserts that Teddy Roosevelt was a racist believer in the “Aryan Myth”: “Once upon a time, the fable goes, an ‘Aryan race’ sprang up in the Caucasus Mountains…a superior man…All the world’s great civilizations were the product of his genius…A group of Aryans had followed the sun westward from the Caucasus to…Germany…Rather than mate with lesser-blooded peoples, these Aryans killed them [and] maintained the purity of their blood…The pure Aryan evolved into a higher being: the Teuton [who] consulted democratically among his own kind and slowly birthed embryonic institutions of liberty…The Teuton…spread out from the German forests…continued to follow the sun to the west…ventured to Europe’s western coast…sailed across…the English Channel…by methodical slaughter…kept themselves pure…became known as Anglo-Saxons…sailed across the  Atlantic…to North America…eliminated the native population…so democracy could take root and civilization…could sparkle from sea to  shining sea.” (Bradley, pp. 23-7).

Bradley offers evidence, from Roosevelt’s compositions, to support his view of the 26th President’s racism. Concerning non-white ethnic groups, he is quoted as writing in 1894 that “blacks” were “a perfectly stupid race,” (Bradley, p. 83) and in 1896 that Hawaii experienced “damage that is perhaps irreparable” from an “influx of population consist[ing], not of white Americans, but of low caste laborers from the yellow races.” (Bradley, p. 162). To support his understanding of how Roosevelt’s racism contributed to an expansionist US policy of “following the sun westward” like his Aryan forebears, Bradley quotes Teddy writing that “The world would have halted had it not been for the Teutonic conquests in alien lands.” (Bradley, p. 25). Regarding the conquest of North America, Roosevelt wrote that “Teutonic [and] English blood is the source of American greatness” (Bradley, p. 332), that to American Indians “life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of the wild beasts” (Bradley, p. 58), and that “with the discovery of America, a new period of even vaster race expansion began.” (Bradley, p. 58). The President announced his further support for westering Aryan conquest of the by writing “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.” (Bradley, p. 1).

The devastation to non-white cultures caused by the westering imperialism is well recorded: Genocide against Native Americans. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Philippine natives killed in battle after their freedom of self-government had been denied by the US. The overthrow of Hawaii’s sovereign government. Bradley honestly portrays the United States’ brutal use of torture, concentration camps and massacre to obtain its’ goals.

It is perhaps a little unfair to make Theodore Roosevelt the scapegoat for US Imperialism due to his acceptance of the Aryan Myth and his subsequent behavior. Bradley attempts to balance the President’s racism with that of the rest of the nation by saying “A single person does not make history, and in this case, Roosevelt did not act alone. At the same time…Teddy’s impact was staggering and disastrous…If someone pushes another off a cliff, we can point to the distance between the edge of the overhang and the ground as the cause of injury. But if we do not also acknowledge who pushed and who fell, how can we discover which decisions led to which results and which mistakes were made?” (Bradley, p. 9). A clever analogy, but it doesn’t cover-up the fact that the United States both conquered the Philippines and annexed Hawaii before Roosevelt came to office. In addition, Teddy was always completely frank and on the record concerning his acceptance of the westering Aryan conquest. US citizens voted for him because of it, not in spite of it. However, it would be difficult for Bradley to have a bestseller by slinging mud at the ancestors of his readership, so he uses Roosevelt to soften the blow.

Bradley spends a great deal of time discussing Taft’s visit to Japan. At this point, the author creates a myth of his own: Once upon a time, Japan was a peaceful island. On July 8, 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry “sailed unannounced into Tokyo Bay with a fleet of US Navy warships” and forced communication and trade upon the unfortunate Japanese. (Bradley, p. 178). “Then in the fall of 1872, an American arrived to teach the Japanese how to invade other countries. His name was Charles LeGendre.” (Bradley, p. 186). In 1905, during the eponymous cruise, “Taft was carrying secret oral instructions” from Roosevelt that “would green-light what later generations would call World War II in the Pacific.” (Bradley, p. 168). In brief, this secret message was that Roosevelt would support the Japanese claim to Korea and respect that Asia was “Japan’s sphere of influence.” In exchange, “Japan would keep its hands off the Philippines.” (Bradley, pp. 248-9). While it is true that the US encouraged Japanese aggression, Japan was not the lamb of East Asia. Japan had intentions of conquest since at least the Yamato Period in 663. That year’s Battle of Baekgang was an attempt to extend its power onto the Korean Peninsula.  ( Japanese attempts to invade Korea occurred right up until 1598 when Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi died and Japanese forces withdrew from the peninsula. ( Bradley’s premise, that Roosevelt’s interference “would catalyze World War II in the Pacific,” is highly speculative. (Bradley, p. 5). The Japanese certainly had their own imperial intentions that existed prior to, and independent of, any US encouragement.

In spite of some questionable conclusions, Bradley’s book provides an important service to history. Few of us learned in school of the westering Aryan Myth or that Teddy Roosevelt subscribed to this myth. Few of us learned that many US citizens supported a destructive conquest in the Pacific that would cause unimaginable suffering in the Philippines and injustice in Hawaii. Every bit of preserved history, whether it is complimentary or not, is important to the expansion of human knowledge and self-understanding. Because The Imperial Cruise is in many ways unique and accurate, it aligns well with this goal and stands as a contribution to what we know of the past.

Bradley, James. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of  Empire and War. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Society of the Enlightenment. The Rise of the Middle Class and Enlightenment Culture in Germany. By Richard van Dulman.

The Society of the Enlightenment is a useful elucidation of the various social gathering organizations established in Germany during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Histories of the Enlightenment reflect a range of approaches from theoretical depictions of cultural patterns and development, to narratives that tell an exciting chronological story with characters from history struggling to introduce reason in a superstitious and conservative society. Richard van Dulman’s offering is more on the theoretical end of the spectrum. He presents an evolutionary model where organizations develop through three phases over time. It is not so theoretical that the reader will find herself in a web of ungrounded, abstract thought. In each chapter, after the phase is described, Dulman presents detailed examples of organizations. He employs primary source records from individual group archives. In this way, the reader sees a vivid picture of what these gatherings were like socially and functionally. Despite the usual problems of records becoming scattered after the demise of an organization, Dulman is able to provide an impressive 18 pages of footnotes at the end of a study that is only 143 pages, indicating a fulsome picture of the institutions he examines.

Phase One begins in the 17th Century, with Learned and Literary Societies that are important antecedents to Enlightenment clubs. Their chief goal was to expand personal and elite knowledge. While outside of the organization, there existed an unequal divide between middle class and aristocratic individuals, within the organization, members “were answerable only to truth and reason.”  (Dulman, p. 31). This attitude created an environment where the two classes could meet and discuss ideas as peers, where “force of argument alone was decisive.” (Dulman, p. 49). Some organizations, even included women in their membership despite a general prejudice in society and academia that women were intellectually inferior. (Dulman, p. 47). One should not think of these organizations as entirely liberal or politically egalitarian. During this phase, the researcher found that Learned and Literary Societies “excluded the common people” of the worker/peasant class. (Dulman, p. 49). Their main contributions are in a structure that encouraged evaluation of individuals based on performance rather than class, and a learning process based on reason over tradition or superstition.

Phase Two organizations began appearing “around the middle of the 18th Century. While maintaining a commitment to expanding personal knowledge, these organizations also “contained some elements of middle class reformism.” Two types of societies developed along these lines: secret societies like the Freemasons and “the so-called patriotic and public-spirited societies.” Freemasonry “aimed to create a private moral world independent of the state and the Church in which to further the development of men…in accordance with the laws of enlightened reason. Public-spirited societies functioned “openly…in the interests of the common good…by means of practical proposals and reformist endeavors.” Neither form of organization represented a challenge to absolutism. Most members could not conceive of a system without a ruling prince. They saw themselves as acting “on behalf of the state.” (Dulman, p. 52). The kinds of reforms they promoted ranged from establishing schools based on reason and science, to proposing improved forms of agriculture. Modifications to the state itself were not a concern.

It was only in Phase Three, late in the 18th Century, under the conditions of “absolutism in crisis,” when organizations developed which “no longer blindly accepted that their socio-political aspirations could be fulfilled by a benevolent prince. They were progressive reformers in their own right” who “founded associations which were independent of, or co-existed alongside, established state institutions. Indeed, they even displayed a tendency to oppose the state’s claim to be the sole legitimate source of authority.” (Dulman, p. 82). These forms persisted through the end of the century and gained influence once Napoleon expanded his sphere into the German territories.

It is of marginal importance that this version of the book is a translation from the original German. Translations are most important to creative writing where artistry is necessarily altered in the process. In non-fiction, as long as a translation does not change the author’s original meanings, its’ impact is of little consequence.

Dulman’s scholarly gifts are not only in regard to his stamina for research. In addition, he is able to analyze the successes or failures of the organizations he examines with care and balance. It is not uncommon for a secular historian to become overly-enthusiastic, about the early attempts of secular/scientific intellectual movements, to the point of overlooking imperfections. The author does not fall prey to this tendency. For example, in his depiction of the Bavarian Academy of Science, Dulman is able to discern that “in general, the academy conducted its scientific activity in an unspectacular manner,” (Dulman, p. 37), while later showing its positive aspect as “a forum for public debate which pursued a policy of Enlightenment” and, particularly with regard to public education, “contributed to the successes achieved by the advocates of the policy of enlightened reform.” (Dulman, pp. 38-9). This ability of discernment makes The Society of the Enlightenment an exceptional addition our knowledge of this period in Germany, providing realistic portraits of the era’s organizations.

Dulman, Richard van. The Society of the Enlightenment. The Rise of the Middle Class and Enlightenment Culture in Germany. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.