Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marginal Notes

I just read a biography of Andrew Jackson, and I'm nearly finished with John S. D. Eisenhower's history of the 1846-1848 war with Mexico. I generally find post-revolutionary American history depressing, and I expected this to be the most depressing period of all: the time when American racism and imperialism was at its rawest and ugliest. But – maybe because my expectations were so low – I've been somewhat pleasantly surprised. Even Jackson comes off better, at a closer view, than I expected.

What I had not taken into account was that American dealings with the Indians and Mexicans had a good deal more to do with Britain and France than I had imagined. I'm so used to thinking of America as a superpower that I was misinterpreting things. England and France were the superpowers of the day, and any time they came into conflict with the United States they started stirring up Indian revolts and looking for ways to nose into North American territories that were under shaky or dubious authority – which meant, usually, ostensibly Mexican territory. The U.S. was looking for security. It's not a glorious motivation, but it's better than simple self-aggrandizement.

The other thing I'm struck by – coming to this history now, and knowing a lot more about military matters than I did when I first formed my impressions – is that the defeat of Mexico, far from being a foregone conclusion, was one of the most astonishing feats in the history of American arms. Virtually all the advantages – of numbers, terrain, matériel, and motive – were with the Mexicans. American artillery was better – they had done their European shopping more scientifically than the Mexicans – but that was about it. By most ordinary reckonings, the Americans should have lost badly. (The Duke of Wellington, in fact, was sure that the war, and in particular Scott's lunge to Mexico City, would end in an American disaster.) It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the American troops, from generals to privates, were simply, in modern-day parlance, much more empowered and self-reliant than the Mexicans.


Zhoen said...

Americans fighting for their own country, Mexicans fighting for some Imperial oppressor?

Dale said...

Well, the Mexico was independent, but it was still under the hacienda system -- a few huge landowners, with much of the populace in perpetual debt to the hacienda owners. But still, the Americans were invaders, and non-Catholics, and (not to put too fine a point on it) racist pigs. They had plenty of motivation for getting rid of us!

Deb said...

I heard a writer talk Jackson history on C-Span BookTV. It was intriguing & I've encouraged Mark to get it. :-) Did you read "Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War" or something else?

I'm also reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” right now, by Kahneman and am JUST to the part about how knowing history changes what we thought we knew about it before -- changes our very recollection of the memory we had of where we thought the future would g. Which isn't exactly what you are talking about, but makes your point about what the Duke said even more clear to me.

Very glad your enjoyment of the book is better than what you anticipated. Perhaps its a regression to the mean. Haha! (I am in over my head with my book, but it is intriguing.)


Anne said...

This makes me think that I should read more than I have about 19th century America. I have been so preoccupied with 19th Century Europe and England that I have neglected the part of the world that I live in. I'm surprised the French had any time to mess with things over here -- they seemed to have spent most of the century having revolutions of their own, something England avoided.

Dale said...

Yes, later on they briefly put their own creature on the throne of Mexico, in fact. Poor old Maximilian.

Dale said...

Deb, "Driven West" -- I'll look for it!

Peter said...

Dale, I'm three-quarters through that book I mentioned about John Quincy Adams's post-presidential career in the House. Maybe the author was picking material for today's audience, but the excerpts from Adams's floor speeches often sound like twenty-first century commentary. (I'm so used to a biographer asking his readers to take into account a subject's time and to pronounce him or her forward-looking. That doesn't seem to be that necessary with Adams.) He was railing about Texas before it entered the union, and he predicted a Mexican war caused by slaveholders' rapacity. The guy's my newest political hero. (One day I'd like to write my own "Profiles in Courage.") I'd like to read this Jackson bio -- I really need to: as a Whig, I've written off Jackson without a full hearing -- but I love how Adams gave no peace to Jackson over slavery, the Indians, and even the Mexicans.

The Adams book (Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress by Paul Nagel) makes me want to read more deeply about Adams. The book gives me very little feel for Adams as a person, oddly. Some of the best of it involves Adams's acid-tounged assessments of his fellow Representatives. He was an inveterate journal writer and often wrote at his desk in the House chamber to pass the time.