Friday, January 28, 2022

Reading American History

I've wandered into reading the Oxford History of the United States, starting with James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. I already knew quite a bit about the Civil War, and the immediate run-up to it, and its aftermath, but I thought: I really need to know what happened in the era before that. I've never much liked reading American history, but it seems desperately important to understand, right now. So I put the volume before it on hold at the library. It was taking a while to come in, so in the meantime I read the volume before that one, the beginnings-of-the-republic one, Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty. It was fascinating to read a full-bore partisan of Jefferson, at this late date: I'm still digesting that. When I was young of course I was devoted to Jefferson. In sour middle age I became more of a John Adams guy. In my dotage, here, I'm simply lost: I find it harder and harder to manufacture opinions, or to believe they would matter if I did. Still, I ache to understand.

So now I've got Daniel Walker Howe's book, What Hath God Wrought, which is really the book I wanted to read in the first place. But I'm glad I read Wood first, because I'm nicely grounded for finally tackling the Age of Jackson.

It's a vain quest, looking for the solution to the present in the past: but it is comforting, in a melancholy way, to find that Americans have been at each other's throats for most of their history. We are all Americans, Biden is fond of saying, but -- which kind of American? The kind of American, like Jefferson, who would betray us to the godless Jacobins of France, or the kind of American, like Adams, who would betray us to the priestcraft and aristocracy of England? 

And so it goes on: and in American history I find myself most moved by Ulysses S. Grant, who thought -- of the Mexican War, but I suspect he thought of the Civil War this way too -- "if we must fight, let's get it over and done with quick, so that we can be friends again." (Don't quote me here: that's from memory.) Grant, swamped, as president, by an economy and a history that no one yet could understand; clinging to fundamentals -- gold and friendship -- that turned out to be phantoms. I hope we may yet restore Grant to his historical place: he's been shamefully misused. If there are great men, he was a great man.

Anyway. The days tick by. The sun has taken to get up earlier: there's a faint light behind the curtain when I awake. This winter will pass, like every other; like the one that eventually takes me with it.

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