Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borders of Empires by Dominic Ziegler. Penguin Press. 2015. 

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan Slaght. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2020. 

Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains by Vladimir K. Arsenyev, translation and notes by Jonathan Slaght. Indiana University Press. 2016.

Tent Life in Siberia: A New Account of an Old Undertaking, Adventures among the Koraks and Other Tribes In Kamchatka and Northern Asia by George Kennan. Public Domain Book. 1870.

Four good books about eastern Russia. I listened to the Audible edition of the first one several years ago and don’t recall much, except that it is more concerned with history than the others. The first empire Ziegler ties to the Amur is Genghis Kahn’s in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the largest land empire in history. It began on the steppes near the headwaters of the river and eventually extended from Eastern Europe to the Pacific. Since then the Amur has been the setting for imperial conflicts, some continuing to the present. Much of the book deals with Russian expansion into far eastern Asia, beginning in the eighteenth century. Many of the Russian cities in Amur basin were built by immigrants from the west: Cossacks, Old Believers, exiled Decembrists, freed serfs, criminals and adventurers. 

Russians apparently believed that, like Americans, their destiny in the nineteenth century was the Pacific. Russia seized a vast amount of Chinese territory. The boundary with China, much of it following the Amur, was more or less settled in 1861, but the struggle for influence and economic advantage continued and continues to this day. When Japan occupied much of China in the 1930s, it appeared as if that empire might be poised to expand at the expense of the Soviet Union. It had already defeated Russia once earlier in the century. The decision of the Japanese militarists in 1941 to move south and west instead was a significant turning point in twentieth century history, allowing the Russians to concentrate all their forces to defeat Hitler’s invasion. 

Ziegler tried to follow the Amur from source to the sea. Much of the country is still remote, often harsh, and political restrictions still make travel difficult. He went on horseback in Mongolia to reach the source, by jeep and train and riverboat down the length of the Amur as far as Nicolayevsk, near the mouth on the Tatar Strait between the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. Many stretches of the river are off limits as military security zones – there was a clash in 1969 that came close to starting a war between China and the USSR. Sometimes Ziegler makes his own difficulties: an attempt at illicit trade with inmates of a Russian prison ends with him nearly being thrown into prison himself. A sympathetic police official let him off with a stern warning.

As a journalist, Ziegler, writes with great descriptive power and a sincere interest in the places he explores and people he meets. He assures us that the history of the Amur is far from over. Russian nationalism, despite its decrepit economy, versus growing Chinese ambition and resurgent economic power are still at play in this long running contest of empires.

Jonathan Slaght is a field biologist. His book is the story of his doctoral research, carried out in the river valleys along the coast of the Sea of Japan in the thinly settled country mostly occupied by loggers and subsistence hunters and trappers. His research subject is the fish owl, largest owl in the world. His goal was to understand the life history and ecology of the species in order to develop a conservation plan to prevent its extinction. He had lived long enough in Russia to speak the language fluently and had already done research on other endangered species like the Amur leopard and Siberian tiger.

The fieldwork challenges in this study were extreme. The few towns – Plastun, Terny, Amgu – are small and some are inaccessible except by ship. Roads are generally poor, often dangerous. The frozen rivers are the best highways in winter, but they can be treacherous. Housing was in remote villages, makeshift cabins and abandoned huts or his specially equipped, but unreliable, vehicles. Winter was the main field season, since only then were the owls on territories and continually active, feeding their young. Slaght and his local field assistants had to spend many nights sitting out, watching their snares that they used to capture owls for radio tagging. Through months of trail and error, with numerous setbacks, they learned when and where the owls nest, what types of trees and tree cavities they use, where they prefer to hunt and how big their territories are.

Much of the work was scouting to listen for territorial birds calling. This meant walking alone for miles up the rivers, bushwhacking through dense thickets, encountering bad weather and potentially dangerous animals. Equipment breakdowns and lack of supplies were constant problems, as were late arriving ships. Life in the towns and villages involved a lot of boredom and a lot of drinking – everyone he met seemed to want to see whether he could drink as much as they did. He spent summers back in the US, analyzing results and preparing for the next field season.

Slaght is a good, engaging writer, with a respect for the people he works with and those he encounters on the way. He is supported by and works with the local conservation organization. Given that much of what I knew about this region was focused on the environmental threats posed by logging and other pressures, I was gratified to learn that the efforts of the conservationists are meeting with some success. 

Vladimir Arsenyev was a soldier and surveyor, assigned to map the uncharted regions lying northeast of Vladivostok. The area was diverse, both biologically and ethnographically. Deciduous and coniferous forests, marshes, large and small rivers, lakes and seacoast still abounded in places with deer, wild boar, bear and tigers. Aboriginal tribes, Chinese, Koreans and Russians made a living from exploiting the resources and one another. Russian authority was recognized, but it was extremely tenuous in many parts of the area. Bandits still were a serious danger to travelers. The harsh climate, the scarcity of food at times and wildfires, which could quickly consume thousands of acres of forest, added to the hazards. 

Of all the local inhabitants Arsenyev encountered, there was no one as fascinating as the Gold (Nanai) tribesman and hunter, Dersu. Although at first he sees him as almost simpleminded, Arsenyev has the sense to listen to what he says, despite the oddities of his speech. He turns out to be an astonishing tracker, hunter and wilderness survivalist. More than once he saves Arsenyev’s life – from blizzard, fire, bandits. By the end of the narrative, it is clear that he loves and relies on this man (or perhaps “these men,” because, Arsenyev may actually have combined more than one individual into a single character in this account), whose understanding of the environment far surpasses his. 

The descriptions of travel and the conditions of life in the isolated villages and fanzas (semi-fortified homesteads) are fascinating. The picture of a region undergoing rapid change, as Russia is pursuing its goal of expansion to the Pacific (manifest destiny?) has the quality of deja vu for one who knows something about American history. I came away with a strong sense of Arsenyev as an observant, sympathetic human being, open to experiences far outside his familiar comfort zone. This is a remarkable book.

George Kennan (not closely related to the famous Cold Warrior) was an employee of the Russian-American Telegraph Company (Never heard of it? Neither had I) who was literally sent to Siberia in 1865 to survey a route and start building a telegraph line that would line America to Europe via the Bering Strait. The first Atlantic cable had failed in 1858, and the investors in R-A T were betting that it wasn’t going to ever work.

Landed on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Kennan and a few other Americans, with Russian associates, set out to map a route from the strait to the existing Russian far eastern wires. At the time, the Russian presence in the far eastern reaches was even more slight than in Arsenyev’s time, forty years later. The Cossacks had effectively established Russian political control over the past century or so, but only a small percentage of the indigenous peoples were really subjected to the authorities. The majority still lived as they had for centuries, primarily by hunting and herding reindeer. 

Kennan and his companions lived among these people for weeks at a time, utterly dependent on them for food, shelter and transport. He gives vivid pictures of life in the camps and on the trail. They had to do almost all the survey work in winter, because in the short summer, the boggy tundra becomes impassable. This meant encountering the full fury of the weather, often having to travel for days by dog sled while the thermometer registered minus 40 degrees and lower. Food was always short and often foul. Surprisingly, only one member of the whole survey team died during the two winters they worked there. 

Kennan’s writing is vivid, as when he describes the effect of ten teams of sled dogs coming over a rise and seeing a herd of several hundred reindeer in a native encampment: uncontrollable excitement, followed by chaos. Again, one night there was a prolonged, magnificent aurora, which he describes in stunning detail. More than anything else I read in these books, that made me want to go to the arctic. He also sometimes affects the nonchalance often seen in writers of the 19th century when describing hardships or narrow escapes. His descriptions of the native peoples are not especially nuanced, nor sympathetic; he dispenses words like “barbarous,” and “savage,” freely. He didn’t come prepared to learn from the people he met, so he mostly didn’t. I don’t think he could have had the kind of respect and affection that Arsenyev had for Dersu. Russian officials and aristocrats were more his kind of people, though even they often led him to remark on how different from Americans. 

In the end, the expedition got word that the Atlantic cable had been successfully laid, and there was no reason to proceed. They were left to make the journey back overland, across the entire length of Eurasia, much of it by horse drawn sledge, until they reached to eastern end of the railroad that would one day become the Trans-Siberian. It took many months to finally get home to the United States.

All four of these books were well worth reading.

Who Started America’s Quest for Liberty?

Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck and a new History of America’s Origin by Joseph Kelly. 2018. Bloomsbury Publishing (Kindle edition)

Here Shall I Die Ashore: Stephen Hopkins: Bermuda Castaway, Jamestown Survivor, and Mayflower Pilgrim by Caleb Johnson. 2007. Xlibris Corp (Kindle edition)

After I wrote about Stephen Hopkins in my post about Shipwreck and Shakespeare. I had a chance to hear author Joseph Kelly talk at our virtual family reunion this fall. He discussed events surrounding Hopkins’s life, and what he viewed as his early contribution to the idea of freedom in the New World. Kelly claims that Hopkins’s revolt against the Virginia Company while wrecked on Bermuda (memorably but savagely depicted in the actions of the drunken butler, Stephano, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is the earliest known instance of the idea that the legitimacy of governments rests on the consent of the governed. The famous Mayflower Compact is the second, and Hopkins very likely influenced its making.

Kelly ties the principle Hopkins expressed to an earlier phenomena in the New World, the escape of enslaved Africans in Spanish colonies and the founding of self-governing communities in forests, swamps and mountains, out of reach of their former masters. These people were referred to as “Maroons,” and the term came to be applied to other castaways. This part of his account reminded me very strongly of The Exiles of Florida. The term, “Seminole,” originally referred to similar communities of Native Americans who moved to Spanish Florida’s forests and swamps to escape their enemiesand who were joined by large numbers of escaped slaves from English colonies to the north.

Another group similar to the Maroons were English soldiers who went “native” in Ireland. This was going on at the same time as the Virginia Company was beginning its program of colonization in America. Conditions in the part of Ireland held by the English army, were awful, particularly among the soldiers in border outposts. Many deserted and settled among the Irish in the unoccupied lands. This pattern was repeated at Jamestown, where a number of Virginia Company men deserted to the native people. In most of these cases, we have little record of their fate, much as with the earlier Roanoke “Lost Colony.”

Why was this happening among the people who had voluntarily signed up to go to the New World? As Kelly explains, the terms and conditions of employment turned out not to be as promised. Technically everyone who signed up received one share of company stock in exchange for venturing their lives, butaccording to the contract, holders of a single share were treated as company employees, without any rights except to sustenance and shelter. Only those who received multiple shares, because of sought-after skills, social position or actual cash ventured, had the freedom to vote on governance matters and choose leaders.

By the time Hopkins, in the flagship Sea Venture, with both the Governor, William Strachey, and the Admiral, George Somers, aboard, was wrecked on Bermuda, the ordinary adventurers had probably begun to hear from the ship’s crew and some of the soldiers aboard the real situation at Jamestown. They might have felt relief at reaching an uninhabited archipelago instead, especially one with plenty of food and water and a tolerable climate. It would have been a shock when Governor Strachey immediately imposed strict discipline, with onerous work schedules, required rollcalls, prayer services, etc. The Sea Venture sailors were so restive under this regime that Admiral Somers used his authority as fleet commander to take them to another island, where they could follow the discipline they were used to on board ship.

Hopkins’s rebellion was premised on the notion that the wreck voided their contract, since they were not in fact, in Virginia. Any activities and any sort of governance ought to be based on mutual consent, not Strachey’s command. Quite a few of the disgruntled venturers agreed. The Governor obviously saw it differently, and since he had the soldiers on his side, his view prevailed. Hopkins wisely chose to plead for mercy. I’m lucky he did, because as a direct ancestor of mine (assuming that’s correct) I would not be here if he’d been hanged.

After the maroons escaped, or rather were forced to head to Virginia on the two ships they constructed, Hopkins seemed to have kept quiet. He even became a reader in the Jamestown church, which everyone was forced to attend. He learned at least some of the local Algonquin language. Still, he seems to have had no desire to remain under the miserable rules and starvation conditions in Virginia, and he returned to England.

By 1620, he was ready to try again, and he signed on to a new company, the one formed by the Pilgrims. This time he brought along his second wife and his children. It was his daughter, Oceana, who was born on the Mayflower, although sadly, she died shortly after they landed.

From Kelly’s point of view, the key contribution of Hopkins to the Plymouth Colony and the future United States of America, was to instigate the drawing up of the Mayflower Compact. William Bradford, in his history of the Plymouth colony, says that it was partly to allay the discontent among the “Strangers,” (non-Pilgrims who came to fill out the company) that a written agreement was drafted and signed, specifying how the colony was to be governed. Again, Hopkins’s thought that landing on a remote shore, far north of where they were supposed to be, broke their original agreement and left them to decide for themselves how they would be governed. One hundred fifty-six years later this idea, that the broken relationship between the colonies and England left Americans at liberty to set up a new government, formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence. 

Fortunately in 1620, it was a group of relatively mild-mannered religious dissenters, not wealthy and powerful English aristocrats, backed by soldiers, who heard Hopkins’s arguments,and they went along with them. Perhaps Hopkins, who knew the native language, was too useful to get rid of, or maybe thecompany was too small to lose anyone at that point.

Does Hopkins deserve to be revered as a founding father? I certainly think his position in colonial American history is exceptional: Bermuda, Virginia and Plymouth – quite an adventurous life. He also helped negotiate one of only a few treaties with Native Americans that were not broken during the lifetimes of the signers, another being William Penn’s with the Lenape. He was possibly English America’s first recorded tavern keeper, cause enough for renown in the eyes of many. Hopkins’s ideas about consent were certainly not unique. Within a generation or so, the Levellers, who formed, in the words of Christopher Hill, one of the first modern political parties in England, were asserting similar principles. One of the authors in my next post, Elizabeth Anderson, has quite a bit to say about them and about how their struggle for freedom and dignity byordinary people faced with powerful people and corporations continues to this day.

Caleb Johnson’s biography of Hopkins gives much more detail about his life, insofar as we know it, but without Kelley’s focus on what political views he might have had. Still, he makes clear that Hopkins was a dissenter, not only in Bermuda, but also in Plymouth. He was sometimes part of the governing council and a key player in relations with the Pequot and other Indians and at other times a thorn in the side of his Pilgrim neighbors. He was fortunate to have produced several surviving children, among whom his oldest daughter, Constance, moved with her husband, John Snow, to Eastham on Cape Cod. It was here that her descendants would have married into the Doane family, descendants of John Doane, who came to Plymouth on a later ship and played an influential role in the 1630s and 40s before moving to the Cape. It was a daughter of that family who married my great great great grandfather in the 1760s and lived with him in North Carolina.

Looking for the Logos of Life X: a Friend in Need

Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity. By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Random House,304 pages (2020)

I read the Kindle edition, which seemed to be complete, and had links that made looking at the many references easy.

I used to teach a course in the general education curriculum at my institution called Animal and Human. We read and discussed the work of Jane Goodall (Through a Window, 1990) and Franz de Waal (Good Natured, 1996) among others, trying to understand the connections between ourselves and our closest relatives, the primates, including chimpanzees and bonobos.I found these readings compelling because of the questions they raise about the nature of our cognitive and emotional lives and how our peculiar combination of traits could be produced by Darwinian evolution.

This book provides a popular summary of much research on the same questions since the mid 1990s and brings in some studies, which while not so recent, contribute to understanding the recent results. I’m neither a primatologist nor an animal behaviorist nor a cognitive biologist, so much of this was new to me.

The first part of the book deals with the author’s view on how we humans became the highly intelligent beings that we are, living in large, technologically advanced societies. Put briefly, they believe that around 80,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to undergo an evolutionary change they call “self domestication.” Slowly at first, but then rapidly after about 50,000 years ago, humans became more friendly, which enabled them to live together in larger groups, which in turn promoted technological and other cultural advances. This led in the end to modern humans supplanting all the other lineages of the Genus Homo, so now the only traces of these peoples are found in the DNA from occasional intercrossing (see my post on Ancient DNA).

The key behavioral change was the acquisition of the ability to be friendly to strangers. If we live in large groups, say, more than a few hundred individuals, we will not be able to become closely familiar with everyone. We will continually be encountering people we don’t know. Most animals that exhibit complex social behavior show a strong aversion to strangers. Chimpanzees, for instance, are very hostile to any chimpanzee they don’t recognize as a member of their group. When groups become large enough, they tend to split, as Jane Goodall describes in Through a Window. The group at Gombe she was studying broke up at one point. Shockingly, the males of one group began systematically hunting down and attacking members of the other group, until none remained. Likewise males were observed to attack stranger females and kill their infants.

Humans, say the authors, somehow were in a position where it became more advantageous in terms of reproductive fitness to welcome outsiders into the group and to coalesce into larger bands. Why this happened cannot be easily determined, but bonobos may provide a clue. Hare and Woods think that they, too, may have undergone self domestication. This explains why levels of aggression are much lower among bonobos than chimpanzees. The key, they think, was that resources in their habitat are much more stable and productive than in habitats occupied by chimpanzees. This led to less competition and more cohesion among females, who could then control the aggressive tendencies of males. Females no longer gave clear signs of when they were on oestrus, making it harder for males to be sure who was fertile. This further reduced the benefit of dominating both females and other males. More freedom to move among groups, greater sharing of resources and other advantages followed.

Hare and Woods think dogs also self domesticated in the presence of large hunter gatherer bands in the late paleolithic. By being friendlier and less fearful or aggressive towards humans, they were able to exploit the waste dumps that were a feature of camps. Closer relations gradually developed, and at some point, humans began to do some selecting of dogs they found useful.

Friendliness alone was not the only change: it turns out that the physiological underpinnings of friendliness are in the brain and especially the modifying effects of oxytocin, serotonin and testosterone. These are developmentally regulated by genes that are expressed in the neural crest in very early embryos. These cells differentiate and migrate to different parts of the developing individual and affect not only behavior, but also skull shape, snout length, coat and eye color, the curl of the tail and so on. The authors claim that this selection on friendliness they posit brought along all the changes we see in dogs versus their wolf ancestors. Similar changes are seen in bonobos and humans as well.

To support this thesis, they recount the work of Russian geneticists and breeders, who in a few generations, produced domesticated foxes, with many of the traits of domestic dogs, by selecting for friendliness alone. It seems almost unbelievable that merely choosing the foxes most willing to approach humans, would have so many distinct effects. Since, however, the number allowed to breed each generation is a tiny fraction of the whole population, the selection factor is extremely powerful. Furthermore, as noted above, the genes that affect willingness to approach strangers also have impacts on many parts of the organism.

The second part of the book turns to the dark side: being friendly to members of your group means being unfriendly to members of other groups. Oxytocin makes mother bears feel good when they see their cubs, but according to the authors, it makes them that much madder when they perceive a threat

Dogs bark at strangers; humans are suspicious of anyone who doesn’t appear to “belong.” It is easy to create situations where something can be used to identify someone as from a particular category that is seen as a threat. Skin color, language, dress, religious signs and symbols are only too familiar examples. Demagogues use this all the time to divide groups and unite them against one another. If you can get your followers afraid enough and angry enough at some group of “enemies,” they won’t notice what you are doing to them.

So how do we guard against such proclivities becoming fatal to our peace and tranquillity? Hare and Woods think that most efforts to eliminate existing fears and prejudices are as likely to backfire as to work. In other words, you can’t talk people out of these perceptions, and efforts to stigmatize them may only create distrust and resentment. As a possible way to approach the problem, they cite the example of the people from diverse backgrounds who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation: the single factor uniting them was some experience of a close, friendly relationship with a Jew at some time during their early life. Apparently this immunized them against the vilification served up by Hitler and his followers. Can we find ways to achieve the same sort of immunization in our contemporary global society? 

I think it would be difficult, given how valuable dividing people into categories is to politicians and marketers. It’s also hard to remedy historic wrongs without identifying the groups that have suffered them. Whatever self domestication achieved in the human species, it didn’t eradicate our impulse towards dominance and hierarchy entirely. We still have a need to feel superior to someone, even if it’s only Yankees fans. In a society where exploiting political, social and economic loyalties leads to wealth and power, it is very hard to get those with the most of both to kick the habit. Those less fortunate console themselves by feeling superior to those they fear and despise. As the old joke says: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Did Every Start Everything?

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson. River head Books – Penguin/Random House 2020.

Image: Pirate captain Henry Every is depicted on shore while his ship, the Fancy, engages an unidentified vessel (

The voyage of Henry Every, British sailor turned mutineer and pirate, his crew and their ship, the Fancy, to seize the treasure ship of the Mughal Shah and molest the pilgrims, including the Shah’s relatives, homeward bound from Mecca in 1695 is billed as a turning point in world history. Johnson compares the taking of the Gunsway to the terrorist attacks of 9-11: a handful of men causing a massive shift in global history. According to his account, this act of piracy was the spark that lit the fuse for the takeover of India sixty years later by the British. It also provoked the British government’s shift from tolerating English pirates – he frequently mentions Sir Francis Drake – to eradicating them from the high seas. It also was a watershed moment for the popular press, as writers and ballad mongers poured out a stream of broadsides, news sheets and books recounting Every’s exploits.

The book is an entertaining one, though not as rich in the details of nautical daring do as in Treasure Island or Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There’s only one sea fight, and its outcome is revealed at the beginning. There are no detailed accounts of the long voyages across open ocean – no storms, near escapes and so on. We know nothing of the actual lives led by these men aside from a few court depositions. Most of the documentary evidence is from the archives of the three powers involved, two governments and one international trading company. These do, however, provide a fascinating account of the workings of institutions confronting a crisis.

Simply put, the problem presented by Every’s audacious theft and by the probable rape of the female pilgrims by the pirates was how to mollify the outraged Grand Mughal Aurangzeb, a deeply religious and fundamentalist Muslim, so that he would not expel the East India Company from their factory in Surat or their fortified headquarters in Bombay. The Company was already in trouble at home, with a falling stock price driven largely by growing resistance to the flood of Indian cotton goods harming the British woolen producers and merchants. Now, Aurangzeb’s investigators accused the Company of conniving with the pirates who infested the Red Sea pilgrimage and trade routes. His troops placed the factors at Surat under house arrest, clapping them in irons. The response from the Company and its friends in the government of King William was a ringing denunciation of the pirates, offers of reward for their capture and notices distributed to British authorities around the world to be on the lookout for the Fancy’s captain and crew and, if caught, to return them to London for trial.

Perhaps the most significant response was thought up by the imprisoned East India factor in Surat, Samuel Annesley, who proposed that the Company’s powerfully armed merchant vessels should undertake to escort the Shah’s trading ships between Surat and the Red Sea ports, becoming, in effect, the navy of the Mughal Empire. The Company would thus demonstrate that it was as opposed to piracy as were the Mughals. After some hesitation and deliberation on both sides, the plan was adopted, the factors at Surat were freed, and the Company was able to resume its profitable business. It took another few years before it could make good on its promise to rid the Arabian seas of English Pirates – one of its own captains, William Kidd, was among the last to be caught and taken to London for public execution, but eventually the pirates stopped coming and turned instead to the Caribbean. There, piracy flourished during the last Golden Age of buccaneers, until the British Navy could at last stamp them out. 

What they couldn’t eradicate, however, was the popular appeal of the pirate as free spirit and, perhaps more important, the image of pirate life as direct democracy in practice. At a time when the authority of oligarchic or monarchical governments was often directed against ordinary people and inequality of status and wealth were extreme, the pirates stood out as examples of liberty and equality. Johnson quotes from several of the “pirate constitutions,” the articles drawn up specifying the rights of the crews, the limits of the captain’s power, and the equitable sharing of the profits of their enterprise. The court proceedings confirm that the huge treasure taken from the Gunsway was parceled out according to shares, with Captain Every receiving just twice what the ordinary seamen got – Johnson notes the current ratio of CEO to average worker compensation to highlight the extraordinary egalitarianism of the pirates. In popular histories, it went even further: Every was supposed to have gone on to found a pirate kingdom in Madagascar, fancifully named Libertalia, where freedom and equality reigned.

The reality was much harder for some and simply unknown for the rest: after returning to the Atlantic Ocean, the crew began to drift away. A few elected to remain on Ascension Island, essentially marooning themselves in a place where it’s hard to think their share of treasure was of much use. Some chose to stay in the then tiny settlement of Nassau. Some went to the American colonies, where there were secondhand reports of them living more or less openly and even boasting of their exploit. Every and the rest made a perilous crossing to. Ireland in a single-masted boat and slipped back to England, bringing what they could of their loot. One pirate was quickly caught when a maid in an inn noticed how heavy his coat was and informed the authorities: they found it full of Turkish gold coins, hidden in the linings. He was persuaded to turn informer, and fairly soon another member of the crew did too. With the testimony to make a case, the government tried six of Every’s men who had been caught in various places in England, often with help from people eager to receive the rewards offered.

At first, it seemed the desire to make an example of these men might be frustrated: the first trial on charges of piracy related to the taking of the Gunsway ended in “not guilty” verdicts for all. Shocked, the prosecutors and judges (who were in no way impartial) decided to indict the same men for their role in the mutiny and seizure of their ship at the start. Without legal counsel and under unfriendly questioning from the judges, the four who pled innocent were unable to convince the jury that they had not gone along willingly. Despite the rule against double jeopardy, the judges and prosecution kept returning to the acts of piracy committed afterwards to pile on the guilt. All were convicted. Only the one who had pled guilty to both indictments was spared the death penalty. The five were hanged at the Thames dock. 

Every himself simply vanished. The last anyone ever heard of him was reported by one of the informers: shortly after he was arrested and agreed to testify, he met the wife of the Fancy’s quartermaster in London, who told him she was going to see Captain Every. After, that nothing, leaving his future to be imagined by the popular authors and ballad makers.

Why does the “making” of the modern world inspire so many writers of popular nonfiction? We have numerous books attributing its emergence to ethnic groups, to commodities, to inventions, to particular events, to various ideas. The rise of modernity is a major organizing theme in academic curricula, including the great books program at the college where I earned my BA. There, the emphasis was on mathematics, especially the work of Viete, Descartes, Galileo and the rest, who transformed ancient geometry and arithmetic into analytic sciences, culminating in the calculus of Newton and Leibniz. Much of this is discussed in Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origins of Algebraby Jacob Klein. That’s pretty challenging reading though, and a “popular” account might not sell very well. Clocks and maps make better subjects, being more within the grasp of a large enough audience.

Likewise, the kind of detailed, heavily-documented histories produced by academic historians generally don’t provide the sharply focused, dramatic illuminations provided by books like this one. They take due note of the small events that trigger major ones, like the assassination that led to World War I, but concentrate more on the circumstances that allowed a minor event to spiral into a catastrophe. This is an important point: large institutions can easily grow by their own internal dynamic to the point where they are unstable. I recently read G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918, in which he shows how the growth of a precarious balance of military power in Europe produced a situation in which a major war was nearly inevitable. Johnson attempts to do the same in a more modest way, by including chapters on the origins of piracy (as far back as the late Bronze Age Sea Peoples) the rise of the Mughal Empire ( an Islamic dynasty, which ruled from Afghanistan to the south of India in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries) and the growth of the East India Company (which really did eventually manage to trigger some truly global changes). The context that’s mostly missing, however, is the geopolitical situation in the late seventeenth century: the European conflicts, the internal revolutions and unrest in England and the effects of early industrialization, enclosure, colonialism and mercantilism. Considered against this background, the events described seem less earth shaking.

India probably was bound to come under colonial control, given the richness of the prize and the weakness of its government institutions and armies, compared to Europe’s. Annesley’s innovative idea to take over maritime security may have set a small precedent but was perhaps mostly symbolic. So was the war against pirates. Every had crossed a line: robbery on the high seas was no big deal unless it interfered with more powerful interests. Privateering continued to be official policy; the U.S. Constitution explicitly mentions Marque and Reprisal. For many years, the European powers paid tribute to the Barbary states as a cheaper way of dealing with the threat. Only when things got out of hand were naval forces employed and offenders made examples of. Today, we still glorify buccaneers in movies and find real pirates, like the Somalis, something less than “Enemies of All Mankind.” And honestly, the “global manhunt” for Every involved nothing like the seventeenth century equivalent of the resources devoted to finding Osama Bin Laden or even James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King. 

As with so many books in this “world changing” genre, the account is fascinating in its details and ultimately unconvincing in its claim of importance. 

Linguistic Exploration in Carolina

Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser. University of North Carolina Press. 2016.

I read the Kindle edition which has all the photos and links to audio and video samples.

North Carolina has as rich a diversity of dialects of English as any linguist could hope to find in the U.S. say Walt and Jeffrey, two linguistics professors at North Carolina State University. They ought to know, having conducted thousands of interviews all across the state from Matteo in the east to Murphy in the west, as part of the North Carolina Language and Life Project.

Their book aims to give those not trained in linguistics an idea of just how diverse Tarheel speech is and to show how history, geography and culture have shaped the way residents of the state talk. 

I grew up from age five to twenty-one in a college town in the Research Triangle within the North Carolina Piedmont. In that time, I was exposed to a large sample of the various regional dialects, from the local kids around town and the ones from further out in the country, who attended to schools in town. I ran into more diversity traveling from the mountains to the coast, with my family, my friends, their families and the Boy Scouts. Later, I worked summers with a variety of custodians, construction laborers, mailmen and others, black and white, old and young. As upper middle-class southerners, my family employed African American maids and babysitters, as did my grandparents and my friends’ parents. This was the era just before full integration of North Carolina’s public schools, so I had only token contact with African American speech there. 

My first significant contact with Spanish speakers was when I went to college for two years in New Mexico. North Carolina had only a tiny population of Hispanics then. That changed rapidly in the 1990s, and it profoundly affected the area where my father grew up, and where I still own a piece of the family land. The explosive growth of the hog farming and pork packing industry brought hundreds of Mexicans and Central Americans to the little tiny town that I had known since I was a child: besides the farms and packing plants, a world-famous garment factory employed Hispanic women for their sewing skills. Spanish stores, a pool room and restaurants reoccupied the increasingly deserted main street. On the corner near our land, a derelict country store was made into a very authentic Mexican restaurant, an oasis in what had become essentially a food desert.

My father’s family is from the southeastern corner of the state. My mother’s family, though, is from Ohio, and I lived from ages two through four in Minnesota, so my earliest linguistic influences from family and playmates were only partly “southern.” Thus, most people I meet don’t recognize me as a southerner by my speech. Interestingly, of my four younger siblings, my two sisters show the most pronounced North Carolina accents, and both have a greater tendency to use such characteristic expressions as “you all.” All of them learned to talk while living in N.C. and they are ordered brother – sister – brother – sister, so it’s not a matter of age. It seems perhaps to be a question of peer interactions, but I’m not sure why it worked out like that. 

There’s more to this as well: my father had only moderate traces of his rural southern upbringing in his speech, although his five siblings (one brother, four sisters) all had stronger accents. My paternal grandfather (born 1869, died 1965) also lacked very strong rural North Carolina speech, although his wife, who was from Virginia, certainly sounded “southern.” Perhaps education was a factor: both father and grandfather attended the University of North Carolina, as well as other schools. Class was also a factor, perhaps, both were medical doctors. 

One trace of regional speech that I noticed in my father and grandfather was a slight broadening of certain vowel sounds. This was more memorably apparent to me in my great uncle, whom I saw often while growing up. He was college educated also, but he attended NC State College (as it was then called). Fans of the teams of other schools referred to it as Moo U. This may have reflected a perceived, possibly real, difference in social class from those who went to Duke and UNC. At any rate, when my great uncle pronounced the word “pond,” it came out as “pawned.” I have wondered whether this was a feature carried over from the speech of my great great great grandfather, who came from Orkney, Scotland, to North Carolina in the 1760’s. He was a late participant in the migration of Scots to North Carolina, and I don’t think that Orkney speech was exactly like that of the Scots-Irish or the Highland Scots who came earlier. My ancestors came to Orkney, probably from the Black Isle on the southern edge of the Highlands, as early as the fifteenth century.

I picked up over the years a couple of other curious tidbits that suggest the persistence of early ancestral immigration: one was my grandfather telling us that, “If it rains on Saint Swithen’s day, it will rain for forty days.” ( The other is the use of the name “didapple,” pronounced “die-dapple,” for a pied billed grebe. I heard this from the son of one of my father’s childhood friends, as we stood beside their large millpond, looking at various birds. This appears to be a variant of the name dive-dapper, used by Shakespeare in Venus and Adonis.

Talkin Tarheel is a rich tapestry of similar history, culture, and personal stories, all showing how people came to talk as they do and how those distinct dialects are evolving in the twenty-first century. As the authors are constantly emphasizing, no language is ever static, least of all one in a place undergoing rapid demographic and economic change. Old ways of living and speaking are disappearing, such those of the “hoi toiders,” from the Outer Banks and of the mountain folks, like the last of the old-time moonshiners. These dialects are in danger of being lost as living speech. Both these groups feature in several sound and video clips from the Language and Life Project. 

Other groups are very unlikely to lose their distinctive forms of speech, although they to are changing in response to growing urbanization, mass communication and other factors. I first heard of the Lumbee Indians back in 1958, when I saw the headlines about the battle they fought against the KKK at Maxton ( This story is rightfully excluded from a book that tries to include and value all North Carolinians (not the Klan as such, of course, but the rural whites, who might be unfairly associated with that detestable group). I was very happy to read that the Lumbee are doing well, and that they maintain their own dialect of English proudly. At 55,000 enrolled members, they are the largest population of Native Americans East of the Mississippi, though they have yet to receive the federal recognition they deserve. It is unfortunate that almost no trace of their original language can be found, unlike the much smaller Cherokee tribe, who still live in the western mountains and who are working hard to keep their language, famously given written form by Sequoia, alive.

There are many stories of African American history to accompany the discussion of their dialect (or dialects, as there is an increasing urban vs rural difference). Freedom Hill, on the Tar River, was incorporated as Princeville, making it the first African American town in the U.S. There is a wonderful clip telling of the struggles of Princeville to survive in the face of floods from recent hurricanes. Even if, like me, you don’t like to see rebuilding in flood prone areas, it’s impossible not to admire Princeville’s community spirit. Likewise, there is an interesting account of the Freedman’s Colony on Roanoke Island, the place of Lost Colony fame. When I go there again, I must visit the museum display that tells its story. 

Talkin Tarheel is full of fascinating linguistic detail, showing how much the application of painstaking scientific techniques can illuminate even very subtle distinctions among dialects, such as the tendency of Hispanics to retain the syllable timed pattern of Spanish when speaking their dialect of English, unlike the stress timed pattern used by most English speakers. 

The authors conclude with a celebration of the diversity of dialects in North Carolina and express the hope that through efforts like the North Carolina Language and Life Project, linguistics can help erase the stigma and prejudice that distinctive speech too often evokes and instead appreciate the variety of ways of Talkin Tarheel.

This post is dedicated to the late, much missed, MEB, who loved language and loved teaching and defending the interests of her young, immigrant Hispanic students in Alamance County.

Looking for the Logos of Life IX: Entangled Life

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House, 2020, 368 pp. Kindle Edition.

Image: Agaricus bisporus mycelium. Rob Hille. 9 December 2011 from Wikimedia Commons
I would describe this as a tantalizing book. Merlin Sheldrake writes in the mode so common to current popular science books, breathlessly exclaiming that these discoveries change how we think about everything. Boiled down, his message is that fungi created the world we know and continue to underpin its foundations. The case he makes is no better and no worse than most such claims, which I suspect every editor for publishers of nonfiction books tries to attach to every work that crosses his or her desk. Much of what Sheldrake describes is new looks at well known phenomena: the section on psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, for instance. It offers glimpses of a deeper understanding of what the chemicals fungi do to animal nervous systems, but reaches no firm conclusions.

It offers a lot of new information and speculation on the myriad roles that fungi have come to play in the biosphere, and a bunch of interesting potential applications to human problems (you can make, among many other things besides antibiotics, beer, wine and bread, fungal dog biscuits (Mutt-rooms)  and packing foam) He also discusses mycoplasma-remediation as a solution to contaminated sites from oil spills to herbicides. They will even break down discarded cigarette filters.

Interesting as these things are, they are not, in my view going to fundamentally alter our view of life.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable book. Sheldrake knows his fungi from intimate experience, and he writes well, except for the occasional hyperbolic outburst or awkward analogy. He explains a lot of exciting new research using DNA sequencing, tracer analysis and ingenious lab experiments to understand the role that fungi play in terrestrial ecosystems as decomposes, parasites and symbiotic partners with plants and each other. He spent many hours himself, doing down and dirty work in the forests of Panama, following the roots of a tiny mycoheterotrophic plant and the mycelial network of its fungal associate. He also talked to a wide range of fungus researchers in fields like anthropology as well as biology and shares their insights into the roles fungi play in nature and culture. Some of the most interesting characters are the fungal enthusiasts – mushroom freaks, one might say, truffle hunters and entrepreneurs working to create products from fungus ranging from ersatz leather to bricks. I like this better than 3D printing, with its inputs of resins, metals etc. Also I doubt you can make a fungal firearm at home.

I wish he had been even more comprehensive: for instance he says little about fungi and human illness. His discussions of fungi and food omit such important staples as tempeh. He talks a little about his own work on mycotrophy, but doesn’t mention the possibility that plants may be able to survive mycotrophically when competitions squeeze them out of the struggle for light. How else is it possible for plants in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, like turkey beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides) pine barrens reed grass (Calamovilfa brevipilis) pine barrens gentian (Gentiana autumnal) and maybe even scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolis) to appear so quickly after fire, after a long interval since the last fire and no individuals could be seen in the unburned forest? Do their mycorrhizal root systems simply live off their fungal partners until a burn clears the space for them to send up shoots, leaves, flowers and fruits?

What do fungi tell us about life in general, if anything? His theme is interconnectedness. The title echoes Darwin’s image of the “entangled bank.” He frequently repeats the view that life is less about individuals than about networks of interaction and exchange, some mutually beneficial, some exploitative, some switching back and forth depending on circumstances. Like like Lynn Margulis, discoverer of the symbiotic origins of cellular organelles and the authors I discussed in my previous post Looking for the Logos of Life VIII: Organism and Superorganism, Sheldrake questions the reality of individuals.

Why the determination to shatter us into fragments? Whatever I mean by “I” doesn’t include the microbes indigenous to my body. I am not them, and it’s arguable whether I am even the parts of my body that are the result of the form encoded in the DNA I got from my parents. When I think of the Pythagorean theorem, it isn’t a soggy collection of bacteria doing that, or sharing in the contemplation. [??] The scientists want to abolish me entirely or reduce me to an aggregation of trillions of cells, of diverse descent. Meanwhile the social theorists would reduce me to nothing but culturally determined categories: white, male, middle class, straight, cis gendered, etc. But what I think about I’m free to select from a vast web of tradition both ancient and up to the minute, delivered to me in multiple modes. That’s the most relevant entanglement: the mycelium of ideas. It’s in the tangled network that is my brain, but it is there because I chose to attend to those ideas as they came to me and because I made the effort, sometimes racked my brain, to connect them to what was already there. 

Anyway, fungi are amazing enough in their own right: in their chief domain, the soil, they are virtually sovereign, with allies like bacteria and the numerous arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, etc, that shred and stir the vast amounts of dead plant material that enter their realm every year. Constantly grazed by animals, they regenerate at phenomenal rates in every cubic centimeter of dirt. Without them, dead plant material would pile up, as it does in bogs, where lack of oxygen excludes them. Carbon would be locked away and CO2 levels would fall to the point of global cooling, as they did in the  Permian ice ages, which followed the Carboniferous age of coal formation.

In his ecological classic, The Biosphere, V. I. Vernadsky talked about the speed of life – the rate of expansion of a disk of cells, imagined as multiplying to cover the earth. Sheldrake makes an even more startling calculation: according to his reckoning, if all the fungal hyphae that have been produced were laid end to end, they would extend further than the limit of the visible universe, i.e. they would have expanded faster than the speed of light. Even though this is a bit like saying that if one airplane can fly from New York to Los Angeles in five hours, two can make it in two and a half hours, it’s still a remarkable image. It gives some hint just how ubiquitous and prolific fungi are in our world.


Deep History

Prairie Erth by William Least Heat-Moon. Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1991.

This book is deep history of a single locality, Chase County Kansas, a thinly populated, largely rural part of the Flint Hills and the great North American grasslands. The book’s coverage extends far into the geologic past and up to the early 1990s. By then, as in much of rural America a peak of population and development had been passed, and its farms, ranches, villages and towns were becoming depopulated. Heat-Moon spent many months driving and walking about the county, systematically taking up one by one the grid of USGS topographic maps (twelve central ones and thirteen more that cover the edges) that include Chase County. He talked with a great many of the residents and others with connections to the land, the people and the history. He also read extensively, prefacing each of the twelve sections (one for each central topo map) with a series of excerpts from his commonplace book, relating to the themes he follows in that section. The quotations come from hundreds of books, newspapers, journals.

Geology, botany, zoology occupy almost as much of the six hundred pages as the people. A Native American himself, he devotes much space to the aboriginal people, the Kaw, also sometimes called the Kansa (among a host of other names that he cites) By the time he wrote, the few remaining members of that tribe resided on Oklahoma, to which they had been “removed” in the 1870s.

Summarizing this remarkable work of observation, listening and reflection is not possible. I was deeply impressed both by how fascinating a seemingly backwater place can be and by how deeply Heat-Moon engaged with the land and people. Despite often being seen as an eccentric outsider, he showed great respect for the locals and was able to win the confidence of many. His self reflections are often profound and often extremely amusing. The best travel writers often are like that: I think of Bill Bryson.

What I realized reading Prairie Erth was how much I am interested in the deep history of the places I have lived. I think that’s why I am captivated by books that lay out the events that shaped the landscapes I am most familiar with. If you have seen my earlier posts, New World History, Forgotten but not Gone, Ecosystem Lost and Found?, The Journeys of Holling C. Holling, and even Amphibious Reflections, you will have encountered my interest.

I live in the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, on land once part of Gloucester Plantation, which was centered on Gloucester Furnace, an iron foundry. It can be fairly said that the Pine Barrens were one of the industrial centers of the early United States, although now, many people describe them as a “pristine wilderness.” This sort of blindness to the past seems endemic among us, as amply demonstrated in Forgotten Grasslands of the South and Looking for Longleaf.

Fortunately, there have always been some more inquiring minds, who have sought out the past and tried to preserve or at least document it. For my area, there are many books, like Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, that record these past landscapes and communities. Many individuals like Jean Soderland, are researching the history of indigenous people. There is now a periodical devoted to all aspects of the regions history, SoJourn.

I have had at least five colleagues who dedicated their research to understanding the geological and cultural history of the region: a hydrologist, a geographer, a historian, an archaeologist and a geologist. The geologist started out in horticulture, but became so interested in the natural landscapes of the Pine Barrens that he took a PhD in geology to further his collaborations with a noted glacial geologist. He has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the ways that the Ice Ages shaped the topography of the Pine Barrens and indeed the entire North American coastal plain.

The North American Coastal Plain consists of marine of riverine sands and gravels accumulated on the edge of the ocean. From these soils develop that drain rapidly and are prone to severe drought. Fire has been a force in the landscape for millions of years, varying in frequency and intensity with climate and, since a few thousand years ago, with human activity. Groundwater saturates these porous sediments, often nearly to or above the surface. Upland vegetation historically burned often, the extensive lowlands only in severe droughts. 

 The ice age climate was dry, cold and ferociously windy as frigid air flowed off the ice sheets only a short way north. The landscape that developed as the climate warmed included wide but very shallow river channels, with streams too small for their valleys. These were created by melting permafrost. There are numerous shallow ponds in depressions, some nearly circular, created by powerful winds during full glacial periods, others long, winding and narrow, created by blowing sand blocking stream courses. Low, sandy ridges are the remains of ancient fields of dunes created by the same winds that blew out the depressions. 

Early European settlers cut the trees, dammed the streams and began creating mills, cranberry bogs and crop fields. They started many iron plantations in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, utilizing the local bog iron, the pine forests (for charcoal) and the shell maddens left by the aboriginal inhabitants, the Lenape, to produce iron. As iron industry moved west, paper and glassmaking took over the old water powered mill sites.

Today, the former Gloucester Plantation tract has been through several phases of settlement and resettlement. The land was promoted in a real estate endeavor that became Egg Harbor City. A town was laid out, at first facing Landing Creek and the Mullica River, then reoriented to the railroad that was built in the 1850s from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The hinterlands were sold as farms, mainly to German-speaking immigrants, most of whom left eastern cities to escape the anti-immigrant Know-nothings (see Before the Storm and Politics and War) Egg Harbor City thrived as an agricultural and small manufacturing town and then gradually faded until the advent of the FAA Technical Center, Stockton College (now University) and the Atlantic City Casinos. These brought in new residents, but not much new commerce, which developed mostly in the central and eastern parts of Atlantic County. The establishment of the Pinelands National Reserve in 1979 restricted commercial and industrial development and even residential development over much of the Gloucester tract.

 Farming continues, mainly commercial blueberries (a crop developed in the Pine Barrens) and, more recently, community supported agriculture. Much of the land, however, reverted to forest. Not the open woodlands of the years before fire suppression became the policy in New Jersey, but dense, closed canopy oak and pine forests, with thick understory of huckleberries. This lowered the groundwater table, drying up ponds and headwater streams. It also caused the native herbaceous plants to become much less frequent and with them their associated insects, especially butterflies and moths. Many are now only found in a few well managed preserves and, ironically, in utility line corridors and airports, which are kept open by mowing in the dormant season.  

The region’s roadsides, once a haven for native herbs, have been converted by mowing and addition of cool season grass, to monotonous and sterile strips. Unpaved roads, trails and open areas are now the domain of off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who flood the Pine Barrens on weekends, destroying habitat. The worst are the “mudders,” who have wiped out hundreds of localities for rare and endangered wetland plants. Species not native to the Pine Barrens are increasingly taking over, especially on recently abandoned cleared land. I am in continual struggle with autumn olive, multiflora rose, Asian barberry, and Eurasian bittersweet.

I pin my hopes on the position of the New Jersey Coastal Plain as the northernmost (excepting Long Island and Cape Cod) part of the great North American Coastal Plain biodiversity hotspot.  As climate change pushes populations northward and sea level rise shrinks the Coastal Plain, southern New Jersey may be a critical refuge for southern species. But who can tell? It could just as well succumb to rampant deregulation and competing interests, like the infernal off-roaders. 

Change over millions of years shaped the landscape and the evolution of the Pine Barrens’ characteristic flora and fauna. I tried to impress this on my students in the years I taught ecology. The processes that operate in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere – energy flow, nutrient cycling, population dynamics, evolution and cultural change – shape what we see around us. And every development leaves traces on the land and in the living organisms that inhabit it. Without an understanding of the history of the place you are in, you cannot understand its present or future.

History of my Times

Grand Expectations: the United States, 1945-1974. The Oxford History of the United States. By James T. Patterson. Narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Edition. Originally published by Oxford University Press 1996.

Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. The Oxford History of the United States. By James T. Patterson. Narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Edition. Originally published by Oxford University Press 2005.

I’m a baby boomer. These two books encompass the period from just before I was born to the beginning of the Bush II era at the start of the new millennium. For the most part what I learned about from these books was not unfamiliar persons and events. At least from the early fifties on I was aware of the cultural trends and the major political events happening around me. Presidential elections, fears of “the bomb” and the Cuban Missile Crisis, rock ‘n’ roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Society, Vietnam, hippies, Earth Day, Watergate, and more were the stuff of my growing up. My adult life was shaped by the environmental movement, and I experienced the hopes and disappointments of the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years. I was interviewed by Al Gore for a placement as a science fellow in his congressional office, and I saw him chairing hearings on the conduct of Reagan’s appointees to the EPA, where I has previously worked for a summer as a fellow.

Many aspects of this period are covered thoroughly and well in these two books: the postwar recovery and economic boom, the Cold War and red scare, the struggles over civil rights, the war on poverty, Vietnam, the environmental movement, Watergate and the numerous scandals that followed, mostly also called “…gate.” What I missed in these books that I felt was present in some of the earlier volumes of the Oxford history was the perspective that time gives. Events seem too fresh to me to assess their significance.

I personally feel that Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” of courting conservative white voters in the Democrat-dominated South by subtle appeals to racial prejudice was one of the most important shifts, perhaps inevitable, given the history of the region, but still much to be regretted. Even more important, I think was Ronald Reagan’s ability to hold the loyalty of conservative whites, while simultaneously attacking the tax structure, labor rights and Federal programs that promoted and protected their economic well being. A mixture of anti-communism, dog whistle racism,  anti-tax, anti-welfare talk, and feel good rhetoric about American exceptionalism counted for more than economic realities.

I know the Democratic Party failed again and again to protect many working Americans’ economic gains, especially under Clinton, who paid lip service to labor and the environment, but who never seemed to get around to doing anything concrete. All along the way, the changes being wrought in Federal programs and an increasingly pro-business Judiciary insured that inequality would rise rapidly after its near miraculous decline in the postwar years (see my post on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). Coming generations were not going to enjoy the continuing economic growth that had lifted so many people into the middle class and led to those “grand expectations,” from 1945 until the 1970s. Those hard realities fueled the growing, unfocused anger and fear that gives the final volume its title.

Fear, anger and the aging of the Baby Boom generation helped conservative candidates. There has been a sharp turn to the right in Congress, and Republicans have gained control in many state capitals. These gains have been cemented in place by increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering of state and federal election districts and systematic voter suppression, and coupled with the inherently unrepresentative character of the Senate and the Electoral College, have allowed absolute minorities of the electorate to control government at many levels since the 1980s.

I doubt whether the sequel to these volumes will be published in my lifetime, although it will have been another thirty-five years in 2035. Patterson does say a good bit at the end about the threat of terrorism directed at the United States. Still, very few people in January 2001 foresaw the impact of 9-11 or the global conflicts that it led us into. Nobody then, I think, foresaw the great recession of 2008, the rise of Donald Trump and the extremist right and our failure to deal with the clear danger of climate change. Nobody expected we’d be devastated by a pandemic in 2020.  The hope that blossomed when the United States elected its first black President proved evanescent. When the next installment of the Oxford History of the United States comes out, if I’m here to read it, I’m not sure I’ll be able to bear it.

Revolutionary Hopes

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763 -1789. The Oxford History of the United States. By Robert Middlekauff, narrated by Robert Fass. Audible Books. Originally published by Oxford University Press. 1962, 2005 second ed.

Image: The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard (source Wikimedia commons)

This volume in the Oxford History of the United States covers the beginnings of the conflict between the American colonies and Great Britain, following the end of the French and Indian Wars, up to the ratification of the Constitution and the beginning of the new government in 1789. The conflicts between Whigs and Torys or Loyalists and Rebels, the Revolutionary War and the struggles over the new government highlight the hopes of Americans for a new beginning.

The men and women caught up in pursuit of the Glorious Cause at first viewed themselves as simply demanding the rights that the people of England were guaranteed and that were supposed to be defended by Parliament. The early political splits largely fell along the lines between those who benefited from English policies towards the colonies and those that did not. If the taxes imposed by Parliament did not impact them too severely, many viewed it as reasonable to pay the cost of administration and defense. Some objected that while the taxes were justified, as subjects of the English Crown, they had the right to decide how those taxes would be applied. However, some began to believe that they would be better off under a government of their own choosing. It is especially interesting to learn that many of these fault lines among the politically engaged citizens long predated the conflict with the mother country. ”All politics is local,” as the saying goes. Each colony with its unique history and different mix of classes, ethnicities and faiths, as well as different economic bases, divided differently. The deeper the original divisions, the more contentious the struggle in most cases. Massachusetts was especially violent, with mob actions directed against the public authorities and those who sided with them, much of it incited and even led by their political opponents. After reading this account, it is a lot easier to understand why soldiers had to be dispatched to Boston to keep order and protect property.

Once the conflict erupted into violence at Lexington and Concord, the choice became more stark: many began to feel that it was victory or death. Still, hope for reconciliation persisted. The most remarkable aspect of the early phases of the war to me was the ability of the separate colonies to organize themselves into an effectively united body, largely through the Continental Congress. The early sessions achieved remarkable things, given that prior to this, the colonies had had little or no formal relationships. In school, I mostly learned about the military campaigns and the Declaration of Independence, but what made these possible was the ability of a representative body to agree on a plan of action, find men to put it into action and to come together to take the fateful step of breaking away from England. Throughout our history, the United States have been fortunate in having effective representative government in times of crisis, like the Civil War and the Great Depression.

The general narrative of the war, the peace and the difficulty of establishing a solid foundation for the future are amply described, and I enjoyed all of it. Likewise the account of the making of the Constitution in 1787 and the successful struggle to have it ratified. These are too well described and also treated in much greater detail in a plethora of other books, that I think I’ll not try top summarize. The book upholds the high standards of the series.

Politics and War

Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2017. Kindle edition.

All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860 by Sidney Blumenthal, 2019. Audible edition. 

Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America by Fergus M. Bordewich, Knopf, 2020.

Image: Lincoln Inauguration 1861 (source Wikipedia)

The first two books listed continue the story started in A Self Made Man, which closed with the end of Lincoln’s one term in Congress. They show the development of his political thinking during the tumultuous years described in The Impending Crisis. Lincoln played little direct part in doings on the national scene, but he never withdrew from politics, remaining an active supporter of the Whig Party until its final demise in the mid 1850s. By then his opposition to the expansion of slavery and his desire that it should eventually end because it was incompatible with the basic principles of democracy, were firm. He had seen the overthrow of moderate Whigs in Kentucky, including Henry Clay and several close relations of his wife, Mary Todd, by a conspiracy of slave dealers and others. He had a growing sense that there was no limit to the greed and ambition of the “slave power,” as it came to be called. He expressed opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, but he bowed out of the 1856 race for Senator from Illinois in order to ensure the election of an anti slavery Democrat. 

Lincoln had always opposed the Democrats in Illinois. The challenge he faced was to deal with the three way struggle between the old Whigs, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothings and the nascent Republican Party. The Know Nothings mattered greatly in Illinois, because Chicago had become a huge city, with a large population of German immigrants. Lincoln saw that a party that could capture their support had the best chance of dominating Illinois politics. He joined in formally establishing the Illinois Republican Party and tried to assure that it did not take anti immigrant positions, while still bringing some former Know Nothings to its side.

In 1856 he was mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate but was passed over. He began to attract wide attention with reports of his debates with Stephen Douglas in the Senate race of 1858 and his famous speech at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860. Thanks to strong political organizing in Illinois and his growing reputation as a moderate but firm anti slavery man, he was able to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

Interlaced with this central narrative is the story of the increasing rancor between north and south and the unraveling of attempts to establish a lasting compromise, as I already described in my post on The Impending Crisis. Here though, there is a much more specific focus on the rise and fall of Stephen Douglas, who was Lincoln’s persistent opponent. Douglas, who saw himself as a pragmatist and a great compromiser like Henry Clay, was as ambitious as Lincoln. He thought he could work with the powerful southerners like Senator Jefferson Davis, heir to John C. Calhoun, to forge an alliance that would propel him to the presidency. He thought his concept of popular sovereignty and his success in forcing through the Kansas-Nebraska Act would assure their support. By then however, the southern Democrats had become determined to expand slavery far beyond the limits northerners could live with. The aristocratic ally minded southerners rejected Douglas, whom they regarded as vulgar as the nominee in 1860. Instead, they chose their own candidate and left Douglas with only northern Democrats to face Lincoln and the Republicans. Defeated, in the end he remained loyal to the Union, but his alcoholism was out of control and he died in 1862.

I picked up Bordewich’s book on Congress in the Civil War partly as a complement to the Lincoln story, partly because I served a year as a Congressional Science Fellow in the House of Representatives during Ronald Reagan’s first term and partly because I saw the movie Lincoln and wanted to know about the real lives and characters of the men depicted in it, like Thaddeus Stevens (memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones)

This is a fascinating account. After the election of Lincoln and Republican majorities in both houses, southern members left as their states seceded. Northern members of the Democratic Party remained. Some were staunchly unionist “war Democrats,” but others favored peace with the succeeded states, even at the cost of splitting the country. These “copperheads” bedeviled the Republicans throughout the Civil War. Bordewich describes vividly the battles that took place within the US Congress to save the Union and then to legally abolish slavery. Many members were accomplished orators, so much of the struggle was verbal, trying to rally colleagues and win public support. But sometimes the struggles turned to violence, though not as terrible as the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by a South Carolina Representative in the 1850s.

Given the enormous problem of winning a civil war that few had expected before 1861, with the unending demands for men and supplies, one might expect congressmen and senators had little time for other things. Members of Congress had no offices or staffs in those days (The Representative’s office I was in in 1982-83 had seven permanent staff, offices in the home district and separate staff for the committees and subcommittees. There were six huge Congressional office buildings, besides the Capitol and the two large buildings that housed the Library of Congress). Nevertheless, members were constantly besieged by men seeking government jobs, contracts, etc. Most got little sleep while in session, particularly in the hectic days before adjournment, except at their desks or on couches in the respective chambers. Many drank heavily, like Douglas.

Despite this, by 1862, the Republican Congress, freed of the obstructionist southerners, had already passed a backlog of bills that would revolutionize the country and the role of the federal government: the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad, the Morrill Land grant colleges act and the Department of Agriculture. Together these would lead to the development of the prairies, the spread of science based farming and greatly expand higher education and would tie the west coast more tightly to the rest of the nation. They also, through their efforts to finance the war, put the system of currency and banking on a new national footing. (To get a sense of what happened after, see my post on The Republic for Which it Stands)

The financial aspects were managed by Thaddeus Stevens on the House side and Pitt Fessenden of Maine in the Senate, together with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and opportunistic financiers like Jay Cooke. There was never a question that there was enough gold and silver in the ground in the western states and territories to eventually restore hard money, but in the immediate emergency, the problem was to have enough cash to pay the costs of the war. Gold and silver coin, the only legal tender, were tightly hoarded as war came, and federal tax revenue, largely from tariffs, was never going to be enough. At first, paper notes redeemable in gold and silver on demand were issued to pay soldiers and contractors, but hundreds of millions more in currency were needed. The first legal tender notes that were not backed by gold or silver were issued in 1862, the “greenbacks.” 

Then Congress passed legislation to establish federally chartered banks that could issue “National Currency,” backed by bonds the banks bought from the Treasury and deposited there. These replaced, eventually, the vast amounts of private bank notes, usually not accepted beyond a local area (and sometimes not at all) with notes that were valid all over the country. Still the price of gold, driven by speculators, fluctuated in relation to the paper notes, especially with the varying fortunes of the war. It took tremendous skill and good fortune on the battlefield to keep the country financially afloat. One smart move was to make the greenbacks not legal tender for tariff duties. This insured a flow of gold and silver to the treasury and kept the redeemable notes in circulation. 

To maintain the flow of funds to the government, a host of new taxes had to be enacted covering a wide range of commodities, legal documents and transactions as well as incomes. These were, naturally, unpopular, and contributed to the Republicans losses to Democrats in 1862. The military draft also fueled popular rage. With the growing impetus behind freeing slaves in the occupied succeeded states and enlisting blacks, including escaped slaves from the south, there was a backlash in the north – not only the well known draft riots in New York, but also violent resistance throughout the Midwest, where racist sentiment was strong. I was astonished by the amount of murder (including many federal marshals) and destruction, some of it abetted by opposition politicians as well as out Confederate sympathizers and agents, especially in states like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. It makes today’s brawls between white supremacists and anti-fa look quite tame, and let’s hope it stays that way. Those were bad old days. 

Lincoln had early on suspended habaeus corpus to enable the military to deal with civil resistance and desertion. Congress eventually passed legislation legalizing this,  but not without strong misgivings. The growth of the surveillance and enforcement powers of the Federal government is one of the equivocal legacies of the crisis.

After Republican losses in the 1862 elections, there was real fear at all levels, up to Lincoln himself, that the “Copperhead” Democrats would win in 1864. The main reasons it didn’t happen seem to have been the improving fortunes of the war and a growing recognition that the free blacks that joined the Union forces, far from being cowardly, lazy, stupid, etc. were as courageous and disciplined as any other men under arms.

For this to have happened took the Herculean efforts of Congress at overseeing the conduct of the war. This fell to Senator Ben Wade, Chair of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, supported by both capable Republicans and some solidly pro war Democrats. Meticulously examining and documenting the successes and glaring failures of the army and its leaders, like George McClellan, was exhausting but invaluable, both to the government and the public. Few recognize how important the oversight functions of Congress are, despite the fact that such investigations invariably have a political tinge, as I saw many times during my year as a House staffer.

The final part of the story covers the struggle to pass the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery through the lame duck Congress in 1864 and the development of a policy on dealing with the defeated south and the freed slaves. In those years the newly elected Congress did not begin meeting until more than a year after the vote. This left many “lame ducks,” defeated members who had nothing to gain from loyalty to their party and often desperately needing help to get on with their lives. Thus, enough Democrats and previously reluctant Republicans could be convinced to support abolition by suitable offers of government jobs, etc. Though the amendment passed, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, the assassination of the president and the inability of the Radical Republicans to overcome northern apathy and southern resistance eventually led to the failure of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. As my father, a lifelong North Carolinian and a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement, repeatedly told me, the slaves were set free only to be put into bondage again. Much of this, I talked about in my post on The Republic for which it Stands, covering Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. Another book on that topic, which I might post something about, is Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by Davis Zucchino. This details the only coup d’etat in U.S. history, the 1898 overthrow of the biracially elected government of Wilmington N.C. by white supremacists. 

I’m looking forward now to Blumenthal’s account of Lincoln’s presidency. Even his staunchest Republican supporters in Congress frequently took a dim view of his ability and resolution. I want to know how things looked from the White House.