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.

The Fall and Rise of China

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Ageby Stephen R. Platt. Knopf. 2018.

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdomby Simon Winchester. Harper. 2008.

These two books bracket the time from when China began a long decline in power and prestige to its gradual emergence after the Second World War. The first book, Imperial Twilight, recounts the conflict with England over trade, especially opium, during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. The second, The Man Who Loved China, tells the story of an Englishman, Joseph Needham, whose lifelong quest was to discover and document the science and technology developed over millennia of Chinese history. Both make fascinating reading.

These books reveal the appalling ignorance about China that prevailed in even the most advanced western country, England. Some of this was of China’s own doing: the emperor and his court discouraged, even forbade, teaching Chinese to foreigners. About the only way to learn Chinese in the early 1800s was to study with the Jesuits in Paris, who had been able to maintain a tenuous presence in the country since the sixteenth century. No other foreigners were admitted. Trade was conducted through a single port at Canton (Guangzhou) where the different European countries were allowed to establish “factories,” with a limited staff. Trade was carried out in pidgin[derived from the Chinese pronunciation of “business”] a simplified amalgam of English, Chinese and additional European languages.

From the mid-seventeenth century on, the British East India Company dominated the trade, mainly in tea, but also silk, porcelain and other goods. Silver, obtained from the sale of English goods in various countries, was exchanged, because China was mostly not interested or did not allow English or other European goods in. Attempts to establish more extensive diplomatic and trade relations were failures, in some cases humiliating failures, for the English. Platt describes these efforts in interesting detail, as well as some unofficial, but heroic efforts by others to penetrate the country.

Looking for something they could sell in China, the Company settled on opium, which could be produced in India, by the Company or native suppliers. This proved extremely lucrative but also roused the ire of the Chinese government, which saw the growing consequences of addiction. The trade benefitted the Chinese merchants, and smugglers when the government tried to crack down, too much to stamp out. Meanwhile, the emperor was in an increasingly weak position as a series of internal rebellions and spreading corruption wasted resources and undermined authority. British ambitions began to focus on winning more freedom to operate in China, and, even though the Company really did not want conflict, the eventual result was the Opium Wars. When they ended, China was defeated and forced to make large concessions to several European powers as well as England and the United States. It took China a century to recover its full independence and then under Communist rule.

Opium was one of the weapons the West employed, intentionally or not, to force an opening to China, and now we see, probably not intentionally, China’s revenge. Fentanyl,  the synthetic opioid which is causing much death and misery here in the US, is produced largely in China. Again, a big part of the problem is our own weakened position in the world and the futile policies by which we try to combat drug addiction. Let us hope that the clash of imperial ambitions, China’s and ours, do not end as tragically as they did in the 1850s.

Joseph Needham travelled in China as the dragon was once again stirring, to speak metaphorically. Western influence was still strong when he began, and a new factor had complicated the picture: Japan’s imperial ambitions, which it first directed towards China. Much of Needham’s work was tied to western efforts to maintain influence in China in these changed circumstances. A biochemist at Cambridge, Needham first encountered China through graduate students who came there in the late 1930s. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, taught him the basics of Chinese and became his longtime collaborator and mistress. Needham served in Chongching as British scientific liaison from 1942-46. He travelled extensively, meeting many scholars and scientists and gathering the collection of texts that formed the basis of his research after the war. These travels were incredibly challenging and often dangerous, barely avoiding capture or death at the hands of the Japanese as well as the primitive infrastructure of remote areas.

In 1948, back in Cambridge, he began the project that filled most of the rest of his life: Science and Civilization in China, a multi volume work that covers almost every aspect of science and technology and that revealed just how much the Chinese had discovered, invented and applied. A Christian Marxist, Needham remained a friend to China, including leaders of the communist government, especially Zhou Enlai. This got him into trouble in England and the US, particularly over his participation in a commission to investigate alleged American use of bio weapons during the Korean War. He was able to continue his work, however, until his death in 1995, and the project continues today. All in all a remarkable life.

China has rapidly achieved economic development, based heavily on western methods, but it would be foolish to think all they have done is imitative. The tradition of science and technology Needham documented is a reflection of the genius of a civilization quite distinct from the West, and we have yet to see the end of it.

Discordant Visions

The Wizard and the Prophet : Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

I listened to the Audible edition, which was read with a great effort to sound dramatic and to pronounce every foreign name or word with a perfect accent, both of which I found distracting.

What is the right term for the series of issues that came to public attention in the last half of the 20th century? That is, those that involved the increasing human population, economic growth and intensive exploitation of the natural world, climate change, pollution, etc? Collectively, they can be characterized as “environmental,” but to say this was the era of environmentalism doesn’t exactly fit. Many of those involved would reject the label, “environmentalist,” seeing themselves as biologists, economists, social scientists, or ecologists in the narrow, scientific sense. The older label, “conservationist,” would fit some, but not all those involved. I don’t have an answer to the problem of saying in a word what this book is about.

Mann tries to sum up the tensions and perplexities of this broad historical phenomenon by following the lives and careers of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. The first was a conservationist in the old sense, involved with groups like Audubon and author of an influential book in the late 1940s, Road to Survival, a neo-Malthusian polemic on population growth exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. He was a major influence on Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, the book often cited as the major impetus behind Earth Day 1970. The second was a midwestern born and educated plant breeder who developed wheat resistant to stem rust and then added further improvements that greatly increased yields. First in Mexico, then in other developing countries, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, this work became the basis of the green revolution, and Borlaug received a Nobel prize.

Mann treats these contrasting stories as exemplars of the familiar dilemma: can science and technology allow us to keep expanding human demand, or do we need to reduce demand, primarily by stopping population growth and cutting our per capita consumption? He considers this in relation to four domains that he labels earth, air, fire and water, that is, food and agriculture, climate change, energy generation and water supply. For each he describes the “wizard,” approach – Borlaug – and the “prophet,” approach – Vogt. He takes us through technological solutions being developed by modern day wizards, and then tells us the views of modern day prophets, who say these solutions won’t work and who propose “greener,” more “sustainable” solutions of their own. At the end, he attempts a synthesis, but it is not clear whether there is a way to reconcile such starkly contrasted views. What I found interesting was not so much the contrast as the similarity between their conceptions of the way through the difficulties, or even catastrophes, they envisioned. Both saw the critical decisions as coming from the top, through national or international governing bodies, staffed by experts, although the experts in the two cases would be applying very different principles.

The trouble with this is that such solutions quickly lose sight of human values like equity and freedom. The green revolution greatly increased food supplies, but also largely destroyed small farmers’ lives and led to the growth of the developing world’s mega cities, with their sprawling shanty towns. Attempts to rein in growth often seem to place the heaviest burdens on the poorest people, while protecting the lifestyles of the already well off. At best, affluent folk get a steady bombardment of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda, along with promotions for exotic ecotourism destinations.

Economic liberalism and the global market economy have no use for restraint, so if there are limits to growth, it’s hard to see how the free market society can avoid hitting up against them. If there aren’t any limits, as many still insist, at least in the immediate future, does that mean we should continue to allow things to develop? In an earlier post, Climate Change, Equity and Security, I considered how a sustainable future might be possible, if more attention were given to equity in development, through the imposition of clear and simple limits (on speed, on emissions, etc.) to restrain the growth of inequity and waste, while leaving room for individual freedom and innovation. Likewise, efforts to constrain the growth of economic inequality could also ease some of the current threats to the global environment. Poverty seems to me to be a major driver of population growth, because it delays the demographic transition that rich countries have gone through.

People certainly need the vision, knowledge and advice of scientists like Borlaug and Vogt, but I’m not sure that they alone can offer solutions to the complicated collection of problems that result from human flourishing on Earth. The economic miracle of the green revolution, coupled with humanity’s incredible endurance, has enabled us to escape the catastrophe that Vogt foresaw, but it seems very clear to me that sooner or later we will exhaust nature’s resilience and human patience. Whether it is grain, meat, cars or human souls, more can’t always be better. We need to think more deeply about what we really need from the Earth and how, as free people, we can sustain our life together.

Despite the limitations of his either/or framework, Mann makes the stories of these two men interesting enough for a good read. You can enjoy those parts of the book, and skip the earth, air, fire and water, if you like.

Nearctic Travels: Shipwreck and Shakespeare

A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Hobson Woodward. New York. Viking Press. 2009.

[Image from A young people’s history of Virginia and Virginians. 1896 by D.H. Maury]

 Woodward tells the story of the Sea Venture, the flagship of the 1609 supply fleet sent by the Virginia Company to support its colony at Jamestown. Caught in a hurricane and run aground on Bermuda, Sea Venture’s crew and passengers survived and spent nearly a year on the islands, until they could construct two new ships to complete the trip to Virginia. Among the passengers was William Strachey, a down on his luck gentleman, who aspired to literary fame. He was made secretary to successive governors of the Jamestown Colony and sent an official report and a private letter describing the events of the voyage. Woodward believes, largely on the basis of textual similarities, that the private letter was a major source for The Tempest.

The first part of the book covers the experiences of the Sea Venture castaways from England to Bermuda and Virginia and back to England, using Strachey and other historical sources. The second part deals more speculatively with how Shakespeare composed The Tempest, drawing out in detail similarities and coincidences between Strachey’s letter and the plot, characters and language of the play. Woodward has little to go on here, but he at least makes a plausible case for Shakespeare having read a copy of Strachey’s account.

 My interest in this very readable book was sparked by its references to another passenger on the Sea Venture, Steven Hopkins. Described as a “shopkeeper from Hampshire” who knew the Scriptures well enough to become clerk to the minister aboard ship, he is notable for having attempted to organize a mutiny on Bermuda. His goal was apparently to remain on the island and not be taken to Virginia, on the grounds that the passengers’ contract with the company was voided by the shipwreck. He was informed on to the military commander of the expedition, Thomas Gates, who put him on trial for his life. According to Strachey, Hopkins was so eloquent in pleading that his wife and children back in Hampshire would be ruined if he were hanged that most of the gentlemen in the group argued for leniency. Gates relented, and Hopkins survived his time in Bermuda and Virginia and returned to England. He later joined the Mayflower, with his second wife and children. Though not a member of the Pilgrims’ sect, he was taken on as someone who knew the land and native people of Virginia, which is where the Mayflower was supposed to be going. Hopkins’s wife gave birth while at sea, and his family was one of only two not to lose anyone on the voyage. In Plymouth, he helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that remained unbroken for the life of the signers and also ran the settlement’s first tavern. His female descendants married into some of the leading families of Massachusetts. I find it amazing that this man was part of three of the most remarkable English ventures in North America, especially since I may be distantly related through a female ancestor from one of those New England families. I’m currently learning more about him, because whether or not we are related, his story deserves to be more widely known.

A Brave Vessel is well worth reading for a sea story, as gripping as Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and as a look at the struggles of the English to establish a foothold in America. Woodward describes all the suffering that followed from the conflicts between colonizers and natives as well as within the English society attempting to transplant itself across the ocean. He also touches on the ecological and climatological factors that helped and hindered their efforts. The severe drought that bracketed the early years of the Virginia colony greatly increased the stress on both natives and colonists and led to the “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610, which the arrival of the ships from Bermuda helped relieve. During those same months on Bermuda, the castaways lived well on fish, nesting seabirds and their eggs, green sea turtles, and the introduced pigs, left by earlier Spanish seafarers. The native plants, including palmetto and Bermuda cedar furnished food and drink as well as timber for building the two ships, Deliverance and Patience. The plenitude and mild climate of the islands undoubtedly were factors in Steven Hopkins near fatal desire to remain there.

 Bermuda became an English colony and suffered great ecological changes, including the near extinction of its endemic cedars and the cahow or Bermuda petrel, whose strange nocturnal calls helped give the islands their early reputation as haunted by devils. Bermuda’s roles in supporting the earliest ventures of England into North America and in inspiring one of the greatest English plays remain points of local pride. I wonder if Steven Hopkins dreamed of Bermuda during the dreary New England winters.

Playful Explorations

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (And Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth. The Experiment. New York. 2018.

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2017.

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Bloomsbury USA. 2015.

 These three books form a progression from the most concrete to the most abstract or, taking a different point of view, from the most serious to the most playful. At the same time all three are in different ways, highly imaginative.

The first is an account of particle physics, framed as a voyage into the unknown waters of the atomic and subatomic scales in the natural world, accompanied by charts at the beginning of each section that map physicists’ increasing knowledge as they probe matter at ever higher energies. The classes of particles recognized by current theory are shown as islands, while the forces that link them are shown as connections – electromagnetism as bridges traversed by cars, the strong force as sea lanes crossed by boats and the weak force as airplane routes. Butterworth describes the steps by which these waters were charted, from the development of the atomic theory of matter to the Standard Model, which culminated recently with the finding of the Higgs boson, using the Large Hadron Collider.

This model is a triumph of the partnership between theoretical and experimental physics, relying on both advanced mathematics and powerful machines, such as particle colliders  for achieving high energy at incredibly tiny scales and sophisticated detectors for examining the resulting products. Both the mathematical calculations and the engineering are among the most challenging being carried out anywhere in the world, and it is an open question how much deeper we can push these explorations.

Butterworth concludes by describing some of the conjectures and hints of what lies beyond (at even higher energies) cast in the form of sailors’ tales of the prodigies and monsters found in uncharted waters, like dark matter and energy, super symmetry and string theories. His account spares his reader all but the most basic mathematics and yet provides a very helpful overview of the current theory of our physical universe as well as an enjoyable tale.

The second book is a biography of the pioneer of communications theory, Claude Shannon, mathematician and engineer, whose work helped provide the basis for today’s digital computers and the entire structure of information technology built on their power. Shannon is a man who loved both thinking and tinkering and who was fortunate to be brilliant enough to be allowed to make those activities his career, without having to worry too much about where it all led. His most influential work, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, changed the way communications engineers thought about their work by eliminating the focus on the mechanism (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) and instead considering the fundamental logic of information. Among his key contributions were a focus on probability and his demonstration that all messages can be reduced to simple binary codes, consisting of “bits.” His basic measure of information is familiar to me from my days as an ecology graduate student, because it can be repurposed as a way of measuring species diversity in samples of organisms. This was one of my first experiences with the idea that information is a property of more than just human communications. The authors discuss the way in which the concept of information ( especially its conceptualization as uncertainty or randomness) pervades many aspects of modern science. They warn that this may prove just another version of the old “clockwork universe,” an example of the tendency to imagine nature in terms of our own inventions. Still, there is no doubting the extent of Shannon’s influence.

Despite his reputation, and despite being associated with many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century at Bell Labs and MIT, Shannon preferred his private family life and his playful activities, from robot building to unicycle riding, over fame and influence. He and his mathematician wife, Betty, spent much time devising toys and games, some quite sophisticated, including one of the earliest chess playing computers. He could accomplish amazing results with erector sets and a few switches and relays, like a juggling robot, dressed to look like W.C. Fields. He had earned, in the eyes of his employers, the right to pursue these activities by his amazing early achievements. Perhaps as robots and IT gradually take away the need for so many to spend lives in repetitive toil, more of us will be able to enjoy such a playful existence.

The last book suggests what a life of pure play might look like. I heard and saw John Conway at my institution many years ago giving a talk and demonstration on knots. It was a virtuoso performance, culminating it a dance in which a group of volunteers from the audience followed his directions to turn themselves into an amazingly elaborate pattern while joined together by a web of pieces of rope. I don’t recall the final result except that it was quite astonishing. Conway is widely known as the inventor of Conway’s Game of Life and of surreal numbers, among the numerous mathematical subjects that have engaged his attention over the years. The game of life has become a staple among computer pastimes, both because of the fascinating and sometimes beautiful patterns it generates and because of the way it models self replication and the universal Turing machine (the mathematical essence of computers). Indeed, as the Wikipedia article on the game notes, with those two properties, it can be thought of as modeling life itself, at least as mathematically defined.

Conway is in Roberts’ account perpetually at play, and like a heedless child, he leaves messes everywhere he lights. His offices at various venerable centers of mathematical research have been famous for the nearly impenetrable heaps of toys, games and paper constructions he accumulates. Conway loves games (he sees every game as a number, indeed games for him seem to underlie numbers, and provide a basic way to conceive of his surreal numbers). His method of solving problems is frequently to construct something or use a game as a model. His play leads to real mathematical discoveries, however, and other mathematicians, including some far more serious in demeanor than Conway, have been eager to collaborate with him on major projects.

Roberts biography is interspersed with accounts of her interactions with Conway during the time she was gathering material from and about him. Someone referred to the book as “metabiography,” since its making is part of the story, and it certainly manages to convey some of the strangeness of a life so dedicated to play. Mathematics, like tinkering, is one of the most primal forms play can take. When our educators come to understand that learning is about how to live and not just how to earn a living, they will have new and even better reasons to be sure everyone learns the fundamentals. We all need math to open up the horizons of beauty and pleasure.

 I know I’m going to keep rereading these books and also plunge into the colder waters of Wikipedia to try to better understand some of the concepts presented, but for now, I will post these impressions.

JOURNEYS TOWARDS FREEDOM AND EQUALITY

A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809 – 1849 by Sidney Blumenthal. Simon and Schuster. 2016.

The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics by Sean Wilentz. W.W. Norton & Co. 2017.

Two excellent books, the first minutely detailed, the second done in broad strokes of the historian’s brush, but illustrated with telling specifics. Both show how the struggle for freedom and equality in the United States has succeeded when idealists have found a successful political leader, with the skill to get things done through government action.

Blumenthal traces the process by which Abraham Lincoln went from poor white settler on the western frontier to well established lawyer and politician, on the cusp of turning his conviction that slavery was unjust and should be confined to the states where it already existed, into full blown opposition to slavery everywhere. Blumenthal’s second volume, Wrestling with his Angel, covers the years 1849-1856, when this conviction became more firmly set, and Lincoln joined the nascent Republican Party.

Part of the pleasure of this book is the details of Lincoln’s political activity during the ferment of the 1830s and 40s, the age of the Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs. I wrote about some of this earlier, in my post about Joshua Gidding’s The Exiles of Florida. In those days local party-affiliated newspapers provided outlet for the kinds of extravagant political commentary that thrives today on Facebook, and the partisanship was, if anything, even more violent, with dueling still sometimes practiced and plenty of plain old brawling. Lincoln was no simple country lawyer, telling homely stories about widows and lost horses, but an accomplished political satirist with a knack for vicious caricature, much of it printed anonymously. He had some fights, though he seems to have generally avoided them.

One of the most interesting sections for me was the account of the Mormons in Illinois and Missouri during this period, just before the migration to Utah. Their penchant for violence, even if cast as self defense, and the methods used to gain and keep adherents, make all but the nastiest of today’s cults seem not so bad. Lincoln and Illinois politicians both courted and feared these fanatics, eventually turning against Joseph Smith and accepting his murder with little indignation. This sort of mob violence became more common as politics became more polarized, leading up to the destruction of anti-slavery newspaper offices and, in one famous case, the murder of the editor.

Lincoln’s experience with politics up to 1848 was mostly in party caucuses and the Illinois legislature, with a single term in the House of Representatives. There, he was an active supporter of efforts to counter what was beginning to emerge as the Slave Power, the unified southern bloc that was determined to expand slavery as far as possible. Unlike many of the founding generation, who at least paid lip service to the idea that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, these men argued that it was a positive good and that southern society was morally superior to that of the North. Lincoln estimated that he had voted at least fifty times in the House for the Wilmott Proviso, an amendment that would have banned slavery in the new territory acquired in the Mexican War.

I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.

Wilentz’s book covers the same history as Blumenthal’s book in essays on Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglas. There’s also one on John Brown. Besides these, he writes about Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. He briefly touches on many others who can be classified as either egalitarian idealists or politicians who fought for freedom and equality. Throughout, his central point is that idealism by itself accomplishes nothing: only when joined to astute political manipulation can it take concrete form. Besides this, he challenges specific authors who have seen in men like Lincoln and Johnson sudden epiphanies that led them to do great and good things despite their basically rotten political nature. He argues strenuously that these men’s core beliefs in freedom and equality grew up naturally as they matured and rose to power, often at odds with other ideas and attitudes, but never appearing by magic at the singular moment.

Wilentz thinks that a deep seated American distrust of party politics, from the early founders like Washington and John Adams to the vast numbers of citizens who today claim to be independents, is fundamentally wrong headed. He thinks that partisanship, even as parties form and dissolve and change their spots, like the modern GOP, are essential to the progress that we have made since 1787. From 1860s and 70s Republicans, to the 1960s and 70s Democrats, he cites the ways powerful party leaders were able to pass such vital legislation as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the wage and hour laws, the progressive income tax, Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These are the changes that make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people, and we ought to be alarmed when politicians and judges begin to chip away at their protections, but we can only resist effectively by petitioning and protesting in ways that lead to concrete political action. Wilentz uses John Brown to argue that violent protest is generally counter-productive in American politics. The Homestead Strike is another example he gives to show how reactionary forces take any hint of violence (in that case, threats by anarchists) as a pretext for even more violent repression, to the great loss of those trying to achieve real gains.

Reading Wilentz’s broad depiction of the sweep of the American struggle for freedom and equality makes me want to go even deeper into these causes. I have loved Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson, despite his bias against the man, and as a high schooler I enjoyed delving into labor history, including one of my idealist heroes, Clarence Darrow, through such books as his own Attorney for the Damned (1957). I need to learn more about  periods such as Reconstruction and about areas Wilentz does not discuss, like women’s rights. There is no lack of fascinating and inspiring history along these many and various paths.

Global Voyager

Maya Jasanoff. Dawn Watch. Joseph Conrad in a Global World. Penguin Press. 2017.

Jasanoff’s biography is both an appraisal of Conrad’s career as an author and the influences on his life and work of the rapid global expansion of commerce and imperial ambition in the second half of the nineteenth century. She describes his childhood in partitioned and occupied Poland, where his father was a idealistic revolutionary, exiled for much of his life. Conrad was inspired to go to sea at age sixteen after reading, among other works, the seafaring novels of James Fenimore Cooper, which I did not realize the author of Leatherstocking Tales had written. He eventually made his way to England, at that time the country most open to expatriates and the greatest maritime power.

 Rising through the ranks of the merchant navy to become a licensed master, he voyaged across the globe, but mostly to Australia and Southeast Asia, mostly on sailing ships or the lesser steamers, rarely having the opportunity to serve on the better classes of fast passenger ships. When he began to write and publish his own stories, they were set in the locales familiar to him, aboard ships at sea or in the ports and backwater towns and villages of the great Asian archipelago. He focused on sailors and on the various exiles, dreamers of wealth or those escaping the past, who found their way into the remote places where they encountered indigenous rulers and other adventurers in constant conflict, much of it driven by the outside forces of expanding trade and European imperialism. His one trip on the Congo provided the framework for his most famous and controversial work, The Heart of Darkness. There he saw firsthand how the unbridled force of European greed brought out the savage potential of nearly everyone who became involved in the enterprise.

 Conrad did not like to be thought of as a writer of sea stories, although he certainly wrote vivid and hair raising tales of the struggles of ships and crews, Typhoon being one of my personal favorites. He thought of himself as writing about the struggles of human beings, mostly, but not exclusively, men, caught up in the web of impersonal forces, both natural and societal that he saw driving the history of his times: oppression and the revolutionary impulse, personal ambition and political intrigue and the “material interests,” which he associated most powerfully with the United States.

 Jasanoff does an excellent job of drawing out the threads that connect Conrad to our own day, arguing that more than any other author of his time, he saw and made his readers see the historical forces at work that we would now call “globalization.” Much has changed, as she is careful to describe from personal experience, both in material circumstances and our perspectives, but the seeds were present and can be perceived clearly in Conrad’s work. She herself, to gain first hand experience, made a river journey down the Congo, following the route of Conrad and his fictional Captain Marlowe, but she saw none of the darkness that they did, only poor but very enterprising people, making their way in a complex world, where bushmeat sellers from villages of bamboo houses buy toothpaste and batteries and watch satellite television showing European football matches. Some things she says, do not change much: the camaraderie of a long sea voyage (for her, on a giant container ship, following the long established route from Hong Kong to England) and the ravishing beauty of the dawn over a smooth sea.

 Jasanoff sees Conrad as deeply pessimistic about human beings, carried along by winds and currents of history. Although we can master the literal forces of nature by our machines, we unleash consequences we cannot control, and the forces within ourselves are even less manageable. But, she says, Conrad does show us those times when however precariously, we can make choices that alter the course of ours and others’ lives. I find Conrad himself a clear case in point: in choosing to go to sea, the Polish boy, Konrad Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad, master mariner and one of the greatest English novelists.