I’ve spent the last six weeks reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the biography that inspired the Broadway musical Hamilton. I reviewed it at Goodreads, like I do almost every book I read, but that review got pretty long. And since the big deficiency in the book is something about American historiography that really matters to me, I figured I’d reproduce my review here.
So much of this book is a cogent, thorough biography of Alexander Hamilton and his times. At points it can get preemptively defensive, but it’s natural for biographers to have sympathy with their subjects, and besides, Chernow certainly doesn’t shy away from criticizing Hamilton, highlighting his severe lapses in judgement like the Reynolds pamphlet and the John Adams pamphlet. And this extends to other figures, too: he paints pictures of multifaceted individuals with qualities both to admire and admonish. The chapter introducing John Adams, for instance, is probably the best summation I’ve ever read of the second American president, covering both his vanity and ever-growing persecution complex, as well as his unmatched philosophical and rhetorical contribution to the causes of independence and limited government. Even Aaron Burr gets his moment of praise, when he attempts to mediate the feud between Hamilton and James Monroe over the Reynolds affair and Chernow tells us that Burr “was the one upright actor in the whole affair”.
It’s such a shame that all this good work is clouded by instances of bias and even outright disingenuity. The first of these comes with the author’s note before the book’s frontispiece, in which Chernow tells us that in his direct quotations from letters and newspapers, he has modernised eighteenth-century spelling and style for the reader’s comfort. In point of fact, there are literally only two people for whom the original spelling and capitalization are preserved: James and Maria Reynolds, the married couple with whom Hamilton formed a triangle of adultery and blackmail. Coming after four hundred pages of quotations that have been seamlessly sanitized for the modern reader, the sudden reversion to the Reynoldses’ jarring prose style (idiosyncratic and poorly educated even for the 1790s) serves only to make the Reynoldses appear seedier and more ignorant, so that Hamilton—whose actions here, let’s remember, involving cheating on his own wife and then paying his mistress’s husband hush money—can be more comfortably presented as a victim in the matter.
And then there’s Aaron Burr. Eighteenth century politics was a vicious business, full of slanderous and ridiculous personal smears hurled by leaders on both sides at their opponents. When those smears are thrown at Hamilton—that he was Washington’s illegitimate son, that he used his position as Treasury secretary to corruptly enrich himself from the public purse, that he plotted with the British minister to install a younger son of George III as King of the United States—Chernow is genuinely offended and at pains to show how false and preposterous each one is. But when the slanderers’ target is Burr, Chernow reports each one and, by refraining from offering any comment on their illegitimacy, actually insinuates they’re true.
For instance, in two consecutive paragraphs (page 662 in my edition), Chernow details the character assassinations that publisher James Cheetham launched on both men in his newspaper the American Citizen. In the first paragraph, the accusations against Burr are simply repeated verbatim: “he put into operation a most extensive, complicated, and wicked scheme of intrigue to place himself in the presidential chair.” But when Cheetham moves onto Hamilton in the second paragraph, Chernow cannot let a single statement pass without labelling it “far-fetched” or telling us that “the reality of” Alexander Hamilton “did not suit Cheetham’s needs” or that these attacks came because “Cheetham knew little and cared less about” the truth about Hamilton.
Chernow seems to accept Hamilton’s visceral hatred of Burr as proof that Burr deserved such visceral hatred. When he details the prominent New York Federalists who supported Burr in 1804, such as the eminent John Jay or Hamilton’s own brother-in-law Stephen Van Rensselaer, he doesn’t so much demonstrate how chameleonic and untrustworthy Burr was as how unreasonable and obsessive Hamilton’s opposition to him was. An entire chapter is devoted to the election of 1800, with Burr supposedly scheming to rob Jefferson of the presidency, with a single paragraph grudgingly inserted in the middle conceding that “recent scholarship has tended to exonerate Burr from charges that he did anything untoward” and that his letters show that he spent the electoral crisis far more concerned with his love life, the preparations for his only daughter’s wedding and local New York politics. He cites Burr’s involvement with the Holland Land Company’s bribes as evidence of his conniving nature, but omits any mention that it was Hamilton who secured the single biggest bribe the company paid, a quarter of a million dollars to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler’s canal construction company. (Chernow’s Hamilton is always—always—above even a hint of corruption when it comes to public finance.)
He opens his description of the exchanges leading up to the two men’s fatal duel with the sentence, “It is hard to escape the impression that in the early stages of negotiations it was the headstrong Hamilton, not Burr, who was the intransigent party.” But why would you feel inclined to escape such an impression unless you’re already expecting that Hamilton should be cast as the hero of the piece and Burr the villain—that is, unless you’ve mistaken the role of chronicler of events for that of advocate for one of the parties?
I’ll admit that a blinkered picture of Burr is the quickest way for a historian of Federal and Jeffersonian American to lose my sympathy. For two centuries, historiography of the Jefferson—Hamilton—Burr rivalry has been dominated by partisans of Jefferson, with a minority composed of Hamiltonian historians to rebut them. This has meant that, while Jefferson’s attacks on Hamilton and Hamilton’s attacks on Jefferson have both had counterarguments in response, both major camps have been naturally inclined to treat Burr with distrust and give credence to the two men’s politically-motived vitriol against him. But now that Jefferson is being reevaluted as a hypocrite and a rapist, and that Hamilton (in no small part thanks to Ron Chernow) is being brought forward to displace him, I had hoped that Burr would be able to take the place formerly occupied by Hamilton and get a fairer hearing.
Burr is, after all, a fascinating figure: an early abolitionist in the Northern state that had been as pro-slavery as any in the South (Chernow repeatedly snipes at Burr’s abolitionist credentials), an advocate for such complete women’s equality that even by modern standards he qualifies as feminist in his views, and the one political figure who appealed to partisans of both parties in the incredibly vicious political climate that took hold as Americans divided into a party system for the first time. That seemed to be happening with Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character, followed by the excellent popular histories of the last decade: Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, Stewart’s American Emperor and Brands’s The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr. (I haven’t read the Brands book yet, so I can’t rightly include it under “excellent”, but it’s apparently the book on which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal of Burr in the Hamilton musical was based.)
I want to see historians really examine why the two most powerful politicians of their day, the men around whom America’s first two political parties formed, were both so unnerved by Burr as their rival that they gave way to an unreasoning obsession with bringing about his downfall that completely jettisoned any sense of perspective or rationality. Because by casting Aaron Burr in his received role of villain, we allow Alexander Hamilton to escape responsibility for something that’s just as much a part of his legacy as the party system or as the modern finance and banking system that’s so key to American prosperity: the jealousy with which he guarded his own petty political kingdoms. His fear of losing the Federalists to John Adams, and of losing preeminence in New York to Burr, led him to attack both men with such viciousness that all three of their political careers were ruined, effectively eliminating each other so that the real rival of each man—Thomas Jefferson—was left so free that he not only emerged as the only national leader in the United States, but established his Virginia slaveowning cabal as the dominant political force in the country for a generation.
I learn from Facebook comments that the “commonly accepted story” is that (SPOILERS AHEAD for A New Hope) Sir Alec Guinness persuaded George Lucas to kill off the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi so that he could avoid appearing in any Star Wars sequels. (Which, obviously, worked out real well for him.)
This is news to me. If it’s commonly accepted, it must have only gained such acceptance relatively recently. (Granted, in my case, relative recency would be any time within the last fifteen or twenty years.) When I was coming up through fandom in the 1990s, very much the commonly accepted story was that Lucas decided to kill off Ben Kenobi upon realising that there was nothing for him to do in the second half of the film other than hang around in the background being ineffective (something Princess Leia already had nailed down quite nicely), and that Guinness was in fact furious at the change. Here he was, already leery at appearing in this latter-day Flash Gordon-esque, cheap sci fi potboiler, and only having agreed to do so because he had been so impressed by the enthusiastic young writer-director’s insistence that a dignified portrayal of the Kenobi character would imbue the film with a psychological believability—but now he was being told he would spend the second half of the picture as a disembodied voice.
Now, I’m not here arguing that my story is right and the new story is wrong, though personally, until I see a citation for the new version, I’ll be sticking with mine, because I first came across it in Skywalking, the 1983 George Lucas biography. (In fact, the original account appears to be included in Google Books’s preview of Skywalking.)
No, rather, I’m just fascinated by how the story flipped completely around—from Lucas killing Obi-Wan off over Guinness’s objection to Guinness strong-arming Lucas doing it—yet both, entirely contradictory stories are to illustrate the same conclusion: that staid old Sir Alec Guinness was dismissive of science fiction and came to regret slumming it in Star Wars.
There’s something important (or at least mildly interesting) there, I think, about oral transmission and the myths we build about our past.
“There is nothing which binds one country or one State to another but interest,” George Washington very sensibly said in 1785; and then he admitted that, at that time, the “interest” of the settlers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio lay not with the United States, but with Spain: “Without this cement the Western inhabitants can have no predilection for us.”
New Orleans is the focal point of the Mississippi Valley. It might not look it, but that’s actually a very grand statement; to appreciate it, let’s consider just what “Mississippi Valley” means: the Mississippi Valley is the entire United States between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, except for those parts which have direct access to the shores of either the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico. (The Rio Grande is the only significant river system, other than the Mississippi, that does so.) It includes parts of four of the original thirteen colonies (Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia) and parts of states that weren’t admitted to the Union until 1890. It includes the traditional domains of Eastern woodland nations like the Delaware and Iroquois, and of the prairie horse warriors like the Sioux and Comanche. It includes territory that mapmakers have assigned to France, Britain, Spain, Mexico and independent Texas. All pointed at the same destination.
A majority of moving water in North America flows through New Orleans just before reaching the sea. That means that the Crescent City is one of the world’s biggest and most important transport hubs even today, when we have the ability to move people and cargo by air or along interstate highways. But during the first three generations of American independence, before railroads and for the most part even before steamboats? Then, the only way for Western farmers to get their product to their Atlantic and European markets—the only way to get the entire produce of America between the Appalachians and the Rockies to where it needed to go—was to float it on flatboats, downstream to New Orleans.
If you’ve got wheat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that you’re looking to sell, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive at New Orleans. If you’ve got long-staple cotton in Huntsville, Alabama, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to pass through Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois, and eventually arrive at New Orleans. If you’ve got beef in Billings, Montana, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive in New Orleans. If you’re in St. Paul, Minnesota, and you’ve got … I have no idea. Frozen tears, probably. If you’re in St. Paul and you’ve got frozen tears, you’re going to float them downstream on a flatboat, and they’re going to arrive in New Orleans.
We can easily see, then, New Orleans’s vital economic importance, but we might not immediately realise that this also made New Orleans the must crucial strategic point in North America. After all, both New Orleans and the entire, vast Mississippi Valley have been comfortably American (apart from a single, intense period in the 1860s) for over two hundred years. But for half a century between 1763 and 1815, four different countries looked to make themselves the dominant power in the Mississippi Valley, and they all chose to do so by trying to fly their flag over New Orleans.
This is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said that, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy.” And this was the world James Wilkinson saw when he arrived in Kentucky in the 1780s. One power, Spain, held the right bank of the Mississippi, while an army of colonists from another, the United States, were quickly filling up the left bank, settling along the shores of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. But it was Spain, not the Americans, who held New Orleans, and that time they held it very securely. Interest therefore dictated that the American Western settlers would be reasonably drawn toward Spain, not the United States they had left behind on the other side of the Appalachians.
Wilkinson could see that because of that, the borders as they stood in the 1780s were destined to change in very short order. He decided to work toward seeing to it that Spain would come out on top, because he thought they were the better bet. But he was far from the only one who figured that the United States was going to come out the loser in the contest for ownership of most of North America. A major Revolutionary War hero, a state governor, a US senator, a Vice President of the United States, and even a future President: all of them flirted, more or less seriously, with abandoning the United States and establishing the independence of the Transappalachian states, either entirely on their own terms or in conjunction with one of three different European powers.
Those are holders of great offices, and efforts like this continued into the 1790s and early 1800s, long after the Constitution and the federal government had been established and the United States seemed like it would be more than a transitory curiosity. For so many men like this to have pursued such a goal, on independent occasions, makes it clear that we can’t just dismiss them as traitors to their country, as we could if it were just Wilkinson and his thirty years of Spanish espionage we were worried about. Something else was at play here. For these men, their concept of country obviously allowed that the United States simply had no claim on them once they were west of the Appalachians.
So next time I’m going to survey all these other would-be nationbuilders in the Mississippi Valley.
1789 is a chapter break in American history (as it is in European history, but for a very different reason). We’re all finished up with Enlightenment philosophy and Revolution, and we turn the page to a new time with a new lexicon reflecting new, possibly less exciting concerns: nullification, internal improvements, Manifest Destiny and the cotton gin.
As we start the long 1789-1848 chapter (it really is weird how those dates match up with such important European dates), the most striking difference with the 1763-1789 chapter is that there’s a sense of stability, a permanence to this new beginning. Not only does America now have its own country, it also has its very own government that it has now made sure is going to be vigorous enough and flexible enough to hold the country together against whatever gets thrown at it, right down to the present day.
What we need to remember is that there’s absolutely no reason the people on the ground in 1789 should have felt that new stability. There’s no reason this particular new beginning should have felt any different to them than the very many new beginnings they had spent, at that point, their whole lives living through.
Let’s look at how much the world had changed for an American alive in the 1790s. Let’s look at, say, John Adams, born in Massachusetts in 1735. John Adams grew up in a British America that was confined to the Atlantic seaboard. Far more of North America was French than was British—Adams didn’t know much about the land that lay behind the Appalachian Mountains a few hundred miles to the west, beyond that it was vast and fertile, but he did know that it was accessible either through French Quebec on the St. Lawrence or through French New Orleans on the Mississippi, and that what settlements existed there were French. For Adams and his fellow colonists—to whom “French” meant two things they abhorred: Roman Catholic and absolutist—the spectre of so much of the continent being in enemy hands must have truly hung over them.
But in 1759 and 1760 (confirmed by treaty in 1763), all that changed. The Seven Years’ War swept France from North America, and the entire continent east of the Mississippi was ceded to Great Britain. For John Adams and his fellow colonists, it must have been like how we felt when the Berlin Wall came down. British America had gone from a narrow strip clutching the Atlantic Seaboard to a limitless expanse big enough that, as Thomas Jefferson later described it, it would take until the “thousandth and thousandth” generation for them to fill.
Then, of course, came the new beginning when Adams and his countrymen decided to forego the protection and the supervision of the world’s most powerful empire and take responsibility for their affairs wholly within their own control, and cemented that decision by winning a war very much against the odds. Replacing common allegiance to a hereditary monarch with common allegiance to the ideal of liberty was the biggest revolution Adams lived through, but it wasn’t the first, and it wasn’t the last: because just four years after Britain recognised American independence, the United States realised that it had got its first attempt at self-government absolutely wrong, and that it had to scrap its first constitution (the Articles of Confederation) and write a new one, a Constitution that many Americans thought was a recipe guaranteed to lead to tyranny and monarchy.
And for all that change that men and women of Adams’s generation saw politically in a single lifetime, let’s not forget that the boundaries of the world itself were undergoing constant change for them, too. When John Adams was an adult in his early twenties, the extreme frontier of white settlement in America was Albany, New York—Albany, in the southeastern quadrant of New York, a couple hours’ drive north from New York City and only about half an hour from the Massachusetts state line, was the gateway beyond which, to the north or west, the uncharted forests belonged to Indians, lone fur trappers, and the occasional stockade of companies of British or French soldiers. Albany was the crossroads where colonial leaders would gather when they wished to treat with the Iroquois sachems who would come out of the woods. And yet by the time Adams died, Missouri—in the very heart of the American continent—had already been so thoroughly settled by white colonists that it had been granted statehood, as had twenty-one of the twenty-four states east of the Mississippi River. (Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida, then as now desolate frontiers on the American periphery, were the exceptions.)
So for many Americans, the reaction to the Constitution in 1789 wasn’t wondering whether or not the new federal government would succeed, it would have been wondering what was going to replace it within the next decade or so. This was especially true for Americans, like James Wilkinson, who had moved west and were already rapidly filling Kentucky (statehood 1792), Tennessee (1796) and Ohio (1803). Americans already had a suspicion that their country would prove too large and would eventually fracture; they just didn’t think the fault would be along the Mason-Dixon Line, they thought it would be along the Appalachian Ridge, dividing the Atlantic states from the Ohio Valley.
In such a world of uncertain future, then, James Wilkinson—hero of the Battle of Saratoga, major landowner who was turning Lexington into Kentucky’s major town, and man of extreme ambition—decided that his most likely route to fame and fortune was to take a secret oath of loyalty to Spain for the express purpose of detaching Kentucky from the United States and turning it into a Spanish colony. This became common knowledge by the early 1790s (though not concrete proof was ever unearthed; if it had, Wilkinson would certainly have been tried for treason, and likely convicted), and yet George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all felt willing to keep giving Wilkinson successively greater responsibility, and greater power located at a greater remove from their own oversight: second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in Ohio and Indiana, then commander-in-chief of the United States Army along the left bank of the Mississippi, then governor of the Louisiana Territory with his capital at St. Louis.
Or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable doing so, so much as they didn’t feel they had a choice; maybe they felt that, like the Roman empire appointing a Germanic chieftain governor of the province he’s just invaded, they had to maintain Wilkinson in a position of honour at the American empire’s distant outposts in order to prevent him and the men loyal to him from turning against them.
In 1806, when Wilkinson was presented with the opportunity to do what he had actually pledged to do in 1787—detach the Mississippi Valley from the United States—he instead chose to betray his co-conspirator Aaron Burr to the federal government and side with the Union. But he acted no more out of loyalty to the United States in 1806 than he had to Spain in 1787; both times, he sided with the power that he felt was in the best position to give him honour and fortune in the Mississippi Valley. In the intervening nineteen years the United States was able to strengthen its grip west of the Appalachians until Wilkinson reached the calculation that it was simply too strong to dislodge there.
But James Wilkinson didn’t just watch that change: he was an integral part of it. Examining how he made his choice for Spain in 1787 and for the United States in 1806 shows us how it was that many of his fellow Americans of the period came gradually to the conclusion that the United States was something that would last longer than their own generation.
As usual, it all comes down to perspective.
We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis. We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly. And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.
But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air. It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day. It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency. But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true. We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084. If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.
Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history. But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead. I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War. Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years. People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive? Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?) It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.
Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life. But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it. And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.
Last go round I mentioned that this biography I’m reading of James Wilkinson was probably going to prompt some posts here, so I figured maybe the best thing to do would be to start by talking about James Wilkinson. Because I don’t think he’s particularly well known, and yet he should be. James Wilkinson’s life reads like a hokey historical novel. He was a key servant of America during the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, and commander-in-chief of the United States Army for sixteen years—and yet he spent the whole period actively plotting against American interests as the secret agent of a foreign power.
At age twenty, James Wilkinson became the youngest brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He was a hero (by his account, the hero) of the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war. After the war he moved to Kentucky to make his fortune in land speculation, where he became the leader of the movement for Kentucky to secede from Virginia and form its own state—and also opposed ratification of the Constitution, as he felt it would interfere with Kentucky statehood. And then from the 1790s until after the War of 1812 began, he was commander-in-chief of the US Army, responsible for the defence of the Mississippi frontier from the Spanish garrisons that controlled it at St. Louis, Natchez and New Orleans, and then after the Louisiana Purchase, responsible protecting New Orleans from the Spanish armies in Texas and Florida during the war scare of 1806. It was at the height of that war scare that he became the man who exposed Aaron Burr‘s plot to seize New Orleans and set himself up as Emperor of the western states.
But also. In 1787 Wilkinson took a little trip down the mighty Mississip’ to New Orleans, where he met with the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown, wrote a seven-thousand word report on the likelihood of Kentucky seceding from the Union and placing itself into the Spanish Empire, and accepted an annual pension from the Spanish government. For the remaining forty years of his life, James Wilkinson, highest-ranking military officer in the United States, was Spain’s Agent 13. That was why he led Kentucky to separate statehood but opposed the Constitution, because his aim was to use statehood as a stepping stone to turning Kentucky into a Spanish colony. While preparing to lead invasions into the Spanish colonies of Texas and Florida in 1806, he knew that the Spanish government possessed copious records in Havana and Madrid that would condemn him to execution for treason.
Nor was Wilkinson’s duplicity limited to his service for Spain. He exposed Burr’s plot in 1806, but it would appear that he had been Burr’s active co-conspirator in 1804 and 1805, only turning against him once he concluded that the enterprise was likely to fail; indeed, there are some historians who allege that what has gone down in history as Burr’s Conspiracy should more accurately be called Wilkinson’s. During the Revolutionary War, after he abandoned his first mentor, a certain Benedict Arnold, he became tangled up with the Conway Cabal, a plot by several generals after the Battle of Saratoga to have Washington dismissed from the supreme command and replaced by Horatio Gates. He eventually died in Mexico City, where he had become a senior advisor to Augustine I, the Spanish Loyalist general who had gone over to the Mexican independence fighters, and then immediately after winning Mexico’s independence from Spain had declared himself Emperor of the new nation. Theodore Roosevelt declared that “in all our history, there is no more despicable character.”
The really remarkable thing about Wilkinson’s career of treachery is that it doesn’t seem to have been much of a secret. He was regularly referred to as a “Spanish pensioner”. When he was second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in the Ohio Valley in the 1790s, his superior, “Mad Anthony” Wayne (after whom Fort Wayne is named), made a point of intercepting merchants coming up the Ohio from Spanish territory to make it harder for him to receive dispatches from the Spanish governor in New Orleans. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn refused his application to be given the post of surveyor-general of the Northwest Territory because he felt that allowing Wilkinson to roam freely around the Upper Mississippi frontier would make it too easy for him to get in touch with Spanish officials. The United States’ first four presidents all received letters detailing evidence against him and urging an inquiry, yet they all also chose to confirm him in his command.
I think that’s fascinating, and I think the phenomenon of James Wilkinson sheds some really interesting light on how the Founding Fathers saw the republic they had founded and its prospects for the future. But that’s for another post.
Unearnt privilege is real. Unearnt privilege is also invisible.
Because privilege is invisible, those of us who have it (hi, straight white male here) can often be unaware of it, even when we’re actively exercising it; and this can lead us to think it isn’t real. This can lead us to insist it isn’t real, particularly when we’re being called out for having (unwittingly or otherwise) profited by it.
But it is real. If you’re in America and society perceives you as male, or white, or straight, or rich, or Christian (to name just a few big ones), then society affords you a latitude, society caters to your preferences and to your comfort, in ways that it simply doesn’t do for people it perceives as not belonging to those privileged groups. It makes life for you easier and makes sure you feel more important. That isn’t to say it makes life easy or makes you feel important, simply easier and more important than would be the case if you belonged to one of the non-privileged groups.
Gear change. I really love this piece in Cosmopolitan calling out Fox News’s Outnumbered for their paternalistic attempt to tell Cosmo to stay in their place and cover issues women should be reading about (fashion and pleasing men in bed, obvs) while leaving politics with the men, where it belongs. In its tone, in its substance, in its perception, the essay is perfect from start to end.
And it got me thinking about the title of the show. Outnumbered. I’m already predisposed to dislike that title, because I don’t appreciate a cable news show appropriating the name of the most hilarious parenting sitcom ever televised.
But if you’re someone who I’ve claimed, up above, that our society gives you unearnt privilege, just for being you, and you’re sitting there thinking that’s a load of bullshit, that what you have, you’ve earnt, and it’s patent liberal hypocrisy of me to use claims of equality in order to give women or racial minorities or LGBTs special treatment, then think about the title of Outnumbered.
This is Fox News’s attempt to get women watching them in the middle of the day, since, after all, the daytime TV market is predominantly female. And yet it’s not called Outnumbering or In the Majority or anything to emphasise the women who comprise most of its panel. Instead it’s called Outnumbered. The producers of this show, in their quest to appeal to women viewers, still take it totally for granted that even in something so fundamental as the show’s title, their audience are by default going to share the perspective of the one male panelist rather than his female colleagues.
That’s not the most pernicious, or pervasive, or harmful manifestation of privilege I could think of, not by a long shot. It’s not even the worst instance of it just in the criticisms of Outnumbered cited in the Cosmopolitan essay. But it’s a tremendously clear one.
Last week was Eurovision, always one of my favourite afternoons of the year. Lisa and I were honestly really impressed with the music this year, at least in the final (I didn’t watch the semi-finals)—usually Eurovision manages to turn up ten or twelve solid songs that I like, but this year I’d say it was somewhere around twenty, out of twenty-six entries. Even the UK had a strong song, and that’s not normally something I get to say.
That did mean there was a lack of gimmicky weirdness this year. The closest we came to that was the buxom, revealingly-clad peasant girls Poland sent onstage to churn butter and wash clothes during their song. But apart from that, every entry let its song do its singing. (Yes, that means Conchita Wurst won on the strength of her song.)
So in the absence of oddity, I guess I’ll just be highlighting my favourite songs this year. Well, I’ll start with Lisa’s favourite, which was Belarus. Here’s “Cheesecake” by Teo:
I really liked Iceland, though I did understand immediately that it had no chance of winning. Iceland has vastly different songs every year, but I’ve noticed that they pretty much always manage to come up with something that I like a lot. I was torn here whether to use the song’s music video or else use the live performance. I decided on the live performance, because I think it serves the song better, but if you like Aquabats-style low-budget enthusiasm, I encourage you to check out the video. “No Prejudice” by Pollapönk:
But my favourite song—hands down, in a year full of great songs—was Spain. I thought this was hauntingly beautiful, and honestly it had me from the opening chords. Again I had a tough time choosing which performance to put here. Ultimately I went with the live performance because I really liked the rainfall effect they created onstage (Boy asked if it was really raining inside the auditorium), but I did think that the dancing segments in the music video were pretty sexy. “Dancing in the Rain” by Ruth Lorenzo:
And one last word, on the interval entertainment, while voting was in progress and while the votes were being tallied. This is normally, you know, just something to watch for twenty minutes. And I have to say, I think Eurovision hosts have a pretty tough job: they have to banter in English, not their native language, and they have to do it slowly enough for an audience, many of whom do not speak the language terribly well, to follow along.
This year the interval entertainment was genius, and it was made so largely through the comedic abilities of the hosts, especially Pilou Asbæk (who, Wikipedia tells me, appeared in The Borgias in 2013, though it doesn’t say in what role). The Museum of Eurovision History skit and the ode to the number twelve were hilarious.
Until we meet again, in Vienna.
My mother visited last week, and since it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since she went to my grandfather’s funeral, she brought with her some of his effects.
Amongst other things, there’s a number of mementos from his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I was really excited by all this; I dedicated A Traitor’s Loyalty to my grandad specifically because it was his stories of his wartime experience that first got me interested in the topic.
I’ll start with the photographs. There’s one of my grandfather and the men with whom he did the flight engineer’s training course in the summer of 1943. There’s another of him with three comrades, only his head has been torn off; the note on the back says that his head can be found in my grandmother’s gold locket. (I love it so much.)
There’s two pictures of him with his flight crew: one taken right after the conclusion of an “operational flight”, with them still in their flight gear, and this more formal one, in which my grandfather is second from the right in the front row:
And a photo of his whole squadron from May 1945, commemorating the German surrender. He’s second from right in the fourth row back:
There’s also a number of newspaper clippings, wherein my grandfather has carefully cropped news photos of Halifax bombers, the specific type of bomber he crewed. (That’s a Halifax his squadron are adorning in the picture just above.) For me these are particularly fascinating because of the little snippets of news report on their reverse side. One from October 1945 has half the headline and lede from a story that appears to be about a debate over how much of a voice “the dominions” (at that time, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) should receive in the Allied Powers’ peacemaking process. Another has the first two, contextless sentences of a news story: Before the war, the precise location of Casablanca was probably known to few Britons except the bright lad who was top in geography. Now it is almost as familiar a name as Brighton or Birmingham, though it would perhaps be difficult to say whether Winston Churchill or Humphrey Bogart is chiefly responsible for this improvement in our education.
And there’s his log book, wherein he had to record all his flying hours. Every mission he flew is in here, from his first on 20 August 1943 (the only description of the mission is “circuits and bumps (dual)”) through to December 1945, with a break between May and September 1945, during which he was “posted to Dallarchy, Morayshire, Scotland” for “lectures on flying against the Japanese”, in preparation after the German surrender for his redeployment to the Pacific theatre. Each flight lists the pilot, the specific aircraft, and the nature of the mission:
By December 1945 he’d been posted to a meteorological squadron—essentially busywork while he awaited his turn to get demobilised and discharged, and as such his records become sketchier. But he does record a couple of flights he took as a civilian after the war, such as when he took my uncle with him aboard an aircraft listed as “Comet Dove” and flew as “Passenger” in September 1957. (I love it so much.)
And my mother brought a small packet of medals, which she had assumed were my grandfather’s campaign medals. One of them indeed was his, a service pin for No. 58 Squadron, but I realised pretty quickly that the others couldn’t be—because they weren’t from the Second World War, but rather from the First.
They were at first puzzling, because they were inscribed as belonging to “Gnr. A. Massey RFA“. The obvious assumption would be that these belonged to my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father. (My mother’s maiden name is Massey.) But my great-grandfather wasn’t “A.”, he was “John”. My uncle recollected that John Massey’s middle initial was A., so there was a hypothesis that perhaps he had enlisted in the Army using his middle name. I’ll admit I was unconvinced by that and thought it was more likely these medals belonged to a different male relative, perhaps one who had been killed during the war and whose medals had passed to John Massey, then to my grandfather Alf.
But! Whoever this mysterious Gunner A. Massey was, his service number was inscribed on the medals, which I figured out only when I researched the medals online. (I had seen the number on one of the medals but hadn’t realised it was his service number because it’s only five digits long. I figured it was an individual number for the medal or something. I mean, all the numbers by which we’re identified today, does it seem at all reasonable to you that an army serial number would only need to be five digits long? I’m guessing that in A. Massey’s case it’s a reflection of the fact that when he enlisted in August 1914, the British Army was an organisation with fewer than a hundred thousand members.)
Anyhow, I figured the service number would make A. Massey a fairly easily searchable individual, so I set out to find what I could about him. And I should pause right here and say a big thank you to Kris, because most of what I’m about to say isn’t stuff I found at all, but rather stuff that she did. I would still be entirely in the dark if it weren’t for her, and I’m really grateful.
One thing I learnt yesterday: the service records of only forty per cent of the British Army’s First World War soldiers are still extant. The other sixty per cent were destroyed by a German bomb in September 1940. But I also learnt that his service number belonged to a soldier who served in the British Army during the war under the name Alfred Massey (my grandfather’s name, though my grandfather wasn’t born until the 1920s). His medal card gives a “qualifying date” of 16 August 1914, which I think is the date he enlisted in the British Army but might possibly be the date he arrived with his unit in France or Belgium. Either way, his involvement in the war began very very shortly after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4 August.
Kris then discovered that Alfred Massey married my great-grandmother in Sunderland in 1915, at which point we knew that either Alfred Massey was my great-grandfather John or else my great-grandmother had a weird habit of marrying Massey men from Sunderland. It was when I saw Alfred Massey’s entry in the 1911 census that it all made sense.
In 1911, Alfred Massey was sixteen and living at home with his parents—including his father, John. So it would seem that my great-grandfather John Alfred Massey went by the name Alfred as a young man, when his dad was John, but then later on, after he had a son of his own named Alfred and after his father had presumably passed on, he became John.
There was also some additional family detail Kris found that I had no knowledge of and am so pleased to have, but I won’t go into it here, because I want to finally take a moment to talk about the actual medals themselves.
What you’re seeing there, from left to right, are the 1914 Star (or Mons Star), the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, also known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. The British War Medal and the (British version of the) Allied Victory Medal were, broadly speaking, awarded to anyone who served in British uniform overseas during the First World War; about six million of each were issued. The 1914 Star, however, was rather more restrictive:
This bronze medal award was authorized by King George V in April 1917 for those who had served in France or Belgium between 5th August 1914 to midnight on 22nd November 1914 inclusive. The award was open to officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, doctors and nurses as well as Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who served ashore with the Royal Naval Division in France or Belgium.
. . .
It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres. There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.
So this essentially means that Gnr. Alfred Massey was part of the initial British Expeditionary Force, the Old Contemptibles, so named because of the Kaiser’s (possibly apocryphal) order of 19 August 1914 to “exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French‘s contemptible little army”. (Spoiler: the German army found itself unable to carry out such an order.)
I had no idea of any of this.
(I should note that my great-grandfather’s Mons Star does not bear the additional clasp indicating that he actually came under enemy fire during the 5 August-22 November period; apparently slightly fewer than half the Mons Stars do.)
So! I know a lot more about my family history now than I did two days ago. And I’ve got a new bunch of family heirlooms to tuck away and hopefully someday to be able to teach my own kids just how precious they are.
I opened this post by mentioning that I dedicated my first novel to my grandad. Somehow when the novel got reissued last year, the dedication didn’t get included in the new edition, something I didn’t realise until my grandad’s death at the end of the year. So I’ll close by repeating it here:
For my grandfather, Alf Massey (RAF 1940-1946), who first introduced me to British spies, the Second World War, and so many other elements that make up this story.
So, the question I’m pondering today: why does it never seem to have occurred to anyone—not the French, nor the British, nor apparently even the Quebecois—that France might have demanded the return of Quebec at the end of the American Revolutionary War?
Historiography of the Revolutionary War tends to concentrate solely on the fighting in mainland North America. This is understandable, inevitable, and completely appropriate—and, incidentally, just as true of British histories as it is of American. But it obscures how much of a global conflict France’s entry into the war in 1778 (and Spain’s in 1779 and the Netherlands’s in 1780) made it into.
The American Revolutionary War was fought in the Thirteen Colonies and Canada, but it was also fought in Florida, in the West Indies, in India, in Spain and in the English Channel. The Great Siege of Gibraltar was part of the war. The Second Anglo-Mysore War, in which the native state of Mysore came close to sweeping Great Britain from southern India, was part of the war. During the war, France picked off a series of British islands in the Caribbean Sea (the Revolutionary War is the only war of the last three hundred years during which the Royal Navy has lost its customary naval superiority) and Spain occupied the Bahamas, though Lord Rodney’s victory at the Battle of the Saintes prevented a Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica. The Franco-Spanish alliance’s attempts to launch an invasion of Great Britain in 1759 and in 1805 make it into all the history books, but their invasion of 1779, despite coming closer to success than either of the others (in that it actually put to sea and roamed around the English Channel), gets much less mention. (Though I’d like a citation for Wikipedia’s assertion that France intended to retain Portsmouth as a naval base after the war.)
Indeed, so much did the Revolutionary War take on the character of a European war to outside observers once France entered that when Spain entered a year later, she did so with an alliance with France but without signing an alliance with the United States or even recognising the United States as a legitimate, independent nation.
And the peace settlement at the end of war—while its most important provision was British recognition of American independence and cession to the United States of the Old Northwest—also involved the colonial and European territorial transfers customary between European states at the end of these things. Britain ceded Florida and the strategically vital Mediterranean island of Minorca to Spain, and Tobago to France; the Netherlands lost their Indian port of Negapatam to Britain.
And yet nowhere is there any mention of Quebec. I can understand why France would ultimately decide not to pursue the return of Quebec—it wasn’t particularly lucrative (in fact it was a money sink, even with its dominance in the fur trade), it was difficult to defend, it had what was guaranteed to be a hostile power on its southern border. But I don’t feel like I should have to assume that that was the thinking. I don’t like that there doesn’t seem to have been any actual thinking going on. I don’t like that I can’t find any evidence of French Canadian agitation for it after France entered the war—after all, in 1778, Quebec had only been British for fifteen years; anyone older than twenty-five could remember being a French subject, could remember the campaigns of invasion and conquest by armies of Britons and Americans.
Any attempt to Google about this gets swamped by results wondering why Quebec didn’t join the Patriots and become the Fourteenth State. That’s a perfectly reasonable question for those with only a casual understanding of the American Revolution to ask, but it’s also one with some fairly obvious answers once you start studying the subject and realise the mutual antipathy the French Canadians and les Bostonnais—their word for Yankees—felt toward each other. The Americans, particularly those of New England and New York, were so anti-Catholic that on Bonfire Night every year, the people of Boston burnt not Guy Fawkes in effigy, but the Pope; and they were so anti-French that when a French army arrived in New England in 1779 to help them win their independence from Britain, the people of Newport rioted and the Boston mob murdered a French officer. The British were plenty anti-Catholic and anti-French, too, but they had also given the French Canadians the Quebec Act 1774, guaranteeing the freedom of Roman Catholic worship and preservation of French civil law in Canada—an action the Patriots found so odious that it’s included in the Declaration of Independence as a justification for the Revolutionary War. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Quebecois never mustered up much sentiment in favour of throwing their lot in with the Continental Congress.
(“Why didn’t Quebec become the Fourteenth State?” also swamps most results for another question I’ve wondered about from time to time: why didn’t Nova Scotia become the Fourteenth State? Nova Scotia, after all, was English and Protestant in population—the French colonists having been violently and forcibly deported during the French and Indian War, in an action by the British government that would qualify as a war crime under modern definition—and, indeed, most of the settlers in the province had emigrated there from New England, where Revolutionary sentiment was strongest. I did eventually find an answer to that question, albeit an unsatisfactory one.)
But just because the French Canadians found the British preferable to the Americans on their doorstep is still no reason why they’d have found them preferable to the actual French under whose governance most of them had been perfectly content. I can understand why France ultimately decided that retrieving Canada wasn’t much of a priority, but I have harder time believing there wasn’t anything to decide in the first place.