Okay, so I’m fascinated by the American Revolution. And it’s no secret that I think that the way the American Revolution, and the Revolutionary War, are taught and thought of today are based on some broad assumptions and biases that are, basically, wrong. Probably the major reason for this slant in perception, I’d argue, would be that historians of the American Revolution are overwhelmingly American, and almost never British.
This tends to warp the historiography in two ways. First, there’s the simple fact that only one side of the story gets told. I think we can all agree that that’s always going to bias the account. The bias isn’t even really conscious; it’s just that, as no one pushes back against it for generation after generation, writers about the Revolution simply don’t notice it’s there. It’s exactly this source of bias that Fred Anderson pushes back against in my favourite book about the Revolutionary (and pre-Revolutionary) era. That’s a general principle that would apply to any instance of only one side ever getting told.
Second is more about the specific instance of the American Revolution: Americans have a serious emotional investment in the story of the Revolution. At times, preserving that story, and preserving the heroism of its protagonists, can take precedence over accuracy. That’s certainly not to say that I think the American writers about the Revolution are more interested in myth than facts; the legitimate historians among them certainly aren’t. But much of their readership is, even if they’re not aware of it, and pushing too hard against those myths gets distinctly unpleasant for them. As one small example of this, there’s the continued iconic status of Paul Revere, a man whose fame derives entirely from an intentionally inaccurate poem written in 1860 (which ascribes to him heroic deeds done by other men), and who faced the British in combat only once, during which he showed, in the words of Artemas Ward, “unsoldierlike behavior tending to cowardice”.
(Trips to the history section of the bookshop would also seem to indicate that someone has discovered there’s something of a market for American history books that quite explicitly provide the “true, un-PC” version of events, by which they of course mean they defiantly reassert only the myth as actual fact, but those books aren’t written by actual historians and I don’t know that they really affect the study of actual history. The ones aimed at children really trouble me, though.)
So for a long time, I’ve wanted more British scholarship on the Revolution and the Revolutionary War (or, as it’s called in Britain, the American War of Independence). That would balance the American biases and provide a broader perspective of both the revolution and the war. They’d be able to examine the British government’s perspective in the conflicts and crises that led up to the outbreak of violence, to see the war as a civil war within the British Empire rather than as a war between Britain and America, to explore the global aspects of the Revolutionary War that had nothing to do with the Americans.
So I’ve been really thrilled to see a trend of British historians coming to the Revolution and the Founding Fathers in the last few years. Over the past couple of months I’ve come across five such books:
By George Goodwin, there’s Benjamin Franklin in London, a biography of the two decades (1757–75) Ben Franklin lived in the imperial capital, for all but the final year of which he was a revered and well-liked member of the British social elite and the most enthusiastic advocate of Britain and America’s imperial partnership.
By Nick Bunker, there’s An Empire on the Edge, looking at the Boston Tea Party and the final crises that touched off the Revolutionary War through the eyes of the British government rather than the Patriot leaders.
Andrew Jackson O’Shaugnessy (who really is British, even with such a name) has two: The Men Who Lost America, biographies of ten men who directed the British war effort from London and in America, and An Empire Divided, examining Britain’s Caribbean colonies and why they stayed loyal when the colonies to their north revolted.
And by Brendan Simms (who’s actually Irish, not British), there’s Three Victories and a Defeat, in which the American Revolutionary War (the defeat, obviously) is treated in the context of being the latest in the chain of five other wars Britain had already fought against the French & Spanish alliance over the previous ninety years. This is perhaps the perfect example of where I think Revolutionary War scholarship would benefit from more British input; it’s inevitable and entirely appropriate that for American historians, the war will be a war that was fought in America by American forces. But after 1778, it was also fought in the West Indies, in Spain and in India, where it had no involvement from Americans at all—but if we ignore those theatres, we’re left with an incomplete understanding of the war.
I can’t get to these books right away, but I’m very much looking forward to when I do get to them.
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.
Got an email from Fios at the end of June, telling us that, as thanks for being such valued customers, they’re giving us HBO for free for three months. (No idea why we should be such highly valued customers. We’ve only been Fios customers for three months.)
Of course, what I immediately did was download the HBO Go app to the Playstation and our Fire TV sticks, and for the past month I’ve been binging on as many episodes of HBO shows as I can. I’ve finished all of Game of Thrones (so far) and am about two thirds of the way through Boardwalk Empire. Next up will be Deadwood, then I’ll be moving on to the shows that have a lot fewer episodes, like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Parade’s End.
(Incidentally I don’t recommend mainlining episodes of Game of Thrones, though it’s a fine show. Quite apart from that da-da-DA-da, da-da-DA-da, da-da-DAAA rattling through my skull like it was the rhythm from the Archangel Network, there was also the fact that I pretty much could no longer interact with a woman without picturing her naked, and anytime I got into a dispute with someone, I developed the urge to win it by surprisingly and dramatically cutting their throat.)
Boardwalk Empire came at just the right time for me, though. After I finished Game of Thrones we went off for a weekend road trip to Philadelphia, Valley Forge, Hershey Park and Harpers Ferry. It involved a whole lot of history and was a whole lot of fun, but it really got me thinking again about my alternate histories set in colonial and Revolutionary America. Those are topics that I really love but that I want to avoid writing about because I really don’t think they’re terribly saleable, so I always end up feeling like the time I’ve spent on them has been wasted. But they had wormed their way back into my imagination by the time we got home, and I’d resigned myself to thinking I was going to be spending at least the next few weeks working on them again.
But then I started Boardwalk Empire, and that was no longer an issue. It’s set in 1920 and manages to actually be about people who genuinely feel like they could have inhabited the 1920s, unlike most historical fiction, which (especially in TV and movies) is typically about modern people who happen to live in an earlier time period. And it immediately refocused me on stuff I’d been working on before, set during that post-WW1 period, that I think has a much better chance of finding an audience.
We’ll see what happens when I start Deadwood. Maybe it’ll make me replay Red Dead Redemption again.
Last month I wrote at length about the fact that the Soviet Union and Japan, despite being on opposite sides of the Second World Wars, never went to war with each other during the whole time that Russia was at war with Japan’s ally, Germany, or indeed for some time after. Indeed, the Soviet Union agreed at the Yalta Conference of 1945 to declare war upon Japan no more than ninety days after the end of the war in Europe; Germany ultimately surrendered on VE Day, 8 May 1945 (9 May in Moscow), and Russia duly declared war on Japan on 9 August. The Russians immediately launched a massive invasion of Japanese Manchuria, and Japan announced its surrender six days later.
(You and I know Manchuria better from maps, as the big honking chunk of China that separates Beijing from Siberia and Korea.)
Japan, of course, was already doomed to certain defeat by this point, and it was just a matter of how much longer—and how many more Japanese and Allied lives—it was going to take before the admitted that. But as any Russian on the street can tell you, it was the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria that finally tipped the Japanese leadership over the edge and persuaded them to surrender. Russians know this, because it’s what their history textbooks and their historical novels and films and documentaries all tell them.
Yeah, we know different. Because, of course, 9 August was also the day that the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, having already dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August. We know that it was the atomic bombings that were the immediate cause of Japanese surrender, and that we can feel smugly superior at the Russians being propagandised into thinking that it was their own contribution that was more important. We know this, because it’s what our history textbooks and our historical novels and films and documentaries all tell us.
You can see my point here, right?
I’m not saying it was the Soviet declaration of war that really made the Japanese surrender, since I don’t know. I’ve never gone and researched it, since I’ve always been more interested in the European War than the Pacific (even though one of my grandfathers and at least two of my great-uncles received the Burma Star). I suspect our version is closer to the truth, because I’m aware of the fact that remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a really big deal in contemporary Japan, whereas I’m unaware of today’s Japanese paying any special commemoration to the invasion of Manchuria. But I could also be very easily biased because our version is, of course, the version I grew up with, so I’m going to stay carefully neutral.
But mainly, I just want to point this out because it’s the best illustration I’ve so far encountered of how suspicious we should be of things we know for sure because everyone else knows it for sure too.
(Another Second World Wars instance of this: the guy on the talk page for Wikipedia’s article on the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre who acidly took issue with The World at War’s description of 10 June as a “summer day”, describing it as a “simple and obvious” error because 10 June is supposedly in the spring. He was, one assumes, entirely unaware that it’s pretty much just in North America where people define the seasons as starting three weeks after the rest of the Northern Hemisphere does.)
I’ve actually seen American history textbooks whose beginning-of-the-unit timeline says right there in print, “WORLD WAR II: 1941–45”. (The odd thing is that those same textbooks have to acknowledge that the war was already going on in 1940 so that they can teach Lend Lease and the Neutrality Act.) I would imagine there are Russian textbooks that say the same thing. Most Americans, I think, know that by the time the USA joined, the war between Britain, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had already been raging for years, but we can still shake our head at the insularity of actually telling children in history class that the war didn’t start until America entered in 1941, when it in fact had begun in 1939.
… Or had it? (Dunh dunh duuuuunh.)
I was a teenager when I learnt that Japan and China went to war with each other in 1937. The expansion of the Asian war in 1941 to bring America and the British Commonwealth in on China’s side pretty closely parallels the expansion of the European war at the same time, with the Soviet Union and the USA being brought in on Britain’s side. For China and Japan, 1937–45 represents a period of continuous conflict in the same way that 1939–45 does for Britain, Germany and Occupied Europe. It bothered me that, though the two conflicts merged into a global World War II in December 1941, the name for the pre-1941 Asian conflict was “the Second Sino-Japanese War”, while the name for the pre-1941 European conflict is “World War II”. English-language histories of the war would include the Phoney War and the London Blitz, but wouldn’t include the Marco Polo Bridge Incident or the Rape of Nanjing.
For a long time it didn’t seem to be such a big deal. I would’ve liked the pre-41 European war to have its own name, but after Pearl Harbor, they both merged into a single global war, Axis vs. Allies, right?
… Or did they? (Dunh dunh duuuuuunh.)
Lately I’ve been thinking about how Anglo–Americentric it is to consider the Second World War a unified conflict after 1941. Even leaving aside that there was no coordination between the European Axis Powers and Japan, we can still look at the three major Allied Powers: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. One of the Allied Powers specifically.
After 22 June 1941, the war in Europe was fundamentally a war between Germany and the Soviet Union. In terms of men and materiel involved, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Western Allies’ participation in the war—the North African and Mediterranean theatres, the strategic bombing campaign, the D-Day campaign—became peripheral, and there’s a real sense in which, in terms of the grand strategic outcome of the war, our central contribution was in how much we could handicap Germany’s war effort in Russia. If the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow, or had won in Stalingrad and crossed the Volga and rolled into the Caucasus, and had been able to transfer its millions of soldiers back to the West, we can’t reasonably expect that we’d ever have been able to dislodge them from Europe. Even during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944–January 1945, when the Germans pumped hundreds of thousands of additional troops into the Western Front in their last great push to turn back the British and American advance into Germany and knock the Western Allies out of the war, the total number of German troops fighting in the West was still just a small fraction of the number fighting against the Russians in Poland and East Prussia. That’s part of why four million of the (very roughly) five million German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front; it’s part of why four hundred thousand Americans and four hundred fifty thousand Britons were killed during the war, but twenty-seven million Soviet citizens were.
Whereas if we look at the Soviet Union in the Pacific War: Russia shared an extensive land border with Japan (the only one of the Three Powers to do so), by way of Korea, at that time an outright Japanese possession, and Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state since 1931; in Vladivostok, the Russians had a naval and air base within easy strike range of the Japanese Home Islands, far closer than anything the Commonwealth or the United States possessed. The two countries rubbed up against each other so closely that they were literally athwart each other’s supply lines: Vladivostok thrusts into the Sea of Japan between Japan to the east and Korea and Manchuria to the west, while the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok’s link to the rest of Russia, actually runs through Manchuria.
And yet the Soviet Union and Japan remained at peace with each other throughout the Pacific War. Indeed, out of deference to the Soviet–Japanese neutrality pact of 1941, the Russians actually interned British and American airmen who landed in Soviet territory after conducting operations against Japanese targets, just as would happen to belligerent airmen who landed in neutral countries like Switzerland or Spain (though the Russians usually permitted interned Allied airmen to “escape” after a given period).
(Someone’s going to mention that the Soviet Union did ultimately declare war on Japan, on 9 August 1945, three months after Germany surrendered and six days before Japan did the same, finally ending the Second World War. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria of 1945 is an important event, and in fact I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it as I write this, but it had no effect on the outcome of the war on either continent and is irrelevant to the discussion here.)
Both the Soviet Union and Japan materially hindered their allies by refusing to go to war with each other from 1941 to 1945: peace along the Manchurian–Siberian border meant that Japan was freeing up Soviet troops to fight against Germany, while Russia was allowing Japan to divert all its best troops to the south to fight in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.
I just can’t see Europe and the Pacific as separate theatres of a single war when one of those theatres saw the Soviet Union locked in a death struggle in the bloodiest and most destructive war humanity has ever fought, while the other saw them remain at peace with the enemy for the duration. It’s bad historiography. It assumes that the Anglo–American experience, as the only two powers to conduct a unified war effort over both hemispheres, is the definitive one.
So I’m going to be calling them the Second World Wars. Like “Napoleonic Wars”, that seems to me a good umbrella term under which to gather several separate conflicts which were clearly very closely related and overlapped considerably, but which did not share unified causes, participants, outcomes or even date ranges. We acknowledge the separateness of, say, the Peninsular War, the War of the Fifth Coalition and the War of 1812, while also acknowledging how inextricably interlinked they are; we should be able to acknowledge the same thing about the wars in Europe and the Pacific.
The Second World Wars, then, to me include at least four conflicts: the European war of 1939–45, the Asian–Pacific war of 1937–45, the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the Winter War of 1939–40. (Wikipedia’s article on the Napoleonic Wars groups the Anglo–American War of 1812 and the Latin American wars of independence as “subsidiary wars” of the Napoleonic conflicts, and I think that’s an excellent way to describe the Spanish Civil War‘s relationship to the war in Europe.)
And I mean, let’s be honest. We all already think of the Winter War, or the Battles of Khalkin Gol or the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, as part of “World War II”, the cataclysmic period of global upheaval; they’re just not formally included in the definitions of the war itself. By redefining the Second World Wars as an era rather than as a single conflict, we accord them a status we already know they should possess.
I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War. Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager. (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.) I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school. I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”. On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.
One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.” (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)
Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself. There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them. Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.
No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us. The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men. It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“. Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter. The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago. Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.
And I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left. But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.
“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.