Monday, March 22, 2010

Battle Cry of Freedom

I just finished James MacPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. It may be one of the most important books I've ever read cover to cover. Usually, I'll be reading two or three books at the same time, but this one demanded my full attention. For three months. It was an 800 page birthday present that has literally kept me from reading anything else in hard copy since then.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has this to say about it:

They need to make people read MacPherson's history of the Civil War in order to vote in this country. I don't think I've read an 800plus page book that moved so smoothly. This is the greatest work of history I've ever had the privilege of reading.


So many of the things that make us Americans are (still) tied up in the Civil War, and about how we're still dealing with a lot of the same issues and same rhetoric after 150 years. At this point of my life, I've begun to see the wisdom in Faulkner's "the past is never dead, it isn't even past" quote, but never has it been illustrated as effectively.

And reading the new afterword as it examines "positive liberty" and "negative liberty" within the context of the war and American society was fascinating.

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5 comments:

DADvocate said...

Obviously, Civil War history is important, but the events and ideas leading up to the Revolutionary War trump the Civil War. I'm irked by Brokaw's pronouncement of the WWII generation as being the greatest generation.

The guys who fought the Revolutionary War were truly great, from the farmer to Washington. The wealthy risked loss of life and wealth as much as the anyone. When Charles Carroll signed the Declaration of Independence, he included "of Carrollton" to make sure the British knew whose signature it was. He was the richest man in America and put it all on the line for independence and freedom.

Today freedom/liberty is an empty word with little meaning to those think the government should provide and control everything.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

One important point made in the book is that, before the Civil War, the United States was referred to in the plural sense, and afterward, in the singular sense.

The Revolution decided there would be a nation. The Civil War decided what kind of a nation it would be. The two are inexorably and vitally tied together in importance to who we are. That is why American History classes consistently divide the subject into "Before 1877" and "After 1877."

These days, we're still arguing over things like the reach of government power, the role of government, the place in society for African-Americans, taxation, treatment of prisoners, hyperbolic rhetoric especially at the extremes, political polarization and demonization, and the differences and importance of "positive" and "negative" liberty.

I don't hear anyone in our country today seriously arguing the merits of loyalty to the Queen of England.

DADvocate said...

the reach of government power, the role of government, the place in society for African-Americans, taxation, treatment of prisoners, hyperbolic rhetoric especially at the extremes, political polarization and demonization, and the differences and importance of "positive" and "negative" liberty.

Except for African-Americans, these are all Revolutionary War issues as well as Civil War issues. Taxation, reach of government power, treatment of prisoners, liberty all fueled the Revolutionary War. Your reference to loyalty to the Queen is silly and childish.

The question of the role of AAs and other minorities in society is largely answered. The debate going on now is between those who are still bigoted and those who want special treatment.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

How is it a childish comment? The Revolution was perpetuated to seperate ourselves from the rule of Britain.

An outside entity was projecting power onto America; some resisted and some sided with the old country. The sides were clear: Britain fought to maintain control while the Americans fought for as-of-yet undefined liberty.

The concerns I mentioned (even the question of African Americans) played a part in both wars. That is why I described both wars as "The two are inexorably and vitally tied together in importance to who we are."

The Revolution decided that we would decide those concerns amongst ourselves without interference from the British crown. The Civil War was a tragic failure to reach such decisions through political means.

The heroes of the Revolution were far from monolithic in their ideas of liberty. Massachussetts revolutionaries were fighting for a different kind of liberty than Virginian revolutionaries; but all knew their liberty would never be acheived without independence.

After that war, the deciding amongst ourselves began in earnest with the Aricles of Confederation and eventually the Constitution.

Disagreements among these issues led to sectionalism, talk of nullification, threats of secession and eventually, actual secession and the Civil War.

But the Civil War, unlike the Revolution, pitted Americans marching under the banner of liberty against other Americans who were also marching under the banner of liberty.

Examining that complexity is why I think Battle Cry of Freedom is so important.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Adrastos provides an example of someone who desperately needs to read Battle Cry of Freedom.