This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,301) on Friday, July 30, 2021.
July could rightly be called Independence Month. Not only do Americans and the French celebrate their nations’ birthdays during this time, but the Irish, too, have reason to celebrate ―although few of them do. It was on July 21, 1921―100 years ago this month―that the British government called for a ceasefire that eventually ended the Anglo-Irish War and eventually led to the Republic of Ireland’s independence from Great Britain. (I have written more about this below.)
July, then, is a good time to consider independence and nationality. Some Americans believe that we are losing that sense of nationality or community that has held us together for more than two centuries. The political divisions of this nation seem deep and almost unbridgeable, although I am not convinced of that by any means. Americans have always disagreed and often relished our disagreements. Through all of that, we have held together.
Still, as good citizens, we should constantly look for the things that unite us. There is much that brings us together despite the issues on which we disagree. Emphasizing those things is a mindset that would enhance all of our lives.
Those are my thoughts heading into what, I hope, will be a wonderful weekend for you.
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The second generation of American leaders: Clay, Calhoun, and Webster
Here is something odd and overlooked about the history of the American republic. The second generation of leaders―with one notable exception―is completely devoid of any close relatives, mainly sons, of the people we consider the Founding Fathers. None of the relatives of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, or almost any others that you can think of had much to do with the governing circles of the nation’s third and fourth decades.
America did not depend on family dynasties for its rulers.
The one exception, of course, is John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams who was at the center of the American Revolution and who served as its first vice president and second president. John Quincy Adams certainly played an important role in the nation’s second generation, but that role was never a dominant one.
That thought occurred to me as I was reading about a book by the prolific historian H.W. Brands, Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants.
As the title suggests, Brands tells the story of America in the first half of the 19th century―a time when a second generation had inherited the ideals of the democratic republic established by the founders―through the narratives of its three most influential politicians.
Henry Clay was from Kentucky, a Westerner, and saw himself as the nation’s leader. He wanted to be president and came within a hair’s breadth on several occasions, but he never achieved his personal dream. He had what the nation needed in Congress, however: the ability to find compromise that would stave off the breaking up of the Union.
The issue, of course, was slavery. Most of the nation, like Clay, who was himself a slaveholder, recognized its evil and its insidious danger. Keeping that danger at bay was the lifelong work of Henry Clay.
Not so with John C. Calhoun. Many of his contemporaries believed Calhoun to be the most incisive political thinker since James Madison. But Calhoun was from South Carolina, and while he was committed to the Union, that commitment was balanced with an equally strong belief that the Union could not violate core societal issues. The most important of those was the ownership of slaves, and being from South Carolina, that commitment kept him in Washington.
On the other side of that issue was Daniel Webster, who was also from the other side of the country―where constituents felt quite differently about slavery. The extremists among them were the abolitionists, who cared nothing about a Union that countenanced slavery. The extremists might be a minority even in Massachusetts, but they were growing in number and influence.
Webster had neither the political savvy of a Henry Clay nor the incisive mind of a John C. Calhoun. What he had was a voice and an eloquence that could lure the city of Washington into the U.S. Capitol whenever he was scheduled to speak. His words and tones were intoxicating and therefore influential. Defenders of slavery began to see Webster as the symbol of all evil.
All of this adds up to high political drama, and Henry W. Brands makes the most of it.
Brands is one of the best narrative historians writing today, and he is also one of the most prolific. He has written more than 30 books, and a good number of them have reached the best-seller lists. Not only is he energetic in his writing, but he is also wide-ranging in his subject matter and motifs. He has written narrative histories, biographies, comparative analysis, and historical analysis.
His subject matter has included Ulysses S. Grant, the Cold War, Revolutionary era, Civil War, and late 19th century history, just to name a few of his topics.
Brands is a professor of history at the University of Texas, where he has been on the faculty since 2005. He had previously taught at Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. I have read several of Brands’ books and am always delighted to find one where our interests coincide.
The Irish gain independence―and keep on fighting
By all rights, the Irish Republic might have celebrated the centenary of its birth―its own Independence Day―this month.
It was on July 11, 1921 that Great Britain called for a ceasefire in its battle with the Irish Republican Army―a ceasefire that led to the creation of the Republic of Ireland. The three-year war that the ceasefire ended had been bloody and horrific for both the British and the Irish. The British had decided that, while they had the physical strength to ultimately defeat the rebels, they were not sure they wanted to pay the cost in lives―both British and Irish―that it would take to keep Ireland within the United Kingdom.
The Irish seemed determined to fight on even when defeat appeared to be the only outcome.
But the ceasefire meant that there would need to be negotiations for a treaty to make the peace permanent, and anyone vaguely aware of Irish history knew that the British would impose conditions that many in Ireland could not find acceptable. The main condition was that the six counties of northern Ireland―whose Protestant residents constituted a majority Protestant and who considered themselves British―would remain under the control of the British government. (The process that I have just described was more complicated, but the result was the same. It was also highly predictable.)
Another especially galling aspect of the treaty was that Ireland would be part of the British Commonwealth and that members of the government would have to swear an oath of loyalty to the King, much as those of Canada and Australia had done.
While most of the rebellion’s leaders accepted this compromise because it ended most of the direct British rule in Ireland, a strong faction within the IRA denounced the treaty and the new government that it had established. They saw the treaty as a betrayal of the idea of a united Ireland that was completely independent of Great Britain.
The denunciations led to fighting among the IRA factions, and the fighting led to a full-blown Irish Civil War that lasted for nearly a year.
The war was particularly costly in the lives of Ireland’s leaders such as Michael Collins, who negotiated the treaty and headed the provisional government. By the summer of 1923, however, the anti-treaty rebels had been defeated. The provisional government created by the treaty and backed by the British government became the permanent government of the Irish Free State.
One of the most influential factors that weighed heavily on the conflict and the treaty negotiations and the ultimate outcome was the Irish expatriate population―particularly the one in the United States. American politicians and businessmen put pressure on the British government to negotiate its way out of Ireland, and American money was spent in large sums on arms and supplies for the rebels.
Ireland today generally ignores the ceasefire of 1921 and instead celebrates the Easter Rising of 1916, the event that sparked the next six years of fighting.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Midnight Cowboy, all these years later
Where were you when you first saw Midnight Cowboy? What do you remember about the movie?
I was spending a Saturday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, the last stop before going to Washington, D.C. It was late February 1971, and I was on two weeks’ leave in the Navy. I had just finished boot camp and was on my way to my first duty assignment at the Bureau of Naval Personnel. I checked in at a small motel for the night, bought a newspaper, and found that Midnight Cowboy was playing at a local theater.
The movie had been out for two years by then and had won a ton of awards and accolades, but my life at that point had not allowed for much movie-going. So, with an evening to kill and an uncertain future that I didn’t want to think about, I figured out where the theater was and made it there for an early evening showing.
And, to this day, I remember so much: Jon Voight’s faux-cowboy outfit, Dustin Hoffman’s off-putting but comforting manner, the theme song, the New York City shots, the loneliness of the main characters. The memories have stuck and been revisited in my mind many times.
Keith Hopper plays the what-do-you-remember game in a recent Times Literary Supplement essay on a book about the making of Midnight Cowboy. The book is Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, sex, loneliness, liberation, and the making of a dark classic by Glenn Frankel.
Here’s part of what Hopper says:
Remembering – and misremembering – movies is all part of the ontological allure of the cinema, where dream and reality creatively blur. The doyenne of New York film critics, Pauline Kael, claimed that she never watched a film twice, preferring a more experiential approach which conveyed the visceral immediacy of the cinematic event.
Hopper’s essay is well worth reading (a subscription may be required), not only for what it says about this particular movie but also for the insights it gives us into our own memories. Movies, books, and other pieces of art that have an impact on us become intertwined with our personal feelings and experiences.
We may misremember―or remember without much accuracy―the art itself, the act of remembering revives and deepens our experience. A book like Frankel’s and an essay like Hopper’s is a good reminder of that.
The Devil’s Dictionary (continued)
A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:
REPORTER, n. A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.
“More dear than all my bosom knows,
O thou Whose ‘lips are sealed’ and will not disavow!”
So sang the blithe reporter-man as grew
Beneath his hand the leg-long “interview.”
Vic C.: When I was in school (at all levels), I really didn’t like history (and my grades reflected that) and was diligent in avoiding any such classes that I could. Now, more than half a century later, I find myself delighted by your presentation of the historical events and figures that have shaped today’s world. Of course, your illustrations are a large part of making the subject much more than merely palatable. So, for this reason (and, of course, everything else you present), I thank you.
Cynthia S.: After an especially tough week, I treated myself to the video you shared last night. I’m not very familiar with art history, but I love all things French so I found the piece fascinating. Thank you for sharing!
Video: An excellent video about the life of Elisabeth Le Brun is on Amazon Video and free to Amazon Prime members.
Sandra G.: Thanks for the profile on Élisabeth Le Brun. So interesting. Read it while silking pans of corn, contrasting my life with hers.
Elizabeth F.: Stellar issue! I am surprised you did not mention Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I ran through it again just recently and it along with Commager’s American History stand the test of time and remind me of what we intended to be. I am concerned we will lose that. Thanks for the Dickinson words, too.
Marcia D.: Some friends and I celebrated Bastille Day. I know that my son, his girlfriend, and their friends celebrated in Paris.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Triumvirate (Clay, Webster, Calhoun)
Best quote of the week:
Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world. George Bernard Shaw, writer, Nobel Laureate (1856-1950).
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus―disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here.)
When was the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
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