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Napoleon of the Stump

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough.  Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.

Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.

Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.

Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.

I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)

Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.

H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.

So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.

I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?

I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.

And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.

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Unknown Moments

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Coal miners battling for their rights in West Virginia. Scandal tainting the national pastime. Piranhas on the loose. All not-so-stellar moments in our country’s history, but ones presented to a vaster audience than most history books reach, thanks to the pen and camera of filmmaker John Sayles.

(OK, the last bit is not part of our history, but Sayles did write the script for Piranha in his days working as a hired gun for B-film producer extraordinaire, Roger Corman.)

The author and filmmaker

Sayles is also a novelist, and he was in town last night to discuss his latest book, the historical novel A Moment in the Sun. I haven’t read it, but I know the near-1,000 page tome covers, as usual, parts of our history most American don’t know about—and that some flag-waving types would probably prefer we all ignore. Why dwell on the details of stomping out foreign freedom fighters or denying blacks their rights, when we are at heart God’s chosen country?

Yeah.

The decidedly leftist Sayles does want to dwell on the details, as he writes about the only insurrection in U.S. history, led by white supremacists against the duly elected black officials of Wilmington, NC. And as he takes a look at the bloody—some might say ruthless and/or barbaric—squashing of a rebellion in the Philippines, as locals who had successfully battled Spain for independence had a tougher time against the Yanks. Both events took place in 1898 (though the Filipino insurrection stretched on for several years), in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.

The new(ish) book

Sayler read a chapter (a whole freakin’ chapter; it was the longest reading by an author that I’ve ever attended…) which describes the life of a NYC “newsie” trying to sell papers announcing the start of that war. Newspapers, or one in particular—William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—is often cited as the fanner of flames to get America into the war, after the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. (Modern consensus—it was an accident, not some deliberate attack by Spanish forces, which then controlled Cuba.) And the refrain through the chapter was “War!” shouted out by our streetwise hero and the other kids trying to make a buck hawking papers.

I’m not an expert on the era, but I did notice one historical inaccuracy in the chapter: The narrator talks of the newsie putting one of his hard-earned pennies, a “Lincoln,” into a Mutoscope, an early motion-picture machine. Only problem is, the first Lincoln penny did not appear until 1909. Oops. But the chapter was filled with wonderful dialogue and a fine eye for historical detail—including the marked attention to ethnicity paid by the characters-from-many-backgrounds. We have, of course, transcended that today…

Emilio Aguinaldo--first pres of the Philippines, captured rebel leader

Afterward, Sayles and fellow author Francisco Goldman talked about the book, Sayles’s creative process, and a bit about his latest film, Amigo, which covers some of the same territory as the book. Sayles noted that he didn’t know about the war in the Philippines until his mid 30s—not a sign of his lack of intelligence, but of the general effort, deliberate or not, to whitewash that first major American intervention.

I dug out an old high-school textbook from the 1970s. Its references to the Filipino insurrection: one sentence about the Filipinos taking up arms “in open revolt against the United States” and another about the general news blackout regarding the “war to suppress Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino patriots.” And this from a book written by generally liberal—or at least mainstream—historians. In 2006, in a different kind of book, historian David Traxel wrote about the Progressive Era and the country’s role in World War I. Crusader Nation, its subtitle says, is about the “United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920.” Which implies all was peaceful from the end of the Spanish-American War until 1914, but Sayles, and the tens of thousands of Filipinos killed by American guns, knew better. I found no mention of the insurrection in Crusader Nation.

But I found some telling quotes about the war, and America’s foray into imperialism, while writing a short historical play a few years back. It was called “Truth, Justice, And…” and it riffed on comments by-then president George W. Bush, suggesting that the horrors of Abu Ghraib (a bit before the even-worse horrors of Haditha), were an anomaly; violence, especially toward the innocent, is just not part of the American character. The play suggests otherwise, as do some of these quotes I found from some of the young American soldiers sent to battle the Filipinos:

“It was like hunting rabbits; an insurgent would jump out of a hole or the brush and run; he would not get very far…. I suppose you are not interested in the way we do the job. We do not take prisoners.”

“…legs and arms nearly demolished; total decapitation; horrible wounds in chests and abdomens, showing the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue. I counted seventy-nine dead natives in one small field, and learn that on the other side of the river their bodies were stacked up for breastworks.”

“We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more. Some of the boys made good hauls of jewelry and clothing.”

Some soldiers, though, then as now, were not altogether thrilled with their mission:

“They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence…”

(You can find these and other quotes here.)

Sayles said that much of our present position—I assume he means as an intervening nation—started with the war in the Philippines. It certainly made us an imperial power, which is what some American leaders wanted. Other voices, however, did speak out against taking on the “white men’s burden”; Mark Twain comes to mind. But then as now, the forces that speak for fighting wars when we have not been attacked always seem to get more play than those that oppose killing foreigners for exaggerated claims of “national security.” The Filipinos certainly learned that, even if most Americans–still–don’t.

The Real Dracula and Other History Stuff

February 5, 2010 2 comments

I am among the nerdiest of the history nerds. Need proof?

Historiography excites me, baby.

I didn’t know what historiography was until my senior year of high school, and I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t introduced to the basic concept, without the hifalutin’ name, before  then. You see, back in the 70s, nobody but professional historians and their collegiate charges really cared about the nuances of historical interpretation, the shifting social climates and the individual biases that shape the documenting of history. For the average Joe, history was still largely fueled by Official Story, god-bless-America interpretations of the past (and probably still is). Any attempt to pull back the curtain on cherished myths, to suggest Americans ever did anything wrong in their march toward fulfilling their destiny as God’s truly chosen people (sorry, 12 Tribes) was verboten. Or done only by those commie-inspired revisionists hell-bent on destroying the country and turning us over to the Russkies.

What’s changed since then? Well, educators actually introduce the idea of historiography to much younger students, as I’ve learned in the books I’ve written. They don’t need to know the h word to understand that historians change their interpretations of facts and people as new material is uncovered and old theories are proved wanting. And because of this, there’s a greater willingness to accept challenges to some of the American myths, though conservatives are still apt to sneer out the word revisionist when attacking the historians they don’t like, even if no one believes those historians get their marching orders from Moscow. Actually, both the right and left seem to use revisionist as an epithet. I dunno, to me revisionism is just accepting new facts and adapting accordingly. But whose facts do we accept? And what happens if we don’t agree which facts are true? (Maybe David Byrne should be the troubadour for the modern historian: “facts all comes with points of view, facts don’t do what I want them too…“)

Dig that 'stache!

What deep, contentious point of history got me thinking about all this? Dracula. The real Dracula that is, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, Son of the Dragon, Vlad Tepes – Vlad the Impaler. Historical study of Dracula is not new: Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally pioneered it here in the States several decades ago, and certainly Romanian and other Eastern European scholars have recounted his deeds for centuries. Of course, the modern American interest is fueled by the prince’s sharing a name with a certain fictional bloodsucker you may have heard something about…

I’m doing a book on the real Vlad Dracula, with an emphasis on the horrible-but-true exploits that filled his three short reigns in Wallachia (no, not Transylvania; Vlad had plenty of connections to the other count’s stomping grounds, but he did not rule or build a castle there). The problem is, some of the sources on Vlad are, well, sketchy. Either they were written down years after his death, or they were based on oral history, or, most commonly, they were written by people with an axe to grind.

More stakes! We need more stakes!

The worst of the tales come from German propaganda printed during Vlad’s life and after his death. Gutenberg’s press let the proto-tabloids churn out grotesque depictions of Vlad’s cruelty toward Germans living in Transylvania.  Some of the deeds are corroborated in other places. Some are really exaggerated or just plain unprovable by more objective sources. The impalements by the hundreds – nobody disputes that. But forcing mothers to eat their own children; well… The German press, however, did the most to shape the image of Dracula as a blood-crazed (though not blood-drinking) madman.

Turkish sources are also not flattering, since Dracula battled the Ottomans and impaled a few of them along the way. Which was not a very nice payback for the fine education he received at their hands years before, when his father Vlad II, Dracul (dragon), turned two of his sons over to the Turks. Since the days of the Persians and Romans, rulers sometimes left their boys with putative allies or potential enemies, a diplomatic move meant to show loyalty to more powerful nations. Vlad would be less likely to disobey the Turks if his sons were in their care. The Turks, in response, had an obligation to treat the young princes well, unless their father screwed up. Around the time of Vlad III’s stay in Turkish hands, the son of another European ruler had his eyes poked out when Dad upset the Turkish hosts.

The remains of Castle Dracula, at Poenari; the one at Bran often labeled such is an impostor

Romanian sources, not surprisingly, are a little kinder to Vlad. Sure, he impaled people. But those were lawless times. He was just trying to bring a little order to a chaotic land. And rein in the boyars, nobles who tried to keep Wallachia decentralized and under their influence. And don’t forget all the pretenders to Vlad’s throne that he had to thwart. In an era when war and brutality were part of life, Vlad did what he had to do to secure his rule, strengthen Wallachia, and keep out those damn Muslim Turks always knocking at the door.

So, the modern historians sift through these sources, looking for parallel accounts that seem to offer more credibility than others, and paint as true a picture as possible of the real Dracula. But of course, the interpretations differ; that‘s what makes history such a fun bloodsport.

An illustrated version of Dracula's story, as retold by your humble narrator

One small conflict developed a few years ago. Florescu and McNally noted the parallels in the real Vlad‘s life and the details Bram Stoker incorporated in his book.  For a time, the two historians thought Stoker got some of his info from a Hungarian historian he knew. The character of Van Helsing, claimed by some to be Stoker’s alter ego, mentions the Hungarian by name: Arminius (last name Vambery). Stoker and Vambery did dine together several times, but there is no evidence in Stoker’s detailed notes for Dracula that he based the fictional count on Vlad the Impaler, other than some of the general bits of Romanian history and geography. Now, Stoker got plenty of things wrong, but he wasn’t writing history. And Stoker did not base his count on the real Dracula, as far as any blood-sucking tendencies. Vampire legends were common, and the author was already writing his when he learned about the real Vlad and used elements of his life and times in Dracula.

Another Dracula scholar, Elizabeth Miller, has worked hard to discredit the Vlad-Count Dracula connection, which other writers have hyped, so people will not associate the real prince with Stoker’s creation. She wants to “separate fact from hypothesis” and “vehemently challenge the widespread view that Stoker was knowledgeable about the historical Dracula”  (more on this here).

Does all this really matter to you and me, how we live our lives, or whether or not we enjoy Stoker’s book? No. But for the historian, it’s all part of what we do: Point out inaccuracies. Debunk myths.  Find the truth of a matter, as much as it can be found.  As much as there is any one truth. And of course, there never really is. Hence, historigraphy.

My Vlad book will talk a little about the different views of the 15th-century-prince, but only a little. The kids want to read about the blood and guts. But I hope I will help them understand that the fictional count and Vlad the Impaler have only the loosest of connections. And then I move onto another historiographical hotty: What really happened before the attack on Pearl Harbor? Who knew what? Incompetence or conspiracy? I’ll let you know when I find out.

[For the historically curious, a good oveview of historiography as a broad concept is John Burrow‘s A History of Histories. I especially like the bits on ancient and medieval history. See a good review of it here, which notes the shortcomings I was too ignorant to see, while still offering some overall praise. A perfect gift for the history geek in your life.]