Review: Volume 15 - English Civil War

Review: Volume 15 - English Civil War

We-think is about what the rise of these phenomena (not all to do with the internet) means for the way we organise ourselves – not just in digital businesses but in schools and hospitals, cities and mainstream corporations. For the point of the industrial era economy was mass production for mass consumption, the formula created by Henry Ford; but these new forms of mass, creative collaboration announce the arrival of a new kind of society, in which people want to be players, not spectators. This is a huge cultural shift, for in this new economy people want not services and goods, delivered to them, but tools so they can take part. In We-think Charles Leadbeater analyses not only these changes, but how they will affect us and how we can make the most of them. Just as, in the 1980s, his In Search of Work predicted the rise of more flexible employment, here he outlines a crucial shift that is already affecting all of us.

The son of Rawson Boddam Gardiner, [1] he was born near Alresford, Hampshire. He was educated at Winchester College and Christ Church, Oxford, where he obtained a first class in Literae Humaniores. He was subsequently elected to fellowships at All Souls (1884) and Merton (1892). [2] For some years he was professor of modern history at King's College London, and devoted his life to the subject. [3] In 1896 he was elected to give the first series of Ford Lectures at Oxford University. He died in Sevenoaks, aged 72.

Gardiner published his history of the Puritan Revolution and English Civil War in three series of 19 volumes, originally published under different titles, beginning with the accession of King James I of England. Following Gardiner's death, it was completed in two volumes by Charles Harding Firth as The Last Years of the Protectorate (1909). [3]

The series is History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603–1642 (10 vols. 1883-4) History of the Great Civil War, 1642–1649 (5 vols. 1893) and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1649–1660 (4 vol. 1903). Gardiner's treatment of the subject is exhaustive and philosophical, taking in political and constitutional history, the changes in religion, thought and sentiment, their causes and their tendencies. Of his original sources, many exist only in manuscript, and his researches in public and private collections of manuscripts at home, and in the archives of Simancas, Venice, Rome, Brussels and Paris, were tireless and productive. [3]

Gardiner may have been drawn to the period by the fact that he was descended from Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, but his judgments are unbiased, and his appreciations of character reveal fine perception and broad sympathies, as shown in his analyses of the characters of James I, Francis Bacon, William Laud, and Thomas Wentworth, as well as Oliver Cromwell. [3]

On constitutional matters, Gardiner writes with an insight achieved by the study of political philosophy, discussing in a masterly fashion the dreams of idealists and the schemes of government proposed by statesmen. Throughout his work he gives a prominent place to everything which illustrates human progress in moral and religious, as well as political conceptions, and specially to the rise and development of the idea of religious toleration, finding much of his source material in the writings of obscure pamphleteers, whose essays indicate currents of public opinion. His record of the relations between England and other states proves his thorough knowledge of contemporary European history, and is rendered specially valuable by his researches among manuscript sources which have enabled him to expound for the first time some intricate pieces of diplomacy. [3]

Gardiner's work is long and minute. He is apt to attach an exaggerated importance to some of the authorities which he was the first to bring to light, to see a general tendency in what may only be the expression of an individual eccentricity, to rely too much on ambassadors' reports which may have been written for some special end, to enter too fully into the details of diplomatic correspondence. His style is clear and unadorned, with more than a hint of Tacitus he appeals to the intellect rather than to the emotions, and is seldom picturesque, though in describing a few famous scenes, such as the execution of Charles I, he writes with pathos and dignity. [3]

The minuteness of his narrative detracts from its interest though his arrangement is generally good, here and there the reader finds the thread of a subject broken by the intrusion of incidents not immediately connected with it, and does not pick it up again without an effort. And Gardiner has the defects of his supreme qualities, of his fairness and critical ability as a judge of character his work lacks enthusiasm, and leaves the reader cold and unmoved. Yet, apart from its sterling excellence, it is not without beauties, for it is marked by loftiness of thought, a love of purity and truth, and refinement in taste and feeling. [3]

Gardiner wrote other books, mostly on the same period, but his great history is that by which his name will live. It is a worthy result of a life of unremitting labor, a splendid monument of historical scholarship. His position as a historian was formally acknowledged. In 1882 he was given a civil list pension of £150 per annum, "in recognition of his valuable contributions to the history of England" he was honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, LL.D. of Edinburgh, and Ph.D. of Göttingen, and honorary Student of Christ Church, Oxford and in 1894 he declined the appointment of Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, lest its duties should interfere with the accomplishment of his history. [3]

Gardiner was a brilliant historian, who tested the veracity, accuracy, and biases of every source and picked his way through the evidence with a care and clarity of exposition which brooks no equal for this or any other period. [4]

A standard modern study of Gardiner is Mark Nixon, Samuel Rawson Gardiner and the Idea of History (Royal Historical Society/Boydell Press, 2010). [5]

As a foremost historian of the era, Gardiner's evaluation of Oliver Cromwell is especially significant. No figure in English history has called forth a greater range of evaluations.

On the positive side Gardiner concluded:

"The man—it is ever so with the noblest—was greater than his work. In his own heart lay the resolution to subordinate self to public ends, and to subordinate material to moral and spiritual objects of desire. He was limited by the defects which make imperfect the character and intellect even of the noblest and the wisest of mankind. He was limited still more by the unwillingness of his contemporaries to mould themselves after his ideas. The blows that he had struck against the older system had their enduring effects. Few wished for the revival of the absolute kingship, of the absolute authority of a single House of Parliament, or of the Laudian system of governing the Church. The living forces of England—forces making for the destruction of those barriers which he was himself breaking through, buoyed him up—as a strong and self-confident swimmer, he was carried onward by the flowing tide." "In the latter portion of the Protector's career it was far otherwise. His failure to establish a permanent Government was not due merely to his deficiency in constructive imagination. It was due rather to two causes: the umbrage taken at his position as head of an army whose interference in political affairs gave even more offence than the financial burdens it imposed on a people unaccustomed to regular taxation and the reaction which set in against the spiritual claims of that Puritanism of which he had become the mouthpiece…. It was no reaction against the religious doctrines or ecclesiastical institutions upheld by the Protector that brought about the destruction of his system of government. So far as the reaction was not directed against militarism, it was directed against the introduction into the political world of what appeared to be too high a standard of morality, a reaction which struck specially upon Puritanism, but which would have struck with as much force upon any other form of religion which, like that upheld by Laud, called in the power of the State to enforce its claims. Even though Oliver was in his own person no sour fanatic, as Royalist pamphleteers after the Restoration falsely asserted it is impossible to deny that he strove by acts of government to lead men into the paths of morality and religion beyond the limit which average human nature had fixed for itself." "In dealing with foreign nations his mistake on this head was more conspicuous, because he had far less knowledge of the conditions of efficient action abroad than he had at home. It may fairly be said that he knew less of Scotland than of England, less of Ireland than of Great Britain, and less of the Continent than of any one of the three nations over which he ruled. It has sometimes been said that Oliver made England respected in Europe. It would be more in accordance with truth to say that he made her feared." "Oliver's claim to greatness can be tested by the undoubted fact that his character receives higher and wider appreciation as the centuries pass by. The limitations on his nature— the one-sidedness of his religious zeal, the mistakes of his policy — are thrust out of sight, the nobility of his motives, the strength of his character, and the breadth of his intellect, force themselves on the minds of generations for which the objects for which he strove have been for the most part attained, though often in a different fashion from that which he placed before himself. Even those who refuse to waste a thought on his spiritual aims remember with gratitude his constancy of effort to make England great by land and sea and it would be well for them also to be reminded of his no less constant efforts to make England worthy of greatness." [6]

  • History of England from the Accession of James I to the Disgrace of Chief-justice Coke. 1602–1616 (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1863) read online
  • Prince Charles and the Spanish Marriage, 1617–1623 (2 vols.) (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1869) read online
  • The Thirty Years' War, 1618–1648 (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1874) read online
  • History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603–1642 (10 vols.) (London: Longmans, Green and Company) (1883–1884, 1896–1901, 1904–1908) read online
  • History of the Great Civil War, 1642–1649 (3 vols.) [7] (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1886–1891 4 vols., 1893-4, 1904–1905) read online
  • The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1628–1660 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889, 1906, 1951) read online
  • A Student's History of England, from the Earliest Times to 1885 (2 vols.) (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1890–1891, 1895–1897). read online
  • The Hanoverian Period (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1891) read online
  • Outline of English History B.C. 55 – A.D. 1886 (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1891) read online
  • A School Atlas of English History (ed.) (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1892) read online
  • History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1649–1660 (4 vols.) [8] (London: Longman, Green and Company, 1897–1901, 1894–1903). read online
  • What Gunpowder Plot Was (London, Longmans, Green and Company, 1897) read online
  • Oliver Cromwell (London, Goupil and Company, 1899, 1901, 1903) read online
  • Prince Rupert at Lisbon (ed.) (London: Royal Historical Society, 1902) read online
  • Outline of English History B.C. 55 – A.D. 1902 (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1903, 1905) read online

He edited collections of papers for the Camden Society, and in 1891- was editor of the English Historical Review.


Trevor-Roper was born at Glanton, Northumberland, England, the son of Kathleen Elizabeth Davidson (died 1964) and Bertie William Edward Trevor-Roper (1885–1978), a doctor, descended from Henry Roper, 8th Baron Teynham, who married, Anne, (her second husband) 16th Baroness Dacre. [4] Trevor-Roper "enjoyed (but not too seriously). that he was a collateral descendant of William Roper, the son-in-law and biographer of Sir Thomas More. as a boy he was aware that only a dozen lives (several of them those of elderly bachelors) separated him from inheriting the Teynham peerage." [5]

Trevor-Roper's brother, Patrick, became a leading eye surgeon and gay rights activist. Trevor-Roper was educated at Belhaven Hill School, Charterhouse, and Christ Church, Oxford, where he read first Classics (Literae Humaniores) and then Modern History, later moving to Merton College, Oxford, to become a Research Fellow. [6] [7] Whilst at Oxford, he was a member of the exclusive Stubbs Society and was initiated as a Freemason in the Apollo University Lodge. [8] [9]

Trevor-Roper took a first in Classical Moderations in 1934 and won the Craven, the Ireland, and the Hertford scholarships in Classics. Initially, he intended to make his career in the Classics but became bored with what he regarded as the pedantic technical aspects of the classics course at Oxford and switched to History, where he obtained first-class honours in 1936. [10] Trevor-Roper's first book was a 1940 biography of Archbishop William Laud, in which he challenged many of the prevailing perceptions surrounding Laud.

During World War II, Trevor-Roper served as an officer in the Radio Security Service of the Secret Intelligence Service, and then on the interception of messages from the German intelligence service, the Abwehr. [11] In early 1940, Trevor-Roper and E. W. B. Gill decrypted some of these intercepts, demonstrating the relevance of the material and spurring Bletchley Park efforts to decrypt the traffic. Intelligence from Abwehr traffic later played an important part in many operations including the Double-Cross System. [12]

He formed a low opinion of most pre-war professional intelligence agents, but a higher one of some of the post-1939 recruits. In The Philby Affair (1968) Trevor-Roper argues that the Soviet spy Kim Philby was never in a position to undermine efforts by the chief of the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to overthrow the Nazi regime and negotiate with the British government. [11]

In November 1945, Trevor-Roper was ordered by Dick White, then head of counter-intelligence in the British sector of Berlin, to investigate the circumstances of Adolf Hitler's death, and to rebut the Soviet propaganda that Hitler was alive and living in the West. [13] Using the alias of "Major Oughton", Trevor-Roper interviewed or prepared questions for several officials, high and low, who had been present in the Führerbunker with Hitler, and who had been able to escape to the West, including Bernd Freytag von Loringhoven. [14]

For the most part Trevor-Roper relied on investigations and interviews by hundreds of British, American and Canadian intelligence officers. [15] [16] He did not have access to Soviet materials. Working rapidly, Trevor-Roper drafted his report, which served as the basis for his most famous book, The Last Days of Hitler, in which he described the last ten days of Hitler's life and the fates of some of the higher-ranking members of the inner circle, as well as those of key lesser figures. Trevor-Roper transformed the evidence into a literary work, with sardonic humour and drama, and was much influenced by the prose styles of two of his favourite historians, Edward Gibbon and Lord Macaulay.

The book was cleared by British officials in 1946 for publication as soon as the war crimes trials ended. It was published in English in 1947 six English editions and many foreign language editions followed. [15] According to American journalist Ron Rosenbaum, Trevor-Roper received a letter from Lisbon written in Hebrew stating that the Stern Gang would assassinate him for The Last Days of Hitler, which, they believed, portrayed Hitler as a "demoniacal" figure but let ordinary Germans who followed Hitler off the hook, and that for this he deserved to die. [17] Rosenbaum reports that Trevor-Roper told him this was the most extreme response he had ever received for one of his books. [18]

In June 1950, Trevor-Roper attended a conference in Berlin of anti-Communist intellectuals along with Sidney Hook, Melvin J. Lasky, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron and Franz Borkenau that resulted in the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazine Encounter. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was a frequent contributor to Encounter, but had reservations about what he regarded as the over-didactic tone of some of its contributors, particularly Koestler and Borkenau. [19]

Trevor-Roper was famous for his lucid and acerbic writing style. In reviews and essays he could be pitilessly sarcastic, and devastating in his mockery. In attacking Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History, for instance, Trevor-Roper accused Toynbee of regarding himself as a Messiah complete with "the youthful Temptations the missionary Journeys the Miracles the Revelations the Agony". [20]

For Trevor-Roper, the major themes of early modern Europe were its intellectual vitality, and the quarrels between Protestant and Catholic states, the latter being outpaced by the former, economically and constitutionally. [21] In Trevor-Roper's view, another theme of early modern Europe was expansion overseas in the form of colonies and intellectual expansion in the form of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. [21] In Trevor-Roper's view, the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries can ultimately be traced back to the conflict between the religious values of the Reformation and the rationalistic approach of what became the Enlightenment. [21]

Trevor-Roper argued that history should be understood as an art, not a science and that the attribute of a successful historian was imagination. [21] He viewed history as full of contingency, with the past neither a story of continuous advance nor of continuous decline but the consequence of choices made by individuals at the time. [21] In his studies of early modern Europe, Trevor-Roper did not focus exclusively upon political history but sought to examine the interaction between the political, intellectual, social and religious trends. [21] His preferred medium of expression was the essay rather than the book. In his essays in social history, written during the 1950s and 1960s, Trevor-Roper was influenced by the work of the French Annales School, especially Fernand Braudel and did much to introduce the work of the Annales school to the English-speaking world. In the 1950s, Trevor-Roper wrote that Braudel and the rest of the school were doing much innovative historical work but were "totally excluded from Oxford which remains, in historical matters, a retrograde provincial backwater". [22]

English Civil War Edit

In Trevor-Roper's opinion, the dispute between the Puritans and the Arminians was a major, although not the sole, cause of the English Civil War. [21] For him, the dispute was over such issues as free will and predestination and the role of preaching versus the sacraments only later did the dispute become a matter of the structure of the Church of England. [21] The Puritans desired a more decentralised and egalitarian church, with an emphasis on the laity, while the Arminians wished for an ordered church with a hierarchy, an emphasis on divine right and salvation through free will. [21]

As a historian of early modern Britain, Trevor-Roper was known for his disputes with fellow historians such as Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill, whose materialist (and in some measure "inevitablist") explanations of the English Civil War he attacked. Trevor-Roper was a leading player in the historiographical storm over the gentry (also known as the Gentry controversy), a dispute with the historians R. H. Tawney and Stone, about whether the English gentry were, economically, on the way down or up, in the century before the English Civil War and whether this helped cause that war.

Stone, Tawney and Hill argued that the gentry were rising economically and that this caused the Civil War. Trevor-Roper argued that while office-holders and lawyers were prospering, the lesser gentry were in decline. A third group of history men around J. H. Hexter and Geoffrey Elton, argued that the causes of the Civil War had nothing to do with the gentry. In 1948, a paper put forward by Stone in support of Tawney's thesis was vigorously attacked by Trevor-Roper, who showed that Stone had exaggerated the debt problems of the Tudor nobility. [23] He also rejected Tawney's theories about the rising gentry and declining nobility, arguing that he was guilty of selective use of evidence and that he misunderstood the statistics. [23] [24]

World War II and Hitler Edit

Trevor-Roper attacked the philosophies of history advanced by Arnold J. Toynbee and E. H. Carr, as well as his colleague A. J. P. Taylor's account of the origins of World War II. Another dispute was with Taylor and Alan Bullock over the question of whether Adolf Hitler had fixed aims. In the 1950s, Trevor-Roper was ferocious in his criticism of Bullock for his portrayal of Hitler as a "mountebank" instead of the ideologue Trevor-Roper believed him to be. [25] When Taylor offered a picture of Hitler similar to Bullock's, in his 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War, the debate continued. Another feud was with the novelist and Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh, who was angered by Trevor-Roper's repeated harsh attacks on the Catholic Church. [26]

In the globalist–continentalist debate between those who argued that Hitler aimed to conquer the world and those who argued that he sought only the conquest of Europe, Trevor-Roper was one of the leading continentalists. He argued that the globalist case sought to turn a scattering of Hitler's remarks made over decades into a plan. In his analysis, the only consistent objective Hitler sought was the domination of Europe, as laid out in Mein Kampf. [27] The American historian Lucy Dawidowicz in The Holocaust and Historians (1981) delivered what the British historian David Cesarani called an "ad hominem attack", writing that Trevor-Roper in his writings on Nazi Germany was indifferent to Nazi antisemitism, because she believed that he was a snobbish antisemite, who was apathetic about the murder of six million Jews. [28] Cesarani wrote that Dawidowicz was wrong to accuse Trevor-Roper of antisemitism but argued that there was an element of truth to her critique in that the Shoah was a blind-spot for Trevor-Roper. [29]

Trevor-Roper was a very firm "intentionist" who treated Hitler as a serious, if slightly deranged thinker who, from 1924 until his death in 1945, was obsessed with "the conquest of Russia, the extermination of the Slavs, and the colonization of the English". [30] In his 1962 essay "The Mind of Adolf Hitler", Trevor-Roper again criticized Bullock, writing "Even Mr. Bullock seems content to regard him as a diabolical adventurer animated solely by an unlimited lust for personal power. Hitler was a systematic thinker and his mind is, to the historian, as important as the mind of Bismarck or Lenin". [31] Trevor-Roper maintained that Hitler, on the basis of a wide range of antisemitic literature, from the writings of Houston Stewart Chamberlain to The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, had constructed a racist ideology that called for making Germany the world's greatest power and the extermination of perceived enemies like the Jews and Slavs. [31]

Trevor-Roper wrote that the mind of Hitler was "a terrible phenomenon, imposing indeed in its granite harshness and yet infinitely squalid in its miscellaneous cumber, like some huge barbarian monolith the expression of giant strength and savage genius surrounded by a festering heap of refuse, old tins and vermin, ashes and eggshells and ordure, the intellectual detritus of centuries". [31] Cesarani wrote that Trevor-Roper regarded Hitler, in marked contrast to Bullock, as a man who was serious about what he said but at the same time, Trevor-Roper's picture of Hitler as a somewhat insane leader, fanatically pursuing lunatic policies, meant paradoxically that it was hard to take Hitler seriously, at least on the basis of Trevor-Roper's writings. [32] Cesarani stated that Trevor-Roper was sincere in his hatred and contempt for the Nazis and everything they stood for but he had considerable difficulty when it came to writing about the complicity and involvement of traditional German elites in National Socialism, because the traditional elites in Germany were so similar in many ways to the British Establishment, which Trevor-Roper identified with so strongly.

In this respect, Cesarani argued that it was very revealing that Trevor-Roper in The Last Days of Hitler was especially damning in his picture of the German Finance Minister, Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk, whom Trevor-Roper noted "had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, but he had acquired none of its values". [33] Cesarani wrote "Thus, to Trevor-Roper the values of Oxford University stood at the opposite pole to those of Hitler's Reich, and one reason for the ghastly character of Nazism was that it did not share them". [33] Cesarani noted that while Trevor-Roper supported the Conservatives and ended his days as a Tory life-peer, he was broadly speaking a liberal and believed that Britain was a great nation because of its liberalism. [34] Because of this background, Cesarani wrote that Trevor-Roper naturally saw the liberal democracy Britain as anathema to Nazi Germany. [34] Cesarani concluded ". to maintain the illusion of virtuous British liberalism, Hitler had to be depicted as either a statesman like any other or a monster without equal, and those who did business with him as, respectively, pragmatists or dupes. Every current of Nazi society that made it distinctive could be charted, while the anti-Jewish racism that it shared with Britain was discreetly avoided". [35]

General crisis of the 17th century Edit

A notable thesis propagated by Trevor-Roper was the "general crisis of the 17th century". He argued that the middle years of the 17th century in Western Europe saw a widespread break-down in politics, economics and society caused by demographic, social, religious, economic and political problems. [21] In this "general crisis,” various events, such as the English Civil War, the Fronde in France, the climax of the Thirty Years' War in Germany, troubles in the Netherlands, and revolts against the Spanish Crown in Portugal, Naples and Catalonia, were all manifestations of the same problems. [36] The most important causes of the “general crisis” in Trevor-Roper's opinion were conflicts between “Court” and “Country” that is between the increasingly powerful centralizing, bureaucratic, sovereign princely states, represented by the Court, and the traditional, regional, land-based aristocracy and gentry, representing the country. [36] In addition, he said that the religious and intellectual changes introduced by the Reformation and the Renaissance were important secondary causes of the "general crisis." [21]

The "general crisis" thesis generated controversy between supporters of this theory, and those, such as the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who agreed with him that there was a "general crisis,” but saw the problems of 17th century Europe as more economic in origin than Trevor-Roper would allow. A third faction denied that there was any "general crisis,” for example the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer, the Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard, and the Soviet historian A. D. Lublinskaya. [37] Trevor-Roper's "general crisis" thesis provoked much discussion, and led experts in 17th century history such as Roland Mousnier, J. H. Elliott, Lawrence Stone, E. H. Kossmann, Eric Hobsbawm and J. H. Hexter to become advocates of the pros and cons of the theory.

At times the discussion became quite heated the Italian Marxist historian Rosario Villari, speaking of the work of Trevor-Roper and Mousnier, claimed that: "The hypothesis of imbalance between bureaucratic expansion and the needs of the state is too vague to be plausible, and rests on inflated rhetoric, typical of a certain type of political conservative, rather than on effective analysis." [38] Villari accused Trevor-Roper of downgrading the importance of what Villari called the English Revolution (the usual Marxist term for the English Civil War), and insisted that the "general crisis" was part of a Europe-wide revolutionary movement. [39] Another Marxist critic of Trevor-Roper, the Soviet historian A. D. Lublinskaya, attacked the concept of a conflict between "Court" and "Country" as fiction, arguing there was no "general crisis" instead she maintained that the so-called "general crisis" was merely the emergence of capitalism. [40]

First World War Edit

In 1973, Trevor-Roper in the foreword to a book by John Röhl endorsed the view that Germany was largely responsible for the First World War. [41] Trevor-Roper wrote that in his opinion far too many British historians had allowed themselves to be persuaded of the theory that the outbreak of war in 1914 had been the fault of all the great powers. [42] He claimed that this theory had been promoted by the German government's policy of selective publication of documents, aided and abetted by most German historians in a policy of "self-censorship." [43] He praised Röhl for finding and publishing two previously secret documents that showed German responsibility for the war. [44]

Backhouse frauds Edit

In 1973, Trevor-Roper was invited to visit Switzerland to examine a manuscript entitled Decadence Mandchoue written by the sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873–1944) in a mixture of English, French, Latin and Chinese that had been in the custody of Reinhard Hoeppli, a Swiss diplomat who was the Swiss consul in Beijing during World War II. Hoeppli, given Decadence Mandchoue in 1943 by his friend Backhouse, had been unable to publish it owing to its sexually explicit content. But by 1973 looser censorship and the rise of the gay rights movement meant a publisher was willing to release Decadence Mandchoue to the market. However, before doing so they wanted Trevor-Roper, who as a former MI6 officer was an expert on clandestine affairs, to examine some of the more outlandish claims contained in the text.

For an example, Backhouse claimed in Decadence Mandchoue that the wives and daughters of British diplomats in Beijing had trained their dogs and tamed foxes to perform cunnilingus on them, which the fascistic Backhouse used as evidence of British "decadence", which in turn explained why he was supporting Germany and Japan in the Second World War. Trevor-Roper regarded Decadence Mandchoue with considerable distaste calling the manuscript "pornographic" and "obscene" as Backhouse related in graphic detail sexual encounters he claimed to have had with the French poet Paul Verlaine, the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, the Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery and the Empress Dowager Cixi of China whom the openly gay Backhouse had maintained had forced herself on him. [45]

Backhouse also claimed to have been the friend of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. For the next two years, Trevor-Roper went on an odyssey that took him all over Britain, France, Switzerland, the United States, Canada and China as he sought to unravel the mystery of just who the elusive Backhouse was. Backhouse had between 1898 and his death in 1944 worked as a sinologist, the business agent for several British and American companies in China, a British spy, gun-runner and translator before finally ending his days in World War II China as a fascist and a Japanese collaborator who wished fervently for an Axis victory which would destroy Great Britain. [45] Trevor-Roper noted that despite Backhouse's homosexuality and Nazi Germany's policy of persecuting homosexuals, Backhouse's intense hatred of his own country together with his sadistic-masochistic sexual needs meant that Backhouse longed to be ". ravished and possessed by the brutal, but still perverted masculinity of the fascist Führerprinzip". [46]

The end result was one of Trevor-Roper's most successful later books, his 1976 biography of Backhouse, originally entitled A Hidden Life but soon republished in Britain and the US as The Hermit of Peking. Backhouse had long been regarded as a world's leading expert on China. In his biography, Trevor-Roper exposed the vast majority of Sir Edmund's life-story and virtually all of his scholarship as a fraud. In Decadence Mandchoue, Backhouse spoke of his efforts to raise money to pay the defence lawyers for Wilde while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Trevor-Roper established that while Backhouse did indeed raise money for the Wilde defence fund, he spent it all on buying expensive jewellery, especially pearl necklaces, which were a special passion of Backhouse's. It was this embezzlement of the money Backhouse had raised for the Wilde defence fund that led to him fleeing Britain in 1895. The discrediting of Backhouse as a source led to much of China's history being re-written in the West. Backhouse had portrayed Prince Ronglu as a friend of the West and an enemy of the Boxers when the opposite was true. [47]

Trevor-Roper noted that in the "diary" of Ching Shan, which Backhouse claimed to have looted from Ching's house just before it was burned down by Indian troops in the Boxer Rebellion, it has Prince Ronglu saying about the government's support of the Boxers: "C'est pire qu'un crime, c'est une faute" ("It was worse than a crime it was a blunder."). [48] Trevor-Roper argued that it was extremely unlikely that Prince Ronglu – who only knew Manchu and Mandarin – would be quoting a well-known French expression, but noted that Backhouse was fluent in French. [48] Backhouse was fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, lived most of his life in Beijing and after moving to China had declined to wear western clothes, preferring instead the gown of a Chinese mandarin, which led most Westerners to assume that Backhouse "knew" China. Trevor-Roper noted that despite his superficial appearance of affection for the Chinese, much of what Backhouse wrote about on China worked subtly to confirm Western "Yellow Peril" stereotypes, as Backhouse variously depicted the Chinese as pathologically dishonest, sexually perverted, morally corrupt and generally devious and treacherous – in short, Chinese civilization for Backhouse was a deeply sick civilization. [48]

Oxford activities Edit

In 1960, Trevor-Roper waged a successful campaign against the candidacy of Sir Oliver Franks who was backed by the heads of houses marshalled by Maurice Bowra, for the Chancellorship of the University of Oxford, helping the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to be elected instead. In 1964, Trevor-Roper edited a Festschrift in honour of his friend Sir Keith Feiling's 80th birthday. In 1970, he was the author of The Letters of Mercurius, a satirical work on the student revolts and university politics of the late 1960s, originally published as letters in The Spectator. [49]

Debates on African history Edit

Another aspect of Trevor-Roper's outlook on history and on scholarly research that has inspired controversy, is his statement about the historical experiences of pre-literate societies. Following Voltaire's remarks on the fall of the Roman Empire at the hands of barbarian tribes, he asserted that Africa had no history prior to European exploration and colonisation. Africa is "no historical part of the World it has no movement or development to exhibit". Trevor-Roper said "there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness", its past "the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe." [50] These comments, recapitulated in a later article which called Africa "unhistoric", spurred intense debate between historians, anthropologists, sociologists, in the emerging fields of postcolonial and cultural studies about the definition of "history". [51] [52] [53] [54] Historians have argued, in response, that historical myths of the kind perpetrated by Trevor-Roper need to be actively countered: "Only a process of counter-selection can correct this, and African historians have to concentrate on those aspects which were ignored by the disparaging mythologies". [55]

Many historians now argue, against Trevor-Roper, that historical evidence should also include oral traditions as well as written history, a former criterion for a society having left "prehistory". [56] [57] Critics of Trevor-Roper's claim have questioned the validity of systematic interpretations of the African past, whether by materialist, Annalist or the traditional historical methods used by Trevor-Roper. [58] [59] Some say approaches which compare Africa with Europe or directly integrate it into European history cannot be accurate descriptions of African societies. [60] Virtually all scholars now agree that Africa has a "history". Despite controversies over historical accuracy in oral records, as in Alex Haley's Roots book and popular TV mini-series, African griots, or oral memoirists, provided a historical oral record.

"Hitler Diaries" hoax Edit

The nadir of his career came in 1983, when as a director of The Times, Baron Dacre of Glanton (as he was by this point) made statements that authenticated the so-called Hitler Diaries. [61] The opinion among historians was by no means unanimous David Irving, for example, initially decried them as forgeries but subsequently changed his mind and declared that they could be genuine, before finally stating that they were a forgery. Historians Gerhard Weinberg and Eberhard Jäckel had also expressed doubt regarding the authenticity of the diaries. [62]

Within two weeks, forensic scientist Julius Grant demonstrated that the diaries were forgeries. The ensuing fiasco gave Trevor-Roper's enemies the opportunity to criticise him openly, while Trevor-Roper's initial endorsement of the diaries raised questions about his integrity: The Sunday Times, a newspaper to which he regularly contributed book reviews and of which he was an independent director, had already paid a considerable sum for the right to serialise the diaries if and only if they were genuine.

Trevor-Roper explained that he had been given assurances (that turned out to be false) about how the diaries had come into the possession of their "discoverer", and about the age of the paper and ink used in them and of their authenticity. Nonetheless, this incident prompted the satirical magazine Private Eye to nickname him Hugh Very-Ropey (Lord Lucre of Claptout), or more concisely, Lord Facre.

Despite the shadow this cast over his later career, he continued to write and publish and his work remained well received. [63] Trevor-Roper was portrayed in the 1991 TV miniseries Selling Hitler by Alan Bennett.

In 1980 at the age of 67, he became Master of Peterhouse, the oldest and smallest college in the University of Cambridge. His election, which surprised his friends, was engineered by a group of fellows led by Maurice Cowling, then the leading Peterhouse historian. The fellows chose him because Cowling's reactionary clique thought he would be an arch-conservative who would oppose the admission of women. In the event, Trevor-Roper feuded constantly with Cowling and his allies, while launching a series of administrative reforms. Women were admitted in 1983 at his urging. The British journalist Neal Ascherson summarised the quarrel between Cowling and Trevor-Roper as:

Lord Dacre, far from being a romantic Tory ultra, turned out to be an anti-clerical Whig with a preference for free speech over superstition. He did not find it normal that fellows should wear mourning on the anniversary of General Franco’s death, attend parties in SS uniform or insult black and Jewish guests at high table. For the next seven years, Trevor-Roper battled to suppress the insurgency of the Cowling clique ("a strong mind trapped in its own glutinous frustrations"), and to bring the college back to a condition in which students might actually want to go there. Neither side won this struggle, which soon became a campaign to drive Trevor-Roper out of the college by grotesque rudeness and insubordination. [22]

In a review of Adam Sisman's 2010 biography of Trevor-Roper, the Economist wrote that picture of Peterhouse in the 1980s was "startling", stating the college had become under Cowling's influence a sort of right-wing "lunatic asylum", who were determined to sabotage Trevor-Roper's reforms. [64] In 1987 he retired complaining of "seven wasted years." [65]

In 1981 a Festschrift was published in honour of Trevor-Roper, History and the Imagination. Some of the contributors were Sir Geoffrey Elton, John Clive, Arnaldo Momigliano, Frances Yates, Jeremy Catto, Robert S. Lopez, Michael Howard, David S. Katz, Dimitri Obolensky, J. H. Elliott, Richard Cobb, Walter Pagel, Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Valerie Pearl and Fernand Braudel. [66] The topics contributed by this group of American, British, French, Russian, Italian, Israeli, Canadian and German historians extended from whether the Odyssey was a part of an oral tradition that was later written down, to the question of the responsibility for the Jameson Raid. [67]

On 4 October 1954, Trevor-Roper married Lady Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston (9 March 1907 – 15 August 1997), [68] eldest daughter of Field Marshal Earl Haig by his wife, the former Hon. Dorothy Maud Vivian. Lady Alexandra was a goddaughter of Queen Alexandra and had previously been married to Rear-Admiral Clarence Dinsmore Howard-Johnston, by whom she had had three children. There were no children by his marriage with her. [69]

Hugh Trevor-Roper was made a life peer in 1979 on the recommendation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. [6] He was raised to the Peerage on 27 September 1979, and was introduced to the House of Lords as Baron Dacre of Glanton, of Glanton in the County of Northumberland. [70] He did not base his title on his surname, because "double-barrelled titles are an invention, and a monopoly, of Wilsonian peers", and "under the rules of the College of Arms either ['Lord Trevor' or 'Lord Roper'] would require him to change his surname to either 'Trevor' or 'Roper.'" On mentioning the family's connection to the Dacre title to his wife, who liked the sound of it, Trevor-Roper was persuaded to opt for the title of "Baron Dacre", despite staunch opposition from the suo jure 27th Baroness Dacre (née Brand). She had her cousin, Anthony Brand, 6th Viscount Hampden, "as titular head of the Brand family", inform Trevor-Roper that the Dacre title belonged to the Brand family "and no-one else should breach their monopoly", on the grounds of the title's antiquity of over six centuries. This high-handed treatment strengthened Trevor-Roper's resolve in the face of his initial ambivalence he observed "why should the Brands be so 'proud', or so jealous, of a mere title. a gewgaw, which has been bandied intermittently from family to family for six centuries, without tradition or continuity or distinction (except for murder, litigation and extravagance) or, for the last 250 years, land? They only acquired this pretty toy, in 1829, because a Mr Brand, of whom nothing whatever is known, had married into the Trevor-Ropers (who had themselves acquired it by marrying into the Lennards). Now they behave as if they had owned it for six centuries and had a monopoly of it for ever. A fig for their stuffiness!" Notwithstanding objections, Trevor-Roper duly took the title of Baron Dacre of Glanton. [71]

In his last years he had suffered from failing eyesight, which made it difficult for him to read and write. He underwent cataract surgery and obtained a magnifying machine, which allowed him to continue writing. In 2002, at the age of 88, Trevor-Roper submitted a sizable article on Thomas Sutton, the founder of Charterhouse School, to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in part with notes he had written decades earlier, which editor Brian Harrison praised as "the work of a master". Trevor-Roper suffered several other minor ailments related to his advanced age, but according to his stepson, "bore all his difficulties stoically and without complaint". That year, he was diagnosed with cancer and died on 26 January 2003 in a hospice in Oxford, aged 89. [72]

Five books by Trevor-Roper were published posthumously. The first was Letters from Oxford, a collection of letters written by Trevor-Roper between 1947–59 to his close friend the American art collector Bernard Berenson. The second book was 2006's Europe’s Physician, an unfinished biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, the Franco-Swiss court physician to Henri IV, James I and Charles I. The latter work was largely completed by 1979, but for some unknown reasons was not finished.

The third book was The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, a critique written in the mid-1970s of what Trevor-Roper regarded as the myths of Scottish nationalism. It was published in 2008. The fourth book collecting together some of his essays on History and the Enlightenment: Eighteenth Century Essays was published in 2010. The fifth book was The Wartime Journals, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, published in 2011. The Wartime Journals are from Trevor-Roper's journals that he kept during his years in the Secret Intelligence Service.

How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?

Neil Davidson’s substantial and erudite book is a concerted defence of the concept of ‘Bourgeois revolution’.(1) It is composed on a heroic scale. Numerous theorists, both historical and contemporary, are laid-out, discussed and critiqued with unflagging intellectual energy. The author implies that he shares with Marx and Engels an epistemologically privileged position: because they adopted the standpoint of the proletariat they understood the bourgeoisie better than the bourgeoisie understood themselves (p. 125). Going even further, he argues that only a socialist perspective can properly engage with the concept of ‘bourgeois revolution’, if only inadequately this side of the world-consciousness-changing socialist revolution (p. 328). Unsurprisingly, in light of this, Davidson deprecates the ‘false impartiality and narrow specialization’ of academic life (p. 277) – though he does have time for some ‘conservative materialist historians’ (p. 464), particularly Norman Stone. Davidson certainly does not seek to flatter an academic audience that might be expected to hold more to Weber’s distinction between fact and value. Nonetheless, it would be entirely wrong not to engage with his important contribution to a topic of enduring interest.

‘Bourgeois revolution’ is not a term we hear much these days, except from those taking issue with it. A problem for the standard Marxist viewpoint was the elision of ‘capitalist’ with ‘bourgeois’. The gentry and nobility who led the long English struggle for a constitutionalism to hem in the Crown – climaxing with the Civil wars of 1640s and more durably with the 1688 Glorious Revolution – may well have been capitalist, in so far as their income derived from farming organised for exchange and profit – but they were in no more a ‘bourgeoisie’ than the nineteenth-century Prussian Junkers who likewise organised their estates on a commercial basis. Honour, status, and politicking remained their primary determinants of existence. As for the bourgeoisie proper, unless engaged in the American trade most merchants supported the royalists in the Civil Wars. The intentions of the Roundheads in the English Civil War did not differ so radically from the aristocrat-led rebels of the Fronde. We can legitimately see the English Civil Wars as part of a general crisis of the 17th-century world.(2)

The French Revolution, in contrast, certainly was made by a bourgeoisie, but not a particularly capitalist one. Many were tax-farmers, lawyers, civil servants, and so on, and those few engaged in living by commerce or industry generally had little time for subversion. Karl Kautsky, the chief theorist of Marxism in the generation after Marx and Engels, made just this point in a book published for the Revolution’s centenary: those pre-1789 French bourgeoisie most directly engaged in capitalist enterprise were the least likely to be anti-royalist revolutionaries.(3)

Bourgeois modernity, therefore, was not usually an outcome of the middle classes taking over the state. It might be seen as emerging somewhat adventitiously from a conflict between two established social forces. The aristocracy tended to favour a representative parliamentarianism that would inhibit the executive state from interfering with the laws, privileges and rights of the propertied. The crown, for its part, struggled to subordinate over-mighty magnates, open landed estates to the law of the realm, and encourage the prosperity of taxable commerce and trade.

What emerged in 18th-century Britain, after the Glorious Revolution, was a balance. Parliament limited the power of the crown, and the aristocracy were enjoined to observe the rule of law. This constitutional balance protected the productive economy from arbitrary rent-seeking, which in turn increased the tax-base. As fiscal instruments were arrived at consensually through parliament, the state’s credit rating benefitted and it was amply financed in its pursuit of foreign and imperial aims. The executive preserved its freedom of manoeuvre in international affairs while the aristocracy continued to dominate governance. As trade, commerce and in time industry flowered, an urban bourgeoisie proper developed, but it did not seek to invade the prerogatives of government. They benefitted from the constitutional balance, knowing that it rested upon the freedom and prosperity of their pursuits. The tax-credit state in balance left the bourgeois goose un-plucked, laying its golden ages.

Britain’s success drew envious looks from the continent. It was no easy thing to reproduce its lineaments, however, particularly as land borders made it all the more difficult for governments wary of foreign armies to sacrifice independence from interfering representative assemblies for the sake of economic and fiscal strength down the line. The French Revolution showed what might happen if reform turned into revolution. Here a bourgeoisie already used to involvement in government (being a good deal less commercial than its British counterpart) tried to cut out the aristocracy altogether, but proved inadequate as a genuinely ruling class and fell under the wheels of Napoleonic militarism.

19th-century liberalism saw much more clearly the precise function of an individualistic middle class. The aristocracy had traditionally lived by bending local and central government to its will, as an instrument of rent-seeking and fount of status and privilege. The bourgeoisie, in contrast, lived by myriad trans-societal networks: businessmen via the market, administrators via the governed territorial state, professionals via information linkages.(4) They did not wish to seize upon the executive, as they did not make a living from it as such. They would support, not seek to displace, a government that left commerce to fructify.

After 1848, it became clear that the bourgeoisie were destined to be a foundational rather than a governing class. Revolutions ‘from above’ were common – Bismarck being the most famous ‘white revolutionary’ – as governments introduced civil and political liberties and representative institutions, the better to foster commercial development and fiscal strength.

For liberals, the hero of the story was not the bourgeoisie as a conqueror, but rather as the class that in quietly protecting its own interests held the balance between government and political faction. It buttressed constitutionalism, reined in the aristocracy, tempered the democracy, and checked the arbitrary state without destroying its efficacy.

Whether ‘bourgeois revolution’ as such survives such a view as I have put is debatable. Davidson wishes to defend a much more full-blooded version, though perhaps at the price of minimizing its specifically political content.

Rather than define his understanding of ‘bourgeois revolution’ at the outset and then systematically defend it, Davidson proceeds by analysing, and often excepting at informative length, those who have built up the intellectual apparatus. Part one of his book engages with contemporaries and near contemporaries of the English Civil Wars (he doesn’t have much time for the Glorious Revolution) and the French Revolution, from Hobbes and Harrington to Edmund Burke and his critics. Part two then tracks the Marxist tradition, from Marx and Engels themselves to a body of work he defines as ‘Classical Marxism’. This latter category is selective. It scants important thinkers of the Second International, such as Karl Kautsky, while taking Leninism as unproblematically continuous with the founders. Such a definition of ‘classical Marxism’ obscures more than it reveals. Lenin’s himself implied discontinuity when he argued that Marx and Engels’ qualified defence of the bourgeoisie as a progressive constitutionalist class, relative to ‘reactionary’ social forces and state structures, had been rendered out-of-date by the development of ‘imperialism’ in the advanced countries.(5) This was an important and controversial break.

In part three, Davidson attacks modern critiques of the concept of bourgeois revolutions. The establishment revisionists are given a chapter, but most of the attention is laid upon heterodox Marxists, such as Robert Brenner, George C. Comninel, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and the World Systems theorists.

Davidson’s exegesis and commentary is extremely impressive. He is profoundly well-read and his observations are clearly the fruit of many years’ thought. As an archival expert on 18th-century Scotland, he brings to bear a sharp eye for empirical detail and comparative nuance. This book is invaluable as a guide to thorny historiography and societal complexity together. It is also written with an enviable clarity and propulsive energy. No one can fail to learn a great deal from it, and be entertained throughout.

As we go into part four, Davidson finally begins to elaborate his own take on ‘bourgeois revolution’, which he contextualises as a development of the Trotskyist framework, filtered through the theorisations of Tony Cliff.(6) Cliff’s argument that Communist Russia, post 1928, and all other Communist states from foundation, were ‘state capitalist’ might seem nothing more than a rather unconvincing saving of face for leftists. Its deeper significance, however, was as an attempt to rescue the Leninist conviction that 20th-century capitalism was no longer supportive of constitutionalism and democratisation. If ‘state capitalism’ on the Stalinist model represented the ultima ratio of modernity under conditions of class inequality, then Lenin’s dismissal of the viability of democratic capitalism might be broadly acceded to as true for the epoch at least. In contrast, if Communist Russia shows what is likely to happen when the path to industrial modernity is hewn without use of capitalist markets and the pluralism of bourgeois civil society, then Leninism is in trouble.

Davidson seems to accept the Brenner definition of capitalism as involving a social process of endogenous competitive accumulation that forces both owners of capital and direct producers to continually drive up productivity (p. 400). This sturdy formulation appears almost entirely inapplicable to Communist command economies. I can't see much use in defining such regimes, even though certainly committed to developmental industrialisation, as capitalist in any form, still less products of bourgeois revolution.

For Davidson, Trotsky's theory of ‘Combined and Uneven Development’ is the most ‘important discovery in C20th Marxism’ (p. 286). Basically, this theory amounts to the claim that once integrated into an international division of labour, a national economy is likely to comingle reservoirs of rural backwardness with cutting-edge industries. In a ‘backward’ country seeking to ‘catch-up’ with great power rivals, the state forces the pace of defence-related industries at break-neck speed. Consumer spending is suppressed and the peasantry burdened with taxes. Politically and socially, therefore, we can expect to see a wracked traditionalism cheek-to-jowl with hyper-modernity. Any notion of stately ‘stages of modernisation’ becomes inapplicable. The relevance of all of this to Tsarist Russia is evident, though it might have been fair to note that Trotsky owed these observations to the analyses of liberal historians such as Paul Miliukov.(7)

Davidson wishes to demonstrate that ‘combined and uneven’ development helps to account for the various paths to ‘bourgeois revolution’. A ‘backward’ country with a weak middle class might well seek to destroy the remnants of feudalism – guild restrictions, usury laws, a recalcitrant peasantry attached to micro-farms, aristocratic privileges, and so on – in order to catch up with geo-political rivals. The result is state-driven revolutions from above more often than from below. The first such example, Davidson argues, is the transformation of Scottish society from above in the 18th-century. In like form, socialism can begin to push beyond capitalism even in countries where the proletariat is numerically weak, as in Russia 1917.

Trotsky (as Davidson acknowledges) was not alone amongst Marxists in re-thinking the inexorable rise of bourgeois liberalism before the advent of socialism. From about 1870, the seemingly inevitable association of modernity with liberalism became more doubtful. This owed much to the organisation across continental Europe of mass conscript armies backed by large-scale munitions industries. It became much more difficult for liberals to keep the state on slim-rations and still able to stay ahead of threatening rivals. Hypertrophy of the militarised state, moreover, helped provoke the growth of rhetorically revolutionary socialist movements of the working-class, that in turn made the bourgeoisie even more wary of promiscuous political and civil liberties.

Second International Marxists, who cleaved to economic determinism, were inclined to explain declining liberal animal spirits by reference to the economically driven statizing of capitalism. Nonetheless, Marxists and socialists still broadly accepted that the bourgeoisie were progressive at least relative to aristocratic and militaristic cliques that continued to hold disproportionate political power. For Lenin, however, at least from 1914, ‘bourgeois liberalism’ had become untenable, and the only alternatives left were authoritarian ‘imperialism’ and ‘proletarian dictatorship’.

Davidson holds to the Leninist-Trotskyist view in rejecting the proposition that bourgeois constitutionalism was still a progressive ‘stage’. He identifies ‘stages theory’ with the Kautsky era. Right-thinking Marxists, Davidson says, have only ‘revulsion’ for such Second International determinism (p. 521).(8) This contempt for the Marxism of the ‘Golden Age’ is unfortunate, as Davidson is a skilled guide through the thickets of theory and interpretation elsewhere. Second International theorisation of ‘bourgeois revolution’ is rather caricatured. This is a pity, as it contained nuances that anticipated later revisionist critiques, as we saw with Kautsky above. Kautsky also (as Davidson notes) readily acknowledged the possibility of socialists seizing power in Russia as early as 1905, even if he thought that an attempt to transcend capitalism on an immature material basis would prove disastrous.

Davidson’s most substantial diversion from the classical interpretation of ‘bourgeois revolution’ is to empty it of its specific political content. For Second International socialists, the development of constitutionalism was intrinsic to ‘bourgeois revolution’. The Danish socialist Gustav Bang, in 1909–10, wrote that the bourgeoisie ‘more and more consciously … strove for a new constitutional form, a republic or a constitutional monarchy, where the centre of gravity would be in a representative assembly, where the wealthy bourgeoisie had the upper hand''.(9) This emphasis upon the constitutionalist tendency of bourgeois political thought was a channelling of Marx.(10) Marx had often enough made the point that bourgeois liberalism was promoted and honestly avowed by its partisans as transcending narrow class interest, even as he sought to uncover the sordid class interests lurking beneath. Davidson does not and from his point of view cannot accept the centrality and authenticity of political reform and ideology to his theorisation of bourgeois revolution.

Davidson does not set out his view of what constitutes ‘bourgeois revolution’ in any sustained way. He does, however, state it on page 420:

The theory of bourgeois revolution is not … about the origins and development of capitalism as a socioeconomic system but the removal of backward looking threats to its continued existence and the overthrow of restrictions to its further development. The source of these threats and restrictions has, historically, been the pre-capitalist state, whether estates-monarchy, absolutist, or tributary in nature.

Broadly speaking, therefore, Davidson is a ‘consequentialist’: revolution need only promote capitalism in the future to be classified as ‘bourgeois’. It does not require an ideology that promotes commercial civil society as vital to the body politic. When revolutionaries talked of ‘religious or constitutional liberties’ this was only a kind of ‘false consciousness’ (pp. 565, 619). In 1640s England, 1790s France, 1860s United States, etc., ‘leaders, consciously or unconsciously, had to mobilize the masses under ultimately deceptive slogans of universal right’ because otherwise workers, peasants etc. would fail to stir themselves simply to swap old feudal oppression for new capitalist exploitation (p. 145):

In no bourgeois revolution did the revolutionaries ever seek to rally popular forces by proclaiming their intention to establish a new form of exploitative society … but did so by variously raising demands for religious freedom, representative democracy, national independence, and, ultimately, socialist reconstruction …(p. 510)

This last reference to ‘socialist reconstruction’ is because Davidson – not very convincingly – sees all communist seizures of power (except Russia 1917) as instances of bourgeois revolution. The last bourgeois revolutions, therefore, were in 1973–5: the Communist ‘Derg’ coup in Ethiopia, US defeat in Indochina, and decolonisation of the Portuguese Empire (p. 621).

This surely stretches the concept of bourgeois revolution far beyond breaking point. Such ideologically disparate movements cannot be grouped in this way. It makes more sense to see the liberal constitutionalism of the modern era, inflected though it was by mass democratic impulses, as rooted in the real conditions of commercial civil society. The ideological content of capitalist civilization is not a mere crutch for crude economic rapacity. Bourgeois revolution is motivated by, and eventuates in, a settlement that seeks to discipline the state via constitutionalism and the enveloping fiscal mesh that connects government, national debt, and capitalist markets.

True, exasperated middle class loyalty to constitutionalism has often been brought to the brink and beyond of repudiation. The crisis of constitutionalism peaked in the 1914 to 1945 Age of Catastrophe, when militarism was endemic and communism seemed to threaten bourgeois civil society. After the defeat of Nazism, however, liberal capitalist constitutionalism regained the upper-hand, and from the collapse of communism became the near default setting on a global basis. It is not difficult to understand the Arab Spring as an iteration of ‘bourgeois revolution’. Rather than the era of bourgeois revolution having ended with the unlikely champions of Mengistu’s Derg, it is perhaps with us yet. This consideration alone would make Davidson’s important and stimulating book well worth reading.

Learn About the Civil War With Free Printables

The American Civil War was fought between the northern and southern states of the United States between 1861 and 1865. There were many events leading to the Civil War. Following the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, decades of tensions between the north and south, primarily over enslavement and states' rights, exploded.

Eleven southern states ultimately seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. These states were South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, and Mississippi.

The states remaining part of the United States of America were Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, California, Nevada, and Oregon.

West Virginia (which had been part of the state of Virginia until Virginia seceded), Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri made up the Border States. These were states which chose to remain part of the United States despite the fact that they were pro-slavery states.

The war began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, where a small unit of Union soldiers remained after secession, in South Carolina.

A documentary delves into the divide between Americans’ views of the Civil War

In “Civil War: (Or, Who Do We Think We Are),” filmmaker Rachel Boynton takes viewers on a road trip through American public memory — and thus through ignorance, both accidental and intentional. This high-minded but uneven documentary feels exceptionally well-timed, landing amid local debates and media-created firestorms over such right-wing boogeymen as critical race theory and the 1619 Project: Interviewing teachers, students, Confederate buffs and state politicians, Boynton delves into the abyss dividing Americans in terms of what we know about our own history and how what we know differs by region, self-selection and heritage.

Heritage, it turns out, is a more apt phrase than history for what many citizens are steeped in, especially in the South, where after the Civil War such organizations as the United Daughters of the Confederacy instituted curriculums that forbade teaching that the conflict was waged to preserve slavery. But mythmaking was just as prevalent in the North, where reconciliation was readily and routinely prioritized over racial justice. As the Yale historian David Blight says during a lecture in “Civil War,” a narrative of “mutual valor” was deployed to knit the republic back together — which turned out to be much more convenient than tackling the war’s true causes and consequences.

We’ve been living with the results ever since, in ways that Boynton explores in a film that follows in the peripatetic footsteps of such recent civic-minded travelogues as “American Selfie” and “Our Towns.” At Boston’s prestigious Latin School, an eighth-grade teacher leads her students in a discussion of structural racism to the consternation of a student who steadfastly believes that it’s not as important as individual character. In Mississippi, she interviews a White farmer whose son listens uncomfortably to his story of his ancestors’ oppression during Reconstruction. Echoing several films chronicling the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, “Civil War” examines white supremacist terror that went unpunished and undocumented for decades, in favor of “Old South” images of romance, gentility and moral innocence. In one of the film’s most agonizing scenes, a cemetery holding the graves of enslaved African Americans is literally marginalized alongside a construction site, all but forgotten and desecrated by disuse.

Ron Chernow's "Grant" (about $15) attempts to reconcile the two divergent narratives of the famou general's life. Was he a perpetual screw-up who found redemption, or a brilliant, yet brutal, military tactician? The truth, you'll find, is far more intriguing than either.

Editor's Notes

January 16, 2020:

Like any good war history book, the Civil War books on this list take a deep dive not only into the untold horrors of warfare, but also the perspectives, personalities, and motivations behind it, as well as the ramifications. We wanted to include a variety of volumes to appeal to many different tastes.

Those who appreciate a solid overview will find much to like about the Civil War Volumes Box Set and The Civil War, while people looking to learn more about the events that led up to those bloody four years will find Battle Cry of Freedom hard to put down. We included detailed profiles of important figures from both the Union and Confederacy with Ron Chernow's Grant and Rebel Yell and selected This Republic of Suffering to help those who want to understand the aftermath of such a giant loss of life.

While we think a volume like Living Hell is vital for people to receive a sober account of the atrocities of war without the glorification, its factual inaccuracies and convoluted writing led to its removal. Since we recognized there were no dedicated civilian accounts included in our selection, we added Mary Chesnut's Diary. Mary Boykin Chesnut had a keen eye for detail, which, combined with her upper-class status and insights into significant moments makes for a compelling read. Rather than just jot down the days' events, Mrs. Chestnut creates an atmosphere, sets a tone, and provides entertaining commentary. Naturally, her account cannot fully speak to the experiences of slaves, Northerners, foot soldiers, and so on, so the reader must crack this one open with an intention to research other perspectives as well.

The Third Civil War

Found guilty, Charles was beheaded on January 30, 1649. In the wake of the king's execution, Cromwell sailed for Ireland to eliminate resistance there which had been directed by the Duke of Ormonde (1610–1688). With the assistance of Admiral Robert Blake (1598–1657), Cromwell landed and won bloody victories at Drogheda and Wexford that fall. The following June saw the late king's son, Charles II, arrive in Scotland where he allied with the Covenanters. This forced Cromwell to leave Ireland and he was soon campaigning in Scotland.

Though he triumphed at Dunbar and Inverkeithing, Cromwell allowed Charles II's army to move south into England in 1651. Pursuing, Cromwell brought the Royalists to battle on September 3 at Worcester. Defeated, Charles II escaped to France where he remained in exile.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Review - "Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863" by Jeffrey Hunt

As good as much of that recent work is, the most significant development has been the emergence of historian Jeffrey Hunt's exhaustive treatment of the subject matter spread among multiple volumes. Originally conceived as a trilogy but since expanded to a planned four volumes, Hunt's "Meade and Lee" series offers by far the most complete military history of the period. Preceded by 2017's Meade and Lee After Gettysburg and 2019's Meade and Lee at Bristoe Station 3 , Hunt's Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station: The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863 examines General Meade's first opportunity to conduct his own major offensive operation (albeit with some constraints and interference from Washington) from start to finish as an army commander in Virginia. Though the sharp repulse of A.P. Hill's corps at Bristoe Station took some of the sting out of Meade being thoroughly outgeneraled and thrown on the defensive by Lee during that October operation, the Lincoln administration remained mostly disappointed with Meade's overall performance that summer into fall and anticipated further action before mud and winter set in. The dilemma lay in finding a way to catch Lee's army, which had fallen back behind the Rappahannock River after the Bristoe Campaign ended in early November and was thoroughly ensconced there, at a disadvantage.

Restricted by the administration to operations along the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Meade was confronted by significant challenges in planning and executing his next move. A casual glance at a period map of the area's road and rail network might suggest that Culpeper County possessed fine campaigning possibilities however, a deeper look reveals significant, and at the time thoroughly recognized, problems for both attacker and defender. All of these are shrewdly noted and analyzed at length by Hunt in the book. A Union advance southward along the O&A would angle away from rather than toward the Confederate capital while also exposing the army's ever lengthening lines of supply and communications to interdiction by cavalry raiders and guerrillas, but the bigger problem was not wanting to be caught at a disadvantage within the narrow confines of the sideways-slanted "V" formed by the confluence of the Upper Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. Because fighting within the dreaded V meant that both attacking and defending forces would have a significant river barrier to their immediate rear, neither Meade nor Lee looked forward to being involved in a major battle there. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the Bristoe Campaign Lee's army settled into what increasingly seemed like winter quarters behind the Rappahannock while Meade, under pressure to resume operations before seasonal weather shut down the roads, pondered the best way get at his foe.

In the book Hunt presents readers with a clear description and insightful appraisal of the potentially dangerous "trap" laid by Lee and the ways by which Meade, who well recognized the inherent dangers imposed by Lee's crafty dispositions but was forbidden from altering his line of operations, might deal with it. By establishing both a fortified bridgehead north of the river at Rappahannock Station and light covering defenses along the south bank at Kelly's Ford (the two places that Meade needed possession of to support his leap across the Rappahannock), Lee hoped to force Meade to divide the Army of the Potomac in a way that might give the Confederate commander an opening to mass his own army against a portion of the enemy's. Meade, seeing that a Confederate force could use the Rappahannock Station bridgehead to launch a counterattack on his flank and rear if he used Kelly's Ford as his main crossing point, was indeed induced to divide his army, though if Meade could attack quickly and successfully enough at both places he could neutralize the threat and reunite enough of his army on the other side of the river to minimize the chances of being defeated in detail. If the bridgehead could not be taken quickly and a strong force pushed across, Meade's right wing commander (John Sedgwick) was to mask the position and reinforce the Kelly's Ford front. This back up plan would lessen the amount of time the Union army would be divided with equal halves on both sides of the river. What follows that perceptive introductory assessment of Meade's options and problems is the author's narrative detailing the Union advance (two wings of two corps each against Rappahannock Station and Kelly's Ford), the November 7 Union victories at both bridgehead and ford, the hurried Confederate retreat, the cautious federal follow-up movement toward Culpeper Court House, and, finally, the escape of Lee's army across the Rapidan without a major battle. All of the accounts of these events are amply supported by the volume's excellent set of over two dozen strategic, operational, and tactical-scale maps.

The author's thorough knowledge and nuanced appreciation of the military challenges imposed by the area's contested ground is readily apparent throughout the book, and detailed explanation of how terrain influenced operational and tactical decision-making during the campaign is one of the book's chief strengths. A good example can be seen in Lee's defense arrangements for the river line. An armchair general unfamiliar with the ground might expect that all crossings would be closely defended, but the physical features of the ground on both sides of the river dictated otherwise. Due to disadvantageous topography (ex. the higher ground was on the north side of this stretch of the Rappahannock), Lee did not intend to vigorously contest a full-scale assault on the crossings. The bulk of his army was deployed a few miles to the rear, hidden and out of range of the enemy's superior weight of long-range artillery, but ready to take advantage of any opportunities that might be offered.

Leadership performances on both sides during movement and battle come under similarly judicious consideration in the book. In his new role as wing commander, Union general William French efficiently marched his two corps to Kelly's Ford, captured it after a brief fight, and secured the south bank with a small force while the bulk of his troops remained on the north side of the river. Up to that time, French had had little opportunity to distinguish himself in command responsibilities commensurate with his high rank, and Hunt appropriately praises his performance before and during the battle as meeting all expectation. Sedgwick's right wing of the army approached its more strongly held fortified target far more cautiously. Hunt persuasively argues that Sedgwick, seemingly content with developing the enemy bridgehead and bringing it under bombardment, would not have ordered a storming of the enemy works at all on November 7 had one of his more enterprising subordinates, division commander David Russell, not pressed for permission to conduct a dusk assault. Using only a tiny part of Sedgwick's available force, Russell's attack was a splendid success, the victory a function of approaching darkness limiting cross-river artillery fire, enemy disorganization, and high-order tactical competence on the part of the assault units. The availability of only a single escape route also substantially increased the prisoner haul, with Russell's victory reducing two of the Army of Northern Virginia's best brigades to mere skeletons. The lack of defensive improvements such as deep ditches, abatis, and the like also contributed to the Confederate mini-disaster, but the author astutely reminds critics that the bridgehead's usefulness as a jumping off point for offensive movement would have been limited by such obstructions. On the other hand, Hunt might also have conceded that the very small capacity of the fortified bridgehead, its exceedingly shallow depth (the trenches were backed up close to the river along their entire length), and single bridge crossing would have made it suboptimal as a point from which to swiftly launch a major counterstroke. One might argue that the bridgehead, as constructed and manned, was improperly sized for both effective defense and offensive springboard roles. Lee, and to a lesser extent Jubal Early, whose division was tasked with defending that sector, were criticized for not withdrawing the troops in the face of Sedgwick's overwhelming force, but Hunt is more forgiving than some observers. By late in the day, Lee's overall plan was working as designed and Sedgwick's command had demonstrated for hours little inclination to do anything beyond bombarding the Rappahannock Station bridgehead from afar. Hindsight is always 20/20, and in Hunt's view Lee, who rode away from the front very late in the day in full expectation that the status quo would remain, assumed a reasonable risk by maintaining the bridgehead.

With the mini-disaster suffered at Rappahannock Station ending all hope of engaging Meade's army to advantage, Lee ordered a retreat. According to Hunt, Confederate teamsters and quartermasters were the heroes of the hour. With only moments of advance notice, they managed to save a mountain of supplies, ammunition, and personal baggage accumulated for winter. The transport of that amount of material, which could not be evacuated in a single trip, was covered by the withdrawal of the army to a new position near Culpeper Court House. Though the Army of Northern Virginia quickly dug a strong line of entrenchments there, both flanks were in the air and an impetuous Union advance could have caused Lee serious problems. However, Meade was not one for risky throws of the dice, and his methodical concentration and measured advance only covered half the distance to Lee's entrenchments by nightfall on November 8. While listing compelling reasons for Meade's exercising caution (or overcaution), Hunt notes that the Union commander's assignment of the bulk of his cavalry to flank protection rather than screening duties made his forward march even slower and left the general underinformed as to Lee's dispositions. Confederate cavalry also conducted an effective delaying action that contributed another element to Meade's painfully slow pace of advance.

Still out of close contact with the enemy and free to finally withdraw without risking disaster, Lee's army and its supply and baggage trains crossed the Rapidan without incident, leaving both armies roughly where they were back in August. In the early stages of his first major Virginia offensive Meade had acquitted himself well, but, as the author maintains, the general's "deliberate" command style almost immediately surrendered the initiative so effectively seized from the start. Lacking the audacity that might turn local tactical success into glorious victory, Meade in the end accomplished little beyond a chunk of Virginia front and another incremental increase in Army of the Potomac self-confidence. One might imagine that the final volume in the series will contain a full summation of the author's thoughts on Meade's strengths and weaknesses as an army commander. On the other side, none of Lee's hopes of striking a divided enemy army came to fruition and his own command suffered a heavy blow to its order of battle with the near destruction of two veteran infantry brigades. Both combatants in Virginia would not be going into winter quarters just yet, however, and the ensuing Mine Run Campaign will be covered in Hunt's fourth and final installment of this definitive-scale series. With the exceptional quality of its prose, research, depth of description, and informed analysis, Hunt's masterful multi-volume effort is well on its way to becoming a modern classic every bit deserving of rank and praise similar to that bestowed upon Gordon Rhea's Overland Campaign series.

11 Best Books on the American Civil War

From James McPherson’s definitive history to Tony Horwitz’s adventures among obsessives, here are the 11 best books on the Civil War in time for the 150th anniversary.

Malcolm Jones

In his introductory note to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, historian C. Vann Woodward noted that the book, which was part of a 10-volume series on American history, was the only entry in the series to be devoted to a single war. Was the Civil War that important? Certainly the subject is insanely popular with amateur history buffs and even quite a few professional historians. Still, a whole book about one war? Woodward, the editor of the series and himself one of the great authorities on Southern history, defended the decision this way: “There are numerous criteria at hand for rating the comparative magnitude of wars … One simple and eloquent measurement is the numbers of casualties sustained. After describing the scene at nightfall on September 17, 1862, following the battle called Antietam in the North and Sharpsburg in the South, McPherson writes: ‘The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined.’ And in the final reckoning, American lives lost in the Civil War exceed the total of those lost in all the other wars the country has fought added together, world wars included. Questions raised about the proportion of space devoted to military events of this period might be considered in the light of these facts.”

Is there an inch of battleground, a day or a minute between 1861 and 1865 left unexamined by some historian somewhere? Surely not. But the library of books about the Civil War that now exists—and is sure to swell during the war’s sesquicentennial which begins this week—is absolutely worth it. The Civil War was not just the bloodiest American conflict. It was also the war that settled who we are as a nation, a war whose outcome and rhetoric have defined us ever after.

Compiling a list of essential books about the war is an absurd task, simply because—no kidding—so many are essential. Try to imagine another subject where you omit writers of the caliber of William McFeely, Bruce Catton, T. Harry Williams, or Burke Davis. So consider this list a mere starting point. The more you read about the war, the more you will want to read (don’t say you weren’t warned). And when you tire of history, there’s Civil War fiction. But that’s a subject for another list. So this list is missing some great ingredients. Still, you have to start somewhere.

The Confederates don’t open fire on Ft. Sumter until page 273, and if that doesn’t tell you that this historian is all about context, then nothing will. But if ever a conflict wanted context to be understood, this is the war. McPherson begins with a brief look at the Mexican war of 1847, where many of the men who would determine the course of the Civil War first saw combat or held commands. He then moves through Bloody Kansas, Dred Scott, and the various compromises that came and went as an ever more fractured nation sought ever more patchwork ways to hold together. The lesson is clear: battles are fine, but you have to understand the why—the arguments and assumptions and predispositions that led to the battles and in many cases affected their outcome. If any of this sounds dry, it isn’t. McPherson is a skillful writer and a discriminating historian. There are very good reasons why this book is so often called the best single-volume history of the war, and to find out why, all you have to do is open it and read a few pages. After that, it’s mighty hard to stop.

There are things wrong with this epic trilogy—Foote isn’t reliable on the causes of the war, for instance—but what’s right far outweighs the negatives. The author deeply understood the importance of the war in the West—meaning the lower Midwest and the South that abutted the Mississippi. For a Southerner, he is relatively immune to the cult of Bobby Lee. He understands the military mind and what it takes to be a soldier. And he brilliantly shows how Lincoln grew into his job, how he became the Lincoln we know. Most important, no one has ever written so well on this subject, and probably never will. A fine novelist before he tackled the Civil War, Foote displays the novelist’s eye for story and character—the Gettysburg section, in particular, reads like Greek tragedy, full of blood and hubris. Foote thought the Civil War was America’s Iliad, and he caught the epic quality of the conflict he chronicled.

As a battle, Antietam might be called a draw. The Union held the field at the end of the day, but the Confederate army slipped away without further repercussions. But Sept. 17, 1862 was a memorable day for several good reasons. First, it was the bloodiest single day of an astonishingly bloody war, with casualties (dead, wounded, or missing) for both sides totaling 22,720 men. Second, the Union’s vacillation after the battle gave Lincoln the excuse he needed to sack the irresolute George McClellan as the leader of the Army of the Potomac. Third, because the Union could claim the victory—and at this stage in the war, the North needed every victory it could find—the good news gave Lincoln the confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22. Books about single battles are usually fit only for obsessives, but this crucial moment deserves its own book, and Sears gives it a superlative rendering.

After Lincoln and Jefferson, Grant, of all people, was probably the finest prose stylist ever to inhabit the White House. Some of what made Grant a great general made him a good writer as well, notably his ability to balance the big picture with dozens of details. His descriptions of battles proceed almost minute by minute in some cases, but he never becomes mired in minutiae, and the story proceeds with an almost martial tempo. If Grant lacks Lincoln’s rhetorical genius, he makes up for it as an always straightforward stylist who prizes clarity above all.

Daily life in the upper-middle class South during the war, as rendered by a supremely self-aware—and ultimately very likeable—lady. The Chesnut diary was one of the first non-military documents whose publication did much to increase interest in wartime life off the battlefield. Open to almost any page and you will see why. She didn’t miss much.

The Civil War remade many attitudes but none so much as the thinking on death. Carnage and slaughter on a grand scale ground down prevailing notions of the good death and undercut belief in divine providence. Many new ways of thinking about death came out of the war, but none more sweeping than the new expectations of the military—its responsibility to identify, preserve, and honor the dead. This is one of those groundbreaking histories that clarifies a crucial piece of the past previously ignored.

Both sides were guilty of screaming for blood, and both sides got what they asked for and a lot more. The Civil War was not the first total war, that is, a war carried past armed combatants to include civilians and private property. But modern technology—railroads, more sophisticated arms—made slaughter easier, and the vengefulness with which each side went at the other made the killing and burning and looting even more inevitable. The embodiments of this ruthlessness were William Tecumseh Sherman on the Union side and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson on the Confederacy. Their foes demonized them as zealots and fanatics, while their allies hailed them as, well, zealots and fanatics. Their excesses were deemed necessary to victory, but when the butcher’s bill came due at war’s end, four years of horror had numbed all but the most resolute warmongers.

Goodwin portrays Lincoln by portraying the men who competed with him for the presidency, men whom he thereafter drew into his cabinet (keep your enemies close, etc.) to help him prosecute the war. Each man saw Lincoln from a different perspective, but the sum of their perspectives gives a marvelously rounded look at a man who was as hard to define as anyone who has ever occupied the oval office.

Our best historian on Reconstruction, Foner argues that "the hallmark of Lincoln's greatness was his capacity for growth." The 16th president did not come out of the cradle as the Great Emancipator. His philosophy matured as he aged, and, because he was a politician always acquainted with what was possible, as opposed to what was desirable or preferable, he trimmed his thinking depending on who he was dealing with and the circumstances surrounding those dealings. He was enigmatic, even to his friends, and he left a scant paper trail—Honest Abe was no confessional diarist. Nor was he always right or always wise. The Lincoln who emerges in these pages is always human and vitally engaged with his times but capable of error and mistakes in judgment. Watching him grapple with the single most important issue of his time, we realize that knowing him completely will always be impossible but that our admiration for him, the absolute right man at the right time, can only continue to grow.

The Gilded Age author William Dean Howells once said, "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." As Blight demonstrates, when they didn't get what they wanted, they fiddled with the historical record until it came out the way they liked it. Or white people did, anyway. In the half century after the war, the country succumbed to a sort of cultural amnesia whereby a war over slavery became a war over states’ rights. Cause and effect were uncoupled, such that valor might exist in a vacuum—what the fight was about became less important than the way in which it was fought. African Americans had their own counternarrative, but no one else paid attention to theirs as everyone rushed to embrace reconciliation of the two halves of the country. In the white man’s playbook, healing trumped everything, with the result that the real lost cause was truth. The North may have won the war, but the South dictated the terms of the peace for almost a century.

This absurdly fascinating book begins with a look at reenactors, and then it gets really weird. Most of Horwitz’s subjects are Southerners whose lives are, in various ways, taken over by their interest in the war. The author quotes Shelby Foote for the epigraph: “Southerners are very strange about that war.” Some of the people in this book, such as the Scarlett O’Hara impersonator, may look silly, but make no mistake, they are all in the grip of an obsession, every bit as convinced as Faulkner that “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.”

Malcolm Jones writes about books, music, and photography for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, where he has written about subjects ranging from A. Lincoln to R. Crumb. He is the author of a memoir, Little Boy Blues, and collaborated with the songwriter and composer Van Dyke Parks and the illustrator Barry Moser on Jump!, a retelling of Brer Rabbit stories.