Book Review – The First Total War by David A. Bell

Note:I recently published two entries here and here, which brought this blog up to 49 posts.  I figured why wait to hit that big number 50?  So here’s a review I wrote in college, resurrected from my plethora of saved files, hopefully it helps some student out there understand The First Total War by David A. Bell.

The First Total War, A Deep Analysis of Napoleonic Power

Book Cover, The First Total War

Book Cover, The First Total War

The notion of “total war” has fascinated military and social historians since the devastating world wars, and most historians mark those events as the beginning of the age of total war. In The First Total War, David A. Bell challenges that idea and places the beginning of total war during the Napoleonic Era. Bell, a Harvard educated historian of French history, is charting a new kind of military history, one which examines the culture of warfare, not just the analysis of battles and generals. The decline of the old aristocratic ways of fighting wars, combined with the literary and philosophical ideas about perpetual peace following a final catastrophic conflict led to the birth of a new, more violent form of warfare in revolutionary France. Bell argues that understanding that such warfare originated there allows the reader to understand the current ideas about apocalyptic war in the modern world. First, he challenges the contempt many modern historians have for the 18th Century aristocratic style of warfare. While it is difficult for modern minds to understand the formal, play-acting style of fighting, Bell argues that the very things people ridicule 18th Century warfare for is the very thing that enabled war to be limited in death and destruction. Second, Bell traces the development of philosophical and literary thoughts about the nature of warfare, especially the transition from thinking of war as a normal and consistent part of life to thinking about war as an unusual exception. That transition directly led to more extreme warfare because it made nations see the Napoleonic Wars as a last great war that would usher in an era of perpetual peace. Finally, the eruption of total war itself begins in the Vendee and spreads to irregular guerrilla wars in Italy, Spain and Portugal before ending in Prussia, where total war began official government policy backed by royalty. Bell’s writing style is very interpretive, as he builds arguments and often breaks the narrative to compare his subject (warfare from 1792-1815) to modern day events.[1]

The aristocratic mode of fighting wars dominated the 18th Century and has drawn much criticism from modern historians, yet Bell looks back upon that time with nostalgia. Without ideology and ideas of nationalism, total war was exceedingly rare. However silly the rules of war may seem to a modern observer, they succeeded in limiting the destruction caused by wars and acknowledged the reality that war is a part of human existence, not something that will ever disappear.[2] Here and throughout his book Bell gives brief biographical sketches of the prominent players in each event or theme he examines. We are introduced to the duc de Lauzun, who perfectly represents the aristocrat who can both fight in battle and perform flawlessly at court. Lauzun’s later execution also symbolizes the death of the aristocratic way of fighting, at least in France. Such biographical sketches are expertly interwoven throughout the book to humanize and serve as stand-ins for abstract ideas such as the Enlightenment, honor and brutality. As a narrative device the biographical sketches make the great changes understandable to the average reader. Even his sources sometimes benefit from a brief biography. D’Holbach, a prominent source of Bell’s that argued for the end of aristocratic warfare and notions of honor, is quoted as saying that war was an exception due only to bad rulers fighting for petty causes. “The state of society is a state of war of the sovereign against all, and of each of its members against the others.”[3]

Early on the book Bell relies heavily on the works of literary giants and philosophes to define the nature of warfare. In doing so Bell implies that the thoughts of these educated elites can represent the thoughts of the masses. He recognizes that there are limits to how far this sort of generalization can go, but understandably there were few tracts written about lower class or uneducated people about their feelings for the war. And since the philosophes were widely read among elites and often enjoyed favor at court it is in fact reasonable to assume that they influenced official policy. Perhaps the most importance influence on how the aristocrats viewed war was a man named Fenelon. His best known work Telemachus outlined his philosophy that war was a scourge to be avoided at all costs, directly challenging the aristocratic notion that war was nearly a sport. “War may sometimes be necessary but it is the shame of the human race.”[4] The abbe de Saint-Pierre was another prominent intellectual who advocated for a utopian vision of international cooperation. It was this sort of anti-war mentality that took root and inadvertently triggered the most violent paroxysm of war the world would see until the Twentieth Century. Bell’s reliance on the works of these early philosophes effectively sets the stage for what will come in the French Revolution and Napoleon’s reign. Their principles accurately reflect the Enlightenment thinking that was sweeping Europe and was the justification for the French Revolution.

Finally, Bell comes to the topic of total war itself, once he has detailed the changes in thinking among elites. The people have become riled up for total war by the French Revolutionary governments; they have been taught to believe a final apocalyptic war is needed to free the world from tyranny and preserve their new liberal system. And so the French initiate total war, a concept that Bell defines as mobilization of the population (which seldom resulted in expected numbers), brutality towards the opponent, and including civilians among the targets of military action. The French efforts to eliminate royalist opposition in the Vendee resulted in a brutal campaign of extermination. Bell quotes Republican general Francois-Nicolas Salomon: “Since this is a war of brigands, we must become brigands ourselves. We must, for a time, forget all military rules.”[5] Bell attributes a variant of this quote from many sources throughout the book, from the Revolution right up to the modern United States. It represents, in a phrase, what his book is about: the abandonment of civilized rules of war. Bell’s new form of cultural military history is best represented by his treatment of battles. The nature of the battles is at the forefront, not the tactics or strategies involved in the battles. Similarly, Bell does not overuse dates in discussing his battles, for they are not relevant to his argument. Used sparingly only to give context to events his is careful not to inundate the reader with statistics except where they are necessary in evidencing the brutality of total war. Dates are rarely used and given only to provide context, the book is more about ideas. While the book is organized in chronological order, the reader is only introduced to relevant battles. Instead of being a comprehensive history of campaigns, only the battles that best reflect his thesis of total war and dehumanization of the enemy are used. The crackdown in the Vendee, the revolts in Italy, Spain and Portugal are all used as examples. Drawing from eye-witness accounts, Bell paints a picture of horrific war. By the first decade of the 19th Century soldiers who felt they were taking part in a great historical event began recording their thoughts, and serve as the backbone of his depiction of the invasion of Russia and other trials. Official reports from officers in the field report the telling brutalities committed by rebels and French regulars. Staying true to the cultural elements his book are based on, Bell also frequently resorts to artistic depictions of battle to reflect changing sensibilities. Initially paintings by the likes of David beautify death in a noble cause, but by the time the Napoleonic Wars were grinding to a halt the depictions had turned grotesque, showing severed limbs and propaganda.[6]

No book is perfect, however, and Bell’s largest mistake is overlooking the prevalence of the aristocratic way of war in the rest of Europe. The change in France is clear enough, but he only sporadically mentions how the rest of Europe failed to adapt. But he fails to credit the Duke of Wellington with defeating Napoleon and seems to ascribe Napoleon’s defeat to the guerrilla warfare. One wonders if the effectiveness of such irregular warfare is overstated in military histories, and while Bell has introduced new ideas to the field of military history, perhaps he has not broken with all traditional ways of thinking about war. The book is academic: it has an introduction, a clear argument, and frequently breaks the narrative to discuss historiography and historical debates, but his prose is fluid and accessible, and his thoughts are organized effectively into a narrative that even a novice to French history will enjoy. In his introduction Bell writes that the targeted audience of his book is average readers. His goal is to get readers re-thinking their assumptions about the evolution of warfare, and admits scholars may find little new in his book. In this Bell certainly succeeds. Maybe the facts are old but the analysis is new and even scholars can benefit from reading The First Total War.

On the whole Bell’s work is revolutionary. It opens up the often stagnant field of military history to new avenues of research and new ways of thinking. Effectively weaving biographical sketches in with relevant battles and trends in the way the masses looked at war, The First Total War is a deep analysis of the way Europe–Frenchmen especially–abandoned aristocratic modes of war and embraced a new era of violent total war to achieve ideological goals. A well-researched argument and narrative substantiated with relevant and effective primary sources serve to make this book a must-read among military and cultural historians for years to come.

Footnotes

[1] Frequently, the American war and occupation in Iraq.

[2] David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007), 316-317.

[3] Bell, 69.

[4] Bell, 62.

[5] Bell, 170.

[6] The attempts at artistic propaganda were used to show how the public was being told to hate their enemies and think of opponents as sub-human. Specifically Bell cites the example of a British cartoon depicting Napoleon as a baby cradled in the arms of Satan. Bell, 255.

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Book Review: Bitterly Divided by David Williams

A Review of Bitterly Divided

The book jacket for Bitterly Divided by David Williams.

The book jacket for Bitterly Divided by David Williams.

About a week ago I posted a review of William Freehling’s The South vs the South and mentioned that I would be reading a second book on the same theme. That book was Bitterly Divided by David Williams, and I just finished reading it this morning. After collecting my thoughts I perused some reviews of the book to get a general feel for how it’s been accepted in the scholarly and popular arena. I found that there is a little controversy about the book among historians, and there are two camps: those who find Williams’ thesis compelling and those who think it naïve and based on faulty anecdotal evidence.

Would it be too much of a cop-out to say I agree with both camps? Williams paints a much more believable explanation for the collapse of the Confederacy than the traditional “North had more guns and people” view. His book is also much more in-depth than Freehling’s while still being fairly short (250 pages). It also gives the reader a better idea of the depth and breadth of opposition to the Confederacy and the unique alliances it spawned.

As a narrative the book is entertaining, which is very important to me. Early on I learned that if you can’t write history in an interesting way you won’t reach as many people and thus, what good are you? A lot of the evidence is from secondary sources, his own prior works, and is largely based on anecdotal evidence. He does, however, have some compelling arguments about elections that seem to strengthen his argument for a wealthy minority pushing for secession votes through fraud. Here his anecdotal evidence blends with statistical evidence and strongly leads the reader to conclude that the majority of white southerners did oppose secession and war in early 1861, and that the white elites did a pretty bang-up job of rigging the system against anti-Confederates.

The complexity of white opposition to the Confederacy was barely touched on, and the heavy Marxist tone of the book prevents non-economic reasons from moving to the forefront of the argument. In Bitterly Divided, you get the impression that the South was on the verge of an anti-planter class revolution, but Williams never really proves how deep these sentiments went in Confederate society. Most of his evidence takes on an anti-planter attitude, but surely economic reasons weren’t the only reasons for opposing the Confederacy?

It also falters when dealing with Northern racism and the freeing of slaves. Freehling’s great accomplishment was in showing why Lincoln catered to the Border States, how integral they were to victory by swinging numbers, spies and geography in favor of the Union. Williams does not mention the need to handle the Border States with delicacy and instead paints Lincoln, abolitionists and much of the north as racist opportunists. Nearly every time Lincoln is mentioned he is painted in a negative light. In one instance Williams writes: “Though differing with Confederates on the issue of disunion, Lincoln was largely united with them in his racist views.” (p. 193)

I’m not arguing Lincoln was modernistic with his racial views, but countless other authors have spent a great deal of time and research showing how nuanced Lincoln’s racial views were, and how often his public statements did not mesh with his private thoughts and were based on political necessity, that it seems unfair of Williams to put Lincoln in the ranks of Jefferson Davis with one sweeping statement. He also highlights Army opposition to fighting for blacks. “As far as the federal government was concerned, neither slavery nor blacks had any business in the affair.” (p. 193) Yet soldiers were among the most heartily in favor of emancipation and pushed helping runaway slaves, as Freehling pointed out in his earlier book. In this book Lincoln and the Army come across as caricatures of Lost Cause mythology. In several other instances Lincoln is portrayed as an uncaring, unresponsive politician. Interestingly, Jefferson Davis comes off as more of an emancipator than Lincoln.

That’s not to say this is a Lost Cause book. Williams comes across as definitively anti-Confederate from an economic viewpoint. And he places a lot of stock in the agency of runaway slaves in securing their own freedom. Maybe there’s nothing more than coincidence to his coverage of Lincoln and Davis, but it stood out to me nonetheless.

Finally, in his concluding chapter he makes a curious statement and I don’t know what to make of it. In dismissing the role of decisive battles in crushing the Confederate war machine, he writes: “Certainly defeats on the battlefield sapped the Confederacy’s will to fight, but those defeats came largely because so many soldiers had already lost their will to fight and deserted the army.” (p. 243). Desertion may have been a problem for the Confederacy throughout the war, but it was not a crisis yet when Lee struck northward to Antietam and Gettysburg. In fact, the Army of Northern Virginia had a remarkably high cohesion and spirit d’corps. Only a holistic approach to the war will reveal why the South lost. In the final analysis, Williams’ argument that class warfare undermined the South will no doubt by important, but starvation and a lack of future resources to continue the war, as well as military defeat, is what defeated Robert E. Lee. And I’m not sure I got that from reading Bitterly Divided.

Book Review: The Forgotten Conservative by John M. Pafford

The conservative historical revisionism of recent years continues with a re-evaluation of President Grover Cleveland.

As someone who doesn’t particularly care for attempts to rewrite history to fit a political ideology (whether liberal or conservative), this book was a challenge for me to review.  On the one hand, the author is a (presumably) libertarian who teaches history at Northwood University, a business school in Midland, Michigan, and is a scholar for the libertarian Mackinac Center think tank.  So I read with skepticism.

On the other hand, we can’t let our prejudices cloud our analysis of scholarly work.  We’re all human and all bring our own biases to our research, but we have to try to avoid becoming a mere “hired hand” for an ideological interest.  So I had to evaluate whether Professor Pafford was sufficiently independent in his work.  And then I had to evaluate the book on the actual research and writing quality.  I hope I succeeded fairly.

The Forgotten Conservative Book Cover

The Review

The Forgotten Conservative (2013) is a short book, clocking in at around 200 pages for the main text and some additional pages for an appendix and notes.  Covering an entire lifespan in such a short amount of pages means that we will only get a cursory overview of Cleveland’s life.  And in situations like that, writing usually suffers.  Pafford’s writing is functional, lacking flair, and the broad strokes he paints don’t shed any new light on Cleveland’s life or presidencies.  In fact, his presidencies are limited to a chapter apiece.

Instead of a penetrating glimpse into the mind of Grover Cleveland, The Forgotten Conservative simply cites events during his life when he took a conservative line.  There is no real analysis.  What is more, the little analysis contained within is filled with anachronisms when Pafford tries to connect Cleveland with modern libertarian trigger words like “multiculturalism” and “relativism.”  There is no real attempt to place Cleveland in the context of his times, and that is a shame.  The era he lived through was rife with social and political unrest and nuanced philosophical differences between politicians.  He tried to paint Cleveland as a reformer, but when stacked up next to his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt and even a young Henry Cabot Lodge he pales in comparison.

Instead of scholarly research the book reads more like a libertarian pamphlet with historical facts thrown in.  The language is too judgmental and not distanced enough from the subject.  There are paeans to the gold standard, something that would make Ron Paul proud, and barely disguised praise of a Christian government (pages 34-35). He resurrects the idea that strife between labor and corporate bosses was only due to violent strikers and a “rapacious few” corporate leaders.  There is little mention of the horrible working conditions and child labor conditions that various states worked to stamp out.

And for all the praise about Cleveland’s steadfast hold on his principles, Pafford rarely taps into the racial aspect of Cleveland’s Democratic Party.  Several times he states that the end of Reconstruction heralded the moment white people regained their right to vote in the South, subtly referencing old constructs about Reconstruction being a terrible event in U.S. history (page 42).  He seems not to realize that whites could vote in the South, but that after 1877 conservative whites could regain control of the legislatures and restore liberal-minded whites and blacks back to the bottom rung of society.

Hero-worship is nothing new in historical biographies, and Pafford has committed no heinous crime here.  There are so few books on Grover Cleveland that it wouldn’t be a terrible introduction to the man, but it’s biases stand out as unnecessary and unhelpful.  As a contribution to the historiography of Cleveland, this has very little value, unlike Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge, which embraces similar principles and has a similar purpose.  Yet Shlaes (so I’ve heard, I have yet to read Coolidge) still writes a valuable historical  contribution.

There is nothing new in this book, perhaps necessary considering the short length.  But the only thing that sets this book apart from the short overviews of the American Presidents Series is it’s political message.  Which is fine, history is about the sharing of ideas, but The Forgotten Conservative is a poor attempt to resurrect a hero for libertarians and has few ideas of its own.

Skip it.

But to show no hard feelings, I’m more than happy to direct you to the purchase link for the book if you decide to give it a go.

The Forgotten Conservative at Amazon.com.

 

Review: Here is Where by Andrew Carroll

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One of the perks about working in a bookstore, is that I can grab advance copies of upcoming books. Sometimes, buried in those piles of stereotypically quirky high-brow attempts at literature, a real diamond can be found in the rough. Here is Where is almost one of those diamonds.

Right off the bat, let me tell you the one problem I had with this book: it was too long for its own good.  Here’s why: The basic premise of Carroll’s history expedition is that he travels the country to discover and tell the forgotten tales of American history.  He carries with him three basic rules, of which the following is most important (to me): the “forgotten history” needs to have a national impact. Carroll is a conversational writer, and I really enjoyed his approach to history.  He is not a historian in a traditional sense.  There is no historiography,  no great methods of historical research used in his effort, but he doesn’t try to pass this off as “real” history.  Let’s call him a “history traveler.”

He regales us with interesting stories of crazy coincidences that entertain and enlighten.  For an example of enlightenment, his story of the Nihau Incident helps us better understand why America embraced forced detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  For a story of entertainment, we learn that the television was developed (at least on paper) by a fourteen year old boy, who later lived a tragic life in which he was screwed over by RCA. So on this basis alone I would recommend his book.

He’s clearly a talented writer. But there is one fundamental flaw in his book: the pacing. The book is organized into subject parts, which means most readers will find 3/5s of the book fascinating and the other portions boring.  Myself, I didn’t care for his segments on medicine or inventions.  He does an admirable job putting in place a kind of narrative of his travels, but the thread is weak. I devoured the first two-thirds of the book in two days, and then promptly lost interest.

I admittedly have not finished the book yet.  It’s worth a read, but the format Carroll has used for his book has removed any sense of urgency from the book.  It feels like a random assortment of stories, which can be read in any order (for the most part) that doesn’t really go anywhere. Out of 5 stars, I’d give it 3.  If you read it, you’ll like it (or at least most of it) but structurally it’s not great. Here is Where is due to be released in May 2013.

UPDATE:  Website for the book is up:  Click the title to visit.

Here Is Where by Andrew Carroll

Book Review: From Bondage to Contract by Amy Dru Stanley

One of the most famous stereotypes of America is her faith in the free economic market.  For as long as anyone currently alive can remember, that the free market was the best of all possible economic systems has been conventional wisdom.  Amy Dru Stanley’s book, From Bondage to Contract, goes back to the mid- to late-19th century to uncover the origins of this reliance on free markets and contracts.  Not only does she study those origins, she exposes how those who did not benefit from contracts used the abolitionist language of free markets to push for an expansion of their own freedoms.  After the emancipation of the slaves, many Americans assumed that the power of the free market would help spread freedom into areas previously held in bondage. Yet Stanley reminds us that wage workers, wives, ex-slaves, beggars and even prostitutes were not as free as was assumed.  Large segments of the population were still facing severe limitations on personal freedom in the name of the free market, and began to agitate for their own freedom, often adopting the rhetoric of the abolitionists before and during the Civil War.  Stanley’s argument also exposes the activist nature of city and state governments during the latter half of the 19th century in trying to shape the family household and cleaning off the city streets.  Chock full of details and information, Stanley’s book is a legal history of the evolution of the idea of contract in the free market and the battle of civil rights in 19th century America.  For all of the information presented by Stanley, the reader can recognize three distinct themes when they pull back enough to evaluate the book as a whole.  First, Stanley spends the first portion of the book defining contracts and the use of free market language to undercut the slave economy of the southern United States.  The second major theme of her work is how the concept of labor and whether or not it could be separated from a personality affected the household and gender roles.  The final main theme deals with two major groups of people who lie outside of the traditional contract and labor system: beggars and prostitutes.  Stanley shows how governments (city and state, mostly) tried to force them into the labor market while reconciling the apparent hypocrisy between coercion and the values of the free market.  With such an ambitious project ahead of her, Stanley smartly began her work with the basic foundation of contract and free labor as it relates to the United States.

Stanley traces the evolution of the idea of contract, rising through the idea of a religious compact in the 17th century, through the political contract and the social contract.  In the 1600s the initial contract was between the Puritans and the State, but one hundred years later contract had evolved into a mostly economic exchange.  In America, the idea that a populace enters a contract with an all-powerful government lost ground in favor of the “voluntary association created by citizens equal under the law, a compact guaranteeing inalienable individual rights as well as the private contract relations arising from those rights.” The idea of the labor contract originally emerged as a contract between equals, a straight exchange of one item (labor) for another (pay).  But John Stuart Mills noted that labor wages did not equal the item produced or the effort that went into creating it.  In fact, laborers were receiving significantly less than an equal exchange through their contracts.  Others argued that such contracts did not have to be an equal exchange.  The key point of the contract was that it would be entirely voluntary.  As long as no fraud was carried out there was nothing wrong with an unbalanced contract.  In the early days the wage contract transferred authority as well as a good or service.  Such a contract established a domestic relationship between the wage earner and their employer, though this facet did not last long after the emancipation of the slaves.  A clear master-servant relationship, at least in the North among white people, would not be desired in the eyes of Americans.

After the Civil War contracts were sought to establish a new social order after the end of slavery.  By the 1870s the contract came to define the American order of things.  It was axiomatic that free contracts were the building blocks of personal freedom and social progress.  But Stanley wrote that the question over whether or not a person could be separated by their labor remained and would affect the households of all laboring Americans.

As northern Americans tried to rebuild the South after the Civil War, they felt an obligation to teach freed slaves how to exist within a capitalist society and how to embrace their newfound freedoms through wage contracts.  Contract, being the basic foundation of freedom, was drilled into freed slaves over and over again.  Stanley argued that it was of the utmost importance to northerners that ex-slaves enter the labor market to create social stability in the south.  Critics attacked the idea that selling your labor was different than selling yourself, and even questioned the axiom that to engage in contract is to be truly free.  They said that labor was not a commodity and that if all a person has is their labor, selling it means they give up everything for a small return.  Stanley described how these critics of the capitalist labor system pointed out that personality was thus attached to labor, so when a person sells their labor they are essentially selling themselves.  Only the product of said labor could be separated from the laborer.  They also pointed out that by continually having to exist within a labor contract, a wage earner is basically selling himself into lifelong slavery.To reconcile the similarities with slavery labor was removed from the domestic sphere it had belonged to for the first half of the 19th century and ostensibly separated from dependence on the employer outside of the actual labor provided.  One of the side effects of pulling contract out of the domestic sphere and making it purely economic and labor-based was the elimination of paternalistic bonds.  The so-called equal exchange that took place in contracts no longer meant that the wage earner would submit to every whim of his employer.  That was much too similar to slavery.  The demise of personal bonds led to acceptance of “hard bargaining” and class antagonism as characteristics of labor relations.  This separation did not carry over into strikes, Stanley points out.Women, however, did not benefit from the removal of labor from the domestic sphere.  They were still very much seen as servants to their husbands, Stanley argues. The only difference between marriage and slavery was that marriage required the consent of both parties.Stanley argues (a bit tenuously) that contract in the north also meant that a man was exchanging his labor in exchange for his woman to be kept at home, not laboring for anyone else.  Stanley spent a great deal of time talking about how women violated this principle by working to make up for the low pay their husbands made.  Despite reading a considerable amount of anecdotes the reader is left wondering if the connection is really as strong as Stanley writes that it is.  Certainly working women were a shock to Americans of the time, but her complicated and nuanced descriptions of the meaning of labor contracts and marriage aren’t always so convincing.  There is rarely an instance of a man outright claiming that his woman working violated his freedom of ownership.  Stanley claims that part of what made a man free was his ability to own his wife and children.  Their wages went to him (at least until the Earnings Act that gave women the right to keep their own wages) and it was expected that the home be clean and ready for him when he returned home after a long day of work.  In the debate over “freeing” women reformers argued that the 13th Amendment would allow the government to threaten the subservience of wives.  Senator Edgar Cowan even went so far as say that the Civil Rights Act “confers upon married women, upon minors, upon idiots, upon lunatics. . .the right to make and enforce contracts.”Stanley’s inclusion of beggars and prostitutes into her analysis of the contract in America seems strange at first.  The two groups lie outside the traditional notions of free labor, but they represent the struggle between American values (freedom and morality) and American reality (begging disrupting free labor and prostitution disrupting the streets).  Beggars were rounded up and forced to work because their choice to live outside of the contract system threatened the stability of the new order being built in America.  Reformers argued away the discrepancy between a free society and coerced labor by arguing that the program was only temporary until the ex-slaves or laborers were re-trained and ready to make the transition into free labor.  Yet the program remained in place for a long time and became an integral part of the vagrancy laws passed by the government. Another argument they made pertaining to the ex-slaves was that their race was inferior to the whites and thus coercion was necessary to keep them afloat in the new economy.Prostitutes were on the opposite side of the argument.  They did engage in contract exchanges, freely giving their bodies in exchange for money or sustenance.  This posed a threat to the morality of the nation and was tackled primarily by city and state governments.  To some, like William Lloyd Garrison, prostitution revealed flaws in the labor market.  If laborers made enough money to live off of, prostitution would not be an appealing side-job.  In his mind poverty and prostitution were linked, a relation Stanley writes, that not everyone shared.  Some even argued that no working women engaged in prostitution because they were too tired from working all day to engage in such night activity, yet investigations showed a large minority of prostitutes were married.To support all these claims Amy Stanley uses countless anecdotes and quotes from government investigations and the works of famous economists, abolitionists and political philosophers.  Unfortunately, the sheer number of them can make the reader lose sight of Stanley’s narrative.  It is clear that throughout the book her subject is the idea of contract in 19th century America, but her anecdotes tell such a wide variety of stories that it becomes difficult to really pin down what the point of her work is.  There are so many smaller themes uniting parts of the book that it becomes difficult to tell which one is the story she really wants to tell.  Her argument that those who did not benefit from the age of emancipation sought to improve their condition through the language of contract and free labor is well-supported but it would have served her better to limit the topics she discusses.  Her chapters on prostitution and begging seem almost tacked on to the narrative.  In fact, her book seems almost to deal with two linked topics that probably deserve their own books.  On the one hand she spends a great deal of time discussing the condition of women in the free market system, while the other half is spent on more traditional labor history.  Begging fits into her general narrative of free labor contracts whereas the prostitution chapter seems to be connected with both yet not really helpful in understanding her point.  Perhaps she would have been better served to use prostitution in her discussion of the debate over the free market and morality in earlier chapters instead of devoting a separate chapter to the topic.

Stanley is an excellent writer and book is engaging and interesting, but it simply feels overwhelming in the points being brought up.  Another issue readers might take up with Stanley’s argument is that women were seen as slaves to be owned by men.  No one should dispute the fact that women were second class citizens back then, but her evidence about the dirtiness of working class homes doesn’t explicitly support her claims that men felt they were losing the labor of their wives by having them work for other men.  It seems a bit of a stretch to believe that men were arguing some philosophical political point when they complained of living in dirty hovels.  In reality they probably simply felt a woman should stay home and take care of the kids and house so they would have someplace comfortable to come home to after work.  Considering the terrible condition of many tenements during the era it seems unlikely that they even expected their wives to make a comfortable home.  Stanley never goes into detail about what exactly men expected of their wives other than a hot meal and a clean house.  There is a strong possibility that men were not thinking in terms of labor lost and the threat to their freedoms as men.In short, Amy Dru Stanley’s From Bondage to Contract is an interesting work that makes a lot of sense.  At times it can be overburdened with detail and it can become unclear which point she is trying to make.  When taken as a general history of the evolution of contract and free market labor in 19th century America and while not thinking too hard about the various supporting arguments she makes, the book enjoys much greater clarity.  It could have benefitted from being split into two books or at least a much shorter, streamlined essay.  She starts strong by describing the creation of the free market in the minds of 19th Century Americans, following that up with how the free market affected laborers and their households.  Finally, her book loses a bit of steam by tackling vagrancy and begging (outliers in free market society) and in prostitution as a perversion of the free market system.  All in all, the book should be recommended for anyone studying the latter half of 19th Century America.  The lively prose brings to life labor and legal history that is often written by others in a dry style that discourages readers from tackling the complex issues Stanley brings to the forefront.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Edward Ayers

Upon its release in 2003, In the Presence of Mine Enemies was a fresh take on the most written about American history topic: the Civil War.  Even today it stands as a fascinating take on familiar events.  Edward Ayers told the first half of the Civil War through the eyes of those who lived through it, focusing his history on a personal level through newspaper articles and personal letters.  Extensive local history research was done to paint an accurate and compelling vision of the counties these people lived in.  Ayers argued that the Civil War was a deeply personal experience.  Whereas most histories of the war explore the military history of the conflict, or focus on the personal letters of a particular individual, Ayers placed his narrative in the hands of lesser-known individuals from two border counties, one North, one South.  Ayers also explored the way the national attitude evolved during the first half of the war and how local views changed through personal experience in the war.  Ayers showed how attitudes toward North and South, slavery, capitalism and Union all changed over time due to external pressures.  The Civil War, America’s greatest tragedy, becomes the tale of countless personal tragedies in this new take on Civil War history.

An extension of the Valley of the Shadow Project, a collection of primary documents dealing with Virginia and Pennsylvania in the Civil War, In the Presence of Mine Enemies focused on the early war, from the dramatic events of 1859 up until the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863.  Edward Ayers stopped just short of the Battle of Gettysburg, because he considered that battle to be a final turning point of the war in which the defeat of the south was finally determined.  At scattered places throughout the book Ayers injects a traditional narrative (written in italics) to help the reader understand what is happening by keeping everything in context.  There is no omniscient narrator and the reader learns of major battles the same way 19th century Americans did, through newspapers and personal letters.  When the book finally comes to a conclusion as Confederate troops march into Pennsylvania before the Battle of Gettysburg, there is no closure.  What happened next is left hanging in the air.  Many Americans are familiar with the Civil War, but even a student of history will find Ayers’ approach intriguing.  Even those who know what happened next still find themselves caught up in narrative of uncertain outcomes.

Some parts of the nation experienced the war more profoundly than others, and Ayers narrowed his scope to include only Augusta and Franklin counties in Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively.  These two counties were close to the border and therefore were involved in more fighting, more occupation, and more contact with the opponent than most places.  Their citizens also appear to have left a treasure-trove of documents behind, which Ayers used to further his narrative.  By narrowing his scope to these counties Ayers guarantees the reader will only have access to what those citizens know, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty of the future.  This focus also allowed the Civil War to be told from a different standpoint.  This is a history of the soldier and the home front, not a traditional political or military history of the war.  The book is more of a “bottom-up” history, stories of home life (only relating the war, though), and of life in the Army camps.  The backbone of the book is the primary sources.  Ayers drew from personal letters of soldiers, officers, businessmen, slave-owners, and various other “home front” people.  In addition to the personal letters Ayers used the local newspapers to gauge attitudes toward the war.  For Franklin County the Valley Spirit and the Chambersburg Repository and Transcript gave detailed accounts of how the war touched their community.  For Augusta County in Virginia it was the Spectator and the Augusta Vindicator. All of the newspapers began as Unionists but as the nation slipped to war the Virginia papers became unapologetically secessionist.  In the North, the Valley Spirit continued as a Democratic paper, fiercely anti-Republican and in favor of reunion under the old order—including slavery.   Despite working off of these newspapers In the Presence of Mine Enemies still focused mostly on the southern county. Franklin County served more as an accent to the in-depth narrative of Augusta County and her people.  These counties show just how divided the nation was, even among otherwise similar communities.

The lack of unity in the pre-war United States, largely due to varied individual ideology, hurried America along the path to war.  The “politics of grievance” drew stark lines between Americans in 1859 and 1860.  This type of politics “dwelt, first, on what [the leaders] portrayed as the fundamental differences in the character of the white people of the North and South.”[1] The distrust that was brewing made it easier for relations between North and South to break down.  Americans in one section of the nation increasingly regarded the other section as the enemy instead of as their countrymen.  Inflammatory rhetoric created intense paranoia in the South that the North was out to destroy their way of life.  Ayers used newspaper articles and personal letters to convey this paranoia at several points throughout the book by showing how frequently the North was perceived to be abolitionist.  In reality, only a minority of northern Americans agreed with freeing the slaves.  Even among the new Republican Party there was no agreement on getting rid of slavery.  The South did enjoy a disproportionate amount of national power, which created resentment in the North who also viewed slavery as a threat to free labor.  Decades of compromise had led to no stable peace.  After a few months of war, Americans North and South “learned to hate” quickly, dropping their previous relationship as countrymen as soon as Lincoln called for troops to respond to the takeover of Federal property throughout the South.[2]

This great divide that had formed over the years between regions also led to misconceptions among the population that possibly dragged the war out longer.  The South went to war convinced that the North would be consumed by division and class warfare, bringing the war to a quick and easy end.  In fact, many Americans in both parts of the country “wanted it to come, wanted to prove their patriotism and demonstrate that they held God’s favor.”[3] At the end of 1862 when President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, many Southerners thought it would end the war and that the American people would turn against the Republicans and refuse to fight a war for the freeing of slaves.  They also blamed Lincoln for trying to ignite a race war, believing that Emancipation was also the point of no return: the South could not negotiate a peace under abolitionist conditions.   Just before the war, Northerners felt that “slaveholders would vote against secession, would resist serving in the army, and would love the Union more than the Confederacy.”[4] Both were wrong and brought to bear enormous armies with terrible destructive power.

A combination of personal beliefs and national politics pushed the nation to civil war, and these conditions evolved during the course of the war as well.  Initially the Civil War was fought to reunify the states, and many Northerners were willing to allow slavery to continue.  There was very little talk of abolition at that time.  But as the war went and the North struggled for recruits and unity, pressure rose to make the war an ideological one.  The South was fighting to defend their “peculiar institution” and to defend their homes since much of the serious fighting was destroying Virginia.  The idea of fighting for freedom was appealing to many Northerners, even if they weren’t abolitionists before the war.  “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 was the first major turning point of the war, the point where the Confederates avoided defeat and embarrassed the Union.  By winning they prolonged the war, Ayers wrote, essentially making the Union more desperate than ever to win at any cost.  “In retrospect,” he wrote, “perhaps the best thing the Confederate army could have done for Southern slaveholders would have been to have lost in 1862.”[5] That way, slavery could have survived in a reunified America.  How different things would have looked had the war ended that summer.

Other factors contributed to the unfolding drama.  Particularly harsh northern measures when marching through Virginia emboldened the Confederates and brought more converts to their cause.  Escalation by both sides made it possible for the war to take on an even deadlier and hostile nature.  Upon discovering the questionable tactics used by Federal troops in the South, Pennsylvanians in Franklin County even began to feel they deserved whatever the Confederates did to them when their turn came for enemy troops marching down their own streets.  Ayers leaves the reader wondering if perhaps softer tactics could have created an easier path to reunion, instead of cementing stereotypes and hateful feelings for the other side.

Even poverty played a role in shaping events in the South.  Southerners prayed for Democratic victory in the Northern elections in the hopes that the anti-war crowd could bring about an end to the fighting and recognition of the Confederate States as an independent nation.  Joseph Wadell, a man from Augusta County, Virginia, wrote that Confederates had “more to fear from the scarcity of foodstuffs and clothing than from the Yankee armies.”[6] In 1863 poverty was hitting Confederates on the home front hard.  Loss of property, slaves, and devastation of crops and what little industry existed to begin with made many Confederates desperate.  Soldiers began deserting in droves to return home, poverty made Southerners even more resentful of their wealthier enemies.

Throughout the whole war, but especially during early 1863, slaves began fleeing through the Valley to reach freedom in the northern states.  Many women and children were left behind to be abused by Confederate soldiers who engaged in “Negro-hunting.”  This was a massive loss of “property” for the Southerners and a blow to their societal stability.  Some places along the so-called black belt were left untouched by war and continued to use slave labor to bolster the Confederate production levels, but in Virginia the number of slaves was severely depleted.  Once they were able, black men fled north and joined the war effort. “Black men enlisted at a speed and with a spirit that surprised their white neighbors.”[7] People in Franklin County initially had difficulty welcoming the influx of runaway blacks and were skeptical that they would actually fight.  In the South, their conversion to soldiers had whites fearing a race war would erupt.  If the war had not been so harsh on the Virginian economy and agriculture, Ayers would have readers ask themselves, could the war have been brought to an amicable conclusion?  In the Presence of Mine Enemies poses endless questions such as these, all supporting Ayers’ underlying theme about the unpredictability of events.

The issue of religion was also important to the soldiers and even more so to their families on the home front, if the letters Ayers used are any indication.    Soldiers were constantly reassuring their mothers, sisters and wives that they had found God and that their military camps were full of good, God-fearing men.  In uncertain times, Ayers argued, being good Christians could go a long way toward comforting the people back home.  It also gave soldiers solace, and many of the Augusta men fought under “Stonewall” Jackson, a deeply religious man who may have infected his troops with his devoutness.  In many cases “the only consolation was the most important consolation of all:” the declaration of faith that so many soldiers seemed to give once they reached the front.[8] At several points in the book descriptions of prayer meetings were given and as previously noted, care was given to tell the people back home about the level of faith in the camps.  Mothers especially could rest easy knowing that their children were in good, wholesome company.  Some men had more trouble than others in finding faith.  Henry Dedick noted that he had been trying, “but I tell you it is a hard place here in camp.”[9]

In the Presence of Mine Enemies showed that the Civil War experienced shifts in the way Americans viewed each other and how they thought about nationhood. The Virginia newspapers changed from pro-Union to fiercely pro-Confederate as the war began and continued.  Franklin’s Valley Spirit remained a Democratic pro-slavery paper throughout the first years of the war and reflected the division among northerners.  Though ostensibly Unionist, the paper supported Copperhead Democrats whenever it could and condemned nearly every step the Lincoln administration took in prosecuting the war.  The hatred between the North and South only grew as the battles became bloodier and the devastation covered Virginia.  This increase in hatred also led to a dramatic transformation in the perception of slavery.

In the beginning, most northerners were not willing to fight to free the slaves, but many Southerners felt that the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party would try to destroy the institution.  They defended their “peculiar institution” by claiming it was the most beneficial institution for black people and that the role was made for them by Providence.  They had “no doubt, that the worst form of Slavery that can possibly exist may be found among the negroes of Pennsylvania.”[10] Franklin County’s Valley Spirit agreed, citing the example of a traveling band of free blacks they assumed were slaves who returned home to bondage willingly at night.  Over time the attitudes of northerners changed.  Despite support for pro-slavery Democrats in the elections of 1862, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation converted many over to fighting to free the slaves.  Despite a lot of rhetoric claiming that the war effort would collapse if the war was to be fought to free slaves, soldiers’ letters seemed to indicate they agreed with fighting for a high ideal.  Certainly it was a divisive issue, but no longer did the North consider slavery to be the best situation for blacks, especially after Chambersburg in Pennsylvania experienced Confederate invaders hunting down runaway slaves.  Soldiers traveling through plantations and witnessing slavery firsthand turned against slavery as well.  Ayers wrote that “as Union soldiers fought to destroy an enemy which drew its power from slavery they grew to hate slavery itself.”[11] All of these details support Ayers’ argument that the Civil War did not follow a predestined course.  Individual perceptions of their neighbors, the enemy, slavery, politics and religion all affected how the war played out.  There was any number of points when the war could have followed a drastically different course.

Ayers brought home the uncertainty that Americans experienced during the terrible conflict, which is of tremendous value to the field of Civil War study.  Though there have been many instances of books detailing personal letters of soldiers, none have been as effective as In the Presence of Mine Enemies.  Instead of focusing on one single family, Ayers focused on the two border counties places them in the middle of the action and reflects the wide variety of views on the war.  Ayers wrote that the traditional view of Civil War was infused with “an understandable and useful desire to see American history as a path, albeit strewn with challenges, to the realization of our best selves.”[12] Another excellent work that dealt with the uncertainty of the conflict was April 1865 by Jay Winik.  An excellent writer in his own right, Jay Winik’s narrow focus on the tumultuous proceedings of April 1865 pair up well with In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Winik’s work was not based on personal letters, and follows a more traditional view of the Civil War, but by only giving the reader small pieces of information at a time, as Ayers did, he allowed the reader to understand that at any point things could have gone differently.  April 1865 covered the final month of the war, the assassination of Lincoln and the fear of guerrilla warfare.  His cast of characters was vast, including military leaders and political leaders who have a wide range of motives.  The Confederate soldiers who want to take the fighting into the woods, General Lee who wanted the fighting to end, and the Northerners fearing a second Civil War after Lincoln’s assassination all bring the uncertainty of the times to the forefront.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a useful book.  Based on personal letters and newspaper accounts Edward Ayers successfully created a new narrative for the Civil War, one that introduces uncertainty and rumor into a historical field that is traditionally based on an idea of historical progress.  Where many historians argue (unintentionally in many cases) that the war could not have ended any other way, that the war was a march toward a brighter future for America, the reality was much different.  In his work Ayers considered the unpredictability of the Civil War as his main point, which he supported by analyzing the personal experiences of the war and the changing views and ideas of those who lived through the conflict.  The work is well researched and by including the traditional narrative style in italics at various points he helped the reader keep everything in context.  By doing so he showed that the war wasn’t just a set of battles that could have turned out differently, but that the personal viewpoints and the experiences of individuals played a large role in creating the nature of the war.  Well written and well researched, there is little to contradict or criticize.  In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a valuable contribution to a field that too


[1] Edward Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America 1859-1863 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), 92.

[2] Ayers, 232.

[3] Ibid., 187.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] Ayer, 276.

[6] Ibid., 334.

[7] Ayers, 414.

[8] Ibid., 352.

[9] Ibid., 207.

[10] Ibid., 77.

[11] Ibid., 371.

[12] Ayers, xx.

Book Review: Our Savage Neighbors by Peter Silver

Terror, violence and mistrust characterize Peter Silver’s thrilling account of Indian warfare in America’s middle colonies during the 18th century.  In Our Savage Neighbors Silver attempts to present the relations between ethnicities in a new light, rejecting the notion that racism drove early anti-Indian sentiment and instead arguing that fear was a prime motivator.  According to Silver, the Indian wars that dominated the 18th century came to influence not only relations between whites and Indians, but relations between the various European ethnicities in Pennsylvania and the other middle colonies.  He breaks down his main theory into three recognizable narratives.  First, he casts the Indian wars as a form of terrorism while outlining the creation of the “Anti-Indian Sublime,” an anti-Indian side of popular culture.  Second, he details how propaganda wars broke out between whites thanks to the budding American fascination with pamphleteering.  Finally, he expertly presents the creation of race-consciousness and modern racism in colonial and early United States history to present a fascinating story that makes us look at early American society in a new way.

Silver claims his book focuses on the middle colonies, and sometimes this is even the case.  But most of the time his effort is spent bringing to the reader the concerns and experiences of the Pennsylvanians. Other places are mentioned only in passing.  It is in the “back country” of Pennsylvania that Irish and German settlers were having trouble with the Indians at the beginning of his narrative.  The first portion of his book is devoted to the experiences of these people, both their encounters with the Indians and their outsider status in relation to other whites in the colony.  In the second half of the book the larger cities like Philadelphia shift to the forefront.  The back country settlers and the city folk had very different experiences with the Indians which helped drive their own conflict.   Pinning a label on Silver’s history proves a difficult challenge.  Within the covers of his work Silver deals with a bit of political history, military history, and a kind of social history.  However, this is not an elitist history.  Though political leaders play a role, the phenomenon of frontier terror and ethnic relations is very much driven by a minority of people pulling the masses into line behind them.  Often the catalysts for events are average people and we learn about their fears, their thoughts and their actions more than anyone else.  In this sense Silver’s work is a social history.  Despite this, extended segments are devoted to people like Benjamin Franklin, the political leaders of Pennsylvania and especially the budding media in Philadelphia.  What concerns Silver are the social reasons whites came to fear the Indians and how the Germans, Irish, and “native” colonial Americans came to consider themselves of one white race.

While much time is devoted to the psychological condition of whites, the Indians are denigrated to boogeyman status in Silver’s work.  Unlike Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country, Peter Silver does not tackle presenting the Indian side of events.  His focus is mostly on white identity in reaction to Indian provocations.  Because of this Our Savage Neighbors cannot be considered a complete treatment on ethnic relations, but it goes a long way toward bettering our understanding of such relations nonetheless.  Much of Silver’s research appears to rely on first-hand accounts of people who experienced Indian attack.  Since very few records would exist on the Indian side of things, Silver should be given a pass for omitting an in-depth analysis of Indian reactions.  When evidence is available, like records of several brutal massacres of Indian families, Silver makes use of them.

Usually these first-hand accounts paint a terrifying image of frontier war.  Silver presents the Indian wars of the 18th century in a new light.  Fear is the driving force behind Indian and white conflict, not simple racism as often thought.    In his introduction Silver notes that “racial thinking had no coherent existence, let alone an independent ability to determine people’s beliefs and actions, before the scientific racialism of the nineteenth century.”[1] In fact it was the Indians first who developed a concept of “redness” to unite their tribes, an idea that probably transferred to white consciousness in later years.  Racism as we would recognize it today didn’t appear until after the American Revolution, when revivalist movements among the Indians would try to force the white people out of their recently acquired lands.

Then what made the Indian Wars such brutal affairs?  Silver argues that it was fear that influenced actions among the whites.  His neglect of the Indian side of events prevents us from safely guessing what the Indian motivations were, but Silver does note that whites would attempt to turn the tables by employing fear tactics of their own.

Using emotional first- and second-hand accounts Silver makes the fear palpable.  During the wars Indians intentionally employed tactics to terrorize white settlements into submission.  They would often sneak into homes at night and murder isolated families or ambushing farmers or villagers when they were most vulnerable.  After the attacks the Indians would mutilate the bodies and pose them so that their discovery would have the maximum shock value.  They would scalp their victims and dismember the bodies, even putting bodies in trees in awkward positions.  Naturally this would enrage and frighten whoever discovered the bodies.  Instead of reacting with courage and out of a spirit of revenge, settlers grew fearful of the dark woods.  Their isolated and scattered location made them hard to protect, and they were at the mercy of seemingly random Indian raids.  In the 1740s these raids grew constant, overwhelming the frontier settlements and often paralyzing the communities.  In several cases Silver describes how those who murdered Indians were often prosecuted and convicted by their neighbors out of fear of Indian retribution.  Early on there were very few retaliatory raids conducted by whites, and when they were they were ill-conceived, cowardly and inefficient.

The level of fear was ratcheted up by the development of what Silver calls the “Anti-Indian Sublime,” a hatred of Indians stemming from frustration and fear.  The dismembered and mutilated bodies were especially shocking to whites, and the bodies were often put on display as testament to the brutality of the enemy.  Silver argues that this activity became a powerful symbol of a “Bleeding America” that was clearly a victim.[2] There was little heroic defiance in the face of Indian raids, at least in the beginning.  This was also a way to bring the terror to the cities that weren’t attacked.  Where the frontier families suffered and lived in terror every night of a surprise attack, the people in the cities had little reason to fear or expect Indian attacks.  Certainly the raids posed a problem but it wasn’t a personal experience to those in the cities.  The bodies brought some of the message to them when letters and cries for help went unheeded.  It would have been interesting for Silver to investigate why the Indians attacked where they did.  Were the raids random?  Were they retaliatory?  Instead, we jump right in at the beginning of the mid-century wars.

Soldiers cracked under the tension, isolated in their woodland forts, often surrounding by Indian communities for long periods of time.  Even friendly Indians could pose a threat.  Like today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing the difference between “Good Indians” and “Bad Indians” wasn’t always easy.  This put the soldiers under considerable stress and they eventually lashed out against the Indians in several ways.  When violence wasn’t permitted, the soldiers would loudly harass Indians who came into camp or stayed nearby.  During treaty negotiations Indians were driven out by hostile soldiers in defiance of the intent of their officers.[3] This hostility was just symbolic of the greater tensions between the races.  The conflict escalated over time and the rhetoric and violence grew more intense.  Whites turned the tables on their attackers and used terror tactics against Indians.[4] At Gnadenhutten whites mercilessly slaughtered Moravian Indians in retaliation for Indian assaults.  Discerning between the different bands of Indians appears to have been quite a problem for angry whites during this time.

Indians weren’t the only enemy to be confronted.  The second stage of Silver’s argument deals with divisions between the whites in Pennsylvania and the propaganda war that pitted them against each other with the Indian wars as a backdrop. Instead of being a mass movement, anti-Indian sentiment was driven largely by a small portion of the population, a combination of early pamphleteers and Indian-haters.  Increasingly a small part of the people pulled the masses into a more intense anti-Indian attitude.

The white people of Pennsylvania were far from united during this time.  In fact, murders between whites increased during Indian conflict.  The murderers would scalp their victims and claim they were Indian in order to collect rewards offered by Pennsylvania’s governor.[5] Others turned on ethnic groups and accused them of siding with the Indians.  The Quakers especially came under fire for their close and friendly relations with the Indians, especially those Moravians at Gnadenhutten.  Catholics also came under fire, and churches all over Pennsylvania were burned by people who used the climate of fear for political ends.[6] Some stood up to defend the Quakers only to have their own reputations sullied.  Benjamin Franklin rejected the Anti-Indian Sublime in his Narratives of the Late Massacres, turning traditional stories of massacres upside down by casting the whites as the villains.[7]

Indian conflict also opened a new theater of war between the people and the Pennsylvania Assembly.  Indian war was a much more exciting and useful political tool than debates over the use of land which had dominated politics before the wars.  In this way opponents of the Assembly used anti-Indian rhetoric to weaken their opponents and gain the political upper hand.  Naturally the German allies of the Quakers would come under fire as well.  Being “outsiders” in society made them prime targets until somebody realized they constituted a large voting bloc that could be wielded as a weapon.  Until that time, some argued that “the best solution was to cut out all German participation from the public sphere.”[8] Articulated by one of the early pamphleteers, Reverend William Smith, this movement would further isolate the ethnic Germans, even going so far as to take away their right to vote.  This incident shows just how divided the ethnic communities were and how intense their battles were becoming.  Rhetoric like this eventually came back to bite anti-German press once the language barrier was broken down by German translations.  By that point it was decided that the Germans should be pre-empted to oppose the Quakers and their pro-Indian attitudes.  Clearly the political battles and the violence on the frontier involving a minority of citizens was used to draw hesitant colonials into supporting the vigilante raids, murders and political destruction of the Quaker community.  From then on the reactions of whites to Indian raids would be carefully watched to determine which side their loyalty lay.  Stereotypes abounded.  Indians were brutal monsters, Quakers were seen as opponents to European civilization, and the Irish and Germans felt ignored by the government.

Silver notes that “Europeans would fall out among themselves further, looking inward at a supposedly Indian-tainted elite for traces of guilt instead of outward at more obvious enemies.”[9] Early on in his book Silver states that contrary to conventional wisdom, having so many ethnic communities living close to each other in Pennsylvania didn’t make them more peaceful neighbors.  Instead they retreated inward into their communities and eyed outsiders with distrust.  The Irish and Germans on the frontier felt that the elites in Philadelphia were ignoring their suffering, and many in Philadelphia blamed the settlers, especially the Irish, for provoking the Indians by constantly encroaching on their territory.  Interestingly, when the conflict hit a fever pitch the settlers fled their small towns and sought shelter among higher population densities in the cities.  The process of distrust started all over again according to Silver, leading to more inter-white conflict.[10]

Silver’s argument holds water, but he inadvertently admits an exception later in the book.  Moravian Indians were driven into conditions similar to a reservation in central Philadelphia and were initially met with extraordinary hostility.  The longer they were there, however, the more peaceful their interactions became.  Fear and anger turned into curiosity and for a brief time peaceful coexistence within Philadelphia.  Silver tried to make a definitive statement that living in close quarters bred conflict but he never really builds a strong enough argument to stand up under scrutiny.  Indeed, before long their close proximity and having a common enemy would eventually drive the whites together into a greater awareness of their own whiteness.

The development of this concept of whiteness is the third pillar of Silver’s original premise that fear drove ethnic relations in the mid-18th century.  As previously mentioned, the Germans and Irish often felt neglected by their government.  There was a language barrier between the Germans and the other colonists which kept both groups isolated and distrustful of one another, which left the Germans virtually ignored as a voting bloc.  It wasn’t until the rhetorical battles against the Quakers and the Assembly and then the translation of English news into German that their voting potential was harnessed.  Opponents of the Assembly who felt it were too soft on the Indian issue made sure to exploit the Irish and German feelings of abandonment.  These two ethnic groups on the frontier were cast in the role of victims of brutal Indian assaults and they began to identify more with one another than they had before.  The Assembly was cast in the role of villain with its opponents rallying into a united front.  The back country began to demand more of a say in government, which Silver notes led to a birth of direct democracy.[11]

The early conflicts between whites faded into background noise as the Indian wars increased in intensity.  Once the United States won independence from Britain the British became the new focal point of American anger along the frontier, which allowed the Pennsylvania whites to put their differences behind them to a degree, though many accused their neighbors of secretly being loyal to the British and Indians.  Silver dismisses the idea that living in close proximity to one another doesn’t necessarily breed familiarity, and he makes a strong argument for this throughout his book.  It wasn’t until years of fighting a common enemy had made them see a value in uniting together that they began to think of themselves consciously as whites opposed to the red race.[12] In a way the whites adopted the Indian belief that the Creator had created the races separately and intended them to live separately.  This was a shift in their thinking to view the Indians as not only culturally different but racially different as well.  Both Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia and Philadelphia’s American Magazine articulated theories about from where the Indians descended.  Jefferson took the curious route of explaining that early Europeans could have easily reached North America in the centuries before the traditional discovery of America.  American Magazine took a decidedly less scientific route, claiming that the Indians descended from “the race of cursed Cain.”[13] The whites began to think about how one could move between these diametrically opposed races.  Some said that the Indians were only different because of what they environment had made them.  Poverty especially had a way of darkening the skin, they said.  Others argued that your race was determined by choices you made.  Those that rejected the “white” way of living could become Indians before long, but an Indian would have a harder time becoming a white.  The barriers between the races that would become so prevalent in the 19th century were being constructed in the post-Seven Years War era.

The racial tone also took on a decidedly more hostile sound.  Those pamphleteers in the cities didn’t have to co-exist with Indians like the frontier towns did.  These writers led the way in anti-Indian rhetoric and made sure to cast the Indians in as bad a light as possible.  They simply felt no need to restrain their actions and by writing anti-Indian pieces they made sure public feeling turned against the Indians to a greater degree than ever before.  Silver goes on to prove his point by using the words of those who lived it.  Benjamin Franklin noted that the only crime the Indian race committed was being red in the eyes of the back country, and Franklin clearly opposed such racial judgment.[14] By the end of the century race had become the chief difference between racially conscious whites and Indians, and whites had abandoned the idea of a Middle Ground advanced by historian Richard White.

In all, Silver presents a solid argument in Our Savage Neighbors.  His greatest flaw was in how he presented the Indian side of events.  Presenting a one-sided account inadvertently casts the Indians as villains.  Silver does describe horrific massacres by the whites and through his writing condemns how back country fighters and pamphleteers hijacked the policy of the Pennsylvania people in order to hunt Indians, but the lack of Indian coverage leaves the reader wondering what their own motivations might have been.  A work like this might have done well to consult a book like Looking East from Indian Country by Daniel Richter.  His subtitle “How Indian War Transformed Early America” really indicates that he is narrowly focused on those people we traditionally consider Americans in early accounts: the white people.  Otherwise, his research and theories are convincing and his use of first- and second-hand accounts of massacres, terror and hatred make for compelling reading.  Secondary reading of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia really serve to prove his point.  Neither discusses ethnic relations in too great of detail, but Franklin appears very much as Silver describes him, a defender of the Quakers in the face of anti-Indian fervor.  Jefferson’s piece is a bit more interesting, if even briefer.  Jefferson dismissed the principal complaint of the Indian:  “That the lands of this country were taken from them by conquest, is not so general a truth as is supposed.”[15] He went on the describe how land was lawfully acquired by treaty, completely ignoring or misunderstanding the cultural element of what those treaties may have meant to the Indians.

One could easily see how fear drove those living on the frontier into an anti-Indian fervor thanks to Silver’s adept reading of primary sources.  Similarly we can see how fear could evolve into hate and from there into budding racism.  From a wave of Indian terror attacks, to divisions between the white communities and the birth of racism in America, Silver’s work is compelling to the last detail.


[1] Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors, New York, 2008, xxi.

[2] Ibid., 92.

[3] Ibid., 131.

[4] Ibid., 137.

[5] Ibid.,, 162.

[6] Ibid., 98.

[7] Ibid., 87.

[8] Ibid., 193.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid., 225-26.

[12] Ibid., 115.

[14] Silver, 203.

[15] Jefferson, 221.