The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

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How did it happen?  Even more important, how did it turn out the way it did?

Thirteen colonies with a few other colonial settlements banded together to take on the world’s most powerful military, naval, and economic power.  Even within the colonies, there were enough Loyalists to prevent a victory from occuring.  Sometimes, deep reading into the history of an event reveals so many flaws, faulty assumptions, and bursting of myths as to damage the story overall.  But in this case, with the brush strokes revealing the darker and uglier hues, the overall story is still one that astounds and amazes.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson is the first of a projected three volume Revolution Trilogy.  This first volume has raised a high bar, but based on Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (based on the American experience in World War II in Europe), this series should be definitive.

The big challenge for the Patriots was creating a military adequate to take on the British.  There were many untried men who rose through the ranks. Some achieved success, some failed, and some perished before they could fulfill their potential.  Even George Washington was a newcomer to the kind of leadership that was expected of him.  It is difficult for us to grasp that the position that George Washington holds in our nation’s memory could have been held by Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, or even Benedict Arnold.  However, it is hard to imagine how any of those three could have risen to the level that Washington did.

As time and circumstances caused Washington to develop the cat and mouse strategy, he had to learn while on the job.  The Americans were often dealing with short enlistments, lack of equipment, poor organization, and no money.  The military career of Washington is one of many defeats and near disasters punctuated by one set of major victories in the middle of the war before his climactic win at Yorktown.

Another aspect of the war that is often overlooked is that there were far more than a mere thirteen colonies in the New World.  Some of the colonial outposts joined alongside the 13, such as Vermont and Franklin (eastern Tennessee).  Other colonial settlements, such as Canada resisted.  Had Canada joined the lower coastal colonies or had those colonies conquered Canada, the outcome would have looked drastically different.

The campaign to capture Canada is one of the great ventures in the war.  It turned out to be a disaster, but such a fate was in the balance for much of that campaign.  Richard Montgomery is among the names of the forgotten from that campaign.  Had he won, he would be heralded as one of our great founders. His death cost the Patriots a key leader.  But another strong fighter, Benedict Arnold, proved himself a scrappy field commander in that campaign.  It is astounding how close he came through his exploits for the Patriots to being one of our most revered heroes.

As a history teacher, I know how the story that this book tells progresses.  Admittedly, I learned lots of names that I had either never noticed or had overlooked. Certainly, I found many pages of material that refreshed my understanding of what happened in the battles for New York and New Jersey. Surprisingly, I learned quite a bit about our adversary–King George III.  But something happens when I am reading a book like this.  It becomes like a mystery novel, and I find myself wondering how it will end.  Surely, I thought many times while reading this book, the Americans are going to lose this whole war.  Knowing the end didn’t keep me from suspending disbelief in the events as they were unfolding in the narrative.

Another aspect of the book that was very enjoyable and typical of Atkinson’s writing was the inclusion of many eye-witness accounts.  Many heart-rending excerpts were included from letters of those who died in the battles.  Attitudes and perspectives of the soldiers bring the war the war home in a way that the broad overview cannot.  This was a war that pitted men of honor and principle on both sides against each other.  That does not negate the fact that being war, some ugly things happened that go beyond the already awful nature of warfare.

Of course, all my fellow history teachers and serious students will want to read this book.  But I think that those who simply like a good story that is non-fictional would like it as well.  Let’s just get to the point:  This is a book for Americans.  With all of my attraction to books on the Civil War Between the States and the World Wars, this is the war that made America.  The heritage is a not pure and faultless, but it is still amazing.  More important than the evening news is the story of our founding.  Here it is, or at least, here is the first third of it.

Congratulations to Rick Atkinson on completing this first volume and on (I am predicting) winning yet another well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

The British are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

 

 

Liberty in the Things of God by Robert Louis Wilken

Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom by Professor Emeritus Robert Louis Wilken is published by Yale University Press. It is a hardback book affordably list priced at $26.

This book was incredibly pleasing to me in a variety of ways.  It was scholarly without being technical.  It covered a wide range of history going from the time of the Church Fathers through the Reformation.  It was a combination of historical, political, and theological studies.  It affirmed the Christian faith and Christian struggles with conscience issues.  It is the kind of book that makes me say, “This is why I have chosen to make history my life study and to teach it to others.”

Sometimes, we are given the impression that Christianity, the Church, and religious folks in general have been the enemies of freedom, especially freedom of conscience.  If you are wanting to slap Christian really hard in the kisser, history provides plenty of examples of sins, bad rulings, and oppressive actions.  To be fair, history has enough sewer running right down through the middle of human affairs to throw everyone and every cause into it.

But what was the ongoing and developing direction of history?  As this book points out, Christian leaders repeatedly came back to recognizing that the conscience of a person, his or her inner convictions, cannot be commanded, controlled, or coerced by Church or State.  And without being overly progressive or unduly optimistic about human nature, the Faith has matured in its convictions and practices regarding religious differences.

In many Christianized societies of the past, serious leaders were completely troubled by the idea of two religions co-existing in the same realm.  The idea that religious beliefs might take on a thousand different shades was beyond their grasp.  In their better moments, it was conceded that those whose convictions differed from the state religion or religion of the realm would need to exercise their faith and liturgy somewhere other than the public square.

It is easy to be condescending to everyone in the past from our modern perspective.  They were narrow minded, but we are broad minded.  We have embraced the virtue of tolerance, but they were intolerant.  Granted, a person today faces no attacks from the ruling or ecclesiastical authorities for his views on the Lord’s Supper.  But we have our own “religious dogmas” that cannot be tampered with.  Thankfully, the diversity within the United States allows some freedom of movement, expression, and action for those of us who go against the accepted (politically correct) views of our time.

Speaking out sexual, economic, racial, political, and even some scientific views can get a person banned from the academy, politics, or even Facebook.  We have our own religious battles in our own society.  That is all the more reason to study books like this one.

A free church in a free state is a golden ideal.  Neither is accomplished without lots of ink and maybe blood.  Neither can achieve permanent status in this world.  But if it is freedom that one desires, it is to the Christian tradition that one should go to find it.  Christians erred many times, but in the ongoing clash of ideas, of working through the theology, the recurring idea has prevailed.  I cannot make your religious, Christian, or moral.  That does not necessarily rule out laws to restrain all human impulses, but it does bring us back to a formula for a society of faith existing alongside societies of differing views.

I have several of Robert Louis Wilken’s books, but this is the first time that I have given one of his volumes a serious and complete reading.  It will not, Lord willing, be the last time.  The mark of a good book is that the reader hurries to get through it, then is sad that it is finished, and then wants to read it again.  That is very true of this book.

 

 

Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement–a Preview

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Events in history never really begin when we say they did.  History is taught by a series of simplifications.  So, Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, the Roman Empire fell in 576, and the American Civil War began in 1861.  These simplifications are necessary to get some footing in the events of history.  But every beginning movement, every date attached to a turning point, has deep lying roots in a number of other events that are often anywhere from slightly known to totally unknown.

Case in point, we often associate the Civil Rights Movement in America with events going on in the 1960’s. Then to give a bit more historical context and foundation to the events, references are made to happenings in the 1950’s such as the case of the Little Rock Nine.  Or one might bring up President Truman’s order to desegregate the army.  At any rate, before the key events that appear on the timeline in the textbook happened, there were forces, people, and ideas that were working to produce those special events when a movement “began.”

This is one part of what is attractive about the book Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement.  Co-authored by Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish, this new work is published by Texas A & M University Press.

Books like this are a part of the contribution of university presses and university scholarship to the broader community.  I first heard of this book last October when I had the occasion to meet Dr. Cutrer.  He referred to himself as a retired history professor and casually mentioned that he was doing some writing.  He mentioned the publication of Theater of a Separate War and then this book.  My thought, after decades of teaching history, was “Doris Miller?  Who is she?”

Let’s begin with who Doris Miller was.  On the morning of December 7, 1941, after serving breakfast and starting to work on laundry on the USS West Virginia, Ship’s Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller heard the alarm calling sailors to battle stations.  Pearl Harbor was under attack from the Japanese.  After trying to help the mortally wounded ship’s captain, Miller was soon involved in loading and firing an anti-aircraft machine gun.  He continued firing at the Japanese aircraft until the ammunition ran out.  For this, he was awarded the Navy Cross, which is the third-highest naval award for combat gallantry.

But here is an even more interesting detail:  Doris Miller had never been trained to operate a machine gun.  He was, after all, an African American in a segregated military.  Two years later, he died on another ship in another part of the Second World War.

Lots of ideas current in his time suggested that blacks and whites could not successfully serve side by side in the military.  It was a very segregated world.  It is not as though the Doris Millers of World War II changed all that.  But it was cases like the story of this man, this hero to all Americans, that birthed the movement that did make major changes.

Side note:  Take notice fellow Texans, Doris Miller was from the Lone Star State.

November Revolution 1917: To The Dustbin of History

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I have been frequently reminded lately that this is the 100th anniversary of the first establishment of Communism.  Known in history as the November Revolution, the Bolsheviks and their allies took control of the unstable Russian nation after the previous revolution in February that had removed the Tsar and his family.  The provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, proved unable to hold the country together against the forces of continuing revolution and continual involvement in World War I.

The next several years of life in Russia were centered around a horrific civil war pitting the Reds (the Communists) against the Whites (those wanting to restore monarchy or restore some sort of republic).  The Whites outnumbered the Reds; the Whites had some support of foreign powers;  the Whites were the “good guys,” relatively speaking.  But the Reds had a more disciplined ideology and mission.  It was one of the many historic cases where history was moved not by majorities, but by minorities with an aim and purpose.

As ruler over the newly christened Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Lenin tried various ways to implement the socialistic ideas.  Although his version of the dictatorship of the proletariat was mild in comparison with some of his successors across the globe, he could be quite brutal in his dealings with the opposition.  Or he could be quite inconsistent in his practice of Communist ideals.

Lenin’s health problems and then his death helped create a battle within the leadership over his successor.  Josef Stalin ultimately defeated and removed many candidates who were initially better positioned to take over.  By a series of alliances and double-crossings, he was the last man standing.  Although the competition is tough, Stalin probably wins the award for being the most evil, ruthless, murderous man of the twentieth century.  Although his image was later removed throughout the Soviet Union, he really was and is the face of Communism.

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While we don’t want to bury the corpse until it is dead, we certainly hope that Communism will be relegated to the ash heap history, to use Ronald Reagan’s phrase.  There are still too many regimes that maintain some degrees of Communist ideology or practices.  There is still too much of the contagion in the world today, although some of the worst abuses and regimes have vanished.

Thankfully, there was not a World War III that pitted the Free World against the Communist World (or Communist Bloc).  I am forever thankful to a wide range of leaders who stood firmly in their opposition to all sorts of Communist activities.  These heroes and heroines include Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Whittaker Chambers, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa,  Margaret Thatcher, Richard Wurmbrand, Natan Sharansky, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and Ronald Reagan.  Political leaders with guts, vision, and insight enabled the Free World to win the Cold War.

But it was also won by the writing of books.  I will highlight and praise a few of the many books that helped–each incrementally–to expose the evils of Communism, to give first-hand testimonies to life under Communism, or to call for the overthrow of Communism.

  1.  We the Living by Ayn Rand.  I recently finished reading this book, and now I have read all four of Rand’s novels.  She did not write great literature.  Her writing flaws and philosophical quirks are often hard to stomach.  So is the length of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  But her books contain brilliant moments. (Anthem is her best work and her shortest.)  We the Living is, according to Rand, the closest thing to an autobiography that she ever wrote.  The book is set in Russia after the Communist Revolution.  The suffering, suppression, brainwashing, and dangers are all brought out in a compelling story.  Again, this is not great literature, but it is a great picture of life in the Soviet Union by one who was there and who got away.

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2.  One Day in the Life of  Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle, The Oak and the Calf, and other works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Solzhenitsyn did write great literature.  He is the rare author whose life story is as engaging as his writings.  A Nobel Prize winner, his life was on the line when his samizdat manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago was discovered.  I remember the events because my high school English teacher encouraged us to gather news articles about Solzhenitsyn.  He has long been one of my favorite heroes.  Sadly, he was often ignored or bypassed by his native Russian people in his last years.  Let us hope he is not forgotten.

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Good news for those of us who love Solzenitsyn.  His life-long labor was to create a fictional history of the Russian Revolution.  It began with August 1914, continued with November 1916.  Now a new volume is available:  March 1917.   This edition, in English for the first time, is published by the Notre Dame Press.

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3.  Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand.  Wurmbrand, a Romanian, was captured and tortured by the Communists for his faith.  Whether in prison or out, he continued to preach Christ to all around him.  In time, he was brought over to the United States where he established The Voice of the Martyrs ministry, which was initially focused on preaching Christ behind the Iron Curtain.  VOM has distributed free copies of Tortured for Christ for decades.  The book was life changing for me in that it helped reinforce my hatred of Communism and tyranny, but it also showed me the cost of following Christ.

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4.  Against All Hope by Armando Valledares.  This book shows the evils of the Cuban brand of Communism.  I began reading it years ago and had to put it aside for a time because it was too hard to endure.  Later, I picked it up again and read it all the way through.  The effusive gushing over Fidel Castro following his death was totally out of place.  He was evil.  He may have mellowed a bit in his later years, but he was a truly wicked leader.

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5.  The histories of Bruce Lincoln:  In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War,  Passage Through Armageddon:  The Russians in War and Revolution, and Red Victory:  A History of the Russian Civil War.  These books are not about Communism per se, but they are indispensable for understanding the history of Russia prior to and during the Revolution.

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6.  Coming Out of the Ice by Victor Herman.  I ordered and bought my copy of this first-hand account from Mr. Herman.  During the Great Depression, some Americans left this country to take up residence in the Workers’ Paradise.  Bad move.  Herman’s parents were among the immigrants, and he endured some horrific tortures during his time there.  By the way, there was a movie made about this man’s life and Willie Nelson (the singer) was in it.

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7.  The World in the Grip of an Idea by Clarence Carson.  This book has probably been way too overly neglected.  Dr. Carson, a fine and very conservative/liberatarian historian, focused on the varieties of coercive government.  Socialism in its various and evil forms is the idea that this book is countering.

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8.  Miracles of Grace and Judgment by Gerard P. Schroder.  I read this and other accounts some years ago.  Although many of the details are long since forgotten, one never forgets the horrors or the courage of people who endured life under the Soviets, whether they were inside or outside of the Gulag system.

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9.  The books by Robert Conquest are vital resources for seeing and understanding the magnitude of evils of Communism and the particulars of Soviet rule.  Books I have include The Great Terror, Harvest of Sorrow (about the Ukrainian holocaust), and his biography of Stalin.

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10.  It was many years ago that I read–and never recovered from reading–The Time of Stalin by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko.

11.  I have, but have only lightly made use of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.  These studies are always grim.  They are reminders of the depravity of man (often going beyond our normal Calvinistic explanation of “total” to “utter”).  They are testimonies to the terrible history of the past century.  They are vital for us to remember and try to stomach.

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12.  On a more optimistic note, I will end with Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism by Peter Schweizer.  I loved this book–the story, the man, and the details.  Reagan’s opposition to Communism really got going when he was dealing first hand with various Communist factions and sympathizers in the Hollywood film world.  It was from those experiences that he began formulating his mission and message regarding freedom.  His strategy for winning the Cold War was shocking to the liberals and many conservatives of the day:  “We win. They lose.”  But we did.

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Russell Kirk: American Conservative

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“If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.” —Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind

How should we say it?  Russell Kirk was ahead of his times?  Or Russell Kirk was behind his times?  Or Russell Kirk was out of step with his times?  Or Russell Kirk was beyond his times?  Or Russell Kirk is a man of all times?

Maybe Russell Kirk is largely forgotten.  I never know because people that live in my mind and thoughts are usually don’t exist for most people. That is not said to sound smug.  But, seriously, who all are seriously concerned about the ideas of Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Gordon Clark, Cleanth Brooks, and Richard Weaver?  Most of those men’s lives correspond with mine, although in most cases they died before I had ever heard of them.

Pick an earlier century and the names become even less well known and more obscure.  Let’s begin by placing the blame on abundance.  There is simply too much to learn and too many people from the past to know.  In my Ancient World Humanities class, I always feel that we can get a good amount of at least representative examples.  Students can read Hesiod, Homer, parts of Herodotus, The Republic by Plato, Rhetoric by Aristotle, a few Greek tragedies, along with a few Romans like Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero.  Then if they work on Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a high school student has a good jump on the extant writings of the ancient world.

But the river reaches flood stage during the subsequent early church era.  There are excellent choices for the Middle Ages, and one can gain some traction with a reading of as few as ten books.  Of course, any list of ten books is excluding 10 more that equal or excell them.

“Flood stage” doesn’t begin to provide an apt metaphor for the modern period of history (meaning from the Protestant Reformation to the present).  The works growing out of the American experience once again become overwhelming, as witnessed by the Library of America publications.

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So, how are we expected to remember even the most basic things about most people and books?  My official answer–based on over 45 years of working on these matters–is this:  I don’t know.  In the meantime, those who love learning, books, ideas, the past, people, and how all those things mix and mesh will keep reading and learning.

All of this mental wandering about books might just sound like the ever day musings of those people (of whom I have heard) whose lives are measured out with bookshelves (sorry, Tom).  But books, ideas, and thinkers of the past are not just the province of bookish teachers, writers, and bibliophiles (which has a slightly evil sound to it).

Instead, what really matters is finding a way of preserving the best from the past.  As a philosophy, that is often called Conservatism.  By the way, political conservatism is only one aspect of the broader concept.  Conservatism is in deep trouble today, in part because Conservatism is always in deep trouble.  There is always a pressure for change and the world is always in flux.  You cannot step in the same river twice and you cannot vote in the same election twice.  (Okay, the last part of that sentence is not exactly true.)

For a decade or two now, we have been hearing and hearing about conservative talk radio.  It is good that the older media monopoly has been broken and that a host of other outlets are available.  To paraphase Andy Warhol, in the future everyone will be a political commentator for 15 minutes.  But some are political commentators for 2 to 3 hours–daily.  And they proclaim themselves conservatives, and they wage relentless attacks on liberals, big guv’mint, the welfare state, and various opponents in the culture war.

2016 revealed lots of things about Americans, both good and bad.  (Don’t worry if it takes a while to think up the good things.)  One thing that is certain is that conservative talk radio and many who call themselves conservatives really are not conservatives at all.  They are more nationalists, protectionists, isolationists, and opponents of everything they lump together as the Washington establishment.

That is not to say that I disagree with the main body of folk and spokespeople who rally under the name of conservatism and who invoke Ronald Reagan’s name often.  Nor am I living in denial or absolute angst over the election and now early adminstration of President Trump.  But Conservatism is in trouble and largely because we don’t know what Conservatism is nor what we should be trying to conserve.

Hence the urgency of Russell Kirk.  Hence the importance of Bradley Birzer’s biography of Russell Kirk.  Hence the necessity of plodding through some of the many books written by Kirk and his intellectual colleagues and fellow travelers.

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I started reading Russell Kirk: American Conservative, published by the University of Kentucky Press, on November 3, 2016–the night that the Chicago Cubs won the world series.  (I only paid attention to the final score of that game.)  I finished the book early in March 2017.  During December, there was a long gap where I was not reading the book, due to the final illness and death of my father and then the flurry of Christmas celebrations.

At some point–in either January or February–I was flustered at my incredibly slow pace of working through the 500 plus pages of text in the book.  This was a review book that I am duty bound to read and comment on.  The author, Bradley Birzer, is one I had already formed a high opinion of because of his biographies of J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Dawson. I began with extremely high interest, but found myself slowly working through the book.  Part of the slow pace was due to my reading the book late at night, propped up in bed, after a strenous day of teaching school, and near the time when sleepiness overwhelms love of reading.

Then–maybe after reaching page 400–I realized something.  This is not a book to hurry through.  This is not a page-turner, a who-done-it, an escape reading, and I like all those types of books.  Instead, this book is a primer on Conservatism through the lens of a key Conservative thinker. This is a book filled with homework assignments, with lessons to be completed.  This book is Conservatism 101; no, more a graduate level 501 course.  The reader is expected to master the lectures–the book–and then begin his/her journey through the assigned/suggested/formative works mentioned throughout this book.

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One could write a very short biography of Russell Kirk.  This short:  “Russell Kirk was born in 1918.  He read lots of books and thought deeply and then wrote lots of books.  He died in 1994.  He was a major figure in the Conservative movement.”  Mr. Kirk was–by most standards, but not mine–a very dull, ordinary-looking, overly bookish fellow.  How does a life parked at the typewriter merit 500 pages?

Well, first of all, Kirk was a scholar, writer, thinker, but he was far from being simply desk-bound.  He traveled, entertained a host of friends, sparred intellectually with friends and foes, participated in political battles, enjoyed ghost stories, and fathered four daughters after a marriage late in life.

But the book is mainly the odyssey through Conservative thought of the past as remolded and fitted to the American experience.  Hence the reading assignments that are necessities after this book.  Edmund Burke is high on the list.  Kirk wrote a biography of Burke, but one absolutely must go to the source.

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Kirk was also deeply devoted to the writings of Christopher Dawson (whose praises I have often sung), T. S. Eliot (both his poems and essays), Albert J. Nock (older libertarian), Irving Babbit, the Southern Agrarians, and key Greek and Roman thinkers.  As Kirk slowly moved from being Christian-and Catholic-oriented to actually joining the Catholic Church, Christian doctrines and theology also impacted his thinking.  His intellectual life is itself a course in intellectual history–from a conservative angle.

Add to that his friends and colleagues.  Kirk was a peer with and a complement to William F. Buckley, Jr.  They were contrasts in many ways, but they worked together for years with Kirk being a major contributor to National Review, founded by Buckley and still the flagship of serious conservative thought.

Kirk’s range of friends also included Flannery O’Connor (Southern author of incredible fiction), Ray Bradbury (with whom Kirk shared a love of writing fiction, particularly ghost stories), T. S. Eliot (of whose thought Kirk wrote a book), Wilhelm Ropke (Christian and economist), Donald Davidson (one of the Agrarians), and Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose campaign for the Presidency represented a high point for Conservatism.

He had intellectual enemies and sparring partners as well.  Some of these bouts were “iron sharpening iron,” but some were quite hostile.  Libertarians, ranging all the way back to John Stuart Mill, often received Kirk’s scorn.  That is not to say that Kirk did not sometimes find comaraderie with Libertarians.  Writing as someone well acquainted with intramural doctrinal battles within Presbyterian and Reformed Christian circles, I was not surprised to see Conservatives squaring off and battling one another with incredibly ferocity.

After my November start of this book, I found myself beginning my list of “must reads.”  Happily, I already own many of Kirk’s books, but I have either only read small portions or read the books long ago.  And I have begun to search out and gather the books and works of authors who Kirk approves of.

Conservatism as a word offers no hope.  There is much in the present and more in the past that needs to be swept into the dustbin of history. One has to know what one is conserving and why.  We have to know the best of the traditions, the enduring aspects of the culture, the truths that are most in danger in order to begin the work of conservation of a good, godly Christian, and Conservative world order.

This book–read slowly and deliberately–is a good beginning.

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A serious weighty collection of Conservative thought which includes Kirk and many of his colleagues.

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This book propelled Kirk into the center of the Conservative movement in its early stages and remains a key work on the mind and movement.

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Kirk’s study of T. S. Eliot–poet, essaying, Christian Humanist.

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A feast set with Kirk’s books.

Books on American Independence

A friend of mine, David Leach, recently asked me if I sometimes wish I had specialized in one area instead of branching out all over the place.  He pegged me right.  I think I must have a severe case of mental ADD; that, a form of attention deficit disorder that causes me to jump from one topic or subject to another without ever completing a thought on the first topic.

Many of my Genoa Central students remember me as the teacher who was obsessed with the War Between the States.  I don’t know why.  That war usually only occupied about 7 of the 9 months of the school year when I was teaching at Genoa.  For a time, I thought I was becoming a specialist.  Then my interest didn’t wane, but they expanded.  Studies of “The War” broadened to studies of the South.  Then along came the Agrarians, who were historians, biographers, and poets.  Southern literature consumed me, and became a specialty, until it forced open a door to the underpinnings of the Agrarian worldview–Western Civilization, Christendom, the Judeo-Christian/Greco-Roman culture.

That account is still incomplete.  Many are the times when I have journeyed off into Russian history, the Protestant Reformation, the Tudor and Stuart eras of British history, William Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, Jesse Stuart, Twentieth Century political history, and the development of the music we know as Bluegrass.

Specialization might have resulted in my having become a recognized scholar, instead of a bookish gad-fly.  Maybe I could now be safely confined on a university campus doing research on the cotton trade between South Carolina and Jamaica during the post-revolutionary era.  I could stand tall knowing that no one could dare cross me on that topic.  But, it didn’t happen and I continue to flit from book to book, era to era, classic to classic, genre to genre, biography to biography, and so on.

Certain events do steady my racing mind.  Today is the Fourth of July, which means it is Independence Day.  (Old joke:  Do they have a 4th of July in England?  Yes, but they do not celebrate it.)

I have had an increasing love and appreciation for the American War for Independence over the years.  The causualty figures from that war seem often inconsequential when compared to the death tolls found in the War Between the States or the Two World Wars.  The War for Independence contains a certain number of anomalies.  Economically successful colonies were revolting from the most prosperous, free, enlightened, and well governed nation in the world of that time.  Certainly, George III had his flaws and Parliament was often quite foolish and many Royal appointees were dolts.  The Declaration of Independence rips into the King for his tyrannical ways.  But this was fine tuning.  Russians, Prussians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and hosts of subject peoples across the globe were under far worse ruler and regimes.

I would liken the American War for Independence to some of the doctrinal battle-royals that occur amongst Christians.  Being in the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition, I am well familiar with the battles both before, after, and in addition to the many conflicts highlighted by John Frame in his essay “Machen’s Warrior Children.”  The Americans who bandied together to form Committees of Correspondence, Continental Congresses, and the Continental army were fighting over small matters that violated major principles of political philosophy and theology.  Americans today would likely welcome an act like the Tea Act, which actually resulted in lower prices for tea.

I find myself straying away from the purpose of this blog which is to highlight some good books on the War for Independence.  I will mention a few, but warn that there are many.  This blog was inspired by reading a similar type essay that was written by Dr. Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University.  Dr. Kidd’s post is titled “Five Great Books on the American Founding Era.”  In that post, he humbly alludes to, but does not mention his own books on the topic.

Here are my choices:

        

David Hackett Fischer’s two volumes are real gems. The first is Paul Revere’s Ride and the second is Washington’s Crossing. One might wonder how a short and only semi-successful event such as Paul Revere’s midnight ride could merit a whole book.  Fischer covers a lot of ground, both biographical in terms of Revere and historical in terms of the events that led to an actual outbreak of hostilities.  The book Washington’s Crossing is the real story of the Declaration of Independence, in my mind.  Until Gen. Washington exploited a chink in the British army’s armor and hit them hard and unexpectedly at Trenton and Princeton, the Declaration was just words.  The pen might indeed be mightier than the sword, but it is the sword which often gives force to what the pen has written.

      

David McCullough has also written two fine books on America’s founding.  I remember being very reluctant to read John Adams.  I thought both John and son, John Quincy, to be too stuffy, too Yankee, too prim and prissy.  John Adams, along with being a highly educated and scholarly man, was a real dirt farmer.  He had his hands in the soil far more often than his friend/enemy/friend again Thomas Jefferson.  And he was principled to a degree that it often cost him popularity.  Unsuccessful as a President, he was vital to the American cause.

1776 is a study of the critical year when the Declaration was signed.  It is interesting that the signing took place roughly in the middle of that year.  It was not a pretty or pleasant year for the Americans.  Those were the times that try men’s souls, to paraphrase Thomas Paine.

  

Thomas Fleming has written a number of excellent histories, and some novels as well, on the American War for Independence.  These two books give a good account of both the beginning and the ending of that war.  Now We Are Enemies originally came out in the early 1960s and has been reprinted.  Bunker Hill, sometimes known as Breed’s Hill, was a critical battle.  The newly formed Continental Army, and this was before Gen. Washington had control, managed to give a good account of itself at this early battle.  The British succeeded in driving the Americans from the field, which puts the battle in their “win” column, but they paid a hefty price.

The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival after Yorktown was an amazing eye-opener.  The standard history textbook quickly jumps from the victory at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 to the end of the war, the Peace of Paris, and the post-war status of the newly founded nation.  But there were two long years between Yorktown and victory.  The British were far from whipped and the possibilities of American independence were just that–possibilities.  This is a great account of the missing gap in our history texts.

  

Yankee Doodle Boy and Private Yankee Doodle are the same book.  Joseph Plumb Martin was a soldier in the Continental Army during many of the most crucial years of the war.  As the first book’s subtitle notes, this is “A Young Soldier’s Adventure in the American Revolution Told By Himself.”

I remember well the day that Stephanie and I were at Colonial Williamsburg (a place I love).  We had been mustered in to a small regiment that were being trained as infantry for battles.  Colonial Williamsburg includes lots of interactions with colonial and Revolutionary War activities.  Our guns were sticks, and we were given a few rudiments of marching and firing.  The narrator guide made several references to a book, which I quickly picked up at the bookstore.  It was Private Yankee Doodle.

A few years later, I discovered the abridged version of this first-hand account and added it to the books I often use in teaching junior high American history.  A soldier’s life is scary, confusing, dull for long stretches, filled with longings, which include hunger, and times of terror.  This is a great book for seeing the war from someone who was there and was young enough to experience the long-term benefits.

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes is a novel.  More than that, it is a novel that is usually pitched toward younger, maybe junior high age, readers.  Both of my daughters read it in sixth grade and loved it.  My daughter Caroline was obsessed with it for a time.

Don’t skip over this by thinking that Johnny Tremain is juvenile fluff.  This is a great book.  I loved it when I read it in high school on my own and have loved ever subsequent re-reading of it.  It is a great story, well told.  But it is also a good historical novel.  Esther Forbes, who also wrote a really good work on Paul Revere, captured colonial Boston during the time when events were quickly moving from political talk to fighting.  Many of the key figures of the events around Boston show up in the book, including Revere, Samuel Adams, and others.

C. S. Lewis once said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”  Amen to that.  Johnny Tremain can be enjoyed by children and adults, fans of history and fans of good literature.

One last note, many years ago, Disney made a movie version of Johnny Tremain.  It was a weak version of the book and very disappointing.  Surely there is someone out there somewhere who can see the potential for this book to be made into a first rate movie.

Well, my mind has been on the War for Independence long enough.  Now I am wondering what Abraham Kuyper has to say about Dutch politics in the late 1800s.

Scaling the Heights of Great Historians

Scaling the Heights of Great Historians

Ferguson and Stark

Strange as it may sound, reading certain books and authors makes us feel much smarter because they make us realize how much we DON’T know.  It is the same effect that great concert music has.  When you are experiencing–of which hearing is only a part–a great performance, you may leave not knowing one ounce more about how to play an instrument or perform a piece, but you are changed.  Epic poetry, great novels, powerful works of art all create these same changes.

It is not that the mind is not more full, or the recollection of facts expanded, rather it is that the soul has been somehow touched, the vision somehow broadened.  This leads to an awareness that the universe is much bigger than we had previously expected and that our own finiteness is more finite that we knew.  This is, in my opinion, much of what real education is about.  It is the goal, and being the goal, it has to also be the process.

History is a dangerously deceptive subject.  We can be duped into thinking that it nothing “more than dates and dead people,” to use Stephen Mansfield’s book title.  We can be falsely comforted into believing that it is set of simple facts that support whatever our personal religious, economic, and political agenda might be.  Or, it can be an enjoyable escape from the plethora of cultural entertainments.  Or it can be a philosophical dead end, proving little more than the meaninglessness of “life under the sun” (borrowing from Solomon’s theme in Ecclesiastes) or the depressing words of John Maynard Keynes that “in the long run, we are all dead.”

Not only is history dangerly deceptive subject, but that last paragraph might deceive the reader as well.  Knowledge of history does entail having to learn or at least be exposed to lots of dates and dead people.  It does provide supporting evidence for religious, economic, and political beliefs. It can be greatly entertaining and much more satisfying than the soul-less, content-free, brain evaporating endlessly omnipresent, thought-dumbing world of glitz, passing fads, and drivel and swill of much of modern culture.

Doing math may create frustrations.  (I speak only from memory here.)  Having done math does not tend to leave us perplexed.  The completed math problem rarely leave the student asking himself, “How could 2 and X and the square root of 44 ever have done what they did?  Have they no moral conscience?”  History leaves lots of tears along the way.  When George Orwell said, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever,”  he was just as accurately describing too much of the past as well as a future likelihood.

Two recent books I have read on history have created lots of mental reactions, brain synapses, and exhausting excitement.  Niall Ferguson and Rodney Stark have both taken me to the mat with a series of supplexes, body slams, and painful finishing moves.  I feel like echoing the warnings on episodes of WWE:  “Don’t try this history at home, at school, or anywhere.”  Except, we do need to try it.  We do need the bruising, muscle sprains, cuts and scraps that learning entails.

In short, I like the pain of learning from great historians.  I do feel smarter only by knowing how little I know.

The first and the most disturbing thing about Rodney Stark is that he is not a historian by training.  He is an academic and a professor at Baylor University, but his field of specialization is sociology.  Maybe it was his “preaching out of bounds” that has enabled him to see bigger pictures, collate the facts in a different arrangement, sidestep the departmentalization, and do broad sweeps of history.  I have and have read quite a few of his books.  When I first began How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, I thought that perhaps this was a retelling, a Readers’ Digest Condensed Books-like retelling of what he has said in a previous 6 or 8 fine books.  Such a work would be useful.

For a fact, Stark does repeat his earlier books at points.  But this book is much more.  It is a recasting of the whole of Western Civilization–that politically incorrect, often rejected–course of study.  Stark argues in favor of Faith and Freedom.  I grant that many Christians have pumped out right-leaning, Christian oriented versions of history designed to set the record straight.  The beginning of this flood of books was 1976 with Peter Marshall, Jr. and David Manuel who wrote The Light and the Glory.  Christians awoke to the fact that the whole field of history had by-passed them (I should say, us).  They wrote for popular audiences, for the man and woman in the pew, and they created a cottage industry of books from a Christian perspective.

History books by Christians run the gamut.  Some are shallow, poorly researched, anecdotally weighted with dubious stories, and triumphalist.  That said, there have been Christian scholars and historians who have done the hard work of true scholarly engagement.  (See the works of George Marsden, Mark Noll, D. G. Hart, Stephen Ozment, and Thomas Kidd as examples.)  But there is always the need for big pictures and broad swathes of history designed for those in the middle.  By that, I mean those who won’t read an academic treatise arguing a minor point among specialists, but who don’t want a superficial treatment either.

Rodney Stark writes history well.  His books buttress the contentions of those of us who do believe that the Christian faith has been a building block, a philosophical non-negotiable, and a source for much that is good in this world.  Edward Gibbon blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome.  All things considered, one has to wonder whether that contention is a criticism or a compliment to the faith.  Speaking as a historian, it opens up a wide debate about the impact of faith on culture.  (See Richard Neiburh’s Christ and Culture.)  Stark assumes the positive impact of Christianity and Freedom, one of its offspring, on Western Civilization.

This book would make a fine text for studying Western Civilization.  The names, dates, maps, chronology, and end-of-the-chapter reviews that enhance or dull down history texts are missing, and one might need such a text prior to reading this.  The bibliography, always a prime concern of mine, is extensive.  If one is miffed that Stark relies on secondary resources, then the bibliography of those secondary resources can lead them back to the headwaters of the historical streams.

Remember my initial warnings:  You will be mentally numbed by reading this book.  You will be wearing sackcloth and ashes in sorrow over your historical ignorance and misunderstandings.  So, read it.

I read Niall Ferguson’s book Empire some years ago and became an immediate convert to his historical works.  This is the second Ferguson book I have read this year (the first was The Ascent of Money).  Ferguson is not a military historian, but rather an economic historian.  That being the case, we might still wonder why his latest book is a massive first of two volumes on Dr. Henry Kissinger.  (I have this book and hope to start it soon.)  When Ferguson writes on economic history, I have to sit at the back of the class and draw pictures on the edges of the papers where I am taking notes.  He loses me with his vast knowledge of economics.  (Students, don’t do what I just said I do.  If you don’t understand, sit at the front and write down everything.)

Ferguson, like Stark, is a big picture historian.  Despite the title of the book and the cover picture of a soldier, this is not a view of war from either the trenches or the command headquarters or the Pentagon or related military centers of warring powers.  Ferguson delves into hows and whys of the Western nations’ two-time plunges into catastrophic world wars.

I like to think that I understand the causes and effects of World Wars I and II.  I can, at a moment’s notice, give lectures on the major powers in the decades leading up to August 1914.  I can, with a brief review, detail both the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and the Schlieffen Plan.  The main reason I avoid teaching on the world wars is because I get too lost in the lectures, the battles, the movies, and even the novels from those wars.  Yet, Ferguson stunned me.  As I have repeatedly said now, I realized how little I knew about the wars.

Ferguson deals extensively with issues such as race, nationality, ideologies, displacement of peoples, political urgencies of the time, and economics.  This might sound less interesting than Rick Atkinson’s outstanding Libertation Trilogy on the war in Europe, but I found Ferguson’s work to be a necessary complement or completion of the battlefield accounts.

At what point, I kept wondering while reading, do figures of death and destruction cease to jar me?  Routinely, numbers like 40 thousand or 1 million were used to explain not economic costs, but lives lost.  Genocide, that ugly defining word for so much of 20th century history, seems too mild in capturing the extent of death and destruction.  This story is of the descent of the West.  The hellishness of war in the past century was not just the weapons on the battlefield, but the evils in the hearts of men.

If it were possible for people to read history and experience true changes of heart, Ferguson’s book would be the Bible of our times.  The need is for God’s grace, not just accounts of how evil people have been.  But Ferguson’s work is not a lesson in despair.  This is not a depressing book.  This is good history.  This book is humbling and leaves the reader sorrowful.  By God’s grace, it can be godly sorrow leading to repentance culturally.

There must be a journey to the underworld before the hero can truly envision his quest.  Ferguson’s book provides just such a journey.