I’m back home after 19 days away. I’d like to say I was on the road but most of it was on a cruise ship so technically I was on the seas. When not at ports of call, cruise ships do give you downtime. With no Internet, there was time to do something I should do more of: read books. I completed two books on the trip, both worth your time if you are into histories.
After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace
By A. J. Langguth
It’s curious how many books you can find on the Civil War but how few you will find about Reconstruction: the time after the Civil War when the slaves were technically freed but not quite equal citizens. This book by the late USC professor A.J. Langguth (1933-2014) finished in the year of his death delves into the messiness of the post Civil War years. You are introduced to a cast of characters including a number of rogues. The title gives away the ending, in case you are unfamiliar with U.S. history. What is truly heartbreaking is how much overt discrimination remains 140 years later. Moreover, the parallels between Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination) and Donald Trump are more than a little creepy. (Trump though is actually worse.)
The book does not start immediately after Lincoln’s murder. Most chapters delve into particular historical figures, fills in their biographies before reconstruction and tell the roles that they played. It’s quite a gamut of figures: from Nathan Bedford Forest who founded the KKK (and led a very successful cavalry for the Confederacy) to Pickney Pinchback, half black by birth (white slaveowner, black slave) but all black in the eyes of society. He won election to the U.S. House and Senate for Louisiana, but was not permitted by Congress to actually be seated. There are also names that might ring bells from newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (who bought Alaska for the U.S.) to presidents that served during this time. Johnson is the most infamous since he was impeached (but not convicted), but the book also covers Ulysses S. Grant’s eight years as president and ends with his more obscure successor: Rutherford B. Hayes.
Langguth’s approach works pretty well because it illuminates these figures while constantly adding backstory and connecting characters. The chapters are just the right size to be comfortable reads without feeling overwhelming. They also draw you in. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were progressive tools that should have made most of these class and race issues moot. By dropping out of the Union, states of the Confederacy gave power to the Republican Party to pass these progressive amendments freeing the slaves, giving them full enfranchisement and equal protection. To say the least the Southern states were put out. They became experts in passive and overt resistance that was occasionally quelled by the introduction of federal troops.
Langguth gets into all the details of how we lost the peace. Basically the South sort of won the Civil War after it lost it for two reasons: Jim Crow laws that courts were reluctant to strike down and northern Republicans who tired of the whole equal enfranchisement business. Essentially a critical mass of white America stopped caring.
At 375 pages (without appendices) it’s an appropriately sized history that should sustain your interest despite the known outcome. The movie Lincoln gave us a taste of some of these figures (like Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones). Langguth colors in these characters and exposes the macro and micro forces at work during this time. In short, you’d have a hard time finding better book to read about Reconstruction, in part because so few have been written.
City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York
By Tyler Ambinder
Published in 2016, this book is one that I don’t think has been done before: a deep dive into New York City’s 400 years of history with a special emphasis on its many immigrant communities: who came, how they interacted, where they settled, who succeeded, who failed and the many tensions of living in this biggest of cities. Ambinder, a professor of history at George Washington University, fills out the story in part by documenting his own relatives’ paths.
This is a real tome: 738 pages, 570 pages without the appendices. It’s also the kind of history that I like best: that tells me things I would never learn otherwise. It’s a work of immense scholarship but written so well that at times you can’t put it down. To me the most interesting and appalling part of the book is its discussion of immigrants transit to America in the mid 19th century, which for most of our ancestors meant steerage class on a sailing ship: a slow trip to America in the bowels of the ship where sickness, overcrowding, darkness, dysentery and literal bowels made the journey hellish with many casualties along the way. The fetid atmosphere described almost rises from those pages.
Curiously it intersects frequently with After Lincoln since the era around and after the Civil War forms a significant chunk of this tome. You see some of the same characters in both books, such as Horace Greeley and cartoonist Thomas Nast. Both books cover the draft riots in New York during the Civil War too. New York started out as New Amsterdam and was hence a Dutch colony, but the Dutch couldn’t hold onto it particularly as colonies around it became British possessions. People arrived by the boatloads. New York quickly became the largest city in the world. Jamming so many people into the city was done poorly at best. Most immigrants ended up in crazily crowded tenement housing, with populations per square mile so dense that they rivaled anything ever seen before. Ambinder also shines with his extensive look into tenement housing, whose details are equally as appalling as the passage of people in steerage class during the days of the sailing ships.
New York first previewed America’s coming ethnic tensions. How could it be otherwise when so many ethnicities were jammed together into so small a space? Then as now people self segregated themselves by ethnicity. For a very long time the Irish dominated the city. If the word Tammany Hall rings a bell, you’ll learn a lot about the Irish that ran it mostly corruptly while also giving employment to huge numbers of immigrants.
Ambinder though shows us that regardless of the time it’s always the same story. It’s only the cast of characters that rotate. In the 19th century the Irish were oppressed. The cartoonist Nast even drew them with gorilla foreheads. The No Nothing Party of the 19th Century was formed principally to keep the wrong kind of immigrants (the Irish in particular) out. Like Trump today, the No Nothings wanted only the right people to be Americans. Eventually though it was the Irish that saw themselves the most legitimate of New Yorkers and they worked to repress other groups, like the Italians. Having felt discriminated they seem to delight in dishing it out.
Ambinder’s detail is often staggering, but mostly it’s an engaging read. If it drags, it is only near the end where we see New York’s latest immigrants (mostly from the West Indies) going through this pattern yet again. As recently as the 1990s, whites in Queens were bashing in the heads of West Indies immigrants when they happened to stray into their ethnic enclaves. With Muslims pouring in today, Ambinder makes it clear that they too will become part of our fabric and that our fear of them is ridiculous.
I read a lot of history books and City of Dreams is definitely in the top ten percent of my favorites. It may be a tome, but it is definitely worth your time.
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