A review of Amanda Foreman's "A World on Fire"
A World on Fire:
Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War
By Amanda Foreman
Random House, 1,008 pages
Amanda Foreman has found a lively, bifocal way of revisiting the Civil War in her new history, A World on Fire. With remarkable freshness, the bestselling biographer of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, has taken on a topic that Bruce Catton and the marvelously readable Shelby Foote seemed to have made their own and has made it her own as well. She has done so by examining the struggle through the eyes of British observers, sideways participants in the defining event of American history. Never losing command of events on the battlefields, from Bull Run to Appomattox, she takes illuminating and often entertaining tours through the corridors of power in London and Washington.
The Anglo-American relationship was, through much of the 19th century, an understandably difficult one. The Declaration of Independence was worse than a revolution; it was an impertinence. In 1812, the new nation had declared war on the British Empire and then fought it to a draw over two years. By 1860, the United States threatened to dispute mastery of the Atlantic and of world markets. England’s governing duo of Lord John Russell and Lord Palmerston declared their “neutrality” when the Civil War broke out.
Lincoln and his secretary of state, the ambitious, irascible (and alcoholic) William Henry Seward, developed a great distaste for the British because of the clear contradiction between England’s principles and her commercial practices. Great Britain had been the first great power to declare slavery illegal. Morality sailed under the British flag. England’s command of the seas enabled her to interdict a practice she had fostered in colonial America as early as 1619. By 1787, five of the original breakaway states had already abolished slavery. It was agreed that the others should do the same within 21 years. The importation of slaves was supposed to cease in 1808, but technology trumped good intentions: Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin made cotton the hugely profitable, labor-intensive staple crop of much of the South. Abolition could wait.
Palmerston once observed that countries did not have “friends,” only interests—and Britain’s commercial interests overrode its ideological friendship with the anti-slavery states. The main British interest in America was cotton, the Southern crop for which the mills of Lancashire had an insatiable need, but Britain sold her manufactures mainly to the North.
On arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861, two days after the Federal garrison of Fort Sumter surrendered and the war came, the English journalist William Howard Russell expressed surprise: “If slavery were abolished tomorrow, fewer than three hundred thousand whites would be affected out of a population of 5.5 million. Yet all are in favour of it.” Russell, a journalist honest enough to be persona non grata on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line at one time or another, saw the South as a “new Sparta” with a ruling class that resembled the British aristocracy—although resident in places, such as Montgomery, Alabama, that reminded him, in their grimness, of “small Russian towns.”
The least likely member of Jefferson Davis’s cabinet was the then attorney general, Judah P. Benjamin, whom Russell found to be “the most open, frank, and cordial of the Confederates,” even though the journalist “disliked Jews in general.” Benjamin was technically a British subject, born in the then British Virgin Islands. His family had moved to Charleston when Judah was 11 years old. By the time he was 14, he was studying at the Yale Law School, from which, for a reason Foreman has not discovered, he was later expelled. It may have been his uncertain sexuality: “women enjoyed his company (although not his wife Natalie, who had moved to Paris with their daughter); he could banter with them for an entire evening in English or French…. But,” says Foreman, “behind his perpetual smile there was a mysterious veil which none could penetrate.”
Benjamin, a “stout, dapper little man,” is among the liveliest and most enigmatic of the background characters whom Foreman brings to life. In a short time, he became Jefferson Davis’s “grand vizier.” More intelligent than anyone else in the Confederate government, he appears to have remained undisturbed by the prejudices of the generals to whom he came to allocate the South’s meager supply of munitions. When asked what would happen if England refused to “recognize your flags” when Confederate ships were running the Federal blockade, he replied, with a smile, “it would be…a declaration of war against us,” but thanks to Britain’s need for Louisiana’s cotton, “all this coyness about acknowledging a slave power will come right at last.”
It very nearly did, and part of the fascination of Foreman’s account is the way in which the British sought to accommodate themselves to the Confederacy. In 1863, the so-called liberal William Ewart Gladstone, an inexhaustible source of moralistic humbug who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, spoke in favor of recognizing the Confederacy. Slavery was not a good thing, but “they have made a nation.” The great soldier Viscount Wolesley, on a visit to the South, could not imagine its armies would ever be defeated by Lincoln’s “mercenaries” (even though it was always obvious that the South could never compete with the North’s economic clout).
The Civil War was the last in which men, especially from England, hurried to involve themselves, as if it were an adventure like the Trojan War. A good many Brits, lured by bounties, joined the Union Army; not a few deserted as soon as they received the money. Almost as many others rallied to the colors of the charismatic Robert E. Lee. Their choice of side was often a toss-up. Lieutenant Colonel James Fremantle opposed slavery, but the “gallantry and determination” of the South won him over. Hardly any of the British grandees, common soldiers, fugitive husbands, and wayward sons who went South are said by Foreman to have had an ideological urge to defend slavery.
The most charismatic warrior was Sir Percy Wyndham, a Byronic figure with “mustache and beard extending from his lips like bushy Christmas trees” who was gazetted colonel of the First New Jersey Cavalry. His courage inspired them as much as his George Patton–style discipline: he was thrown out for thumping a reluctant trooper but was later reinstated. The only Medal of Honor awarded to a British subject during the war was won by Private Philip Baybutt, for seizing the regimental flag of the Sixth Virginia Cavalry, but British officers and men on both sides were often outstandingly bold.
The keenest recruits to the Union Army were Irish Fenians. Their desire for an independent Ireland led them to fill the ranks of three New York regiments. The quarrel with the British was much more important to them than Lincoln’s with the South. When things were going badly for the Federal cause in 1862, the Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes, dared to say that “we Catholics…have not the smallest idea of carrying on a war that costs so much blood and treasure just to gratify a clique of abolitionists.” In response Lincoln said famously, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.”
By 1863, the war was going so badly for the North that, after the introduction of the draft law, there were widespread race riots in New York City. “Kill all niggers!” was the war cry of the 50,000-strong “mostly Irish working class” mob that attacked a Colored Orphan Asylum and beat one of the little girls to death. British ships with black crew members (or refugees) on board were also popular targets.
On both sides of the wide Atlantic, diplomats, statesmen, and secret agents maintained a war of words and double-dealing. Not the least of Foreman’s skills lies in sustaining our interest in, and sympathy with, the two ambassadors—Lord Lyons in Washington, Charles Francis Adams in London—on whom fell the heavy, dull, and lonely duty of explaining their two governments’ often menacing words to suspicious ears. Neither Lyons nor Adams could rely on his own charm. Lyons was a shy bachelor (only in his last year in the United States did he discover romance, on a trip to Niagara Falls) who combined a strong sense of duty to the Crown with a keen sense of the personalities he had to deal with.
Seward was publicly belligerent toward the British, and with some practical motive: he had lost his bid for the White House to Lincoln but still hoped to win the presidency, and he intended his anti-British rhetoric—like threatening the annexation of Canada—to rally voters. Thanks to Lyons’s calm magnanimity, Seward’s rants were edited so as not to exasperate Palmerston, the prime minister, who also often talked a more aggressive game than he actually played.
After the war, Seward demanded the Bahamas as settlement for the damage caused to U.S. trade by the Confederate privateer C.S.S. Alabama, which had been commissioned in a British shipyard. The wish to punish London persisted until 1870, when an international convention agreed that the British should pay $15.5 million, plus interest, for all the damage caused by British-built Confederate cruisers.
Ex-ambassador Adams played a key emollient part in making sure that reason prevailed in the protracted negotiations. Lord Lyons was given the Paris embassy he had always craved. As for Judah P. Benjamin, he escaped from Charleston and wound up in England, where he resumed his legal career and wrote a standard work on commercial law, Benjamin on Sales.
Lincoln’s murder did more for Anglo-American relations than anything that happened in his lifetime. Even John Delane, the editor of the Times of London, was filled with remorse for his pro-Confederate bias. In 1866, the first transatlantic cable linked Britain and America in what Queen Victoria hoped was a “bond of Union.” In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed the two countries “natural allies” who should be “the best of friends.” Winston Churchill’s having an American mother disposed him to sentimentalize the closeness of “the English-speaking peoples,” but two nations that had never been on the same side before 1870 did indeed become partners in the “special relationship”—one that with whatever bumps along the way, has kept the world safe. And so, in the end, Foreman’s splendid book proves to be an explanation of the unlikely development of the world’s most enduring alliance.
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The War Came, and So Did the British
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.