Thursday, December 29, 2005

books! books! books!

Following my last, rather blissful, post, John B. asked for titles. I'm in the midddle of a writing binge, so I will post briefly about three of them.

1) Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir. Isabella, wife of Edward II, is generally described as an odious, ambitious, adulterous, teacherous murderer without any redeeming features apart from her beauty. Weir argues that while Isabella certainly had a strong sense of self and what she deserved based upon her royal status, historians have misjudged and misunderstood many of her actions. In the 21st century we're still unlikely to condone adultery, but we have a better understanding of its whys and wherefores; being married to a man who has no sexual interest in you and actively places you in harm's way does tend to contribute to marital breakdown.

2)Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands - I first discovered Brands when I read his excellent and extensive biography of Benjamin Franklin. This is his latest work. Jackson, though much admired in his own time, now often ranks as the worst of the worst for his policies on Indian Removal. I've always felt that while he did possess admirable qualities and a calculating intellegence, Jackson did not rank among my favorite presidents. I've seen a few presentations by Brands over C-SPAN, in which he has mounted a spirited defense for Jackson. I may not agree with Brands after reading the book, but I am looking forward to it immensely.

3) The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers. "A murder mystery with bells and bell ringing as the central motif??!!" I hear you cry. No, really, it was excellent. Sayers drops just enough clues that the reader could guess at what happened, but you can also just read along and enjoy. Great fun.


Moulton said...

Some years ago, when Alistair Cooke was hosting Masterpiece Theater on PBS, he introduced their presentation of The Nine Taylors by Dorothy Sayers.

It might still be available on VHS, if you know where to look.

John B. said...

People who attack Jackon and 'ding' him solely for his Indian removal policies are the exact kind of near-sighted revisionists many historians rail against today.

What Jackson did was common at the time in American society...Indians were viewed as second class citizens at best. Americans hungry for land and opportunity simply moved, pushed, relocated and ran off any Indians in their way. The Indians occupied land that white Americans wanted. Few people spoke up or fought for the rights of Indians...and those that did were seen by most of society as being lunatics or do-gooders (much the way that 'liberals' are viewed now). It turns out that these liberal minded people were actually the forward thinkers of the time, but this was not seen as being the truth until more than a century and a half had passed.

In retrospect, of course it was wrong to relocate, push away and oftengo to war with Indians solely for their land, the 'Trail of Tears' and such are not our finest moments in American history by any stretch of the imagination...and thousands of Indians were emotionally or physically hurt or died because of it.

However, a lot of beliefs change in 175 years, and looking at history through a looking glass of modern morals and viewpoints is not always necessarily an accurate depiction or rating of history, in my opinion.

This Jackson argument is similar to the same people that argue against Jefferson not being a good founding father or president because he owned slaves. Everyone who had a large property in the south owned couldn't and didn't have a paid labor force class of plantation workers in the south, you had slaves. Wrong? Of course, but it was unfortunately and cruely the way things were done at the time.

One of the great things about history is that we as a society can and should (although we often don't) learn from our past mistakes. Society evolves and hopefully gets less cruel to each other, society changes and views of egregiously common practices previously seen as 'OK' change to become and be seen as wrong or immoral. To blame a person for his times and for the society he lived in is faulty history.

Jackson, from what I have studied and read, was a 'street smart' president...a man of the people who was politically an opportunist when need be. Admittedly, I am no Jackson expert, and I guess that he would rank in around the 25th- 50th percentile in my rankings, but he certainly is not at the bottom of my list based on incorrect judgment stemming from his times and society that he lived in.

Joe said...

John, I'll buy what you're saying about Jackson until someone presents me with evidence to the contrary.

Jefferson's writings, however, show us that he knew slavery was wrong. He tried to oppose it. And yet he owned slaves. He could've sold his land, freed his slaves, and put that incredible mind of his to work in the industrial North.

But he chose not to.

I don't judge Jefferson for his slave-owning differently from any other slave owner. But he does get a black mark for hypocrisy.

Hugh said...

Joe --

Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt. You could give all of your stuff away and be the resident librarian for The Museum of Creation (, it's possible. But not probable or likely.

John B. said...

Jefferson's writings, however, show us that he knew slavery was wrong. He tried to oppose it. And yet he owned slaves. He could've sold his land, freed his slaves, and put that incredible mind of his to work in the industrial North.

I don't think that any land owner (and less so a wealthy one at that time as was Jefferson) would have sold his land and let his slaves go free, just to protest a common (and not considered by most to be wrong at the time) practice. Doing so would have required Jefferson to give up his house, his land, his wealth and his livlihood...sounds noble to do so, but I can't think of too many historical examples of people doing so.

There was little or no paid free lower class at the time, no means of finding paid laborers to fill the jobs that slaves filled. The southern plantation economy was just not set up for much of a paid work force, it was 'the way things were done'. Most people (Jefferson excluded) never considered the moral or ethical implications of slavery, and one man's protest wouldn't have changed a whole economy. It took several years and finally a non-southern / non-land-owning President (Lincoln) to change things.

John B. said...

Jefferson was wrongin owning slaves (as were other slave owners), but they were also victims of their times and economies. Looking at the ethics of the situation through the ethical eyes of 2006 is not getting a true picture of the times.

Alianore said...

How do you know that Edward II had 'no sexual interest' in Isabella? They had 4 children together, and Edward had an illegitimate son too. And when did he deliberately place her in harm's way?