James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
This is the best single-volume history of the Civil War — and the run-up to it — that I’ve read. It’s gracefully written, meticulous without being overburdened with minutiae, and scholarly.
I’ve written before about the deep difficulty I have building a historical imagination to understand why Bostonians destroyed large chunks of their city in the 1950s and 1960s; despite having read a lot about it, I still can’t put myself in the heads of people who thought this was a good idea.
This is all the more true for slavery, having now read through 900 pages of McPherson’s wonderful book. For instance, Southern ideology taught that slavery was preferable to the northern system of ‘wage slavery’; Northern factory workers lived degraded lives, they said, and at least the South had its agricultural gentility. This is all correct only if you place zero value on the lives of your slaves, because certainly the slaves weren’t living lives of genteel refinement. Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, the Southern system produced lives of sublime splendor for 2/3 of the population, in exchange for the utter destruction of the remaining third. It seems like you have to literally consider your slaves non-human to even make sense of this sentiment. We get a glimpse into the justification for slavery elsewhere in McPherson, as when Southerners assert that it is the natural state for black people; they need their wise white overseers to protect them. I can write this down as an abstract idea, but I just cannot put myself in the place of someone who believes it. And I don’t know where that belief came from. Did the institution of slavery cause people to believe this, as a sort of retroactive justification for what they were doing (à la Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”) ? Or did they believe it even before they enslaved other humans?
Lincoln seems to have been honest about his reasons for prosecuting the war: the goal was first to keep the Union together, and he’d allow slavery to remain in the Southern states to achieve that goal. He really did oppose slavery, but he only went public with that opposition strategically. He could have chosen early in the war to have emancipated the slaves, but to keep border states in the Union he chose not to. Eventually he saw that he could use emancipation as a tool against the South. Depriving them of their slaves meant removing a large part of the Southern economy. And those ex-slaves could become soldiers in the North.
(Incidentally, this sort of strategic thinking about an issue of such profound moral import — the single most morally significant issue in the history of the United States — got me thinking a lot about the Clinton-Sanders race. Clinton is routinely mocked for only uttering sentences that have been run through a focus-group homogenizer, but who’s to say that’s the wrong approach? And who’s to say that Clinton and Obama were wrong when they came around to supporting gay marriage rather late in the game? Maybe adopting centrist attitudes on some positions is necessary to advance others. Or maybe adopting centrist positions on many issues advances her entire portfolio of positions more than adopting a leftist attitude on any of them would. All of which is just to say that we can’t, perhaps, understand any part of a politician’s belief system without understanding its entirety. Clinton could be Lincoln, and Sanders could be the Abolitionists. In retrospect the Abolitionists were on the right side of history, but it took Lincoln to prosecute the war.)
This recognition of slaves’ value in the war is part of a larger thread in McPherson, whereby Lincoln comes to see the Civil War as a total war of unlimited aims rather than a limited war whose goal is merely to secure territory. Early in the war, Lincoln has placed warmaking mostly in the hands of General George McClellan, who fights an earlier style of war — a rather more genteel and clean style of war. Later the war transitions to generals Grant and Sherman, who understand that it’s a war against the entirely of Southern civilization; the way to remove the South from the battlefield is to make the war intolerable to Southerners. Hence we have Sherman’s March to the Sea and the rather less famous march through the Carolinas. Once the war has made this transition, the North starts to frame it as a war to destroy and reconstruct the entire Southern way of life. To quote McPherson quoting Sherman:
> Like Lincoln, he believed in a hard war and a soft peace. “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” Sherman had told Atlanta’s mayor after ordering the civilian population expelled from the occupied city. But “when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker.” Until then, though, “we are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”
At many points, the war could have turned out differently and the South could have won. Yes, the North brought to bear its industrial might, but this wasn’t just a war of guns against guns. It was a war fought in the newspapers as well, and the North lost enough bloody battles with enough senseless deaths that Northern voters very nearly threw Lincoln out of office. It’s easy to imagine an alternate reality in which the North and the South remain two separate countries. All the South had to do was fend off its invaders until it wore them down (think Vietnam); the North had to actively conquer the South. And until Grant and Sherman understood how to live off the land when deep within the South, they had to maintain supply lines hundreds of miles long through hostile territory. It’s very easy to imagine the war turning out differently than it did, easy to imagine Lincoln being perceived as a one-term loser who “lost us the South”, Robert E. Lee being venerated as the liberator, and slavery remaining in place for at least a while longer. Historical contingency couldn’t be more prominent than it is here.
There’s a wonderful annotated bibliography at the end of McPherson’s book, but even the bibliography is too overwhelming to consume as a novice Civil War scholar. The multivolume Nevins work about the Civil War seems like a canonical overview, as is Rhodes’s. I think I’d like to minimize purely military histories; I’m more interested in how the military aspect resulted from the civilian. (Lincoln, by the way, comes across as an excellent student of military strategy. His simultaneous comprehension of civilian politics and of military matters is impressive, and suggests that he really may have been the only man for the job. And once again I’m reminded of a point that I believe David Halberstam makes The Fifties in the context of Douglas MacArthur: generals may be very good at understanding the immediate battlefield, but civilian leadership often has a better view of the global picture.)
McPherson mentions an irony in the civilian-meets-military department: the North experienced a tactical loss during the Seven Days, but it probably became a strategic victory; the Seven Days were when the Civil War switched from a limited territorial war to a total war of unlimited ends. Had the North won, perhaps the South would have folded with its existing institutions intact.
A couple other books have come out since McPherson’s that are likely good followups to his: Race and Reunion and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. And there’s a genre of scholarship that studies how historical figures have been perceived over time, of which (to me) The Jefferson Image in the American Mind is the archetype; there’s such a work about Robert E. Lee, which McPherson cites and which Joan Waugh pointed me to after I read her portrait of U.S. Grant’s image. Finally, it seems worth my while to read the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Oh, and one last note: McPherson makes the fascinating observation that the structure of political parties may have helped the North win. Both the South and the North had a Democratic party, but the Republican party was really concentrated in the North. When Northerners wanted to rally the populace to support continuing the war, they had a Republican party infrastructure to do that. So when Northern Democrats supporting peace with the South (“copperheads“) tried to make the argument for ending the war, they had a full party — a full institution, with platforms and organization — to argue against. The South didn’t have parties, and if anything Southern ideology argued against parties; what the South had was a large number of politicians arguing for their own positions. The South thus had less organizational capacity to rouse the populace to keep the war going.
Richard Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics
This is a fun read, because Thaler is a fun writer. If you’ve already read a lot of behavioral economics, the main reason to read this book is not because it will give you further education on the subject; like every other behavioral-economics book ever, this book covers the endowment effect by way of an experiment where students are given mugs. By now they ought to be called “the fucking mugs”, and it ought to be called “the fucking mug experiment.” I am tired of the fucking mugs.
That said, behavioral economics — even including the fucking mugs — is really interesting, and Thaler is entertaining as always. As I will never tire of telling people, you should do yourself a favor and read his slim collection of essays called The Winner’s Curse. If you can’t find the time to read that book, I’d recommend his highly readable piece from the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the law of one price. (If you have time to really dig deep on the theory, I’d recommend Choices, Values, and Frames.)
What Misbehaving adds to that work is a fun, chatty, gossipy attitude — as when Thaler snarks that “At this workshop, [John More Guns, Less Crime] Lott was present and looking annoyed, so I hoped he was not packing a gun,” or when Thaler quotes Bob Solow on Richard Posner: “Posner evidently writes the way other men breathe.” And there are plenty of bits of theory in Misbehaving to make it worthwhile on that basis alone — e.g., this succinct explanation of why stock prices are supposed to reflect the net present value of all future dividend streams: