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Search tags: 19th-century-American-history
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review 2017-09-06 18:45
The Sun and the Moon
The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York - Matthew Goodman

One morning in the late summer of 1835, New Yorkers woke up to read in the newspaper that the eminent British astronomer Sir John Herschel was in Capetown, in southern Africa, where he had invented a new type of telescope.  He had turned it to look at the moon, and made great discoveries; the moon possessed lakes and volcanoes, bipedal beavers, and man-bats worshiping at temples, among other wonders.


This was, of course, a hoax, but almost everyone in New York, and then a great many people in the United States generally, and many in Europe, believed it.  (Hershel complained in a letter to his Aunt Caroline that he had to answer letters in four languages asking about his great discoveries on the moon - he was quite apparently very fed up.)


The great hoax was the brain child of the New York Sun, the first "penny newspaper," which started publication in 1834.  Prior to that time, all of New York's papers cost six pennies a copy, and were aimed at the wealthier members of society, focusing their news on shipping reports and the stock market.  None of them had anything so ungenteel as a crime beat or police court reporters.  And none of them had a huge circulation.


And then there came The Sun.  It cost only a penny, which the vast majority of the city's population could afford to buy.  It was flacked by newsboys at every corner (something no established paper did).  And it already had a large circulation by the middle of 1835, buoyed by its innovation of crime reporting, and its coverage of the spectacular murder trial of a local religious guru, "Father Matthias."  It almost immediately started acquiring competitors, most notably James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald.


Bennett was one of the few in the city who immediately smelled a hoax.  The others seemed to be Edgar Allan Poe, who thought the Sun had ripped off one of his stories (and he was most indignant about it), and P.T. Barnum, who knew a good con when he saw one.  But few others smelled a rat, and The Sun soared in popularity to become the most read newspaper - certainly in the US, and probably on the planet.


The ironic thing is that Herschel was indeed at Capetown at the time - though he had not invented a new type of telescope, and was looking at pretty much everything except the moon!

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text 2016-05-13 17:58
U.S. Kindle Sale: Duel with the Devil
Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery - Paul Collins

Currently $1.99 for Kindle at Amazon: Duel with the Devil, by Paul Collins.  This is a true crime account from 1800 New York City, where accused carpenter Levi Weeks somehow managed to assemble America's first ever "dream team" of lawyers - led by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the two best lawyers in the city, and probably in the entire United States.  (An especially odd pair, as they loathed each other, and Burr would murder Hamilton in a duel in 1804.)

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review 2016-04-05 18:50
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War - Karen Abbott

I spent much of the last few days in bed, so it was a real treat to have a good book to read while I was there.  This was that book.


Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy looks at the lives of four women, who at one point or another played any or all of these roles, in the American Civil War.  (OK, only one, Emma Edmondson, was a soldier.)  Their individual stories show the general trend of women moving out of the house and their traditional limits on what was acceptable behavior, to take on all sorts of new roles, in their country's hour of need.


Who are the women?


Belle Boyd, the teenaged vamp of the Confederacy.  She shot a Yankee soldier in her mother's parlor at 17, and took off from there.  If this "Secesh Cleopatra" was for some reason not already the center of attention, she would do whatever it took to make her that.  Her chapters generally had me laughing my head off, at this Erica Kane in crinolines.


Rose O'Neal Greenhow, the Washington D.C. society matron.  A widow, she had been one of the queens of Washington social life before the war, and turned her ability to charm and flatter men to her, and the Confederacy's, advantage. 


Emma Edmondson, aka "Frank Thompson," a soldier of the 2nd Michigan.  She served as private, postman, and spy, and fought in several major battles.


Elizabeth Van Lew, better known as "Crazy Bet" to all of Richmond, Virginia.  She was a Unionist living in the wrong state when the war started, and ended up running one of the most important spy rings operating in the Confederacy.  Her protection: she was a member of a very rich and socially prominent family.


The writing didn't get in the way of the women's stories, and was very smooth.  Much recommended.

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review 2014-11-08 18:36
Empire of Liberty
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) - Gordon S. Wood

Solid examination of how the United States changed greatly from the signing of the Constitution in 1789, through the peace with Britain in 1815. 


The country was more religious and evangelical, more commercially driven, more litigious, and more divided over slavery in 1815 than it was in 1789.  Instead of being mentally oriented east towards Europe, Americans looked west over the rest of the continent (American and otherwise) with covetous eyes.  The size of the country doubled in the middle of the period, thanks to Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase.

And the war which put an end to the period, the War of 1812, is very probably the strangest war the U.S. has ever fought.  The same congress and president who were gung-ho for war (in the name of our national honor) refused to increase the size of army or navy, because standing armies are bad, m'kay?  The merchant navy and the militia could handle the world's largest navy and invade Canada.  Also embargoes of foreign trade fix everything.  It's astounding we managed to pull a draw out of it.


This book is a part of the Oxford History of the U.S., which is excellent, and recommended as a series.  (The next two books in the series, What Hath God Wrought and Battle Cry of Freedom, which take us through the end of the Civil War, are both excellentBattle Cry of Freedom is the best single-volume history of the U.S. Civil War that I've seen, hands down.)

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review 2014-10-31 18:29
America 1844, by John Bicknell
America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation - John Bicknell

My ARC courtesy of Chicago Review Press/Net Galley - much thanks!


This survey of what America was like, and what Americans were up to, in 1844 (an election year, and an important one) is broadly chronological, smoothly written, and sometimes very amusing.


President Tyler ("His Accidency") is trying to get re-elected, despite being quite aware both parties (Whigs and Democrats) hate him, offering his possible election rivals seats on the Supreme Court.  John Quincy Adams, no longer president, has retired to the U.S. House of Representatives, and is fighting the "gag rule" preventing the discussion of slavery by that body.  Andrew Jackson is also out of the White House but not retired from politics - his opinion will count for much in the election.  The Millerites think the world is coming to an end, and predict the Second Coming of Christ for both spring and fall.  Joseph Smith first runs for president, and is then assassinated.  Americans, professional explorers and otherwise, are heading west to Oregon and California, neither of which are part of the United States.


It's a very good coverage of an important year in U.S. history (1844 would elect James K. Polk, determine war with Mexico in the near future, and the expansion of both the U.S. and of slavery). It would probably be very interesting to read this back-to-back with Bernard DeVoto's excellent 1846: The Year of Decision, which takes a similar format.

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