I first read James McPherson's classic history of the Civil War era when I was in high school. At the time I had a pretty callow understanding of history; because of this, while I took a lot from McPherson's book, many of his arguments and details went largely unappreciated. In the years that followed his book remained on my shelf as a valued resource that I drew from, even as I moved on to more focused studies about the period. Recently, however, a friend's request brought me back to the book for my first cover-to-cover reading of it in decades. This proved an extremely interesting experience, for several reasons.
Foremost among them was the opportunity to learn the things I had missed the first time around. I credit this to my maturity, as I have a far greater range of interests than my 17-year-old self ever did. This helped give me a deeper appreciation for McPherson's book, as I saw the balance and nuance he displayed on the numerous topics he addressed. I also found myself admiring even more so the fluidity of McPherson's presentation of the era and his ability to range from topic to topic in a way that never weakened my engagement with the text.
Yet for all of the book's strengths and my increased admiration for them, I also saw flaws that I missed the first time through. Foremost among them is McPherson's scope, for as brilliantly as he covers the lead up to the Civil War and the war itself, this remains his predominant focus. Other subjects relevant to the era, such as cultural developments, are ignored so long as they are irrelevant to his focus on the war and the events leading up to it, making his book less comprehensive than some of the others in the series. Another is the increasingly dated nature of the text. Unlike Robert Middlekauf with his volume on the Revolutionary era, McPherson has stated before that he has little interest in updating his work. Though his decision is understandable in some respects, the absence of the considerable amount of Civil War historiography that has been published over the past three decades erodes its value and will continue to do so as time went along.
Because of this, I finished McPherson's book with an appreciation both renewed and more tempered than before. While it remains the single best book on its subject, it is one that is showing its age. I expect that I will turn to it again in the years to come, but when I do it will be an awareness that it no longer can serve as the solitary go-to source for understanding this pivotal era of American history.
The presidential election of 1840 in America was a notable one for a number of reasons. Not the least of these was its result, as it was the first election in which the nominee of the Whig Party, William Henry Harrison, triumphed by defeating his Democratic opponent, incumbent president Martin Van Buren. Though this was the product of a variety of factors, foremost among them was the Whig's perfection of electioneering techniques that had emerged over the previous sixteen years, the employment of which served in many ways as a model for presidential campaigns down to the present day. In this book Mark Cheathem describes the evolution of presidential campaigning during the antebellum era, showing how these techniques emerged and how they framed the contests for the growing number of Americans voting in national elections.
As Cheathem explains, the development of presidential campaigning was a relatively recent phenomenon. With George Washington as a consensus choice, the nascent political parties did not even confront the problem of electing candidates until the third election in 1796. Even then, elections took place in a very different context, with the electoral college delegates chosen by their state's legislatures rather than in a popular vote. This changed in the 1820s as popular democracy was expanded, a development intertwined with the emergence of the "second party system" in the aftermath of the presidential election of 1824.
With the new parties now needing to appeal to this growing pool of voters they began to develop a range of electioneering devices. Here Cheathem details the emergence of a variety of tools in print, music, and visual culture that sought to promote a chosen candidate and undermine their opponent. As the dominant mass media of their time newspapers were at the forefront of this, often serving as the most direct means for candidates to reach out to their supporters across long distances. But the songs and displays at rallies also emerged as important implements for campaigns to rally voters to support their man. Cheathem also details the growing role women played in this process, as the contemporary views about their role as moral guardians proved a valuable asset in political campaigns.
Cheathem describes this in a brisk narrative that demonstrates a command of both the campaign material of the era and the secondary source literature on his subject. By weaving into this a succinct narrative of the presidential politics of the time, he provide a useful background to the issues touched upon in the campaign materials he describes. All of this is presented in a fluid text that provides its readers with a clear presentation of the era and makes a convincing argument about the development of presidential campaigning in the era. The result is a book that everybody interested in American politics should read, both for the understanding it provides in the development of modern electioneering, both for better and for worse.
Given the erosion of organized labor in America today, it can be difficult to conceive that there was a time when labor leaders were national figures who exerted considerable economic and political influence. Perhaps the best example of this was John L. Lewis. As president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) for four decades, he led a union which played a critical role in the American economy, while his differences with the American Federation of Labor led him to disaffiliate from the body and create the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) instead, which played a leading role in organizing industrial unions in the late 1930s. Such was his stature that at his height people spoke of him as a potential president of the United States.
Such a figure deserves a well-researched and penetrating biography, which is what Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine have provided. Theirs is a rigorous account of Lewis's life, beginning with his early life in Iowa, through his initial work as a labor organizer, to his ascent to the presidency of the UMW in 1920 and his long struggles on behalf of his workers. Lewis became president of a union at a time when many workers were drawn to the appeal of socialism and communism. Lewis asserted his control of the union to suppress radicals, cementing his position over the course of the 1920s. While his dictatorial approach engendered criticism from other UMW leaders, by the end of the decade his dominance of the union was complete.
Yet Lewis's personal triumph contrasted sharply with the state of his union. Despite the modest successes they enjoyed early in his tenure, the UMW was declining well before the Great Depression inflicted even greater poverty on thousands of miners. Yet President Franklin Roosevelt's administration gave unionization efforts a new life. A committed Republican, Lewis nonetheless supported Roosevelt's early New Deal, and sought to make the most of the opportunity provided by the administration to strengthen organized labor in the country. As the authors demonstrate, Lewis's efforts contributed greatly to the organization of workers in the steel and automobile industries during this period, though in the end Lewis found himself unable to work harmoniously with his counterparts in the CIO and he broke with the organization over the CIO's support for Roosevelt's bid for a third term as president.
Lewis spent the remaining two decades of his presidency denouncing the federal government's presence in labor relations and continuing his fight for the members of his union. Even after his retirement in 1960 he enjoyed an enormous degree respect from the UMW's rank-and-file members until his death, as well as a legendary reputation afterward. Reading Dubofsky and Van Tine's book give readers an appreciation as to how he earned it. Their detailed study recounts the numerous battles he fought on the behalf of his members to a degree that can be exhausting but which together provide a thorough understanding of his actions as their leader. By the end of the book it is difficult not to be impressed with all that he accomplished, particularly given the broader problems facing the coal industry at the time (ones which provide a valuable context for many of the issues facing it today). Because of this, Dubofsky and Van Tine's book is essential reading for anyone seeking to learn about Lewis, his impact upon the country, and the history of the American coal industry — and, thanks to their labors, it is one unlikely to be bettered as a study of their subject.