Endorsement Deals

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

If it's not already apparent, I think Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought is incredible. It's interesting to think about Howe's book in comparison to Battle Cry of Freedom. Battle Cry makes it utterly impossible for anyone to claim the Civil War really wasn't about slavery. It is the utter destruction of The Lost Cause--and then a history of the Civil War to boot. And it's all done in one volume. Incredible.

What Hath God Wrought is, if this makes sense, almost a continuation of the attack against the Lost Cause. Walker demonstrates that slavery did not simply precipitate the Civil War, it dominated politics in the first half of the 19th century, playing a hand in matters as diverse as Clay's American System to the Trail of Tears. I got a great kick out of reading about the Nullification Crisis. Lost Causers will frequently, and always vaguely, point to "tariffs and taxes" as the actual cause of the Civil War--or rather as a complementing one. Of course Howe digs into the precise nature of what the South didn't want taxed, and what tariffs they objected to. Of course, he comes up covered in cotton. Northerners wanted to tax the daylights out of cotton picked by slaves. The planter class, particularly in South Carolina, objected. To be clear Northerners were not solely, or even especially, moved by moral reasons. But my point is this--Even the alternative explanation of Lost Causers is rooted in slavery.

Beyond that, Howe's greatest success, for me at least, is how he produces a clear and lucid multicultural history of America. So the nascent feminists are fighting for the Cherokee, the Cherokee have black slaves, the black slaves are joining the Seminoles to fight Jackson in Florida, the black freemen are fighting with Jackson against the English. And so on. It really feels like an improvement on Howard Zinn's approach in A People's History Of The United States. Much less didactic. Much more nuanced, And also a more coherent sense of what the word "People" actually means. There is no sense that the "People" are an unalloyed force for good.

I will always appreciate Zinn for giving me a broader sense of the country and its struggles. But, in my lonely estimation, as I got older, I find A People's History more and more problematic.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/08/endorsement-deals/61847/