May 9, 2013
Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention, but my impression is that the War of 1812 didn’t get much air time when I was in elementary and high school. Where American history was concerned, as I recall, it was all about the Revolution and the Civil War. It took me a while to catch up; it was relatively recently that I caught on that the War of 1812 was, in effect, a continuation of the Revolution.
Among the things I didn’t know about the war was that black men, free and slave, fought on both the American and British sides and also on behalf of the Spanish authorities who were futilely trying to hang onto the Florida territories. Gene Allen Smith, a history professor at Texas Christian University, covers that in detail in his book The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812.
An important aspect of this story is that the British, strapped for resources because their government was fighting what turned out to be the decisive war with Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe, encouraged American slaves to bolt from their masters and either emigrate to a British possession — notably Nova Scotia — or enlist in military service. Either way, the British promised the slaves their freedom.
Besides filling their ranks, the British saw this strategy as a means of undermining the Southern economy. The number of slaves who took advantage of the opportunity was slight compared to the million-plus who were in bondage at that time, but the fact that the British were welcoming slaves sent shock waves through the South, where white people always feared a slave rebellion.
Although this is a story about a war fought on many fronts over three years, Smith puts a human face on it by providing anecotes about particular black men who played a part in the epoch.
One example was George Roberts, a free Marylander who served during the war on numerous American privateers — private vessels that harassed and even seized British shipping on the U.S. government’s behalf. Another was Jordan B. Noble, who was born a mixed-race slave in 1800 and joined the 7th U.S. Regiment as a drummer in 1813. He served in the Battle of New Orleans and later took part in the Mexican, Seminole, and Civil wars.
A sad if not surprising episode in this history concerned Andrew Jackson, who recruited slaves to help in protecting New Orleans from a British attack. Jackson promised to free the slaves in return for their service, but, Smith writes, never intended to do so. Jackson, according to the author, “committed them to his cause rather than permitting them to assist the British, and this tied them to the United States.”
Allen explains that, once the war was over, the impact of the British strategy had the unintended effect of strengthening the plantation system in the South and opening new territory — namely, what had been the Spanish Floridas—to slavery. In general, the competence and bravery black soldiers and sailors contributed to the American cause during the War of 1812 was not adequately rewarded. On the contrary, some of the worst experiences for black people in the United States were yet to come.
November 22, 2012
When we took a bus tour of London many years ago, the guide pointed out that all the iron work outside the apartment windows was painted black. She said this practice dated to the reign of Queen Victoria, who was so distraught by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, that she called for the paint job as a sign of mourning. That sounded a little hokey to me, but it made a good story.
Victoria’s mourning for Albert, who died in 1861, was no joke, however. The queen was plunged into a lengthy state of depression, and lived a comparatively isolated life for a British monarch, although surrounded by her children and official household. One person who managed to pierce the shell around the queen was John Brown, a Scottish servant. Their relationship is the subject of the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown,” which stars Judy Dench as Victoria and Billy Connolly as Brown.
The queen had retired to Balmoral Castle after her husband’s death, and Brown — who had a long-standing association with the family — was sent there principally to care for her pony and accompany her when she chose to ride.
From the start, Brown showed the queen none of the truckling deference she was accustomed to. In fact he spoke to her rather bluntly, addressing her as “woman,” and said exactly what was on his mind. This appealed to Victoria, and she started to rely more and more on Brown’s advice, and he more and more took control of the affairs of the castle, and particularly of anything that had to do with the comings and goings of the queen.
This development along with Brown’s abrupt personality and penchant for drinking irritated pretty much everyone else in the household, especially Albert Edward, the prince of Wales, the queen’s son and later King Edward VII. Meanwhile, there was mounting pressure for Victoria to become more visible to her subjects — pressure that included a movement in Parliament to deinstitutionalize the monarchy. At first Brown supported the queen in her resistance to this pressure, but his change of heart on the matter led to a crisis in their relationship.
To what extent, if any, there was a romance between Victoria and John Brown is still a matter of conjecture. Certainly folks at the time thought there was something afoot, and that’s why the queen was derisively referred to as “Mrs. Brown.”
Although certain aspects of the story are fictionalized in this account, the movie basically portrays real events. The film was made by the BBC for television, but instead it was released as a theatrical property and made a lot of money. The performances, including Anthony Sher’s turn as a foppish Benjamin Disraeli, are outstanding. Judi Dench won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar.
July 4, 2012
The story of Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn is widely known in its broad essentials. But such a thing as the divorce and remarriage of a king of England is not simply done — particularly when the nuptial rearrangement is frowned upon by the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
Henry’s decision to put aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne Boleyn came at the dawn of the Renaissance when the political life of Europe could not have been more complicated. It was that complexity rather than any such goal on Henry’s part that protracted and inflamed the matter to the point that it resulted in a permanent breach between the English crown and the papacy and, of course, the founding of what we know as the Church of England.
In her history, “The Divorce of Henry VIII,” Catherine Fletcher puts Henry’s case in the context of Europe in the mid 16th century in terms of both the shifting relationships among kingdoms and other political entities and in terms of the swarm of diplomatic agents who scurried around the continent eavesdropping, spying, stealing, bribing, kidnapping, crossing and double crossing, and often living the high life that went along with representing a monarch.
In fact, the author tells the story largely in terms of these last, these “diplomats,” with particular attention to Gregorio Casali, a native of Rome who represented Henry at the papal court when the divorce issue began to brew. Fletcher, who seems to have done a lot of detective work to trace the activities of this relatively obscure character, explains that it was not unusual in Europe in that era for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors for countries other than their native land. In fact, she writes, it wasn’t unusual for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors to more than one crowned head at a time. This kind of activity was an industry in itself — a family business for the Casali clan that included Gregorio and several siblings who pursued the same career.
Because of the slow pace of communications, envoys working at a distance from their patrons were often given wide latitude in the conduct of their offices; particularly while Cardinal Wolsey was Henry’s chancellor, Gregorio often acted on his own when the circumstances seemed to demand it. On the other hand, in the days before electronic cash transfers, people in Gregorio’s line of work frequently had to shell out their own cash to keep up appearances or even to keep eating and hope that the payments due would be forthcoming. And these diplomats, as it were, had their work cut out for them, what with the constant warfare in Europe and the resulting ebb and flow of military and political power. Gregorio’s course in representing Henry before the pope wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Catherine of Aragon was the emperor’s niece. When the issue of a divorce first arose, the pope and the emperor were seriously at odds, which theoretically weighed in Henry’s favor in the Vatican, but while the matter dragged on, Clement and the emperor made peace. And that complication was superimposed on many other considerations involving the major powers in Europe and the many states, including the papal ones, that made up what is now Italy.
The question Henry raised was tricky. He had married Catherine in the first place with a papal dispensation because she was the widow of his brother. But in his frustration over Catherine’s failure to provide a male heir, and in his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, Henry now decided that the marriage to Catherine was null because it conflicted with a principle stated in the Book of Leviticus, and he wanted the pope to say so. Clement had to deal with both the philosophical and moral issues raised by that request and balance his decision against what effect it would have on his position in the grand scheme of European politics. For most of the six years that Henry’s campaign went on, Clement stalled.
As Henry became more and more impatient and less and less concerned about the authority of the pope, Gregorio’s position became increasingly tenuous. But that seemed to be an almost inevitable experience for those who wanted to play in the high stakes games Fletcher describes in this book.
February 19, 2010
I was working in the faculty room yesterday when one of the instructors asked the open air, “Does anyone know anything about Newtonian physics?” I told him his question was coincidental, because I had just finished reading a book about Isaac Newton, the 17th century physicist, mathematician, and natural philosopher.
I think I correctly answered my colleague’s question, which had to do with Newton’s Second Law of Motion: “A change in motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed.” But while the book I just read explained the achievements for which Newton is still regarded as one of the greatest of geniuses, its purpose is to recount the work of his later life, when he was warden of the Royal Mint — and particularly the relentless detective work with which he brought to justice Britain’s most brazen counterfeiter.
Newton did his signature scientific work at Trinity College in Cambridge, but he lobbied friends for many years to get him a political appointment in London. It finally came in the form of position at the mint, which made the silver coins that were Britain’s only hard currency at the time. When Newton arrived at his office in the Tower of London, the kingdom’s economy was on the verge of collapse, partly because of expensive military operations undertaken by William of Orange and partly because the royal currency was, in a word, disappearing. An old issue of coins was being degraded by so-called “clippers” who shaved bits of silver from the money to be melted down and sold. Meanwhile British silver was leaving the country altogether because it was worth more in exchange for gold in other countries than it was in exchange for commodities in England. The result was a bull market for counterfeiters, including the audacious and dangerous William Chaloner.
Newton’s predecessors as warden of the mint had not taken the job seriously except as a source of income, and that was expected of Newton, too. But he applied to the mint the same combination of energy and curiosity that had fueled his discoveries in fields like gravity and the behavior of light and his development of the mathematical system known as the calculus.
First, Newton took control of a program already underway when he arrived – the recall and replacement of all British coins then in circulation. This project was limping along when Newton took over, and he put the means in place to accelerate it and get the job done in a fraction of the projected time. Then he turned his attention to the counterfeiters, employing a network of spies and informers and counter-agents and double crossers to gather information and pounce on “coiners” – eventually including Chaloner, whose career as a counterfeiter had had its ups and downs.
Like most such scoundrels, Chaloner made his share of mistakes, and one of them was to publicly claim that the heart of the nation’s counterfeiting problem was in the mint itself, and imply that Newton’s incompetence was partly to blame. Don’t knock the Rock. Newton went after Chaloner with a vengeance, spending hundreds of hours personally interrogating people who could help build a case against the fraud. Chaloner had been in and out of prison several times and had dodged the noose that was reserved for counterfeiters, whom British law regarded as traitors. In Newton, he had met his match and – ultimately – his maker.
“Newton and the Counterfeiter,” both informative and entertaining, was written by Thomas Levenson, who is a professor of science writing at MIT.
A topic that Levenson discusses throughout this book – in fact, it’s an important thread that runs through all of Newton’s activities – is Newton’s search for contact with God. In fact, Levenson reports that religious matters became the preoccupation of Newton’s life when he had put most scientific inquiry behind him. I discussed that aspect of the book in a column in the Catholic Spirit, and it’s available at THIS LINK.
June 3, 2009
Andy Burnham, the British culture secretary, wants the Office of Communications to investigate whether the television network and the producers of “Britain’s Got Talent” had acted responsibly toward Susan Boyle in the runup to the show’s finals. The implication is that the people behind the show that vaulted Boyle from the obscurity of a Scottish village to the limelight of YouTube should have done a better job of protecting her from the effects of sudden fame.
Burnham made reference to Britain’s broadcast code when he called for a determination that “duty of care” had been exercised with respect to Susan Boyle, who was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion after coming in second in the show’s finals. The Office of Communications doesn’t think the broadcast code covers what happened to Boyle, but Burnham said: “We are living in a world where it is not just about what happens on telly on a Saturday night. There is 360 degree scrutiny, 365 days a year. We need to look after people, not just around the camera. Broadcasters should always put people’s welfare first.”
This has prompted some bitter responses from readers of The Times of London, some sympathetic to Susan Boyle, some not. Some of the readers were outraged that the government would even think of becoming involved in a trivial, private matter. I liked the comment from Al of Manchester:
The UK is full of cruel people feasting on a diet of bile soaked Tabloid fodder and Reality TV trash. First they jeered and sneered at Susan for not looking like a singer and now they do the same because she not “tough enough to take it”. What a sad place and sad people we’ve become.
And Jessica of Eastbourne:
Can I just say that “they” did not treat Susan any differently than any of the other contestants. Susan was a victim of the throwaway celebrity culture that the UK and the US fawn over so much. If anyone “threw her away” it was the public, and the show’s producers are not as much to blame as we are.
What I loved about the reporting of this story is that after the universal handwringing and public penance over the snickering and eye-rolling when Susan Boyle first appeared on the show, the media couldn’t mention her without pointing out how “dowdy” she is, how unlikely a celebrity she is, or without calling attention again to the fact that she is a “virgin” who has “never been kissed.”
Pretty soon, Americans visiting London will be able to stop by to see how Ronald Reagan is making out on his pedestal. An ten-foot bronze statue of the fortieth president of these United States will be erected on a six-foot stone plinth outside the United States Embassy in London. To make this possible, local authorities had to set aside a policy under which a person must be dead for ten years before being memorialized with a statue. Apparently there is a strain of skepticism in the British, but for this purpose they’re willing to concede that Reagan is not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. At the very least, Reagan will provide some company for Dwight Eisenhower, whose effigy stands nearby.
This is the work of disciples of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who simplified modern world history for generations of students by declaring that Reagan had single-handedly toppled the Soviet Union. U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle, who was George W. Bush’s appointee, was said to have enthusiastically supported the idea before he left office in January, turning the embassy over to a diplomatic staff of the Obama stripe. When the current personnel were asked what would happen to Dutch when the embassy is removed to new quarters south of the Thames, they replied that they didn’t know, because “it isn’t our statue.”
There is no unanimity among the British about this development. David Boothroyd, a Labour member of the local committee that waived the “sincerely dead” rule, voted in the affirmative, remarking that “you have to set aside your personal politics when you have a person of global importance like Ronald Reagan.” A little further to the left, the Green party chair of the local committee said, “What a ridiculous person to put on top of a monument. … It would be the same as putting up a statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Will they do that next?”