Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: Unfinished Revolution by Sam W. Haynes

When I met with my adviser in the winter, there were several books he recommended I read to help narrow down my potential dissertation interests. For a while during the winter, I didn't have time to read them, and then once I had the time I kept hoping they would pop up at my local library. As much as I love the act of going to the library, it's not always the most practical. I love that it's free, but the holdings aren't too impressive. The fiction section is bigger, but most of the new releases or the really popular books (you know, the ones people tell you about and you really want to read) aren't available and have so many holds I wouldn't get my hands on it for months. The non-fiction section isn't bad either, but the biographies are very limited and so many of the books on my list apparently don't exist. Finally, after months of avoiding it, I bought the books used on Amazon. This book was one of my purchases, and while I am glad that I read it, it wasn't my favorite.

The part I did enjoy: the novelty of the topic (at least for me). I always enjoy reading books about topics which I am relatively uneducated about. I guess it's sort of a bittersweet thing actually, because it makes me feel like I have so much work left to do and goals to accomplish. But generally, I love learning new things and the opportunity to do so brings me great excitement. I also really liked the author's writing style. It was infused with details, interesting stores and tidbits about fascinating characters. That's pretty much where my enjoyment ended.

Technicalities first- I found the organization of the book to be confusing and counterproductive to the author's argument. The author chose to organize the book by topics. The book is about the often contentious relationship between Great Britain and the United States after the end of the War of 1812 up until the end of the war with Mexico. Each chapter focuses on a different area of contention between the two nations and their citizens. For example, Chapter 3 is about the relationship between the English and American literary communities and Chapter 7 is about the power and influence of the English banks and financial institutions upon the American public and economy. The idea behind this configuration was to focus on each aspect of society and how fears about the British Goliath permeated every part of American life. I believe the author was attempting to show how each event played and built upon the fears of the American people that Great Britain was attempting to reconquer or destroy the United States. The problem with this system of organization is that it isn't chronological. Granted, the chapters were roughly in order- really rough. But, as a result, it was hard to keep track when I was reading Chapter 9, exactly which events in Chapter 2 had already happened and which were yet to occur. This complaint wasn't purely about preference either, it really undermined the strength of the argument.

Another nit-picky thing. Almost every time the author was talking about slavery, he called it "the peculiar institution". I recognize that the term was used by many contemporaries who struggled with how to deal with slavery and at times I think the phrase is appropriate, but it was a bit much. Not only does it get redundant and bit annoying, it began to feel like the author was uncomfortable with the word slave. As awful as the history is, I think trying to sugar coat the past and the reality of the situation doesn't help matters and is insulting.

Now on the substance of the book itself. While I appreciate the new approach to an old issue and I think a certain about of reinterpretation is necessary to keep pace with new facts, I do think the author overstated his argument. I do not disagree that there were bitter feelings that lingered long after the end of the second war between the U.S and Great Britain, how could there not have been? But to suggest the entire country was consumed by a fear that the British were constantly plotting to take down, take over and embarrass America isn't thoroughly backed by evidence in my opinion. I believe the author takes examples of individuals who had a particularly strong dislike and distrust of the British and ascribes their feelings to the whole of society. One of the author's main arguments is that politicians frequently accused their enemy of acting as a British agent or possessing strong emotional attachments. I don't deny these accusations were frequent, among all sorts of enemies and especially politicians, but I wonder if these insults were simply intended as just that? The author writes in great detail about Francis Trollope, a British woman who wrote a wildly popular account of her time in the United States. She became famous for her extremely harsh opinion of Americans and their new country. When we refer to women today as trollops, we are not actually saying that they posses similar opinions to those of Francis and that they hate the United States, but rather we are using a term that has become part of our common language. I would propose that perhaps people called their enemies Tories or accused them of Anglophilia not because they had fear of and resentment towards Great Britain and sought to accuse their enemies of acting in cahoots, but rather because it was their custom. Of course, my skepticism is not based on intense research like the author's, so I would not dare to state my opinions as fact, but it does give me reason to question his findings.

Furthermore, there were times that I felt like the author was twisting facts to suit his case. In Chapter 10, the author discusses the annexation of Texas and the battle it caused between Whigs and Democracy, abolitionists and slavery supporters, and the North and South. During the heated debate, Southern states had argued that Texas needed to be annexed to prevent it from falling into the hands of Great Britain, who would use the territory to encircle the U.S. and close markets, etc. After the issue was decided and Texas became part of the U.S., the author discusses William Lloyd Garrison's disappointment. Garrison believed that advocates of annexation had introduced the threat of Great Britain  as a way to deflect attention from the real issue: the desire of the slave power to expand into Texas and further West. The author argues that the widespread fears of British interference were what caused so many states to eventually support annexation. But my question is, if that was such a big issue to begin with, why did people believe it was being used as a smoke screen to cover slavery? The definition of smoke screen is that it isn't a central issue at all. To me that simply doesn't add up.

Needless to say, I wasn't really convinced by the author's argument. Many of his points were valid, interesting and excellent contributions to the scholarly discussion, but I think on some others, he overreached. That being said, I do not intend any disrespect. I admire his work and the time that it takes anyone to put together a well-thought out and researched piece. I simply don't agree with a lot of what he had to say. Anyway, it was an interesting read and certainly worth my time.

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