Archive | October, 2014

Review of Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests That History Forgot, by Joseph Cummins

21 Oct

I certainly don’t know everything about American history, but it is unusual that I encounter books on some topics in our nation’s past that truly reveal completely new information. I recently stumbled upon a book chronicling events leading to the American Revolution that did just that, however. Joseph Cummins’ slim volume, Ten Tea Parties, provides an overview of ten protests over taxation of the American colonies by Great Britain—only one of which I or most readers probably knew anything about.


Even those without deep knowledge of American history have heard of the “Boston Tea Party,” the December 1773 rally in which local citizens demonstrated their objections to the acts of Parliament by destroying a large cargo of tea in Boston Harbor rather than submitting to a despised tax on the product. The event is largely recognized as a milestone event along the path to Revolution; a moment that rallied Americans to united resistance to what they perceived as tyranny by the haughty British government. Most are aware that the mob that threw trunkloads of tea into the bay helped inspire an unprecedented level of organized resistance throughout the colonies, but I bet few have contemplated how it figured into what was in actuality a widespread reaction against the taxation of tea specifically. Apparently, it wasn’t even really the first such action!

Cummins shows how popular tea was in colonial America, and how a favorite beverage became a “noxious weed” throughout the colonies as a symbol of perceived British oppression. None of the “taxation without representation” which offended the colonists so much struck home quite as effectively as taxes on tea and concurrent efforts to curtail widespread smuggling of the article into Atlantic seaports from Maine to Charleston. As Cummins demonstrates, what so famously happened in Boston was but one of many organized protests, which were waged by communities up and down the Atlantic seaboard. They varied greatly in size, scale, and method, but they all revolved around tea. One—the “Chestertown Tea Party,” is still commemorated today in what is clearly the largest annual such celebration in America. Who knew? Thanks goes to Joseph Cummins for revealing such an interesting story in such an intriguing little book.


Review of Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back, By Robert Penn Warren

10 Oct

A while back at a library book sale, for a quarter I picked up a copy of Robert Penn Warren’s long essay published in book form, Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980). I of course knew a good deal about Davis and a little about Warren, but nothing of the connection between the two. Turns out Warren, the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and poet, grew up in Guthrie, Kentucky, a short distance from the birthplace of the Confederate president. His book is a reflection on Davis’ place in the history of the community from which he hailed, written upon the occasion of the posthumous restoration of his citizenship by Congress in the 1970s.


The book is part personal memoir, as Warren opens the book with reminiscences on his youth and the stories told to him by his aging former Confederate grandfather. It is part commentary on the life and career of Jefferson Davis, the at once respected and loathed president of the Confederacy who has seemed to most historians to have come up short of the greatness the Southern nation needed in its political leader. It is also part critique of historical memory, evaluating the seemingly forced veneration of Davis in the form of the lackluster commemorative efforts on the occasion of the restoration of his citizenship and of course the enormous monument which marks his birthplace so near Warren’s own.

Warren witnessed the 351-foot high concrete obelisk (Jefferson Davis Monument Historic Site in Fairview, KY) being built as a child, and it is that monument that serves as the backdrop for his entire story. He has clear sympathy for Davis as a devoted and virtuous but limited man positively incapable of ever becoming the type of leader his counterpart Abraham Lincoln became. He observes with candor the antipathy with the great majority of people even in Davis’ hometown seemed to view his controversial and complex legacy, characterized by neither love nor hate but rather mere recognition of the name. Warren finds in that something unmistakably sad but characteristic about our relationship with the past. One might say the same about many people, places, and events across this nation.


Review of Tennesseans at War, 1812-1815: Andrew Jackson, The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, by Tom Kanon

7 Oct

Thankfully, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the first Creek War has spurred the publication of several works detailing the actions of these important, though lesser known conflicts. This scholarship as a whole has not necessarily furthered our understanding of the period to a significant degree, however. Nevertheless, we were both excited to hear that long-time Tennessee archivist and historian Tom Kanon was going to add to this list of new scholarship with a book chronicling the activities of Volunteer State soldiers during these years. As an employee of the Tennessee State Archives, Kanon has been researching this topic for years and had already produced many solid articles on the subject and we anxiously awaited his book with hopes of gaining new insight. Kanon does provide a solid and comprehensive overview of these years in Tennesseans at War. But, like so much that has appeared recently, we are not sure that those with a basic understanding of the War of 1812 will really learn very much that is new or gain any new perspectives from the publication.


Kanon starts by setting the scene in Tennessee and the surrounding area prior to the war and providing background information of the conflicts to come. He does a thorough job at this; in fact, perhaps too good. It seems to take while for the reader to get to the conflicts themselves in a relatively small book. (For instance, Tennessee troops are not issued orders to rendezvous after the war-opening assault on Fort Mims until page 71 of a 200 page book.) We do want to complement him on the excellent job he does providing an overview of the complexities of the situation within the Creek nation at the onset of war; a confusing subject to many readers (us included) and he handles it with ease. He also delineates who, why, and under what conditions the Tennessee troops who played such a pivotal role in the war fought better than most other Creek War studies.

Kanon then proceeds to outline the campaigns, battles, and difficulties of the Tennessee troops encountered as they attempted to crush the Red Stick rebellion. The narrative moves quickly, as each battle (with the exception of Horseshoe Bend) is discussed in overview, even cursory, fashion. Those familiar with the topic will note that although Kanon may be the single person most familiar with the surviving documentary sources from the campaigns of Tennessee soldiers during the Creek War, there is really nothing new in his account. Perhaps that is not a failing as much as a commentary on the state of scholarship about the war. Generations of scholars have evaluated its relatively sparse documentary trail and developed a generally accepted narrative for most of the major events that occurred during the conflict. We certainly don’t know everything, but we may have found as much as we are likely to know about many aspects of the Creek War. About all we probably can expect most scholars to do is produce a well-written narrative arranging a series of established facts. With all that said, it is curious that one of the most interesting stories associated with Jackson and the war—his supposed adoption of a Creek child named Lyncoya—goes unmentioned.

Upon reflection it may come as no surprise that the participation of Tennessee soldiers in the campaign for New Orleans in late 1814 and early 1815 receives so much of Kanon’s attention. There seems to simply be more material from which to draw. Indeed, his discussion of this action begins just past the midway point of the book. He analyzes every detail of the several fights which culminated in Jackson’s triumphant victory on January 8, 1815, at times making the second half of the book stand in remarkable contrast to the first. The result is one of the better accounts of the Battle for New Orleans, but one understandably focused on its Tennessee participants. Kanon concludes the book with an insightful analysis of what the Creek War and the War of 1812 ultimately meant for Tennessee and the nation, both in terms of individuals and regional destiny which probably speaks to his deep knowledge of the events and era as well or better than the great majority of the rest of the book.

In final analysis, Kanon’s book is a must-have for those few devoted afficiendos of the Creek War and the War of 1812 who, if they so choose, can realistically attempt to obtain every worthwhile volume written on this long-overlooked subject. It will certainly be of interest to those who study the history of Tennessee, and it does well in achieving its stated goal of discussing the wars “through the words and actions of those Tennesseans…who lived through that period” (7). It will not in any regard replace older, more comprehensive works on the subjects it features by authors such as Owsley and Remini.