Reading the News: The Civil War

So this week the White House chief of staff, in an apparent attempt to distract the nation from the fact that the president’s former campaign chairman had just been indicted for conspiracy against the United States, decided to speculate on the causes of the Civil War: namely, that the Civil War had arisen from a national failure to compromise. Oh my God, General Kelly, take a damn history class. Failing that, please read the books on this list.

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  • Property, by Valerie Martin. Among other things, this novel is a master class in inhabiting the voice of an unlikable character. Manon is a plantation owner’s wife who detests her slaves despite (and also because of) the fact that her husband treats them terribly. It can’t have been easy for Martin to write such an unsympathetic character, and Manon comes across as a real human being, if a terrible one. Why is Property on this particular list? Well, partly because Valerie Martin doesn’t get enough attention; but mostly because I think fiction can bring home the inhumanity of slavery in a way that a dispassionate history can’t.
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Chances are you’ve already read this book — it was the big literary novel of 2016. But it’s an important book because Whitehead forces the reader to confront the real brutalities of slavery. Yes, it’s fiction; but let’s remember that Whitehead drew his novels’s scenes from actual recorded incidents. Every time I thought, oh, this one can’t be real, a little digging revealed that it was an actual thing that had happened.
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed. A brilliant, meticulously researched history of Sally Hemings and her children by Thomas Jefferson. Long, but every word is worth reading. It’s a chronicle of one family that again illuminates what a peculiar and dehumanizing institution slavery really was.
  • Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, by Robert V. Remini. And now we turn from the evil institution that Kelly thinks we should have been compromising over, to the man who came up with a lot of the compromises. Henry Clay, literally known as the “Great Pacificator” for his ingenuity in keeping the North and South together. A fascinating account of his life and career as well as a window into the tumultuous years before the Civil War; it’s more accessible than you think it is.
  • President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, by William Lee Miller. At last, a book that is actually about the Civil War: specifically about the battle that Lincoln waged in his own soul between pragmatism and idealism. A fascinating look at the politics and, yes, the compromises of the Civil War.