Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: How the war with Mexico to annex Texas (and more territory) drove James K. Polk to the presidency, and then dragged him down, told through the personal stories of James and Sarah Polk, the end of Henry Clay’s career, and the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s, with a bit from the Nicholas Trist, the man who negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago after he’d already been recalled by a jealous and distrustful Polk.
David Carr, The Night of the Gun: Carr’s autobiography telling the story of his long history of addiction and shorter history of recovery, done as what he remembers plus investigation that he did as if he were reporting a story—which reveals a lot of things that he didn’t remember correctly, such as who exactly was holding a gun on one important night. He eventually took custody of his twins, born prematurely when both parents were addicted to crack and nearly incapable of taking care of themselves, much less babies. It’s beautifully written, and it has the messiness of life—his redemption story is about getting himself together to take care of his kids, and that is powerful, and yet when he relapses he drives drunk while they’re in the car. He achieves what seems like objectivity about his own history, including the parts he can’t remember, though I wish he’d talked a bit more about how he felt about all this, including about baring his lowest points for inspection.
David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Tracing four American folkways from the English settlers who first established them, Fisher argues that many practices we now deem characteristically American were actually transplants from English cultures, preserved in immigrants’ practices longer than they survived in the mother country. He covers the Puritans, Virginia Cavaliers and the poorer people they brought along, the Quakers, and the Scotch-Irish back-country folks. It’s hard not to see the Quakers coming off best here—the Cavaliers and the back-country traditions involve a lot of violence and indifference to education/fetishization of hierarchy, and the Puritans are really protective if you’re one of them and really not if you’re not. A fascinating read. Whether Fisher’s repeated claims that “these practices persist today almost unchanged” are true, however, seems a bit dubious, though it is probably worth noting that Puritan Massachusetts kept trying to punish people for reading porn long into the twentieth century, after most of the country had given up.
John A. Fliter & Derek S. Hoff, Fighting Foreclosure: The Blaisdell Case, the Contract Clause, and the Great Depression: An aspect of constitutional history I didn’t know much about. There was a period when the Contract Clause—forbidding states from “impairing” the obligations of contracts—was used to strike down a lot of state legislation, including attempts to provided debtors some relief during the country’s recurrent financial crises. Since one key reason the Contract Clause is in the Constitution was to stop pro-debtor, anti-creditor state policies, that would seem to make sense, but in 1937, the Supreme Court approved a short-term moratorium on foreclosures allowing people to stay on their properties as long as they petitioned the court for it and paid a court-ordered amount during the process. The Court, 5-4, ruled that emergencies justified the use of the police power to limit the mortgage contract. I have to admit, I’m not sure I would have voted that way given the history of the provision, though I am attracted to the other distinctions that limited the scope of the Contract Clause—first, the state’s ability to change the legality of any contract provision prospectively, though not retroactively, and second, the state’s ability to change remedies, even if it couldn’t change rights (this second principle was also part of the defense of the Minnesota moratorium law). And I do see why the Contract Clause probably shouldn’t be taken as literally as Hugo Black would have taken it—otherwise, if private parties had contracted between themselves to supply a ton of heroin each month for two hundred years starting in 1800, the government couldn’t have made heroin illegal until 2000. But once you concede that, figuring out the limits is indeed difficult, as we get into the morass of the government’s police power. The book includes a survey of Contract Clause history to the present day, a detailed history of Minnesota politics focusing on the power of progressive/populist farmers, and a detailed account of the various legal arguments at issue. Here’s an incredible fact about the Depression: “Net cash income per Minnesota farm fell from $1,640 in 1918 to a low of $87 in 1932.”
Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones: I had no idea about this: during the Civil War, Newt Knight and a bunch of his neighbors in Jones County rejected the Confederacy and engaged in armed warfare against its representatives. Bynum tells the story, which involves lots of interrelated families, the white ones usually with both slave-owning and non-slave-owning branches which largely determined whether they supported the Confederacy. The recent film fictionalizes a lot of it, but not the basic facts, including Knight’s relationship with Rachel, an enslaved woman who was important to his armed struggle and to his personal life. The book and the film also bring in the later miscegenation trial of their grandson in which the Mississippi Supreme Court ultimately affirmed his “whiteness”—which even had an ironic consequence, in that children in the family were allowed to go to white segregated schools to prevent “integration” in the schools, even though the family was considered “black” by neighbors. The narrative is not one of the white hero, especially given that Newt Knight didn’t succeed in changing much as the Redeemers took over after Reconstruction, but his struggle against the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” is still very interesting. Bynum also emphasizes the contributions of women, who were fighting to preserve their own farms and homes.
In terms of understanding the historical record, she deals with two competing memoirs by Knight’s descendants, both of them written from the perspective of white Southerners but with very different views of Knight—the rabid segregationist tried to discredit him by foregrounding his interracial relationship, while the one who sung his praises ignored Rachel and focused on his military exploits. Bynum also explores how the story got retold as part of the Lost Cause—to white southerners, Knight and his men were just resistant to all authority, making them even more expressions of white southern manhood; whether Knight actually was a loyal Unionist was therefore a highly political question even decades later.
Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: Isenberg argues for the relevance of class in the US’s supposedly classless society, and certainly shows that white people aren’t generally satisfied with excluding nonwhites but also wish to make distinctions between good and bad types of white people. However, the work suffers from a failure to fully define what she means by “class.” Sometimes it appears to be economic; but then sometimes it’s about culture, since even the rough backwoods types who make tons of money stay culturally devalued. I did leave the book thinking that Andrew Jackson, the first “white trash” president, has a lot of similarities with Donald Trump—uninterested in learning; quick to anger; petty; and willing to kill a lot of people who didn’t look like him.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: I feel really bad about this, but unless this is the only book you’re going to read about race in America and you haven’t been following the news, there’s not a lot here that will make you stop in your tracks. It would have made a fantastic Atlantic article, but at book length ends up repetitive. Criminalizing poverty and blackness was a recuperative tactic for whites pretty much as soon as the Civil War ended, and it kicked into higher gear as explicit discrimination became more and more intolerable. Felons now can be subjected to lots of explicit discrimination, including exclusion from voting, and courts don’t allow challenges to racial targeting at pretty much any stage of the criminal justice system. Moreover, the fact that a few blacks will predictably make it through the gauntlet—look, we have a black president!—makes it easier for whites, and even many nonwhites, to believe that success or failure is a matter of individual choice and behavior, even though only some groups and neighborhoods are targeted for law enforcement scrutiny. There’s a conversation to be had here about this book compared with Isenberg’s White Trash, since one way poor whites get “paid” to vote against their own economic interests is through racial privilege; the more that fails, the less stable the cross-class alliance of white people is, and that’s pretty relevant to current politics.