Entries Tagged as 'history'

New Journal Sets Canadian History Right

David Frum July 2nd, 2011 at 2:32 am 21 Comments

Want a present for Canada Day? Get yourself a subscription to a magnificent new journal of history from a point of view that is distinctively Canadian, cheap thoroughly intelligent, and refreshingly non-left-wing.

The Dorchester Review debuted this week. Produced by a group that includes Chris Champion, John Robson, Ken Whyte and Rudyard Griffiths — names familiar to everyone who has followed Canada’s most important intellectual debates of the past three decades — the premier issue fills 112 thoughtful pages.

One of the most exciting articles in the journal is Chris Champion’s hanging, drawing, and quartering of John Ralston Saul’s book on the attainment of responsible government by the province of Canada in 1848. (Actually, Champion does not stop at the quartering: He incinerates the remains and then stamps on the dust.)

Champion first describes Saul’s thesis, then launches into this brutal rebuttal:

“What was it that prevented Canadian democracy and independence in Saul’s mid-century Canada? Apparently, it was the threat of being indiscriminately shot or bayonetted by British soldiers in the streets! ‘There were more than enough British regulars to do a professional job,’ Saul writes. ‘Properly lined up, opening fire in raking blasts, they could disperse mobs many times their own size. That, after all, is how empires are held.’ ”

To which Champion answers:

“It is true that shots were fired by soldiers in the Place d’Armes during the 1832 election. But they were fired to uphold, not suppress, democracy. As rioters menaced and rival mobs began chasing the candidates, troops were called in at the request of Canadian magistrates. The Riot Act was read in accordance with law. When soldiers opened fire, there were no ‘raking blasts,’ as Saul imagines, but one shot at a time under officers’ orders. Three rioters were killed. Still, once the votes were counted, it was the Patriot candidate endorsed by [Louis-Joseph] Papineau, an Irish immigrant named Daniel Tracey, who was declared the winner (though he would die of cholera before taking his seat).”

As for the tributes to Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie from romanticizing historians and publicists, Champion answers:

“Rebel defeat continues to be conflated with ‘British’ oppression. Joseph Graham in a recent issue of Canada’s History writes that ‘British forces suppressed the uprising.’ But local volunteers, mostly from Montreal’s English population (then in the majority), put down the rebels alongside British regulars. Far from an attempt to “throw off the colonial yoke,” as Graham states, 1837 in the eyes of contemporaries had more to do with preventing annexation to the United States. Mackenzie and Papineau were unsuccessful in part because they wrapped themselves in stars and stripes.”

Then, this climax:

“Saul’s real problem is writing as if the attainment of autonomous cabinet government was anti-British, somehow ‘a way out’ of empire. Apparently, the British empire ceased to exist after 1848 as far as Canada was concerned because La Fontaine and Baldwin ‘talked their way out of an empire.’ … But Canada did not extricate itself from anything in 1848 and had no desire to do so.”

The important thing to understand about 19th century Canada is that it was not a failed revolutionary state. It was a successful conservative state. The great achievement of Canadian history was precisely the achievement of self-rule within the context of institutional continuity.

(A funny anecdote that shows there are times when even the would-be revolutionaries understand this truth. A friend of mine encountered John Ralston Saul recently at an international literary gathering. Saul gave a talk in which he described Canada as having the world’s oldest continuous constitutional tradition. My friend approached and pointed out that the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789, well in advance of any Canadian constitutional framework. Saul replied, rather tartly, that the American constitutional tradition was interrupted by the American civil war, then added, “But of course Americans don’t like to talk about that.” My friend reported the story to me and added, “Americans don’t like to talk about the civil war? Has the man ever visited an American bookstore?”)

The issue also offers important essays by Conrad Black on the world war of 1754-1763; by Barbara Kay on the intellectual achievement of Norman Podhoretz; and Mathieu Bock-Coté on René Lévesque.

All in all: one of the most exciting intellectual projects Canada has seen in a long while. The Review needs and amply deserves readers, friends and (bills have to be paid!) supporters.

Take a look for yourself.

Originally published in the National Post.

Thought From Engelsberg

David Frum June 9th, 2011 at 10:17 am 5 Comments

The Engelsberg conference takes place in an elegant manor house adjoining the largely shuttered steelworks which made the fortune of the manor’s builders.

This year’s seminar topic is ideology and politics, and the discussion opened Thursday afternoon with an attempt to define “ideology” and set the term in historical context.

One discussant proposed a very restrictive definition: ideology is an inherently revolutionary project, an attempt to overthrow everyday arrangements in favor of a new politics that will transform society and human beings. If so, that definition raised in my mind this question: Was Shiite Islam the first ideology when it emerged more than a thousand years ago, promising that justice could be achieved on this earth if only the right rulers were installed?

“Gettysburg” Slips on the Small Screen

June 3rd, 2011 at 6:36 pm 5 Comments

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the opening hostilities of the Civil War, sales the History Channel is offering up a bevy of programming which kicked off Sunday with the two-hour documentary Gettysburg.  Executive produced by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, it offers a very personal account of the war taken from the perspective of the ‘boots on the ground’ so to speak who fought (and died) during those terrible first three days in July 1863.  As an unapologetic Civil War “buff” I was looking forward to this episode.  I was especially psyched as the Gettysburg campaign is my focus of study and I’ve walked the battlefield many times.  I wasn’t completely disappointed with the Scotts’ program… and yet there was much that was off.

First of all, about the show itself:  Gettysburg takes us through the three-day battle starting at around 9:00am on July 1, 1863 and then focuses on several key moments in the see-saw fighting that would ravage the town and the surrounding countryside, leaving 50,000 casualties in its wake.  It follows several men on the front lines, from foot soldiers to generals.  Some live, some die.  Each has a story to tell and we see the raw terror mixed with unimaginable bravery that such battles summoned.  It also shows the ghastly wounds that were a horrible consequence of modern weapons meeting the outdated line tactics of the day. The show is very good at showing this to be a savage affair indeed (including a graphic depiction of a Union soldier splitting a rebel’s skull with his rifle butt that had me cringing.)  If Gettysburg’s purpose was, as the History Channel’s website announces, to “strip away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light—a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience” then it does the job.

There were, however, disappointments that I really didn’t expect.  First is the heavy reliance on re-enactors despite the liberating aspect of modern CGI. (Perhaps budgetary constraints were in play here).  Re-enactors are great for replaying tiny segments of the battle, and the consultants must have paid particular attention to the grime and filth, even the tattered uniforms, so prevalent among un-bathed Civil War soldiers in the field.  But like the Turner feature film of the same name almost two decades earlier, the numerical limits of available play-actors means that these depictions are hopelessly under-populated.  According to the June 30 rolls, a combined 185,000 soldiers (105,000 Union, 80,000 Confederate) were in the area.  This means that massive infantry formations and rows of artillery lined hub to hub were engaged.  For example, the Confederate line of battle that assaulted the Union position on Herr’s Ridge at the very beginning of the still-developing fight was almost a mile wide.  (And that was just two brigades.  Three to five brigades made up a Confederate division, three divisions a corps, three corps made up the Army of Northern Virginia).  Indeed, Gettysburg was one of the few open field battles where entire mass formations were in plain view at once creating what one Alabama soldier described as “a grand panorama with the sounds of conflict added.”

Considering the Scotts’ involvement I was hoping for more CGI employed where we could actually see, for instance, what the rebel force of 12,000 men arrayed for battle in their doomed July 3rd assault must have looked like from the Union lines a mile away. Union Lieutenant Frank Haskel stood in awe on Cemetery Ridge as the rebel line approached, describing it as “an overwhelming, resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us!”  The personal angle of the documentary does create intense drama and poignant emotion, but it fails to impress upon the viewer the sheer enormity of this titanic battle that was the greatest ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.

I also tried to imagine watching Gettysburg from the perspective of one unfamiliar with the battle and I think I would have found it confusing.  For instance, there was little back-story explaining why Lee invaded the North in the first place, what the stakes were (other than that they were “high”), or why they ended up fighting at Gettysburg despite the fact that neither Lee nor Meade chose the field (other than a brief allusion to the roads coming together there).  Why were Lee’s plans upset?  Why had Meade only been in command for four days?  What caused the Union retreat on day one when it starts off depicting the victorious charge to the railroad cut by William Dawes’ 6th Wisconsin?  Also why focus just on Mississippi brigadier William Barksdale on the southern flank on July 2 (the bloodiest of the three days) without better explaining his part in the plan of attack?  Brave as he was, Barksdale was one brigade commander in an assault that employed twelve brigades. Honestly, if I didn’t know the battle, I would have been at a loss as to the big picture. It‘s almost as if the producers and historians, so caught up in enthusiasm for the project, forgot that most people don’t know the story of the battle in depth and could have used a general tutorial to go along with the individual experiences.  (They might have taken a page from the 1970s British WWII television series The World At War which perfectly balances strategic/tactical overviews with personal narratives).

Finally, the music really annoyed me after a while.  It was the same sort of soundtrack one hears in those cable channel ghost story documentaries.  Really.

Yeah, yeah maybe I’m nit-picking.  And who I am to second-guess such noted historian contributors as James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom) and others?  But I call ‘em like I see ‘em.  Gettysburg certainly does a remarkable job giving us a front row seat at this hemisphere’s biggest clash of arms and kudos on that score.  But if I didn’t already know the details of the battle, I would have come away thoroughly entertained but not necessarily educated.

Why the Industrial Revolution Hit Britain First

David Frum February 27th, 2011 at 2:47 am 27 Comments

Last month I (belatedly) read Gregory Clark’s, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

One of the key assertions in Clark’s important book is that the industrial revolution occurred in England after 1800 because the English underwent a gradual transformation of their behavior and manners in the period before 1800. Among other changes, the English became notably more peaceable in their daily interactions.

My current audiobook is James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Johnson was born in 1709, died in 1784. On the elliptical machine this morning, I heard this passage, Boswell quoting Johnson:

‘In the last age, when my mother lived in London, there were two sets of people, those who gave the wall, and those who took it; the peaceable and the quarrelsome. When I returned to Lichfield, after having been in London, my mother asked me, whether I was one of those who gave the wall, or those who took it. NOW it is fixed that every man keeps to the right; or, if one is taking the wall, another yields it; and it is never a dispute.’

“Taking the wall” refers to walking alongside the buildings on a street. That would be the desirable side because more protected from the dirt of the gutters. In the 17th century, the issue of who got that side was settled by the threat of force. By the time Boswell knew Johnson, the issue was settled by tacit agreement. Score one for the Clark thesis.