A TOUGH GO FOR AMERICAN CONSCIENCES

It was pointed out to me that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people who came before us.

How — why — they dressed and spoke and related to each other as people in their society. We are fuzzy about a lot of cultural material and mostly, we take our best guess as to what they were thinking as they lived from one day to the next in whatever capacity they lived it.

We have no clue about how our great-grandfather confessed his love to great-grandmother. We don’t know the words they used, or their tone of voice. We don’t know if their moment of passion happened at all. We don’t know because they left no evidence for us. They spoke differently, yet surely they held the same emotions we do — and we base all our fiction on that assumption. But of course, we could be entirely wrong. It’s just guesswork.

United States Slave Trade

On the other hand, we know precisely — anyone could know this because it’s easy material to find — that the people who drew up our Constitution precisely understood how deeply wrong slavery was. They knew — fully and completely — that failing to remove this horror would cause a war. A big war.

Many expressed gratitude they would not live to see it.


They knew right from wrong.


They spent agonizing hours, weeks, months and years writing about it. Discussing it. Keeping notes about what they said and what others said. They didn’t for a minute think building a nation on slavery was “okay.” Abigail Adams, for one, didn’t want to live in the White House — not merely because it wasn’t finished, but because slaves built it. Yet without the compromise of making slaves three-fifths of a person — a person who would never vote or have anything to say about his own life — there would not have been a Constitution or a country. Getting the country to be a country was, ultimately, what mattered. Under this devil’s decision lay the future in which we are now living.


We didn’t get here by accident. It wasn’t one bad election or a few unfortunate choices. The path on which we are walking was being laid out for us before there was a United State. The issues we now face have always been there. 


For all the northern objections to slavery, it wasn’t as if there weren’t any slaves in New England or New York. Southern plantations bought slaves, but New England sea captains brought them here. The first port of call for southern slave owners were the slave markets of New York and New England. Until the Constitution when northern slavery was formally abolished, there were plenty of slaves up north, too.

About those Native Americans from whom we grabbed this land and who we slaughtered so we could keep it? Of course we knew it was wrong. Maybe not every unread slob understood it, but anyone with a modicum of education got it. We still know it, even if we have tried our best to tuck the information as far from “common knowledge” as we can. We don’t want to think about what we did to get this place — and what we are still doing.

Did our ancestors understand this?

Yes.

But you see — they wanted this country. They wanted it and they wanted it beyond any moral compunctions. If that meant slaughtering entire tribes — see Andrew Jackson for more on that — so be it. Why should “those savages” get this rich and beautiful country? They didn’t deserve it. It should be ours. To make this righteous, we made up a bunch of crap about white being better than not white, but we didn’t get that from anyone’s religion. We quite simply made it up because we needed to believe it.

So, as has happened throughout history, we did what we wanted. We took everything, killed anyone who got in our way and have more less continued to do that ever since. Was it the first or last time an invading group of foreigners stole a nation from its native inhabitants? Obviously not.


I do not buy any concept which says “we didn’t understand what we were doing.” We knew just fine. Our ancestors — your ancestors — might not have talked the way we do, but they were much better at acknowledging good and evil. 


Again: How do we know this? Let me reiterate.

They wrote about it. At great length. In documents, diaries, letters, newspapers, and books. We don’t have to guess: they told us. Whether or not great granddad Josiah proposed in flowery English to great grandma Elizabeth may be a guess, but that Josiah thought our behavior toward slaves and Natives was wrong — we do know that.

What a great job we’ve done with the place!

The reason the Trump White House can do what it is doing is because there is so much hatred in this country. All he needed to do was play to the haters and leave the windows open. We don’t know what our so-called “leaders” believe, but we know who and what they hate. I don’t care in how many other countries this same ugly scene is happening. That doesn’t justify it happening here. If the whole world needs to clean up its act? So be it.


The majority is not necessarily right.


For my entire life, I believed this country — my country — was getting better. Was becoming more of what it said it wanted to be. That we were struggling, but trying to become a moral light in the world. I’m not seeing that anymore. Not on a national level. Are there many individuals who are still fighting the good fight? Sure. But nationally, as a nation, that isn’t what I see. I cannot begin to tell you how deeply disturbing I find this.

How is your conscience doing these days? Having a bit of a rough patch?

AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A HISTORIAN – SEAN MUNGER

” …  the misunderstanding and contempt for professional history.”

Not long ago, somebody tried to post a comment to this article, one of several I’ve written about “fake history,” which inevitably attracts angry axe-grinders. This particular comment–I didn’t approve it, of course–denied the existence of the Armenian genocide of 1915, and also obliquely denied the Holocaust, a prima facieracist position. This kind of thing is sadly pretty common when you run a history blog, but I noticed this comment employed an argument I’ve often seen before: an attempt to induce shame (in me) by saying something to the effect of, “And you call yourself a historian?” The argument is supposedly that, by not believing (or, in this case, disbelieving), a particular assertion about history, I have obviously fallen below some basic threshold of competence of the profession. In fact, this person attempted to lecture me about what historians do and what historical methods they use. It was wrong, of course, but it illustrated a disturbing trend that unfortunately I think is on the increase: a general misunderstanding and contempt for the historical process, what historians do and how they work.

I will categorically state that I have never heard the admonishment, “And you call yourself a historian?” from any person other than a purveyor of pseudohistory or some kind of patent falsehood about history. In fact, when I’m criticized for my supposed lack of historical competence, it usually comes in the same breath with an assertion that is demonstrably false and ridiculous: the idea, for instance, that Hitler was a leftistthat the Nanking massacre of 1937 did not really happen; or that the Crusades were provoked by Muslim aggression against Western Europe. A real historian has never questioned my competence based on genuine and reasonable agreement with historical analysis. I have a Ph.D. in history, specifically environmental history. Curiously, the only people who have ever questioned whether I deserve it are drive-by commenters on the Internet, usually racists or right-wing ideologues who are usually trying to advance some nationalistic or racialized distortion of history.


The complete post and room for comments are at:  “And you call yourself a historian?”: the misunderstanding and contempt for professional history.

IN THE CLUTCH: A ROUGH GO FOR AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE

It was pointed out to me this morning that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people who came before us.

How — why — they dressed and spoke and related to each other as people in their society. We are fuzzy about a lot of cultural material and mostly, we take our best guess as to what they were thinking as they lived from one day to the next in whatever capacity they lived it.

We have no clue about how our great-grandfather confessed his love to great-grandmother. We don’t know the words they used, or their tone of voice. We don’t know if their moment of passion happened at all. We don’t know because they left no evidence for us. They spoke differently, yet surely they held the same emotions we do — and we base all our fiction on that assumption. But of course, we could be entirely wrong. It’s just guesswork.

United States Slave Trade

On the other hand, we know precisely — anyone could know — that the people who drew up our Constitution understood how deeply wrong slavery was. They knew — fully and completely — failing to remove this horror would cause a war. A big war. Many expressed gratitude they would not live to see it.


They knew right from wrong.


They spent agonizing hours, weeks, months and years writing about it. Discussing it. Keeping notes about what they said and what others said. They didn’t for a minute think building a nation on slavery was “okay.” Abigail Adams, for one, didn’t want to live in the White House — not merely because it wasn’t finished, but because slaves built it. Yet without the compromise of making slaves three-fifths of a person — a person who would never vote or have anything to say about his own life — there would not have been a Constitution or a country. Getting the country to be a country was, ultimately, what mattered. Under this devil’s decision lay the future in which we are now living.


We didn’t get here by accident. It wasn’t one bad election or a few unfortunate choices. The path on which we are walking was being laid out for us before there was a United State. The issues we now face have always been there. 


For all the northern objections to slavery, it wasn’t as if there weren’t any slaves in New England or New York. Southern plantations bought slaves, but New England sea captains brought them here. The first port of call for southern slave owners were the slave markets of New York and New England. Until the Constitution when northern slavery was formally abolished, there were plenty of slaves up north, too.

About those Native Americans from whom we grabbed this land and who we slaughtered so we could keep it? Of course we knew it was wrong. Maybe not every unread slob understood it, but anyone with a modicum of education got it. We still know it, even if we have tried our best to tuck the information as far from “common knowledge” as we can. We don’t want to think about what we did to get this place — and what we are still doing.

Did our ancestors understand this?

Yes.

But you see — they wanted this country. They wanted it and they wanted it beyond any moral compunctions. If that mean slaughtering entire tribes — see Andrew Jackson for more on that — so be it. Why should “those savages” get this rich and beautiful country? They didn’t deserve it. It should be ours. To make this righteous, we made up a bunch of crap about white being better than not white, but we didn’t get that from anyone’s religion. We quite simply made it up because we needed to believe it.

So, as has happened throughout history, we did what we wanted. We took everything, killed anyone who got in our way and have more less continued to do that ever since. Was it the first or last time an invading group of foreigners stole a nation from its native inhabitants? Obviously not.


I do not buy any concept which says “we didn’t understand what we were doing.” We knew just fine. Our ancestors — your ancestors — might not have talked the way we do, but they were much better at acknowledging good and evil. 


Again: How do we know this? Let me reiterate.

They wrote about it. At great length. In documents, diaries, letters, newspapers, and books. We don’t have to guess: they told us. Whether or not great granddad Josiah proposed in flowery English to great grandma Elizabeth may be a guess, but that Josiah thought our behavior toward slaves and Natives was wrong — we do know that.

What a great job we’ve done with the place!

The reason the Trump White House can do what it is doing is because there is so much hatred in this country. All he needed to do was play to the haters and leave the windows open. We don’t know what our so-called “leaders” believe, but we know who and what they hate. I don’t care in how many other countries this same ugly scene is happening. That doesn’t justify it happening here. If the whole world needs to clean up its act? So be it.


The majority is not necessarily right.


For my entire life, I believed this country — my country — was getting better. Was becoming more of what it said it wanted to be. That we were struggling, but trying to become a moral light in the world. I’m not seeing that anymore. Not on a national level. Are there many individuals who are still fighting the good fight? Sure. But nationally, as a nation, that isn’t what I see. I cannot begin to tell you how deeply disturbing I find this.

How is your conscience doing these days? Having a bit of a rough patch?

DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

“He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” — Old English proverb, dating to the 14th century.

Mass suicide at Jonestown – Nov 18, 1978

There has been an upsurge of interest in Jonestown over the past few years. This post went by with little notice when I wrote it — about 4 years ago. Since then, it has developed a life of its own. Not surprising given the current state of disunion in this country and elsewhere. Jim Jones and Donald Trump share many traits. More importantly, so do their followers.

This is a cautionary tale, an urgent warning. Talk is not harmless. Lies matter. Corruption kills. To those of you who blindly follow, I hope you’re keeping the long spoon handy. I have a gut feeling you will eventually need it.

Tomorrow is the 39th anniversary of the massacre. A good time to remember.


From Nothing, Something Terrible Comes – Remembering Jonestown

If you are my age or near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are younger, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV or read a newspaper, you could hardly forget it. With fundamentalism enjoying a rebirth among our politicians and so-called religious leaders it’s a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing has led in the past and where it could easily lead in the future.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened; time has not made it less so.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the way back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional Methodist minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it combined a hodgepodge of Christian references that Jones used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

It was never a real church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It required a level of commitment and financial support from members plus a degree of obedience that’s the defining quality of a cult.

Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac. But he had positive attributes. Jones and his wife Marceline were in favor of racial integration. They adopted a bunch of kids from varying backgrounds and were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own.

The “Rainbow Family”

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed about this, note this story ultimately climaxes in the murder of all the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to increasingly focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California and before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be a Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give his own opinions legitimacy. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

jonestown massacre anniversary

Jim Jones – Leader and death’s-head of Jonestown

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much too small and seriously overcrowded. Temple members had to work long hours just to keep from starving.

Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.

All Hell Breaks Loose

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

Don’t Drink It!

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never really interested in escape. There was only one answer that he would accept. Death and lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is just as creepy as you’d expect.

Then it was time for the detailed instructions which — still baffling to me at least — the followers did as they were told. I will never understand why. Probably that’s a positive sign indicating I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped — primarily those who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred the gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and preferred something quicker.

What’s With the Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind. Therefore, although Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.

THE WAR TO END ALL WARS ENDED 99 YEARS AGO

I am 70 years old. For my entire life — all seventy years — there has been a war going on somewhere. Usually, the US has been involved in it — or is about to become involved. I keep hoping, if I live long enough, there will come a day when there is no war in the news. When the U.S. has no fighting men dying somewhere for reasons no one will remember a decade later.

The irony is, it would be much easier to count the years during which we have not been at war. There have been far fewer of them.

War doesn’t seem to be working out well. Maybe we should try something else?

Right now is the 99th anniversary of the end of World War I, supposedly “the war to end all wars.” Instead, it was closer to “the war to begin all wars.” Many of the wounds the world suffered then are still festering today. It ended at eleven in the morning, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year in 1918.


11-11-11


I intentionally posted this at precisely eleven in the morning. I didn’t know if anyone would notice, but I noticed.

I would like to see a world without war … but I’m not holding my breath.

DESPERADOES: RIDING WITH THE DALTONS – RON HANSEN

Desperadoes: A Novel, by Ron Hansen

This is not a new book. It was released again on Kindle in May 2013. Desperadoes has been available in soft or hardcover (currently, only soft) since 1997.

I love western movies and have since I was a kid. I’ve read a lot of “western” novels too over the years, enjoyed some, didn’t much like others. Over all, I prefer this genre as cinema rather than on the printed page. Nonetheless, I was drawn to this book after I realized I know very little about the personal lives and motivations of these notorious bandit gangs of the turn of the century wild west.

Until this book, I hadn’t realized the James boys, the Youngers, Coles and the Daltons were all related. Cousins, it turns out. This led me to interesting speculations about the relative importance of DNA versus environment in character formation. The familial relationships certainly present some intriguing possibilities. Perhaps the cousins were all copying each other’s “feats.” The story hints that there was at least some jealousy by the Daltons of cousin Jesse’s fame.

Desperadoes is well-written and feels authentic, so much so that I found myself asking how much of this was “made up” and how much was historical.

The answer is that although a lot of it is fact, a lot of it isn’t. Fiction and fact are beautifully woven throughout the story until it is difficult to tease them apart. Nonetheless, this is a novel, so if you are want history, this isn’t it. On the other hand, if you are more interested in the psychological profile of these characters and the feeling of being transported to another time and place, this might be exactly the right book. Sometimes fiction contains more truth than “only the facts” can convey.

Whether you enjoy the book will depend on if you can find a way to emotionally connect with any of the characters. All of the Daltons and their close associates lack a moral compass as well as a fundamental understanding of right and wrong. Even granting that they came from backgrounds of extreme deprivation — and their role models were as depraved as they themselves became — it’s hard to understand the characters’ rapid, virtual overnight, transformation from relatively decent people and officers of the law into rustlers, bank robbers and sadistic thrill killers.

Despite occasional actions that could be interpreted as “gallant” or at least decent, their primary goal was attention. Fame. They wanted to be feared and recognized. Towards that end, they also stole money but money was never a primary motivator. To achieve this end, there were no lines they would not cross, no rules they would not break. At no point is there any feeling that it mattered a whit to any of them how many people’s lives they ruined or ended. They were sociopaths (maybe psychopaths — I’ve never been entirely clear on the difference), utterly lacking in empathy except for one another … and there were limits to that, too.

The story is told in the first person by Emmett Dalton, the one brother who survived. He went out to Hollywood where they were happy (apparently) to pay him big bucks to “advise” and provide authenticity to the making of movies.

Of all the bandits — all his brothers and cousins — only he remained alive to “cash in” on the notoriety.

Ironically, they started as lawmen. While still functioning in that capacity, they began rustling horses. They didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with it. It wasn’t that they didn’t know it was illegal, but the whole “right” and “wrong” thing seems to have been rather hazy to them. Moreover, working as a sheriff or deputy sheriff was so poorly paid they actually couldn’t live on the money. So they initially considered horse-stealing a way to supplement their incomes. They eventually were caught though only big brother Gratton (Grat) (probably mildly retarded) was arrested for rustling. Grat spent a bit of time in jail, but was ultimately released. A trial would have embarrassed the judge who had employed the Daltons as lawmen. He didn’t want it known his employees were horse thieves. Except that everyone knew. It just wasn’t official — and never became official.

The Dalton boys’ decision to become an outlaw gang was exactly that: a choice. They were not forced into a life of crime. They genuinely enjoyed being outlaws and criminals. They liked beating people up, breaking their body parts and killing them, sometimes just because they felt like it. No sense of remorse is forthcoming through the voice of the narrator.

Emmett, as the first-person narrator, supposedly was privy to every moment of the life of his brothers. This is a bit hard to swallow unless the other gang members spent all of their free time telling Emmett everything they had done since they’d last talked. You have to suspend your credibility or there’s no way to get into the book.

Memento Mori of the Dalton Gang. Left to right...

Left to right: Bill Power; Bob Dalton; Grat Dalton, Dick Broadwell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the Dalton lads (there were 15 brothers and sisters and you never learn what happened to most of the others) Bob is the true glory hound. Grat is a big dumb guy who seemed to not have any thoughts about much of anything. Emmett, two years younger than Bob, is his older brother’s passionate admirer. His adulation of his Bob Dalton was unlimited, though to Emmett’s credit (?), he did occasionally think up an interesting crime to commit, so he was not without a degree of personal creativity. He also appeared to be, of the gang, the only one with any capacity for love — in a severely circumscribed way.

Then there’s Bob’s psychopathic girlfriend, Eugenia Moore who was the real brains of the outfit, though perhaps brains is too strong a word.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t like the characters. There is a high probability that the author has captured the essence of these people accurately, but accuracy alone wasn’t enough to make me enjoy being in their company. Ultimately, if I can’t relate to at least one character in a book, it’s difficult for me to enjoy the story. I spent the first half of this book looking for a redeeming feature in someone. I spent the rest of the book wishing I’d never started reading it in the first place.

English: Grave of Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton and ...

Grave of Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton and Bill Power (Photo: Wikipedia)

This was Ron Hansen’s first novel. He has written a dozen or so since then and he is highly regarded. I have no argument with his skill as a writer and perhaps I would like his later novels and non-fiction better than Desperadoes.

I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps the nature of the material fore-ordained my response. Sadistic, vicious sociopathic killers are not romantic. I don’t find a trip through their minds pleasant or fun. Interesting is as good as I can give it.

They make my skin crawl. But other people obviously did like the book and it has received some excellent reviews on Amazon. If you can read it as a case study of a bunch of old-timey criminals, you might like it better than I did. It is well-written and thoroughly unpleasant at the same time. I guess that’s what you get when you write about outlaw gangs, even when you write really well.

CORDELL HULL, PEACEMAKER – FROM INSIDE THE MIND OF A HISTORY PROFESSOR

FROM INSIDE THE MIND OF A HISTORY PROFESSOR – 

SBI: A THINNING CROWD


Last year, I was asked to write an article about Cordell Hull for the Tennessee Baptist History Journal. During the process, I did quite a bit of research. However, the best part of the assignment was the day I spent at his birthplace. My parents joined me on the drive through the back roads of Tennessee, and we spent the day looking at the scenery and talking about all kinds of things.

The article was recently published, but I could find no online resource. Instead of sharing a link, I decided to share the article. Oh, if you have never heard of Cordell Hull, then let me introduce you to the man.

In 2013, the State of Tennessee proposed the demolition of the Cordell Hull Building, which has housed government employees since the 1950s. Uproar ensued as preservationists and citizens expressed outrage toward the plan, and, after furious debate, state officials determined that renovation of the Cordell Hull Building was the best option.

Despite the intensity of the argument, few people mentioned the person for whom the building is named. Perhaps that was because Middle Tennessee is dotted with places named in his honor: Cordell Hull Dam, Cordell Hull Lake, Cordell Hull State Park. Perhaps it was because people who argued against the demolition of the building did not realize the important role he played in the history of the United States and the history of the world. As Harold B. Hinton wrote, “There are scores of Tennesseans who have helped mightily in the building of the United States, and Cordell Hull must be numbered among them.”[1]

On October 2, 1871, Cordell Hull was born in a log cabin on a twelve-acre farm rented by his sharecropper father, Billy.[2] In his memoirs, Hull described Olympus, the nearest community, as “the only store in the entire section. This was also the post office.”[3] This was also the rural setting from which he learned the value of hard work and from which his love for learning began.

Hull’s childhood was filled with days working with his siblings in his father’s fields. They cultivated oats, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, corn and made molasses to give all of that a sweeter flavor.[4] When his father bought a larger farm and built a store, Hull continued to assist the family economically. At age eleven, he clerked at the store, and, as Hull wrote, “Sometimes a customer would come in and ask for the man in charge. I would reply proudly, ‘I am the man in charge.’”[5] His father agreed, as he once stated, “Cord was always just like a grown man, from the time he could walk.”[6]

Hull also helped his mother, Elizabeth, with spinning, weaving and milking the cows.[7] However, it was from his mother that he gained his love for learning. Hull wrote:

With all her work, however, she taught us our A B C’s and the first portion of Noah Webster’s old blue-back speller, which was current for generations in all public schools. She required us children to read the Bible as much as possible, and she herself read it constantly.[8]

Obviously, religion played an important role in the daily life of the Hull family, and Cordell Hull looked fondly upon this foundation of his faith. In his memoirs, he recounted:

The people of our section were mostly Primitive Baptists and Methodists…We had to go between one and two miles to the Primitive Baptist church on Wolf River, though sometimes services were held in private homes. The preacher was generally a farmer who tried to make a living on a farm and also undertook to preach. He was known locally as “the preacher.” Members of the church gave a little toward paying the preacher but not much.[9]

Hull continued:

Sometimes they had a preacher come from a distance and then they held splendid meetings. People went to the church from far and near. They walked or rode on horseback or in wagons and carts. There were no buggies in the ridge country at that time. Young men joined up with girl friends and went together to church. The boys wore stiff-standing paper collars, which on hot days were pretty well wilted down by the time they got to church walking or riding. I shall never forget the solemnity and fervor with which those people sand the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”[10]

He also remembered the important role of faith in local society when he wrote:

If a person was “skeptical,” he was promptly discovered and branded as an infidel, which rendered him somewhat unpopular and at that time deprived him of the right to testify under oath. Such persons were few and far between. The social life in the ridge country revolved largely around the church.[11]

Hull’s work ethic; thirst for knowledge; and strong faith served him well as his world expanded through higher education, but, at a time when rural families often chose one son to pursue a professional career, he first had to convince his father with what Hinton called “the most important speech in his life.”[12] Local parents established a debating society because, as Hull wrote, “they were deadly earnest that their children should get the utmost from their schooling.”[13] In 1885, Hull took his turn at the podium and argued that George Washington was more important to American history than Christopher Columbus. In front of a crowded room, he won the contest, and his father decided that his son “should go away to the best school he could afford,” which was the Montvale Institute in Celina, Tennessee.[14]

From Montvale, Cordell Hull matriculated to a normal school in Bowling Green, Kentucky and, after a few semesters, transferred to the National Normal University in Lebanon, Ohio.[15] Normal schools specialized in training students to become teachers. Despite this training, Hull wanted to study law, and his father rented an office in Celina where his son could begin reading the law.[16]Lawyers had been learning in this fashion for decades, however, in last decades of the 19th Century, the American Bar Association asserted that more rigorous training was needed.[17]

In 1891, Hull enrolled in the law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, an institution with the reputation of developing some of the nation’s best legal minds.[18] As Hinton wrote in his biography of Cordell Hull, “Ever since the Civil War many of the greatest figures in Tennessee’s legal and political life have had their principal training at Cumberland.”[19] Hull recalled, “When I went to Congress sixteen years later I found in Washington four or five Senators, one Justice of the Supreme Court and twelve to fifteen Congressmen who were graduates of Cumberland University.”[20]

In addition to his academic growth, Hull gained experience outside the classroom that prepared him for the future. At age fourteen, he attended his first court session and first became interested in law. At age seventeen, he read his first newspaper, the Nashville American and listened to the ideas of men who gathered at the general store. From them he learned that “a person can’t ever amount to something unless he stands for something.”[21]

When Hull traveled to Bowling Green, he rode a train for the first time, and, when he attended school in Lebanon, Ohio, he first experienced life outside of the South.[22] However, his political career began back home when he was asked to speak at a rally. The organizers ran out of speakers but remembered his previous debate performance. At age sixteen, Hull spoke in support of Grover Cleveland for president of the United States. Cleveland lost, but, a few years later, Hull was elected Chairman of the Clay County Democratic Committee.[23]

In 1892, Hull ran for the State Legislature. While not yet old enough to hold office, his birthday would come before the general election. Until that time, he had to face a formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination. Realizing that he could not win in a party convention, Hull maneuvered his opponent into a primary election. He bought and horse; stumped throughout four counties; and carried each one.[24] He also won the general election and served in the State House until 1897.[25]

SEE ORIGINAL ARTICLE INCLUDING REFERENCES: Cordell Hull, Peacemaker – Direct comments to the original author, please!