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Four New Looks at American History

Finding fact-based opinions in a post-factual era

Jan. 27, 2017
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Freemasonry for Beginners (For Beginners), by Robert Lomas

Far from being a sinister organization seeking world domination, or a bunch of duffers in fezzes, Freemasonry is a fraternal order dedicated to “civic responsibility and charitable work.” So says Robert Lomas, perhaps the most prominent contemporary writer on the subject in Freemasonry for Beginners. The slender book succeeds at summarizing the order’s history, deflecting mythos of ancient roots, and shows that in many societies, the lodges formed networks of political and social power. The birth of the U.S. and the construction of the republic was undertaken in large part by Masons. Lomas called the U.S. constitution “the most innovative and influential national constitution ever written, imbued with Masonic principles that made it a living, flexible document.

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the U.S.A. (W.W. Norton), by Doug Mack

Like most Americans, travel writer Doug Mack has a hazy notion at best of America beyond the 50 states. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are the best known, but who has given thought to Guam or the North Marianas, much less visited those places? Mack decided to travel to five of America’s island possessions, research their histories and record his impressions in The Not-Quite States. With an eye for irony and amusing detail, his travelogue is often hilarious yet inevitably thoughtful. Turns out Guam is a destination for Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Russian tourists seeking a tawdry taste of American glitz in a duty free zone. Many of those islands were once ruled with iron hands by the U.S. Navy or federal officials, who deemed the natives as savages unworthy of citizenship. Nowadays the islanders can vote in presidential primaries but not in the general election and have no voting representatives in Congress. As Mack writes, “a nation can endure as half republic and half empire. That doesn’t mean it should.”

Six Encounters with Lincoln: A President Confronts Democracy and its Demons (Viking), by Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Abraham Lincoln was not a simple man and the multitudes he contained continue to present us with puzzles to solve. The award-winning historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor examines the16th president through his encounters with six citizens from the eve of the Civil War through the war’s final weeks. Even before the shooting began, the violence and rancor of U.S. politics in the background of her account demolishes any thoughts of early America as a land of angels. Although she concludes that Lincoln moved the U.S. toward “a broader democracy,” she also concedes, “his vision proved myopic in many instances.” He found slavery distasteful, yet would not accept racial equality. Pryor opens fresh approaches to her subject by examining the words of those who wrote about Lincoln “in real time,” not after death admitted him to the pantheon of heroes.

The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War (Louisiana State University Press), by Carl Lawrence Paulus

Although 19th century Americans often called their nation an “empire of liberty,” many saw no contradiction in holding millions in the bondage of slavery. Carl Lawrence Paulus examines the mentality of slave owners and advocates of the “peculiar institution,” finding that slavery was buttressed by racist attitudes denigrating blacks as “simultaneously barbarous and childlike,” thereby unable to assume the adult role of responsible citizenship. The “barbarous” half of the equation insured that fear undergirded the slave system, with the example of the bloody uprising of Haitian slaves never far from mind. Anxiety over the abolition of slavery became a driving force in American politics before the Civil War. The author concludes by acknowledging, “white fears and stereotypes about black Americans have played a significant role” in U.S. history and “continue to shape America.”


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