Sunday, August 29, 2010


A review of John Fiske’s History of the United States (1895)

(Rating 5 of 5)

One of the greatest little treasures that I have in my book collection is a 115-year history book, simply entitled the History of the United States. The book is written by a man named John Fiske. John Fiske is a man with an agenda. He is very upset, because when he lived and wrote this book, the 1890s; there was tendency, especially after 1876, to speak of 1776 as the beginning of our nation at the expense of the colonial period. Something that he seeks to rectify with this book, which does cover the colonial period with great detail. There is a tear in the cover which, while tragic, does seem to revel that it was made with recycled paper, the inside of the cover looks like it was once a page in dictionary. The book was written for teachers to help with their classes and the end of each chapter is filled with advice on how to best relate the material to the students.

The book starts with a map of the then 'modern' United States showing the time zones as they existed back then, and each of the forty-five states have the date in which they entered the Union. The book's written part begins with discussion on the last presidential election 1892: Grover Cleveland vs. Benjamin Harrison, round 2. He discusses the then homogenous nature of the United States, which was not entirely true but was a lot truer then than now. Not surprisingly there is a good deal of racism in the book, and although it is not hateful racism it is there. For example, when discussing slavery, which he condemns as evil and immoral—which is not surprising because it was stopped in his lifetime—he states that there was 'not a job a slave could do that white person could not do better.' He then goes on to explain how slavery was not only morally wrong, but economically inefficient. I do fell after reading his work, that if knew Fiske personally I could probably point out to him some his racial bias in his work and perhaps he might have addressed them. For example, replace the 'white' with 'free' and his economic anti-slavery argument is upheld.

Fiske engages in a lot of presentism, he judges events by standards of the late 19th century. He often lets you know his personal opinion on all sorts of matters. He thought King Charles II of England was nothing short of an idiot, whose only good trait was he was not as dangerous as his father, King Charles I.

I will give the man credit for his ability to explain things that are very complicated by simplifying them and laying out the facts for his reader to follow along. A good example is how he explains the reason behind the British response to the American cause of 'no taxation without representation.'

“There was then going on in England a hot dispute over the very same business of 'no taxation without representation,' and it was a dispute in which the youthful king felt bound to oppose Pitt to the bitter end. Let us see what the dispute was.

In such a body as the British House of Commons or the American House of Representatives, the different parts of the country are represented according to population. For example, to-day New York, with over 5,000,000 inhabitants, has thirty-four representatives in Congress, while Delaware, with about 170,000 inhabitants, has only one representative. This is a fair proportion; but as population increases faster in some places than in others, the same proportion is liable to places than in others, the same proportion is liable to became unfair. To keep it fair it must now and then be changed. In the United States, every tenth year, after a new census has been taken, we have the seats in the House of Representatives freshly redistributed among the States, so that the representation is always kept pretty fair. A hundred men in any one part of the country count for about as much as a hundred men in any other part.

Now in England, when George III, came to the throne, there had been nothing like a redistribution of seats in the House of Commons, for more than two hundred years. During that time, some old towns and districts had dwindled in population, and some great cities had lately grown up, such as Manchester and Sheffield. These cities had no representatives in Parliament, which was up-surd and unfair as it would be for great states like Missouri to have no representatives in Congress. On the other hand, little towns and thinly populated districts kept on having as many representatives as ever. One place, the famous Old Sarum, had members in Parliament long after it had ceased to have any inhabitants at all!

The result was that people could not get representation in Parliament by fair means got it by foul means. Seats for little towns and districts were simply bought and sold and such practices made political life at the time very corrupt. Parliament did not represent the people of Great Britain; it represented a group of powerful persons that could buy up enough seats to control the majority of the votes.”p.192-3

A very good explanation if there ever was one. I like the comparison to 'modern' New York and Delaware. Imagine only ten million people living in New York State!

In the table of contents the Civil War is followed by 'modern events.' To him the Civil War was like Civil Rights Struggle for my parents, something that he lived through and had firsthand knowledge of, but was too young at the time to really appricate. As big Union man, I love Fiske's introduction to the Civil War.

“About this time for the sake of conciliation, several northern states either modified or repelled their personal liberty' laws. In general, the attitude of the North was such that the seceders cherished a strong hope of accomplishing their purpose without war. A great many people in the North seemed ready to surrender almost anything to avoid bloodshed. All sorts of weak suggestions were made by men usually bold and firm and there was no telling what might have happened but for one man, the gentlest but most unflinching of men, who was prudent enough to make the last stage of his journey to Washington in secret, because rumor had threatened him with assassination on the way. When Abraham Lincoln took his place at the White House, it soon appeared that the distressed ship of state had a firm hand at the helm.”p.367

At the end of the book is a phonics section to help the reader pronounce the names and large unfamiliar words. There is also a good index section and a suggested reading list to help you further expand your knowledge. The whole is a classic; it is marvelous reading about our 'new' Statue of Liberty.' In the end I would like to share my 'favorite' passage, it is about something that is very bad but I love his take on the whole thing.

“The attention of the English began to be turned towards America soon after 1560, early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. About that time the famous sailor Sir John Hawkins, began kidnapping negroes on the coast of Guinea and bringing them to the West Indies to sell them to the Spanish colonists for slaves. Very few people in those days could see anything wrong in slavery; it seemed as proper to keep slaves as to keep cattle and horses. When Hawkins was made a knight, he took as part of his coat-of-arms the picture of a captive negro bound with a cord. Hawkins was an honest and pious man, but he actually felt proud of his share in the opening of the slave trade, as a profitable trade for England. In our time nobody but a ruffian would have anything to do with such a wicked an horrible business. Changes of this sort make us believe the world is growing to be better then it use to be. But improvement is very slow.”p59-60

It is very slow, sometimes too slow, but he is right as humanity grows it does change for the better, we hope.

The New York Times has a review of this book still on file!

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