Book Review: Headlines In History: The 1800’s

Headlines In History:  The 1800’s, by James Miller, Bonnie Szumski, and Scott Barbour (editors)

Fortunately, this book , the penultimate volume in its series, is on a par with the excellence of the volume on the 1600’s [1] and other centuries [2] [3] [4] rather than the abject failure of the volume on the 1700’s.  More and more the Eurocentric focus of the volume on the 1700’s appears to be an aberration.  Even though the 1800’s were a year of Western domination of the world, a fact this volume bears out, the rest of the world still needs to be studied.  In fact, the editors of this book deserve credit for finding quirky and worthwhile sources that manage, in many cases, to provide very insightful examinations of the historical, cultural, and intellectual currents of the 19th century.

Per the standard in the Headlines In History series, the material in the book is organized thematically, but in a quirky and refreshingly unexpected fashion.  The first section (of seven) covers the “heirs of the revolutionary era,” starting strong with Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, then including a look inside Napoleon’s dysfunctional empire, the ambiguous independence of Latin America, an excellent excerpt from de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, and a thoughtful essay on the Lewis & Clark expedition.  Section Two discusses Industrialization and Ideology, mostly focusing on England with a flattering essay about the benefits of early factories on the lives of workers (!), a couple of essays that deal with the formation of a separate working class identity in England because of the Reform Act of 1832 [5], an excerpt from the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, and an essay on the often neglected and eclectic Great Exhibition of 1851.

Section Three deals with the Civil War, but does so in a refreshingly unconventional way, starting with a look at British Abolitionists, a scholarly comparison of Southern Antebellum slavery with Russian serfdom, an essay on the Missouri Compromise of 1820, an essay by James McPherson (one of my favorite Civil War historians) on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a primary document from the eloquent Frederick Douglass, and an excellent essay about the significance of the abolition of the scourge of slavery in the Civil War by examining a counterfactual history where the South won its independence [6].  All of the essays are strong–and a few attack the issues from odd angles.  Section Four deals with the strains of modernization with a nuanced essay by Michael Ruse on the heavily qualified nature of Evolution’s acceptance, an essay on the rise of Russia’s student movement, a grim examination of the Irish potato famine, an essay on Great Britain’s Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 and how they showed the traditional English tradition to muddle through, an essay on Queen Victoria, as well as a curious examination of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention and the primary document of the Declaration of Sentiments by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the forgotten Matilda Joslyn Gage.

The real heart of the volume is in its lengthy Section Five, showing the dominance of Europeans and the United States over the globe during the 19th century, a chapter that manages to show that not only were Europeans keen on exploiting the natural resources and native populations of the world (very true) but also that the competitive nature of this imperialism brought it into conflict with other would-be or decadent empires.  This section contains essays on the Opium War, the roots of India’s Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, the Taiping Rebellion in China, the horrors of the Congo “Free” State for its indigenous inhabitants, the successful example of Japanese modernization based on its own culture, James Polk’s snake-like declaration of war against Mexico, the tactics and impact of Indian Removal on the civilized tribes (including some of my own ancestors among the Cherokee), and an intriguing examination of the Spanish-American War that is sadly somewhat incomplete (though it does provide the first and probably only mention of the city of Tampa in the Headlines in History series).

The volume, a robust 350 pages of material, closes with two short sections.  The first is on “new ideas” providing an excerpt aptly called “The Madman” from Friedrich Nietzsche, an essay on French Impressionism, the development of modern mass consumer culture in the 1890’s, and an excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s bogus method of psychoanalysis and the Oedipus Complex.  The seventh and last section examines the 19th century as a century of invention, starting with a personal profile on Louis Pasteur and his experimental and intuitive method, showing an essay on electrification, a biographical sketch of the heroic Marie Curie, and then an examination of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone.

It is difficult to fault an excellent book of 350 pages, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more focus on the rise of nationalism in Europe with its baleful consequences on the world–a thoughtful study on the Rise of Prussia, the unification of Italy, the political developments in federation in Austria-Hungary and Switzerland, and the independence of Belgium, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia (the last four springing from the long, slow decay of the Ottoman Empire), as well as the rise of Muslim fundamentalism shown in the Mahdi Revolt would have provided some suitably ominous developments for the 20th and 21st centuries.  Adding such material would have made the book about 400 pages, if not more, but it would have been an even stronger book for those additions.  That said, what is included meets the goal of a diverse group of social, intellectual, military, and political history that deals with thoughtful cross-cultural comparisons as well as powerful thematic unity and a blend of strong secondary and essential primary sources.  This book delivers these goods, leaving one wanting more.







About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Headlines In History: The 1800’s

  1. Pingback: Non-Book Review: The Battle Of Peach Tree Creek | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Empires Of The Atlantic World | Edge Induced Cohesion

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