Book Review by Emmett R Smith
The Year of Decision 1846, by Bernard DeVoto ('Little, Brown and Company', Boston, 1943)
'M[R. Ralph Waldo] Emerson had an earthier image: "The United States will conquer Mexico but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.' (DeVoto, op cit , p 210)
THESE Words of Emerson's from 1846 were quoted sixty-three years ago, by Bernard DeVoto in his history of the year 1846. Arguably that year was decisive in american history. It was the year of the settlement of the Oregon boundary-dispute with Great Britain, it was the year of the mexican war, and it saw the inclusion of Texas, the south-west and California, all within the present boundaries of the as-yet United States. It was the year of continental fulfillment of the 'manifest destiny' of the roaring 1840's.
Also, 1846 spelled the doom of the Navaho and the Donner party; and, it marked the move across Iowa and the Great Plains into Utah of the mormon followers of Brigham Young. As well, the american settlers of California and the Oregon territory found themselves to be indisputably citizens of the United States. All of this happened during the presidency of the dour and stubborn, Democrat, american president James K. Polk. He was, says DeVoto, the one strong executive between Jackson and Lincoln; and, indeed, the territorial fulfillment of the american nationalism of the 1840's went far to drive the passion of the fight to preserve national union in the american civil war, two decades later. Altogether, DeVoto's is a sprawling epic of grand adventure; and, of big ideas of themselves held by a swarm of true american types:
DeVoto's portrait is priceless, of the somewhat hysterical (and, we should say 'macarthuresque') John C Fremont, the so-called 'Pathfinder', who in 1854 would be the first candidate of the then-new Republican party. Fremont's ambiguous role in the short-lived California 'Bear Flag' republic is an operating manual for opportunists in all times and places….
READING Classical accounts is one of the chief rewards of the devoted historian.
Likewise–if the historically-minded are trying as honestly as they may to come to terms with their own personal shares of the common human villainy and hypocrisy–the reading of classical accounts may also serve as an immunisation against the kicks and crazes of the ephemeral present. In this present, of course, the common people are worked up to a high degree about immigrants and 'illegal aliens'. (In addition to 'demolition-derbies', I mean–and, midget-wrestling exhibitions as on 17 June, in Hope[!], MN.)
This, too, is a recurring theme in the american tale.
The historical roots of our not-infrequent episodes of emotional ignorance go back to the Alien & Sedition acts; the anti-irish and anti-clerical riots and arson of the american low-protestant 'Know Nothing' movement; the anti-radical panic of 1919; and, the communism-humbug of the McCarthy-interval of the early 1950's. It is always easier for people en masse to set up some sort of kike or nigger, in order to relieve their fear and anger about actual material troubles, especially in their physical and financial lives. A corollary is that, during the democratic age, now over, proprietors were able to utilise the party-forms of democracy to better disguise to the ignorant the actual operations of power.
Periodic social outbreaks, of distress and projection and rioting, were the not-intolerable price to be paid by the elites of the day. Specifically (and, I daresay, this may have given modern democracy a renewed life-lease that carried it all the way down through the late-modern age which ended in 1989), the price was tolerable because, coincidentally, there was a physical frontier into which individuals and groups could flee whatever might have been their notion of the ineffable intolerable. And, so, the story of 1846 has an ominous undertone, because, by setting the physical boundaries of the United States and territories in 1846, we can see now that the stage was set for the statutory closing by congress–of the american frontier not even fifty years later.
INDEED, DeVoto begins his account with an omen–of 'manifest destiny':
'THE First Missouri Mounted Volunteers played an honorable part in the year of decision [in the mexican war], and looking back, a private of Company C determined to write his regiment's history. He was John T. Hughes, an A.B. and a schoolmaster. Familiarity with the classics had taught him that great events are heralded by portents. So when he sat down to write his history he recalled a story which, he cautions us, was "doubtless more beautiful than true." Early in that spring of 1846, the story ran, a prairie thunderstorm overtook a party of traders who were returning to Independence, Missouri, from Santa Fe. When it passed over, the red sun had sunk to the prairie's edge, and the traders cried out with one voice. For the image of an eagle was spread across the sun. They knew then that "in less than twelve months the eagle of liberty would spread his broad pinions over the plains of the west and that the flag of our country would wave over the cities of New Mexico and Chihuahua."
'Thus neatly John T. Hughes joined Manifest Destiny and the fires that flamed in the midnight sky when Caesar was assassinated.' (Ibid, p 3)
There is an irony in the above citation by DeVoto, who did not mean to point to any certain conclusion. The irony is concealed in the latter part of his book, where he describes the activities in El Paso, of the commander of the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers, Alexander W. Doniphan, on the eve of the projected invasion of Chihuahua:
'H[E…A]rrested the principal local priest, Ramon Ortiz, with whom he had had trouble ever since he occupied the town. Ortiz, known to the First Missouri as the kindly protector of the Texans who had been captured on the abortive Santa Fe expedition of 1841, was the head conspirator of an underground nativist movement. An accomplished and intelligent man, he was a fiery patriot who could not love the conquest and was directing a widespread opposition. Doniphan took him and several other prominent citizens as hostages. It was just as well, for a few days after the army started south it got word that trouble had broken out in Santa Fe.
'This was the brief but bloody uprising known as the Taos Revolt.
'…For [which] a large part of the blame must rest on the Second Missouri…. Doniphan's command–whether because they'd experienced both the risk and satisfaction of conquest or because Doniphan had some faculty of leadership that Price [Second Missouri commander] lacked–had not antagonized the natives. But the Second Missouri, in effect [emphasis added], had turned Santa Fe into a roaring Wild West town, full of jubilation, offensiveness, and personal insult.' (Ibid, pp 393-4)
The point perhaps is that people en masse are swept by passions, more often than not. And, to-day's pan-hispanic la raza movement rests doubtless on whole histories of bad feeling, not one whit distinguishable at bottom from 'American Legion' beery fuming about 'them foreign bastards'. But, of course, as historian John Lukacs has pointed out more than once, history is poorly taught these days; and, quite obviously, the american lady general who had final responsibility for the police-units at Abu Ghraib was not well-served by her West Point history-training. Had it been otherwise, she should have roared like Hell, when strategic (sic) staff bypassed her in her command-area, whilst operating their semi-professional bdsm recreation-facility for non-combat second-echelon category-, or pariah-, troops.
APART From that, there is an aspect of history not reducible to any science and which must remain the domain of a disciplined intuition. To return to DeVoto, and the first passage cited above:
'[THE P]eriod of Biela's comet was seven years…. The new year began, the year of decision, and on January 13 at Washington, our foremost scientist, Matthew Maury, found matter for a new report.
'Maury was a universal genius [whose] deepest passion was the movement of tides…. But he had further duties as Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, and so by night he turned his telescope on Biela's comet. That night of January 13, 1846, he beheld the ominous and inconceivable. On its way toward perhilion, Biela's comet had split in two.' (Ibid, pp 3-4)
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[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 23 June 2006]