Northern Madness

Yesterday: For Whom the Bell Tolls    Tomorrow: A Disquisition on Government

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude


Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

Good morning everyone!  My lucubrious wanderings last night place me about halfway through the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Caesar’s account of The Civil War.  I am still awed by this man–as a writer, NOT as a politician–and think he is a must-read for all would-be voters.  Unfortunately the schools disagree with me.  But you can check out my list of potential classes ( to find out more about the options available to study him.

Now for the good stuff.  Yesterday I covered For Whom the Bell Tolls; this is, in my opinion, the greatest American novel by the greatest American novelist.  But that’s disputable on both counts, and the other major option is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Everyone knows that this is Mark Twain’s greatest work.  In fact I think everyone knows its plot, and everyone is supposed to read it in high school.  I didn’t, for which you can blame my English teacher, who apparently does not appreciate Mark Twain in the slightest (  Also you can check him out here: Okay, okay.  Maybe he just thought there were other important things to read.  I’ll ask him when I see him in a couple days.

Since I figure you all know Huck Finn, I’ll simply begin to go through an analysis of what was being said in the book, since it’s not nearly so obvious as most high school English teachers present it as.  The big issue with the novel is what the target of its satire is.  Most people believe it to be the racial prejudices and attitudes of the South, especially the parts of Missouri from which Twain came and in which he sets Tom Sawyer and the very beginning of Huck Finn.  But this is a mistake.

In fact Twain is really commenting on the attitudes of the NORTH, and the prevailing political, social, and economic conditions that had led to the disillusionment of so many idealists prior to the Civil War.  It is so often taught, at present, that Lincoln was a good man who wanted to end a horrible institution that was degrading master and slave.  This is only partially true.  The long-standing Whig Party platform–from its earliest days under Alexander Hamilton before it was the Whigs, through Henry Clay’s leadership and into Lincoln’s times, when it was no longer called the Whigs but instead the Republicans–was one of economic and fiscal policy supporting big business.  Under Hamilton it did this by imposing tariffs to protect manufactures and erecting the Bank of the United States, and by implementing fiscal policies that standardized weights and measures and obligations across the United States.  Under Clay it did so through the American System, which sought to keep the bank and to build physical infrastructure through roads and canals, as well as to continue to protect emerging industries through protective tariffs.

By the time Lincoln arrived, the needs of the country had changed, but the policies he favored were geared in the same direction, and faced opposition from the same sources.  Lincoln favored building a transnational railroad (infrastructure), and during the Civil War he issued the famous “greenback” currency (  Business policies.  Again.  And when one really looks at it, it becomes increasingly clear that opposition to slavery, while partially made on moral grounds, was really about creating competition in the labor market, which would limit the power of workers.  This was, after all, the line behind the “Free Soil Party”‘s anti-slavery position, and it remained so under the Republicans.

So when the slaves were freed–which was done in the middle of the war with the intent to destroy the Southern economy as much as to do good for a set of people who needed much more than freedom to help them–they were thrust into a market for labor which, it was hoped, they would depress.  To what extent this succeeded is probably up for debate.  The point here is that they were thrust without skills, and without education, into a semi-modern economy where their best shot to advance, if they could obtain employment at all, was in fact simply to follow orders.  They were once again made slaves.  Meanwhile the emergence of wealth in the hands of the entrepreneurial class that came of age in the 1860s allowed the robber barons to claim philosophical descent from the great European lords of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

Now do me a favor and go look at the characters and plot of Huck Finn.  Jim thinks he is escaping, with Huck, only to be thrust back into slavery (albeit temporarily).  The self-centered Huck treats him as a punch line, and uses Jim to allow himself to escape, as considering his low position more than Jim’s.  On the way he meets the Duke and the King, who are really con artists using get-rich-quick schemes (compare with John Rockefeller); and we see Twain’s rampant use of tales of thieves and dishonorable behavior, each one seeming to parallel a feature of the Northern society that was developing through the 1880s.

It is one sign that our society is headed in the wrong direction that the Civil War is viewed in such moralistic terms and without due regard for some of the real and terrible issues it created for those whom our teachers claim it helped.  The establishment of the ineffective Freedmen’s Bureau was the closest the Civil War ever got to really helping the position of blacks improve, and it did not get very close.  Many southern blacks remained as extraordinarily poor tenants and “sharecroppers”, from which they had no escape available to them.  And on a political level the imposition of pure majority rule, which first happened with the outbreak of the Civil War, is so often treated as a huge improvement in political decision-making that you know it has to really be a serious setback.  It is this that Twain is so angry about, and rightfully so.  I’ve commented enough on the flaws of pure majority rule from my own mouth already, so tomorrow I’ll get to work on using the Great Books to prove it.  Look for a post on the political work of John C. Calhoun.

–The Great Books Dude


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