Category Archives: History

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

Grant finally settles the question of how to pronounce Walter Bagehot’s name (BADGE-it). Maddeningly, he does not do this until the end of the book, leaving the reader unsure to pronounce it in their head for more than 300 pages. Even so, he has written an excellent biography of Bagehot, a prominent 19th-century English banker and economist who favored free trade. He was not the founder of The Economist, though he became its longtime editor and made the newspaper (actually a magazine) into the prominent, and generally classically liberal publication it remains today.

At times Grant seems more interested in the history of English banking than in his ostensible subject, and at times the text bogs down because of it. But he still finds the time to give a good sense of what Bagehot was like as a person. His family life was mostly happy, though not entirely so. He also worked long hours at a frenetic pace, often writing 5,000 words or more per week, every week, on a wide variety of topics. This was in addition to editing and managing a newspaper, commissioning articles, and trying to have some semblance of a home life.

Unlike some of the grandiose, difficult personalities whose biographies I’ve been reading lately (Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison, Jay Gould, et al), Bagehot seems to have been a good person. He was overworked and often frazzled, but he was a decent family man and didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle, outsize ego, or a need to create drama.

Grant also puts Bagehot in his place as an important figure in the birth of modern finance, journalism, and economics; Bagehot had a place in all three. Only with the beginnings of the industrial revolution did the population become wealthy enough to support full-time journalists. Before, say, Samuel Johnson, writers typically required aristocratic support. They also wrote for a mainly aristocratic audience, spoke to their concerns, and often echoed their points of view. They also did not produce fresh product every week.

Johnson was one of the first to write for a lay audience, and one of the first to make a living from them. This meant smaller per-copy revenues, made up for by selling more copies. This required the ability to print at an industrial scale, and a large middle class that can afford pamphlets and newspapers. This stage of economic development also required modern finance to capitalize. Bagehot began as just such a banker, became a journalist struggling to generate enough copy to print The Economist regularly enough to pay the bills, and to sell it to as many subscribers as possible. Even in London, the financial capital of the world, Bagehot could only wrangle a few thousand subscribers.

Bagehot was also one of the most prolific and eloquent voices in the era’s defining economic debate—free trade vs. protectionism. Bagehot took the free-trade side alongside Richard Cobden and John Bright, and it is for this that Bagehot is chiefly remembered today. The Economist, which more than a century later flourishes on a global scale, still retains Bagehot’s mostly market-liberal editorial voice, and even has a weekly column named after him. In today’s tide of rising tide of protectionism, nationalism, and populism, the world could use more Bagehots advocating for free trade in both quality and quantity.

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

This expansive book can move at a glacial pace, though, also like a glacier its motion never stops. His pastoral vignettes are as vivid as a painting. His descriptions of what is going on in each character’s head are masterpieces of empathy, psychology, and self-awareness—or not, depending on the character. There are also multiple contrasts. Not just between the battle scenes and the domestic scenes, but also between Russia and the West, as shown by the contrast between the Moscow and St. Petersburg social scenes. Evolution is another key theme. He characters age, mature, and change over the course of the book. Even their language changes, with Russian increasingly displacing French as the language of choice for the more “authentic” Russian characters. The amoral or otherwise mostly unsympathetic characters such as Helene and her brother Anatole emphasize their Europeanness by lapsing further into French speech even as Napoleon’s army marches further into Russia.

Tolstoy also uses the novel to advance his pastoral, peaceful, agrarian philosophy, contrasting the happy scenes in those settings with the horrors of war and the cynicism of city and court life. He also advances a “great forces” theory of history, against which individuals are nearly powerless. This theory does not hold up well against actual history, but Tolstoy sure makes it poetic.

Pierre, the protagonist, is an especially interesting character. Tolstoy modeled him somewhat after himself. In the beginning, Pierre is a brash youth, not quite comfortable with his large physical size and awkward both physically and socially. He feels the need to interject his opinions into every conversation, as many young people do. After a few years of life experience, and entering into a marriage with Helene that he realizes ahead of time is a mistake, Pierre has a spiritual awakening and pursues Freemasonry with the same youthful zeal as he pursued his previous opinions. But with a little more age and maturity, he becomes calmer and less intense about it. At the same time, he becomes physically more comfortable in his own skin and his own social manner, though his large size still makes him stand out in a crowd. By nature he is more an observer than a participant, but eventually gets dragged into a battle despite not being a soldier, and is taken prisoner and goes on a forced march. He emerges

Tolstoy also astutely portrayed the effect that nearness to celebrities and power can have on people. Especially early in the book, in the battle of Austerlitz, one of the characters is absolutely mesmerized by the czar’s mere presence, to the point of near-religious rapture, completely losing himself in a wash of emotion and love towards a person he has never met, and does not know who he is. The young man is otherwise a sane and decent person, but he comes off every bit as poorly as Tolstoy intended in this scene. As the characters age and get worn down by life and war, their power-worship becomes less pronounced. But it also never completely goes away.

These scenes of celebrity rapture reminded me, of all things, of the scene in Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius where Eggers and his younger brother Topher briefly meet Bill Clinton at some event shortly after they move to San Francisco. Eggers goes into a near-reverie both during the experience and recounting it. Clinton, like Alexander I, was neither particularly bad nor particularly good as far as presidents or tsars go. Neither left much of a footprint on history, and were generally unremarkable—often a good thing in their line of work, but that’s a topic for another time. Such men should not have such effects on otherwise intelligent people, and yet they do.

Andrew S. Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Andrew S. Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Diderot is best known for editing the Encyclopedie, the first volume of which was published in 1751. Though little-read today, it was one of the most influential works of the Enlightenment. Other than that, most people pay Diderot little mind, aside from noting that he was more vocal about his atheism than most other Enlightenment thinkers, who mostly were, or pretended to be, deists. Curran shows that there was much more to Diderot.

He was a polymath, writing as many as 7,000 articles for the Encyclopedie on a wide variety of subjects. He also wrote plays, dabbled in science, was imprisoned for his beliefs, opposed slavery and advocated for women’s rights, befriended and then fell out with Rousseau, pushed the boundaries of sexual discourse, was a respected art critic, and spent several unhappy months in Russia in the court of Catherine the Great.

After his 1784 death at age 70, Diderot was, ironically, buried in a church. Perhaps fittingly, his grave was disturbed during the French Revolution, and though he is still somewhere in the church, nobody is sure quite where.

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

Richard Panek – The Trouble with Gravity: Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet

More philosophical than I expected. Panek gives an excellent history of gravity, from Aristotle on down through Philoponus, Galileo, Newton, and on down the line. Philoponus, an Egypt-born 6th century Byzantine philosopher, was someone I was unfamiliar with, and it was a treat learning about a new figure in the history of science. He figures prominently early in the story, and more or less came up with the modern understanding of inertia, which he called impetus.

Unusually for his time, Philoponus was not content to rely on Aristotle and Plato’s works as settled fact. He preferred some measure of empiricism. He did not go as far as Francis Bacon’s audaciously titled New Organon (intended to replace Aristotle’s Organon, which was all but an eternal sacred text), but Philoponus’ empiricism was still controversial.

While Panek ably explains the science of gravity at a popular level, he is clearly more interested in the philosophy surrounding it. In particular, if you ask a scientist not what gravity is, but why it exists, they have no choice but to tell you they do not know. That, more than anything, is what interests Panek, and what drove him to write this book.

A good scientist has no problem admitting they do not know something, of course. A lifetime of study and experiment tells even the most brilliant scientist nothing about why, only about the what. Maybe someday we’ll gain that level of knowledge. But after so many attempts from Aristotle to Philoponus through today’s sophisticated experiments, Panek is not optimistic.

Justin Marozzi – Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World

Marozzi injects travelogue and portraits of modern post-Soviet life throughout the book far more often than a book about Tamerlane calls for. He is also a little prone to purple prose. But when Marozzi stays on topic, this is a good biography.

Tamerlane was born in a small town in what is now Uzbekistan in 1336. While he spent much of his life on campaign, he also spent many winters and breaks in Smarkand and Tashkent. He was known as Timur or Temur during his lifetime; spellings vary, as do written alphabets. He acquired a limp at an early age, though history has forgotten exactly how; multiple stories circulated in his time and ours, some less honorable than others. Some of his detractors referred to him as Timur-al-Lam, or Timur-the-Lame, hence the Anglicized Tamerlane.

The sources are scarce for Timur’s early life, even after he began to develop a formidable military reputation and the territory to match. As a result, Marozzi spends as much time writing about himself and his travels through Timur’s lands as he does the intended subject of his biography. He also relies more heavily than he should on the 16th century Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine as a source, though he does offer some insightful literary analysis, and is careful to point out that Marlowe was not only writing fiction, but he was writing nearly two centuries after Timur’s death, and in a country, culture, religion, and language that were alien to Timur. Marozzi also has much to say about the impressive architecture Timur sponsored, even if some of it was rushed and eventually collapsed.

The last two decades of Timur life are better covered, and Marozzi does a good job balancing Timur’s political and the personal lives, while also giving the greater regional and historical context Timur operated in.

Timur conquered a huge swath of Asia. From his Uzbek origins, he conquered much of Persia, Baghdad, Mongol-controlled parts of Russia, Seljuk Turkey, Mamluk Egypt, Syria, and India. Every good story needs villains, and Timur had the Golden Horde’s Tokhtamysh, who took multiple campaigns to subdue. A final campaign to China at age 69 proved too much for his diminished health, and his death en route in 1405 may have been the only thing that spared China from his army.

As with Genghis Khan, Timur’s empire fell apart after his death, though his grandson Ulugh Beg was an accomplished scientist as well as an able monarch, and was nicknamed the Astronomer King.

Unlike Genghis Khan, Timur didn’t connect his distant realms to each other with roads, trade, and cultural and intellectual exchange. He seems to have enjoyed the thrill of campaigning and conquering more than the responsibilities that came afterwards. He also used constant campaigning as a way to stay in power. He needed an army’s support against usurpers. But at the same time, that army needed his support. Hence the constant campaigns. They not only subdued rivals, but the spoils kept the army happy and on his side. Timur’s career would be fascinating to view through the lens of Mancur Olson’s theory of roving and stationary bandits. Tamerlane was somewhere in the between, and of course his empire’ stability did not outlast him.

Sidney W. Mintz – Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

Sidney W. Mintz – Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

Mintz tells the story of sugar from an anthrolopogist’s perspective, with a focus on working-class Britain. A weakness is that he views economics through a Marxian lens (though not ideologically Marxist), with an emphasis on concepts such as ownership of the factors of production, power relations, and class structure that seem odd to contemporary readers. This instantly dates this book in the reader’s mind to the mid-20th century, when this approach was fashionable. A quick bit of research shows that Mintz was born in 1922, so his scholarly training and career began precisely at the peak of this movement. This book came out in 1986, towards the end of Marxian analysis’ credible period. As an older scholar by then, Mintz still retained much of his earlier training. That said, Mintz does recognize that slavery was not a capitalistic mode of production, and that economists such as Adam Smith opposed both slavery and imperialism.

Other oddities include his use of the term “balancing the accounts of capitalism,” the meaning of which is unknown to this trained economist. Mintz also does his credibility no favors when he describes sucrose-heavy modern diets among lower-class people as a form of intentional, culturally-approved population control, which operates by depriving children of protein and other nutrients. Mintz then cites the Reagan administration’s school lunch policies as an additional form of population control.

Mintz’s analysis is much better on non-economic parts of sugar’s history. His emphasis is not on the science of sugar, or its culinary or nutritional properties, but he is strong on its cultural impacts. The meat of the book on Britain’s working classes from roughly 1600-1900, presumably his specialty in his scholarly research. Mintz goes into how sugar is farmed and processed, how it related to other crops, where it sat in people’s diets and how the growing sugar trade changed diet and nutrition worldwide for people of all classes, though again with an emphasis on Britain. He also goes into sugar’s pre-Atlantic history, which is mentioned in Europe as far back as the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. Henry VIII was an avowed fan, and his court was a major user of the then-expensive spice.

He doesn’t go extensively into sugar’s non-British history, but does mention the Arabic enlightenment physician Avicenna’s (d. 1037) views on sugar. Also of interest are historical views on sugar’s medicinal value in various forms that no longer pass muster, such as powder for the eyes and smoke for the lungs, as well as its usefulness for disguising both medicines and poisons. Some doctors viewed sugar as a cure-all in the early 1700s, though its role in diabetes was also discovered around the same time. Its effects on weight and teeth were also well-known; Elizabeth I apparently had quite a sweet tooth, which had turned black by her old age. There was also a harmful superstition that eating large quantities of fresh fruit was harmful to one’s health. But I do share the time’s positive view of honey, which in my opinion is underrated as a sweetener.

Another historical quirk is how intimately the British paired sugar, imported from thousands of miles to the West, with tea, imported from thousands of miles to the East. Mintz argues that this is partially because tea displaced beer as the working class’ favored drink. In a time of poor sanitation, beer’s germ-killing alcohol made it safer than water. It also made up a non-negligible portion of daily calorie intake for many poorer people. Tea did away with those calories and other nutrients from wheat, which had adverse health consequences. This may explain why the English so commonly replace those calories by putting sugar and milk in their tea, whereas many other cultures do not.

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

John Steele Gordon – A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable

The story of Cyrus Fields, a 19th century entrepreneur who laid the first transatlantic cable. Fields was a man of rare persistence. As Gordon puts it on page 12, “But it was Cyrus Fields alone who made it happen, for he served the same function in the enterprise of the Atlantic cable that a producer serves in a theatrical production. A producer does not act or direct or design scenery. But without him, neither does anyone else.” Fields was around at the right time—but he also the right person.

Telegraphy had been around for a bit by the time Fields got started, and people had also figured out that it was possible to lay cable underwater. Earlier initiatives had crossed the English channel, and of course the U.S. had a transcontinental cable over land. But Fields’ grand project required a new suite of innovations everywhere from sea exploration, knowledge of water physics, electric conductivity, cable insulation, ballast and weight for ships, diplomacy, and international finance. Fields, often through sheer force of will and personality, headed up a multi-year effort using  massive amounts of capital to successfully finish the project. There were numerous setbacks, and the on-the-ground (water?) problem-solving his ships’ crewmembers were able to improvise, at times during hostile weather, are both impressive and inspiring.

Fields paved the way for today’s transoceanic cables capable of carrying not just phone calls, but Internet traffic, video communications, and more around the world. As heroes of invention go, Fields deserves a much more prominent place on the list.