Spring 2011 Books


This fascinating volume, edited by religion and politics scholar Michael G. Long, brings to life a forgotten chapter of the civil rights movement through the letters of a man known for having served as the lead attorney on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, as well as his 24 years as a liberal lion on the Supreme Court. This compilation of approximately 200 letters ends in 1957, when Marshall left the NAACP, and focuses on his work as a young attorney and as the NAACP’s chief counsel during the World War II era. The correspondence reveals the wide-ranging activities of a relentless reformer who took on Jim Crow and all the ugly manifestations of a system that relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship.

Marshall was no Don Quixote tilting at windmills; a foreword by Derrick Bell and an introduction by Long convincingly show just how successful he was in the courtroom and in laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement that emerged under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Marshall won case after case. He was especially interested
in attacking segregated education, a crusade that culminated in 1954 with his famous Supreme Court victory. These letters tell that story, and more. (Amistad, 448 pages, $27.99)

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America
By David S. Reynolds

While President Lincoln’s alleged quip to Harriett Beecher Stowe—“Is this the little woman who made this great war?”—may or may not be apocryphal, David S. Reynolds calls it “the most famous statement ever made about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He promises “a thoroughgoing reassessment that gives [the novel] the full measure of its rich cultural background and its enormous impact.”

Thus his book is a mix of literary criticism and social history, with some apt biography thrown in. Intriguingly and respectfully, he probes Stowe’s psyche to reveal a woman who was at once a writer, housewife, breadwinner, hypochondriac, serial mother (at least eight pregnancies), spiritualist, zealot, devout Christian, and religious reformer. In his telling, she seems a figure of uncommonly broad acquaintance, deep sensitivity, and grit.

Reynolds argues that what made the diminutive writer unique was the combination of qualities that plaited her character and seized the reading public’s imagination. This fabric of personality and popularity created a book that was praised and damned, respectively, by many influential abolitionists and slavers alike for fanning the embers that ignited in the Civil War.

What is perhaps more surprising is the novel’s reach in terms of time, media, and geography. While its influence was felt as far away as Russia, where the serfs were freed the same year as America’s slaves, withal, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still being read—and written about—today. (W. W. Norton, 352 pages, $34.50)

The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States
By Gordon S. Wood

Many voices in our national debates habitually shout that “the Founding Fathers believed” X or Y or Z. Well, they did and they didn’t, as Gordon S. Wood demonstrates in this collection of nuanced, elegant essays. The one big takeaway from these pieces (some new, some dating back half a century) is that the founding of the Republic was no simple event. Nor were the founders simpletons.

While Wood acknowledges that “no single historian can know everything; thus the debates over our various historical explanations for the Founding or any other great event in our past will never cease,” it’s hard to imagine a historian better trained to write on this subject. The Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, he is author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787.

Wood’s own simplest statement is his belief that the American Revolution “is the most important event in American history, bar none. . . . The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose we Americans have had.” Amen to that, although be advised that many of his arguments must be wrestled with like Jacob’s angel, and rest assured that it’s worth the intellectual struggle. Take his notion that “all in all, colonial Americans did not have much to revolt against; their revolution seemed to be essentially a mental shift, an intellectual adjustment to what had already taken place over the previous century or more. . . . The Americans were born free and equal and thus, as Tocqueville had written, did not have to become so. The American Revolution therefore became a peculiarly conservative affair, an endorsement and realization, not a transformation of the society.”

Or consider his statement that “once a new idea is expressed and becomes reasonably acceptable to many people, it can spawn new and sometime unexpected behavior.” Example: in The Federalist No. 78, when Alexander Hamilton argued that judges are as much the people’s agents as legislators are, he was only making a case for judicial review of laws. The idea took on a life on its own, however, morphing into an argument for the election of judges in Andrew Jackson’s time; today 39 states elect judges. “This was a development that Hamilton could never have imagined and would have been appalled by,” write Woods, “yet he helped produce it.”

In fact, continues Woods, “There was not in 1787–1788 one ‘correct’ or ‘true’ meaning of the Constitution. The Constitution meant whatever the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists could convince the country to accept. That is why the debate over the Constitution was so important.”