Sunday, September 21, 2008

Reviewed: books on African American congressmen during Reconstruction and Mormon history

CAPITOL MEN: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen by Philip Dray is reviewed in the Washington Post by Jabari Asim, who finds it "absorbing." Asim writes,

Most of Dray's Capitol men -- female representation, like female suffrage, was a thing of the future -- first came to public attention during the state conventions. Congress required a new constitution from each Confederate state before it could be re-admitted to the Union. The gatherings were "extraordinary events" and "the nation's first biracial experiment in governance," Dray writes. "Most of the whites present, including members of the press, were seeing and hearing for the first time the phenomenon of black men speaking their opinions freely." He observes that "black officeholders tended to be -- had to be -- exceptional individuals. . . . In general they brought an impressive degree of competence and dedication to their jobs, dispelling critics' claims that they possessed no aptitude for politics or statesmanship."
Dray also details "what these men were up against":
both the violence (in the form of Klan campaigns, bloodthirsty rifle clubs and systematic rape of black women) and the political maneuverings, such as the dismantling of the Enforcement Acts, the Mississippi Plan and the capitulating North's increasing willingness to get on with the business of reconciliation, no matter what the cost.
Continue reading here.

Also in the Post, two books on Mormon history are reviewed by H.W. Brands: DEVIL'S GATE: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy, by David Roberts; and MASSACRE AT MOUNTAIN MEADOWS: An American Tragedy by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard. Brands finds the latter work "riveting" and "even-handed." Of Devil's Gate, Brands writes,

The journey of the handcart travelers from Iowa to Utah became a defining myth of Mormon history, the equivalent, as David Roberts observes, of the voyage of the Mayflower in American colonial history. Subsequent generations of Mormons took pride in their descent from handcart pioneers; as with the Mayflower, more than a few of the claims of lineage were spurious.

In the judgment of Roberts, who has written extensively about the American West and its peoples, the mythmaking has a sinister aspect, crossing the line into historical cover-up.
Read the rest here.