Category: History

After Bannockburn—After the Referendum: Robert the Bruce and the difficulties of Settlement

Michael Penman—

Scotland’s medieval icons William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and their military encounters with England only occasionally reared their heads during the party leaders’ recent campaigning for and against Scottish independence. In January 2012, former Scottish Secretary and Stirling MP, Michael Forsyth, charged that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, probably preferred June 24, 2014, the seven hundredth anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, as the date for the referendum vote—so as best to exploit “centuries old grievances and romantic mythology.” September 11 was in fact at first proposed with the Unionists and the press rounding on the SNP’s choice of the anniversary of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 in an attempt to allegedly launch a “second war” for Independence (even though the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution referendum, which embraced many Unionist parties, had also been held on that date).

Thus September 18, 2014 was a compromise choice for the “Yes-No?” vote. But this was not enough to stop former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, from criticizing what he saw as Alex Salmond’s stoking of “anti-English sentiment” through proximity to the Bannockburn anniversary, allegedly detracting from commemoration of historic “British” military events like the anniversaries of the D-Day landings and the outbreak of World War One. Yet Unionist Ministers also played this game. The scheduling of rival events thus led to a very uncomfortable handshake between Mr. Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron at British Armed Services Day, held in Stirling on Saturday, June 28, 2014, clashing with the same weekend’s plans for the festival of Bannockburn Live! And just a couple of days later the Queen and PM hosted the launch of the British Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, Elizabeth, at Rosyth docks (in the constituency of former Labour PM and reinvigorated Union-campaigner, Gordon Brown). Then, almost at the death, on September 8, Mr. Salmond invoked the famous Bruce-era “Declaration of Arbroath” of 1320—a pithy statement of Scottish sovereignty sent to the Papacy in the name of Scotland’s nobility— and offered the Scottish people a “Declaration of Opportunity” with promises on the NHS, welfare, social justice, and the right “[to] choose a government to protect their interests.” In response, Unionist commentators only nibbled a bit at this bait, gently poo-pooing such “harking back to a very different world” as the fourteenth century, and then returned to contemporary policy rhetoric. This then was but a mere faint echo of the use which all parties had made of the Declaration of Arbroath as a touchstone of patriotism and political idealism during the 1997 Yes-Yes Devolution campaigns (with Sean Connery’s broadcast for the SNP deploying history from “Sheven Shenturies Ago…”).


Bannockburn: Bruce Reviewing His Troops Before the Battle via Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly, it is surely a positive that in 2014 all parties made a conscious effort of restraint not to mangle centuries-past historical events and figures in their efforts to persuade (with the SNP in particular having moved away after 1997 from such ploys as annual Bannockburn rallies calling for an Independence vote). But with the votes now cast and counted and 55% of the Scottish electorate in favor of retaining Scotland’s place in the Union in some form, the history of Robert Bruce’s reign might again be (cautiously) instructive. For after his triumph at Bannockburn, King Robert had to oversee a resettlement of lands and offices and to win back the territory and hearts-and-minds of several Scottish lordships, towns and regions still in English control or sympathy. The first parliament he called to do this after the battle, in November 1314 at Cambuskenneth Abbey outside Stirling (just a few miles from the battlefield), was by no means an easy affair. As much as the king and his ministers with their battle-mandate may have sought to control that assembly and its agenda, there is evidence of difficult debate on a number of issues: forfeiture of past opponents, lobbying for new lands and offices for supporters, a need to tidy and modernize Scotland’s laws, to rebuild her economy, and settle the royal succession.

This may have been a gathering which Robert sought to use for reconciliation and to avoid any mood of triumphalism and vindictiveness against both his Scottish and English opponents. Indeed, the assembly may have opened by marking All Souls day (November 2) with a procession and mass for the dead, remembering some of those who had fallen on both sides at Bannockburn. It is clear, too, that the key decision of this parliament—an act of November 6 to now forfeit those holders of Scottish lands who remained outside Robert’s peace—was a highly contentious issue for all concerned: the parliamentary record states that “it was finally agreed, adjudged and decreed by the counsel and assent” of the king and his subjects that these individuals should now be disinherited “although they had been often summoned and lawfully expected.”

Nevertheless, it is very telling that such was Robert’s continued need to win support and stabilize his regime that some key individuals still in English allegiance had their forfeiture further delayed, allowing them more time to submit to Bruce. Moreover, although the Bruce government clearly tried to tread carefully in this regard, upheaval and disfavor to past opponents was unavoidable. By 1318 this had provoked a crisis. With his last surviving brother killed in battle in Ireland and only an infant grandson as his heir, Robert was vulnerable and there was growing disquiet about his landed favor to key supporters. An emergency parliament called to Scone in December that year may have been an even more fractious, tense affair with uncomfortable questions and contingencies over patronage, the succession and law reform. Despite the royal regime’s attempts in this parliament to use statute to gag those spreading rumors about a rift between king and subjects there was clearly a substantial plot underway against Bruce, led by former Scottish opponents and in favor of Edward Balliol, a vassal-claimant of the Scottish throne then in Edward II’s court and pay. In 1320 this erupted as the so-called “Soules Conspiracy” with Bruce’s “Black Parliament” condemning those implicated in this sedition and his supporters moving to hunt them down throughout the realm.

So the great medieval turning point of Bannockburn heralded a rocky, often bitter period of settlement with quite partisan outcomes. The political and popular response in the wake of the majority “No” vote in 2014 will also surely be challenging and compelling.

Michael Penman is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Stirling and co-author of England and Scotland in the Fourteenth Century: New Perspectives. His most recent book is Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots.

Further Reading:

Why Aren’t We Celebrating Constitution Day?

Lorri Glover—

Today is Constitution Day, not that you would know it. The anniversary has never sparked the public imagination. Forget rivaling the 4th of July. Constitution Day doesn’t garner the publicity or even the retail sales of Presidents’ Day.

This blasé attitude toward Constitution Day runs counter to Americans’ zealous defense of their Constitutional rights, frequent yearnings for the “original” meaning of the Constitution, and near-sanctification of the Founders. Maybe it’s the fact that the Constitution created the federal government, about which Americans have often felt skittish and occasionally downright hostile. Or maybe two weeks after Labor Day—itself fascinating given America’s fraught history with unions—we’re too busy with work and back-to-school. Whatever the current cause of the indifference to commemorating September 17, we’ve actually gotten the history right. Nothing was settled on September 17, 1787, except that a long and difficult road lay ahead.

In July 1776, when the Revolutionaries finished their mammoth task of justifying the overthrow of imperial rule, they celebrated. John Adams said he hoped that future generations of Americans would always commemorate Independence Day “with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”—the eighteenth-century word for fireworks—“from one End of this Continent to the other.”

But in September 1787, not even the staunchest advocate for the Constitution felt much like celebrating. The work was not done, not by a long shot. James Madison was the principal architect of the Constitution, and even he saw that on September 17 delegates to the Constitutional Convention only completed a proposal. It was, he said, “nothing but a dead letter, until life and validity were breathed into it, by the voice of the people, speaking through the several state conventions.”

cene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy via Wikimedia Commons

For the Constitution to become law, citizens needed to approve the plan, which required representatives to meet in popularly-elected state ratification conventions, debate every nuance of the design, and decide whether or not to consent to this radical restructuring of the union of states. Only if nine of the thirteen states agreed would the Constitution become law. To find the real meaning of the Constitution, Madison understood, “we must look for it not in the general convention, which proposed, but in the state conventions, which accepted and ratified the constitution.”  That process took nearly a year. James Madison was a thirty-six-year-old bachelor, living with and supported by his wealthy father, so he had the wherewithal to work full-time lobbying for the Constitution. He spent six months campaigning for the federal plan in New York and then continued the fight to his home state of Virginia.

In Virginia, in some of the most dramatic and important political debates in all of American history, James Madison took on Patrick Henry. Henry was the greatest orator of the Revolution and the most powerful man in the largest and most important state in the union. Madison’s national ambitions and continental point of view ran counter to Henry’s state-centered priorities. Henry had sixteen children and was deeply worried about their financial futures as well as about the sovereignty of the state of Virginia. The Constitution, he believed, jeopardized both by giving the federal government boundless authority over long-standing Virginia rights. Not one to mince words, Henry announced: “As this Government stands, I despise and abhor it.”

The deeply-divided Virginians were hardly alone. From fall 1787 to summer 1788 and across the whole country, advocates and critics of the Constitution engaged in fierce debates involving allegations of mendacity, craven self-interestedness, willful ignorance, and outright treason. If they accepted the Constitution, critics insisted, Americans would deservedly find themselves “broiling in a Hell of Slavery.” Without the Constitution, supporters pronounced, they would “sink into contempt and anarchy” and cause “a total dissolution of our short existence as a nation.” The only thing Americans generally agreed on was the stakes: they were deciding “not the fate of an individual, but that of millions.” Their country was counting on them to do the right thing.

So, for ten months citizens interrogated the meaning and implications of every part of the federal design. Fitfully and finally, the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. The exact day is tricky, though. On June 25, Virginia narrowly voted to ratify, 89 in favor, 79 opposed. A mere six votes, then, would have redirected the course of American history. Patrick Henry accepted defeat while vowing to work toward “seeing that Government changed so as to be compatible with the safety, liberty and happiness of the people.” James Madison breathed a sigh of relief and his side briefly celebrated Virginia becoming the 9th and crucial state. What they didn’t know, because information traveled by horse, was that New Hampshire beat them to the punch, voting in favor of the Constitution just a few days before.

Either way, things remained unsettled even after June 1788. Completing the Constitution spilled into the first Congress. In 1789, at the insistence of voters demanding their rights be codified, Congress sent the states a series of proposed revisions, which we today call the Bill of Rights. Usually Americans forget that these after-the-fact changes, which most of the original framers of the Constitution had long dismissed as unnecessary and impractical, transformed the Constitution. Since then (though not too often) we’ve continued to alter the fundamental nature of their plan, to make it our own.

Americans often lament the lost world of the founders. But on this Constitution Day, take heart: we’ve not strayed all that far from our Founding Fathers after all. On closer look, our civic life, like theirs, often seems messy and divisive and sometimes downright vicious. Things never get decided as soon as we’d like, and we often fall into reflexively disparaging the motives and patriotism of those with whom we disagree. But we also publicly proclaim our opinions without fear of governmental reprisal, and we move toward consensus when we can and otherwise reconcile ourselves (often begrudgingly) to peaceful disagreement.

Historically, then, we are right in our non-celebration of a Constitution Day. Creating the Constitution was and remains a work in progress. But we are civically wrong—dangerously so—when we fail to understand the history of the Constitution and its language and meaning. So, forget the forgetting to celebrate today and use the time instead to read the Constitution and weigh in your own mind what it means. Your country is counting on you.

Lorri Glover is John Francis Bannon Endowed Chair, Department of History, Saint Louis University. She is author of four previous books on early American history, including The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown. Her most recent book is Founders as Fathers.

Further Reading:

Founders as Fathers by Lorri Glover

Did DNA Really Prove the Identity of Jack the Ripper?

Paul Begg—

If it seems too good to be true—it probably is.

Over the last few days the newspapers and television have become very excited over a claim that DNA tests on a silk shawl of scarf had identified Jack the Ripper, the uncaught Victorian serial killer who murdered several women in London’s East End in 1888. The shawl/scarf had been passed down through several generations of descendants of an 1888 policeman, Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson. According to family tradition, Simpson had been near Mitre Square, where the Ripper murdered Catherine Eddowes and where the shawl was allegedly found, and Simpson was allowed to keep it.

The shawl/scarf has been known about for decades, it has even undergone inconclusive DNA tests for a TV program and for a while was on loan to the Crime Museum (formerly known as the Black Museum) at Scotland Yard. The then owners retrieved the shawl when they decided to sell it. It was put up for auction, being bought by Russell Edwards, the author of the book Naming Jack the Ripper which has caused the recent brouhaha.

The trouble is that while there really was a policeman named Amos Simpson he belonged to N Division, a police division some distance away from H Division where the murders were committed. Policemen had been drafted into the H Division from other divisions, but these were all recorded in Police Orders, issued to police stations every day, and there is no mention of Amos Simpson. So Amos Simpson shouldn’t have been anywhere near Mitre Square. Small wonder that the shawl hadn’t been given very much attention by Ripperologists, as writers and researchers into the mystery are collectively called.

But the problems with the provenance—the history of the shawl/scarf—move to the back burner if the DNA evidence proves solid.

The big question, of course, is who the DNA revealed as Jack the Ripper. The shawl was once loaned to Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum and during his research Russell Edwards contacted the curator, Alan McCormack, to see if he had further information about the shawl. In the course of their conversation the curator said the police had always known the identity of Jack the Ripper, he was a man named Aaron Kosminski.

A document written by a senior policeman a few years after the murders in which he sought to exonerate a man identified in a newspaper as the Ripper named three men who were more likely than the suspect to have been Jack. One of them was a Polish Jew named “Kosminski”. Then, in 1910, Sir Robert Anderson, the head of the CID at the time of the murders, published his autobiography in which he stated that the Ripper was a Polish Jew who had been positively identified by an eyewitness and was subsequently committed to an asylum. Frustratingly Anderson did not name the man and amazingly it wasn’t until 1987 that writer Martin Fido speculated that Anderson’s unnamed Polish Jew was the same man as the Polish Jew called “Kosminski”. Prompted by a newspaper article referring to Fido’s theory a descendant of Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, who headed the Ripper investigation, produced the Chief Inspector’s own copy of Anderson’s autobiography. Swanson had made some marginal notes in which he said the Anderson’s suspect was—“Kosminski”. Martin Fido had undertaken an exhaustive search through the asylum records and had found only one “Kosminski”, a young man named Aaron Kosminski.

Jack the Ripper Puck Magazine

The cover of the September 21, 1889, issue of Puck magazine, featuring a depiction of the unidentified Whitechapel murderer Jack the Ripper via

The identification of “Kosminski”/Aaron Kosminski as the Ripper is fraught with problems and it was probably wrong for the curator of the Crime Museum to say with such certainty that the police had always known the identity of Jack the Ripper. Nevertheless, that two policemen very close to the investigation claimed that Kosminski was the Ripper obviously carried a lot of weight.

Dr. Jari Louheleinen, from Finland, is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at Liverpool’s John Moores University and an Associate Professor in Biochemistry and he has a list of publications only slightly shorter than your arm. He had met Russell Edwards, knew the story of the shawl, and was curious to see if he could extract any information from stains known to be on it. He offered to undertake a series of serious tests in his own time on condition that he could publish the results. Edwards jumped at the offer. Unless you know about DNA the information given in Mr. Edwards’ book is scientific gobbledygook, but initial tests revealed three things, a stain that appeared to be semen, a stain that appeared to be blood, and bloodstains which Jari, from his experience working with various law enforcement agencies, recognised as “’consistent with arterial blood spatter caused by slashing.’”

Unfortunately nuclear DNA deteriorates quickly and therefore when analyzing old material scientists have to rely on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Discovered in the 1960s, it is inherited through the female line and is popularly known as the “Eve Gene”, but there can be hundreds of thousands of people with the same mtDNA. In this instance, however, the recovered mtDNA proved to be a rare strain which meant that it would be shared by 1 in every 290,000 people in the world. That sounds like a lot, but according to Edwards it means that in 1888 Eddowes would have been one of about twenty-five people in London to have the mutation. The test on the DNA in the semen produced a near perfect match with DNA provided by a direct descendant of Aaron Kosminski’s sister.

That DNA on the shawl matches a victim of Jack the Ripper and the man who senior officers at the time believed was Jack the Ripper is remarkable, after all the mtDNA needn’t have matched anyone connected with the Ripper case at all.

But there are serious problems with all this and we must await the expert responses to Jari Louheleinen’s paper when it appears.

And then there is the problem of explaining how the shawl passed into the hands of Amos Simpson.

Paul Begg is a world authority on Jack the Ripper and the author of several books about him, including Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History. He is co-author with John Bennett of Jack the Ripper: CSI Whitechapel. His latest book is Jack the Ripper: The Forgotten Victims.

Further Reading:

Jack the Ripper: The Forgotten Victims by Paul Begg

King’s Dream: Civil Rights and the History of Nonviolent Protest

King's Dream CoverOn this day in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave what is widely hailed as the best political speech of the twentieth century. King famously departed from his prepared text to expound upon his dream, a vision of a nation living in racial harmony. Folk history has it that Mahalia Jackson, a singer and activist, prompted the improvisation by calling out “Tell ‘em about the dream Martin!” What followed has become so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that we might imagine its message to be as clear and obvious as it is powerful and resonant. King’s Dream by Eric J. Sundquist shows how complex and open to interpretation King’s words were and are.

In the decades after King’s death, liberals and conservatives have both gestured towards King to support their stances on affirmative action and reparations for slavery. Apple Computer, the New Republic, and many others have advertised using imagery that evokes the “I Have a Dream” speech. It is at least partially in response to these reductive (and sometimes contradictory) political and popular appropriations that Sundquist gives a fuller and more nuanced sense of the man and his most famous speech.

Sundquist supplies useful context through his account of King’s work in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The successes and struggles of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-ins, in Nashville and elsewhere, the Freedom Rides, and the especially controversial Birmingham campaign all played into the hopes and fears surrounding the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the occasion for King’s speech. King addresses himself not only to segregationists but to Alabama Governor George Wallace, and, implicitly, to those within the movement who doubted the power of nonviolent protest.

King’s Dream also emphasizes two key American texts that preceded the “I Have a Dream” speech. Sundquist shows how King positioned himself in conversation with Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the writers of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence. The 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech calls for the promise of Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation to be fulfilled, and for the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Through analysis along these lines, Sundquist arrives at one of his core interpretive claims. He writes:

King’s greatness, as well as the greatness of his speech, lay in his ability to elevate the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time. The nation had failed black Americans, no doubt, but it was not—contrary to the opinions of some raising the fist of Black Power—irredeemably corrupt and ripe for overthrow. Enlisting his audience in a crusade sanctioned equally by the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, King in no way rejected America’s foundational values. Rather, he purified and consolidated those values by insisting that only when the revolutionary rights they guaranteed were shared by Americans of all colors, creeds, and nationalities would they truly be America’s foundational values.

Sundquist addresses the anniversary of King’s speech most directly, but three other authors also critically consider “the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time.” In We Shall Overcome, Alexander Tsesis traces the history of legal efforts to achieve civil rights for all Americans, beginning with the years leading up to the Revolution and continuing to our own times. Tsesis also argues, in opposition to other legal theorists, that the Constitution fundamentally requires the U.S. government to defend individual liberties for the benefit of general welfare.

Civil Disobedience CoverLewis Perry writes from a similarly broad perspective in his book, Civil Disobedience. He considers the history of nonviolent protest and the ways it has been and become an American institution. Perry attends to the subtleties of King’s position, noting that although he eventually abandoned the practice, King carried a pistol for a time and publicly conceded the right to defend home and family.

In Protest at Selma, David J. Garrow closely examines how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into being. He emphasizes how crucial it was that Martin Luther King Jr. learned to exploit the media, an influential third-party audience. By shifting focus from nonviolent persuasion, intended to win over attackers, to nonviolent provocation, intended to win over the media and its audience, King was able to make dramatic progress.

Each of these books helps us understand the magic of the “I Have a Dream” speech and the courage of the Civil Rights Movement. They consider, sometimes critically, what it meant to be an American fifty years ago and what it means to be an American today. They ask us to look carefully at our laws and culture and they assure us that we need not be satisfied with the status quo. Sundquist, Tsesis, Perry, and Garrow insist that we treat this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and their books remind us to live deliberately so that the nation may honor its promises and fulfill the true meaning of its creed.


Why Augustus Should Be Remembered alongside Julius Caesar

Adrian Goldsworthy—

Maybe sometimes a person can be too successful, or at least you are tempted to wonder this when you think about how Augustus is scarcely remembered these days. We have all heard of Julius Caesar, and we have all heard of Antony and Cleopatra—in each case their names now as familiar from Shakespeare’s plays as the real history. In contrast Rome’s first emperor and Julius Caesar’s great nephew and heir is no longer so well known. He appears as Octavius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and as Caesar in his Antony and Cleopatra, but his role is always as a supporting character and he tends to come across as somewhat lifeless. Augustus did not get a play of his own, perhaps because he won, and kept on winning, living on into his seventies and dying peacefully in his bed. Compared to being murdered at a meeting of the Senate by men he considered friends, or to committing suicide and dying in a lover’s arms, it was an end lacking in drama. Doomed love or assassination at the height of power offered the playwright far better material.

Bust of Augustus

Bust of Augustus, first emperor of Rome, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet Augustus was important, changing the very nature of the Roman state and turning it into a system that was a monarchy in all but name, and a system that would endure for centuries. Some people, including the late first century AD biographer Suetonius, counted Julius Caesar as Rome’s first emperor and there is something to be said for this verdict, mainly because it was as his heir that Augustus claimed power, raised a private army, and thrust himself into the heart of the Republic’s violent politics in the months after the Ides of March. Mark Antony dismissed him as a “boy who owes everything to a name,” and he was partly right, even if we should add that he owed a lot to his precocious ambition, political skill, and financial backing. Ultimately it was because he took the name Caesar that he mattered.

Without Caesar there could have been no Augustus, but we should also never forget how little time Julius Caesar spent in Rome in his last years. The Civil War that had begun in 49 BC kept flaring back into life and was not finally won until 45 BC. Caesar returned in October of that year and was killed in the following March. Whatever his longer term plans—something at which we can only guess—he had very little time to shape a new regime.

Augustus was one of the three most powerful men in Rome by 43 BC, had disposed of his last rival by 30 BC and then lived on unchallenged until AD 14. During that time a new political system was gradually created. It was not a steady evolution, but a series of experiments, with several changes of direction and moments of backtracking, but he made it work. Monopolising military power meant that there was no chance of a rival warlord emerging to restart the civil wars. Augustus was also a politician of genius, and he was helped by the desperate longing of Romans and people in the provinces alike for peace and stability. Underlying his propaganda and image-making was sheer hard graft, as he restored order and continuity to the administration of a vast empire. Much of this he did himself, touring the provinces, listening to petition after petition, and making decisions that would be kept and not reversed when the balance of power shifted at Rome as it had done so often over the last decades.

The Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar

The Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar (31 BC – AD 6), via Wikimedia Commons

Julius Caesar was flamboyant, charismatic, and immensely talented whether as a soldier, writer, or politician. Augustus’ personality is far more elusive and it is no coincidence that one of his seals was the inscrutable sphinx. He cultivated a persona of a simple, old-fashioned Roman gentleman who devoted his life to the service of the state, doing not just the glorious acts but also many that were dull, even unpleasant, though necessary. They are the only two men to have months named after them in the calendar we still use today—which in all its important features is the one introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Both of them changed Rome, shaping the empire that has had such a profound influence on the history and culture of the western world.

Without Caesar there could have been no Augustus. Without Augustus then it is more than likely that we would not remember Julius Caesar as being much different from the other Roman warlords like Sulla or Pompey. It was the success of Augustus which ensured that all future emperors would take the name Caesar, turning what was simply another family name into a title of ultimate power which was to endure into the twentieth century in the forms Kaiser and Tsar. Both Caesar and Augustus deserve to be remembered, but any balanced judgement must acknowledge that it was the latter who did the most to shape the history of Rome and the wider world.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a leading historian of the ancient world and author of acclaimed biographies of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra among many other books. He lectures widely and consults on historical documentaries produced by the History Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC.

Further Reading:

Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy  Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy

How to Give a Great Speech: A Master Class with Winston Churchill

Literary ChurchillChances are good that you have been asked to speak in public before and will need to speak in public again. Giving a compelling speech is no easy task at any level, be it giving a TED Talk in front of hundreds or just summarizing a novel at school. You may wonder how anyone ever managed to do it with even a modicum of style. Jonathan Rose‘s new biography of Winston Churchill  shows how one of the greatest orators of all time conquered the challenge of winning over an audience. The Literary Churchill considers the politician as an author, a reader, and an actor, explaining how his favorite plays and books formed the foundation of his public persona. Rose’s analysis fits the man particularly well since, as The Daily Beast puts it, Churchill would be famous today on the strength of his writing alone. Churchill remains the only British Prime Minister to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and he published as a war correspondent, a biographer, a historian, and, less successfully, as a novelist.

It is one of Churchill’s unpublished pieces, however, that will come to your aid as you prepare to give a speech. In 1897, he wrote “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” a guide to oratory and a reflection on the nature of the craft. Rose interprets the essay as an indication of Churchill’s hushed enthusiasm for Oscar Wilde, and you can read an excerpt on the subject via Biographile. The guide has become useful to the scholar, but Churchill intended for the following topics to serve the beginning orator.


Churchill writes that “there is no more important element in the technique of rhetoric than the continual employment of the best possible word.” As Rose notes, this is bit of a truism. Of course one should choose the most effective words, but which words are the most effective? Churchill says that, contrary to popular assumptions, short, common words are better than long, uncommon ones. He cautions against puffing up one’s rhetoric with Greek and Latin, suggesting that punchy, Anglo-Saxon words “appeal with greater force to simple understandings.” Rose admits that this passage tempted him to write “e.g. blood, sweat, tears” in the margin.


One must also attend to the way the words flow together, Churchill advises. He reminds the reader of the power of sound, and says that the sentences of the best orators become “long, rolling and sonorous,” with “a cadence which resembles blank verse rather than prose.” Rose offers a biographical insight here, noting that Churchill tended to write his speeches in something like vers libre, poetry based on speaking patterns, rather than continuous paragraphs.

Churchill V

Churchill, one week after his “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech


Churchill discusses the way careful repetition and modulation can help build an argument toward its climax. A speaker can encourage enthusiasm by employing a variety of images and facts “all pointing in a common direction” such that the audience can anticipate the conclusion before it is reached. Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech again rings in one’s ears as the speaker follows his own advice to great effect.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.


A speaker, Churchill writes, can use apt comparisons to produce conviction in an audience. He says that analogies can “translate an established truth into simple language” or “aspire to reveal the unknown.” The passage goes on to suggest that analogies are “among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician” and that “the effect upon the most cultivated audience is electrical.” Churchill quotes some examples, but to 21st century readers they testify to the imperialism, sexism, and racism of 19th century British politicians rather than to their rhetorical talent. Churchill’s own prose, however, displays some flair for analogy, as he uses the phrases “formidable weapons” and “electrical” to conjure the word “power” without using it outright.


Churchill writes that in emotional speeches one may use language “so wild that reason recoils.” The most persuasive orators sweep their audiences off their feet with phrases that hit upon the group sentiment and amplify it to an extreme. In political oratory, these phrases “become the watchwords of parties, and the creeds of nationalities.” Rose notes that Churchill used this kind of hyperbolic register often, and one can see him employing it at the end of the “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech, in which he moves swiftly from country to empire to millennia of human progress.

Chances are good that your next public speaking opportunity will not decide the fates of empires. Nevertheless, you will want to speak accurately and beautifully. You will want to convince and inspire. You will want your audience to remember your message and how impressively you delivered it. In this pursuit you will find no example more memorable, more inspiring, or more literary than Winston Churchill.


A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (Author Interview Video)


On the night of November 9, 1938, now known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany. In the video below, Alon Confino explains why this act, among the other horrors committed that night, was particularly unusual. There is not a direct connection between the Nazi’s racist ideology and the burning of religious holy objects. The act can only be understood as part of the Nazi’s effort to build a new civilization independent of previous religious ideas and morality. Confino explores the thoughts and ideas that led the Nazi’s to the belief that Jews and Judaism had to be eradicated to build this new society in A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. Watch Confino’s eloquent responses to the questions of why we should strive to understand the Nazi imagination,  and why historical storytelling is important.

“The main issue in explaining the holocaust is not what happened in Auschwitz, but is about the imagination that made Auschwitz possible to begin with.”Alon Confino

Five Reads for Father’s Day

Father’s Day is this Sunday, and to celebrate we bring you five books about fathers and family. These are books about American Revolutionaries, innovative photographers, domestic Victorians, virtual currencies, and literary Jews for any family to enjoy.

Founders as Fathers

Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries by Lorri Glover

Even if you are an American history buff, you may not know the intimate details of the founders’ home lives. Lorri Glover describes the sacrifices made and the challenges faced by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Virginians. As the Revolution transformed the country’s political institutions, it profoundly affected family life as well.

Family in the Picture

Family in the Picture, 1958-2013 by Lee Friedlander

Photo enthusiasts might appreciate this chronicle of the family life of one of the most inventive photographers in the U.S.  The book contains over 350 photos, most of them newly released from the artist’s personal archive. Most families try to preserve their memories in one way or another, but, as the New York Times put it, “When your husband or father is the accomplished photographer Lee Friedlander, the family photo album can’t help becoming a work of art.”

A Man's Place

A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England by John Tosh

Fathers taking on a greater share of the domestic load might seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but John Tosh describes how men in the 19th century came to place new value on the home. Case studies on married life and fatherhood from the 1830s and onwards show the domestic trend emerging as men react urbanization and Evangelical Christianity.  By the 1870s, domesticity held less appeal, and Tosh’s gender history explains how that waning interest set the stage for the next century.

Wildcat Currency

Wildcat Currency: How the Virtual Money Revolution is Transforming the Economy by Edward Castronova

The 21st century economy is changing rapidly, and the currency used is changing too. Edward Castronova delves into the world of virtual finance, discussing everything from credit card perks like airline miles to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. The researcher considers how we conceive of money itself, how we relate to it emotionally, and how virtual currencies could affect our legal and political futures.

Jews and Words

Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

This father/daughter, writer/historian team investigate and describe the profound relationship between Jews and the language they use, arguing that words provide the link from generation to generation. The book traces central Jewish themes through important names, canonical texts, ancient arguments, and memorable quips. The authors ultimately synthesize those words into an essay, a story, a history, and a collaboration.

Have a happy Father’s Day!

Thoreau: Fully Annotated

Walden JacketIn a month, it will have been ten years since Jeffrey S. Cramer published Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Cramer has had a prolific and successful decade, editing numerous volumes on Henry David Thoreau and racking up awards and praise. In 2012, radio host Jim Fleming said that Cramer “may know more about the bard at Walden Pond than anyone else alive.” He has earned that reputation, at least in part, on the basis of his annotations.

Cramer has published three fully annotated volumes by Thoreau: Walden (2004), The Maine Woods (2009), and Essays (2013). To begin to understand why these books are “fully annotated” and not merely “edited,” one need only take a quick glance at Walden. Thoreau’s text occupies the half of the page closest to the spine and Cramer’s copious annotations run along the outside. Between the transcendentalist’s prose and the scholar’s commentary, most of the pages are, indeed, completely full. There are only a handful of places where Thoreau’s text proceeds without Cramer’s accompaniment, and rarely for longer than a few paragraphs. Far more commonly, Cramer’s annotations outstrip Thoreau’s chapters.

The fullness of the fully annotated edition comes not only from the volume of the commentary but also from its breadth and depth. Cramer provides the expected historical, philosophical, and geographical contexts for Walden and goes well beyond their bounds. He explains the writer’s puns, calls him on his exaggerations, and knowingly undercuts his more bombastic pronouncements. When Thoreau declares that “Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race,” Cramer chimes in to say that “Although Thoreau could read Greek, he did not always read the Greek authors in the original, but would use Latin, French, or English translations.”[1]


Cramer annotates Walden with the care and thoroughness usually reserved for Shakespeare plays or the Bible, and one might ask why the scholar feels compelled to explicate Thoreau so fully. Perhaps it is simply Cramer’s passion that leads him onwards. Most people will expound upon their favorite subject to an attentive audience for hours if given the opportunity. Indeed, some of that spirit comes through in Cramer’s interviews. In 2012, he was asked what three scenes from Thoreau’s life he would include in a biopic. The scholar begins carefully, selecting major life events, but quickly finds himself on a roll, listing scene after scene, finishing with “and— and— how long can we make this movie?”

Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_RestoredYet even as Cramer’s interviews imply that his breathless enthusiasm may be the impetus for the full annotations, his introduction hints at a justification rooted in Walden itself. Cramer quotes Thoreau’s claim that “The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.”[2] Thoreau, Cramer argues, is suggesting a way of approaching Walden. To “seek the meaning of each word and line” is precisely the task of the annotator, who identifies the precise significance of each moment. At the same time, the annotator expands the language beyond its common use, and does so with “wisdom and valor and generosity.” Cramer’s wisdom lies in his paramount knowledge of the bard at Walden Pond, his valor in his perseverant attention, and his generosity in the abundance of his commentary. It is in this sense, in fulfilling a need Thoreau himself seems to recognize, that Cramer’s editions are fully annotated.


[1] Thoreau, Henry. Walden. 1854. Ed. Jeffrey Cramer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 101.

[2] Jeffrey S. Cramer. Introduction. Walden. By Henry D. Thoreau. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xx.

Analyzing Freud, the Master of Psychoanalysis

“Biographers, Freud knew even as a young man, spoke on other people’s behalf—like parents, doctors, rabbis, and politicians. Psychoanalysis was to be a medical treatment which enabled people to speak on their own behalf.”—Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud


In his biography of Sigmund Freud’s early life, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psycholanalyst, Adam Phillips acknowledges the awkwardness of documenting Freud’s life when Freud himself hated biography. Freud angrily rejected offers to from hopeful biographers. He believed that biographies could reveal no truths about a life. He even went so far as to destroy personal documents from his young life in order to confound future biographers.

Freud’s vehement opposition to biography and, in particular, his own biography, says a great deal about his life and his character. His preemptive destruction of documents to keep them from the hands of “biographers” (he specifically used the plural) shows his sense of self-importance and his need to control his biographical record. It should not be surprising that the father of psychoanalysis—the “treatment which enabled people to speak on their own behalf”—desired to tell his own story of his life.

Though he stops short of actually psychoanalyzing Freud, Phillips’ displays a fine understanding of the tenets of psychoanalysis. His sensitive descriptions of Freud’s personal development, invite the reader to make parallel comparisons to the development of his work in psychoanalysis.

Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Becoming Freud. Enter our Goodreads giveaway before next Thursday, June 5th.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips

Becoming Freud

by Adam Phillips

Giveaway ends June 05, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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