I like to read history when the news gets me down. After last week’s news about a Michigan militia group plotting to kill a cop then bomb his funeral procession in order to make a point, Alpine School District parents in Utah rallying the troops to protest the district referring to our country as a democracy rather than a republic, and Tea Partiers screaming that the Constitution is hanging by a thread, I find it somehow comforting to learn that human beings have always been irrational and confrontational.
Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce’s 30-year battle to abolish the British slave trade. The British Parliament in the 18th and 19th centuries was as strangled with special interests as our US Congress is today. But one man persevered and eventually prevailed. I wish the story had been told by a more objective, less pious author than Eric Metaxas, but Wilberforce’s eventual triumph is uplifting.
The Age of Louis XIV by Will and Ariel Durant relates the reign of France’s greatest king. Louis supported learning, science, and a degree of religious toleration. Unfortunately, his love of grandeur and wars of aggression bankrupted his country. Yet, France survived this ruler’s excesses just as our country survives presidents who lead with more charisma than common sense.
Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts is an honest portrayal of the wives and mothers of the Founding Fathers. These strong women ran plantations, farms, and businesses while the men folk were off warring and politicking. These upper-class women had far more education than the average woman or man in the colonies. Many felt the laws suppressing women’s legal and political rights were unjust, but their priority was independence from England and the creation of a stable government. Probably few would have claimed the Constitution, which was a compromise condoning slavery and ignoring women as citizens, was a document of perfection.
Historic memoir gives a personal touch to history. My all-time favorite is Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. Cheng survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Few Americans know much about this tragic era in China since foreigners were almost totally banned from the country at that time. Mao, in his declining years, decided the failure of his Communist policies to produce a prosperous country was caused by insufficiently harsh implementation. He unleashed a wave of repression and violence which resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese. Cheng, a widow in her 50s, was imprisoned for six years. The fact that she survived the brutal treatment and kept her integrity intact by not signing a spurious confession is the most inspiring story I’ve heard. Nothing bad that ever happens to me will match what this remarkable woman endured.
Dark Star Safari, a travel narrative by Paul Theroux, takes readers by land from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa in 2000. Theroux, who lived in Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught at the university in Uganda during the ‘60s, compares present-day African countries with their situation 40 years ago. His conclusion is not hopeful. Poverty, hopelessness, and tyranny have increased despite the efforts of NGOs, Western governments, and church missions. Okay, this book did not make me feel better about the present. But it did raise the question of how to help impoverished countries. Donations are not doing the job. Maybe how to help the poor is the answer for people looking for an issue to embrace. But it’s an issue that needs thoughtful research, not screaming and slogans.