Saturday, November 22, 2008

Spurgeon: "Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane"

[Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane by Ian Michael Spurgeon (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2008). Cloth, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 278/301. ISBN: 978-0826218148 $42.50]

The view of Senator James H. Lane conveyed by the popular and scholarly literature is an often negative one1. A fiery and effective stump speaker, his public rhetoric was unfailingly inflammatory. His political actions were also baffling to many, leading to persistent allegations of unprincipled political opportunism. In the Kansas-Missouri border conflict, his military depredations, while popular in some fronts, were often denounced by both sides.

Unfortunately, writers' characterizations of Lane are often presented in black and white, with little serious effort to delve below the surface. Ian Michael Spurgeon's study Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln maintains that previous efforts at understanding Lane are too heavily dependent on the superficial judgments of the past. He argues for a new view of the man, one that recognizes a string of consistency throughout Lane's political career. It is the main theme of Spurgeon's tightly focused political biography covering the period beginning with Lane's 1854 move from Indiana to Kansas through the senator's 1866 suicide.

One of the main charges of political opportunism leveled against Jim Lane was his transformation from Douglas Democrat to Lincoln Republican. Spurgeon argues persuasively that it was the Democratic Party that abandoned Lane, not the other way around. In perhaps his book's best section, the author details Lane's shabby treatment at the hands of Douglas and other party leaders during Lane's presentation in Washington of the Kansas Memorial2 in 1856. Even so, as a member of the Free State party in Kansas, Lane remained a supporter of popular sovereignty and Democratic principles generally. It was the Civil War that eventually transformed Lane into a pro-Lincoln Republican, a path certainly not unique to the Kansan's career.

Spurgeon concentrates his biographical study on the political sphere of his subject, and thus does not delve heavily into the 1861-1862 raids into Missouri conducted by the Lane Brigade3. However, Spurgeon does recognize Lane as an early supporter of the enlistment of black troops, and also an early adopter of "hard war". The author also sees strong consistency in Lane's views on slavery, which were based on practical, not humanitarian, grounds. According to Spurgeon, the Kansan supported the raising of black regiments primarily as a war measure, a move to spare whites more than a means to raise the status of blacks in society.

The post-war period was especially difficult for Lane. His support of President Andrew Johnston's Civil Rights Bill veto was extremely problematic for the maintenance of Lane's political career, but Spurgeon again sees a pattern of consistency in his actions rather than an about-face. Fire-breathing political rhetoric, and public insistence of his radical credentials aside, Lane was at heart a conservative Republican, more like Lincoln than any of the prominent Radical Republican senators.

Ian Michael Spurgeon's fresh and highly original treatment of Lane's political career is an important contribution to the literature. His thoughtful assertions are well supported and largely persuasive. While the "Grim Chieftain" awaits a definitive full biography, Spurgeon has added a new voice that any future author of such a work must seriously consider.

Comments:
1 - The author feels the best Lane biography to date is Wendell Stephenson's
The Political Career of General James H. Lane (B.P Walker, 1930).
2 - A petition from the Free State settlers of Kansas urging the U.S. Congress to accept the Topeka Constitution, which would allow Kansas to enter the Union as a free state.
3 - Presumably, we can expect this from Bryce Benedict's forthcoming history of the Lane Brigade (University of Oklahoma Press, Spring 2009).

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