Reviews prepared by staff members of the Library of Virginia
Sara B. Bearss, Editor
Terri L. Snyder. Brabbling Women: Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003. xi + 182 pp. $34.95 (hardcover).
Brabbling Women takes its title from a 1662 Virginia law intended to offer relief to the "poore husbands" forced into defamation suits because their wives had scandalized their neighbors by brabbling--a catch-all phrase for unladylike behavior that included disputing obstinately, quarreling noisily, brawling, and squabbling. To discourage such female misconduct, lawmakers decreed that husbands could choose either to pay damages or to have their wives publicly ducked. This law attempting to shore up the dominion of husbands over their wives came too late for the spouses of Mary Spillman and Mrs. Watt Wilkins, who took their dispute over a stolen "pott of Butter" to the Northampton County Court in July 1643. "Soome words of distace" passed between the two before Wilkins gave Spillman "a slap in the Chopps" and called her a whore "twice or thrice." Words were clearly a powerful weapon for women who were otherwise largely powerless under the law.
Historian Terri L. Snyder effectively uses court records from York County and elsewhere, as well as contemporary literature, to document how some women used language to challenge oppressive political, legal and cultural practices in colonial Virginia. She argues persuasively that ordinary women employed a variety of strategies--including disorderly speech--to gain leverage in dealings with officials, husbands, lovers, masters, and neighbors. Snyder divides her text into five chapters (in addition to an introduction and a conclusion) on women and political culture, women and sex, women and their husbands, women as servants and slaves, and women as widows. Packed into this concise book, in addition to the 144 pages of text, are a handful of well-chosen illustrations, detailed endnotes, and a useful index.
By mining court records, Snyder has crafted a thoughtful and thorough look at outspoken women in seventeenth-century Virginia. The diversity of their experiences is unexpected--some entered the political forum and openly participated in Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 and in the tobacco-cutting riots in 1682. Others boldly sought legal redress for complaints. Wives protested the confines of marriage, and indentured or enslaved women spoke against their masters and the hardships and inequity of servitude. This well-written book would make good reading for those interested in women's history, gender studies and language, as well as the history of colonial Virginia and the South.
—reviewed by Jennifer Davis McDaid, Archives Research Coordinator
Garry Wills. "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. xiv + 274 pp. $25.00 (hardcover).
During the constitutional convention in 1787, the issue of slavery became one of the sticking points in the creation of the new federal government. Should slaves be counted as property for taxation or as people for representation? Southerners, who usually considered slaves as property, demanded that they be counted as people, thereby expanding southern political power. The resulting three-fifths compromise determined that five slaves would count as three people. Garry Wills, in Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power, contends that Thomas Jefferson, popularly considered an antislavery advocate, benefited from this compromise in the election of 1800 and attempted to extend the slave power based on this compromise while president.
Jefferson, whom Wills states he greatly admires, emerges from these pages as a narrow-minded, hypocritical individual whose election in 1800 was less a "revolution" than a close victory based on the backs of slaves. Wills's Jefferson is not a defender of broad civil liberties but rather a political operative bent on destroying those he perceives as opposing him on any issue. Once he is president, Jefferson bases his decisions on what best expands the southern slave power. He pursues Louisiana as fertile ground for the expansion of the peculiar institution, and his embargo of 1807 is as much an attempt to destroy New England commercial power as it is to punish Great Britain for impressments and unfair trade practices. Little of the Jefferson who is hailed as a defender of freedom and liberty appears in this book.
Jefferson's antithesis in Negro President is Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts. Pickering follows Jefferson as secretary of state and later serves as senator and congressman from Massachusetts while Jefferson is president. Pickering is an early abolitionist who sees through much of Jefferson's posturing on issues and understands that the president is attempting to increase southern political power at the expense of liberty and freedom, especially for New England. Holding true to his values and beliefs, Pickering fights Jefferson on every front, even at the expense of his own reputation. John Quincy Adams outmaneuvers Pickering politically and ensconces himself as a good Jeffersonian Republican. Yet Wills notes that Adams eventually comes to see that Pickering was correct, that slavery and the slave power threatened the very liberties that supporters contended they were securing when defending the institution.
Negro President reveals a less pleasant side of Jefferson, who still stands as a symbol of liberty and freedom. It is also a step toward the rehabilitation of Pickering, whom many have considered an aristocrat, a reactionary, and a secessionist. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Wills, he reminds the reader that history is seldom black and white. There are a few errors of fact in the work, but they do not detract from Wills's overall argument.
—reviewed by Trenton E. Hizer, Private Papers Archivist
Edward L. Ayers. In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. xxi + 471 pp. $27.95 (hardcover).
Edward L. Ayers, a University of Virginia historian, led a team of scholars and computer experts who produced an innovative educational website, "The Valley of the Shadow" (http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu), which is a rich compilation of primary source materials (letters, diaries, newspapers, public documents) that allows imaginative and curious students to compare and contrast two communities at the time of the American Civil War--Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The two counties lie in the same great valley and before the war shared many characteristics. The war hit both of them hard but differently. The local, personal perspectives on women, children, and noncombatants that the website provides enrich our understanding of how the Civil War affected everybody, not just the soldiers on the battlefield who did the fighting and who have been the subject of most of the literature on the war.
A brilliant prose stylist and subtle thinker, Ayers has produced one of the finest books yet published on the war, and this volume takes the drama only up to the middle of 1863, before the fierce fighting came into the homes of the residents of the two counties. Ayers's book deftly exploits the electronic archive to explain the similarities and differences between the experiences of the people in the two counties. Augusta County and Franklin County shared many values and characteristics before the war, but the existence of slavery in Virginia overrode the similarities during the secession crisis and forced many proslavery Unionists to become Confederates. Ayers sure-footedly explains that change of mind and then mines the electronic archive to let the residents of both counties (and their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, uncles, and beaux in the armies) tell us what the momentous events of the war meant to them personally (old and young, male and female, white and black, free and enslaved) and to their communities.
This path-breaking study stands alone. Readers and libraries do not need the online archive or its CD-ROM supplement to enjoy and learn from the book. It may be a rare reader, though, who will not want to explore the online archive or the supplement to learn more about individual people or topics they encounter in the moving pages of In the Presence of Mine Enemies.
—reviewed by Brent Tarter, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Bill Hyde, ed. The Union Generals Speak: The Meade Hearings on the Battle of Gettysburg. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xv + 428 pp. $45.00 (hardcover).
Following resounding defeats by Southern arms at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac made use of high ground, superior numbers, and questionable generalship on the part of the Confederate high command at Gettysburg to produce a much-needed victory over Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Led by Major General George Gordon Meade, who only days before the battle commenced was appointed the army's commander, the Northern divisions fended off each assault before repulsing a desperate frontal attack on the third and final day. With wounded packed into wagons and moving in a drenching rain, Lee's army retreated to Virginia.
Critics quickly charged that Meade had failed to pursue Lee's forces or take advantage of an opportunity to deliver a crippling if not fatal blow while the Confederate army encamped by the Potomac River. In mid-July President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Meade, who had tendered his resignation after learning that the president was unhappy with his performance in the wake of the battle. Lincoln hoped to soften criticism while explaining his disappointment over Lee's escape. The president never sent the letter nor did he accept Meade's resignation, but his misgivings were soon echoed by more strident voices in the halls of Congress.
In February 1864 the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War assembled to investigate the allegations against Meade. Presided over by Radical Republicans, the hearings lasted about a year and, as Bill Hyde's book makes clear, were never intended to gather evidence of Meade's innocence or culpability. His guilt was predetermined, his explanations largely ignored. The proceedings were instead an exercise in partisan politics during which the interrogators attempted to destroy Meade's military career and replace him with a politically acceptable officer, in this case Major General Joseph Hooker, who had been defeated by Lee at Chancellorsville.
While the transcripts document the committee's actions, it is Hyde's portrait of its members and his description of the political context that help reveal the committee's motivations. The radical element of the Republican Party loathed the Democrats and held them responsible, North and South, for the war. The Radicals were determined to punish the South and opposed conciliation. They distrusted the military academy at West Point and believed it a haven for conservatives who had little stomach for the war effort. Meade's own disdain for partisan politics made his patriotism suspect. As Hyde notes, internal strife within the military also contributed to the nature of the hearings. The scramble for promotion and the influx of politically appointed officers exacerbated jealousies and rivalries in the higher ranks. Consequently, the testimony of some witnesses was colored by the deep divisions within the army, as well as by personal ambition.
A fascinating and informative account that for the first time lays out this compelling episode for the general reader, The Union Generals Speak is packed with vivid characters and dramatic tension. It is a welcome addition to the Civil War bookshelf.
—reviewed by Donald W. Gunter, Assistant Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Elizabeth R. Varon. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xi + 317 pp. $30.00 (hardcover).
Elizabeth R. Varon, professor of history at Wellesley College, has scored another hit. In her 1998 book, We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia, Varon explored how white, elite Virginia women influenced the political landscape before the Civil War, even though they could not vote. In Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, she examines the life and times of Elizabeth Van Lew, whose loyalty to the Union during the Civil War compelled her to lead a dangerous double life. Van Lew's story is a complex one, and Varon tells the tale in clear and readable style.
Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox--a Southerner who was a Unionist. The burning question, of course, is how Van Lew could operate as a Union spy in the capital of the Confederacy. The eldest daughter of the merchant John Van Lew and Eliza Baker Van Lew, Elizabeth Van Lew was the child of privilege and prestige. She was educated in Philadelphia, her mother's hometown, and Varon suggests that Van Lew's time in Philadelphia may have marked the beginning of her turning against slavery. John Van Lew (who died in 1843) was aware of his wife's antislavery leanings, as Varon argues from a codicil to his will in which he changed from bequeathing all rights to the family slaves to his wife to leaving her only the use of the slaves to prevent her selling or emancipating them. Varon teases out of the record evidence that Eliza Van Lew, to circumvent her husband's will, emancipated her slaves informally. By opting not to record their freedom legally, she avoided invoking the 1806 law requiring freed slaves to leave the commonwealth. Following her mother, Elizabeth Van Lew came to believe that slavery undermined southern morals and culture, and she determined to work for the end of the institution. She was appalled at the turn of events in 1861 when moderates and Unionists were intimidated into silence by extreme rhetoric of slave-owning planters and Virginia finally seceded from the United States. She was bewildered even within her own family as her sister--in-law supported secession and her cousin served in the Richmond Howitzers.
For four years, Elizabeth Van Lew lived a double life. Her overt actions attempted to divert public opinion away from any perception of anti-Confederate taint on her part, but her covert activities aimed to restore the Union. Van Lew invoked the commonly held womanly duty of Christian charity to support Federal prisoners and aid in their escapes and, more important, to gather intelligence for the Union armies. By 1862 Van Lew and other Richmond Unionists had formed a network that assisted escaping Federal prisoners and provided other prisoners with necessities of life. Varon suggests also that Van Lew's group supplied the women indicted after the Bread Riot of 1863 with counsel. Van Lew became the head of a spy organization for the Union general Benjamin F. Butler, helped Federal prisoners who escaped from Libby Prison, and buried the Union colonel Ulric Dahlgren, who was killed during an 1864 raid on Richmond.
The Van Lew family shared the postwar financial difficulties of the majority of Richmonders. By 1867 Van Lew presented her case to the United States government, seeking monetary assistance based on her espionage activities. When in 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Van Lew postmistress for Richmond, he offered her not only a steady salary but also a post of considerable political influence and patronage. More important, he appointed a woman in a traditionally male bastion. Van Lew lost the position in 1877 to changing political winds. In many ways, her management of the Richmond post office was efficient and effective. She produced a manual of operation that was considered a model, and she hired African Americans as clerks and carriers.
Again the question remains: Why was Van Lew able to participate in Unionist activities in the capital of the Confederacy? As Varon explains, Van Lew played on the concept of southern womanhood and, with the implicit male perception that women were politically naïve and incapable of independence, moved through Confederate Richmond with considerable ease. Varon has restored not only the story of Van Lew's actions during the Civil War, but also the facts of Union activists in the Confederacy. In Varon's hands, Elizabeth Van Lew is a independent southern woman who held to her convictions and principles despite the constant threat of danger and the severe criticism of public opinion.
—reviewed by Barbara C. Batson, Exhibitions Coordinator
Margaret Edds. An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington Jr. New York and London: New York University Press, 2003. xiii + 243 pp. $27.95 (hardcover).
Exploring the equitability of the Virginia and United States justice systems, the journalist Margaret Edds examines the investigation, trial, conviction, appeals, and eventual pardon of a mentally disabled man accused of rape and murder. An Expendable Man is the story of Earl Washington Jr., an African American from rural Fauquier County. Born into a dysfunctional family in which alcoholism and abuse were prevalent, Washington faced a number of challenges. He struggled in school and withdrew from the public school system at age fifteen, barely able to read and write.
In 1983 Washington was arrested for a robbery and attempted rape of an elderly widow. During his interrogation, police investigators questioned him regarding unsolved cases in the area, including the rape and murder of Rebecca Williams, a nineteen-year-old mother of three who had been found outside her apartment in Culpeper the previous year. Initially hesitant in providing answers, Washington confessed to the crimes against Williams. During the ensuing trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death in Virginia's electric chair.
In 1985 Washington came within nine days of being executed. Recognizing Washington's mental limitations, his fellow death-row inmate Joe Giarratano filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to have the appropriate legal action taken on Washington's behalf. Under Virginia law at that time the state provided an attorney for death-row inmates during the mandatory appeals process, but no legal assistance was provided for habeas corpus appeals. In those cases it was up to the prisoner to undertake the necessary research and file his or her own legal papers. Giarrantano realized a great injustice was being done and pursued a civil lawsuit against the state, citing a "deprivation of federal constitutional rights." A law firm took up Washington's case and using DNA and other evidence successfully cast doubt on Washington's role in the rape and murder of Rebecca Williams. In the waning days of his administration Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison, and in 2000 Governor James S. Gilmore granted an absolute pardon.
Edds's powerful telling of Washington's experience uses court documents, personal interviews, and a variety of other sources to illustrate the political and social circumstances surrounding this extraordinary case. The story of Earl Washington Jr. prompts the reader to consider the roles of socioeconomics, mental ability, social prejudices, and convention in the judicial system. The principle of due process is essential to our nation, and this book invites the reader to think about how due process is carried out and implemented. An Expendable Man is a valuable study of not only the Virginia legal system, but also that of the United States.
—reviewed by Laura E. Drake, State Records Archivist
Gertrude Woodruff Marlowe. A Right Worthy Grand Mission: Maggie Lena Walker and the Quest for Black Economic Empowerment. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 2003. xlviii + 286 pp. (softcover).
In the preface to this work, author Gertrude Woodruff Marlowe wonders at the relative obscurity of Maggie Lena Mitchell Walker in the current national consciousness. Walker ran an African American fraternal order--the Independent Order of St. Luke--with more than 100,000 members in twenty-three states, an organization that had extensive insurance, banking, and other financial interests. She served on the board of the NAACP, the National Association of Colored Women, and the National Negro Business League, among other organizations. Marlowe points out that the designation of Walker's home as a National Park Service historic site has signaled renewed interest in her story. Perhaps this thorough biography will enjoy a wide circulation and further enhance Walker's deserved reputation as an important national leader. Howard University Press is to be commended for seeing this book project to completion after the author's untimely death.
The book at hand is more than a biography. Marlowe creatively fits Walker's life within the larger patterns of American and African American history, from the Reconstruction--era South through the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Walker rose from humble beginnings as the daughter of a domestic servant in the household of the ardent Unionist and Yankee spy Elizabeth Van Lew. Walker learned the value of hard work early through helping her widowed mother with laundry chores. But she also grasped the benefits of education, attending the newly created freedmen's schools and eventually graduating from Richmond's Colored Normal School in 1883. Walker participated fully in the rich black culture of the late nineteenth century, including the many literary societies and fraternal orders that blossomed in postwar Richmond. She ultimately became Grand Worthy Secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke in 1899 and later founded its bank, beginning her long and distinguished career as a fraternal and business leader.
Marlowe also succeeds in contextualizing Walker's thought within the growth of various black ideologies that argued about how best to advance "the race." Her beliefs emphasized an economic nationalism of self-help, including patronizing black businesses such as the St. Luke's Emporium, and a strong emphasis on the importance of women as business and social leaders in the black community. Walker opposed the imposition of Jim Crown segregation and ran on the so-called "lily-black" Republican ticket in 1921 for Virginia supervisor of public instruction. This foray into politics was prompted by the purging of blacks from influence in the Republican Party.
Finally, it is to the author's credit that she covers Walker's personal life, even though Walker had her share of tragedy and even scandal. The shooting death of her husband by her son, eventually ruled an accident after protracted legal proceedings, is fairly and dispassionately handled in the book. A Right Worthy Grand Mission is a welcome addition to a fine crop of recent biographies of important African Americans from Virginia, including Henry Box Brown and John Mitchell, Jr.--a trend that ought to continue.
—reviewed by Gregg D. Kimball, Director, Publications and Educational Services
The tenth anniversary edition of Peter Kolchin's compact synthesis American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003. xviii + 328 pp. $14.00 [softcover]) features a new preface and afterword and also incorporates a revised and expanded bibliographical essay addressing important scholarship that has appeared in the decade since the volume's original publication.
Cycling enthusiasts will want to check out Road Cycling: The Blue Ridge High Country (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, Publisher, 2003. xxxii + 266 pp. $14.95 [softcover]). Author Tim Murphy, a veteran cyclist, describes twenty-six tours centering on North Carolina but including excursions into Tennessee and Virginia. Each suggested ride includes detailed directions, elevation profiles, and information on food, services, and roadside attractions. In his overviews of each area Murphy displays a keen eye for entertaining local lore. The section on the Bulldog's Bite Loop in North Carolina and Tennessee, for example, alerts readers, "Warning: The hills on this ride may be haunted."
—bookend notes prepared by Sara B. Bearss
Sara B. Bearss is senior editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, published by the Library of Virginia.