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Sweet, Sweet Nostalgia: Reaction and “Reform” throughout History

“Make America Great Again.” These four words have become one of the most infamous phrases in the English language since the successful presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, and with good reason. How do we define great? Who thought things were great? If we aren’t great now, when were we great, and when did we stop being so? Far from originating with Trump, this idea, that somehow the United States has lost its way from the glory of its just-out-of-reach past, has taken hold in the psyche of certain disaffected sections of its population. Though this reactionary sentiment may sound dissonant to the modern ear, it actually fits quite smoothly into a much longer historical tradition of cloaking nostalgic navel-gazing in terms of reform and progress.... Read More
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From Many, One Narrative: John Keay’s India: A History

I recently realized that, despite my familiarity with its later imperial history, I had little acquaintance with the history of India before the early modern era (and even that was pushing it). When I learned that, before his history of China (reviewed here), John Keay had composed a history of the South Asian subcontinent, I decided to rectify this situation. In so doing, I became perhaps the most aware of how difficult an undertaking such a history must necessarily be.... Read More
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Mixed Signals: Netflix’s Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

The cause of Rome’s fall has been debated almost since the event itself, and with it has come an eternal debate over when that mighty empire first started its irreversible decline. This spring, a new documentary series from Netflix threw its hat into the ring, chronicling the (mis)reign of the Emperor Commodus and Rome’s subsequent slow crumbling. Always a fan of Rome, I gave it a go.... Read More
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A Furry Whirlwind: Netflix’s Frontier

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century trade on the American frontier has seen a slight increase in its media depictions in recent years, and I couldn’t be happier. With such offerings as The Revenant and Taboo, the brutal misery and cutthroat business of imperial exploitation in the (by then not-so) New World have been brought compellingly to life. I was excited to learn of another addition to this genre with Netflix’s Frontier. Focusing on the struggle for dominance in the fur trade around Hudson’s Bay in the late eighteenth century, Frontier offered an intriguing possibility for exploring the changing face of empire in America after the cataclysmic shifts of the Seven Years War and American Revolution.... Read More
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Episodic History: Kevin’s Picks

Continuing with our series on eras and events that we think would make for great television, I’ve pulled together my own list of ideas. Make sure to check out Bryan’s and Ryan’s as well. The English Civil War—Enough with the Tudors! The rest of English history needs some love. Imagine a sprawling Game of Thrones-type […]... Read More
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Overflowing with Detail: Jacqueline Rider’s Jacobites

At some point in their high school European History course, American students are inevitably taught the series of events set in motion by the English Civil War. Culminating in the Glorious Revolution and the signing of the English Bill of Rights, these events are presented as pillars of shared Anglo-Saxon principles of liberty and jurisprudence before the course moves on to other things. Rarely covered is the fallout from that revolution, which would span seventy years and three open conflicts within the now-British state. I myself only learned of these risings through my undergraduate coursework and, realizing I still had never delved into the exact history of the most prominent of them, that of 1745 (or “the ‘45”), I sought to rectify the situation. The book that came to hand was Jacqueline Riding’s Jacobites, and while I could not has asked for better, it was certainly not without its trials.... Read More
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Astounding Leniency: The American Civil War and Comparative Rebellions

Months ago, Kevin wrote a speculative piece reflecting on the implications of nineteenth-century concepts of ‘just war’ and their relevance today. Much of this discussion was centered around the American Civil War and the quandary of pursuing a war sharply so as to conclude it swiftly and limit suffering in the long run. Ideas of just war in the American Civil War were further complicated by the fact that the enemies of the United States government were fellow Americans. Or were they? The conflict was at its core a rebellion, and so perhaps it would be useful to consider the Union’s actions (and inactions) in that context. What were contemporary attitudes towards rebellions? What actions were considered justified in their suppression? And, most importantly, why did the United States pursue or not pursue those actions against its own rebellious citizens?... Read More
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Not Quite A Balance: Jeff Shaara’s The Frozen Hours

The Shaara name should be familiar to any concerned with American military history. Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and its onscreen adaptation, Gettysburg, have had a great impact both on the public memory of the Battle of Gettysburg and the interest of legions of budding historians of all ages in the American Civil War more generally. The strength of Shaara’s prose lay in his ability to tell history as a personal story through the viewpoints of the players involved, and his son Jeff has made a career applying this same style to a number of the United States’s wars. Indeed, my own fascination with more modern history came as a result of reading not The Killer Angels but The Glorious Cause, Jeff’s novel on the Revolutionary War. His most recent work covers events during the Korean War, focusing on the plight of the 7th Marine Division around the Chosin Reservoir in 1950.... Read More
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Failure of Analysis: Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles

I’ve been fascinated with the small European wars of the eighteenth century for years, and writing my post from earlier this week on the continuity of total war (found here) gave me an occasion to brush up on that material. Accordingly, I dove into Philip Bobbitt's formidable work The Shield of Achilles. Integrating the studies of state formation and warfare in early modern and modern Europe, Bobbitt demonstrates the ways in which states’ constitutions (here the general manner in which a state is constituted and governed, not the formal documents) and strategies (loosely, the manner in which states wage war, rather than specific war plans) are intertwined, influencing each other and driving to different forms and heights. In so doing, Bobbitt attempts to argue for a certain dialectical view of history that, incidentally, results in his own prognostications on where the modern world is headed and the ways in which we should respond. I have never simultaneously loved and despised a book more in my life.... Read More