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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 12:23 am

Understanding our brave new world through the old one

A gift list of Illinois history books

It’s gift-choosing time again, and who better than a professional wise man to ask what you ought to get those hard-to-shop-for friends? I have the perfect gift suggestion: a short shelf of the best books on Illinois history.

I know. You’re saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Riots, murders, corruption, skulduggery – Illinois’ past has it all. The problem is that hardly anyone knows it. Ask an Illinoisan about her state history and she will mention how Lincoln started the Chicago fire and how Al Capone used to manage the Cubs. Brothers and sisters, this is not good enough.

Our new president and our nearly new governor want to build for us a brave new world, and before we let them do it we ought to remember how the old one came about.

• Trumpish populism makes more sense if you know a bit about the original version, which seized the political stage just about a century ago. Illinois farmers and laborers were convinced that monopolists were cheating them, and that their government was in thrall to the millionaires. They weren’t wrong.

• If you enjoy nativist major-party candidates who shamelessly tell every audience whatever they want to hear, who revel in their racism and religious bigotry and anti-intellectualism and retail bald-faced lies about their opponents, you’ll find much to like in Stephen A. Douglas’ performances against Lincoln in their 1858 debates, most of which were held in mid-Illinois.

• Gov. Thomas Ford saved Illinois’ future by extricating it from the fiscal folly of the General Assembly, which had recklessly pledged future revenues the state couldn’t deliver (in their case, bond payments for a ludicrous infrastructure expansion).

• During his eight years as speaker of the turn-of-the-20th-century U.S. House, Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon, the 46-year congressman from Danville, tyrannized the members in thwarting reform measures earnestly desired by the head of the executive branch – until a revolt of his caucus undid him.

• Our suburbanites’ NIMBY-ish impulse to withdraw to their own utopias zoned against intrusions of a complicated and corrupting world was anticipated by the believers of several utopian communities in the first half of the 1800s.

• Those who dismiss the threat of paramilitary militia in the countryside as the stuff of fantasy might want to know about the Nauvoo War in the 1840s.

• Our governor might while away those lonesome evenings pining for that call from Mike Madigan saying he wants to make up by reading about Frank Lowden, a rich governor from Chicago committed to transforming the state of Illinois into a lean governing machine, who managed to actually do it without wrecking it first.

While you might be surprised to learn how much of today there was in the past, the differences are significant. The past repeats itself, yes, but never in exactly the same way. (As Columbia University history professor Simon Schama recently put it, “Whatever history’s instruction is, it’s not literal.”) Joe Cannon was intransigence itself in opposing bold attempts by reformers to revise the political compact between government and the people. In that he resembles our Mr. Madigan. The difference was that the Cannon-era reformers were progressives working to establish the very government that Bruce Rauner is trying to destroy.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is consolation in knowing that the state of Illinois has survived worse times than these, even if the past cannot tell exactly how to survive them.

As a public service I have compiled and briefly annotated a list of really good books about Illinois history that you can use as a shopping guide. (Because of its length, we can’t squeeze it in this space; you can find it at my Second Thoughts site at http://illinoistimes.com/articles.sec-138-1-second-thoughts.html.) Each book is on the list because it taught things new to me, or reminded me of the many more old things I’ve forgotten.

Now, life is short. When I say “Illinois history,” I mean Downstate history, and when I say Downstate history, I mean mid-Illinois history, and when I say mid-Illinois history I mean history since the arrival of Euro-Americans. (A number of these books have been mentioned at length in my Dyspepsiana column. See “Why do so many cities with history not have a history?,” “Another woman’s story,” “Old letters” and “What they had to do.”) I felt obliged to omit books on Lincoln, a vast literature with which I am unfamiliar; exceptions include Benjamin Thomas’s book about Lincoln’s New Salem and Paul Angle’s book about Lincoln’s Springfield because each is more about mid-Illinois places. I also omitted works of history disguised as fiction, such as American Years by Harold Sinclair (see “Town character”) and works of fiction disguised as history (City of Discontent by Mark Harris).  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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