Brenda Wineapple’s most recent book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, was just published in paperback. (July 2020)

IN THE REVIEW

Our First Authoritarian Crackdown

‘Congressional Pugilists’; an anonymous cartoon depicting Republican and Federalist congressmen fighting on the floor of the House, 1798

Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

by Wendell Bird
No one likes to be criticized, especially thin-skinned government officials. But the freedom to question, even to rebuke, an elected official or otherwise to speak one’s mind is protected by the First Amendment, which seems fairly sturdy. That wasn’t always the case: not long after the US Constitution was ratified and the Bill of Rights adopted, Congress passed the four infamous laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. They explicitly muzzled criticism of government policies and officials, and sadly demonstrate that not a few founding Americans could be petty, shortsighted, and more than willing to prosecute speech they didn’t much like.

Dress Rehearsal for the Revolution

George Whitefield delivering a sermon in England; painting by John Collet, 1700s

American Demagogue: The Great Awakening and the Rise and Fall of Populism

by J.D. Dickey
“The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote in The American Democrat, an 1838 political pamphlet long dismissed as a screed. But it’s relevant today for pretty obvious reasons. The word …

‘I Have Let Whitman Alone’

Walt Whitman, 1880
In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self-proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”—Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, “I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties. Here was a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”

The Brilliance of Sybille Bedford

Sybille Bedford, 1989
I met Sybille Bedford many years ago. She was forthright, funny, and scrupulously frank. I remember thinking and then later writing, and considering even now, how remarkable it was that one of the finest stylists of the twentieth century, bar none, with a prose of incomparable precision and grace, would candidly acknowledge her daily battle against discouragement, distraction, and doubt.