Posted on March 3, 2014
I’m having a great time rereading The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman’s book about Europe and America at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. What we used to call the turn of the century.
Two world wars and an industrial revolution have changed the landscape so much that this world of kings and tsars and emperors seems like a faraway fairy-tale world, but it really wasn’t so long ago.
When my grandmother was 17, she visited Tsarist Russia on her grand tour of Europe. Believe it or not, she took a train from Moscow to Paris in July of 1914. Had she waited another month, she might never have returned and our family history would never have been written.
Like every single one of Tuchman’s books, The Proud Tower is brilliant.
The first time through, I thought it bogged down a bit in the first chapter about the English aristocracy, but the second time I relished the rich descriptive text that captures every aspect of that world so aptly — like the 85-year-old Marchioness of Salisbury who still rode in the hunt accompanied by a groom who, whenever she came to a fence, would shout, “Jump, dammit, my lady, jump!”
Or Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister who acted as his own Foreign Secretary, who viewed successful foreign policy as “a series of microscopic advantages; a judicious suggestion here, an opportune civility there, a wise concession at one moment and a farsighted persistence at another; of sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake.”
Then there’s a chapter on the anarchists with a lot of stuff I didn’t know, and the third chapter is about the US, with a focus on Thomas Reed, the Speaker of the House who broke the deadlock caused by the so-called ‘silent quorum.’
The minority party, in this case the Democrats, would prevent the House from doing business by calling for a roll call and then not answering when their names were called.
The Republicans, led by Reed, were trying to pass the Force Bill, to compel the Southern states to allow African Americans to vote, but they didn’t have enough seats for a quorum.
Reed, who knew every member of the House by sight, began counting members present whether they answered or not, causing pandemonium in the House chamber.
As he calmly read through the names of the members, “‘Mr. Lawler, Mr. Lee, Mr. McAdoo, Mr. McCreary…’
“‘I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present!’ bellowed McCreary.
“For the first time the Speaker stopped, held the hall in silence for a pause as an actor holds an audience, then blandly spoke:
“‘The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?'”
Reed was a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, but broke with him over the conquest and subjugation of the Philippines, which many at the time, and subsequently, considered a betrayal of the country’s democratic principles.
“The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours,” Tuchman writes in the Foreword. “This book is an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.”