Saturday, May 18, 2019

Richard M. Gamble's "A Fiery Gospel"

Richard M. Gamble is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics at Hillsdale College. He is author of In Search of the City on a Hill and The War for Righteousness.

Gamble applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Fiery Gospel recounts the way Senator John M. Thurston used "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on the Senate floor in March of 1898 to justify U.S. intervention in Cuba. The Nebraska Republican tied the impending war against Spain as the latest chapter in the centuries-long crusade for human emancipation from tyranny. Thurston connected the dots from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence, from the French Revolution to the Emancipation Proclamation and to the major Union victories of the Civil War. Force had been justified at every step of this historical progress, he assured the Senate; and force was necessary in the next advance for liberty, this time against the decrepit , "medieval" Spanish Empire. As if by instinct, Thurston quoted the fifth stanza of Julia Ward Howe's celebrated "Battle Hymn"--"As He [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." He was not the first or the last public figure to quote these lines for the sake of new crusades.

While this episode on the eve of the Spanish-American War does not reveal "the quality of the whole" of my book, it certainly does highlight one of my main arguments: Howe's "Battle Hymn" endured after 1865 as a way for Americans to justify every major war over the next 150 years and more broadly as a way for interventionists to give poetic expression to their nation's mission in history. Even other nations--especially England--got into the habit of extolling America's destiny with the words of Howe's poem. The title of the chapter from which this episode comes is "Righteous War and Holy Peace." That phrase was used by another poet in 1900 to encapsulate Howe's achievement as the "priestess" of this civil religion. Many Americans urged their fellow citizens to embrace Howe's Civil War anthem as an international battle hymn its truer and truer meaning in each war for human emancipation. Howe herself called on America to turn from securing mere liberty for itself to liberty for the world, from its "Old Testament" task of building a nation to its "New Testament" spreading the gospel of freedom.
Learn more about A Fiery Gospel at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue