- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005

THE GRAND OLD MAN OF MAINE: SELECTED LETTERS OF JOSHUA LAWRENCE CHAMBERLAIN

Edited by Jeremiah E. Goulka

University of North Carolina, $39.95, 335 pages

REVIEWED BY ILYA SHAPIRO



January 2005 will go down as one of the greatest months for liberty since the “end of history” — when the Cold War’s demise signaled that we were now all freedom-lovers. Though the Islamo-fascists did not get Francis Fukuyama’s memo, they surely got the one delivered by President George W. Bush on January 20 and by the Iraqi people on January 30.

As breathtaking and important as these exercises and symbols of post-historicity were, however, there was something utterly unoriginal about them. Mr. Bush’s soaring rhetoric resounded in the words and policies of many chief executives past: John Kennedy’s and Woodrow Wilson’s, for example, along with those of Teddy Roosevelt and James Monroe. Iraq’s decision day was the Middle East equivalent of Russia in 1991 or El Salvador in 1982.

Yet there was a time when even rough comparisons were impossible because the models for political development simply did not exist, because the “shining city upon a hill” itself was torn asunder by sectarian violence. I refer, of course, to the Civil War, the five years that would set the tone for the next half-century of American history, and the era that remains the most popular subject for this country’s amateur historians and college students.

A remarkable new book about a key figure from that time was started when its editor, Jeremiah Goulka, now a Justice Department attorney, was himself a college sophomore. “The Grand Old Man of Maine” presents a rich portrait of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the country professor turned war hero who would emerge as a prominent late-19th century public intellectual. And it does so mainly through Chamberlain’s own words, artfully piecing together a deep selection of his postwar letters.

Much of the renewed interest in Chamberlain owes itself to Ken Burns’s documentary and to the film “Gettysburg,” which was based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel “The Killer Angels.” Still, most of this attention has focused on Chamberlain’s military leadership, all but ignoring his important role as a war chronicler and in helping us understand the Gilded Age and the construction of Civil War memory.

This is the gap that “The Grand Old Man of Maine” fills: As seminal Civil War historian James McPherson notes in his foreword, the book reveals “not Chamberlain the icon, but Chamberlain the man — as husband, father, son, brother, politician, educator, businessman, historian,” a flawed as well as an admirable human being. (Full disclosure: I had Mr. McPherson as a professor in college, and Mr. Goulka was two years ahead of me in law school.)

As Mr. Goulka outlines in an insightful introductory essay, Chamberlain was a thinking man’s general, with complex views on economic development, race relations, pedagogy and higher education, masculinity in Victorian America, veterans’ affairs and, most importantly, duty and honor. A man of action, he was reluctant to return to the ivory tower after the war. A man of principle, he was impatient with the compromises demanded by the political game.

We learn that in 1870 the independent-minded Chamberlain — then the hugely popular governor in the last of his unprecedented four terms — was so frustrated with the give-and-take of civilian affairs that he wrote King Wilhelm to offer his services in the Franco-Prussian war.

Thwarted by party bosses in his desire for higher office (in an age when legislatures elected senators), Chamberlain presided over his alma mater, Bowdoin College, creating new programs in modern languages, science and engineering, and instituting the mandatory drill that was the precursor to today’s ROTC.

Later, when he was 70, he offered his services in the Spanish-American War. In the twilight of his long life — Chamberlain died of his Civil War wounds on the eve of World War I — he wrote to another general-turned-historian. The latter had written approvingly of Gen. Ulysses Grant’s selection of Chamberlain to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.

“It goes beyond Pindar’s poem to the victors in the Olympic games,” typed the pleased Chamberlain, adding that “your passage on the ‘spiritually real of this world,’ and your association with it of any action or trait of mine, are like a command and consecration to me.”

As we deal with yet another time of an embattled liberty on the march, “The Grand Old Man of Maine” shows us that there is a place for both citizen-soldiers and soldier-intellectuals. What this collection of letters shows, too, is that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain stands as an Olympian example of what is best about America.

Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer and writer living in Washington.

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