by Rob Lopresti
The American Civil War began in April 1861, which means that for 150 years and 1 month people have been debating what caused it. I am happy to report that that argument has been settled at last. By me.
I discovered the solution in an obscure government document (House Report 90 in Serial Set volume 1105, in case you wondered) and together with noted scholar August A. Imholtz, I wrote it up for the journal Library and Information History. Since I suspected that in these tough economic times a few of you may have let your subscriptions to LIH lapse, I wrote up a shorter footnote-free piece on the same subject, which is now available on the website of American Libraries magazine, under the title “How Overdue Books Caused The Civil War.” (Oops… that’s a bit of a giveaway.)
I’m not going to repeat the whole thing here. Suffice it to say that it is a simple tale involving library books, the House of Representatives, the New York Times, and, of course, the Dred Scott Decision.
But this is Criminal Brief, so: is there a crime element? Oh yes. Plenty of that.
American Libraries asked for photographs for the article, but chose not to use them, so I am putting them up here for your benefit. The gentleman at the top of the page is my favorite player in the story, Dr. Calvin C. Chaffee. CCC was the congressman from Springfield, Massachusetts until his wife got caught up in a national scandal. That isn’t the scandal in our story, but it put him into position, you might say.
This next fellow is Roger Atkinson Pryor, congressman from Virginia. You might call him the prosecuting attorney in our little drama.
The third major character is Henry H. Pangborn, reporter for the New York Times. He is the man who told a congressional hearing:“I wrote the body of (the article)… I was probably the original author of it. I am not exactly certain how I did write it. The original copy is probably lost.”
Unfortunately we couldn’t come up with a snapshot of that silver-tongued devil. So here is another photo American Libraries asked for and didn’t use. My wife went to the trouble to take it so what the heck.
Portrait of Rob
Buddy Hackett: Ask me what’s the secret of comedy.
Johnny Carson: What’s the secret of—
Buddy Hackett: Timing.
So, imagine that you have spent two years researching and co-authoring a scholarly article. Then you spend a few months writing a popular version of the same facts, emphasizing all the funny parts that don’t go over so well in an academic paper. And where are you on the day the piece appears on the web?
In another freaking country, that’s where. Dealing with comments and queries on your third-best computer with dubious e-mail connections and no working cell phone. But I’m back now.
Some of you cynics out there may be wondering how much of this is made up. Well, the idea that my article will end debate on the Civil War is wishful thinking, but everything else here and on the American Libraries article is true. Except for the error one of the commenters caught. Nobody’s perfect.