Insurgent Son: Jesse James and the Crucible of American Character


 "A new understanding of American reality: of the nation's history, of many of the deep-running currents in American society, and of our politics, past and present. I also felt – although this was incidental – that I had gained new insights into Iraq as well, into some of the dynamics at work in the sectarian conflicts there, which we like to pretend have largely to do with strange and primitive elements in Muslim and Arabic culture, with no connection to us." by Chris Floyd

Some of the central  questions and conflicts in American history defined [Jesse James'] existence: the fight over slavery and abolitionism, the great catastrophe of the Civil War, the revolution of freedom represented by emancipation and Reconstruction, the spread of railroads and industrialization, and the first signs of a corporate economy. The social and political fire fueled by all these things burned at a white heat in Jesse Jame's homeland of Western Missouri – a border state...sharing traits of the industrial Northeast, the family-farm Northwest, and the slave-driving South. Here, every political issue was personal, every conflict real and concrete, ever dispute bitter....

Jesse James was not an inarticulate avenger for the poor; his popularity was driven by politics – politics based on wartime allegiance – and was rooted among former Confederates. Even his attacks on unpopular economic targets, the banks and the railroads, turn out on closer inspection to have had political resonances. He was, in fact, a major force in the attempt to create a Confederate identity for Missouri, a cultural and political offensive waged by the defeated rebels to undo the triumph of the radical Republicans in the Civil War. His robberies, his murders, his letters to the newspapers, his starring role in [newspaper] columns all played a part in the Confederate effort to achieve wartime goals by political means (to use Christopher Phillip's neat reversal of Clausewitz's dictum.) Had Jesse James existed a century later, he would have been called a terrorist...

This is, at bottom, a story of how Americans have hated Americans, how Americans have killed Americans, how both winners and loser refused to forget or forgive. It is a story of the Civil War and what it left unsettled – the open-ended consequences that still shape our lives. It is a story of murder, atrocity and terrorism, of the hunger for revenge, of struggles for power and freedom and the definition of freedom. The darker angels of our nature beat their wings throughout this book, for they often guided the life of, the hunt for, and the celebration of Jesse Woodson James.


  1. I doubt I would like that book. I used to have a spiel about Jesse James on the old blog. You may have seen it. The real story is Jesse James came home from the war with his brothers and found the British Pinkerton gang buying up farmland for pennies on the dollar telling farmers to take it now or get nothing later as the Rockefeller railroad and the robber barons needed the land.

    Well turned out the Pinkerton gang hired some real terrorist to blow up the James ranch house and his mother was burned badly in that one.

    The James gang just decided to rob the robber barons and hit the banks. After all you can't rob a robber. They also distributed some of the cash among farmers to help them keep their lands.

    Populists have never enjoyed much good press :)

  2. thanks Mick, I was planning to buy the book, sounds like good reading. I seem to remember something about your version. Come to think of it. Now I am just disappointed that one has to pick and choose which version of history to accept. I mean, just to have the choice ruins it. I'm glad you mentioned it tho.


If you sit by a river long enough, you'll see the body of your enemy float by.
Old Japanese proverb