The lives and fortunes of ambitious 19th-century brothers.
Jesse Fletcher (1762-1831) raised 15 children in Ludlow, Vermont, struggling to eke out a living from his farm and fighting recurring depression. In a vividly detailed history, Smith (An American Betrayal: Cherokee Patriots and the Trail of Tears, 2011, etc.) focuses on two of those children to tell both a story of the family and of America from the early 19th century through Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War. Those 50 years saw vast political, social, and technological changes as urban centers burgeoned and “canals, turnpikes, steamboats, railroads, and the telegraph” linked east and west—and America to Europe. All those transformations had an impact on the Fletchers. Elijah (1789-1858) was a favored son who saw education as the path to escape his father’s hard life. After graduating from college, he took a teaching job in Virginia, where he was at first horrified by slavery. But he married into a wealthy family and soon owned a plantation, along with slaves. Calvin (1798-1866) was rebellious, leaving home at 17, bouncing around the country from one meager job to another until he finally settled down to become a lawyer, banker, and landholder in Indianapolis. He also was a punctilious diary keeper, leaving almost 5,000 pages of material from which Smith constructs a seamless, detailed narrative. Because Calvin left such a rich paper trail, he and his children become the main focus of the family’s story. As a father, one of his sons remembered, Calvin “was stern and demanding, relentless in case of lapse from duty and behavior.” Diary entries reveal his constant worry over his sons’ educations, career prospects, and morality. But he also turned to public life, taking strong and vocal positions on the abolition of slavery, intemperance, and school reform, all major issues of the day.
Incomparable sources make for an unusually intimate American portrait.