Review by Jack Perry
Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel. By Peter Bridges. (Kent & London: The Kent State University Press, 2002. Pp. 284. $28 Cloth.)“Daniel was. . . lucky enough to be on post in Turin before the transatlantic cable was laid, which brought the diplomats under the almost instantaneous commands of Washington; he had time to think things over carefully before rushing into action.”
Diplomat-turned author Peter Bridges has written a highly-readable biography of fellow Virginian, John Moncure Daniel (1825-65), diplomat, editor, and fiery southern nationalist. As editor of The Richmond Examiner, Daniel ardently defended slavery and the Confederate cause, while lambasting the CSA’s president, Jefferson Davis. Through the eyes of this Southern patriot, Bridges vividly depicts both the rivalries and divisions that undermined the Southern war effort as well as the nature of ante bellum American diplomacy.
In his sympathetic biography, Bridges brings to life the culture of the Old Dominion from which came his fascinating subject. Indeed, the author does not skimp on providing his readers sufficient background on nineteenth-century life and manners in the Old South. For example, Bridges writes a good deal about dueling and the “code of honor” associated with it. He has an eye for the absurd, and does not hesitate to reveal some of the silliness—as modern folk see it—of the American, and especially the Southern, practice of dueling. Daniels fought some nine duels during his brief life, which ended of natural causes on the eve of the Federal occupation of Richmond. In those days, according to Bridges, newspaper editors ran more risks with their abusive insights than their counterparts of today.
Having served two lengthy tours at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, Ambassador Bridges is well-equipped to examine Daniel’s role as American envoy to the Kingdom of Sardinia during the Italian unification struggles of the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps most interesting for those who follow modern diplomacy and its practitioners, is the author’s description of how the unabashed spoils system that worked during Daniel’s era continues in much the same form today. Daniel was, however, lucky enough to be on post in Turin before the transatlantic cable was laid, which brought the diplomats under the almost instantaneous commands of Washington; Daniel had time to think things over carefully before rushing into action.
Bridges also recounts some of the serious scandals involving his less-than-well-known subject, who—in his time was a figure of some importance in both Washington and Richmond. Daniel’s great uncle, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Peter Vivian Daniel, provided him with openings to influence in Washington, while in Richmond, where he resumed his editorship of the Examiner in 1860, Daniel’s command of that much-read newspaper with his “pen of fire” gave him a influential voice during the days of the Confederacy. Daniel’s powerful pen railed vigorously against the despised Yankee invaders, as well as his own President, Jefferson Davis.
This well-researched and beautifully written biography of a most unusual historical figure should inspire increased interest in understanding both the peculiarities of ante bellum American diplomacy and the reasons for Southern secession. It is a substantive and valuable addition to the historiography of pre-twentieth century American foreign relations.
Jack Perry, Ph.D. (Columbia University, 1972), enjoyed a distinguished twenty-five year career in the U.S. Foreign Service and served as ambassador to Bulgaria from 1979 to 1981. After teaching at the Citadel, he served as the first director of the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies and professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina.