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    Reinterpreting History: How Jesse James Differs from Standard Accounts

    1. Taking a Scholarly Approach

      Why another book about Jesse James? There have been many books about his life, some very recent, some well-researched (both in the case of Ted Yeatman's Frank and Jesse James). With one notable exception, however, these have been nonscholarly works, dedicated to getting the details right--to separate the myth from the fact. But that is the mere starting point for a serious work of history.

      When I call most books on Jesse James nonscholarly, I am not being disrespectful. Many of these writers have done good, hard work. They have dug up important sources, sorted through various bits of evidence, and have often used good judgment in piecing together events. I use "scholarly" in a technical sense. A scholarly work must approach its sources with a critical eye, address the larger historical context, and engage the scholarship surrounding its subject. A really worthwhile book on Jesse James should do more than add a few facts to his life story; it should shed new light on his world, and so allows us to see him in new ways.

      The one truly scholarly book is Jesse James Was His Name, by the late William A. Settle, Jr. This biography had its origins in Settle's graduate studies in the 1940s, and was published in 1966. A very serious work, it set the standard for a rigorous approach to this man. However, it is almost forty years old. Historical studies have moved on, and much of what Settle accepted as conventional wisdom has been overturned--or should be overturned. And new sources have been found that better illuminate Jesse James's own life.

    2. The Classic View

      The traditional view of Jesse James casts him as an avenger of the small farmer against the great powers that dominated rural life in the late nineteenth century: the banks and railroad corporations. Popular writers cast him as a Robin Hood, robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Scholars call him a "social bandit." This concept was created by British historian E.J. Hobsbawm to describe inarticulate defenders of politically unsophisticated peasant societies. The social bandit is a kind of "primitive rebel," or a foe of authority who has no real grasp of politics. Hobsbawm specifically named Jesse James a social bandit.

      Almost all writers have recognized the importance of Jesse James's background as a Confederate guerrilla in Missouri during the Civil War. Typically, they have seen it mainly as training for his postwar banditry. Settle argues that postwar boredom led the guerrillas into banditry. Many historians link the Civil War experience with postwar banditry by casting Missouri's war experience as a battle of close-knit local society against invading outsiders. In this view, Kansans and other Northern troops invaded Missouri, and the guerrillas rose up in response. After the war, the locals (accustomed to self-sufficient traditional farming) resisted Yankee efforts to introduce capitalism, with its national markets and corporate economy. Jesse James's actions gave shape to resentments that everyone felt, but few could put into words. The banks and railroads represented vast, alien forces that the humble men of the soil could barely comprehend; by striking back at them, Jesse became a folk hero. So goes the conventional wisdom.

    3. The Reinterpretations

      The conventional wisdom about Jesse James, both popular and scholarly, is based on assumptions that fall apart upon close inspection. A fresh look reveals a far more purposeful, and significant, figure than we thought.

      • Jesse James was a forerunner of the modern terrorist, and was not a Robin Hood or social bandit. Though he was clearly a criminal, motivated by money, he was also explicitly partisan, and consciously played a role in post-Civil War politics.

      • Jesse James, his supporters, and his society were highly politicized, sophisticated, and articulate. The assumption that post-Civil War Missouri was home to unsophisticated, self-sufficient farmers, who could only understand social conflicts in personal terms, is inaccurate. Support for Jesse James was centered in the Missouri River valley, long the scene of a well developed market economy, with livestock and cash crops raised for distant Southern markets, wage labor (most of it the labor of slaves who were rented out), and numerous banking and manufacturing institutions. Robert James, Jesse's father, was a commercial hemp farmer and slaveowner, and Cole Younger's father was also a rural entrepreneur. These prosperous, well-educated, politically active people were highly articulate. Jesse's own comments and letters to the press (and statements by his mother) revealed a keen attention to the details of politics.

      • Jesse James was not a product of the frontier. His criminal career had little or nothing to do with frontier conditions, such as those that shaped such violent episodes as the Lincoln County War in New Mexico or the Johnson County War in Wyoming. By the 1860s, Missouri was a long-settled state with a thriving market economy, thorough law enforcement, and solid political institutions.

      • Jesse James's popularity was a result of wartime loyalties and Reconstruction politics. The press, Jesse's supporters, and his own letters revolved exclusively around the legacy of the war and the bitter disputes of Reconstruction. Through his alliance with newspaper editor John N. Edwards, Jesse explicitly aligned himself with the ex-Confederate wing of Missouri's Democratic Party in the 1870s, pitting himself against Radical Republicans and Unionist Democrats. After his move to Tennessee in 1875, he appealed to newspapers there to recognize him as a Confederate, Democratic hero.

      • The bandits whom Jesse came to lead emerged out of political turmoil that followed the war. Intense political and social tensions followed on the heels of the war in Missouri. In 1866, the approach of a decisive Congressional election (one that would decide the shape of Reconstruction) led to actual bloodshed in the countryside in Missouri. Former Confederates were excluded from politics, so the former bushwhackers formed the vanguard of secessionist resistance to the Radical authorities that ran the state. Their resistance was direct and violent. This ultimately led to the death of Arch Clement, leader of Jesse's own band of guerrillas, which opened the way for Jesse's rise to prominence. All of this took place against a backdrop of national crisis over Reconstruction, which deeply affected Missouri.

      • Economics had very little to do with his popular appeal or political outlook. Economic questions were virtually nonexistent in the public debate over Jesse James, and in his own statements. Close inspection shows that he did not rob unpopular businesses. Discontent over banks largely revolved around national banks, the regional distribution of national banknotes, and the Treasury's deflationary monetary policy. The bandits mostly robbed private or state banks; those in Missouri were owned by long-time residents, not invading outsiders.

        Furthermore, the bandits did not rob railroads; they robbed express companies, which transported currency shipments by train. The railroad corporations suffered few if any losses, and took almost no interest in the hunt for the bandits. The express companies, however, were not the target of popular discontent; few farmers had any dealings with them. The main benefit of robbing banks and trains was that the bandits were seen as attacking impersonal institutions, and not the average person. But it was not the driving force behind their popularity.

      • Missouri's guerrilla war was primarily an internal struggle, not a response to invasion from the outside. It had its origins in the border-ruffian warfare against freesoil settlers in Kansas in the mid-1850s. The overlooked role of Missouri's proslavery organizations was their effort to suppress dissent within Missouri itself, often leading to violence. Their opponents were nationalist Whigs who, though proslavery themselves, did not wish to endanger the Union. When war broke out, the old hardline proslavery forces struck first against Unionist leaders, then against loyal families, long before Union military forces were able to establish any significant presence in western Missouri.

        Kansans did indeed fight and plunder in Missouri, but bulk of the Union war effort in the state was shouldered Missouri's own loyalists, gathered into the various militia forces. The Confederate guerrillas often spent more effort killing and burning out Unionist civilians than they did battling Federal troops. The militia experience led many Unionists to join the new Radical Party, which supplanted the older Republican party in the state, while others clung to a conservative (but still Unionist) vision of society. All this laid the groundwork for the three-way political division (secessionists, Unionist Radicals, and Unionist conservatives) that defined the politics of Jesse James's banditry.