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Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829“1877

by Walter A. McDougall

Harper, 787 pages, $34.95

American history is very popular these days, but histories of America”comprehensive accounts of the national experience”are not. Academics continue to churn out textbooks for the undergraduate market, but textbooks don’t really count as serious interpretive takes on the American past. Few scholars have the audacity to take on so forbidding a task as a singlehanded telling of the American story. That they leave to amateur popularizers exempt from the unforgiving scrutiny of professional experts.

There is good reason for this scholarly reluctance. The literature of American history is so massive that it overwhelms hopes of individual mastery. The accumulation of data concerning the American past has exceeded our capacity to absorb it. Even if we suppose the ability to learn all that there is to know, there remains the problem of putting that knowledge into coherent form. The American story seems at this point too big and too complicated for any one person to tell.

But that has not dissuaded Walter A. McDougall, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, from attempting the seemingly impossible. McDougall, whose previous works include a highly praised survey of American foreign relations, a history of the North Pacific from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the space age, began his magnum opus in 2004 with Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585 1828 and followed that in 2008 with Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829 1877. His original plan was to cover the nation’s history in three volumes, but he has been forced to reconsider. He told an interviewer that he does hope to bring out a third volume but that it will likely carry only as far as the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. He did not say if further volumes would follow.

Whatever the project’s ultimate outcome, one can only admire McDougall’s courage in taking it on. The labor involved is prodigious: The endnotes in the first volume took up 90 pages of small print; those in volume 2 top out at 145. McDougall hasn’t consulted all the available sources”no one could”but those who find fault with his history will not likely charge him with inadequate research. He has received some criticism from fellow historians, but the critical reviews have taken him to task for his interpretations, not for insufficient grasp of his raw material.

McDougall’s first volume left a number of reviewers somewhat up in the air. They were for the most part complimentary about his knowledge, range, and narrative skills, but they didn’t know quite what to make of his ideological perspective. Freedom Just Around the Corner was not revisionist history, reciting a litany of American misdeeds, but neither was it a patriotic celebration of the nation’s distinctive virtues. McDougall could be wickedly cutting about liberal heroes”Thomas Jefferson in particular”but his often brilliant biographical sketches were skeptical, or at least notably unsentimental, about almost everyone.

Nor, more significantly, was he celebratory about Americans in general. From the beginning, he said, America has been a nation of hustlers. He intended that in the positive sense”“builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, [and] engineers””but also in the negative”“self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds, and peripatetic self-reinventers.” Americans, from the colonial days on, have enjoyed unprecedented freedom to attain their ends. Given the mixed stuff of human nature, they have used that freedom in ways as often appalling as admirable. The American people, McDougall suggested, have always mixed naked self-interest and high-minded idealism, and the two are so interwoven as to be finally inextricable.

Indeed, the shrewdest of Americans were quite self-conscious about turning human limitations to creative ends. Thus McDougall argued that the Federalists’ success in creating a Constitution that would stand the test of time came precisely from their unblinking view of human nature: “They envisioned no utopias, put little trust in republican virtue, and believed the only government liable to endure was one taking mankind as it was and making allowance for passion and greed.”

McDougall was similarly unromantic in laying out the “four spirits” of English colonization that guided and united Americans through the Revolution and into the development of the new nation: “the improvement ethic, the holy war against Catholics, the competition for empire, and the mission to expel or reform the uncivilized [i.e., the Indians].” His elaboration of the last point is typical in its unadorned clinical ­detachment:

English colonists did not come to America intent on killing, enslaving, or for the most part converting or consorting with Indians at all. They just wanted them out of the way, and thanks to their microbes, technology, organization, and agriculture they swiftly displaced the indigenous people in what amounted to a Darwinian contest for an ecological niche. There is simply no plausible “what if” scenario for a successful Indian defense of the continent once Europeans determined to make their colonies stick.

But if McDougall was sternly undeceived about the American past, he was not cynical. The development of America is an epic tale”the central event, he argues, of the last four hundred years of world history”and his first volume’s lively prose and thoughtfully constructed narrative conveyed a sense of the drama, energy, and excitement involved in the making of that epic. And there was more, something central to history itself but rare in the reconstruction of it: a sense of contingency, of history’s radical indeterminacy. McDougall showed that such formative American experiences as victory in the Revolution or the ratification of the Constitution were very close-run things that could easily have gone the other way, resulting in outcomes unimaginably different from those with which we are complacently familiar.

All in all, Freedom Just Around the Corner was a bravura performance, original and challenging in interpretation but not so idiosyncratic as to appear merely willful. It did not deny American exceptionalism but made that exceptionalism plausible by stripping it of moral grandiosity. The book’s copious endnotes were a delight for scholars and anyone else absorbed by the vast secondary literature on the nation’s history and the historiographical debates that literature has generated. McDougall’s work was also commanding in its scholarly perspective, assimilating into its traditional political framework large amounts of economic and social history”including geography, technology, demography, religion, and culture”that expanded the book’s focus without blurring its themes. And the author managed to accomplish all that while keeping his work thoroughly readable.

McDougall’s second volume, Throes of Democracy , is less sweeping”literally so, reducing its time frame from well over two centuries to barely fifty years. Political history still forms the spine of the narrative, focusing on four major subjects: Jacksonian democracy, territorial expansion, the Civil War, and postwar Reconstruction. But the book has much beyond that political history, some of it complementing the political analysis, some of it standing apart.

McDougall depicts a society divided and argumentative about almost everything: economics, race, religion, ethnicity, region, lifestyle, culture. On all these matters, he is informed and informative; on many of them he is interestingly opinionated. McDougall is particularly good on religion, about which so many historians remain tone-deaf.

Readers of First Things may recall the prepublication excerpt from Throes of Democracy that appeared in these pages (“Our Stillborn Renaissance,” April 2008). That meandering, quirky essay on the American literary scene offers a representative glimpse of McDougall’s against-the-grain instincts. Most critics consider Ralph Waldo Emerson the preeminent thinker of his time, but McDougall, while acknowledging his cleverness, exposes his intellectual limitations as “a brilliant, voracious ego blind to any truths the human race might have learned by revelation or hard experience.” (McDougall is similarly revisionist in his assessment of Emerson’s “bathetic” disciple Henry David Thoreau.) Emerson fed his fellow citizens’ already considerable appetite for self-congratulation: He “told Americans that they were unique individuals in touch with divinity, infinite in their possibilities, laws unto themselves”and told them in language so abstruse and uplifting that consumers of culture suspended their critical faculties.”

McDougall indicates his own philosophical inclinations by contrasting Emerson’s lightness of intellectual being with the grimmer perceptions of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had lost his Puritan ancestors’ religious faith but maintained, if with greater sympathy, their understanding of the murky recesses of the human heart. “Emerson had contempt for the past. Hawthorne swam in it. Emerson imagined the human soul as a sun radiating power and light. Hawthorne sensed the ‘dark side of the force’ as keenly as Cotton Mather and John Bunyan.” As McDougall sums up, Hawthorne “could not bring himself to believe Americans were somehow released from the human condition.” There is a kind of conservatism here, but it is not the optimistic conservatism”America as Eden or as exemplary City on a Hill”prevalent in uncomplicated versions of American exceptionalism.

McDougall’s political judgments are less iconoclastic than his cultural ones, but they are not simply conventional. He carries forward in this volume a focus on the sociopolitical themes that he takes to have been central to the colonial and early national experiences: preoccupation with material success, individual and collective; the Protestant millennial spirit, including but not limited to intense anti-Catholicism; desire for territorial expansion and exclusion of foreign influence; and ensuring that Indians would not stand in the way of anything that white Americans desired.

McDougall is unapologetically and refreshingly old-fashioned in his predilection for traditional political narrative. “Jacksonian democracy” is the standard shorthand term for the framework of American politics in the quarter century prior to the sectional conflict of the 1850s. Jackson himself was less a consistent ideological figure than a consistently negative partisan force. As McDougall nicely puts it, Jackson “entered the White House in a foul mood [and] stayed angry for eight years.” The great “against-er” directed his anger in particular at the Bank of the United States, which he successfully took on in a titanic political and economic struggle whose effects lingered for years after he left the presidency in 1837.

The struggle against the bank reflected deep differences between the Democratic party that Jackson ­created and the Whig party that arose in opposition”differences that in many ways divided Americans long after the dissolution of the Jacksonian party system in the 1850s. To Democrats, the bank represented the aristocratic privilege and corruption that allowed the wealthy to gain unjust advantage over the virtuous workers and yeomen of the old Jeffersonian republic.

Yet, if there was class conflict in America, McDougall suggests, it did not fit the patterns of Marxist theory (or European industrial history). The American economic-reform imagination was essentially populist in nature, drawn more to conspiracy theories than socialist programs. A people possessed of a get-ahead spirit and individualist instincts were often resentful, but seldom revolutionary, when dreams of mass prosperity came up against realities of rapid but uneven development and substantial economic inequality.

The Whigs were the party of the future, welcoming the new world of financial expansion, industrial growth, and market agriculture, about which Democrats were notably ambivalent. They centered their intentions on an ever larger economic pie from which all would benefit, and they assumed that the relative size of the pie’s slices would, with rough justice, take care of itself. Less fearful of elites than were their opponents, they were more favorable toward government programs of economic development.

Whigs located the source of social ills within individuals rather than in the system. They were the party of social reform and supported government efforts to encourage morality, temperance, educational improvement, and”within limits”opposition to slavery. Democrats were suspicious of government, especially at the national level, but sympathetic to Catholics, immigrants, and workers’ organizations. As McDougall puts it, “Whigs wanted a people as good as their government [while] Democrats wanted a government as good as the people.” Members of both parties found identity in opposition: They were more certain of their opponents’ hypocrisies and pretenses than they were of the virtue of those who shared their party label.

For all their differences, McDougall notes, the parties were also vehicles of national unity. Both were regional and demographic coalitions, and they knew that to win national elections they had to smooth down the harder edges of their disagreements and find compromise solutions for pressing national problems. Both were, above all, devoted to the Union and, so, to avoiding or minimizing those issues, slavery in particular, that threatened it.

McDougall maintains the deft touch he displays about Jacksonian democracy in his discussion of post-Jacksonian developments. A comprehensive account is by its nature impossible to summarize, but prospective readers can be assured that McDougall’s expansive ­survey will provide them both an engrossing narrative and a consistently informed, imaginative, and provocative analysis. Agree with the author or not, they will not find him boring company.

That said, it is also the case that a provocative author provokes, and in this second volume McDougall provokes more questions and resistances in this reader than he did in his first.

Some of these are relatively minor reservations about specific events. For example, in his discussion of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their contest for the Senate in 1858, McDougall concludes that in their disagreement over slavery in the territories the two men “really were not far apart.” Since Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery on the grounds that it was morally wrong and Douglas was willing to contemplate its expansion because he thought the issue morally neutral, it is difficult to make sense of that judgment. Indeed, McDougall’s own detailed discussion of the issue suggests he knows better than what he winds up saying.

Another odd judgment involves the behavior of Secretary of State William Seward during the tense and uncertain period early in Lincoln’s presidency between the secession of the deep South and the onset of war. On April 1, 1861, Seward sent a note to Lincoln that, in McDougall’s own words, “damned the administration’s paralysis, called for declarations of war against all European powers seeking to profit from America’s troubles, and invited the president to delegate policy to Seward himself.” The outrageousness of the document would seem to speak for itself, but McDougall chides historians who have condemned Seward’s recklessness and effrontery, offering a forced and unpersuasive defense of the secretary’s misbegotten memo. Seward, he reminds us, was a conscientious statesman with a stellar reputation, and as secretary of state he had to suggest something in the face of threatened foreign interference. That, I suspect, will strike most readers as weak.

More significant than these instances of questionable interpretation are the large evaluative judgments to which McDougall is occasionally given. He declares, for example, that the Mexican War “was the climactic achievement of the republic founded in 1776.” I found that statement unclear on first reading, and several rereadings later it remains obscure. Whatever the author’s precise intent, he cannot mean his statement as a commendation. The Mexican War (1846“1848) was among the more disreputable chapters in the nation’s history, and McDougall’s well-crafted account of its details is appropriately mordant. For him to identify the war as the working out of the nation’s destiny is to suggest something unpleasant either about the principles of the founding or, more likely, about what had happened to those principles in the intervening years.

If McDougall’s evaluation of the meaning of the conflict with Mexico remains somewhat cryptic, his summary judgment on the Civil War is abundantly clear: “Let no one persuade you that the American Civil War was anything but a catastrophe.” That seems an oddly categorical statement about an event that, for all its horrible costs, preserved the Union and brought an end to slavery. It would be understandable if McDougall belonged to the old revisionist historical school (now largely forgotten) that regarded the war as an avoidable conflict stumbled into by a “blundering generation.” But he recognizes that the conflict over the expansion of slavery, made unavoidable by the acquisition of new territory, was a real one, and his narrative skillfully traces the pattern of events, seemingly inexorable, by which the bonds of civility between North and South gradually unraveled until separation seemed to Southerners their only acceptable option.

McDougall’s bleak conclusion stems mostly, it seems, from the war’s unsatisfactory aftermath. He summarizes postwar Reconstruction as “the template for all future occasions when the United States won a war only to lose the peace.”

That lost peace was, in my estimation, one of those historical tragedies for which it is difficult to avoid the term “inevitable.” In 1865 the victorious North wanted, at its best, two commendable but incompatible things: first, to restore national unity as quickly as possible, which would mean a lenient peace and a quick restoration of Southern self-government; second, to preserve the freedom of, and provide essential rights for, the former slaves, which, it quickly became clear, would require imposing military control on the Southern white majority. The whole thing turned out a terrible shambles, and Reconstruction limped to an inglorious conclusion a dozen years later when the North finally sacrificed the rights of blacks to a belated national reunion. McDougall does not talk of inevitable failure, but he does present the situation as a tangled mess in which there were no obvious heroes or villains.

That is not to say it was all to no purpose. The union was restored, slavery was not, and the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution laid the groundwork for the future establishment of civil rights for black citizens. Given these ambiguous but genuine achievements, the depiction of the war as unqualified catastrophe seems overwrought.

I do not know what led McDougall to his harsh judgment, but I suspect it has something to do with what he perceives as the uncertain moral standing of the Union, which the war preserved. Prior to the 1850s, the overwhelming majority of Americans found the idea of disunion not merely outrageous but a form of sacrilege, an attack on the civic religion that was America itself. As McDougall notes, “Journalists, preachers, and politicians from all sections and sects habitually referred to the Union as a sacred, holy temple whose rupture was as unthinkable as ‘overturning the Christian religion.’” But he immediately follows with this: “Alas, that temple of continental expanse was half slave, half free, and crawling with money changers. The only way its worshippers could resist schismatic temptations was by magnifying pretense until even Americans grew weary of lying to themselves and each other.”

It is all too easy to grasp how a nation half slave could seem an unlikely object of worship. But that is not McDougall’s sole emphasis. It is to his credit that, without minimizing the evils of the South’s peculiar institution, he avoids moral posturing and places the Southern defense of slavery in proper historical context.

In analyzing the sectional conflict, McDougall puts at least equal weight on the Northern”the money-changing”side of the negative moral ledger. He argues at some length that politics and economics north of the Mason-Dixon line were fundamentally corrupt, riddled at every level with “demagogy, dishonesty, graft, bribery, and incompetence.” More than that, Northerners tired of “lying to themselves” admitted as much. Thus the “blundering generation” of revisionist legend becomes, in McDougall’s view, a “plundering ­generation.”

Now in one sense this is, in the author’s overall scheme of things, simply business as usual. His America is a nation of hustlers, and hustling is endemic in the national experience. Yet where he elsewhere delights in refuting the moral strictures of progressive historians”as in his (to my mind persuasive) rejection of the “robber baron” stereotype of late-nineteenth-century industrialism”he here takes the charges largely at face value. This view of the matter helps explain why the argument for preservation of the Union, so essential to contemporary moral justification of the Northern war effort, bears so little weight in McDougall’s retelling”and why to him the Civil War, the central event of American history, was nothing more than a catastrophe.

McDougall’s Lincoln fits awkwardly in all this; he stands apart from and above his countrymen, North and South, in wisdom and moral understanding. The Union cause, it seems, was not worthy of him. It is difficult for McDougall to make room for heroes.

McDougall’s complicated and somewhat elusive view of America’s moral standing is reflected in the chapters with which he opens and closes his volume, the bookends meant to give shape and significance to the vast body of material that comes between them.

The introductory chapter”called “Pretenders?””is something of a hodgepodge in structure, but it draws in large part on the views of Jacksonian-era foreign visitors on American institutions, values, and mores. Their often critical observations focused heavily on the anxieties and pretensions of American democracy. These, McDougall concludes, were the “unforeseen consequences” of the structure the Founders had designed”one that, in maximizing liberty, established a society “shorn of overarching authorities.” America was a congeries of “virtually free markets” in politics, economics, religion, and ideas, or, less elegantly, “a barroom brawl of contrasting cultures.”

A nation without a common ethic or faith found itself inclined to “paranoia and party strife,” perpetually anxious and at odds over the question of what it ought to do with its boundless and unprecedented freedom. That concern made for a society at once boastful and insecure. It hid that concern, from itself and others, beneath endlessly elaborated forms of pretense.

The theme of pretense as an escape from the conundrums of freedom recurs throughout McDougall’s ­narrative, and he returns to it in his conclusion, “Truth-Tellers? Gimlet Eyes on a Republic of Pretense.” There were, according to McDougall, several prominent figures willing to speak truth to pretense in nineteenth-century America”in addition to Lincoln, he mentions Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and Frederick Douglass”but he chooses to devote virtually all his attention in his concluding observations to the decidedly eccentric Orestes Brownson (1803“1876).

Brownson, a journalist and sometime clergyman, was an obsessive and indefatigable seeker of religious, moral, and political truth who by the time he was forty had, as McDougall puts it, “tried and rejected Congregationalism, Presbyterianism, Universalism, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, ‘Nothing-arianism,’ democracy, and socialism.” Having pretty much exhausted the alternatives, in 1844 he became a Catholic, entering a church he had earlier derided as “ignorant, degraded, enslaved, cowardly, and imbecile.”

It was America’s special providence, Brownson believed, to become an authentic Christian republic, and his ecclesial and intellectual peregrinations had convinced him that a secure basis for such a society was to be found neither in the sentimental humanitarianism of the Transcendentalists nor in the sectarian divisions of American Protestants. Protestantism, in Brownson’s view, “was no church, but a thousand churches,” and it was doomed to frustration in its search for truth because it was the creature either of civil authorities, as in Europe, or of public opinion, as in America. The latter point was driven home by the splintering of American Protestant churches into Northern and Southern branches over the issue of slavery in the run-up to civil war. The churches were subject to the same public opinion that governed politics.

Because Americans lacked an authoritative church, they alternated between the perpetual dangers of seeing their liberty degenerate into license or, in reaction, of having morality imposed on them by self-righteous reformers. (Brownson had no use either for slavery or for abolitionism.) All rightly ordered societies, Brownson argued, require three elements: authority, liberty, and religion. America’s constitutional regime of checks and balances warded off the evils of authoritarianism and anarchy, but it could resist them conclusively only with the effective presence of a church able to inculcate morality in its citizens and to mediate between the individual and government.

What Protestantism could not provide, Catholicism could. Brownson’s reading of history had ­persuaded him that the origins of American ideas of natural rights, ordered liberty, due process, and separation of church and state lay not just in English common law but also in, of all places, medieval scholasticism. It followed naturally that Rome could provide the necessary balance, between liberty and authority, lacking in America’s “churchless democracy.”

That, at least, was the theory. In practice, as the critic Van Wyck Brooks noted, Brownson “was too much the Yankee for Catholics, too much the Catholic for Yankees.” Archbishop John J. Hughes of New York was not the only Catholic prelate who suspected, as McDougall puts it, “that Brownson wanted to Americanize the Church more than he wanted to Catholicize America.” Most Americans, for their part, found it ridiculous to suppose that their salvation, political or religious, depended on their becoming Catholic.

McDougall, of course, recognizes the utter impracticality of Brownson’s project. He also concedes that Brownson’s reading of the American scene “underestimated the common sense of his countrymen.” Americans, in fact, never came close to the anarchy or authoritarianism that Brownson feared. Besides, as the author says, “Catholics, too, were just a denomination and hardly a national church.”

Why, then, so much attention to so quixotic a notion? Because, McDougall says, whatever the ­difficulties with his solution, Brownson got America’s problems right: “Lacking a shared spirituality and devotion to a common Creator, Americans clung to a civic religion. They pretended . . . that they were priests in a church of democracy, that their nation was a heaven under construction, that their progress was a sufficient measure of truth, and that their corruption was forgivable so long as it was creative.” Americans did not understand, in sum, “that democracy without truth is idolatry.”

It would be incorrect to suggest that Walter McDougall changed his mind about America between Freedom Just Around the Corner and Throes of Democracy. The books’ organizing themes of “hustling” and “pretense” are closely related, and they both walk the fine line of recognizing the nation’s relative success in achieving its aims of prosperity, liberty, stability, and security”without for a moment denying its citizens’ susceptibility, as individuals and as a people, to the full range of human fallibility.

At the same time, there is, or so it seems to me, a shift in interpretive emphasis between the two volumes. Americans as hustlers were at once con men and heroic dreamers. As pretenders they seem merely, and rather drably, self-deceived. In Freedom Just Around the Corner there was always, for all the author’s stern realism, a sense of the grandness of the American project. If there was no naive American celebration, there was an ungrudging American appreciation. Even when the nation was unbecoming, it remained historically imposing. That sense of grandness, while not quite missing, seems substantially diminished in Throes of Democracy . The “creative” aspect of America’s “creative corruption” appears less in evidence the longer the nation endures.

That is not to deny the author’s indictment. A nation inclined to make a religion of itself, as America is, always requires close moral scrutiny. But there still seems something of a disconnect between McDougall’s stated willingness to take people as they are and his apparent disappointment when they do what people do, especially when they act collectively.

In his first volume, McDougall suggested how the American Founders, under the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, contrived to shape not a utopia but a “least bad society.” That’s a homely phrase, but a not inconsiderable achievement. I hope, as McDougall continues in his admirable endeavor, that he will keep it steadily in mind.

James Nuechterlein, former editor of First Things and a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.