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Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877 Hardcover – March 11, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (March 11, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060567511
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060567514
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,177,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The subtitle's overextended claim that the Civil War era started in 1829 sets the tone for this hulking second volume (after Freedom Just Around the Corner) of Pulitzer-winner McDougall's projected multivolume history of the U.S. The author tries both to deflate national pride and celebrate national progress in the era in which the nation spread across the continent, shattered in a war and came back together. He does so in an opinionated, breezy narrative that focuses on individuals—lesser known as well as famous, writers and thinkers as well as political and military leaders. But McDougall's history is basically a traditional one about party conflicts, the westward course of empire, war, the Transcendentalists, frontier tensions, railroads, slavery, religious tensions and robber barons. You'd never know that a huge body of history on the real lives of 19th-century Americans had been produced in recent decades. Not many women appear, or Indians, slaves and freedmen, or working people, many of whom helped make the young democracy vital and tumultuous. McDougall's strength lies in deflating cherished reputations, like de Tocqueville's, and restoring others', like pastor and intellectual Orestes Brownson's. A pleasing romp through a critical period in the nation's history, it sticks to the tried and true. 19 maps. (Mar. 11)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Esteemed among critics, historian McDougall doesn’t have the popular cachet of a Doris Kearns Goodwin, but history buffs will definitely gravitate to this thick book. The second in a projected multivolume history of the U.S., it proves as boisterous as the busy, mid-nineteenth-century Americans whose expanding, industrializing, and warring McDougall chronicles. McDougall is neither shy in offering opinions nor prone to systematize the welter of economic, political, cultural, and religious activity from the presidencies of Jackson to Hayes, except to this extent: he argues for the ironic benefits of “creative corruption” and, in tandem, for the costs of a national penchant for “pretense.” Nicking nearly every topic or individual with those words, McDougall rhetorically deploys boodle’s service in greasing political parties that kept the Union functioning. As to pretentiousness, McDougall recounts the chasm between the ideals of liberty and the realities of slavery, followed by the muddle of Reconstruction, yet all is not an indictment. McDougall emerges impressed by the dynamism of Americans’ chest-thumping republican democracy and by contemporaries who puzzled over where America was headed in those stormy decades. A provocative survey from a premier historian. --Gilbert Taylor

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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Stephen M on April 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I was enthralled by this tour around America during such a critical period of development. McDougall is a respected, decorated academic historian and brings this professional authority to the pages. However, this book is fabulous for amateurs like me, interested in history but not in pursuit of a Ph.D. The myriad of social and cultural elements are what make this a fascinating study. Most history tomes focus on political aspects, as this certainly addresses. But I like reading about things that are less well-known--people, domestic habits, inventions, social things. To name a few in McDougall's book: the invention of photography, women desiring fine china starting in the 1820s, saloons in Chicago, Lincoln wondering what to do with the freed slaves, the age of steel, railroads, pioneer trails to the West, water supply, all the stuff that typical political history books miss.

While "Throes of Democracy" is 600 pages with terrific maps, it's a rapid trip, easy to read with lots of juicy stories and details. There are 144 pages of footnotes which I'm sure the academics require, and some of them are enlightening, but I didn't need them. I have read a few of the author's previous books and this is the best one yet.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Fred D. Seth, Jr. on April 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The first two reviewers of Walter McDougall's masterpiece of prose are sharply divided in their views. My take on this historical romp through the mid 1850's is that McDougall was looking to pick an argument with each and every one of his readers. There is something here for each of us to cherish and to question.
First, McDougall's biting wit and scathing comments on the people and events of the day make page-turning reading. He treats monumental and small events with the same degree of scrutiny. He has made me reconsider some of my views on the mid 19th century. I am currently gathering materials for a book on a very narrow topic of the Civil War period. I hope I can tell my story with just a smidgen of the insight that he has used to tell his.
Dr. McDougall, thanks for making me reconsider my approach to historical writing. At its best, history is challenging and fun. You make it fun. I encourage anyone who hated history in high school to read this book. You will be pleasantly surprised, and most likely will order volume 1 of the series. I can't wait until the next installment.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Professor Walter McDougall of the University of Pennsylvania develops his understanding of American history as a "tale of human nature set free" throughout his lengthy study "Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829 -- 1876" (2008). This book is the second of three volumes devoted to a history of the United States. The first volume "Freedom just around the Corner" covers the period 1585 -- 1828 while the third volume has not yet appeared. McDougall is a scholar in love with the United States but deeply conscious of its paradoxes. Further setting the tone for his history, he writes in his Preface "I believe the United States (so far) is the greatest success story in history. I believe Americans (on balance) are experts at self-deception. And I believe the 'creative corruption born ot their pretense goes far to explain their success. The upshot is that American history is chock-full of cruelty and love, hypocrisy and faith, cowardice and courage, plus no small measure of tounge in cheek humor." McDougall says he has written his history with two broad rules in mind: avoid cant (he uses a more earthy term) and and "write as if you are already dead." On the whole, he follows through. McDougall writes from a philosophical/religious perspective which I will discuss below.

The book begins and nearly ends with fire. It opens with a description of an 1835 fire in New York City which destroyed lower Manhattan. And one of the last sections of the book tells of the great Chicago fire of 1871 which gutted much of the city. In both cases, McDougall finds that the cities rose from their ashes through the energy and untrammelled efforts of individuals and community.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By pango on September 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I recently discovered in an interview with Prof. McDougall that "Throes of Democracy" is, unfortunately, the last general American history that he will write. Apparently his publisher didn't even want to release "Throes," since the first volume of the series, the wonderful "Freedom Just Around the Corner," didn't sell. They (Harper) have zero interest in McDougall continuing his American history into the 20th Century, as originally intended.

Which is a great shame. McDougall's books are, admittedly, spiky and unusual and focus on an overall thesis---America as a country built by and for hucksters of all stripes---that isn't very flattering, even if it's true. He doesn't believe in the three-centuries-of-oppression aspect of Howard Zinn's leftist history, nor does he engage in the sort of cultural hagiographies ever-popular on the right. He wrote two brilliant, if at times quite strange and rambling, American histories that provide a clear window into this bizarre and increasingly-fragmented country.

McDougall's books, I hope, will eventually grow in popularity and influence: it may take decades, though. They may have been too acerbic, too plain-speaking for their era. It's a great shame the story ends in 1877, but arguably, everything you need to know about the U.S. today was in place by then...
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