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Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877 Hardcover – March 11, 2008
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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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*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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One reason is his fortunate choice of the trilogy form. Each volume is over 500 pages. The result is a wealth of detail that both informs and enlivens the very readable text. I understood the coming of the Civil War as never before. President Andrew Jackson, another familiar subject, shines and inflames. That illumination is characteristic of the first two volumes of the trilogy: Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828, and Throes of Democracy, The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877.
This second volume opens with a "tour de force," a synopsis of the first volume. These twelve pages are a classic statement of what made this country "tick" and how we got that way: the singularity of Tudor-Stuart Britain and who our colonists were, why they came, what they hoped to achieve and succeeded in doing. They were, as he wrote, "hustlers," a summation of remarkable clarity. McDougall's "synopsis" is an historical, philosophical evaluation of the highest importance. It rests upon vast research, an extensive career, and experience and comprehension of both Europe and America about which he has written.
The "hustlers" are still arriving, but do both the new ones and the descendants of the earlier ones understand what has made this country "tick" and why? I think not, and that is our peril. I recommend this trilogy as an American text in every high school! Some will say that these books are too long and difficult to teach. If so, neither the students nor the teachers are ready for high school. A country cannot survive without a comprehension of its history. McDougall's trilogy is doing it.
That marvelously illuminating word "hustler" also appeared in Professor Clifford Dowdey's Virginia Dynasties (1969) followed by The Golden Age: A Climate for Greatness in Virginia, 1732-1775. Together with McDougall's work, they are a powerful rendition of who we are and how we got that way. If you want to understand the Republic, here it is! Unfortunately, Dowdey's histories are already being discarded by libraries.
There are other major social, economic, religious, and cultural topics - women's history is one - in which recent scholarship abounds. They can be explored comprehensively elsewhere. McDougall and Dowdey give us history without ideology such as political correctness. What is here is the core of our being!
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...
By "rounded" I do not mean impartial. McDougall relishes debunking icons, whether they are Emerson and Thoreau (pages 219-22) or Andrew Jackson (pages 68-76).
However, McDougall is more interested in conveying (with great success) the excitement and grandeur of American growth and the greatness of the inventors and entrepreneurs who made that growth possible. He fully justifies his assertions (pages xii, 563) that the United States has been "the greatest success story in history" and "the most dynamic nation on earth."
I have read a great deal about the history of technology, but it was McDougall's infectious enthusiasm (pages 135-6, 143-5) that made me realize for the first time that the introduction of railroads in the 1830s and the telegraph in the 1840s may have changed the way people lived and thought more thoroughly and more suddenly than any other technological innovations in history.
His description of the wonderful contributions of business tycoons is especially important because the characterization of the industrialists of the post-Civil-War era as "robber barons" (from a book published in 1934 with that name) still persists, even though it was refuted long ago. (As ardent a champion of the free market as the Economist magazine recently referred to Andrew Carnegie as a robber baron.) McDougall's summary of Carnegie's and Rockefeller's careers (pages 558-9) is worth quoting:
"[L]argely under his [Carnegie's] aegis steel production rose from 20,000 tons in 1867 to more than 1 million tons by 1879 even as the price dropped from $166 to $45 per ton. Steel made railroad tracks stronger and cheaper. Steel ... made possible skyscrapers ... Steel put cheap, superior tools and utensils into everyone's hands.... [T]he question remains whether any other capitalist, much less a socialist commissar, could have built the U.S. steel industry as quickly and as well as Carnegie did."
"Like Carnegie, he [Rockefeller] focused on quality standards, cost control, the best science and management, and vertical integration. ... [L]argely under his aegis oil production rose from 8,500 barrels in 1859 to more than 26 million barrels by 1879, while prices declined from $16 per barrel in 1860 to less than $1 by 1879 ... He is lauded for philanthropic donations totalling $540 million. But his greatest gift was oil: for illumination, lubrication, paints, dyes, and all products of organic chemistry from fertilizer to aspirin."
McDougall also interspersed his history with fascinating and important facts. For example (page 561), in 1871, for the first time, US exports exceeded imports, mostly because of food from the Midwest. US exports continued to exceed imports until well after World War II. And (page 8) the ultra-luxurious Astor House, completed in 1836, had over 300 gas-lit rooms, a dining room with 30 entrees a day and baths and toilets on every corridor (not in every room).
Now for criticisms: Unlike reviewer Robin Friedman, I could find no purpose or relevance in the twenty-two pages on Orestes Brownson with which McDougall ends his history.
In both this and the previous volume, he gives a few-page description of each state as it was admitted to the Union. I found these descriptions interesting and valuable in the first volume. But I thought those in this volume were too folksy and chatty.
Errors of fact are inevitable in a book of this length and scope. I found three. On page 260, McDougall says that the election of 1844 was the first presidential campaign fought primarily over foreign policy. In fact, impassioned differences with regard to the French Revolution and whether the USA should ally with France or Britain were crucial political issues from the 1790s until the defeat of Napoleon. Indeed, McDougall points out first volume (page 401) that the Embargo of 1808 was the central issue in the election of 1808 and (page 413) the War of 1812 in the election of 1812. On page 380, McDougall states that Douglas won the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I do not understand how anyone who reads them could think that. More importantly, that is not just a modern impression. It was the Republicans who published them as a book, which they circulated widely during the campaign of 1860. On page 567, McDougall says "Republicans led by Samuel Tilden" fought the Tweed Ring. Tilden did lead the battle against the Tweed Ring; but, as McDougall knows, he was a Democrat. Either "Republican" is a mistake, or the sentence is awkwardly worded.
I also found two contradictions. The numbers that McDougall gives for the population of Texas before it won independence are: 2,500 Mexicans (page 78); more than 22,000 White Anglos and 1,100 slaves in 1831 (page 79); and 5,000 Mexicans and 30,000 Anglos in 1830 (page 80). On page 110, he says that in 1850, the Southern states contained 27 percent of the population of the United States; on page 111, he says that in 1850, the free states contained 58 percent of the USA' population and 67 percent of its Whites.
Incidentally, reviewer Mitch Deerfield's criticism is wrong. McDougall (page 403) correctly says that the Republicans voted against the Crittenden Compromise.
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A very in depth study of a very critical time for the USA