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

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

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by Walter A. McDougall

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From its shocking curtain-raiser—the conflagration that consumed Lower Manhattan in 1835—to the climactic centennial year of 1876, when Americans staged a corrupt, deadlocked presidential campaign (fought out in Florida), Walter A. McDougall's Throes of Democracy carries the saga of the American people's continuous self-reinvention across five

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From its shocking curtain-raiser—the conflagration that consumed Lower Manhattan in 1835—to the climactic centennial year of 1876, when Americans staged a corrupt, deadlocked presidential campaign (fought out in Florida), Walter A. McDougall's Throes of Democracy carries the saga of the American people's continuous self-reinvention across five tumultuous decades. From the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson through the eras of Manifest Destiny, Civil War, and Reconstruction, it is an epic in which Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, showman P. T. Barnum, and circus clown Dan Rice figure as prominently as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Henry Ward Beecher—a zesty, irreverent narrative that brazenly reveals our national penchant for pretense.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist (starred review)
“History buffs will defnitely 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. . . . A provocative survey frmo a premier historian.”
"History buffs will defnitely 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. . . . A provocative survey frmo a premier historian."
Michael Kazin
Like Mark Twain, a rare 19th-century figure whom he admires, McDougall mocks "in suitably palatable fashion" the myth that Americans were a decent people eager to share the blessings of democracy. Because he writes exceedingly well, this makes for a history that is bracing to read, even if one questions its premises and conclusions.
—The New York Times
Heather Cox Richardson
Rather than a definitive history, Throes of Democracy is a rollicking trip through historical events aimed at waking readers to America's past self-deceptions and prodding them to be more self-critical today. But even if McDougall's history is deliberately provocative, it is not anti-American. The relish with which he launches his characters into the turbulent waters of the 19th century can only reflect a genuine appreciation for them, despite the muck in which they paddled. People like mountain men Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith mounting a disastrous trapping expedition up the Missouri River, huckster P. T. Barnum using swampland to secure a loan, Joseph Smith digging a peculiarly American religion out of a hill, and Walt Whitman defining the nation in myth-making poetry are rendered with an affectionate, if critical, pen.
—The Washington Post
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)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

McDougall (history, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828 ), Pulitzer Prize winner for The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Program , presents the second volume of his planned trilogy of "new American history," from the election of Andrew Jackson through Reconstruction. He reiterates the theme of Americans as "hustlers," a term that has both negative and positive connotations. McDougall asserts that citizens of this country are masters of rhetorical self-reinvention in political, economic, social, and spiritual spheres. Beginning by defining New York City's rise as representative of American determination, he expands from there to offer various instances of American ingenuity and drive, citing some atypical examples from history such as the rise of mass entertainment through the entrepreneurial spirit of early comedians and traveling circuses. He also addresses the core signifiers such as Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, and the postbellum mythologizing of the country as a nation purged of sin, as it headed forward with optimism and capitalist vigor. McDougall's primary and secondary research is exhaustive, with endnotes providing additional entertaining background. Highly recommended for academic and many public libraries.-Gayla Koerting, Univ. of South Dakota, Vermillion

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A broad-ranging portrait of America in a time of torment, continuing Pulitzer Prize winner McDougall's (History/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History: 1585-1828, 2004, etc.) projected trilogy. The author extends the Civil War era to the first serious rumblings of secession and regional rivalry, closing it with the end of Reconstruction. His narrative opens, fittingly enough, with a massive fire that swept through New York just before Christmas in 1835, when "lower Manhattan ceased to exist." The conflagration had the unintended effect of consolidating city government power and improving water supply and firefighting services, while also making the scramble for housing for less-privileged New Yorkers all that more Darwinian. The effect of that scramble, in turn, was murderous rioting on the part of Irish gangs that targeted African-Americans when not targeting one another-ethnic violence that foreshadowed the larger bloodletting to come. Liking what they heard of these Five Points riots, Protestant Bostonians set about ransacking convents, while in Philadelphia "anti-abolitionists went on rampages in black neighborhoods." Out on the Great Plains, American dragoons were setting about fighting the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes for the first time, again setting the tone for the decades to come. To such seemingly isolated events, McDougall applies themes that speak to dissent and division. He notes, for instance, that "American Protestantism in the Romantic era was characterized by loud disputations over fine points of theology, raucous revivals in country and town, and bewildering sectarianism," which puts him to wondering how it was that European visitorssuch as Tocqueville and Trollope could have considered the United States to be conformist in character. Speaking to that character, McDougall ventures that in the Civil War era something of the nation's essential nature came through: progressive yet conservative, pious yet sanguinary. Provocative and richly detailed-a welcome contribution to popular history.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Meet the Author

A professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter A. McDougall is the author of many books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth and Let the Sea Make a Noise. . . . He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two teenage children.

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Throes of Democracy
The American Civil War Era 1829-1877

By Walter A. McDougall HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
Walter A. McDougall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060567514

Chapter One


The Melees and Masks of White Man's Democracy Post-1830

And then there came a day of fire, to New York City, in 1835. The catastrophe and its aftermath displayed in sharp relief the glories and flaws of a city fast becoming the symbol of a nation drunk on democracy.

"How shall I record the events of last night, or how attempt to describe the most awful calamity which has ever visited the United States? The greatest loss by fire that has ever been known, with the exception perhaps of the conflagration of Moscow, and that was an incidental concomitant of war. I am fatigued in body, disturbed in mind, and my fancy filled with images of horror which my pen is inadequate to describe. Nearly one half of the first ward is in ashes; 500 to 700 stores, which with their contents are valued at $20,000,000 to $40,000,000, are now lying in an indistinguishable mass of ruins. There is not perhaps in the world the same space of ground covered by so great an amount of real and personal property as the scene of this dreadful conflagration. The fire broke out at nine o'clock last evening. I was waiting in the library when the alarm was given and went immediately down. The night was intensely cold, which was one cause of the unprecedented progress of the flames, for the water froze in the hydrants, and the engines and their hose could not be worked without greatdifficulty. The firemen, too, had been on duty all last night, and were almost incapable of performing their usual services.

"The fire originated in the store of Comstock & Adams in Merchant Street, a narrow crooked street, filled with high stores lately erected and occupied by dry goods and hardware merchants. . . . When I arrived at the spot the scene exceeded all description; the progress of the flames, like flashes of lightning, communicated in every direction, and a few minutes sufficed to level the lofty edifices on every side. . . . At this period the flames were unmanageable, and the crowd, including the firemen, appeared to look on with the apathy of despair, and the destruction continued until it reached Coenties Slip, in that direction, and Wall Street down to the river. . . . The Merchants' Exchange, one of the ornaments of the city, took fire in the rear, and is now a heap of ruins. The façade and magnificent marble columns fronting on Wall Street are all that remains of this noble building, and resemble the ruins of an ancient temple. . . . When the dome of the edifice fell in, the sight was awfully grand. In its fall it demolished the statue of [Alexander] Hamilton executed by Ball Hughes, which was erected in the rotunda only eight months ago by the public spirit of the merchants."

Philip Hone wrote that account in his diary. He was born to penurious German immigrants in 1780. New York, at that time, lay under British occupation, its commerce wrecked by the thirteen colonies' war for independence. By 1797, when Philip and his brother teamed up to auction off cargoes down by the docks, New York City was already emerging as North America's premier port of entry for the goods of the world. By 1821, the handsome, blond Hone was already rich enough to retire. Over the next thirty years he traveled abroad, collected books and artwork, and won a reputation as a man about town second only, perhaps, to the millionaire John Jacob Astor. Hone served a term in City Hall, the last Federalist to do so, and later advised such giants of the Whig Party as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and William Seward. He also befriended Martin Van Buren, kingpin of New York's Jacksonians. But Hone had no love for "King Andrew" Jackson himself. "That such a man should have governed this great country with a rule more absolute than that of any hereditary monarch of Europe and that the people should not only have submitted to it, but upheld and supported him . . . will equally occasion the surprise and indignation of future generations."

An even more dangerous threat to the fair city beloved by Hone was the influx of Irish whose violence and vice undermined law and order, and whose votes tightened the Tammany Hall Democrats' grip on power. He concluded his account of the fire by damning "the miserable wretches who prowled about the ruins, and became beastly drunk on the champagne and other wines and liquors with which the streets and wharves were lined." They "seemed to exult in the misfortune, and such expressions were heard as 'Ah! They'll make no more five percent dividends!' and 'This will make the aristocracy haul in their horns!' Poor deluded wretches, little do they know that their own horns 'live and move and have their being' in these very horns of the aristocracy, as their instigators teach them to call it. This cant is the very text from which their leaders teach their deluded followers. It forms part of the warfare of the poor against the rich. . . . This class of men are the most ignorant, and consequently the most obstinate white men in the world. . . . These Irishmen, strangers among us, without a feeling of patriotism or affection in common with American citizens, decide the elections in the city of New York." 1

That city was fast becoming the locus and metaphor of the American dream when suddenly, a week before Christmas in 1835, lower Manhattan ceased to exist. On the night of December 16 a watchman breasted arctic northwester gales that measured eighteen degrees below zero. At the corner of Pearl and Exchange streets the odor of smoke reached his nostrils. He whistled up comrades, broke open the door to a five story warehouse, and gasped to find the building a furnace. Stove coals had ignited gas from a leaking pipe. The flames exploded the roof, caught the stiff breeze, and kindled the whole dry goods district in fifteen minutes. "Imagine," wrote an eyewitness . . .


Excerpted from Throes of Democracy by Walter A. McDougall Copyright © 2008 by Walter A. McDougall. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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