Harper, 2008, 816 pp., $34.95
Walter McDougall’s horizons are narrowing. His 1985 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Heavens and the Earth, took for its field of view the universe, or at least that part of outer space in which the United States and the Soviets conducted their Cold War race. His 1993 Let the Sea Make a Noise spanned the largest ocean on earth, covering half a millennium of the history of the Pacific Ocean and the countries that border it. Since 2004, when Freedom Just Around the Corner appeared, McDougall has confined himself to North America and particularly to that portion of the continent which became the United States.
His current book, Throes of Democracy, is the sequel to Freedom Just Around the Corner, and the second volume in a projected trilogy on American history. Not many historians would attempt such a project single-handed; it’s the sort of thing academics typically undertake in teams. But McDougall, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, prefers his own company, and that independent streak shows in the audacity of his work. He ranges broadly over his merely continental-sized field, covering aspects of social history, economic history, literary history, immigration history, and assorted histories of science, technology, race and gender. He parses the language of Irish immigrants, ascribing the passivity of their sentence structures to a fatalism bred of centuries of English oppression. He recounts the rise of the circus in America, explaining that while P.T. Barnum did not coin the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute”—McDougall credits Chicago gambler Mike McDonald—the circus impresario exploited its underlying truth better than just about anyone else.
McDougall’s prose can be masterly. His depiction of the fire that ravaged New York in 1835 recalls the human horror of the disaster, even while letting McDougall delineate the emergence of the new capital of American commerce and the broader economic transformation it portended. His biographical sketches are vivid: Mormon founder Joseph Smith was “simultaneously an eminent Jacksonian, a scion of the Yankee exodus”—from New England—“a creature and critic of the Second Great Awakening, a Romantic reformer, a charismatic utopian, a mystic nationalist, and a hustler in the manner of Barnum.” McDougall pries beneath standard interpretations to reveal forgotten aspects of everyday life. “What most people don’t know is how well the train whistle harmonized with the whinny”, he observes of the dawn of the railroad era, pointing out that the iron horse, far from putting real horses to pasture, actually increased the demands upon the latter. “Freight and passenger cars, after all, were confined to their rails. So the more cargo they carried, the more wagons, coaches, and horses were needed to carry the goods and passengers to their final destinations.”
The tone is irreverent, occasionally combative. “Write as if you are already dead” is McDougall’s professed motto, borrowed from Nadine Gordimer. It’s hard to say exactly what he means by this, for his voice is very much alive. McDougall interjects himself among his characters and events, explaining, for example, that Walt Whitman suffered a nervous breakdown just before the Civil War. “Was it caused, as some critics suspect, by repressed homosexuality?” McDougall asks only to answer, “Who cares?” He has no apparent compunction about calling poor Southern whites “crackers”, and he rejects the conventional view of the Compromise of 1850 as a concession to states’ rights that eased the strain on the Union: “In truth it wasn’t a compromise. It assaulted states’ rights, and it fanned the flames of disunion.” To William Gladstone’s assertion that southern secession had the effect of creating a southern nation, McDougall has a straightforward response: “Forget it.”
Henry Clay, author of the Compromise of 1850.
The heart of McDougall’s story is, as the heart of any account of this period of American history must be, the trials of democracy. He takes his title from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
And sing me before you go the song of the throes of Democracy.
(Democracy, the destin’d conqueror, yet treacherous lip-smiles everywhere,
And death and infidelity at every step.)
McDougall shares Whitman’s enthusiasm for democracy, but also the Brooklyn bard’s appreciation of the blemishes on the face of the American body politic. In Freedom Just Around the Corner, McDougall characterized the English who settled North America as “hustlers”, in multiple senses of the word. They hustled for material gain, organizing joint-stock companies to search for gold and to traffic in tobacco, slaves and other profit-producing items. They hustled for religious advantage, seeking refuge in America when the wars of religion went badly in England and trying to enforce their theologies in their new homes on the Atlantic’s western shore. They hustled geopolitically, jousting with Spain and France for imperial primacy. They hustled racially, asserting their superiority over the aboriginal peoples of America, and over the Africans they imported to provide the labor of which the colonies were chronically short.
The hustling took new forms in the age of democracy, as McDougall’s present book reveals. For example, he deems Alexis de Tocqueville overrated, not so much because of the Frenchman’s tendency to universalize from a few observations, but because of his failure to fathom the economic revolution upon which American society was embarking. But McDougall agrees with Tocqueville that American democracy depended on a careful balancing of fictions. Democracy consecrated equality as the touchstone of American political theory even as democratic political practice subordinated women and slaves. Democracy made a fetish of individual liberty even as democratic public opinion imposed a conformity almost as stifling as that of the Spanish Inquisition. Democracy declared America the home of the common man even as every common man strove to rise above his contemporaries. McDougall extrapolates from Tocqueville and other visitors to America to conclude that “the glue holding the Union together was pretense.”
Pretense sufficed for a time, but not forever. Americans overspread the continent during the 1840s, taking Texas and California from Mexico and splitting Oregon with Britain. They justified their conquests as extending the empire of liberty. McDougall asserts that the Mexican War “exposed Manifest Destiny as a pretentious fraud”, but that it nonetheless constituted what was, up to that point, the “climactic achievement of the republic founded in 1776.” Both characterizations are questionable. In McDougall’s telling, the “manifest destiny” promoted by John L. O’Sullivan was peaceful; and maybe it was to O’Sullivan. But the publicist shared the national rostrum with plenty of contemporaries who were more than happy to aid destiny by force of arms. As for the conflict with Mexico being the climactic achievement of the American Republic, the victory in the war did round out America geographically, but it left unanswered some basic questions regarding what America would become.
The most basic question of all involved slavery. A related yet less obvious question, which McDougall doesn’t address directly, was how American democracy ought to be understood. His interpretation of the sectional crisis is fairly traditional, although he doesn’t present it that way. He discounts the claims of the “progressive” historians of the 1920s and 1930s, echoed by radical historians during the 1960s, that the sectional crisis resulted from efforts by northern capitalists to break the stranglehold of southern slave owners on the national government. He similarly dismisses the brief of the “consensus” historians of the 1940s and 1950s that the sectional conflict was the consequence of avoidable blunders by foolish politicians. He concludes, as much by default as by anything else, that the crisis was what those caught in its midst generally believed it was: a struggle over the fate of slavery in the western territories.
He’s right. None but Constitution-despising abolitionists thought Congress could outlaw slavery in the states. The question was whether the Federal legislature could control slavery in the territories. Most in the North hoped so; many in the South feared so. The Dred Scott decision of 1857, which asserted that Congress could not bar slavery from the territories, reversed the balance of hopes and fears. Suddenly the North felt beleaguered, prompting many northerners to join the fledgling anti-slavery Republican Party, and some to applaud John Brown when that antebellum Osama massacred pro-slavery Kansans and attempted to foment a slave revolt in Virginia.
Democracy is supposed to provide a peaceful method for resolving disputes, and in American history it usually has. But democracy doesn’t deal well with crises of identity; instead it often inflames them, with its characteristic stress on rights and broad political participation. It did so in 1860, when the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, when the southern states refused to put him on their ballots, and when the North made him President anyway with a mere 40 percent of the popular vote. Southerners had already come to think themselves a people apart; Lincoln’s election, following Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, allowed them to imagine that their very existence was at risk. “The South, in the eyes of the North, is degraded and unworthy”, a New Orleans editor asserted. Those whom Americans of that era considered degraded—African Americans, Indians, Mexicans—they typically subjugated. Many southerners expected the North to try to subjugate them, as well.
Democracy afforded the South a plausible remedy. The constitutional lineage of states’ rights was longer in American history than that of nationalism. The states wrote constitutions before the central government did, and even such eminent theorists of federalism as Jefferson and Madison had defended—in the turn-of-the-century Kentucky and Virginia resolutions—the right of states to pass judgment on the actions of the central government. The emergence of democracy in and after the Jacksonian era strengthened the argument for states’ rights, for if democracy meant anything, it meant that the people could and should choose the form of government that best suited them. When the southern states determined that the Federal government no longer protected their interests, the spirit of democracy told them to leave it behind.
A competing democratic spirit told Abraham Lincoln to resist their departure. Rarely in history does the fate of a powerful nation hinge on the actions of a single person. The fate of America, however, did hinge on Lincoln in 1861. Had he chosen not to fight, there would have been no war. Many northerners would have been happy to see the South go, and few among the unhappy were sufficiently provoked to hazard their lives to prevent the South’s departure. Even those determined to fight for the Union required the leadership of the man whose election made him Commander-in-Chief of the American army.
Lincoln argued his anti-secessionist case on principles no less democratic than those of the South. Democracy depended on adherence to the Constitution, he said, and he had sworn to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution made no provision for secession; what the South called secession was simply rebellion. If allowed to succeed, the southern rebellion would prove democracy impotent. Lincoln distilled his argument into a handful of words at the memorializing of the Gettysburg dead, when he proclaimed the Union’s principal war aim to be “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Was Lincoln right about the global significance of the American conflict? Almost certainly not. Self-government was an idea whose time was coming, whether it was dealt a setback in America or not. Did Lincoln believe his own words? McDougall thinks it doesn’t matter. “It is futile to debate whether a pragmatic Lincoln made a pretense of morals or a moral Lincoln made a pretense of pragmatism,” McDougall writes. But pretense or not, Lincoln’s interpretation of democracy steeled the Union to carry the struggle to victory. “Public sentiment is everything”, he had said before the war. “With it, nothing can fail; against it nothing can succeed.” The Union won the war because Lincoln rallied public sentiment in the North behind his version of democracy, and the weight of northern resources defeated the resources mobilized on behalf of the southern version.
The outcome of the war proved little about democracy per se, except that democratic wars can be the most destructive of all. “Let no one persuade you that the American Civil War was anything but a catastrophe”, McDougall correctly cautions his readers. The 600,000 dead would have been 11 million in 2008, if adjusted to scale for population growth. The war ravaged the economy of the South and retarded the growth of the North, where the benefits of war production in some sectors were more than offset by costs to others. The war emancipated the slaves but the denouement did little to lift them to anything approaching personal independence, political participation or economic equality.
“Imagine a sober analogy”, McDougall writes of Reconstruction:
Suppose that the U.S. Army has overthrown an oppressive regime in the name of expanding freedom. The victors expect to be cheered by all save the old regime’s minions and to help the people realize democracy. Instead, a hard, lengthy occupation ensues because bad guys mount an insurgency and good guys bicker among themselves. . . . Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as the Americans grow weary and wonder if the occupation is only making things worse.
The reader takes the comparative point, and it is an intriguing one. McDougall admits that the post-combat Civil War analogy to Iraq is imperfect. But the larger lesson he presents of democracy’s travails is timely and apt. Most Americans justifiably applaud their forebears’ accomplishment in building a prosperous democratic republic, and McDougall joins them. He declares the United States the “greatest success story in history.” Yet his tale delivers a poignant reminder that success didn’t come easily, and that democracy wasn’t built in a year, or a decade, or even a generation. American democracy nearly committed suicide in the middle of the 19th century, and for a hundred years after the Civil War democracy remained a bitter, broken promise for the descendants of those the war ostensibly freed.
McDougall is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and he recounts in his preface an exchange with another vet, who confided the lesson Vietnam had taught him: “Say no to bullshit.” The lesson clearly stuck with McDougall, and it motivates his efforts to puncture the pretenses of 19th-century American democracy. It’s a lesson that never goes stale.