Walter McDougall: Throes of Democracy
Long-time readers may recall some early posts on Freedom Just Around the Corner, the first volume in a planned five-volume series on American history written by one of my old Berkeley professors, but now safely ensconced at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter McDougall.
For more recent readers who'd like to know -- or long-time readers with short memories -- simply copy the title "Freedom Just Around the Corner" within double-quotation marks, paste it in the "Search Blog" box above, and click the "Search Blog" button or hit "Enter" to find nine posts from 2005 on precisely this first volume.
Three years ago! How time flies.
I've not commented on the most recent stage of McDougall's long excursion through American history because I've been waiting for a report from the man himself.
Well, I didn't get that, but I did receive an E-Note from the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) alerting me to the recent publication of McDougall's second volume: Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877.
This E-Note also offered McDougall's summary, an essay that can be read at the FPRI website under the same title as the book and which opens with a description of a religious revival that had previously escaped my attention, a 'spiritual' awakening that came in the wake of "the capsized steamer Central America, which had gone "down on September 12 with 426 souls and a half million ounces of California gold," bringing on The Panic of 1857 with its liquidity crisis, tumbling markets, and collapsing banks:
A ruined broker named Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier believed that Wall Street, which had been reduced to cinders in a terrible fire in 1835, needed to burn again, only this time with the Holy Spirit. On Wednesday, September 23, he summoned businessmen to a noon prayer service at the old Dutch Church on Fulton Street. Six stragglers peeked in. But increasing numbers showed up over the next months. During what Walt Whitman called those "melancholy days," prayer groups sprang up all over New York, then Chicago and Philadelphia. The revival spread all over America, but it hit northern cities the hardest because the "Plundering Generation" of textile manufacturers, merchants, shippers, insurers, and investment bankers repented of their profitable complicity in the slave-based cotton trade. Bestsellers called this revival a harbinger of the Apocalypse and Millennium.From my reading of McDougall's essay, the line between this revival and the Civil War is not so plainly drawn. I would guess that the spiritual revival McDougall draws attention to had its more potent expression in the Northern population's reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and McDougall himself credits Stowe with "trumpet[ing] dangerous truths in Uncle Tom's Cabin and indict[ing] Northern complicity in the slave trade" (paragraph 18)
No historian is so bold as to say that the Revival of 1857-58 caused our Civil War. But several, including myself, find it plausible that the spiritual message reinforced the political message of the new Republican Party; bred revulsion to the corruption and vice in American society; and made northern elites more receptive to antislavery agitation. (Walter A. McDougall, "Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829 – 1877," The Newsletter of FPRI's Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education, May 2008, Vol. 13, No. 12, paragraphs 3-4)
Whatever the spiritual gunpowder that primed the material gun power, the Civil War came and changed America and its South forever even if -- as McDougall put it -- "Reconstruction became Americans' first of many failed experiments in nation-building" (paragraph 23). McDougall finds four significant ways in which the Civil War era shaped American 'character':
The Civil War era, it seems to me, hard-wired four telling traits into Americans' character, traits they would go on to display time and again during their later career as a world power. The first is a careless lack of responsibility: the American people and political system invariably put off pressing problems until they finally cannot be ignored any longer. Because of delay, the solutions prove exponentially more costly and less satisfactory than they could have been. The second is amnesia: the American people tend to forget or misremember their past mistakes and ordeals out of a cheerful optimism and faith in the future born of their civil religion. The third is an amazing power of resilience: Americans invariably rebound from the ravages of war in a very short time and recover their confidence. The fourth, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, is a nationalism with the soul of a church, because the United States resurrected after its death in Secession purged old myths only to fuse nationalism even more inextricably with a cult of material progress disguised as a holy calling. That coalescence of Union and Creed, power and faith, rendered Americans uniquely prone to sanctimony, but also uniquely immune to cynicism. (paragraph 28)In the hands of a different sort of historian, all this mess would be cause for a cynical reading of American history, but McDougall, fully as American as those whom he describes, is himself "uniquely immune to cynicism."
That's partly what I like about him.