Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Walter McDougall: Throes of Democracy

Walter McDougall, Throes of Democracy:
The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877
(Image from

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.

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)
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)

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.

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At 11:33 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

While I was at ASU, I walked in to my American History class and a VERY formidable man, Dr. Lambert, chairman of the history dept. was to fill in for the listed prof.--I had signed up for the other instructor for the usual reasons..
"he won't assign papers and all tests are multiple choice." I really had no choice by that time because I had very exact time limitations because I was driving to Jonesboro 4 days a week, and stressed to the max with 2 kids at home, one in diapers. I digress!
I decided to tough it out and it was a defining moment of my learning career. What brought this long-winded memory to mind was that Dr. Lambert had us read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and then do a series of papers about the effect of religion on the atmosphere of a nation and its turning point as it approached the Civil War era. It looks like your books here would be very interesting.

At 12:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You know (well, you don't, but sometimes I'm wordy), I've never read Uncle Tom's Cabin, but I really need to. I do happen to be reading Little Women, so I'm getting there . . . slowly.

Sounds as if Lambert was a real history professor.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:18 PM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

thanks for the heads up about my blogger profile. I never had any reason to click on my own name!
I have taken your advice and go softly forward. Some days soft is a struggle and I want to stomp, stomp as that is something I have control over. I guess history is full of defining moments when a stomp was a disaster. So for today, I'll go with Teddy,"Walk softly and carry a big stick"

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, I suspected that you might have been unaware of that.

I don't know that a private blog is really possible unless reading itself can be restricted . . . but restricted to whom?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:17 PM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

found a website for you,

At 12:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I "think" I may've mentioned this author/title previously, but this particular post reminded me that I perhaps should re-read portions of, Schlesinger-The Age of Jackson.

This second "Great Awakening" if memory serves-had roots going back to the mid 1840's. I do recall that the work reaches some distance past Jacksons' own death (at least up to the "Free Soilers" genesis).

I've been necessarily "out of touch" for some days and apologize that I am not more timely.


At 1:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The second is amnesia: the American people tend to forget or misremember their past mistakes..."

Another citation, sorry. Whayne,DeBlack,Sabo and Arnold-Arkansas:A Narrative History. Specifically pages 357 - 359. Just a bit to illustrate, pg 357 p 2, "While it usually falls to the victors to write the history... the collapse of Reconstruction... left the field of historical scholarship to southerners or southern sympathizers... although the South lost the war... it won the propaganda battle..."

Wlm. A. Dunning-Columbia University, influenced several generations of Americans. Coincidentally (my thoughts) Social Studies replaced the the teaching of History beginning in the early 1960's, for all the grades ending pre-college. It was only the college bound who were to receive the gift (benefit, whatever) of lessons in actual history.

I know Professor, I can hear you screaming, "start your own darned blog!"


At 4:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jeanie, for the beer reference. I'm sure that Walter would also approve, for he liked his beer.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I wondered where you'd been. Out bibliographizing, it seems. Thanks for the history references, which add to my reading burden...

Jeffery Hodges

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