Page-Turning American History

Those of us who love reading history are less and less inclined to read professional historians these days. History is, even more than most of the humanities, a left-wing profession. Historians are also, like most academics, more inclined to write for their colleagues than for the public. As a result, far too many books produced by tenured historians are gloomy, depressing, jargon-laden tracts with extremely limited audiences.

 
 
 
Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877
Walter A. MacDougall, Harper, 816 pages, $34.95
Those of us who love reading history are less and less inclined to read professional historians these days. History is, even more than most of the humanities, a left-wing profession. Historians are also, like most academics, more inclined to write for their colleagues than for the public. As a result, far too many books produced by tenured historians are gloomy, depressing, jargon-laden tracts with extremely limited audiences.
 
This is why Walter A. MacDougall’s Throes of Democracy is a refreshing change. MacDougall, a University of Pennsylvania historian, is a conservative who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for . . . The Heavens and the Earth, a history of American space programs. He is also a Vietnam veteran. But most importantly, he understands that the first purpose of history is storytelling, and that historians who accurately tell good stories will win large audiences.
 
MacDougall’s current project is a multi-volume history of the United States. An earlier volume, Freedom Just Around the Corner (2004), told the story of America from colonial times to 1829. Throes of Democracy continues our country’s history until 1877. Both books are what professional historians call “synthetic history,” in that they are not based on original archival research but instead synthesize a massive number of other books. (The footnotes to Throes of Democracy are more than 150 pages, and recommended reading.)
 
Throes of Democracy is an old-fashioned, patriotic history that is well worth reading. It is also acerbic and, at times, quirky. One of those quirks involves MacDougall interrupting his narrative each time a new state is admitted to tell the history of that state. This means you’ll learn a lot of state history missing from comparable books. For example, did you know that before the founders of Arkansas settled on that particular spelling, they thought the state’s name should be “Arkansaw” or “Arkansa?” (They then debated whether the state’s name should rhyme with Kansas.) Or that lightly populated Nevada, Nebraska, and Colorado didn’t have enough people to become states but obtained statehood early because Republicans were desperate for electoral votes in the elections of 1864, 1868, and 1876?
 
MacDougall also does not believe in value-free history. He has heroes and villains. His heroes are competent military officers and entrepreneurs whose new ideas made our country better. For example, he notes that Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, far from being “robber barons,” were innovators who steadily caused the price of oil and steel to fall. But MacDougall also has space for lesser-known innovators such as Dan Rice, whose circus was so popular that in the 1850s he became the first nationally known entertainer. (Among Rice’s innovations: He taught Americans that peanuts were enjoyable to eat — and fun to feed to elephants.)
 
MacDougall’s villains include nearly all politicians of the era, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln. Most of us might have thought that Daniel Webster was vaguely admirable; MacDougall disagrees. Webster, he writes, “had a face that scared children.” A famous speech Webster gave at Faneuil Hall in Boston fed “his own fame with a pretense of humility . . . . A man of strong Yankee principles, he was never religious except insofar as he worshipped himself.”
 
Webster isn’t the only egotist to face MacDougall’s wrath. The chief antagonists in this book are the woozy romantics and Transcendentalists who abandoned God in favor of “self-deification.” MacDougall in particular critiques Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson for replacing faith in Jesus with faith in themselves.
 
While Throes of Democracy is not a Catholic history, it has a Catholic hero: Orestes Brownson, the neglected journalist and scholar who flourished in the 1850s and 1860s. Brownson was originally a Transcendentalist, but in the 1840s began a spiritual odyssey that led him to convert to Catholicism in 1844.
 
In his most important books, The Spirit-Rapper: An Autobiography (1854) and The American Republic (1865), Brownson argued that the Founding Fathers wanted religion to be separate from but equal to the state. He thought the Church should be a strong, independent, national moral beacon that would not be subject either to the state or to the whims of politicians.
 
In MacDougall’s view, Brownson’s diagnosis of America’s moral problems is accurate. “Lacking a shared spirituality and devotion to a common creator,” he writes, “Americans clung to a civil religion. They pretended, like Walt Whitman, that they were priests in a church of democracy, that their nation was a heaven under construction.”
 
Throes of Democracy is a vital, necessary, and entertaining guide to the history of our country.
 

Martin Morse Wooster’s reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Washington Times.

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  • Martin Morse Wooster

    Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and a education book reviewer of The Washington Times.

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