Review of “Throes of Democracy” by Walter A. McDougall


McDougall traces several themes in this entertaining history of America from 1829-1877. (This is a follow-up volume to his preceding book Freedom Just Around the Corner which covered 1585-1828). These include:

1. Americans have embraced a civic religion, which is “all the more powerful for being unspoken, unwritten, and for the most part unacknowledged.” This civic faith stands above sectarian creeds and also guarantees their free exercise.

2. Americans are hustlers, in the sense of finding a way around any law or authority that stands in the way of their pursuits of happiness (generally defined as amassing assets).

3. Self-interest is cloaked in self-deception, spin, hokum, and manipulation.

4. Business and government corruption have been rampant, audacious, pervasive and continuous.

5. Violence and hatred toward those with less power have been as characteristic of our past as have goodness and generosity.

6. Americans believe [however] that they are “priests in a church of democracy,” that their nation is an Eden in the making, that achievement is an indication of righteousness, and that their corruption is forgivable so long as it results in progress.

This version of American history is unlike others you have read; the facts are the same, and yet the conceptual lenses through which McDougall analyzes them totally alters the American diorama.

He seasons his stories with state profiles interspersed in the text and dozens of history factoids that are fun to learn: why are Michiganders wolverines and Wisconsinites Badgers? Whence came the expression “give someone the Dickens?” How did log cabins come to personify goodness and authenticity?


Even in a book of over 750 pages there are omissions – necessarily – for coverage of this vast of a historical period. But decisions about what to include and what to eliminate also necessarily structure perceptions about truth, since each scaffolding of facts creates a distinctive architecture. What is omitted remains invisible.

For example, McDougall (unlike any historian I can think of) defends both George McClellan and Andrew Johnson. In so doing, however, he omits certain behaviors of theirs that might contravene his kinder and gentler pictures of these oft-maligned fellows. Likewise, he paints fairly objectionable behavior with rosy colors: for instance, the fate of blacks in the Reconstruction Era: not as bad as it could have been…

My criticism reflects, of course, my own prejudices, interests, and socioeconomic background. If you understand that McDougall’s history, like any, is “sedimented knowledge” – contingent on this one historian’s interpretations, you can enjoy his narrative as a fun and interesting tale about our past and some of the more colorful actors from it. Each additional history we read enriches our understanding of the tapestry of events that led to the present state of affairs. I recommend this book as an enlightening addition to our national story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Harper, 2008


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One Response to Review of “Throes of Democracy” by Walter A. McDougall

  1. Keynes says:

    rhapsodyinbooks thanks for giving this descriptive analysis of McDougal. It was very helpful. Cheers.

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