The American Character

Reviewed by Heather Cox Richardson
Sunday, May 18, 2008


The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877

By Walter A. McDougall

Harper. 787 pp. $34.95

What is the essential character of a nation that embraces both equality and enormous disparities in wealth, evangelical religion and a secular state, democracy and imperialism? In Throes of Democracy, Walter A. McDougall has a simple answer: Americans are liars, especially to themselves.

"I believe the United States (so far) is the greatest success story in history," he writes. "I believe Americans (on balance) are experts at self-deception. And I believe the 'creative corruption' born of their pretense goes far to explain their success."

From the colonial era to the 1820s -- a period that McDougall chronicled in a previous book, Freedom Just Around the Corner-- Americans spent much of their time hustling. They were "builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers" who seized and developed a continent "by hook, crook, or pocketbook."

When the excitement of the Revolution passed and Americans were forced to define what their nation stood for, McDougall argues in this new volume, they deluded themselves. During Andrew Jackson's era, they strove mightily with each other for political power but costumed their struggles in virtuous patriotism. Then a technological revolution brought cotton mills, consumer goods and upward mobility to white Americans, and elitest revealed their true attitude toward"equality" by launching a culture war between highbrow and lowbrow entertainment. The wealthy retreated to theaters to watch Shakespearean actors and look down on the masses who frequented the circus.

In the 1840s, Americans told themselves they would expand across the continent peacefully, spreading democracy. Then they perpetrated what McDougall calls the "fraud of manifest destiny" by violence. The annexation of Texas and California revealed a fault line in the nation's civic religion: Northerners defended the principles of individual freedom and equality as the essence of American liberty, while Southerners insisted that America stood for rule of law (including statutes that protected slavery).

Both sides lied to each other and to themselves about the iniquities of their opponents and the glories of their own way of life. Southern planters painted a romantic picture of happy slaves and benevolent masters; Northerners ignored corruption and graft to insist their region was a model of free workers, good government and progress.

"Far from destroying antebellum America," McDougall contends, the Civil War was "the completest expression of its political culture, racial fixation, paranoia, industrialism, mysticism, self-delusion, and anger" -- a bloodbath that promised to end the nation's divisions but accomplished little. At war's end, Northerners deluded themselves into believing that the nation's sins had been purged and refused to acknowledge the failure of Reconstruction to bring equality and liberty to blacks and Indians, choosing to remember the war as "a glorious, victorious crusade," in McDougall's words.

While McDougall argues that deception is at the heart of American identity, he does not establish that Americans are any more prone to this failing than other nations. From Spartan ideals of valor to Swiss notions of neutrality, many peoples throughout history have embraced partial myths about themselves; it's hard to think of a more universal tendency.

McDougall's focus on deception seems to reflect his view of the present more than it illuminates the past. He begins the volume with the pungently worded advice of a fellow Vietnam veteran to reject untruths, and he refers elsewhere to the Iraq War. The implication is that, like their ancestors, modern Americans hide from the reality of poverty, prejudice and war, preferring the rhetoric of equality and freedom. Rather than a definitive history, Throes of Democracy is a rollicking trip through historical events aimed at waking readers to America's past self-deceptions and prodding them to be more self-critical today.

But even if McDougall's history is deliberately provocative, it is not anti-American. The relish with which he launches his characters into the turbulent waters of the 19th century can only reflect a genuine appreciation for them, despite the muck in which they paddled. People like mountain men Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith mounting a disastrous trapping expedition up the Missouri River, huckster P. T. Barnum using swampland to secure a loan, Joseph Smith digging a peculiarly American religion out of a hill, and Walt Whitman defining the nation in myth-making poetry are rendered with an affectionate, if critical, pen.

Curiously, though, McDougall hangs his modern critique of American character on an old-fashioned frame. Throes of Democracy follows a traditional storyline with little reference to the scholarship of the last decade or so, generally leaving white men on center stage. Perhaps oddest is the book's use of such terms as "Negro" and "colored people," which give the impression of having slipped by in the author's enthusiasm for historical sources.

These weaknesses should not overshadow McDougall's laudable exploration of the American character. He leaves a reader wondering how such engaging and industrious people could embrace such profound self-delusion, a question that is indelicate to ask, but which we ought to answer. ยท

Heather Cox Richardson is the author of "West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War."

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