In This Review

The Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877
The Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877
By Walter A. McDougall
Harper, 2008, 816 pp

This exciting account of a brawling, chaotic era in American life is a significant contribution to American studies. The second volume in McDougall's ongoing history of the United States suffers from the inevitable problems of long-term narrative history today: the pace of historical research is so rapid and the volume of papers and monographs so high that no single author can reasonably hope to master, much less synthesize, the work of the battalions of investigators industriously excavating the past. Given this fact, long-term narrative histories have three challenges to meet. They must be comprehensive, responsible, and balanced enough to serve as an introduction for readers new to the subject; they must master contemporary scholarship well enough to withstand the most obvious attacks; and they must say something fresh and original about a subject that has often been studied before. The Throes of Democracy passes these tests. Few American historians have thought as carefully about the problems of big narrative history as McDougall has; this extraordinary book will be equally helpful to the neophyte struggling to grasp the chronological flow of nineteenth-century American history and to more accomplished scholars looking for insights into a turbulent and critical period of American history.