Q&A with Walter McDougall

Dr. Walter McDougall, the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations and professor of history, calls himself “a dinosaur, one of the last historical generalists.” In part, he says, he was trained that way, earning his PhD at the University of Chicago mentored by “the great world historian” William H. McNeill. But circumstance also played a role.

For instance, he started on The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, after the leadership of the history department at Berkeley, which he’d joined as an assistant professor, insinuated that the European diplomatic history he’d been trained in and indeed hired to teach was methodically old-fashioned and politically incorrect, he says. That book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, which must have made switching gears all the sweeter.

Subsequent “reinventions” produced Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur— which McDougall describes as his “long and loving” farewell to California (he’d accepted a bid to join Penn’s faculty by then) and which one journal called “Moby Book”—and Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776.

Earlier this year McDougall published the second volume in his history of the United States, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, which is excerpted here. The first volume, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828, came out in 2004.

Originally, the idea was to do a “fat single-volume American history,” similar to but less partisan than “Howard Zinn’s hypercritical A People’s History of the United States and Paul Johnson’s flag-waving A History of the American People,” McDougall recalls. That changed as his ambitions for the book—and his determination to cover subjects, geographic regions, and immigrant groups that had been neglected in earlier narrative histories of the U.S.—outgrew even the fattest single volume. “I confessed my failure as a grand synthesizer and suggested instead a multi-volume project,” he says. “To their credit, HarperCollins agreed.”

To a query on the status of a possible volume three he replies,“Everybody asks that! Have they no mercy?”—but then sketches out a continuation reaching to “1920 or maybe 1929.”

First, though, McDougall plans a “respite of indeterminate length to recuperate” and work on other projects—from which he took time out to discuss Throes of Democracy, his working methods, and what he has learned so far from his history of America in an email interview with Gazette editor John Prendergast.

Who do you think of as your audience?

The fan base for my books around the country is loyal, enthusiastic, and modest. None of my books has threatened the New York Times or top 100 lists. But every week or two I get an email or letter praising my books as the most refreshing, enthralling, exciting, or original history a reader has seen in ages. I assume the audience that HarperCollins had in mind was the same general mass market captured by Zinn and Johnson. I myself had no particular audience in my mind as I wrote except my own conscience, my own inner ear that strains for good cadence, and my own love of history, human foible, and America. What I mean is that I love history and the United States too much to exploit them for popularity, money, or a political agenda. Some of the most popular public historians, whose books are bestsellers even before they’re released, peddle what might be termed feel-good Americana rather than critical American history. I can’t do that. I write for everyone in the sense that I hope that academic colleagues will respect my scholarship, students will enjoy reading and learning from my books, and the educated public will, too. But I write for no one in the sense of targeting a commercial market.


Can you describe the process of researching and writing the series?

When it came to researching and writing Freedom and now Throes, I proceeded in my usual way as a generalist. I just leapt into a whole new historical field with as open a mind as possible and a sort of studied ignorance. My research plan is simply to learn as much as I can by reading widely in the best scholarship and to let truths, insights, connections, and perspectives impose themselves on me. That is, I try not to mold the evidence like a sculptor, but let the evidence sculpt my thinking. I am helped in that because—again unlike those best-selling popular historians—I have no research assistants and in fact would not know how to use them in any case. Every bit of research, writing, footnoting, revising, editing, and proofreading I do myself. And yeah, right now I’m burned out.


In the preface you talk about Americans’ talent for “self-deception” and how that may be a key to their and the country’s success. Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by that?

That’s a perfect example of what I mean by letting the evidence impose itself on me. A major theme of Throes of Democracy is Americans’ penchant for pretense, for largely unspoken conspiracies of silence or unspoken agreements to pretend certain things, in the interest of civility, of keeping a huge, diverse democratic society from tearing itself apart. But it never occurred to me even to think about pretense as a national trait, much less an often positive one, until I read Tocqueville, Trollope, Martineau, Dickens, Schaaf, and other European observers of the American scene in the 1830s and ’40s, and was astonished to learn that they all remarked at length on something spread-eagle Yankees themselves were blind to, which was their own howling pretense. Americans pretend lots of stuff. They pretend in order to get along with each other, or to grease the skids of their institutions, obscure the contradictions in their politics and law, or just to sustain their common faith in truth, justice, and the American way.


You also call American history a tale of “human nature set free.”

I should not have been so surprised that pretense became a theme of my second volume, because a major theme of the first was Americans as a nation of hustlers. That is sort of what I meant by “human nature set free.”  Of course I trace the roots of what became the American character back to the Old World, especially the economic, political, religious, and legal heritages of the early modern British Isles. But insofar as the institutions designed by the founders of the United States maximized the individual liberty of Americans (excepting always the enslaved), and insofar as the expanse and resources of North America maximized the prosperity and opportunity of Americans, then they enjoyed a freedom and power to express themselves, to pursue their happiness, to give full vent to the good, bad, and ugly behavior of which people are capable: more so, I think, than any whole nation before them. The upshot, as I argued in Freedom, was that Americans became past masters at hustling: both in the pejorative sense of scofflaws, speculators, imposters, tricksters, self reinventors, and conmen, but also in the positive sense of hard workers, strivers, builders, doers, joiners, and team players.

My particular insight, or to give proper credit, my elaboration of Samuel Huntington’s old insight about the utility of corruption, is that Americans simply have no patience for any law, authority, or bullying faction that stands in the way of their pursuits of happiness. Accordingly, Americans are very tolerant of what I call creative corruption of the sort that may enrich a few, but which expands opportunity for all (think Transcontinental Railroad or Brooklyn Bridge).


The role of religion in society is also very much present in the book. Is that a unique aspect of America in this period?

I think the pervasive religiosity of the American people as a whole might have been, and may still be, unique. But I cannot assert that without studying and comparing every other country on earth. I am confident that the character of the spiritual impulses operating in American society is unique for at least two reasons. The first is the so-called “lustre of our country,” freedom of religion. The First Amendment’s free exercise clause was born of necessity. Because of the wild profusion of sects among the 13 new states, some of whom had established churches and some not, the Constitutional Convention dared not mention religion for the same reason it dared not mention slavery: it was a deal-breaker.

But once James Madison and others got around to drafting the “ten commandments” known as the Bill of Rights, their first priority was to ensure free exercise of religion in the belief and the hope that religious faith and practice would be most flourishing and most sincere if citizens enjoyed a free market in spirituality. The result was a fantastic kaleidoscope that reflected a veritable interference pattern of spiritual light on to American culture, law, and politics. The Second Great Awakening in general, and northern Revival of 1858 in particular, are certainly among the important, if immeasurable, origins of the election of Lincoln and the ensuing Secession Crisis.

The second reason the character of American spiritual impulses is unique, however, is that sectarian faiths shared the landscape with an even more powerful civil religion. That is a taboo subject, I know. That Americans pretend not to notice that their republic competes for allegiance with the God they worship on the Sabbath, that their civil religion must in fact be a higher loyalty because it is what guarantees the freedom of sectarian faiths, that their civil religion can in need command their treasure and very blood in ways their religious sects no longer can, that the creed and promise of their American civil religion in fact conflate the worship of God and Mammon: all those (and more) are unmentionable, indeed heretical, from the perspective of the civil religion.

Or, to put it another way, the Founding Fathers implicitly (or in Tom Paine’s case, explicitly) turned the idea of America itself into a sort of religion. The whiff of religions—sectarian and civil, now reinforcing, now competing—is especially pungent in the Civil War era. The challenge of history is in sorting out the religious odors and trying to put them in words.


Can you take a stab at summing up what you’ve learned about Americans through this process of research and writing?

I don’t say this expressly in the book, so I am not stealing my own thunder to finish by listing four character traits the Civil War seemed to hard-wire into the character of Americans, traits they would display time and again during the 20th century. The first is a gay abandon insofar as the American people and political system invariably put off pressing problems until they cannot be ignored any longer. As a result the solutions prove exponentially more costly and less satisfactory than they might have been. The second is a collective amnesia insofar as the American people tend to forget or misremember their mistakes and ordeals out of cheerful optimism and a faith in the future born of their civil religion. The third is an amazing resilience insofar as Americans confidently rebound from the ravages of wars, depressions, and other calamities in a very short time. In that sense, having no room for tragedy in one’s culture is a plus. The fourth, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, is a nationalism with the soul of a church. For the United States, resurrected after the Civil War, purged old myths only to fuse its sense of national destiny 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.

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