A broad-ranging portrait of America in a time of torment, continuing Pulitzer Prize winner McDougall’s (History/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History: 1585–1828, 2004, etc.) projected trilogy.
The author extends the Civil War era to the first serious rumblings of secession and regional rivalry, closing it with the end of Reconstruction. His narrative opens, fittingly enough, with a massive fire that swept through New York just before Christmas in 1835, when “lower Manhattan ceased to exist.” The conflagration had the unintended effect of consolidating city government power and improving water supply and firefighting services, while also making the scramble for housing for less-privileged New Yorkers all that more Darwinian. The effect of that scramble, in turn, was murderous rioting on the part of Irish gangs that targeted African-Americans when not targeting one another—ethnic violence that foreshadowed the larger bloodletting to come. Liking what they heard of these Five Points riots, Protestant Bostonians set about ransacking convents, while in Philadelphia “anti-abolitionists went on rampages in black neighborhoods.” Out on the Great Plains, American dragoons were setting about fighting the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes for the first time, again setting the tone for the decades to come. To such seemingly isolated events, McDougall applies themes that speak to dissent and division. He notes, for instance, that “American Protestantism in the Romantic era was characterized by loud disputations over fine points of theology, raucous revivals in country and town, and bewildering sectarianism,” which puts him to wondering how it was that European visitors such as Tocqueville and Trollope could have considered the United States to be conformist in character. Speaking to that character, McDougall ventures that in the Civil War era something of the nation’s essential nature came through: progressive yet conservative, pious yet sanguinary.
Provocative and richly detailed—a welcome contribution to popular history.