From its shocking curtain-raiser—the conflagration that consumed Lower Manhattan in 1835—to the climactic centennial year of 1876, when Americans staged a corrupt, deadlocked presidential campaign (fought out in Florida), Walter A. McDougall's Throes of Democracy carries the saga of the American people's continuous self-reinvention across five tumultuous decades. From the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson through the eras of Manifest Destiny, Civil War, and Reconstruction, it is an epic in which Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, showman P. T. Barnum, and circus clown Dan Rice figure as prominently as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Henry Ward Beecher—a zesty, irreverent narrative that brazenly reveals our national penchant for pretense.
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About the Author
A professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter A. McDougall is the author of many books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth and Let the Sea Make a Noise. . . . He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two teenage children.
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Throes of Democracy
The American Civil War Era 1829-1877
By Walter A. McDougall HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
Walter A. McDougall
All right reserved.
The Melees and Masks of White Man's Democracy Post-1830
And then there came a day of fire, to New York City, in 1835. The catastrophe and its aftermath displayed in sharp relief the glories and flaws of a city fast becoming the symbol of a nation drunk on democracy.
"How shall I record the events of last night, or how attempt to describe the most awful calamity which has ever visited the United States? The greatest loss by fire that has ever been known, with the exception perhaps of the conflagration of Moscow, and that was an incidental concomitant of war. I am fatigued in body, disturbed in mind, and my fancy filled with images of horror which my pen is inadequate to describe. Nearly one half of the first ward is in ashes; 500 to 700 stores, which with their contents are valued at $20,000,000 to $40,000,000, are now lying in an indistinguishable mass of ruins. There is not perhaps in the world the same space of ground covered by so great an amount of real and personal property as the scene of this dreadful conflagration. The fire broke out at nine o'clock last evening. I was waiting in the library when the alarm was given and went immediately down. The night was intensely cold, which was one cause of the unprecedented progress of the flames, for the water froze in the hydrants, and the engines and their hose could not be worked without greatdifficulty. The firemen, too, had been on duty all last night, and were almost incapable of performing their usual services.
"The fire originated in the store of Comstock & Adams in Merchant Street, a narrow crooked street, filled with high stores lately erected and occupied by dry goods and hardware merchants. . . . When I arrived at the spot the scene exceeded all description; the progress of the flames, like flashes of lightning, communicated in every direction, and a few minutes sufficed to level the lofty edifices on every side. . . . At this period the flames were unmanageable, and the crowd, including the firemen, appeared to look on with the apathy of despair, and the destruction continued until it reached Coenties Slip, in that direction, and Wall Street down to the river. . . . The Merchants' Exchange, one of the ornaments of the city, took fire in the rear, and is now a heap of ruins. The façade and magnificent marble columns fronting on Wall Street are all that remains of this noble building, and resemble the ruins of an ancient temple. . . . When the dome of the edifice fell in, the sight was awfully grand. In its fall it demolished the statue of [Alexander] Hamilton executed by Ball Hughes, which was erected in the rotunda only eight months ago by the public spirit of the merchants."
Philip Hone wrote that account in his diary. He was born to penurious German immigrants in 1780. New York, at that time, lay under British occupation, its commerce wrecked by the thirteen colonies' war for independence. By 1797, when Philip and his brother teamed up to auction off cargoes down by the docks, New York City was already emerging as North America's premier port of entry for the goods of the world. By 1821, the handsome, blond Hone was already rich enough to retire. Over the next thirty years he traveled abroad, collected books and artwork, and won a reputation as a man about town second only, perhaps, to the millionaire John Jacob Astor. Hone served a term in City Hall, the last Federalist to do so, and later advised such giants of the Whig Party as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and William Seward. He also befriended Martin Van Buren, kingpin of New York's Jacksonians. But Hone had no love for "King Andrew" Jackson himself. "That such a man should have governed this great country with a rule more absolute than that of any hereditary monarch of Europe and that the people should not only have submitted to it, but upheld and supported him . . . will equally occasion the surprise and indignation of future generations."
An even more dangerous threat to the fair city beloved by Hone was the influx of Irish whose violence and vice undermined law and order, and whose votes tightened the Tammany Hall Democrats' grip on power. He concluded his account of the fire by damning "the miserable wretches who prowled about the ruins, and became beastly drunk on the champagne and other wines and liquors with which the streets and wharves were lined." They "seemed to exult in the misfortune, and such expressions were heard as 'Ah! They'll make no more five percent dividends!' and 'This will make the aristocracy haul in their horns!' Poor deluded wretches, little do they know that their own horns 'live and move and have their being' in these very horns of the aristocracy, as their instigators teach them to call it. This cant is the very text from which their leaders teach their deluded followers. It forms part of the warfare of the poor against the rich. . . . This class of men are the most ignorant, and consequently the most obstinate white men in the world. . . . These Irishmen, strangers among us, without a feeling of patriotism or affection in common with American citizens, decide the elections in the city of New York." 1
That city was fast becoming the locus and metaphor of the American dream when suddenly, a week before Christmas in 1835, lower Manhattan ceased to exist. On the night of December 16 a watchman breasted arctic northwester gales that measured eighteen degrees below zero. At the corner of Pearl and Exchange streets the odor of smoke reached his nostrils. He whistled up comrades, broke open the door to a five story warehouse, and gasped to find the building a furnace. Stove coals had ignited gas from a leaking pipe. The flames exploded the roof, caught the stiff breeze, and kindled the whole dry goods district in fifteen minutes. "Imagine," wrote an eyewitness . . .
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