7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The decades following the War of 1812 witnessed some of the most dramatic developments in American history. In that time, the United States underwent political, economic, and social transformations that profoundly reshaped the country, taking it from its post-colonial beginnings and setting it on the road towards its dynamic emergence in the world. Daniel Walker Howe's book is a narrative of these years and the changes that took place, as well as what those changes meant to the future of the country.
Though Howe examines nearly every aspect of the period, politics dominate his coverage, which is understandable given his background as a political historian. The figure of Andrew Jackson looms large in these pages, yet Howe rejects any characterization of the era as 'Jacksonian', arguing that the phrase glosses over his controversial and divisive nature. This controversy is reflected well within his account, as Howe is highly critical of Jackson (something that is somewhat predictable from the start given that his book is dedicated to the memory of John Quincy Adams), asserting that the seventh president demonstrated an authoritarian bent throughout his career. His arguments on this, as with so many other parts of the books, are convincing, and supported by an impressive command of the scholarship on the period. Nor is the author shy on asserting his own viewpoint in these debates, arguing that a 'communications revolution' was more demonstrable than the 'market revolution' seen by Charles Sellers and others, that the emergence of the market economy was not the negative development Sellers made it out to be, and that Jackson's campaigns were hardly the democracy-expanding force asserted by historians such as Sean Wilentz. These historiographical assertions do not slow down his work, however; if anything, he could have engaged them a bit more within the text to explain why such interpretations are contestable.
This is a minor quibble with a major achievement. Broad in scope and encompassing an impressive amount of material, Howe provides a readable and perceptive survey of a vigorous young nation, one that experienced a breathtaking number of developments during these years. His book is among the best entries of the 'Oxford History of the United States' series, one that surely will be a standard text on the era for many decades to come.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
In "What Hath God Wrought" historian Daniel Walker Howe offers a learned and judicious overview of the political and cultural history of the United States between 1815 -- 1848 which he aptly describes as "The Transformation of America". The book covers the history of the United States beginning with Andrew Jackson's triumph at the Battle of New Orleans and concludes with the War with Mexico. I came to this book after reading a similarly through study of this period of American history by Sean Wilenz, "The Rise of American Democracy" (2005) Howe and Wilenz offer different perspectives on this tranformative period of American history, and it is fascinating to compare the two.
Wilenz's book focuses on Andrew Jackson and on what is commonly called "Jacksonian America". Wilenz sees the transformative aspects of the 1815 -- 1848 period as rooted in the extension of sovereignty at both the national and state levels. For Wilenz, the Jacksonian era, for all its excesses and inconsistencies, marked a transformation from a United States based upon elitism, property and privilege to one based on Jeffersonian democracy to include all white males. Democracy is at the heart of Wilenz's narrative, and he shows how it was unable to keep the United States from falling into sectionalism and Civil War.
Howe takes a different approach to the nature of American transformation than does Wilenz. Howe rejects the term "Jacksonian America" or "Jacksonian Democracy" as covering this period. (p. 4) America was not "Jacksonian" in that Jackson's program was always controversial. Furthermore, the age was not "democratic" as witnessed by the policy of Indian removal, the expansion of slavery, and "the exclusion of women and most nonwhites from the suffrage and equality before the law." (p. 4) The expansion of the suffrage, for Howe, was limited to white males,and, in any event had began well before Jacksonian times. Thus, Howe has a major difference in perspective, in this way among others, from Wilenz. Late in his book, Howe summarizes the factors leading to the transformation of America as: 1. the growth of the market economy, facilitated by improvements in transportation; 2. the increasing vigor of Protestant churches and other voluntary associations; 3. the emergency of mass political parties offering options to the electorate. The communications revolution multiplied the effects of these factors. (p. 849)
Howe's political heroes are opponents of Jackson and the Jacksonian democrats, especially John Quincy Adams, to whose memory the book is dedicated, and, as it seems to me, Henry Clay.
Howe emphasizes the revolution in communication and transportation as leading to a strong, expansive United States and as changing radically the character of the nation. His key figure in epitomizing the new era is Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. The title of this book is taken from Morse's first message on the telegraph sent from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore on May 24, 1844. The Biblical phrase "What Hath God Wrought" shows, for Howe, a certain ambiguity. Taken as concluding with an explanation mark (!) it reads as a celebration of American expansion. But with a question mark at the end (?), as Morse subsequently recounted his initial message, it "unintentionally turned the phrase from an affirmation of the Chosen People's destiny to a questioning of it." (p.7) Howes's book shows an admirable mixture of celebration and questioning.
Howe frequently describes the contrast between Jacksonians and their opponents as involving a difference between quantitative and qualitative expansion. The Jacksonians expanded the franchise and individualism while they pushed the boundaries of the United States by removing the Indians, acquiring the Oregon territory from Britain, and making war with Mexico. For Howe, the Whigs and other cultural opponents of Jackson stressed a qualitative transformation of America. Their political-cultural program included internal improvements, (Clay's American system), educational and scientific advancement, moral and religious growth, and an attempt to capture American unity as opposed to the strife of party. Howe argues that America owes a great deal to the opponents of Jackson -- including the figure of Abraham Lincoln.
There is a great deal in Howe's book about religion as transforming America in what is known as the "Second Great Awakening." Howe emphasizes the role religion played in the abolitionist movement, in opposing the mistreatment of the Indians, in crusades for temperance, and in the development of the movement for women's rights. (In the concluding section of his book, Howe spends a great deal of space praising the 1848 convention for Women's Rights in Seneca Falls, New York.)
Howe's book shows an extraordinary amount of thought and learning, with extensive footnotes on every page and a detailed bibliographical essay at the conclusion. Of the many subjects he addresses, I thought his treatment of the War with Mexico particularly insightful. Howe is deeply critical of the expansionist, aggressive character of this war and of the president, James. K. Polk, who fomented it. Yet he recognizes that in "the long run of history" in some respects the seizure of California from Mexico worked for "the general interests of mankind." For Howe, "God moves in mysterious ways, and He is certainly capable of bringing good out of evil." (p. 811)
Howe's book, especially taken with Wilenz's impressive study, offers much for learning and for thought about the United States, its past, and its future. As Howe concludes: " Like the people of 1848, we look with both awe and uncertainty at what God hath wrought in the United States of America." (p. 855)
This is one of those rare historical narratives that is both a fascinating read and a deeply challenging inquiry into the American identity. The period covered (1812-1848) was the time when the US saw its greatest territorial expansion; was linked by revolutions in communications, transportation, and market expansion; spawned many of the religious sects that are important to the present day; established in outline the mass political system that we call direct democracy, complete with the party configurations that survive; and began to fragment into sectional conflict over slavery and other issues, including genocide. It is a period so different from the founding years immediately after the revolution that what emerged was an entirely new country. Howe has produced a masterpiece of scholarship that is readable, engaging, at times even controversial. Some of it is shocking, much of it is essential.
At the beginning of the period (it is 1812, not 1815), the US was emerging from the war with Britain. Because the Federalist party had imploded by a combination of political overreach and opposition to the war, the US was very much a single-party "republic" that was governed by a pseudo-aristocratic elite with a surprisingly coherent consensus - the rights of blacks, Indians, and women were viewed as irrelevant to the tasks at hand. Winning the presidency was more an issue of personal desire and political infighting than it was about issues, choices, and ideals. The great debates included the role of the government (to stimulate or not by investment in education, infrastructure, and military forces), the status of slaves, tariffs, and territorial expansion. This was the time that Monroe was elected president, who wished to usher in an era of "good feeling" and "manifest destiny". What happened, of course, was that the Republicans began to fight among themselves, leading to the reemergence of political parties.
The leader at the vanguard of the first major political realignment is Andrew Jackson. His victory in the unnecessary battle of New Orleans - it took place after the peace was negotiated, unbeknownst to Jackson because of the slowness of communications - catapulted him into a new kind of political celebrity, that of a "man of the people". With this fame, he relentlessly pursued power, often acting beyond his orders to expropriate colored peoples from their lands (in the service of the white-man supremacy). When the time was right, he ran against John Quincy Adams as a "Democrat": he supported slavery, aggressive territorial expansion (and brutal repression of indigenous peoples), and the exercise of executive power; he opposed any governmental role in the economy, the development of manufacturing industries in favor of yeoman farmers, and even the precursor of the Federal Reserve Bank. After his election, American politics became far more democratic in terms of direct popular participation in the election of delegates.
At the same time, America was forging an identity for itself with a number of traits. First, in addition to the emerging democratic institutions, there was an extraordinary flowering of religious movements. Those movements resulted in communities of believers who pursued with great energy their own visions of society, from the Mormans and Seventh Day Adventists to Unitarians and Catholics. Feelings ran so strong that conflicts broke out that almost reached civil war propostions in burning Catholic churches, murderous mob riots, etc. Second, with the new linkages (canals, then trains and the telegraph), continental and even global concerns were beginning to occupy the energies of businesses, male citizens, and women. This led to a kind of cultural and literary renaissance, as embodied in the Transcendentalists and many others. It also linked the country into a coherent entity rather than a disparate coalition of regional groups. Third, sectional conflicts entered a critical phase of crisis, in particular the South's need to extend slavery - with the political advantages it offered by allowing plantation owners to dominate huge blocks of votes by the count of 3/5 for their slaves - that was as much about white supremacy as it was economic interests. This gave the Virginians a near-lock on political power (and indeed often the presidency) until the Civil War.
Unfortunately, the presidents after Jackson proved rather weak. James K. Polk, who made war on Mexico for his imperialist designs, did virtually nothing to address the divisive issues that plagued the country. The expansion of territory severely aggravated the embryonic sectional conflict, as the new states were candidates for the extension of slavery and the white male supremacist system that went with it. As a result, the country slid towards civil war. By the end of the book, the parties are set to realign themselves yet again. The Whigs stood for national development (of education, infrastructure, and a central bank) at home rather than territorial expansion; they can only be called market-oriented progressive and they would become the Republican party. The democrats, on the other hand, were more laissez faire in economics, opposing banks because they centralized too much power and supporting slavery; this unlikely coalition of southern reactionaries and northern liberals survived until the 1960s, when the party finally broke the deadlock on race, which led the south to join the GOP and fundamentally altered the balance of power in the US.
Howe covers these developments with a deftness and breadth that left me in awe of his mastery of the sources and ability to synthesize vastly complex developments. Every single page of the book is fascinating and made me want to read further in more specialized sources.
Nonetheless, much of the book will strike many readers as controversial. From the title, his attitude, and even his pronouncements ("God works in strange ways"), the book is avowedly Christian, which I can only interpret as a bias. Howe argues consistently, indeed passionately, that Christianity was a force for the good. Furthermore, he is very hard on Jackson and Polk (rightly in my opinion, but others may disagree), while constantly praising JQ Adams. Beyond the racism of the former two, Howe clearly favors the non-imperialist approaches as advocated by the Whigs, which would have concentrated on employing the government to develop the civil society and economy already under the US institutional umbrella, rather than seek new territories to exploit. Finally, he appears to unequivocally favor the development of industrial capitalism, though he does mention many of its downsides. I would argue that the form it took in America was not the only one it could have taken.
There is no question that this is one of the best history books I have read in recent years. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.