What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
by Daniel Walker Howe
Oxford University Press, 928 pages, $35
This is a big, big book of more than nine hundred pages, documented with thousands of footnotes and supplemented with a bibliographical essay of twenty-two pages in small print. But Howe takes us through one of the most eventful stretches of American history with such mastery that his book reads like a breathless traveler's tale. From the close of the War of 1812 to the close of the Mexican War in 1848, he marks the determined march of a people across a continent to found a sea-to-sea empire and, in clear, vivid prose, conveys to us how awed he is by it—and how troubled.
There was, of course, much to inspire awe. Howe covers the great technical innovations of the period: the 363-mile Erie Canal that first dependably linked the East Coast with the interior; the railroads that sped people and commerce over long stretches of the continent; and the telegraph, which in 1844 clicked out the message Howe uses for the main title of this book. These helped conquer “the tyranny of distance,” as John C. Calhoun called it, and played a role in stimulating the great social changes of the time, including the advances in America's wealth and living standards, the spread of opportunity, the leveling of class distinctions, and the increase in popular suffrage. But much of this, Howe keeps reminding us, came with a qualifier: “for white males.” Women weren't getting much out of it, and their grievances went largely unheard until, in the closing year of this period, they started organizing.
For nonwhites the situation was much worse. Howe devotes much attention to three national sins of the period: Indian removal, the hardening and expansion of slavery, and the Mexican War. The first of these dark episodes, the forced migration of Indians from their tribal lands, sometimes in the dead of winter, produced enormous misery. The Cherokees, moved to Oklahoma territory in the fall and winter of 1838-39, lost a third of their number to hunger, disease, and cold; the Creeks, who attempted resistance, were ruthlessly herded west under army escort and suffered losses as high as 50 percent.
Slavery, and racism in general, intensified during this period. In the South, even gradual emancipation could no longer be openly discussed, and in the North black voting was curtailed in almost all the states where it had been permitted. As for the Mexican War, “the deadliest that the United States has ever fought”—one in ten American soldiers died in less than two years of service—Howe makes a persuasive case that it was provoked by Anglo settlers with the connivance of the Polk administration as part of a cynical scheme to take California and the Southwest from Mexico.
James Knox Polk does not come off well in What Hath God Wrought, but Andrew Jackson fares much worse. Howe considers Old Hickory a mean-spirited bully: violent, vengeful, and possessing no respect for any law that might stand in his way. He belittles his military prowess—the Battle of New Orleans was won not by Jackson's frontiersmen with their muskets but by the raw superiority of American artillery, the product of New England foundries. Nor does Jackson's political vision count for much with Howe. He eschews the term “Jacksonian democracy,” judging Jackson to be an opponent of real democracy because of his resolute support of slaveholders and his opposition to “the inclusion of non-whites and women within the American civil polity.” Even the achievement of universal white-male suffrage he will not credit to Jackson, because, he claims, it was happening anyway in the various states.
This sounds a bit harsh. While it is difficult to defend Jackson's treatment of the Indians, his attitudes toward women and blacks were scarcely different from those of most white men at the time. (How many were prepared to make women and blacks full members of the “civil polity”?) Jackson surely deserves some credit for his support of a broader, more inclusive suffrage, even if it wasn't as inclusive as we would like and even if it had already begun within the states.
Then there is Jackson's presidential legacy. His stubborn use of the veto and his flair for the dramatic have been imitated by numerous occupants of the White House since his time. There are those, especially today, who wonder if those innovations were really good for the country, but even Howe concedes that Jackson's tendency to identify his office and powers with the sovereignty of the nation was cut from the same cloth as his fierce reaction to Southern threats of secession and nullification. When a South Carolina convention in 1832 declared a tariff passed that year null and void within the state and announced that the state would challenge militarily any federal agents seeking to collect it, Jackson publicly branded this treason and privately warned a South Carolina congressman that “if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.” Knowing Jackson's reputation for violence, cooler heads in the state entered into negotiations that culminated in the repeal of the nullification resolution. Jackson's response, Howe concludes, was “his finest hour.”
Howe claims that his book “tells a story” but “does not argue a thesis.” Well, yes and no. There is no formal thesis in this book. It is not an extended essay but a rich tale, with all sorts of interesting subplots and asides. Still, winding through the book—sometimes implicitly, sometimes stated openly—is his view that there was a better way for America to have grown in the nineteenth century than the way it did under the leadership of Presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler, and Polk and their fellow Democrats; it was the way of John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay, the way of the Whigs.
The Whig party was marinated in the born-again, millennial culture of the Second Great Awakening. The Democrats had their own version of millennialism—“manifest destiny,” hawked by the Democratic Review, their party newspaper. But, as Howe puts it, the Democrats' version was “extensive,” based on amassing more and more territory, while the Whigs' was “intensive,” expanding American influence by example rather than conquest.
The Whigs were the “internal improvement” party, seeking to improve not only public transportation but also public morals and education, the treatment of prisoners and the insane, the protection of Indians, the rehabilitation of drunkards and prostitutes, and the future prospects of slaves. The Democrats, on the other hand, who cobbled together a coalition that included slave owners, Catholics, Catholic-hating Protestants, and Northern urban and Southern rural interests, were wary of taking moral positions that could alienate one or another of their constituencies. So they stuck with such “process” issues as states rights, minimal government, majority rule (“popular sovereignty,” in Stephen Douglas' later formulation), and, of course, “manifest destiny,” which in practice meant the headlong drive for new territory.
Howe leaves no doubt which of the two parties had it right and which propelled the nation to disaster. In an almost anguished passage, he speculates on the way events probably would have unfolded had Henry Clay, the Whig, not Democrat James K. Polk, won the 1844 election. “There would have been no Mexican war, no Wilmot Proviso [the attempt by some Northern Democrats to ban slavery in the new territories], and therefore less reason for the status of slavery in the territories to have inflamed sectional passions.” Clay would have saved and strengthened the Whig party; encouraged gradual, compensated emancipation of the slaves; and “probably would have avoided the Civil War of the 1860s.”
Howe may be right about this and, more generally, right about the moral superiority of the Whigs over the Democrats, but when you put them together you get something that starts to sound like a thesis. Still, whatever might have been, Howe has too much respect for historical facts to wish them away—they are what they are, like them or not.
The one consolation he permits himself is the reflection that sometimes good comes out of morally problematic developments. Reflecting on Polk's “acquisition of an empire in the Far Southwest,” he notes that this immediate triumph soon exacerbated the tensions over slavery that culminated in the Civil War. Yet, “in the long run of history,” perhaps it served the good of humanity by helping our nation in its struggle with Imperial Japan in the 1940s. “God moves in mysterious ways, and He is certainly capable of bringing good out of evil.”
Digging still deeper into historical paradox, Howe reflects on John Quincy Adams' remarkable prophecy in 1820, that the “destroying angel” of slavery would someday plunge the nation into a terrible sectional war that would result in “the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent.” Abraham Lincoln eventually fulfilled Adams' prophecy, the concluding words of which Howe quotes: “The Union would then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. The object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.”
It would indeed. It was.
George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York. His latest book is The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (Yale).