Reading Journal: "What Hath God Wrought"

Daniel Walker Howe: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford 2007). 855 pages + Bibliographical Essay. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In brief: highly recommended as a well-written, compulsively readable, politically moderate general history of the period.

The years from 1815 to 1848—from Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans to the end of the Mexican War—is often referred to as the "Age of Jackson." It was an age, according to historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., when democracy expanded to include the common man. In "Jacksonian Democracy" were found the origins of modern political liberalism. Jackson, especially in his opposition to the national bank and soft money, championed the common man against the elite special interests who controlled credit and capital.

Significantly, however, historian Daniel Walker Howe dedicates his book to the memory of Jackson's great political rival, John Quincy Adams.

While Jackson sought to limit the size and scope of the federal government, Adams and the Whig Party advocated an ambitious plan of federally-sponsored internal improvements, from roads to public schools, that became known as "the American System." The Whigs wanted to put government to work for the moral and material improvement of all Americans. The Democrats, under Jackson and his successors, increasingly became the party of white supremacy and the Southern slave power. They opposed federally-sponsored public works because they were afraid that any expansion of federal power would threaten the South's "peculiar institution." It was a slippery slope from building interstate highways to abolishing slavery.

Although the Jacksonian Democrats opposed the expansion of federal power, they actively promoted the expansion of American territory. It was Jackson who instigated the brutal program of Indian Removal that cleared much of the South—from Georgia and Florida westward—for white settlement. The infamous Trail of Tears took place under his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren. Under Jackson's protegĂ©, James K. Polk, the United States wrested vast territory—including much of Texas and all of New Mexico and California—from Mexico. This rapid territorial expansion raised the divisive issue of whether slavery should be extended to the new territories.

The stories of Jackson and Polk begin to seem strangely familiar: an insistence on limited government but virtually unlimited executive power, egregious violations of civil liberty (Howe writes that "the refusal of the Post Office [under Jackson] to deliver abolitionist mail to the South may well represent the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history"), politicization of the federal bureaucracy, corrupt and incompetent federal contractors, retribution against responsible officials who placed their duty to the Constitution above their loyalty to the President, and major wars fought on false pretenses and financed with irresponsible borrowing rather than with tax increases. None of this, unfortunately, is new, and while Howe never draws explicit parallels with current events, but he makes it easy for readers to draw those parallels for themselves.

The American System of Whigs like John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay sought to draw the Union together in a system of roads, public schools, and other public projects, while at the same time stimulating economic development. For Howe, improvements in transportation (canals, steamships and railroads) and communications (telegraph) are the defining features of the period. These were things that tied the nation together in a vast network of rails and wires, while at the same time facilitating economic development: bringing goods to market faster, spreading financial news faster, helping capital to flow across the continent. Howe suggests that if Henry Clay, the chief architect of the American System, had won the Presidency in 1844 instead of Polk, the Civil War might have been avoided. Had American territorial expansion not taken place as the result of Polk's Mexican War, the deepening sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery might have been avoided. A Whig program of "economic diversification" in the South might have reduced the region's dependence on slave labor, and brought about peaceful and gradual emancipation.

The fate of the nation can hang upon a single Presidential election. Cast your vote wisely this November.

Additional Reading: Harvard historian Jill Lepore reviews Howe's book in the New Yorker, placing it its larger historiographical context, especially as a response to Charles Sellers' The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (1991).


Brendon Etter said…
I learn more from your posts than four years of education at Carleton.

That wasn't Carleton's fault, of course.

Sounds like Jackson represented an interesting harbinger of modern Democratic and Republican ideas.

Also sounds like he ventured perilously close to autocracy in the name of the Common Man.
Chrisbookarama said…
That was interesting. I know nothing about US history- just the stuff on TV. It sounds like a book you can learn from.

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