Thursday, March 17, 2011


A review of Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007)

Part of the Oxford History of the United States Series

(Rating 5 of 5)

What Hath God Wrought is the third book in Oxford History of the United States series. The author, David Walker Howe, covers the remarkable transformation of nation not only in a political sense but in an entire physical and technological sense. The work begins with the story of the first official telegraph being sent by Samuel Morse in the chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States in an attempt to let his prestigious audience see the wonders of this new technology and learn of the the result of the Democratic National Convention.

As the historical narrative begins we see a nation coming to terms with the end of War of 1812, the founding generation is still the generation in charge but soon history turns and the Republic comes to the hands of statesmen of the second American generation. Men such as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun will play the dominant leadership roles in the shaping of the nation's destiny.

(Andrew Jackson, the most famous general and statesman of the era)

As in the two previous volumes in the Oxford history series, the focus often shifts from top to the bottom. Howe focuses on not just the statesmen but the world and society that they operate in. Also there is a strong focus not only on the major players but on the minor actors and activists who perform smaller deeds but help bring about the changing of the world.

As the Madison Administration comes to an end, the Monroe Administration, the last with a president from the Founding generation, comes to power with a cabinet dominated by second generation American leaders. The shape of the cabinet sets the stage for the 'corrupt bargain' of Henry Clay giving John Quincy Adams the presidency over Andrew Jackson. As Howe points out, there was probably no actual 'deal' but the appearance of it hurt the second Adams Administration.

(Henry Clay, was one of the Triumvirate with Webster and Calhoun, was alleged to have committed the 'corrupt bargain' in order to deprive Jackson of the presidency)

Entering the 'Age of Jackson'—a term the author despises —the country goes though many changes. Among these changes are: the infamous Indian removal, the bank veto—which can disputed as good or bad—, and, the most positive change, President Jackson's handling of the Nullification crisis.

Economic factors such as the Crisis of 1819 and 1837 seriously affected the outcome of the nation’s history in many ways. The former helped turn the public against banks and made President Jackson's bank war much easier. The later hurt President Van Buren's reelection chances, against William Henry Harrison and the Whig Party.

“Under the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans, the American administrative system had served as an example of honesty and efficiency to would-be administrative reformers in Britain. However, in the years after 1829, the quality of British administration gradually improved while that of the U.S. Federal government declined, until by the 1880s, American civil service reformers opposing the spoils system took Britain as their model.”p.334

(The Trail of Tears, one of the most wicked acts in American history)

This book also looks at how modern politics started to form with the wide acceptance of political parties as becoming part of the nation's governing reality. One of the major changes that comes along with the nation's first politician president, Martin Van Buren, is the establishment of national nominating conventions to choose a parties presidential and vice presidential nominees as opposed to the strongly rejected congressional caucus method.

The end of the book focuses on the Mexican-American War that takes place under the most expansionist president we had, James K. Polk. Polk sends Generals Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, both of whom would turn out to support Polk's political opponents, down to conquer Mexico and come out with a good chunk of it.

(U.S. gains in the Mexican-American War)

Howe also discusses how the Revolutions of 1848 affected this country, the nation was encouraged by the what went on in Europe but were almost blind to the nation's own faults. Howe ends the book looking at the infant feminist movement that was just getting organized at the Seneca Falls Convention.

Some of the reviews of this book that I have read have criticized it for being overly critical of Andrew Jackson, accusing the author of being revisionist—in the negative sense. I do admit this book does have some clear bias but it is different than most people think. Howe clearly has strong preference for the Whig Party, for example, while most authors dedicate their books to the spouses, parents, or children, Howe dedicates this book to the memory of John Quincy Adams.

“It may seem fitting that Adam's last word in Congress should have been 'No!' The former president had resisted the tide in many ways: against the popular Jackson, against mass political parties, against the extension of slavery across space and time, and most recently against waging an aggressive war. Yet Adam's vision was predominantly positive, not negative. He had stood in favor of public education, freedom of expression, government support for science, industry, and transportation, nonpartisanship in federal employment, justice to the Native Americans, legal rights for women and blacks, cordial relations with the Latin American Republics, and, undoubtedly, a firm foreign policy that protected the national interest.”p.812

(John Quincy Adams, the man to whom this entire book is dedicated)

Howe's conclusion that the Whigs were the party America's future while the Democrats were the party of the nation's white supremacist present—despite the fact the Democrats are still here and there are no Whigs—is a conclusion I have to disagree with.

In the previous volume Empire of Liberty, the reader is informed of the founding generation and the early battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the author, Gordon Wood, clearly is a fan of Jefferson. However, I have always found that it is not that Jefferson was right and Hamilton was wrong or vice verse, but that they were both right and both wrong about different things. Hamilton was right about the need for a strong government and assumption, while Jefferson was right to have a healthy criticism of central government and that government giving bankers too much power over the average people is not a good thing. I take the same stand with this second generation struggle, it is not so much Jackson and the Democrats were wrong and Clay and the Whigs were right but that they were both right and wrong about different things. The Jacksonians were right about getting the 'common people' involved in government and their distrust of powerful corporate banking interests. The Whigs were right about internal improvements and right to oppose Indian Removal.

Howe, while hailing the Whigs of the party of tomorrow, forgets that they existed just to oppose Andrew Jackson—just as the Democrats existed to support him. In this sense the term Jacksonian Era really does fit. While some of the Whigs, like Henry Clay, had principled positions, most of the Whigs were just to there to oppose Jackson and his followers. But Howe sees the various anti-Jackson people as the party being 'open' to various opinions despite in the Whigs' victorious elections they did not even have a party platform.

Nevertheless, this book is a very detailed look into the one of more amazing eras in the history of nation. When Andrew Jackson went to take the oath of office he went by horse and buggy, and when he left office he went home on a train.

{Video taken from the History Channel Documentary The Mexican American War.}

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to leave a comment on any article at anytime, regardless how long ago I posted it. I will most likely respond.