What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 by Daniel Walker Howe
Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought is my third book in the acclaimed Oxford History of America series and for me it fell somewhere between Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause (a dense, at times tedious slog) and Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty (a revelatory, gripping and brilliant book). Howe’s effort never quite reaches the highs of Wood’s book, but is, thankfully, never as dull as Middlekauff’s.
Overall, I found it be a very solid account of what is a fascinating if oft overlooked era in American history. The book picks up right where Empire leaves off, at the tail end of the War of 1812. Jackson’s triumphant victory over the British at New Orleans makes for a stunning opening set piece.
In fact, Howe sets up the Battle of New Orleans as a sort of parable. Though Americans have generally subscribed to the narrative that the battle over Britain’s elite soldiery was won by scrappy frontiersman and Kentucky sharp-shooters under the command of the unflappable Old Hickory, in reality, Howe tells us, it was won by the government-sponsored, precise, technologically superior heavy artillery manned by blacks, pirates and mulattos. In Howe’s telling, this dichotomy presaged the ideological battles of Democrats vs Whigs throughout the period at hand.
Change though, is the true theme of Howe’s book: technological, spiritual, moral, political, cultural and geographical. It was this that most marked the era. Howe spends a considerable amount of time tracing the evolution of religion throughout the young nation, spending multiple chapters on the second Great Awakening and the splintering of Christianity into myriad denominations.
And just as slavery flourished over these decades due to the explosion of the cotton trade, so too did a nascent abolition movement. In fact, we begin to see Americans’ growing concern in regard to the moral health of the nation as a whole during these years. Slavery, temperance, women’s education (and suffrage), and pacifism all are examined.
Of course the so-called Era of Good Feelings and the Jacksonian Era are all surveyed as well. John Quincy Adams and the Whigs tend to receive a lot of praise throughout and Jackson comes in for a whole lot of criticism. This is hardly surprising when their actions are considered through modern morality. In fact, the growing schism between the North and the South is a frequent theme here, as the makings of the Civil War begin to make themselves evident. Howe though, never loses sight of the positive forces bubbling up under the surface:
American history between 1815 and 1848 certainly had its dark side: poverty, demagogy, disregard for legal restraints, the perpetuation and expansion of slavery, the dispossession of the Native Americans, and the waging of aggressive war against Mexico. But among its hopeful aspects, none was more encouraging than the gathering of the women at the prosperous canal town of Seneca Falls.
What’s most impressive about the book though is how readable it is. I mean, this is 900+ pages of often heavy reading but Howe keeps it engaging throughout. Considering much of the period details controversies over tariffs and banking bills, it’s no small feat.
However, Howe also touches on communication technology (the book gets its name from the first message sent via telegraph), literary movements (especially Transcendentalism) and the astonishing innovations in transportation due to the invention of the steam engine. The book’s sub-title is “The Transformation of America” and it’s not a misnomer. America was rapidly growing into a world power and careening towards its own monumental, existential conflict at breakneck speed.