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Correction to This Article
This Book World review of Daniel Walker Howe's "What Hath God Wrought" incorrectly said that James K. Polk defeated Henry Clay for the presidency in 1848. Polk won in 1844.
Jonathan Yardley
Reexamining a neglected era of invention and expansion.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 25, 2007

WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT

The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

By Daniel Walker Howe

Oxford Univ. 904 pp. $35

The period between the end of the War of 1812 and the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 is one of the most important in American history and, these days, one of the most neglected. Of late we have been blissing out on books and other material about the Revolutionary period, and of course the Civil War years are of inexhaustible fascination to millions, but the years in between are pretty much ignored. Yet as Daniel Walker Howe makes plain in this exemplary addition to the Oxford History of the United States, this was the time when the United States was transformed by a series of revolutions, the most important of which were in transportation and communications, that "would overthrow the tyranny of distance," which until then had "remained for Americans 'the first enemy,' as it had been for inhabitants of the Mediterranean world of the sixteenth century."

Thus Howe takes as his title the words that Samuel F.B. Morse sent from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844, in the "formal opening of the telegraph." Howe leaves no doubt that in what was an age of prodigious invention, this was the most prodigious of all. Not merely did the telegraph have great "economic importance" -- "In combination with the railroad, it facilitated nationwide commerce and diminished transaction costs" -- but it did much more:

"In a broader sense . . . the spread of the electric telegraph effectively decoupled communication from transportation, sending a message from sending a physical object. The implications of this alteration in the human condition unfolded only gradually over the next several generations. But contemporaries fully realized that they stood in the presence of a far-reaching change. They valued not only the shortening of time to receive information but also the speed with which an answer could be returned; that is, conversation was possible. Of all the celebrated inventions of an age that believed in progress, Morse's telegraph impressed observers the most. A leading New Orleans journal commented, 'Scarcely anything now will appear to be impossible.' "

As that paragraph shows, Howe brings an impressive array of strengths to the daunting task of encapsulating these busy, complicated three-plus decades within a single (admittedly, very long) volume. Emeritus professor of history at Oxford and UCLA, he grasps the meaning as well as the details of developments and events. He has a fine eye for telling detail -- e.g., telegraphic chess -- and for the revealing quotation. Beyond that, he is a genuine rarity: an English intellectual who not merely writes about the United States but actually understands it.

Indeed, Howe brings to the present task a deep knowledge of one of the period's most important institutions, the Whig political party, linear ancestor of the Republican Party but barely recognizable as such, given the character of the present GOP. His scholarly reputation rests in substantial part on a previous book, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979), in which he explored the careers and legacies of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and, of course, Abraham Lincoln, this last being the agent of transition to the Republican Party. Though the period is commonly known as the Age of Jackson, Howe insists that this "has obscured the contribution of the Whigs," and continues:

"As economic modernizers, as supporters of strong national government, and as humanitarians more receptive than their [Democratic] rivals to talent regardless of race or gender, the Whigs deserve to be remembered. They facilitated the transformation of the United States from a collection of parochial agricultural communities into a cosmopolitan nation integrated by commerce, industry, information, and voluntary associations as well as by political ties. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we can see that the Whigs, though not the dominant party of their own time, were the party of America's future."

This interpretation, though it rings pleasant bells for me, will not sit well with Jacksonians, whose numbers remain large within the Democratic Party, which to this day celebrates Jefferson-Jackson Day in tribute to its two chief founders. Howe is fair to Jackson but as hard on him as the evidence warrants. He entered the White House in March 1829 with "a temperament suited to leadership rather than deference" and with "profoundly authoritarian instincts." His greatest enthusiasm was for Indian Removal to the Mississippi and beyond; it "set a pattern and precedent for geographical expansion and white supremacy that would be invoked in years to come by advocates of American's imperial 'manifest destiny.' " He did not show "a general respect for the authority of the law when it got in the way of the policies he chose to pursue." His "own image and record, as a hero who stood outside and above the law, typified a strain in American frontier culture that encouraged violence" and continues to do so generations after the disappearance of the frontier.

Jackson's "greatest legacy to posterity was the Democratic Party," which well into the 20th century "continued along the trajectory Jackson had set, endorsing popular sovereignty, opposing a national bank and national economic planning, promoting continental expansion, and protecting slavery" -- or, after the Civil War, protecting Jim Crow. The conflict between the sovereignty of the national populace and the sovereignty of the states arose in 1832 when South Carolina passed an ordinance nullifying two tariffs. In what Howe calls Jackson's "finest hour," he "combined firmness with conciliation," saying that John C. Calhoun's "arguments for peaceful nullification were specious." The crisis passed, in significant measure because Jackson was tough but uncharacteristically flexible, allowing Calhoun a graceful way out.

This was one of the period's most important clashes between North and South, between pro- and anti-slavery forces, but there were many others. It was a contentious time, when riots and mob violence were commonplace and law enforcement disorganized and ineffective. These explosions had various causes, but emotions raised by slavery were intense, all the more so as the slave-holding states fought to extend the peculiar institution to the West and as the abolitionist movement spread. That movement was always a tiny minority and frequently a despised one -- in the North as well as the South -- but its capacity to arouse outrage was disproportionately large.

These, then, were the large and enduring developments of the period: historic improvements in communications and transportation, the rise of the Democrats and the opposition of the Whigs, the festering sore of slavery. But these only begin to suggest the vast canvas that Howe has painted. The expansion of the country to the West -- Texas, California, New Mexico and the Oregon Territory all were taken in during these years, by violence as well as by treaty -- was manifest destiny in its purest form. The formulation of the Monroe Doctrine shaped U.S. foreign policy to this day, and not always to the good. The election of 1848, in which James Knox Polk defeated Henry Clay, may well have pointed the nation's path inexorably toward civil war. The Mexican War of 1846-48 was brilliantly directed by Gen. Winfield Scott -- the duke of Wellington called it "unsurpassed in military annals" -- but was also, as has often been said, the dress rehearsal for the Civil War.

The cast of characters who march through these pages is extraordinary, including DeWitt Clinton, Alexis de Tocqueville, Martin Van Buren, Dorothea Dix, John Marshall, Frederick Douglass, Davy Crockett and a host of writers, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville. Howe's greatest admiration is reserved for John Quincy Adams, to whose memory he dedicates the book. He was the only president to return to public service in the House of Representatives, until his death in 1848. He was "the quintessential New England Yankee: serious, hardworking, devout, with integrity of granite," and he "envisioned the American republic as the culmination of the history of human progress and the realization of the potential of human nature." But events took darker turns, as Howe writes in summary:

"The most bloody conflicts . . . derived from the domination and exploitation of the North American continent by the white people of the United States and their government. If a primary driving force can be identified in American history for this period, this was it. As its most ardent exponents, the Jacksonian Democrats, conceived it, this imperialist program included the preservation and extension of African American slavery as well as the expropriation of Native Americans and Mexicans. The remarkable changes in transportation and communications facilitated it. Determination to seize more land provoked harsh expulsions of populations, wars both large and small, and argument between pro- and anti-imperialists. Above all, westward expansion rendered inescapable the issue that would tear the country asunder a dozen years later: whether to expand slavery."

That story is told in another volume in Oxford's series, James M. McPherson's masterly Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War (2003). Daniel Walker Howe's equally superb What Hath God Wrought is a fit prelude and companion to it, and powerful evidence that this period was far more than a mere interlude between two wars. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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