What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

What makes history endlessly fascinating is that there’s nothing inevitable about the events that happened or the decisions made by those who helped make them happen. It all could have been different, and perhaps (upon reflection) should have been. History at its best is a symphony of views adopted or discarded, but its music can still be heard by those who listen closely.

In more than 900 pages, Daniel Walker Howe offers more than just the traditional political narrative of Jacksonian America, with its rambunctious popular politics, breathtaking technological advancements (railroads, telegraphs), and aggressive national expansionism. Howe’s outstanding book is suffused with the sprawling energy and epic scope of the era it describes. Howe vividly presents the dominant themes of expansion and spreading democratization, best embodied in the person of Andrew Jackson, but he also examines dissenting views with a historian’s understanding that these “losing voices” have never quite left the battlefield.

The title What Hath God Wrought comes from the first message sent by Samuel Morse’s revolutionary telegraph device in 1844. The telegraph, along with railroads, would transform the young Republic, connecting cities, spreading news quickly across the frontier, and supporting national expansion. While most Americans celebrated Morse’s new technology, Howe makes it clear that some did not. He quotes the writer Henry David Thoreau, who was not so quick to see the telegraph as a life-changing marvel: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” Thoreau noted, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Howe’s best achievement is in insightfully blending political history (the acts of presidents and generals) with social history (how everyone else lived and worked). As the author notes on his first page: “This reflects my own conviction that both kinds of history are essential to a full understanding of the past.” Thus, in addition to skillfully describing how slavery expanded into territories once controlled by Native Americans and Mexicans, Howe explains how religious revivalism helped fuel social reform movements such as abolitionism and temperance. The national fervor for geographic expansion was matched by the fervor for spiritual expansion.

The era’s burgeoning evangelical movement, centered in Protestant churches and giving unique opportunities for Christian women to have a public voice, “devised new means of influencing public opinion outside of politics,” writes Howe. These Christian reformers revolutionized areas of national life, including “education, literature, magazines, religious revivals, and organized reform,” he explains. But the progeny of what was called the Second Great Awakening were often as divided as the nation’s fractious politics. A muscular brand of Christianity that could support national expansion behind a banner of “manifest destiny” could also be deeply divided over the issue of slavery. The intellectual debates over slavery weren’t just about differing interpretations of the Constitution but about differing interpretations of Scripture.

The era’s most dominant political force, Andrew Jackson, gets close treatment here, in terms of both personality and policy. The narrative opens with the upwelling of national pride triggered by General Jackson’s 1815 victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Many historians have viewed Jackson as the greatest symbol of frontier individualism, but Howe shows us how Jackson’s paramount goal of national expansion was achieved through the conscious decisions and active involvement of the federal government.

Jackson’s policy of Indian removal was his top priority in advancing economic opportunities for all (and by “all,” Jackson meant free white men). In Howe’s view, one he argues with strong scholarly support, Jacksonian Democracy was primarily “about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.” If Indians needed to be swindled or their land taken, if African Americans needed to be enslaved, Jackson had no problem with it. Howe also asserts that Jackson’s political accomplishments were as much fueled by personality as public policy.

As for the famous battle between Jackson and the Bank of the United States, Howe frames it as, in part, a power struggle between the president and Bank president Nicholas Biddle. “What Jackson minded most about the national bank was that it constituted a rival power center” that he couldn’t control. Jackson succeeded in destroying the Bank, but Howe shows how this led to financial instability that helped trigger the devastating national Panic of 1837.

When South Carolina asserted the power to “nullify” federal legislation it deemed unconstitutional, Jackson could have been in a bind. He was, after all, a southern slaveholder who championed states’ rights and was viscerally suspicious of federal intervention. Yet Jackson put these qualms aside, viewing the “nullification” crisis as a personal challenge to his authority as president. Jackson, explains Howe, “took nullification as a patriotic and personal challenge from a man he had already come to distrust and loathe,” South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun.

Although Jackson depicted himself as a champion of democratic ideology, Howe exposes the firebrand president’s “profoundly authoritarian instincts.” He discusses, for example, how a religion-fueled abolitionist movement grew during Jackson’s presidency, and how Jackson supported censoring the U.S. mail so that abolitionist newspapers like The Liberator would not be delivered in the South. Howe makes the case that this anti-abolitionist censorship was possibly “the largest peacetime violation of civil liberties in U.S. history.”

The nation expanded greatly in this crucial 30-year period, and slavery with it. Indeed, after wars with Indians and with Mexico, and despite passionate debate about the wisdom of national expansion (and slavery), the United States took control of territory all the way to the Pacific (Howe includes a map showing the even broader designs of James K. Polk, which took in Havana, Tampico, and even Canc?n!) Yet the horrible question of slavery had yet to be resolved, and the growing problems brought by industrialization and urbanization and legal inequality remained unsettled. Howe lets us watch these debates raging, in the realms of politics, society, and ideas, and many of them still rage today, from the “proper” role of women to the rights of immigrants.