If you are a fan of American history, or a typically educated American, I’d wager that the period of that history from the war of 1812 to the Civil War is something of a black hole in your knowledge of it. I know it was for me. I’d further wage that very few Americans could name any of the presidents who led America during that tumultuous time; maybe Andrew Jackson, but probably none of the others. So when I came across a book called, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” my curiosity was peaked.
I had to admit my knowledge of that period equaled squat, and I love history; I took a number of courses back in my college and graduate school days and have read history widely since then. Why my ignorance of this specific time period? I knew it was bad when I had to help my son with a high school assignment about Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” and was surprised to learn that America and Mexico actually went to war during that time! Really? Did we win? Was it a “just war”? I think I kind of knew there was such a war, but I didn’t know much. In light of the atrocity that was the Civil War, our war with Mexico probably gets lost in the magnitude of the former, and it probably wasn’t our finest moment in international relations.
My journey through the book’s 855 pages (yeah, that’s how I spent a good portion of my Christmas break) was revelatory. We live in a time where the battles over the meaning of America, its Constitution and the role of government seem rather intense. As I learned, it has always been thus, and in antebellum America it was especially so. At a time when signers of the Declaration and Constitution were still alive you would think there might be less, as we call it today, partisanship, but you would be wrong. In fact even the idea that there should be political parties was a partisan issue! Andrew Jackson seemed to have changed all that.
As human beings, we tend to idealize the past, especially if we are given to Utopian impulses. I think a lot of conservatives do that about the Founding era, as if all the founders agreed on exactly what our republic should look like. There was vehement disagreement about the role and scope of government. During this time, for example, the idea that the federal government had the constitutional authority to financially support infrastructure improvements in the country was controversial. James Madison even vetoed a bill on his last day in office over such federal funding. Of course the reluctance to have the federal government involved in helping improve the nation’s roads, canals and bridges was not long to hold, constitution or not.
It is unfortunate to see how the Constitution became an excuse to not only justify slavery, but to expand it to states as they were let into the union. “States’ rights” was the cry of those to distrusted federal power interfering with what came to be called a “peculiar institution.” (You can see knowing its history how this phrase of states’ rights is not the best term we could use to argue for limits on the federal government’s power.) But there were a lot of Americans at the time who hated slavery and who sought to have it limited or abolished. That it took a civil war and some 700,000 lives lost to rid the nation of this cancer tells me that slavery and racism were not at the heart and soul of America, but a bastardization of its claim in our Declaration that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
The title of the book reflects the incredible changes in communications, transportation and American culture during that time; the early 19th Century was no doubt the beginning of the modern world. The phrase, “What hath God wrought” comes from the Old Testament, and was the first message sent via telegraph by Samuel Morse on March 24, 1844. The book does a great job of telling the story of how these changes seem almost divine in their impact on our nascent country. And the author, Daniel Walker Howe, also does an admirable job showing how important the religious melting pot of this era was to the incredible rise of American power and prosperity.
Of course, America being what it is, you find the good, the bad and the ugly, the evils of slavery and racism being as ugly as you can get. Women didn’t exactly have it easy either, but there is no comparison to what black people endured. If you’re interested in the book, you may want to read some of the positive and negative Amazon reviews. Some of the latter point out that Howe overemphasizes that many of America’s leaders at the time wanted to make America a white racial nirvana. I don’t think he’s a big fan of Andrew Jackson, because the portrait he paints of America’s seventh president is definitely not flattering.
In the conclusion of the book, Howe states that “This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis.” Maybe not, but whatever his thesis may be, his views about race and how much it informed America’s development permeate the book. But clearly it permeated America too, so it wasn’t as bothersome to me as it was to some of the Amazon critics.
It really is a dereliction of historical duty for more Americans not to be familiar with these decades leading up to the Civil War. It was a fascinating time of the endless permutations, dynamism and quirkiness of what made America great, and to become the most powerful and prosperous beacon for liberty the world has ever known.