Review: What Hath God Wraught

Andrew Jackson = bad.

Whigs = good.whathathgodwrought

That’s my five-word summary of Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning, 900-page, career-defining work What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Of course, the tome is monumental in every sense of the word, in its subject matter, scope, weight, and approach. Howe is fearless in shouldering the daunting task to chart the the United States’ tumultuous adolescence. In an academic climate of sometimes numbing specialization, What Hath God Wrought is boldly and refreshingly big.

Howe approaches this task by looking at the nation’s growth through the eyes of the two ideological competitors fighting for its future. In one corner sat the Democrat ideals of Andrew Jackson, which lay out a path of white male individualism, territorial and racial conquest, and limited federal government. In the other corner sat the Whig’s ideology of national improvement through an active government and strong internal commercial expansion. Howe maintains this general dichotomy as he wanders down thirty-odd years of national history. The thematic path he treads most commonly is that of the communications and transportation revolution, although he winds enthusiastically down every manner of side trail and parallel road.

Daniel Walker Howe detests Andrew Jackson. His characterization of our seventh president throws all notions of bland academic sterility to the winds, instead engaging in fierce and almost-personal skirmishes against Jackson. First and foremost, Howe argues that Jackson’s legacy is marked by the insidious morally debilitating advancement of white male supremacy.  “…historians have variously pointed to free enterprise, manhood suffrage, the labor movement, and resistance to the market economy. But in its origins, Jacksonian Democracy…was not primarily about any of these, though it came to intersect with all of them in due course. In the first place it was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.”

Howe is absolutely relentless in his campaign against Jackson’s apologists, and in many ways he makes a convincing argument. Indian Removal remains one of the most shameful aspects of our nation’s history, and Andrew Jackson was one of its most effective champions. In the eloquent and caustic words of Howe, “During the Removal process the president personally intervened frequently, always on behalf of haste, sometimes on behalf of economy, but never on behalf of humanity, honesty, or careful planning.” In doing so, Jackson became the figurehead for a growing ideology of American imperialism, as our national borders expanded both literally and figuratively. Howe argues convincingly that the Jacksonian flavor of imperialism included not only territorial expansion, but a dissolution of the rule of law. Concepts such as treaties, property rights, or basic civil liberties were swept aside when it came to the forcible and violent relocation of Indian tribes from their land.

Jackson also gets taken to task for his assault on that pesky thorn in the side of ideologues everywhere: freedom of speech. Specifically, Jackson attempted to stifle the increasingly loud voices of abolitionists, whom he deemed “monsters.” He took action by using federal control of the postal system to hinder abolitionist material from being transported through the mail. Jackson also went further, instructing his postmaster general to publish the names of abolitionists guilty of “exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” These measures were met with mixed results, but regardless, Howe fulminates that restricting abolitionist material through the post quite possibly constituted “the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history.” Umm, Mr. Howe? Didn’t you just describe the violent removal of tens of thousands of people from their rightfully-owned property? Might that not constitute a bigger “peacetime violation of civil liberty”?

Big, bold statements such as these make What Hath God Wrought fun and refreshing, but Howe’s argumentation can sometimes stray into the realm of hyperbole. I appreciate the fact that he makes no bones about having an overt historiographical agenda, but it can lead to rather blatant side-taking. For instance, in Howe’s view, Jackson’s administration had a hand in causing the Panic of 1837: “Democrats blamed the banks. Whigs blamed Jackson.” Which side do you think Howe falls on? Thankfully, he doesn’t play coy: “There is more truth in the Whig argument.” Meanwhile, Howe spends ample time cheerleading the expansion of federally-funded internal improvements under John Quincy Adams (a Whig), but when that same federal funding for internal improvement soars even higher under Jackson, Howe dismisses the administration’s efforts as hypocritical, ad-hoc, and ambiguous.

In comparison to Jackson, Howe takes a decidedly rose-tinted view of the Whigs. Given his scholarly background as the author of The Political Culture of the American Whigs, this isn’t necessarily surprising. In Howe’s opinion, “the Whigs, though not the dominant party of their own time, were the party of America’s future.” He (rightfully) champions their role in connecting a disparate young collection of states and communities into an integrated whole. Howe even opens the “what-if” door to offer a brief glimpse into what might have been different had John Quincy Adams won the 1828 election instead of Andrew Jackson. Although he doesn’t come out and say it, Howe delicately insinuates that maybe, just maybe, an Adams administration could have pre-emptively prevented the Civil War: “[The Whigs’] strong central government would have held long-term potential for helping the peaceful resolution of the slavery problem…” I mean, come on…really? For that small segment of the American population interested in historiography (like myself), nuggets such as these contribute to the juicy platter of provocative scholarly interpretation that Howe serves up to his readers.

Howe’s romp through the historical period is done with a stylistic flair and easy grace that continously impressed me. In the hands of many writers, a three-decade survey of America would devolve into a yawn-inducing litany of dates, names, and events. Instead, Howe nimbly leaps from micro to macro across a dizzying geography, effortlessly mixing anecdotes, analysis, and arguments. His writing is evocative and unpretentious, allowing him to open a paragraph bluntly: “Then the whole thing blew up in the administration’s face,” and to end a chapter with a playful cliffhanger: “Why an abolitionist believed Texas annexation presented a moral crisis requires explanation.” The skill with which he crafts language allows him to show off his stunning grasp of the subject matter - a fantastic combination that contributes to his humble (tongue-in-cheek?) claim that “This book tells a story” - and, I might add, one told by a supremely skilled storyteller.