In 1844, near the end of the period covered in this volume of The Oxford History of the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that “America is the country of the Future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.” Emerson spoke a common sentiment in that heady age of what might be called America’s national adolescence. In scarcely more than two generations since its founding, the young nation had stretched its domains to the Rocky Mountain crest and stood poised to assert its sovereignty all the way to the Pacific coast. The American people, lustily doubling their numbers every two decades, dreamed without embarrassment of extravagant utopias both spiritual and secular. Their economy, fueled by startling new technologies like the telegraph and the railroad, was growing robustly. Their churches were rocked by revivalism, even as their political system was giving the world an exhilarating lesson in the possibilities of mass democracy.
Yet Emerson’s America was already a country with a past. Its history held peril as well as promise—not least the noxious heritage of chattel slavery, a moral outrage that mocked the Republic’s claim to be a model of social and political enlightenment and eventually menaced the nation’s very survival.
What Hath God Wrought recounts a critical passage in that history. It opens on a note both ironic and prophetic: Andrew Jackson’s storied victory over a crack British force at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Ironic because the battle was fought some two weeks after British and American delegates had signed a formal peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium. Prophetic because, as Daniel Walker Howe conclusively demonstrates, victory owed far less to the derring-do of the buckskin-clad backwoodsmen celebrated in song and fable than to the methodical gunnery of General Jackson’s artillery batteries, firing American-forged cannons that were among the early fruits of the onrushing industrial revolution whose gathering force was transforming countless sectors of national life.
As his subtitle declares, transformation is the central theme of Howe’s compelling narrative. Few periods in American history have witnessed changes as diverse, deep, and durable as the three decades following the War of 1812. Few historians have explained them as comprehensively, cogently, and colorfully as Howe.
Not the least of those changes transfigured the very nature of politics, in the United States and beyond. Americans in this era became the first people to embrace universal white manhood suffrage, build mass-based political parties, and invent the institutions and practices of democracy for a continent-sized nation. The often raucous spectacle of American democracy in this era fascinated the world, conspicuously including a brilliant young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. After nine months traversing Andrew Jackson’s United States in 1831–32, he wrote: “I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress” (Democracy in America, Everyman’s Library, 14).
No less an ambition animates Daniel Howe’s richly textured account. Like Tocqueville’s, his deepest subject is not simply politics—though the pages that follow do full justice to the tumultuous and consequential politics of the era—but the entire array of economic, technological, social, cultural, and even psychological developments that were beginning to shape a distinctively American national identity. Howe brings to bear an impressive command of modern scholarship to explicate topics as varied as the origins of feminism and abolitionism; the Missouri Compromise and the Mexican War; the crafting of the Monroe Doctrine and the clash with Britain over the Oregon country; the emergence of the Whig, Free Soil, and Republican Parties; the Lone Star revolution in Texas and the gold rush in California; the sectional differentiation of the American economy; the accelerating pace of both mechanical and cultural innovations, not least as they affected the organization of the household and the lives of women; and the emergence of a characteristic American literature in the works of writers like Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman.
With singular deftness, Howe tells the remarkable story of American religion in this formative period, as the Second Great Awakening kindled roaring evangelical revivals and even spawned the new religion of Mormonism. Indeed, few if any other writers have so sensitively explored both the social and the doctrinal dimensions of the astonishing developments that were fracturing American Protestantism into countless sects, with consequences that have persisted to our own time.
Howe also recounts with admirable clarity the story of President Andrew Jackson’s notorious “Bank War” and his even more notorious policies of forcible Indian removals. And What Hath God Wrought artfully draws out the myriad implications of the homely tale that Jackson traveled to his inaugural in 1829 in a horse-drawn carriage and left the capital at the end of his term eight years later by train—marking in the arc of this one president’s tenure in office the pervasive impact of the “transportation revolution” that was one of the era’s signature achievements.
The railroad and the telegraph were both the principal causes and the most conspicuous emblems of the deep transformations that are Howe’s principal subjects. They catalyzed the phenomenal expansion of the slave South, as planters pushed the “Cotton Kingdom” over the Appalachians and out onto the loamy bottomlands of Alabama and Mississippi and ever onward to the West. The railroad’s iron tracks and the telegraph’s gossamer filaments tenuously bound together a nation growing ever larger even as it divided ever more bitterly over slavery. And when at last in 1846 Americans made war on Mexico to enlarge their dominions still further, the telegrapher’s key clacked war reports among newsrooms in Charleston, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. By war’s end the first newspaper wire service, the Associated Press, was born—but one example of the “communications revolution” that swept America in the years after Andrew Jackson had battled in ignorance of war’s end at New Orleans in 1815.
Howe’s history concludes with America’s victory in the Mexican War—a bittersweet triumph that both enlarged Thomas Jefferson’s vaunted “empire of liberty” in the West and reopened the festering wound of the slavery controversy. “Mexico will poison us,” a chastened Emerson presciently declared. That prognosis was bloodily confirmed scarcely a dozen years later when the Civil War engulfed the nation, a tale told with incomparable panache in the volume that chronologically succeeds this one in the Oxford series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Like that acclaimed work, What Hath God Wrought is another outstanding contribution to The Oxford History of the United States, one that will enlighten scholars and general readers alike.
David M. Kennedy