When America doubled in size

Review

November 18, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

What Hath God Wrought

The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

By Daniel Walker Howe

Oxford University Press / 904 pages / $35

The United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson announced in 1844, was "the country of the Future." Marked by political liberty, economic enterprise and the diffusion of information, America was a "nation of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations."

Daniel Walker Howe agrees. Between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, he reminds us in What Hath God Wrought, America doubled in size, extending to the Pacific Ocean. Railroads, canals, newspapers and telegraphy turned a rural society increasingly commercial and industrial. Mass political parties took shape. The "Second Great Awakening" transformed religion. The "American Renaissance" gave the nation its greatest writers. And Indians, African-Americans and women demanded their right to freedom, self-improvement and self-fulfillment.

An emeritus professor of American history at Oxford University, England, and the University of California, Los Angeles, Howe takes his book's title from the message transmitted by Samuel F.B. Morse on the electric telegraph. He has produced a sweeping, sparkling, sophisticated synthesis. Although Howe emphasizes that revolutions in transportation and communications empowered an already mobile and adventurous population "to turn the globe to their account," he insists that his book "tells a story; it does not argue a thesis."

There are, indeed, tales aplenty in What Hath God Wrought. Howe reveals the origins of the terms "White House," "war hawks," and "bunk." He explains the adoption of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" as America's unofficial national anthem. And he provides riveting accounts of ex-President John Quincy Adams' ferocious fight against slavery - and Gen. Winfield Scott's brilliant bombardment of Veracruz, the linchpin of his assault on Mexico.

Nonetheless, Howe protests too much. He does have axioms to grind. The terms "Age of Jackson" and "Jacksonian Democracy," he claims, convincingly, inappropriately characterize the years between 1815 and 1848. Andrew Jackson expanded the powers of the presidency and the authority of the national government in the name of the people. But "Old Hickory" was a supporter of slavery and white supremacy, a Democrat - but not always a democrat. The only president to be formally censured by the Senate, Jackson plowed ahead when the law or a legislature got in the way of his policies. In removing Indians from their ancestral homes, Howe concludes, he acted "always on behalf of haste, sometimes on behalf of economy, but never on behalf of humanity, honesty or careful planning."

The appellation "Age of Jackson" has also obscured the contributions of the Whig Party. What Hath God Wrought votes for them on nearly every page. The Whigs were economic modernizers, "the party of America's future," whose policies on internal improvements, banks, tariffs and trade knit a "collection of parochial agricultural communities into a cosmopolitan nation." They were "remarkably consistent" in opposing the Mexican War, initiated by the deceitful "Young Hickory," James K. Polk. Their justifications for voting to fund the war, Howe implies, resemble the arguments of Democrats opposed to the occupation of Iraq in 2007: Soldiers in the field were entitled to support "even when the government had abused their trust." And the Whigs were far less committed to the extension of slavery - and more open to talent regardless of race or gender - than their rivals. Had Henry Clay been elected president, Howe goes so far as to suggest, the Civil War might have been avoided.

What Hath God Wrought examines the dark side of American history - and the impending crisis over slavery. But Howe is too Whiggish not to see its "more hopeful aspects." The market economy, the vigor of Protestant churches and other voluntary organizations and the emergence of political parties offering the electorate policy alternatives, he believes, made democracy ever more meaningful. Even the acquisition of an empire in the Far Southwest through an unjust war advanced the interests of the human race in the long run: "God moves in mysterious ways, and He is certainly capable of bringing good out of evil."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

EXCERPT

"Begun in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac, the National Road reached Wheeling on the Ohio in 1818, fulfilling a dream of linking those two river systems. Thereafter the road was extended piecemeal to the west across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. ... The road profited the construction industry wherever it went and raised land values. Thanks to the traffic it generated, Baltimore temporarily surpassed Philadelphia to become the nation's second-largest city in the 1820s."

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