A shadow falls in the American memory between the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War that ended in 1848. Where public memory—and high-school history teachers—have failed, UCLA history professor Daniel Walker Howe succeeds with What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-184 8 (Oxford, 928 pages, $35), the latest volume in the Oxford History of the United States series.
What Hath God Wrought is a prequel of sorts to James M. McPherson’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning entry in the series, Battle Cry of Freedom . Howe illuminates the portentous half-century before the Civil War, a time that seems at once alien to our modern sensibilities and yet strangely echoes our own technological, consumer-driven age. He explains how the transportation and communications revolutions of the early 19th century—the rise of railroads and canals, mass-circulation newspapers, the U.S. Postal Service and the telegraph—transformed American politics and culture like nothing else until the Internet in our own time. (The book’s title comes from the first words Samuel Morse transmitted by telegraph in 1844.)
Howe vividly describes how America’s emerging two-party political system would deeply divide the nation—first between Republicans (as Democrats were then called) and Federalists, then Democrats and Whigs—leading to two razor-close presidential elections, one of which would be lost by the candidate with the most popular votes, à la Al Gore in 2000.
Howe also performs the welcome service of reviving public appreciation of such figures as John Quincy Adams (to whom his book is dedicated) and Henry Clay while sticking well-deserved pins in the inflated reputations of slaveholding imperialists like Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. Adams went from a troubled presidency to a heroic career in Congress, singlehandedly combating the congressional gag rule on slavery and successfully representing escaped slaves before the U.S. Supreme Court. Jackson, meanwhile, subverted the rule of law, ethnically cleansed the South of its Indians, and hobbled the otherwise burgeoning American economy by destroying its federal banking system.
What an irony, Howe notes, that we stick Old Hickory’s face on the $20 bill.
READ: Daniel Walker Howe appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 9. Free.