A review of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe

The world was going to end that day, of that they were quite sure. The followers of William Miller were estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, and they shared with their leader an overpowering sense that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand. October 22, 1844: that, Miller determined, would be the Last Day. As the weeks and hours wound down, his followers frantically prepared to meet their Maker, reconciling their differences, returning ill-gotten money, vacating lawsuits, and leaving crops to rot in the fields. As dusk fell on that fateful Tuesday evening, Millerites across the nation were said to have donned white robes and climbed to the tops of roofs, hills, and haystacks. From these vantage points, the thinking went, their ascent to heaven would be unimpeded.

Needless to say, daybreak came, and the entire episode quickly became known as the "Great Disappointment." (Disciples of Miller nevertheless reconstituted into what we know today as the Seventh-day Adventist Church.) Though the devotion of Miller's followers was admittedly extreme, it was not terribly unusual. The early 19th century witnessed the Second Great Awakening, an explosion of religious activity that shattered the irenic deism of the American Founding. Revivals rocked the country, with millions converted in heady mass gatherings that could last as long as a week. Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples of Christ evangelized aggressively, and quickly outstripped the more established Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. New movements abounded: Mormonism, Shakerism, Swedenborgianism, Transcendentalism, Universalism, Spiritualism.

This was one side of the young republic: pious, restive, utopian, apocalyptic. But there was another side.

On May 24, 1844, five months before the Great Disappointment, an excited group of men crowded into the chambers of the United States Supreme Court. A 53-year-old painter and professor named Samuel F.B. Morse hunched over a compact device of his own design. Once he was ready, he tapped a long handle, sending a series of long and short electric pulses racing along a wire. Moments later, the exact sequence was returned from Baltimore.

The staccato exchange of dots and dashes represented a revolution in human communication. For millennia, information had traveled only as far as eyesight allowed, and only as fast as horses could gallop or ships could sail. The postmaster general still relied upon communication technologies that, save for the printing press, would have been largely familiar to Julius Caesar.

Morse did not, to be sure, invent the first electric telegraph—there were already some 50 different designs in existence—but he nevertheless catalyzed the revolution by creating a system that was simple, durable, and cost-effective. For its part, the American government—despite Morse's wishes, and in marked contrast to European nations—declined to take ownership of the new technology. Instead, it left the telegraph's development to the country's promiscuously fecund private sector. Within a decade, telegraph cables blanketed the eastern states; by 1861, they spanned the breadth of the continent, binding together the new nation, perhaps every bit as tightly as did the older, mystic chords of memory.

The electric telegraph revealed that other side of early 19th-century America: calculating, rational, pragmatic. But even here, with Americans at their most hardheaded and practical, the spirituality of the age broke through. Among this assembly of learned scientists and worldly statesmen, nobody seemed to think it passing strange that the first message conveyed by cable was taken from the Book of Numbers: "What Hath God Wrought."

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Daniel Walker Howe takes the title of his new Pulitzer Prize-winning history from Morse. What Hath God Wrought examines the United States from 1815 to 1848, weaving the young nation's chiliasm and calculation into a seamless narrative. For Howe, the Rhodes Professor of American History, emeritus, at Oxford University, and an emeritus professor of history at UCLA, it is the crowning achievement of a lifetime devoted to studying the era.

What Hath God Wrought is the most recent installment of the Oxford History of the United States, a series initially edited by the late C. Vann Woodward and intended to serve as the definitive modern multi-volume history of the country. The series began brilliantly with The Glorious Cause (1982), Robert Middlekauff's account of the Revolutionary War. It then topped itself with Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) by James McPherson, widely regarded as the finest available single-volume history of the Civil War. Since then, the series has disappointed, adding three critically acclaimed—but frankly lackluster—histories of the 20th century. With Howe's contribution, there is reason to believe that the Oxford History may yet redeem its original promise.

Much of Middlekauff's and McPherson's success can be attributed to their subject matter. Wartime history has an internal logic that guides and paces the narrative; its great challenge, in fact, is maintaining a sense of the contingency of events, the sense among participants that the outcome is still unknown. The historian who writes about times of peace faces the opposite problem. Contingency abounds, requiring him to discover some overarching theme to provide a sense of narrative coherence. That task is especially difficult for an era in which both William Miller and Samuel Morse are representative figures.

One possible approach to these years is political. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s masterpiece The Age of Jackson (1945) depicts the period as a time when the common people defended their rights against the encroachments of wealth and privilege. Andrew Jackson is hailed as the representative figure of the age, a living exemplar of the new nation's rough-hewn egalitarianism. The notion still has wide purchase, and was expressed most recently, but without Schlesinger's deft literary touch, in Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy (2005).

Another approach is economic. Charles Sellers's influential The Market Revolution (1991) explores at length and in detail how a rural republic of largely self-sufficient farmers was forced to rapidly shift towards the production of goods for a global market. The disruption called into question many of the American Revolution's assumptions, and the expansion of widespread commercial capitalism, Sellers argues, created something quite new, different, and unpleasant in the United States.

Howe does not deny the importance of either politics or economics, but he does question the conventional scholarly approaches to the early republic. The supposed egalitarianism of the age took little account, to say the least, of women, Indians, or African-Americans, and the concept of "Jacksonian democracy" ascribes to Jackson and the Democratic Party achievements (like universal white male suffrage) that were already well-advanced by the 1820s. As for the "market revolution," a considerable market economy already existed by the 18th century, the author notes, and most Americans welcomed the opportunity to buy and sell goods in vastly enlarged arenas.

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Howe focuses instead on the technological developments that led to "The Transformation of America," as his subtitle puts it. "During the thirty-three years that began in 1815," he writes, "there would be greater strides in the improvement of communication than had taken place in all previous centuries. This revolution, with its attendant political and economic consequences, would be a driving force in the history of the era." The electric telegraph paired with the steam engine would breed twin revolutions in communication and transportation which were ultimately to overthrow the tyranny of distance, making practicable the "manifest destiny" that would spread the borders of the United States from the Rio Grande to Puget Sound.

None of which is to suggest that technology is the book's principal subject. Howe surveys the entirety of the American experience, drawing in equal measure from political, diplomatic, and military history on the one hand and, social, economic, and cultural history on the other. Never does he lose sight of the country's underlying unease: a people that loudly proclaimed the Enlightenment and yet trembled at the approaching millennium.

That unease had many causes, but one of them was surely political. With the untapped riches of a vast continent awaiting exploitation, the United States seemed poised for greatness. Yet somehow the experiment still seemed curiously tenuous, with various regions, classes, and races eyeing each other suspiciously. Howe pays close and subtle attention to the period's politics, which saw the emergence of several new and distinctive elements of American political culture.

The collapse of the Federalist Party in the 1810s led to a period of one-party rule dubbed the "Era of Good Feelings." It was not to last. When none of the four candidates vying for the presidency in 1824 gained a majority of Electoral College votes, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. The House chose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, even though Jackson had received more popular votes. Enraged at the outcome, Jackson's followers formed the Democratic Party, determined to see their candidate take the White House. Their victory in 1828 gave rise a few years later to the Whig Party, deeply suspicious of "King Andrew." The founders deplored the prospect of such a stable two-party framework, which nevertheless endures largely unchanged to this day.

Alongside the newly institutionalized partisanship emerged a new type of American political leader. James Monroe was the last president to run unopposed for reelection—and, tellingly, the last to wear knee breeches, buckled shoes, powdered wig, and tricornered hat. With the close of the Era of Good Feelings, Americans would neither expect an aristocrat in the White House nor accept an uncontested election. Martin Van Buren, Jackson's campaign manager and eventual successor, pioneered a new party politics and an insistence that, in order to represent the people, a leader should come from the people. Henceforth American politicians would have to tread carefully, appearing simultaneously folksy and refined, common and distinguished, ordinary and extraordinary.

As the last of the founders faded from the scene (James Madison died in 1836), the United States continued to grapple with the Constitution's full implications. Some of those controversies were decided to lasting effect. Although Jackson's freewheeling use of the presidential veto and introduction of the "spoils system" (which allowed the president to restaff the executive branch upon taking office) were met with howls of protest from Congress, both have come to be recognized as essential executive prerogatives. Despite Democratic opposition, President John Tyler claimed full (rather than "acting") privileges after William Henry Harrison's death, to the benefit of subsequent presidential successions.

Perhaps the most innovative constitutional thinker of the age was John C. Calhoun, who along with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster was part of the Senate's celebrated "Great Triumvirate." An early nationalist who later became a strident advocate of states' rights, Calhoun developed the theory of the concurrent majority, according to which collective action was predicated upon the unanimous approval of all significant minorities. It was perhaps the most brilliant defense of the Articles of Confederation ever written—and a bold rejection of the majority-rule principle of the Constitution. Somewhat perversely, only an age that deeply understood American constitutionalism could produce a thinker capable of so thoroughly rejecting it.

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Howe is an engaging writer, whose lively prose bursts with telling anecdotes. It is easy, for instance, to get lost in abstractions when explaining the mindset of the American Whigs. But Howe cuts straight to the heart of the matter when he describes the daily exercise regimen of John Quincy Adams, who would wake every morning at dawn throughout his presidency to swim naked in the Potomac. On June 13, 1825, his rowboat capsized, and Quincy Adams, still dressed, nearly drowned. He noted in his diary that the "incident gave me a humiliating lesson and solemn warning not to trifle with danger." But the relentlessly self-improving Whig returned to the water the very next day, to swim for "1 hour 12 minutes."

Quincy Adams occupies a central role in the narrative—indeed, the book is dedicated to his memory. To Howe, he represents what was most admirable about American Whiggery: its fairness, modesty, and diligence. Against Schlesinger, Sellers, and Wilentz—all of whom champion the Democrats—Howe seeks to vindicate the dutiful, sober moderation of the upwardly mobile Whigs. (Indulging in a bit of counterfactual speculation, Howe even proposes—incorrectly, I think—that had Henry Clay defeated James Polk in the presidential contest of 1844, the nation "would probably have avoided the Civil War.") In that regard, the book represents the fulfillment of the project Howe began with The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979).

I suspect that, decades hence, what Arthur Schlesinger was to Jackson and the Democrats, Daniel Walker Howe will be to Quincy Adams and the Whigs. For now, those who wish to understand the world of William Miller and Samuel Morse can hardly do better than to read and consider What Hath God Wrought—and marvel at what Howe hath wrought.