Daniel Howe's 'What Hath God Wrought' Is a Biographical Masterpiece

by Shain Thomas 3 months ago in book reviews

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America - 1815-1848. United States: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Daniel Howe's 'What Hath God Wrought' Is a Biographical Masterpiece

Arthur Schlesinger, a historian who taught at Harvard University, once commented that when writing history, “objectivity is not neutrality.” One could argue that this is the case with Daniel Walker Howe and the book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America—1815-1848.

Chronologically speaking, Howe, the Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford University, picks up where Marshall Smelser leaves off with his book The Democratic Republic: 1801-1815. Is Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America—1815-1848 more than just his interpretation of American history 1815-1848?

What Hath God Wrought is part of the Oxford History of the United States. The Oxford History of the United States, an esteemed series of publications, does not include volumes unworthy of the name. For readers with an interest in furthering their knowledge, the rewards from reading such a comprehensive and compelling book will far outweigh the outlay of time required to do so. Howe paints a vivid picture in everything he writes. Howe is not exactly the new kid on the block. Howe’s influence can be traced back to at least 1979. The evidence speaks volumes to the history professor’s integrity.

Howe’s enthusiasm for the Whigs did not diminish over the years. Referencing the period as being the “Age of Jackson,” in Howe’s opinion, not only masks but significantly diminishes the contribution the Whigs whom he contends “were the party of America’s future” to that future.

Based on what Howe writes, it was the Whig Party as a whole and not Jacksonian Democrats who led these United States out of its parochialism and allowed it to become a “... cosmopolitan nation integrated by commerce, industry, information, and voluntary associations...” Howe, to his credit, does not begin at this point in American history.

Picture it: It’s Sunday, January 8, 1815. Forces under the command of the then-future president of these United States, Andrew Jackson turned back an advancing contingent of the British military from establishing a foothold in New Orleans. Unbeknownst to the men involved in turning back British forces from taking New Orleans, the War of 1812 had already passed into the annals of American history.

Saturday, December 24, 1814 saw the signing of ‘The Treaty of Ghent.’ The way Howe penned What Hath God Wrought makes it abundantly clear, with the signing of ‘The Treaty of Ghent, the Battle of New Orleans’ became irrelevant to the actual war. Despite the irrelevance of the battle to the war, the Battle of New Orleans not only became the stuff of legend, it also took a significant place in American folklore. The battle, seen as a fight between experienced well-equipped professional British military force and a cobbled-together ragtag force of ill-equipped Kentucky militiamen.

The way in which the engaging forces are seen, the arrogance of British professionals verses the pluck of the American underdog, added a degree of realism to American exceptionalism. Further examination of the facts, rather than the established myth, proves the accepted folklore version of events is just that—folklore.

Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, part of a multi-volume Oxford History of the United States, divulges a significant point many historians appear to either omit or simply ignore. The level of technology, in the form of artillery and communication, available to Jackson’s forces, was pivotal in the outcome of the battle. The lesson, according to Howe, is that advances in communication were instrumental in how the first half of 19th century American history played out.

Squeezing three decades of American history into a single, albeit doorstep-sized, volume is a significant challenge for any historian to accomplish. There is always an exception to the rule, and Howe, the Professor of History Emeritus, established himself as being more than capable of accomplishing the task. With a well-crafted analysis, Howe’s proves his command of the subject matter being discussed in his penmanship.

The pivotal word in the title of Howe’s publication is “transformation”: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America—1815-1848. There are few instances in the history of these United States, clearly expressed in what Howe has written, that are more significant than those which transpired between 1815 and 1848. The narrative which Howe has presented his audience, well-orchestrated in the delivery, chronicles a number of major changes in the socio-dynamic of the United States.

The religious and social experimentation, as Howe views it, are adjuncts of what we now know as the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening, from a historical perspective, sees the emergence of a two party-political system not that dissimilar to that which Great Britain had. There are moments in American history, whilst not quintessentially singularly American history, defined and punctuated the fabric of emerging cultural identity.

Inventions such as the telegraph, Howe claims, added a greater depth to American democracy by inspiring a dynamic quality in establishing a mass-based political party system that offered voters more options. Howe, in the way in which the Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus penned his publication, wrote as though he were looking at the period of American history through the prism of a communications revolution.

Howe has somehow crafted a historical text, with a depth of richness, that places the history professor in direct conflict with a significant number of his peers. A significant number of historians maintain the driving force behind the agrarianism to capitalism transition was the market economy.

In What Hath God Wrought, Howe directly challenges many assertions historians have of what American history is. Howe, contrary to established belief, maintains the market revolution, taking place as it did in the circumstances it did, had become the fundamental prevailing paradigm by the beginning of the War of 1812. Howe, not afraid in confronting anything he disagrees with, takes umbrage with the view Americans were somehow content with self-sufficiency. Is self-sufficiency enough?

Self-sufficiency, according to Howe, was not enough for Americans of the period in which he writes. Howe argues Americans had always been eager for wider access to larger markets. Interestingly, the people Howe reserves his harshest critical judgement for are those who trace the expansion of democracy to Andrew Jackson.

The Jacksonian period, as Howe maintains, was an incubator for the growth in imperialist white supremacy, rather than the excepted nurturing and expansion of democracy. The light in which Howe cast Jackson is by no means flattering. It is Howe’s view that Jackson was an authoritarian “impatient with limitations” on his will, a man with little to no respect for the law when that law prevented him from doing what he wanted. It appears Jackson, regardless of established laws, was the type of man that believed the ends justifies the means. Jackson, in Howe’s interpretation, insisted on limited government rather than unshackling American potential.

Certainly, an unsuitable person to hold the presidency. Howe, in the way in which the history professor penned his book, seems to have found Old Hickory guilty of undermining American prosperity by destroying the National Bank. Howe rightfully condemns Jackson for Indian removal and the preservation of slavery.

Furthermore, the history professor argues that the spoils system Jackson installed “diminished the competency and prestige of public service” for generations. These failings, and many others, as Howe maintains, Jackson stamped on the Democratic Party. These failings reverberated through American history in one form or another until at least the middle of the twentieth century. Whilst Jackson and his acolytes are apparently Howe’s dirty rotten scoundrels, the paladins are plain to see; namely, the Whig Party and John Quincy Adams.

What does the dedication of What Hath God Wrought to Adams mean? Howe’s dedication, at least from one point of view, testifies to the high regard the history professor has for the sometimes overlooked president. Adams, a high-minded man to some respects, is seen in Howe’s writing as everything Jackson was not. This is not entirely all that surprising. Whilst Jackson was many things, he was no Adams.

Howe has significant issues with Jackson’s encouragement of popular sovereignty is something which can be celebrated. Is Jackson’s encouragement of popular sovereignty something that can be celebrated? Considering there is a connection between Indian policies and attitudes towards slavery, Howe rightfully observes there being a moral deficiency in how Jackson conducted himself. Jackson, in Howe’s opinion, was morally corrupt. Maybe Schlesinger was right. Maybe “objectivity is not neutrality.” Howe is correct in that Adams’ commitment to public service is something which can be celebrated.

Adams was steadfast in his refusal to permit political expediency a foothold in undermining his commitment to principled political servitude. The rule of Law in both Adams’ and Howe’s view, is not something which should take a back seat.

Jackson was never a man which would allow the rule of law to get in the way of something he wanted. The same argument can be made for many men who have been elected to the presidency of these United States. Being the president of these United States does not give the person sitting in the hot seat carte blanche to ride rough shot over the rule of law.

Bibliography

Carr, James A. ‘The Battle of New Orleans and The Treaty of Ghent’. Diplomatic History 3, no. 3 (July 1979): 273–82. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1979.tb00315.x.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America - 1815-1848. United States: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Reilly, Robin. The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812. United States: Putnam Publishing Group, 1974.

Remini, Robert V. The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory. London: Pimlico, 2001.

book reviews
Shain Thomas
Shain Thomas
Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Shain Thomas

I'm a freelance journalist. A member of both the NLGJA and SPJ, I currently write articles for Harsh Light News on Medium and HVY.Com. When I was a university student, I wrote articles for the NT Daily and TCU 360.

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