- America’s Coming of AgeDaniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought
According to Daniel Walker Howe, the three decades between the end of the War of 1812 and the end of the Mexican War (1848) witnessed “the transformation of America.”1 Of what did this transformation consist? What drove it? What were its larger implications? These questions lie at the very center of historical writing about the early and middle decades of nineteenth- century America. Howe’s monumental effort goes far in answering them. In the process, he upends several well-known interpretations of the so-called Jacksonian period.
Howe knits together a complex tapestry of seemingly unrelated historical events with keen insight and wonderfully lucid prose. His intermittent snapshots of American society between 1815 and 1848 are well done, as are his depictions of American science and literature. Of greater significance, however, are the connections he establishes between evangelical religion, social reform, sectional politics, and economic development as key elements in America’s transformation. His discussion of the Second Great Awakening, with its focus on revival-oriented Protestant preachers like Charles Grandison Finney and Lyman Beecher (the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) is extremely well done. Owing to the efforts of Finney, Beecher, and other “New Light” evangelists, the Second Great Awakening became a major force that not only ignited widespread millennial fervor in America but also spawned numerous voluntary associations calling for the reformation of society in preparation for the second coming of the Christ. Among these associations numbered temperance, missionary, Bible distribution, and pacifist groups as well as the most important of all, the abolitionist movement aimed at ridding the country of slavery. What is [End Page 187] more, white middle-class women joined these movements and, through their experiences, came to the realization that their rights needed to be legally recognized. Some of Howe’s best writing centers on the rise of the women’s rights movement and its association with abolitionism. Equally interesting is his discussion of how evangelical revival methods influenced politics, resulting most notably in the “political revivalism” that characterized William Henry Harrison’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1840 (p. 573).
Howe’s chapters on Andrew Jackson, the Democratic Party, and the socalled “second party system” that emerged during the 1830s are particularly telling. Howe is no admirer of Jackson. Rather than applauding him as a national hero and “man of the people,” he portrays “Old Hickory” as a selfabsorbed white supremacist with “profoundly authoritarian instincts”—definitely “not a man to be crossed” (p. 328). Particularly noteworthy are Howe’s observations on Indian removal, a brutal process that he describes as a form of ethnic cleansing (pp. 423, 810). “The fundamental impulse behind Jacksonian Democracy,” he emphasizes, “was about the extension of white supremacy across the North American continent,” adding that “Indian policy, not banking or the tariff, was the number one issue . . . during the early years of Jackson’s presidency” (pp. 356–57). Jacksonian America was many things, but it was not essentially democratic. To be sure, the franchise expanded during the period, but only for white men. Indians, free blacks, undesirable immigrants, and women were systematically excluded from citizenship, to say nothing of the terrible plight of slaves. An unswerving commitment to America’s “Manifest Destiny” and the protection of slavery accordingly became central tenets of Jacksonian Democracy (p. 524).
Contrasted with his critical view of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party, Howe portrays the Whig Party as a force for innovation and change in antebellum America. If Andrew Jackson and his successors Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk are the villains of his story, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay are its heroes. Indeed, Howe dedicates What Hath God Wrought “to the memory of John Quincy Adams ”! While neither Adams nor Clay succeeded in garnering the degree of public adulation and support that Jackson did, their visionary ideas about American advancement provided a blueprint for transforming rural America into a modern urban-industrial nation.
In Howe’s view, Adams and Clay were “improvers” who resisted Jackson’s expansionist policies, including the expansion of slavery. They...