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What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

Author(s):Howe, Daniel Walker
Reviewer(s):Wahl, Jenny

Published by EH.NET (September 2008)

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. xviii + 904 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-19-507894-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jenny Wahl, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

Innovations in transportation, improvements in communication, the fire of religion, and the rise of political parties: these are the themes of Daniel Walker Howe?s huge history of the period sandwiched by the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. The title?s initial clause replicates the earliest telegraphed message; like Samuel F.B. Morse, Howe deliberately eschews punctuation, leaving the reader to decide whether the phrase should end with a question mark or an exclamation point. Howe offers little original scholarship, but he has done his homework ? his footnotes display familiarity with virtually all of the major and many of the minor works of economic, political, cultural, and just plain history regarding the early republic. Part lively anecdote, part tedious generalization, this newest tome in the Oxford History of the United States provides a good overview for the general reader and a rich resource for scholars seeking citations to original research.

Howe casts the first half of the nineteenth century as a struggle between Democrats and Whigs over the future of America; he devotes more than half of the twenty chapters primarily to politics. Howe clearly favors the Whig emphasis on ?qualitative economic improvement? rather than the Democrats? pursuit of ?quantitative expansion of territory? (p. 706), calling the Whigs the ?party of America?s future? (p. 612). His admiration for John Quincy Adams is apparent, his disdain for Andrew Jackson palpable. He frequently laments what might have been had the Whigs prevailed politically. (See for example pp. 283, 689-90.) In a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor, Howe likens the Democrats to the mythical ?frontier marksman? while noting that the Whig-like artillery actually won wars (pp. 17-18, 65).

Much of the story is linear, although some chapters tackle specific topics. Chapters 5, 8, 12, and 16 largely concern religion, for example. Aside from politics and religion, the book is a kaleidoscope of well-worn subjects ? the Erie Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, the case of McCulloch v. Maryland, the Missouri Compromise, utopian societies, Cherokee removal, the Charles River Bridge case, the Bank War, the Amistad, Transcendentalism, the California gold rush, the Irish potato blight. Howe is at his best when depicting battles ? soldiers shivering in the chilly mist covering New Orleans (prologue), and Winfield Scott brilliantly advancing upon Veracruz, Chapultepec, and Cerro Gordo as Santa Anna hastily departs without his prosthetic leg (chapter 19). Vignettes of individuals well-known (Sojourner Truth, Eli Whitney) and obscure (John Ball, Anthony Trollope?s mother) work well as windows on wider subjects. His forays into demography and economics, in contrast, mostly generate yawns (chapter 14, for instance).

Still, the alert reader can enjoy numerous nuggets: 80 percent of New Englanders bathed at most once a year (p. 32), the anti-Masons held the first national political convention (p. 269), Methodists outnumbered Catholics in the U.S. before the Civil War (p. 201), more Americans read newspapers in 1822 than any other national group (p. 227), illegal immigration from the U.S. plagued Mexico in the nineteenth century (p. 660), long-distance chess games revealed the interactive capability of the telegraph (p. 696), Secretary of State James Monroe led a scouting party for redcoats during the War of 1812 (p. 64), the Liberty Bell cracked while tolling for Chief Justice John Marshall?s funeral (p. 439). I enjoyed the reminder of Andrew Jackson arriving at the White House on horseback and departing by train, and of the redundant Battle of New Orleans ? what a pity the Treaty of Ghent preceded the invention of the telegraph and the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable. Some statistics Howe tosses out deserve a little more commentary, however: is it really surprising that the desertion rate in the Mexican War doubled that for the Vietnam conflict, given geography (p. 751)? And is it possible that annual per capita alcohol consumption totaled 7 gallons in the early part of the nineteenth century (p. 167) simply because widespread water purification did not exist?

Howe occasionally draws apt modern-day comparisons. Andrew Jackson?s serial replacement of Treasury secretaries until Roger Taney did his bidding with banks indeed resembles Richard Nixon?s Saturday night massacre (pp. 387-88). At times the comparisons seem forced, however. Is Thomas Jefferson?s dying in debt really comparable to our current account deficit (pp. 60-61)? Can today?s developing countries truly count on democracy flourishing during transitions just because it did for America two centuries ago (pp. 849-50)?

Quirky statements and viewpoints appear periodically as well. ?The Americans forgot about Canada (as they usually do) … (p. 519).? The acquisition of California ?enabled a strong stand to be taken against the aggressions of Imperial Japan in the 1940s. God moves in mysterious ways, and He is certainly capable of bringing good out of evil (p. 811).? How does Howe know that ?[a] family farm worked best when husband and wife cooperated closely and accorded each other mutual respect (p. 36)?? If he considers the term ?Jacksonian democracy? ?inappropriate? (p. 4), why does he use it to title chapter 11? And, although the telegraph certainly conveyed ideas quickly so as to help unify political parties and to spread the word of abolitionists (pp. 242, 646), Howe misses the chance to point out that the lack of centralized, authoritarian control over the dissemination of information is what made this possible in America. Perhaps the Democrats? emphasis on individuality had its merits after all.

Ultimately, this sprawling book (winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for History) is a worthwhile read, despite its uneven nature. Just don?t try it in one sitting.

Jenny Wahl, Professor of Economics at Carleton College ( is the author of ?He Broke the Bank, but Did Andrew Jackson also Father the Fed?? in Congress and the Emergence of Sectionalism: From the Missouri Compromise to the Age of Jackson, eds. Paul Finkelman and Donald Kennon, Ohio University Press for the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (2008), pp. 188-220.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century