Review of Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. By Daniel Walker Howe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 904 pages; $35.00.   

Andrew Jackson has been dead 165 years, yet he remains the locus of intense political controversy. Since 1945, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s, The Age of Jackson, three generations of American historians and journalists have used him to justify the New Deal and the policies of the modern Democratic Party. The most recent apotheosis of this phenomenon was Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American Lion, a book that purported to use new sources which had, in reality, been used before and who drew conclusions from them that were dubious to say the least. It is surely no coincidence that Meacham’s book was published the week after the 2008 presidential election and can be read as a primer for the new administration. But Meacham is not a professional historian. Those who are, beginning with Schlesinger, have often used Jackson for the same purpose: Sean Wilentz’s mammoth The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005), and the most controversial, Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution (1994), a book that was so unsparing in its denunciation of capitalism that C. Van Woodward, general series editor of the Oxford History of the United States refused to accept it as one of the volumes. Nevertheless, Sellers’s book became a staple of history departments and spawned a cottage industry of community histories on the rise of market economies and their malignant results.   

Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, which replaced Sellers’s book in the Oxford series when it was published in 2007 and also won a Pulitzer Prize, supplied a much overdue corrective synthesis to this viewpoint. Howe’s book was a substantial departure from accepted Jackson era scholarship and has slowly begun to change the game. Soon-to-be new THQ editor Kristofer Ray’s Middle Tennessee, 1775-1825, for example, is the first scholarly study of Middle Tennessee since Thomas Perkins Abernathy’s From Frontier to Plantation in 1932 (the year the New Deal began) to emphasize the “dynamic commercial market” that influenced politics and turned most of the counties around Nashville against Jackson.         

Sellers’s proposition, that before the 1830s Americans lived in a subsistence-based idyll of “enduring human values of family, trust, cooperation, love and equality” displaced by a world marked by “inherent and ongoing contradictions between capitalist market relations and human needs” (which triumphed despite heroic attempts by Jackson to forestall modernity by the Bank Veto) was always questionable. As most historians of Tennessee, beginning with Abernathy and circling around to John R. Finger and Ray have demonstrated, most of the state was settled for speculative reasons, and in Jackson’s own Middle Tennessee, an agricultural export market and mercantile system was firmly in place by 1810, if not earlier.   

Concomitant with the tri-generational depiction of Jackson as proto-New Dealer was the almost total dismissal of the political party that rose in opposition to him—the Whigs. Along with Michael Holt, Howe has done more than any current historian to rehabilitate the Whig political culture, a process that he continued in this book. It is too much to say that What Hath God Wrought is a Whig history of Jacksonian America, but in portraying the Whigs as advocates of public education, economic integration, defenders of Indians, women and African-Americans, they, rather than the Democrats, come across the true prophets of the future.   

One would wish that Howe had devoted some space to Tennessee’s John Bell and other Upper South Whigs who broke with Jackson in 1834 and until Fort Sumter remained vital figures in attempts at sectional reconciliation. Bell’s reputation has been partially revived by William R. Freehling among others, but he still has not received the credit as a national figure due him, primarily because his two chief political rivals—Jackson and James K. Polk—became president. Given his generally sympathetic treatment of the Whigs, it is perhaps ironic that Howe was more positive about the Mexican War (at least the military part of it) than Sellers (who terminated his multi-volume biography of Polk in the 1960s when the parallels between the Mexican War and Vietnam became too obvious).   

As Howe stated in his introduction, he did not use the term “Jacksonian America” or “The Age of Jackson”; Jackson’s policies were too controversial and divided the nation, he argues. Nor did he use “Market Revolution.” There was no such thing, he believes, rather an evolution from a nascent market system already in place in the eighteenth century. There were two revolutions in the period 1815-1845, however, one in communication and one in transportation. The development of the telegraph in 1844 meant instant communication across most of the nation, including news of the Democratic Convention that nominated Polk. And to Howe, it is significant beyond symbolism that Jackson went to Washington in 1828 by horse and carriage, and left it eight years later by railroad. Such developments, products of the market capitalist system, would surely have been impossible without it, along with political and social changes such as the rise of antislavery sentiment and the beginnings of the women’s movement that technology and the markets only aided.   

In short, in What Hath God Wrought, market capitalism is a positive force, which expedited the notion of progress on every level in the United States. To Charles Sellers in The Market Revolution and to at least some extent in Schlesinger, Wilentz, and Harry Watson, it was a corrosive force that needed to be tamed, controlled, and perhaps diluted. Howe, who was briefly a student of Sellers in the 1960s, politely, but firmly, disagrees with that position.   

It will be interesting, ten years from now, to see which book, The Market Revolution or What Hath God Wrought, is most in use in university history departments around the nation. The economic condition of the country may play a part in which ideology ultimately prevails. Still, it is always brave to go against established currents in the history profession and the Jackson/FDR melding was entrenched for a long time. Three years after Howe’s book was published, it is still too soon to know whether it signaled a new era, or only an hour. One place to look for an answer might be Washington, D.C., and our continuing political disputes.   

Bob Holladay   

Florida State University   

This review from the Winter 2009 Tennessee Historical Quarterly appears courtesy of the Tennessee Historical Society. My thanks to Ann Toplovich for permission to post Dr. Holladay’s review.
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