Transformation Jun 11, 2009
I don’t ordinarily write reviews for booksellers, but this book draws me to give it 5 stars, 2 thumbs-up, and a high-five. Oh, it won a Pulitzer Prize, too, but who cares?
Don’t be put off by the title. “What Hath God Wrought” was the ur-message telegraphed by Samuel Morse. It does have meaning, because many onlookers asked that question as they looked at this strange experiment in democracy. The subtitle, The Transformation of America, 1815-1848,” is more descriptive. “Transformation” is the key word.
Howe illustrates how Americans had a long debate with themselves about the meaning of democracy once Britain was out of our affairs. John Quincy Adams saw America as the new Israel where citizens should advance and improve themselves in God’s image. Others, like Andrew Jackson, felt that it ought to foster the freedom of each man individually, as long as that man was a white property-holder.
Important chapters examine the world that cotton made, the inventors, the rise of protestant evangelism, Abolitionism, Indian removal, the African colonization movement, the war for Texas, one central bank, a financial panic, tariff protection, Nullification, internal infrastructure, and the devolution of the era of good feelings into divisive sectionalism. But always there was slavery.
Howe demonstrates each branch sought to protect, promote, and spread slavery through protocols, executive orders, court rulings, even the delivery of mail. There was even a perceived need to legislate the movements of black sailors from foreign countries when on leave in an American port.
He draws thoughtful conclusions in each chapter, but maybe none so eye-opening as his speculation that if Henry Clay of Kentucky had prevailed in the close presidential election of 1844, maybe slavery could have been peacefully abolished and a calamitous Civil War avoided.
America seemed to be a petri dish for new religious cults and sects whether big tent revivals or in exclusive colonies of chaste prayer or free love or polygamy. Premillenarianists decided the Final Judgment would occur on a particular day in 1844, leading followers to give away their belongings and leave crops in the fields. On the flip side, this new democracy led the world in the education of women.
Howe’s scholarly writing style is good, neither too popular nor obscurely narrow. He quotes letters, diaries, and documents with good effect and provides footnotes for readers to follow up on. I recommend it to anyone interested in the broad sweep of early 19th-Century U.S. history.