The Books of 2017, #3: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of American, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe

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I think I’m a pretty fast reader. I don’t claim to be a speed reader, because speed reading is bullshit and the people who claim they read 40 books a week aren’t retaining jack shit of any of them but just trying to impress their idiot friends with a dumb stat, but I read at a pretty good clip and I devote a lot of time to reading every week. This book still took me a solid fucking three weeks to get through, and one of those weeks was spent on vacation so I was reading way more than usual.

At 904 very, very dense pages, What Hath God Wrought is a THOROUGHLY comprehensive look at everything about the United States from the end of The War of 1812 through the end of The Mexican-American War.

What it is NOT is: a pop history, on par with the usual “book version of a History Channel, Discovery or BBC show” that dominates the history section of Amazon these days. It is a proper scholarly review of the period in question, excessively sourced and footnoted, with a wonderful bibliography that alone will take you a day or so to properly digest itself.

What it is, is: a VERY good book. But it’s also a commitment on par with, say, marriage, or having a child.

That is fitting with its role as Vol. V of the Oxford History of the United States, a series I’ve been working through for the last few years at one or two volumes per year, enjoying each volume very much so far.

The title comes from the “first” transmission over a telegraph line by Mr. Morse of Morse Code fame (though, as the book gets into, neither claim stands up to scrutiny), an event which illustrates the central them of the book: that the divorce of communications from physical transport revolutionized every aspect of American life in fundamental ways.

Howe illustrates this wonderfully with a discussion of how long it took a piece of news to get from, say, New York City to other points in the US at the time the book begins (1815). Even to get to nearby Philadelphia or Boston, a trivial hour or two jaunt down the ACELA for us moderns, took DAYS in 1815. There was no way for news to travel faster than a person verbally carrying it or a piece of paper with said news on it could physically cover the distance.

Howe takes us through this transformation wonderfully, explaining how it affected everything from where Americans lived to how long they stayed in one place, to the food they ate, to how they worshiped, etc.

Howe doesn’t keep the focus just on the big actors of the day; yes, the politics and wars are covered quite thoroughly, but the author also is careful to spend a lot of time going over how regular people were faring under the decisions of the “important” figures of the era. Small vignettes from individuals who aren’t as well-known as Andrew Jackson or Henry Clay are liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative to bring life and a personal touch to the grander themes being covered. As I vastly prefer comprehensive histories that cover social and economic factors along with the military and the political ones, this really helped keep me engaged through the very long read.

The second major theme of the book is a refutation of the common declaration amongst historians of this era as being “Jacksonian” first and foremost. While his bias towards the Whigs ideal of national economic development and anti-slavery is clear, it is also supported. Howe presents an argument that Andrew Jackson and the Democrats bear the brunt of the responsibility for driving America towards the future Civil War, as well as being generally bad leaders of the nation while in charge. The argument is persuasive.

Howe further does not shy away from bluntly stating that America under Jackson’s rule and that of his successors was devoted to maintaining and expanding a system of white supremacy. It’s hard to argue with his argument for this, and it’s something that needs to be said and hammered home more often in the canonical histories of the era.

A lot of time is spent on the religion of Americans, which may strike the reader from this more secular age as odd, but Howe makes it clear that religion was a VERY dominant factor in almost everyone’s life in this era. And it intertwined with many other aspects of life, such as how one felt on the slavery issue, women’s rights, immigration, etc. The sections on religion are long and sometimes bewildering in the range of differences, major and not, that are discussed, but they are pretty essential to understanding how Americans thought about these things in those days.

The book closes with a fierce look at the American war with Mexico, which Howe positions rightly as one of the most impressive military campaigns ever waged as well as one of the least-justified wars ever launched. President Polk was borderline despicable in his machinations to maneuver Mexico into a war it didn’t want for the sole purpose of aggrandizing American territory at their expense, with the primary goal of expanding slavery through much of it. The struggle of the Whigs to show their opposition to this war without actually defunding soldiers in the field will resonate with opponents of recent wars in our history.

Overall, while somewhat exhausting, What Hath God Wrought stands as a brilliant telling of the era, a bona fide classic of historical writing that anyone even remotely interested in the period covered should check out immediately.