H.G. Callaway: Review of Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought, The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press, 2007)
American historian Daniel Walker Howe is emeritus Professor of History at both UCLA and Oxford. His prior books are indicative of the focus in the present volume, which basically functions to revise long habitual conceptions of the Jacksonian era. He published The Political Culture of the American Whigs in 1979 and The Making of the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln in 1997. His inaugural lecture at Oxford University in 1990 was devoted to “Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” The present volume opens with an 1838 quotation from the English abolitionist and utopian, economic and social thinker, Harriet Martineau,1 dedicated to the memory of John Quincy Adams—the abolitionist and New England Whig who served as Secretary of State under James Monroe, one term as President and was defeated by Andrew Jackson in the subsequent election of 1828. Overall, this book emphasizes intellectual, moral and cultural aspects of American history.
“What hath God wrought,” were the words transmitted by Samuel Morse, testing the first telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in 1844; and their place in the title suggests the author’s theme of a transformation of America, between the end of the War of 1812 and the end of the Mexican War—arising fundamentally from technological change in communication and transportation. We have before us an ambitious work of neo-Whig, revisionist history. The volume appears as part of the new Oxford History of the United States2edited by David M. Kennedy; and it tells the story of America’s final westward continental expansion, from the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory (acquired 1803), across the broad width of the continent.
The book runs to 900+ pages and 20 numbered chapters and is prefaced by an Editor’s Introduction written by Kennedy and adroitly quoting R.W. Emerson. Though Emerson wrote in 1844 that “America is the country of the Future. It is the country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations;” (quoted, p. xiii), he also warned that “Mexico will poison us” (quoted p. xv), suggesting something of the way in which the issues of war and slavery in the acquired territories would divide the nation. The series editor’s Introduction is followed by the author’s Introduction, explaining his aims in the volume, and a Prologue devoted to “The Defeat of the Past,” recounting and interpreting General Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The numbered chapters are followed by a Bibliographical Essay and an Index. The book also includes 16 pages of thoughtfully selected photographic reproductions and a variety of charts, tables and maps.
This narrative history of the American republic between 1815 and 1848, drawing on a wealth of sources, aims “to affirm and to question the value of what Americans of that period did” (p. 7). The direction of the proposed evaluation is foretold at the end of the Prologue, which discusses the Battle of New Orleans: Jackson’s victory depended not so much on the “the individualistic, expansionist values exemplified by the frontier marksman,” but instead chiefly on the “industrial-technological values exemplified by the artillery” (p. 18). While we cannot plausibly doubt America’s past and continuing need for science, technology and industry, there is reason to think that the originally Jeffersonian values, exemplified by the citizen-settler and democratic stakeholder, are also crucial in American identity. One may suspect that the “industrial-technical values,” expressed in General Jackson’s artillery, are more effectively and dangerously war-like and expansionist than our legacy of Jeffersonian republicanism and individualism. Contrast the republican self-constraint of President Madison during the War of 1812 with Howe’s account of Mr. Polk’s Mexican War. Even America’s Madisonian, First-Amendment religious tolerance came under threat in the Jacksonian era, as Howe tells the story of the Mormon's western trek (pp. 312-319). This suggests that a Madisonian diversity of interests and views, in the spirit of Federalist Paper’s No. 10, and respect for law and constitutional limitation are more needed now, in our industrial, technical and corporate society, than in our early agricultural-commercial republic, if we are to effectively constrain nationalistic single-mindedness or aggression.
The author’s emphasis on innovations in communication and transport, examining the changes wrought by the post office, the telegraph, the canal system and the railroads, invite analogy to contemporary transformations of society and politics arising from the internet, contemporary media and the broad availability of fast, inexpensive travel. The end of the War of 1812 was, like the war itself, a strange affair, ranging over a period of time from the signing of the surprisingly congenial Treaty of Ghent, Christmas Eve, December 24, 1814, the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, and the arrival of news of the treaty at Washington, D.C.—February 13, 1815. Near simultaneous news of the treaty, and General Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans, greatly boosted morale at home, lifted the popularity of President Madison, confirmed the foreign policy of the early republic in the public mind, and gave Jackson a persistent place in subsequent American history. The reader is brought to reflect on what Jackson’s place might have been—given faster communication; and how might the Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson and Madison, and the emerging National Democratic and Whig opposition, have developed without Jackson’s dominant position in the republic? Recall again the defeat of John Quincy Adams, at the hands of Jackson in the election of 1828 and the roles of “Jacksonian democracy” in American politics. The book, by revising the idealizations of Schlesinger’s “Age of Jackson,” also invites revision of the roles of the dominant European-derived, settler majority in American history and society.
In accordance with the Treaty of Ghent, the U.S. had promised to make peace with the Indians (often British allies) on the basis of the status quo ante bellum, and that would have voided the Treaty of Fort Jackson (August 9, 1814) for instance—which extracted vast areas of land from the Creeks in the old Southwest. Howe reports that “In June 1815, the Madison administration ordered Andrew Jackson to begin returning to the Creeks that lands taken from them…;” but “Jackson raged and refused to obey, and the government felt loath to enforce its edict upon a popular hero supported by white public opinion in the Southwest” (p. 75).
The relevant Article 9 of the treaty, negotiated at Ghent under the guidance of Albert Gallatin, J.Q. Adams and Henry Clay, reads as follows:
The United States of America engage to put an end immediately after the ratification of the present Treaty to hostilities with all the tribes or nations of Indians with whom they may be at war at the time of such ratification, and forthwith to restore to such tribes or nations respectively all the possessions, rights, and privileges which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to in 1811 previous to such hostilities. Provided always that such tribes or nations shall agree to desist from all hostilities against the United States of America, their citizens, and subjects upon the ratification of the present Treaty being notified to such tribes or nations, and shall so desist accordingly.
Pursuing Howe’s narrative, the reader comes to understand part of the significance of the fact that the capital of Mississippi is named for Andrew Jackson. Still, it seems important to consider the decisions concerning the Indians generally, rather than concentrating on General Jackson and the Indians in the old Southwest alone.3 Indian alliances with the British, and the potential for such alliances, were generally regarded as an impediment to America’s settlement of the continent. The Jeffersonian Republicans had attempted to either separate the Indians from the settlers or have them become small farmers themselves, and it seems clear in retrospect that the British would do the native American no favor in encouraging their armed resistance to the settlers, the state militias and the U.S. Army. Consistent with contemporary judgments on the Indian removals by the Jacksonian Democrats, and Emerson’s appeal to President Van Buren against the “trail of tears,” one might also consult Henry Adam’s judgment of the matter, when he wrote “No acid ever worked more mechanically on a vegetable fiber than the white man acted on the Indian. As the line of American settlement approached, the nearest Indian tribes withered away.”4 Adams was certainly no admirer of the Jeffersonian Democrats, yet he recognized a positive side to their Indian policy:
President Jefferson earnestly urged the Indians to become industrious cultivators of the soil; but even for that reform one condition was indispensable. The Indians must be protected from contact with the whites; and during the change in their mode of life, they must not be drugged, murdered, or defrauded. Trespasses on Indian land and purchases of tribal territory must for a time cease, until the Indian tribes should all be induced to adopt a new system. Even then the reform would be difficult, for Indian warriors thought death less irksome than daily labor; and men who did not fear death were not easily drive to toil.5
This Jeffersonian policy did not achieve its desired aim—and not only because the North American Indians often preferred not to become farmers. Whatever the guarantees to an adjacent Indian territory, settlers would seep in during the hunting season, and given their technological superiority in firepower, they would shortly reduce the game stocks to a level which would no longer support a hunting-gathering society—before returning to their farms to the East or South. The Indians, in turn, would travel further West (or North across the Canadian boarder), in search of game. Arguably, President Madison's acquiescence in Jackson’s conquests of the Indians of the old Southwest was a matter of merely bringing forward the inevitable. As a war-time President, he would likely have viewed the Indian settlements in alliance with the British, or potentially allied with the British or the Spanish, as a grave threat. Though it is true, as Howe maintains, that the British were not anxious to renew the war in 1815; still, Jackson’s victory at New Orleans surely reinforced the desire for peace and discouraged the Spanish from any thoughts of renewing their colonial control of Louisiana or the Gulf coast.
Compare the northern Democratic-Republican Alexander J. Dallas (Secretary of the Treasury under Madison 1814-1816), in his account of the British-Indian settlements on American territory, as protected under the terms of Jay’s Treaty (1795). Dallas saw the Jay Treaty as implicitly an American alliance, as a silent partner, with Great Britain against France, and in doubting the wisdom of such a policy, he also doubted of the wisdom of “admitting a British colony within our territory, in the neighborhood of the [British controlled] western posts;” and “admitting the whole British nation, without an equivalent, into participation of our territory on the eastern bank of the Mississippi; for naturalizing all the holders of lands… .”6 As part of the Treaty of Paris ending the War of Independence, the British had retained rights of navigation on the Mississippi, and they surely thought to connect their holdings in Canada with their colonies in the Caribbean via the river. Foreign-protected Indian settlements, whether on the Great Lakes or on the Gulf coast, were not only an impediment to the expansion of American settlers, they were also plausibly viewed as inroads of European colonialism standing in contrast with the thrust of emerging American patterns of integration and naturalization—whose paradigm was Jefferson’s small farmer in a republican “empire of liberty.”
What would the course of American expansion across the continent have looked like without Jackson’s status as the hero of New Orleans? Of special interest in this is Chapter 4, “The World That Cotton Made,” and the role of Jackson’s agricultural-oriented nationalism in creating the old South. Here we find additional reasons to doubt the wisdom of General Jackson’s aggressive ways with settlements, peopled by Indians and escaped slaves, in the old Southwest during the War of 1812. But arguably, the deeper mistakes had been made long before, in the compromises regarding slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Nor were the democratic processes involved in the ratification of the Constitution sufficient to correct them.
Considering the roots of abolitionism, one may well wonder what a reorientation of the contemporary Republican party might look like in light of its historical roots in the liberal New England Whigs. Howe’s book does not answer such questions and nor does it aim to do so, but it certainly does stimulate reflection on them. Again, should we view Jackson as an “American Lion,” in accordance with another recent study—a figure akin to Martin van Buren’s admiring view of Wellington—or instead as something like an American Napoleon, transforming the ideals of the American Revolution into an war of conquest across the continent?
It is clear that our author is no admirer of Andrew Jackson—or the Jacksonian Democrats generally, including Martin van Buren and James K. Polk. Consider the following brief portrait from chapter 9, “Andrew Jackson and His Age”:
A man’s man, he fought Indians, gambled, and dealt successfully in lands and cotton. Even by frontier standards, Jackson possessed a particularly touchy sense of honor. He participated in several duels and fights, killing a man during one in 1806. The chronic pain of the wounds sustained then, and other bullet wounds from a barroom brawl in 1813, did nothing to help his disposition. Quick to sense a criticism or slight, he never apologized, never forgave, and never shrank from violence. His towering rages became notorious (p. 329).
It is equally clear that there is much about Jackson, as with Thomas Jefferson to a lesser degree, or John Brown even more, that we may easily disparage. It is difficult to think of Jackson as a pleasant person or a winning personality. He was a slaveholder, and defender of distinctively southern agricultural interests, an Indian-fighter who relied on personal authority over his troops, and a man who insisted on honor and relished the pursuit of enmities. He was not the sort of person the average contemporary liberal might enjoy getting to know up close. The brief portrait continues on the following page:
That nickname, “Old Hickory,” invoked his stature as a tough leader of men in an age when only men could vote. Jackson’s success in life personified the wresting of the continent from alien enemies, both Native and European, white supremacy over other races, and equal opportunity for all white males, without preference for birth or education, to enjoy the spoils of conquest. A visitor to his plantation house, the Hermitage, outside Nashville, would find the log cabins of his youth standing along side the stately mansion with its Greek columns and imported French wallpaper. Like many another plantation owner, Jackson enjoyed an expensive lifestyle; he entertained lavishly both at the Hermitage and at the White House (p. 330).
According to Howe, Jackson combined authoritarianism with a democratic ideology, “taken over from Randolph, Taylor and the Old Republicans” (p. 330). His democratic ideology included great emphasis on defending the common people against elite corruption and vested interests, and Jackson attempted unsuccessfully to put through a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College and elect the President directly—suggesting an ascendancy of democratic ideology over the nation’s republican, federal and representative institutions. (After all, as things stand, the weighted electoral vote for the presidency, mirrors the same weighting of the states in all federal legislation, reflecting the role of the U.S. Senate. Would the opponents of an “imperial Presidency” want to elevate the democratic legitimacy of the Presidency above that of the Congress?)
The Democratic-Republican assumption was that government had to be strictly limited in order to prevent its becoming an instrument of the rich and powerful, and Jackson was especially skeptical of corporate entities which involved a Federal investment in private undertakings. He was antagonistic to the Second Bank of the United States on principle. (Just as many, today, are skeptical of the Federal government’s investment in major American banks and other large-scale corporations.) But the larger picture is that this Schlesingeresque man of the people, long celebrated at Jefferson and Jackson dinners, here becomes the authoritarian leader of white, male domination and white, male conquest.
Carried too far, this involves a danger of narrowly or anachronistically evaluating Jackson and the Jacksonians solely by the particular lights of the contemporary Democratic left. We have been that way before, and the reader naturally seeks a broader light. What is Howe affirming from this period of American history beyond the “industrial-technological values” that made Jackson’s artillery, the telegraph and the winning of the West possible? Is a man of Jackson’s character—or that of an Achilles, or John Brown—ever wanted or needful? Emerson lauded John Brown as a man who would make the hangman’s gallows as illustrious as the cross; and on the verge of the Civil War he argued as follows:
The instinct of the people is right. Men expect from good Whigs, put into office by the respectability of the country, much less skill to deal with Mexico, Spain, Britain, or with our own malcontent members, than from some strong transgressor, like Jefferson, or Jackson, who first conquers his own government, and then uses the same genius to conquer the foreigner (Emerson 1860, “Power,” in The Conduct of Life).
In this passage, Emerson sees some virtue in the likes of Jefferson and Jackson, and it is only if we can understand this (limited) admiration, I suspect, that we can understand Emerson’s admiration for a man of the character of John Brown—who by contemporary lights might easily count as a lawless terrorist—except that he prefigured the Civil War as a war against slavery and except that his deeds and memory were sung by generations in “the Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
These and related questions are expanded on in considering the subsequent history of the Democrats from the time of President Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States up to and including the Jacksonian Democrats’ role in the expansion of American territory across the continent to include first Texas and the Pacific Northwest, and finally California and the broader acquisitions from the Mexican War.
In some tension with Howe, one might take the view that the settlement of North America was a consequence of mass immigration from Europe and across the continent. From this perspective, we might think of Jefferson as running hard to keep in front of the mass movement of settlers—holding up the ideals of liberty and the Jeffersonian agricultural republic. During the Revolution, it was discovered that small farmers would turn out in mass to oppose a British army, from the felt need to defend their own small plots; and Jefferson dreamed of a vaster, continental “empire of liberty,” similarly constructed, to end the threat of European colonialism.
Part of the idea of the Jeffersonian, Democratic-Republican, party was to organize this unique mass movement politically on the basis of anti-colonialism and the independence of the small farmer—in an agricultural republic. In consequence, they also endorsed the interests of the southern slaveholders and eventually the “Kingdom of Cotton” as well. Would things have gone better if this movement had been organized from Europe and played out in the interests of the European powers? The United States has always a bet against that option—as testified, for instance, by John Quincy Adam’s role in the “Monroe Doctrine.” Again, after the Jeffersonian Republicans had vanquished the political power of the Federalists, the Whigs arose as the political alternative to the Democrats and their “Virginia dynasty”—attempting to organize the same mass movement of immigrants and settlers on the basis of protective tariffs, manufacturing, trade, “internal improvements” and business. Howe tends to idealize the role of the northern, anti-slavery Whigs in this development and the role of John Quincy Adams in particular.
Adams is indeed an admirable figure in many ways, and the northern anti-slavery Whigs doubtlessly contributed moral standing as they later merged into the Republican party of Lincoln. Howe contributes significantly to a needed reevaluation of J.Q. Adams.7 Yet, just as the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans made their arrangement with the agricultural interests of the southern slave system, and the removal of the Indians to the West, so too did the Whigs make their own arrangements.
Listing the Whig Presidents, J.Q. Adams (1825-1829), who had witnesses the Battle of Bunker Hill as a boy of 8 years, and broke politically with the Federalists, stands out, as closer to the background of the American Enlightenment and the founding ideals of the country. But consider the others: William Henry Harrison, the old Indian fighter of the Northwest territory, who was sympathetic to the desire to introduce slavery into the Northwest Territory, and died shortly after winning office (1841), and John Tyler (1841-1845), his Vice President and successor in office, also a slaveholder—who was nominated by the Whigs for Vice President on the ticket with Harrison to attract Southern support. Zachary Taylor (1849-185) was originally from Virginia, a southern planter, and a victorious General in President Polk’s Mexican War. Millard Fillmore of New York, Taylor’s Vice President and successor in office (1849-1853), supported the reclamation of escaped slaves, under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, thus alienating the North and dooming the Whigs, and in 1853 he sent Commodore Perry to open Japan to American trade.
The chief figure and source of the Whig’s compromise with slavery and aggressive expansion was of course, the power behind the Whig throne, Henry Clay of Kentucky, the “war Hawk” of 1812, the “Great Compromiser” of 1820 and 1850, a chief supporter and organizer of Kentucky’s contributions to the Indian wars of the old Northwest territory, and another slaveholder—and twice an unsuccessful Whig candidate for President. Henry Clay, early on, as a Jeffersonian Republican, had advocated gradual emancipation, though he gave this up when it proved disadvantageous in politics. (Unlike Jefferson, however, Clay did arrange for the emancipation of his own slaves after his death.) Evaluation of the Whigs, in comparison to the Jacksonian Democrats, invites not merely a comparison of Jackson himself with J.Q. Adams, but a broader comparison of the Jacksonians, Old Hickory himself, Martin van Buren and James Knox Polk, with the Whig alternative represented—and divided—by Adams and Clay and presided over by nearly forgotten men like Presidents Tyler, Taylor and Fillmore. What becomes increasingly salient is the weakness of the Whigs, not unlike the Federalists before them, and especially their weakness in the face of the increasingly vehement and unified southern support for the slave system and its expansion. This weakness points, in turn, to the fatal political flaw of the founders’ republic of 1789—which eventually produced the Civil War and the revised republic which arose from it.
The Europeans had come to North America, in their masses, carrying their own distinctive ethnic identities, English, Scottish, French, Irish, German and many others; and it is worth recalling that before the Revolution, protests directed to London could plausibly demand “the rights of Englishmen.” If we ask what was accomplished in the period between 1812 and 1848, the period covered by this book, then the obvious answer is that an American nationality had been molded which merged the European ethnicities; and a continent was settled by mass immigration under the formative power of an anti-colonial founding and the ideals of the Constitution of 1789. This helped set the pattern of America’s distinctive accomplishments, in the interest of democracy and human rights, as a nation founded upon immigration and integration. It is surely one of the most successful nations of that kind. Historian Howe helps reminds us of the pressing need to broaden and deepen integration beyond the immigrants both old and new.
One important reason for J.Q. Adam’s break with the Federalists was the affair of the USS Chesapeake, attacked and boarded by a British man of war, and 4 of the crew removed, while the ship was still within the waters of the U.S. off Hampton Roads, Virginia in June of 1806. This was an especially arrogant example of the use of British naval power which inflamed national feeling—though the Federalists, centered in New England, were more reluctant to criticize, since New England’s lucrative commerce depended so much upon British good will. But Adam’s shared the Republicans’ indignation, and this point helps us understand why he could be appointed by President Madison as Minister first at St. Petersburg and later at London. One might be inclined to say that the fruitful development of the Whigs from the Federalist party depended on the contrary focus of the Jeffersonian Republicans—representing the small farmer, the settlers and domestic interests against globalizing commercial interests.
In his diary on November 29, 1820, Adams wrote the following prophetic reaction to the Missouri Compromise:
If slavery be the destined sword of the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself. A dissolution of the Union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slave-holding States combined with a war between the two severed portions of the Union. It seems to me that its result might be the extirpation of slavery from the whole continent; and calamitous and desolating as this course of events in it progress must be, so glorious would be its final issue, that as God shall judge me, I dare not say that it is not to be desired. (J.Q. Adams, quoted by Howe, p. 160.)
In a broader context of reflection, Howe helps us to see to what extent our second party system, that of the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs, was founded on the New England conscience; and reading the book, one comes to expect such stirring thoughts from the hand of an Adams, an Emerson or Abraham Lincoln. Yet no one would believe, then or now, that the country could be governed by the New England conscience alone. The Whigs became the party of the business interests, of commerce and manufacturing, “internal improvements,” in the form of roads, canals, railroads, and the telegraph, and the party of “free labor.” Insight into the historic weakness of the Whig party arises from considering the power relations of these political groupings. Can any single party fairly and properly represent both big business and the common man of “free labor”? In considering the development of the Whigs, we dare not forget the further development of the post-Civil War, Lincoln Republicans into the party of big business during the Gilded Age—overwhelming the Emersonian update of the New England conscience. The interests of “free labor” were too quickly forgotten, in favor of business interests in finance, commerce and manufacturing, once the competition of the slave-system had been eliminated.
For a comprehensive focus on the period covered by the opening of this book, I would recommend comparison with the closing chapters of Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty (2009). Though Wood’s volume was subsequently published, it covers the preceding period in the Oxford History of the United States. Saying that, however, I want to emphasize that there is simply too much of value in Howe’s book to be even listed in the longest of reviews. The serious student of American history will want to read this book.
Chapter 11, “Jacksonian Democracy and the Rule of Law,” is especially worthy of study. It is precisely the departures from the rule of law which should make us most skeptical of Jacksonian democracy. Thoughtful readers will be especially impressed by the story of the Revolution in Texas and the subsequent annexation under President Tyler, as contrasted with somewhat similar and later developments further West in California and New Mexico. Many readers will undoubtedly benefit from Chapter 16 on the fascinating “American Renaissance,” of Emerson’s New England, or the story of American religion and the temperance movement in the early nineteenth century, Chapter 8, “Pursuing the Millennium.” Howe has written an engaging, spirited, critical and thought-provoking study of an exciting and eventful period of American history. This is a book worthy of a master of American history. Howe’s own value commitments come through, but whether we quite agree with these of not, this is no book of advocacy. As with all the best of historical studies, Howe helps us to better deliberate on where we might go from here—now better understanding where we have been.
1. Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was the sister of the Unitarian theologian James Martineau (1805-1900), who was Professor of moral philosophy (1840-1885), and from 1869 Principal, at Manchester New College.
2. Compare Samuel Eliot Morison 1965, 1972, The Oxford History of the American People. 3 vols. Howe’s history can also be usefully compared to Sean Wilentz 2005, The Rise of American Democracy, Jefferson to Lincoln. New York and London: W.W. Norton.
3 . See the contrasting account of the Creek Indian war (1813-1814) of the old Southwest and Jackson’s role in them in Gordon S. Wood 2009, Empire of Liberty, A History of the Early Republic, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 686-687.
4. Henry Adams 1986, History of the United States of America during the Administration of James Madison, Library of America edition, p. 343.
5 .Ibid., p. 348.
6.See A.J. Dallas 1795, “Features of Mr. Jay’s Treaty.”
7. Compare R.W. Emerson’s admiration of J.Q. Adams, in the final chapter of Society and Solitude (1870) and again in “Eloquence,” in Letters and Social Aims (1876). More recently, Arthur Schlesinger praised Adams as “perhaps our greatest Secretary of State.” See Schlesinger 2004, War and the American Presidency, p. 42.
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