Mr. Bush Meet Mr. Jackson

Review of 'What Hath God Wrought?': The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford University Press, 2007)

My seven year old son glanced at Daniel Walker Howe's "What Hath God Wrought?": The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 and announced dismissively that it wasn't as big as Harry Potter V. I'll take his word for that. Still, at 855 pages, hundreds and hundreds of footnotes, and about four pounds, it is a fair question to ask: What hath Daniel Walker Howe wrought?

The answer is a sweeping and commanding synthesis of the political and economic history of the nation from the War of 1812 to the Mexican American War. Much here will be familiar to students of the period – the fight over the Second Bank; Van Buren's creation of the party system; Indian removal, and so on. It is in the nature of such books that they touch all the bases.

It is also in the nature of such big overview studies that they often devolve, text-book like, into tedious recitation. What Hath God Wrought, however, is anything but tedious. Far from being an omnium gatherum of all that historians have uncovered about these years, this is a lively, opinionated and beautifully written book which covers much which is not familiar and looks at the familiar in ways that make it seem different. And the range here dazzles: across a vast geography, from Mexico to California to Ireland, and across an equal vast terrain of scholarship.

At the end of "What Hath God Wrought?" Howe writes: "This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis" (p. 849). That is only half true. There is certainly a story here – several, in fact – but Howe is also making a number of arguments as well, or rather, picking certain fights with other historians about the interpretation of these years.

Whereas this era has often been seen as a bumptious and buoyant period in American history, when "democracy" expanded well beyond the limited franchise the Founders imagined, Howe casts a much more somber eye over these years. There is much that is dark here, and that darkness, for Howe, was embodied in the figure of Andrew Jackson. Jackson emerges from this book as a villain whose sins were many and they reverberated for many years.

Howe faults Jackson for purging the Federal government of experienced employees and replacing them with patronage hacks; he blames the economic depression of 1837 on Jackson's successful but wrong-headed fight to close the Second Bank; he thoroughly condemns Jackson's role in the Indian removal.

More damning than these particulars, though, is Howe's central assertion that "Jacksonian democracy" rested first and foremost on a foundation of white supremacy. Howe makes this point repeatedly and in various contexts. "White supremacy, resolute and explicit, constituted an essential component of what contemporaries called 'the Democracy' – that is, the Democratic Party." (p. 423)

Jackson's foil, both in real life and in the pages of this book, is John Quincy Adams. The latter is portrayed here as the nation's hero to Jackson's rogue – principled, smart, and ultimately on the right side of history, especially about the question of slavery. Some historians have celebrated the rise of popular sovereignty under Jackson; Howe instead finds much to admire in Adams' notion that populism must be restrained by law and principle. At the end of the book, Howe concludes that while Jackson may have won the battles of the day against Adams and his fellow Whigs, the Whigs would win the larger contest: "America's future lay predominately with the Whig vision of economic development and a stronger central government." (p. 835) Lincoln, who saved the Union and purged slavery from the land, Howe writes, was really a Whig.

Howe's suspicion of Jacksonian democracy – a populism that flourished hand in glove with white supremacy – will doubtless irk other historians of this era. But as I read this book I couldn't help but feel that the story Howe tells of these years amounts to a thinly veiled critique of the present.

For starters, Howe organizes his story around the "communication revolution" of the era rather than the "market revolution" or "transportation revolution" that other historians have described, and this is surely intended to remind us in the "internet age" that we have seen a revolution in communication before. Howe takes the title of the book from the first message sent by electric telegraph and points out that the company Samuel Morse founded – Western Union – continued to send telegrams until 2006.

More than that though, Howe casts Jackson's policies and behaviors in ways that sound hauntingly familiar in our current political moment. Take the opening sentence of Chapter 11: "Although Andrew Jackson defended his own authority with resolute determination, he did not manifest a general respect for the authority of the law when it got in the way of the policies he chose to pursue." Or this about the Mexican War: "Polk had successfully discovered the latent constitutional powers of the commander in chief to provoke a war, secure congressional support for it, shape the strategy for fighting it, appoint generals, and define the terms of peace." (p. 808) Except for that last bit about the terms of peace, which as I write this remain completely undefined, that could very well describe George Bush and his Iraq war.

Even the celebration of John Quincy Adams has a contemporary ring. During the fateful presidential campaign of 2000, with George Bush looking to win the office his father had occupied, John Quincy Adams became the answer to a trivia question: Who was the only son of a president to be elected president? By the end of this book, it is clear that George Bush II is no John Quincy Adams. It is hard not to see Howe's hostility to the Age of Jackson as a proxy for his disappointment with an electorate that could (re)elect George Bush, legitimating an illegal war and the triumph of expedience over law. As we survey the wreckage of the Bush years, we will ask ourselves as Howe has done here in this wonderful book: What hath God wrought?