WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT
The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
By Daniel Walker Howe
Illustrated. 904 pp. Oxford University Press. $35.
In the Oxford History of the United States series, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought picks up where Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty left off in the War of 1812. It takes the reader from Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 to Zachary Taylor’s election as President of the United States in 1848. The period can aptly be described as America’s adolescence. It was also the Golden Age of the White Republic.
The telegraph, steamboat, and railroad appeared and revolutionized transportation and communication across the young nation. From Alexander the Great to Benjamin Franklin, previous generations had communicated only at the speed of a galloping horse. Within a single lifetime, the ancient “tyranny of distance” was overthrown. The construction of canals and advances in printing fueled this process and led to the emergence of mass based political parties and an integrated national market economy. America would experience its first financial panic in 1819 and first depression from 1837 to 1843.
Under James Madison and James Monroe, the Democratic-Republican Party quietly absorbed the remaining Federalists in the short lived “Era of Good Feelings,” but later split apart into “Old Republicans” and “National Republicans” in the 1824 and 1828 national elections. These divisions within the Republican Party quickly solidified into the second two party system, the Democrats and Whigs, which dominated national politics until 1856.
The Democrats became the party of national expansion, white supremacy, states’ rights, defense of slavery, cultural pluralism, agrarianism, and free trade. The Whigs favored a protective tariff, internal improvements, economic diversification, a national bank, soft money, nativism, and moral reform. They opposed national expansion and the extension of slavery. Throughout this period, the Whigs consistently took the more liberal position on race. For the time being, partisanship had the salutory effect of papering over the sectional crack in the Union that emerged in the Missouri Crisis. The Senate experienced its own Golden Age with the debates of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun.
In the Great Migration, American settlers poured across the Appalachians into the Old Northwest and Old Southwest and rapidly settled the Mississippi Valley. They became known to posterity as the “pioneers.” From 1789 to 1815, American civilization was Atlanticist and looked toward Europe. From 1815 to 1848, Americans became Continentalists and turned their gaze westward across North America. They followed the Oregon Trail in Conestoga wagons into the Pacific Northwest. The Mormons left the Midwest in an exodus and settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Stephen Austin and other American colonists settled in the Mexican state of Texas.
The migration of the pioneers to the frontier had a parallel in the migration of European immigrants and country folk into the cities. In 1820, there were only five cities in America with a population of more than 25,000 and one over a 100,000. By 1850, there were 26 cities with a population over 25,000 and six with a population over 100,000. The urban percentage of the population increased from 7% to 18%. From 1815 to 1850, about five million European immigrants (Germans, Scot-Irish, Irish Catholics) settled in America. The median age was 16. Only 1 of 8 Americans was over the age of 43. The White birthrate was so high that the American population doubled every 20 years.
In spite of their growing diversity, Americans explicitly disavowed the notion that they lived in a multiracial or multicultural society. Free blacks in the Upper South (North Carolina, 1835), New England (Connecticut, 1818, Rhode Island, 1822), and Mid-Atlantic states (Pennsylvania, 1838) lost the voting rights they had previously enjoyed. After 1819, every new state admitted to the Union with the exception of Maine would disenfranchise black voters. Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and several other states banned free blacks altogether. Blacks developed their own separate churches. Women lost the right to vote in New Jersey which was the only state that had granted them suffrage.
In 1815, Southerners didn’t have much passion for defending slavery. They usually said it was a regrettable institution that had been foisted on the South in its infancy by the British. The Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner rebellions changed that. By 1848, John C. Calhoun and others like him had come around to defending slavery as a “positive good.” Josiah Nott, a Mobile physician who wrote about racial differences, denied that negroes and Whites belonged to the same species. In the 1850s, George Fitzhugh rejected Jeffersonianism in favor of a comprehensive political theory based on slavery and hierarchy. By that time, the Enlightenment had long since faded and died in the South.
Americans in the North and South alike had come to believe that the United States was a “white man’s country.” The logical implication was that free blacks were a blot on the American experiment. In 1817, the American Colonization Society was founded for the purpose of deporting them to Africa. 4,291 American negroes were ultimately repatriated to Liberia in West Africa. 10,000 more would emigrate there from the United States by the end of the Civil War. African colonization was endorsed by the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians as well as by the states of Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Delaware, Ohio and six other Northern states.
The Indians weren’t held in much higher esteem. After smashing the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, Andrew Jackson forced huge territorial concessions on the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) that led to them surrending most of their territory in the Old Southwest. Florida was invaded and annexed to destroy a bastion of multiracial freedom that had become a haven for runaway slaves. The later Seminole Wars were fought for the same reason.
Old Hickory’s proudest accomplishment as President of the United States was the Indian Removal bill which ordered the deportation of all Indians east of the Mississippi to the Oklahoma Territory. His successor Martin Van Buren zealously carried on Indian Removal. In the Northwest, a small race war was fought against the Black Hawk Indians. The Texas Revolution evolved into a race war between Anglos and Mexicans. By 1846, Florida, Oregon, and Texas had fallen like ripe fruit into the American orbit. Everywhere White men could be found asserting their racial interests in a way that is virtually unknown today.
“Manifest Destiny” was in the air. This imperialistic sentiment culminated in the Mexican War under James K. Polk (“Young Hickory”) which resulted in the acquisition of California and the Southwest in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. After the Mexican Cession, the Far Southwest was considered the racial patrimony of White men. In some parts of Texas, Mexicans were ethnically cleansed and a new law was passed that racialized property rights. Mestizos in New Mexico didn’t acquire full rights as American citizens until statehood was finally achieved in 1912. California didn’t recognize Mexicans as citizens until 1870.
Culturally speaking, Jacksonian America was a fertile period. The most popular form of entertainment was the minstrel show. Americans jumped Jim Crow and laughed at Zip Coon, a pretentious negro who liked to dress in fancy clothes and use big words he didn’t understand, a precursor of Barack Obama in some ways. Dime novels which glorified the American Revolution and Indian Wars were popular. The roots of country music can be traced back to the Anglo-Celtic folk songs of this era. Edgar Allan Poe and the Transcendentalists laid the foundation of American poetry and literature.
The Second Great Awakening reinvigorated American religion. By 1850, twice as many Americans were affiliated with a church as had been the case in 1815. Evangelicals sought to hasten the millennium by supporting a series of reform movements: abolitionism, women’s suffrage, temperance, world peace, and opposition to Indian Removal. Cockfighting, dueling, and drinking became controversial as middle class mores spread. Utopian communes were founded in New Harmony, Indiana, Nashoba, Tennessee, and Oneida, New York. Joseph Smith founded the Church of Latter Day Saints.
A radical left hatched out of the fringes of Christianity: Unitarians, Hicksite Quakers, Evangelicals, and Protestant missionaries. Oberlin College (the first integrated co-ed university in the world) was founded in Ohio. William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass preached against slavery in The Liberator and The North Star, but the abolitionists remained mired in the swamps of third party politics. In 1848, the women’s suffrage movement kicked off with the famous Seneca Falls convention. Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous essay Civil Disobedience in his disgust with the Mexican War, Indian Removal, and the expansion of slavery. Ralph Waldo Emerson found Polynesians and Africans worthy of the American melting pot. The Whig Party vigorously opposed the Mexican War and Indian Removal. Without the Jews, America produced its own leftist radicals.
These are but a few of the topics that are given treatment in What Hath God Wrought. There are also discussions of the Bank War, Monroe Doctrine, the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, the Wilmot Proviso, California Gold Rush and much else. Although it is written from a humanist perspective, I found What Hath God Wrought to be the most comprehensive introduction to Jacksonian America available. In my next review, I will explore the subject further in Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.
White Nationalism is an attempt to recreate the lost world of the White Republic. It is unintelligible outside of its roots in the American Colonization Society, Indian Removal, Wilmot Proviso and the Free Soil movement. If for no other reason, White Nationalists (and anti-racists) should read this book to understand their own complex origins.