Monday, April 19, 2010

What Hath God Wrought

I'm not well read on early 19th century American history. I've always vaguely thought of it as the "Age of Jackson" (thanks to seeing, but not reading Schlesinger's Age of Jackson, and kept it at that. Then the Oxford History of the United States put out What Hath God Wrought, the now penultimate release from the series. I adore these histories, the best known of which is probably Battle Cry of Freedom, one of the best histories I have ever read. My instinct is to buy these books as they come out. They are really a bit too long for a library check out and I like collecting them. Still, my limited interest in the subject matter left the book unread for a year.

Having some time on my hands, I picked it up last week and wrapped it up within a week. Like most of the other books in the series, the book is clearly written and engaging. They are written for generalist audiences by experts in their era. In this volume David Walker Howe takes the reader from 1815, as the War in 1812 ends as the time of the Founding Fathers begins to recede, up to 1848 with Polk's massive national expansion via war and diplomacy and the Seneca Falls Convention.

One of the things I have pondered is how the US of the Civil War, which seemed so big and complex, arose from the coastal enclaves of the Federalist era. Howe explains all this via the great debates of the era. One centered on the notion of internal improvements, which we might today call infrastructure development. One nationalist strand of thought argued that the US should invest in these improvements for security and economic reasons. Another, which focused on the cotton trade with England, fought vigorously against it. This group, of course, was also that which defended slavery. As Howe shows, the argument they made was not focused on states right, but on the desire to maintain a slave based economy, as it made owners of people quite wealthy.

There is a lot more in the book, particularly about how communications and transport technology made it possible for a country to exist over such a large area as the United States. Readers today will feel many uneasy comparisons with today's politics, especially comparing the Mexican war with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the role of regional politics in shaping and distorting national debates.

Like all giant history books, you still need an interest in the era to read this one. The reason I think this era is worth knowing is that it helps explain the road to the Civil War, the debates about how involved the state should be in the economy, how the country began its shift to diversity and how the national economy developed.


Paul said...

I always thought of that period of time as The Early Republic. I don't know if there is a real historian's consensus on a good title. If you want, a good ramp up to that age is The Age of Federalism. You can get the link from my post here

The ramp up to the Civil War is a pretty interesting time and full of complexity that many miss. Though slavery is seen as the most popular reason for it to the layman, there was plenty of underlying reasons dating back to the original debates on the Constitution.

Tripp said...


Thanks for the reply. I agree that there will multiple drivers for the Civil War, but I think it is hard to make a case that slavery was not the principal underlying driver. I think it is hard to make a case that secession would have happened without the slave based economy of the Southern states.