Thinking on What Hath God Wrought

Not dense, just big.Having spent a fair amount of time over the last two days sitting in airplanes and airports, I had a chance to read a couple of big chunks of Daniel Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. When I mentioned to a friend of mine on the history faculty here that I was reading Howe’s book, his response was “It’s dense.” Coming from someone who wades through 17th and 18th century French documents for a living, this was a bit intimidating. I don’t think that he is quite right. Indeed, one of the things that strikes me about Howe’s writing is how well he moves his narrative along and his skill in using the striking antectdote to illustrate a complex idea. The book is not so much dense as voluminous. Howe is covering a lot of material.

So far, I have gotten up through the material on the Missouri Compromise and the beginning of the Second Great Awakening. The section on the birth of the Monroe Doctrine was, I thought, a compact gem, deftly capturing the mix of personalities and international politics, in particular the role of Russian expansion in the northwest quadrant of the continent, a story that I had not heard before. The traditional narrative of the Monroe Doctrine, of course, is dominated by Latin America. Other enjoyable bits include the account of Jackson’s invasion of Florida and the carefully constructed plausible deniabilityof the Monroe Administration. Also, the sad and pathetic slide of Jefferson into a de facto defender of slavery is nicely alluded to without being heavy handed. Nevertheless, the Sage of Monticello is seen counselling his son-in-law that a good female slave producing a child every two years is more valuable than a field hand. (Her children could be sold to the cotton plantations farther south at a hansomeprofit later.) We also see him making the ultimately lame and hypocritical argument that extending slavery into Missouri will hasten its gradual decline by spreading it over a greater area, like butter scraped across toast so that it melts faster. In other words, by the end of his life Jefferson had managed in a wonderful bit of self-deception to argue that slavery must be expanded in order to be limited. Thus he could be both the prophet of human freedom, and the prophet of rising pro-slavery sectionalism. Not being a big fan of Jefferson, I relished these tid bits.

His discussion of law so far as been deft but shallow.


He provides good narratives of a couple of key Supreme Court cases — McCullogh v. Maryland and Hunter’s Leasee are the ones that I have read so far — but as is so often the case in survey books the only law that is treated is constitutional law. For example, in his chapter on “The World that Cotton Made,” which describes the economic forces at work in the decades after the War of 1812, he deals with the rise of textile mills in New England. A discussion of the revolution wrought on private property rights by this development through measures like the Mill Acts would have fit in seamlessly with his narrative. Likewise, one of the ways in which the “imagined community” of America was created in the opening decades of the nineteenth century was in part through the authoring of treatises like Kent’s Commentaries and St. George Tucker’s edition of Blackstone, which began to articulate a vision of American common law. Indeed, given the speed with which legal jurisdictions multiplied after the War of 1812, the paucity of case law and legislation, and the scarcity of law books one of the striking features of the period is the extent to which lawyers all over the country were reading the same books. Obviously, I think that the story needs more law, specifically more non-constitutional law.

One of the things that Howe does wonderfully, however, is include religion. The story of early disestablishment in New England is told. I am not yet up to the materials in the 1830s and I am hoping that he spends a bit of time on the contentious legal battles over disestablishment in Massachusetts and the role of Lemuel Shaw. We’ll see. It is good, however, to see figures such as Finney and Beecher put forward as representing major forces in American life. Needless to say, I am curious to see how he will treat the rise of Mormonism (and the other radical movements coming out of the Second Great Awakening) but that is still a couple of chapters off.

So far this is one of the better bits of history that I have read for a while. Whether I will be able to make may way through the remainder of this brick any time soon, however, awaits to be seen.

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1 Response

  1. david hoffman says:

    Nate,

    A terrific review of a really, really good book.