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.