What Hath God Wrought?

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Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 covering American history from roughly 1812-1848 is just a tremendous book. I recommend it unreservedly to any nonfiction readers out there. This is a period in the United States that most of us (certainly myself included) don’t know much about because “nothing happened.” except, as Howe makes clear, tons of stuff happened. For one thing, the country expanded massively in size to include Florida, Texas, and the Pacific Coast. Mass democracy came into being paired with mass communication and mass literacy. The country was tied together by these factors into a meaningful national unit even while controversy over war with Mexico and what to do with its spoils began to split it apart.

As a side observation, I’ll note it’s interesting that there’s a surprising amount of partisanship among contemporary historians in their treatments of this period even though obviously the Second Party System was very different from ours. Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln is very much a pro-Democrat book while Howe is much more of a Whig. My own inclinations, I suppose, are closer go Howe’s in this regard. But it’s a bit of an odd way to look a things.

But the incredible strength of Howe’s book is his ability to weave the myriad non-political elements of the history into the narrative. You get the establishment of doomed utopian religious communities, but also the non-doomed establishment of Mormonism. Technologic change via the rise of the railroad and the telegraph. Economic transformation driven by canal-building and more modern finance. Military strategy in Mexico. Social change as the understanding of race relations, slavery, and the status of Christianity in America is redefined. It’s something close to a genuinely comprehensive history of the period. Check it out.