NBCC Awards Finalists in Nonfiction: Daniel Walker Howe’s “What Hath God Wrought”


This is the twenty-third in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” by Daniel Walker Howe (Oxford University Press)

“Magisterial” can be a code word in book reviews for a book that is long – sometimes way too long – but Daniel Walker Howe’s 904 page opus (with notes) is one of the very few books in the 900-page-plus range whose bulk truly is worth its heft. Howe’s account of this underappreciated period in American history is “a stunning synthesis of work in economic, political, demographic, social and cultural history,” writes Maureen McLane in the Chicago Tribune.

The pyrotechnics of the struggle for independence have always entranced readers of American history, but only a hardy few have had the strength or inclination to continue into the period of 1815-1848. What came later – the run up and execution of the Civil War – will be written about, studied and agonized over until the end of the American epoch. Maybe Howe’s volume will reawaken interest in the intervening period, for the author, who wrote this volume for the prestigious Oxford History of the United States, builds a case that this era was as vibrant and tumultuous as any in American history.

In 1815, American was an agrarian country. Then came the railroad, the steamship and most notably, the telegraph (the title of the book is the phrase Samuel Morse used in his first telegraphic transmission). It was a communication revolution on an unprecedented scale: “the spread of the electric telegraphy effectively decoupled communication from transportation,” Howe writes. 

“Finally, the revolution that really mattered was the ‘communications revolution’” writes Jill Lepore in the New Yorker – “the invention of the telegraph, the expansion of the postal system, improvements in printing technology, and the growth of the newspaper, magazine and book publishing industries.”

Howe’s heroes are the Whigs (he dedicates the book to John Quincy Adams), who helped turn the United States “from a collection of parochial agricultural communities into a cosmopolitan nation integrated by commerce, industry, information and voluntary associations as well as by political ties. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we can see that the Whigs, though not the dominant party of their time, were the party of America’s future,” Howe writes.

Howe is not so fond of Andrew Jackson, and “What Hath God Wrought” doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Old Hickory. Jackson fervently supported the principles of white supremacy and the absolute necessity of American territorial expansion. Those beliefs drove his support of slavery’s extension into American territories, as well as the forced removal of Native Americans from the entire Southeast United States.

Even to a jaded 21st century audience, the brutality of this operation is shocking. Indians were cheated out of their land, then driven by force, many over the “Trail of Tears,” into the Indian territories. Thousands suffered and died along the way. Then again, white skin didn’t necessarily exempt you from Jacksonian fury. After two Englishmen, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister, were tried without benefit of counsel for helping the Seminoles fight against U.S. troops, Arbuthnot was sentenced to death – Ambrister was to receive a flogging and a year in jail. “Jackson changed Ambrister’s sentence to death also and carried out the executions the next day so there would be no chance of an appeal,” Howe writes.

On a more upbeat note, there are plenty of energetic, idealistic and eccentric characters in “What Hath God Wrought” – John Marshall, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Howe vividly relates the progression of America’s religious “Great Awakening” as it moved from goals of personal salvation and self-improvement towards reform movements such as the abolition of slavery and rights for women.

Howe is a superb synthesizer and interpreter of this material – Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post calls Howe, an emeritus professor of history at Oxford and UCLA, “a genuine rarity; an English intellectual who not merely writes about the United States but actually understands it.”

Finally, if a reader loves words, he or she can look forward to Howe’s insightful digressions into the origins of American colloquial language. The frenzied sale of government land in Alabama and Mississippi gave rise to the expression “doing a land office business.” The term “sold down the river” came from a fearful era when Kentucky and Tennessee slave owners began exporting their slaves for sale to Mississippi Delta plantation owners. Slaves faced a trip down the Mississippi River, then bondage in hot, humid and primitive conditions, making their separation from their homes and families all the more excruciating.—Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times book editor, NBCC board member

Maureen McLane’s review
of “What Hath God Wrought” in the Chicago Tribune. 

Jill Lepore’s review, “Vast Designs,” in The New Yorker.

Jonathan Yardley’s review in the Washington Post.