Criticism & Features


An Interview With Daniel Walker Howe


NBCC board member Maureen McLane recently talked with Daniel Walker Howe about his book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, which was a finalist for the 2007 NBCC awards in General Nonfiction:

Q:  In “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” (Oxford UP, 2007), you point to a “communications revolution” as the crucial transformation of the period. Could you say more about that? Is your experience as a late 20th-early 21st century citizen informing your sense of such a revolution?

A:  We are today going through a communications revolution of our own that helps us understand the one of the mid-nineteenth century.  The Internet is for our generation what the electric telegraph was to theirs.  The electric telegraph probably lowered the costs of business transactions even more than did the Internet, and it certainly seemed to contemporaries an even more dramatic innovation.  For thousands of years messages had been limited by the speed with which messengers could travel and the distance eyes could see signals like flags or smoke.  Neither Alexander the Great nor Benjamin Franklin (America’s first postmaster-general) knew anything faster than a galloping horse.  With the electric telegraph, instant long-distance communication became possible for the first time.  Commercial application of Morse’s invention followed quickly.  American farmers and planters—and most Americans then earned their living through agriculture—increasingly produced food and fibre for far-off markets.  Their merchants and bankers welcomed the chance to get news of distant prices and credit.  The newly invented railroads used the telegraph to schedule trains so they wouldn’t collide on the single tracks of the time.  The electric telegraph solved commercial problems and at the same time had huge political consequences.  Along with improvements in printing, it facilitated an enormous growth of newspapers, which in turn facilitated the development of mass political parties.  To sum up, then, the telegraph had many of the same effects in the nineteenth century that the Internet is having today:  to speed up and enable commerce, to decouple communication from travel, to foster globalization, and to encourage democratic participation.  The tsar of Russia worried about the democratic implications of the telegraph, just as the rulers of China worry now about the Internet.

Q:  Why do Whigs get such a bad rap?

A:  Part of the explanation is simply the party loyalties of the present.  Most U.S. historians are liberal Democrats, and for many years they automatically identified with the Democratic party of earlier generations.  This reflexive party loyalty was challenged by the Civil Rights movement, which forcibly reminded historians that the Democratic party had been, for generations, the bulwark of slavery and then of segregation.  Still, it remained hard for historians to get very enthusiastic about the Republicans or their antebellum predecessors, the Whigs.

It seems hard for many historians to give the Whigs the credit they deserve for their political program:  improving the economic infrastructure (railroads, canals), encouraging industrialization (tariff protection), supporting public schools, strengthening the national government, manifesting at least a modicum of respect for the rights of the Indians, and showing distinctly less enthusiasm for perpetuating and extending slavery.  Many historians today seem to dislike the Whigs more on cultural grounds than on the basis of their actual political policies.  The Whigs represent middle-class values, evangelical Protestantism, Victorian sexual mores, Anglo-Saxon condescension, didactic literature.  For many historians today, these are all repugnant.  But historians ought to be able to view attitudes in the context of their times, and not be the prisoners of presentism.

Q:  What about this period do you find most compelling, and what most surprising?

A:  Actually, the aspect I find most compelling is also the one I found most surprising.  Before I wrote this book I had never really grasped how often improvements in material terms fostered improvements in moral terms.  The people who encouraged economic diversification and development in many cases also supported more humane laws, wider access to education, a halt to the expansion of slavery, even, sometimes, greater equality for women.  The two heroes of my story, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, both illustrate this.  The economic development that they wanted to promote empowered the average person in all kinds of ways. It brought wider vocational choices and opportunities for personal independence.  In today’s third world, improvements in living standards should similarly encourage democracy and respect for human rights.  This encouraging conclusion is, I think, the most important thing I learned from the experience of writing the book.

Q:  Why did you choose to end your book with the Seneca Falls convention (the 1848 convention on women’s rights)?

A:  I ended with the account of the women’s rights convention and called it “A Vision of the Future.”  I wanted to highlight that which had first surprised me, but then convinced me, the principle that material improvement in society fostered moral improvement.  I think it indubitable that the stage was set for an improvement in the status of women by industrialization, urbanization, mass literacy, and the improvements in transportation and communications that my book emphasized.  The emerging cause of rights for women thus represented a fitting capstone for my story.

Q:  Given all the debates among historians, ‘scholarly’ and ‘popular,’ about how history should be written, and to whom it should be addressed, how do you understand your own career and this book in particular?

This is the fourth book I’ve written, not counting a couple that I edited.  I wrote all the earlier ones for the same audience that most other academic historians write for, that is, my fellow specialists and the captive audiences in the classes we teach.  This time I wanted to reach a larger audience: the general, literate, curious public.  I find it profoundly ironic that at the very time when academic historians have been trying to be more inclusive in our subject matter, to go beyond politicians and kings and generals, and have more to say about the general public, we have been growing less and less inclusive in our audience, less likely to speak to the general public.

Besides inclusiveness in audience, I also sought inclusiveness in subject matter.  I wanted to treat both traditional history (political, military, diplomatic) and the newer kinds of history that have so extensively preoccupied our profession in recent decades (social, cultural, economic).  Not many books by academic historians cover both kinds.  But I believe both kinds are necessary to understanding the past.  History gets made both from the top down and from the bottom up.  Traditional history—political, diplomatic, and military—deals with the winning of power and the exercise power, and power is important.

Maybe we historians have worked so hard for several decades on telling the stories of the marginal groups that we’ve neglected to tell the story of power.  I wish now that I’d started sooner to be more inclusive in both the subject matter and the audience of my writing.

Interviewed by Maureen McLane