Review of “What Hath God Wraught” by Daniel Walker Howe
Everything goes fast now-a-days; the winds, even begin to improve upon the speed which they have hitherto maintained; everything goes ahead but good manners and sound principles.
– Philip Hone
In the conclusion section, Howe says, “This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis.” That couldn’t be more unture.
The book is Whig history if anything is.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting time period and it was long enough ago that even a mainstream historian treats most of the events with a reasonable amount of dispassion. For example, you can say stuff like:
Ethnoreligious and negative reference group voting influenced politics more in the North than in the South, since the North had greater ethnic and religious diversity.
But I digress.
The book’s title comes from the first telegraph. The overarching theme of the book is the consequences that result from massive declines in transportation and communication times. These improvements happened at the same time as New England’s control over the political dimensions of the US really began to wane.
So, if you read between the lines, the book is really about how New England maintained control of the US after it could no longer due so through the established political process. To stretch the story a bit (and perhaps beyond the point I should), this time period can be thought of as the rise of the Cathedral.
As Howe puts it: “The history of the young American republic is above all a history of battles over public opinion.” Howe does an excellent job showing how New England came to dominate the process of controlling public opinion. More explicitly:
The political power of New England waned with the growth of the Middle Atlantic states and the trans-Appalachian West. Nevertheless, New England Unitarians could take consolation in their importance for the world of print; through it, they had found a means to exert a more subtle influence across the broad republic.
Or, when that didn’t exactly work, you could always just kill everyone that disagreed, “Eventually, the Whig vision prevailed, but only after Abraham Lincoln had vindicated it in the bloodiest of American Wars.”
A few parts of the story will be particularly interesting to us.
The first is the outbreak of the Second Great Awakening. What happens what the citizens of the United States get really religious? The answer appears to be that they get really progressive.
“Some of the most important debates of the period did not take place within the arena of politics. Much of this discussion occurred within the religious communities.”
If, as Samuel Johnson said, the first Whig was the devil and the second may have been Cromwell, the first in the US may just have been Lyman Beecher. That’s obviously stretching it, but he may reasonably be considered the godfather of the American Cathedral.
In a sense it’s literally true that he was the father of the thing, since his children include: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Beecher, Edward Beecher, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Catharine Beecher, and Thomas K. Beecher.
Here’s Howe on the family:
Taken together, the members of the Beecher family demonstrate how the heirs of the Puritans coped, not simply with the disestablishment of religion, but also with the demise of the Federalist Party and New England’s shrinking political influence in a growing Union. They devised new means of influence public option outside politics: education, literature, magazines, religious revivals, and organized reform.
Moldbug couldn’t have said it better.
Beecher was concerned primarily with temperance, but it’s his means (much more than his preferred end) that would live on, as the foundation for future “movements.” Particularly those against slavery and in favor of woman’s suffrage.
Howe puts Beecher on the “conservative wing of evangelical reform” let’s move on to the liberal one with Charles Finney.
If Lyman Beecher’s followers represented the conservative wing of evangelical reform and Charles Finney’s its liberal one, those of Elias Hicks contributed the radical vanguard, what contemporaries called “ultraism.” All three of these evangelical groups could agree on many issues, such as temperance, prison reform, and public support for elementary schools. But the Hicksites displayed a willingness to pursue causes that other thought quixotic. Hicksite Quakers provided disproportionately large number of recruits to the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery. And when at last a movement endorsing equal rights for women surfaced, the little minority of Hicksite Quakers would make themselves conspicuous in its support.”
Let’s end the Second Great Awakening with one more quote:
Like many others of his generation Baird saw evangelical Protestantism as the legatee of Puritanism, the core of American culture, the source of American democratic institutions, the primary engine of economic and political progress, and ultimately the hope of the world. The American version of evangelical Protestantism represented, for him, what God hath wrought.
The Second Great Awakening also saw the first (for the US or anywhere else) experiments in utopianism and “socialism” (see, e.g. Robert Owen), to say nothing of Bible Communism and free love. And I suppose I should mention unitarianism.
Mormonism also began during this period. Howe doesn’t spend much time on it, and doesn’t have much interesting to say about it.
In some ways, the review could end there, but then we’d miss out on the fact that the US annexed Texas in the exact same way that the Southwestern US is now being annexed by Mexico. It’s too fun to let that pass without a brief commentary.
Even Howe can’t resist a bit of fun at the expense of the Mexicans (if not the modern Americans):
“The old Latin mistake had been repeated,” the historian Frederick Merk wryly observed: “admitting Gauls into the Empire.”
Indeed, “By 1836, there were at least thirty-five thousand Anglos in Texas, now outnumbering Hispanics ten to one.”
In a shocking turn of events, Texas relatively quickly became part of the US.
Howe doesn’t really like Polk, but he can’t but admit that – on his own terms – Polk was an incredibly successful President. After annexing Texas, Polk proceeded to . . . instigate . . . the Mexican-American War.
“’No power but Congress can declare war’, noted Daniel Webster, ‘but what is the value of this constitutional provision, if the President of his own authority may make such military movements as must bring on war.’” Such was the history of all subsequent American wars.
The story of how the war ended was quite interesting – and was something I wasn’t already aware of.
There are two more subjects which I must at least comment on given the time period covered by the book. The first is Andrew Jackson and the second is the Civil War.
The book encompasses the “age of Jackson” and many of the main characters (Van Buren and Polk, for example) seem to remain largely in his shadow.
Howe tells the story by contrasting Jackson and John Quincy Adams. That methodology worked very well. Jackson won virtually all the battles, yet somehow (see above) Adams wins the war.
As he left office, Jackson noted two dangers: nullification and abolition.
The Civil War looms large over this period. It’s tempting to shoehorn all the events of the era into ominous foretellings of upcoming War. Howe falls victim to this temptation constantly.
Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t, as for example, when South Carolina secedes over a very high tariff in 1832. Howe devotes pages to explaining how it’s really about slavery, but it’s never very convincing. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
There are certain inconvenient facts for Howe’s narrative that emerge as well. For example, “In Philadelphia and New York, the life expectancy of newborn babies average only twenty-four years during the 1830s and ‘40s, six years less than that of newborn southern slaves.” Or, “No strong sectional pattern emerged in the election of 1840.”
Despite these drawbacks, Howe does an excellent job of showing how the rise of extreme abolitionists creates so much of the increasing polarization.
Howe ends the book with a section on women’s suffrage. As the next era would be the era of increased electoral participation. Indeed, at times it just seems like abolition became a voting issue. As Howe notes, “If the suffrage were to be expanded, Democrats wanted to include immigrants but not black men; Whigs preferred the opposite.”
Ending on this topic allows Howe to connect it all back to abolition and radical Christianity as well:
And like most abolitionists, the Grimke sisters came to their antislavery convictions through the experience of religious conversion . . . Garrison welcomed them into his American Anti-Slavery Society, calling abolition and women’s rights two “moral reformations” bound together in “pure practical Christianity.”