Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Hath God Wrought

FYI__ Here is a mini bookreview from the blog of Phil Ebersole, a fellow progressive and member of the Bertrand Russell Society--tr

WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by David Walker Howe (2007)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a masterly synthesis of political, economic, military, social and cultural history, throwing new light on many aspects of the so-called Jacksonian era of American history. Howe dedicated his book to John Quincy Adams, and asserts that Adams, not Jackson, represented what was best and most important in this era.
I once thought, along with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Age of Jackson and innumerable Democratic speakers at Jefferson-Jackson Day picnics, of Andrew Jackson as a champion of working people, or at least of white working men, and of the Democratic Party of today as a continuation of the Democratic Party of that era.
I modified that view over the years without entirely giving it up, but Howe's book shows me how completely wrong it was, and also what a mistake it is to project the political divisions of the present onto the past. The basic principle of Jackson's Democratic Party was white supremacy. White men, regardless of social status or economic class, were regarded as equally superior to blacks, Indians and Mexicans.
Jackson's deeds as a slave owner and Indian fighter were as historically significant as his campaign against the Bank of the United States. The Cherokee, Creek and other Indian tribes once held legal title to most of the land area of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and large sections of other states. General Jackson's defeat of the Cherokee and Creek and President Jackson's support of Indian Removal opened up the Deep South to cotton cultivation, giving slavery a new lease on life. Cotton quickly became the leading U.S. export crop, and the availability of cheap high-quality cotton provided the basis of the British and New England textile industries, the leading manufacturing industries of their day, so this was an important historical event.
Jackson's vision of the United States was like Thomas Jefferson's - a nation of independent white farmers and craftsmen, independent of governmental authority or exploitation by government-chartered banks and corporations. His opponents, the middle-class Whigs, believed in progress through improvements in technology, infrastructure (canals and railroads), public education and humanitarian reform. Most Whigs were not abolitionists, but most abolitionists were either non-political or Whigs.
Evangelical Protestantism in this era was a strong force for progress, according to Howe. Protestantism, progressivism and patriotism were not at odds; neither were self-improvement and social reform. Most evangelical Protestants, in Howe's telling, regarded them as part of the same thing. They thought the Second Coming of Christ was coming soon, and they thought they could hasten it by becoming better people and making the world a better place. This is very different from the defensive evangelical Protestants of our own day.
Most of the great Unitarians and Transcendentalists also were Whigs. Most Catholic immigrants, believing in a different theology and in conflict with native-born Protestant workers and business owners, were Democrats.
The title of the book consists of the first words transmitted by Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. One theme of the book is the importance of communications and transportation technology in making the United States a cultural and economic unity, and in making it possible for the United States to extend its territory to the Pacific.
U.S. military victories over Mexico and the Indians during this era were a product of military professionalism and superior firepower, not the self-reliant uneducated Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen. Victory in the Mexican War, according to Howe, was not a foregone conclusion. Without superior U.S. firepower, or with a less brilliant commander than the underappreciated Gen. Winfield Scott, Mexico could easily have become an unwinnable quagmire war.
When I first studied American history in high school and college, I unconsciously thought of it as a history of white men, with black people, American Indians and white women as spectators and victims but not actors. Howe's work shows the inadequacy of this perspective. He begins with the Battle of New Orleans, in which black troops were an important part of both U.S. and British forces; he ends with the Seneca Falls women's rights convention, with Frederick Douglass lending his support