Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History, Howe’s comprehensive look at the so-called Jacksonian period in American history serves as one of the best books of its kind. Indeed, I consider this book one finest history books I’ve ever read. Period. It’s that good.
Howe’s greatest strength is the uncanny ability to unify seemingly disparate things. Like the period of Reconstruction, (1863-1877), the Jacksonian period has long remained a mystery to most Americans. At best, it’s bewildering in its dominant themes, struggles, and reforms. At its worst, it’s simply forgotten and ignored, that time leading up to the conflict of 1861-1865. Even from a professional historian’s standpoint, though, no clear beginning or ending to the period exists. It does not have a War of Independence or a Civil War to enliven it and give it shape and definition. A wide variety of fascinating and eccentric personalities—the mad John Randolph of Roanoke, the dancing and womanizing Henry Clay, the orating Daniel Webster, the brilliant and wily John C. Calhoun, the black nationalist David Walker, the tiresome Ralph Waldo Emerson, and ever mutating Orestes Brownson–populate the period. Would it be possible to find another period of history in which so many eccentrics clashed? Probably not.
Tellingly, Howe dedicates his work to the “Spirit of John Quincy Adams,” the last gentleman, at least in the nineteenth century, to sit in the Oval Office.
In stark contrast to the principled (even if one disagrees with his principles!) Burkean of Massachusetts stands Andrew Jackson, the man most responsible for destroying the founders’ vision of a virtuous republic. Being no fan of Jackson, I wholeheartedly appreciate Howe’s criticisms of the brutish democrat.
“Despite his bow, Jackson brought to his task a temperament suited to leadership rather than deference,” Howe explains. “Although he invoked a democratic ideology, the new president had profoundly authoritarian instincts. Tall, ramrod straight, with piercing eyes and an air of command, the hero of New Orleans was not a man to be crossed.” [pg. 328.]
Or, as a voice from the time said, fully understanding the democratic mass appeal of the militaristic demagogue: “Beware how you give a fatal sanction, in this infant period of our republic, scarcely yet two score years old, to military insubordination [Jackson’s in Florida]. Remember that Greece had her Alexander, Rome her Caesar, England her Cromwell, France her Bonaparte.” [pg. 105]
So said Henry Clay.
As Howe argues, correctly, nothing mattered more to Jackson than the forced removal of the Indians. Such an immoral and constitutionally illegal act dominated the Jacksonian agenda [pp. 347, 357].
Ultimately, Howe concludes, “White supremacy, resolute and explicit, constituted an essential component of what contemporaries called ‘The Democracy’—that is, the Democratic Party” [pg. 423].
Should this really surprise anyone who has studied the institutional history of the Democratic party or the biography of Andrew Jackson? While the bigotries of the Democratic party have changed in its nearly 200 year history, it remains a party fundamentally opposed to human dignity and human liberty, as it so often has.
Still, Howe is not some Republican party cheerleader. He’s a professor emeritus at UCLA, and his words carry great weight in all circles, academic and otherwise. One can only imagine what previous historians of the period—Arthur Schlesinger and Bernard De Voto, each of whom did so much to glorify Jackson and the Democratic party—might say to Howe.
But, for what it’s worth, I write: get this book and savor it as a work of history and as a work of art.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.