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NEXT MONDAY: Michael Morrison on Political History in _What Hath God Wrought_ TODAY: James Huston on Economic History in _What Hath God Wrought_ In Daniel Walker Howe’s _What Hath God Wrought_, there is, by my reckoning, one and only one preposterous statement. He writes, “This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis” (p. 849). The thesis is written in every line of this work that is not a direct quotation of some contemporary, and the thesis is pointed out, in a footnote, in one of the great understatements in modern historical treatments: “I am taking issue here, as elsewhere, with the argument of Charles Sellers, _The Market Revolution_ (New York, 1991)” (p. 850). This book entirely repudiates the “market revolution” interpretation that for twenty-five years has permeated scholarship on the early American republic. A more honest title of Howe’s magnum opus would have been, _What Hath God Wrought: The Whig Empire Strikes Back_! Howe takes out his light sabre and incinerates the interpretations of the Jedi Knights of the Age of Jackson: Charles Sellers, Harry Watson, John Ashworth, and Sean Wilentz. This overarching design--the rejection of all interpretations based on an idea of a market revolution--has to be kept in mind when dealing with Howe’s treatment of American economic development in the years 1815 to 1848. For the American economy, Howe makes the argument that the nation had less of a “Market Revolution” or an “Industrial Revolution” than it had a “Communications Revolution.” The real development of note was neither increased business activity nor the use of machines in production but rather the amazing ability of Americans to communicate with each other extensively and rapidly. Instead of the steam engine, the locomotive, the power loom, or the factory being the symbol of change in the United States, Howe argues for the printing press, the telegraph, the U.S. Postal Service. Beyond this finesse of what economic change in the country really mattered, Howe also stresses that the nation remained overwhelmingly an agricultural nation and that rural rhythms dominated the quality of life. While urban America started expanding and industrialization did take root, both processes were minor compared to the supremacy of agriculture. Here, Howe makes his pitch for the salubrious qualities of transportation improvements (steamboats, canals, and railroads) and the American citizen’s accessibility to markets. In 1815, the glorious independent yeoman lived a hard-scrabble life--better than his/her European counterpart but still pathetically poor and squalid. Indeed, given the fact that most Americans bathed only once a year, the Republic of Virtue could have been called the Republic of Human Stench. Most Americans in 1815 wanted market connections but did not have them. The Communications Revolution gave Americans what they wanted and needed, access to markets. The result was a vast improvement in the life of most Americans. In general, Howe’s treatment of the economics of the early republic is a sound synthesis of existing literature and posits several interesting interpretations; but overall it is bland. The transportation developments are dutifully retold, the story of the Boston Associates repeated, technological developments restated, and the rise of the cotton kingdom reiterated. Specific topics seem abbreviated. The economics of slavery are condensed. Treatment of manufacturing besides textiles seems truncated--there is little on shoemaking, iron-making, milling, merchandising, and construction. Yet, one hesitates to argue that a narrative already 855 pages in length should be longer. Howe has a number of good maps but only two tables, and those tables deal with the ratio of women to men (p. 134). Given the nature of American economic change 1815 to 1848, some tabular summaries would have made some developments more explicit and comprehensible. For the purposes of synthesis, Howe’s treatment of the American economy is adequate. Researchers wanting more elaboration will have to go elsewhere. One senses that Howe’s heart does not beat rapidly when he comes to the subject of economic history; politics and religion have stolen his affections. Even the overarching generalizations he offers require modification. On page 849, he lists the transformations he sees in American life: first, the growth of market economy; second, the rise of religious fervor; third, the emergence of mass political parties. Actually, he sees one transition and three transformations: the transition was from a semi-subsistence economy to a market economy, and the transformations were those in communications, religious life, and mass democratic parties. The three transformations fed off each other, as the development of means of communication and mass production of literature enabled the religious message to be spread abroad and allowed the parties to extend their influence over the masses. But in terms of the average economic life of an American, the alterations in business conditions represented a small change, an improvement, but not a new way of life. Treating the rise of a market economy as a transition but not a transformation sets the stage for the battle between the Market Revolution crowd and Howe, which is the real theme of the work. For the Market Revolution scholars, the demise of the egalitarian subsistence economy was an agony; division of labor ran rampant over old craftsmen styles, avaricious capitalists gloried in the misery they imposed upon the sweaty multitude, and industrialism--the horror of all horrors-- swallowed up the good people of New England, threatened the South and its paternalistic if violent folkways, and loomed ominously over the yeomen farmers of the Great Lakes. And to prove that the glorious agrarian paradise that was pre-1815 America was descending into the hell of capitalism, Market Revolution scholars pointed to the most unholy development of all--banking! And fighting that monster was what made Andrew Jackson and the locofocos and working-class agitators the heroes they were: they tried to retard or even reverse the tide of capitalism that was about to engulf the republic and drown out “virtue.” At the heart of the interpretation of the Market Revolution is the idea that it introduced capitalism to the country and massively and violently changed the nation’s social structure, resulting in the privileged few aggrandizing the resources and happiness of the country by impoverishing the hard-working many. Howe will have none of it; he totally reverses the story. Industrialization was not a major story between 1815 and 1848, relegated as it was to a few small areas along the East Coast. The nation remained a farming nation and farmers experienced a better life because of improvements in the market infrastructure. He sees no upheaval in social structure, save that which came from religious revival. Indeed, Howe’s story virtually excludes the notion of class; class only intrudes two or three times in his narrative. The labor agitations of the 1820s and 1830s are given short-shrift in Howe’s presentation, although he does note the awful conditions prevalent in early American factories. One need only compare this book to Harry Watson, _Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America_ (1990) or Sellers’ _The Market Revolution_ (1991), to see what Howe has done: he has minimized economic change and by so doing called into dispute the extent of social structure change; and by doing that, he has gutted the essentials of the Market Revolution interpretation. Howe perhaps underestimates the impact of the Market Revolution--such as the reshuffling of economic activity in the regions and some of the adjustments people had to make to an economic competition that they had never confronted before--but in other ways his argument has merit. The stress he lays on the limitations of life in the semi-subsistence economy is more right than wrong, and he correctly emphasizes the agrarian nature of American life. His point about the optimism that the rise of market relations caused actually deserves more treatment and discussion than he gives it. Market Revolution scholars constantly confuse commercialization (extension of market activity) with industrialization (the machine’s displacement of skilled labor in production); they are separate processes. When the improvements in transportation began integrating economic activities across geography, many of the alterations lifted incomes and, more significantly, widened the field of occupations. One need only look at the list of occupations in the Censuses of 1840, 1850, 1860, and 1870 to see what was happening. This may be a bit of heresy (although given the urban lifestyle of many of the Market Revolution crowd it should not be), but not everyone wants to commune with Mother Nature on a farm. The Transportation Revolution gave Americans new occupational options; and that meant opportunity. It was this aspect of the Transportation Revolution that gave this period its optimism; it was the economic backbone of faith in democracy and in reform. The idea that the “common man” could engage life intelligently, make beneficial choices, and wisely determine his (then her) own path in life had a direct connection with hundreds of thousands of people entering new occupations--and doing well at them. This optimism came from commercialization, at least in its initial and middle stages. Commercialization had a leveling quality to it and did not require hierarchy. This was very much unlike the old medieval structures of feudalism, or the American one of the plantation, or of Industrialization, which gathered numerous people together and put superiors over them. And one of the ways the broadening, democratic impulse of commercialization can be seen is to extend the time period under consideration to 1880. Living in the midst of the commercialization of American life between 1815 and 1880, white Americans found it possible to take a huge bottom layer of society, roughly twelve percent of the population, release it from slavery, and then move that totally impoverished lower class to citizenship, giving its members political power. In almost every decade of its existence, save probably the 1930s, American leaders have feared the lower class and sought to restrict and control it. But somehow between 1815 and 1880, this loathing of the upper class toward the lower class was so enervated that an amazing optimism broke through and the lower class was emancipated and given political power. The argument needs to be made that economic conditions helped promote this optimism, this capacity of believing that a bountiful and peaceful future could be achieved by letting loose millions of poor people and giving them power; that economic condition was the egalitarian content of commercialization. (Of course, Howe probably would not accept the above proposition, as he sees evangelical religion being the driving force in nineteenth-century America.) A related topic to economic history is political economy, and that deserves at least a fleeting consideration. Because political historians will be diving into this aspect of Howe’s work, I will not dwell on it. One can, however, anticipate massive fireworks. What Howe gives is most decidedly a Whig version of politics and public policy. Howe’s evisceration of the Democrats’ public policy and his glorification of Whig political economy have more than a few grains of truth. Nonetheless, I have not seen in print a more devastating portrait of Andrew Jackson as a brute, an authoritarian, and a law- breaker. I cannot believe that this depiction will stand without vociferous protest. However, Howe pushes too far in his pro-Whig portrayal; perhaps the first half-century of American life “did not represent the age of pure laissez-faire that many people imagine,” but it certainly did practice an impure laissez-faire (p. 561). Simply put, Howe sees far more economic management and regulation in Whigs (and later Republicans) than is permissible; he states that the far-seeing economic program forwarded by the Whigs included “planning and strong government” (p. 583). This stress on the interventionism of the Whigs, and then the Republicans, is misplaced; the Whigs and Republicans only seem the advocates of strong government when compared to the Democrats; compared to the rest of the world, both parties were hopelessly favorable to minimal government. And Howe ignores one element in the Whig party that deserves scrutiny: their infuriating sense of hierarchy, their belief in rule by the betters because of the incompetence of the masses. Massachusetts Whigs may have formulated intelligent policy, but their social airs were repellent. Two observations not connected with the American economy deserve mention because certain aspects of this book immediately caught my attention. The first is how Howe used the massive outpouring of current social history of the early Republic and bent it to the cause of the Whigs. This work is strewn with the latest work on race and gender. Historians of race and gender of the early republic, I wager, are not exactly Whiggish in their political sentiments. It is worth some reflection about how the circumstance comes to pass that those people who are oriented to the political left have turned out histories so supportive of an American Whig interpretation of Jacksonian politics. Part of the answer is what is missing from the formula. The chant was, and perhaps still is, studies in race, gender, and class. Howe simply does not treat class; and with that subject removed from analysis, the cultural topics of race and gender do not necessarily at all imply radical democracy. The second observation deals with historiography and its ebb and flow as revealed by _What Hath God Wrought_. The book is absolutely incredible for being up-to-date on the literature and being comprehensive on the materials published on the age of American expansion. There was a clear historiographical pattern, interestingly, in the footnotes, and anyone seeking to chart these trends need only consult this work. When the subjects are politics, economic history, and diplomacy for the years 1815 to 1848, the works Howe cites are older and standard; when the topics turn to Native Americans, slavery, gender relations, and women’s rights, the literature cited is overwhelmingly from the past two decades. From the standpoint of how the profession has moved over time, Howe’s work is a marvelous revelation, and his fusion of two very different orientations has to be considered nearly miraculous. One final assessment needs to be made. No reader of this work will have any doubt where Howe’s abiding interests lay: politics and religion. And of these two, religion seems to hold the higher rank. Howe generally disassociates the evolution of evangelicalism from economic development or class aspirations; it is contained within the mental dynamics of the Protestant tradition and is an intellectual evolution. In his view of the power of religious thought to mold and shape the world, as the chief motivator of people, Howe joins an obvious trend in modern antebellum research; Richard Carwardine, John P. Daly, Mitchell Snay, Kenneth M. Startup, Mark Noll, and Nathan O. Hatch, amidst a multitude of others, have seen sectional discord over moral questions–to be precise, the _moral question_ of slavery--as the key to explaining the path of American history. The older syntheses are giving way to this new affirmation of the power of religious thought in the early republic. Republicanism gets a mention or two and then is swept away by religious revivalism. The same holds only slightly less true for Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s description of the South as an honor society. (The batch of New histories that came out in the 1960s and 1970s are similarly slighted, the most visible slight being given to those who labored in the New Political History.) And of course, it hardly needs be mentioned that the elevation of religious commitment as the driving force of the early republic does not require any reference to economic motivation at all, capitalist or otherwise. One imagines that this interpretive mode will eventually run its course, reach an apex, decline, and ultimately be replaced by some other meta-interpretive scheme. Having to suffer through this cycle, I offer a caution. In one of his concluding statements on the forces shaping the United States during the Revolutions of 1848, Howe writes, “Finally, the Christian religion remained an enduring element of imponderable magnitude in American life and thought, simultaneously progressive and conservative, a source of both social reform and divisive controversy” (p. 836). But foreigners saw that the key to American life was a mad scramble for wealth, a society devoted to avariciousness that no longer was held in check by an aristocracy. Even though Howe emphasizes the importance of evangelical Protestantism at length, one should weigh those assertions against his summary of the thoughts of European visitors: “Most observers at the time agreed with her [Frances Trollope] in finding Americans obsessively preoccupied with earning a living and relatively uninterested in leisure activities;” Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau commented on “the overwhelmingly commercial tone of American life, [that is to say,] the worship of the ‘almighty dollar’” (p. 310). What has to be questioned is the current tilt of the historiography of the early republic toward the primacy of religious thought and theory in explaining American developments. Not only does the Scottish common sense philosophy reveal everything, but the residual is then clarified by post-millennialism or pre-millennialism. Some of us believe that more earthy reasons explain activities in the early republic and cast a suspicious eye on religious enthusiasms that never change people’s patterns of behavior, only their justifications of them. My favorite comment on the importance of revivalism in the behavior of Americans comes from Frederick Douglass: “In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would , at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.” Of the power of post-millennialism or pre-millennialism to shape people’s activities I have my doubts. In American life in the nineteenth century, the race between untamed self-interest and God was no contest; God always came in a dismal and exhausted second. Something about the American record leads me to suspect the operative morality in the early republic was simple: To the victor belong the spoils. James L. Huston Oklahoma State University Notes . Three other books are good starting points: Stanley Engerman and Robert E. Gallman, eds., _The Cambridge Economic History of the United States_, II: _The Long Nineteenth Century_ (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Jonathan Hughes and Louis P. Cain, _American Economic History_ (5th ed.: Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998); and Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, _A New Economic View of American History from Colonial Times to 1940_ (2nd ed.: W. W. Norton, 1994), the latter work being especially informative and surprisingly readable. . Mitchell Snay, _Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South_ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993); John Patrick Daly, _When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War _ (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002); Richard J. Carwardine, _Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America_ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, eds., _Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present_ (2nd ed.: New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Mark A. Noll, ed., _God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Kenneth Moore Startup, _The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South_ (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997); Nathan O. Hatch, _The Democratization of American Christianity_ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). . _Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass_ (1845; New York: Signet, 1968), 67.