View the H-SHEAR Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in H-SHEAR's November 2008 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in H-SHEAR's November 2008 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the H-SHEAR home page.
H-SHEAR FORUM ON DANIEL WALKER HOWE'S _WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT_ Scroll to the bottom for a complete list of previous installments. NEXT MONDAY: David Henkin on the "Communications Revolution" TODAY: Michael A. Morrison on Political History Daniel Walker Howe's approach to politics can be neatly and concisely summed up by the book's dedication and an observation he makes in his conclusion. Howe dedicates _What Hath God Wrought_ "To the Memory of John Quincy Adams," and he concludes with the reflection that "history is made both from the bottom up and from the top down, and historians must take account of both in telling their stories" (p. 853). Thus, on the one hand Howe's politics have a distinctly W(w)higgish flavor, and, on the other, his scope is broad, his interpretations are judicious, his deft handling of evidence is nuanced, and personal vignettes illustrative of major issues structure his narrative. He has digested a vast secondary literature and, to switch the metaphor, has distilled it into a political narrative that argues for the important interplay of belief and behavior. For Howe political debates are substantive and by extension meaningful. Certain important themes emerge that, woven together, provide a rich tapestry of politics and political culture in the early republic. One is the way in which revolutions in transportation and communication (technological changes) were political issues in and of themselves, facilitated the democratization (up to a point) of politics, and had a moral and personal dimension often overlooked by historians. For example, Howe contends that because the national government "dithered" over a national internal improvement program, state and local governments were obliged--and empowered--to undertake the designs and construction themselves. Although their internal improvements projects were not always wise, often illogical, and sometimes bizarre in concept, their effect (if not intent) was dramatic, important, and as Howe notes "conspicuous" on popular politics. "The availability of information coming in from the outside," he maintains, "liberated people from the weight of local tyrannies, whether that of a local elite or local majority" (p. 237). This leitmotif also has personal dimensions. Howe argues that South Carolina's hostility to internal improvements and the tariff helped to transform John C. Calhoun "from nationalist to particularist" (p. 250). Although Calhoun's particularism and extremism would play themselves out in the sectional crisis and the tragedy of civil war, the tragic figure in the battle of internal improvements is John Quincy Adams. For Adams the spirit of improvement--personal and public--lay at the core of his being and of his presidency. Believing in economic modernization (propelled in large measure by the improvements in transportation and communication), Adams hoped to promote that end through government--and governance--by consensus. But ironically the very spirit of political democratization that issued from those twin revolutions precluded a widespread (or even modest) consensus on a national design or plan. Put in other terms, the modernity of democratic politics trumped Adams's vision of economic modernization. Although Howe stops just short of keening over the fate of Adams and his presidency (in print at any rate), Andrew Jackson and, especially, Martin Van Buren (who was determined, ruthless, and skilled--and thus had the makings of a perfect department head) come in for some very rough treatment. Frustration with the Adams-Clay alliance (built on an alleged corrupt bargain), not principled opposition to improvements, drove their opposition to the administration. Jackson and Van Buren appear in Howe's narrative to have been amoral (at best), mean- spirited (to the point of cruelty), and wholly absorbed with controlling the national government and not at all concerned with intelligent or enlightened governance. Jackson combined his authoritarian presidency with the language (or pretense) of democratic ideology. His values and his programs (and later those of Van Buren) were divisive not inclusive. Thus, Howe contends rightly that the "Age of Jackson" is a misnomer, and the concept of a single Jacksonian America misleading. The democratization of politics was as notable for those excluded (women, Indians, and free blacks) as it was for the expansion of the franchise. Yet there is a certain ambivalence (so it seems to me) in Howe's analysis of the Democracy. Portraits of Jackson and Van Buren are so vivid and, frankly, unpleasant that they tend to obscure more principled differences between Democrats and Whigs. Politics was not all personal. If Adams and Clay were an extension of the Republican nationalism that followed and grew out of the near disasters of the War of 1812, Jackson's Democratic Republicans were a reflection and extension of states-rights tradition of Old Republicanism. Furthermore Howe concedes that the party's ambivalent stand on internal improvements reflected "the mixed feelings of the American public toward the dramatic changes being wrought by the transportation and communications revolution" (p. 363). Moreover, Howe concedes that Jackson's ability to capitalize (pardon the pun) on populist resentment of the rich and faith in limited government tapped into "a distinctively American political tradition going back to the colonial times, expressed most notably in the Revolution and more recently by Antifederalists. ... Jackson's hostility toward the Bank resonated with much in American culture" (p. 381). Concomitant themes to the revolution in communications, internal improvements, and politics are the interrelated issues of sovereignty and public virtue. For Jackson the demagogue, who proclaimed-- one would say he hardly proved--that the people were sovereign, virtue belonged not to "a public-spirited elite" (read: Adams, Clay, and their ilk) but "to the common people" (p. 381). In a not-so-subtle but nevertheless delicious observation, Howe snorts that "Jackson believed in popular virtue--and himself as its embodiment" (p. 488). His successor Van Buren maintained that parties were a virtue not a vice, and that the sovereignty of the people was executed through them. For the particularist and proslavery zealot Calhoun, "sovereignty rested in the people of the separate states and not in the national people" (p. 397). To Chief Justice Roger Taney, "law originated in the will of the sovereign," which Howe contends "undermined minority rights and the rule of law" (pp. 441, 437). (Taney would be a prime candidate in some circles for today's Supreme Court.) For all of the loose blathering by Democrats about the sovereignty of the people and popular sovereignty, Howe is quick to point out that the party "was not the spontaneous creation of a mass movement from the bottom up" (p. 489). To be sure, there were grassroots movements in this period--Antimasonry, nativism, sabbatarianism, and the labor movement. In Howe's view, the Democracy is the party of intolerance, exclusiveness, and at the presidential level demagoguery. The so- called Democracy was hostile to Native Americans, contemptuous of women's participation in politics, defenders of slavery, and champions of a racist imperialism. Democratic presidents (Jackson and especially James K. Polk) vastly expanded the powers of the presidency. And Van Buren, who did as much as anyone to legitimize sustained partisan conflict, stressed party loyalty sustained by patronage that turned more on fealty than on talent. Jacksonian democracy, Howe concludes, was an oxymoron. The Whigs, for all their bad luck--including what Howe characterizes as the "cruel fate" and "appalling blunder" of electing a president who joined the Choir Invisible a month into his administration and was succeeded by a lapsed-Democrat vice president who clung tenaciously to his democratic principles--were more reflective of the spirit of improvement that was afoot in the early republic (p. 611). Party members' support of reform movements of various stripes (anti-removal, anti-slavery, women's rights, education) and their work for literacy and economic development infused politics at the national, state and local level with a moral dimension that was sorely lacking in the Democracy. As "the party of America's future," he argues, Whigs were the party of inclusion "more receptive than their rivals to talent regardless of race or gender." (p. 612). It is this conflict between the modernization of party politics (advantage: Democratic party) and the improvement and modernization of society (advantage: Whiggery) that lies at the heart of Dan Howe's understanding of politics in the early republic. Because the party of Jackson was so successful at the polls nationally, the many important contributions of Whigs to the improvement of the human condition are, he concludes, obscured. For all the clarity of Dan Howe's narrative, the crispness of his prose, and the many subtle and provocative insights of his argument there is an underlying tension that bridges this sprawling and rich work. A spirit of improvement--personal, social, economic, and technological--was abroad in the land from the end of the War of 1812 to the conclusion of the Mexican-American conflict in 1848. But as society, culture, religion, and politics became increasingly democratic, so too did government and not necessarily for the better. Enlightened governance--government by consensus--became problematic during the Adams administration and then impossible under the Democratic and faux democratic regimes that followed. Small-minded politicians and ambitious demagogues pursuing narrow-minded, self- serving agendas frustrated the designs and the hopes of not only John Quincy Adams but also women's rights and antislavery activists, educational reformers, modernizers, and just about anyone with an IQ that hit triple digits. Thus the ambiguity implicit in the title of Dan Howe's magnum opus-- _What Hath God Wrought_--is both appropriate and in its own way revelatory. This is that rare work in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is also the touchstone of one of the profession's most creative and inclusive scholarly organizations. More to the point, _What Hath God Wrought_ is also the capstone (though one trusts not the final work) of a distinguished historian's career. Michael A. Morrison Purdue University *** Catch up on previous parts of Howe Forum: INTRODUCTION (Oct. 27) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=0810&week=d&msg=/eKgyeicCgpYSkmSDVdJng JAMES HUSTON ON ECONOMIC HISTORY (Oct. 27) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=0810&week=d&msg=xC7PayA4egD0XIRVNPkdcA