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: Mary P. Ryan on Women's History TODAY: David Henkin on the "Communications Revolution" Back when the study of history was largely confined to narratives about nations and their political development, short time periods provided convenient devices for dividing those narratives into manageable chapters, courses, or lectures. American historians could speak confidently of a Progressive Era or an Era of Good Feelings without worrying too much about the aptness of those titles as descriptions of all the events and experiences that took place because it was understood that the period's moniker implied a far narrower claim. As the discipline expanded its charge to embrace ordinary life, powerless people, landscapes, material objects, popular beliefs, and virtually every documentable facet of human experience, it made less sense to speak of eras. Instead, academic historians designed their college courses increasingly around specific themes (labor, gender, religion, sexuality, law, cities) and presented them over larger time periods, typically a century or longer. If I'm not mistaken, more recent scholarly trends have further accelerated the shift toward longer time frames, at least in studies of America before 1920. Thematic specialization continues, of course, but the frequency with which younger scholars produce first books (often with the forceful encouragement of university presses) that traverse traditional boundaries between historical eras and cover fifty, sixty, one hundred- sixty year periods is striking. Though works of academic history embrace all time frames long and short (both 1816 and 1831 have been subjects for book-length studies in recent years), the conventional ways of carving up the past seem especially unstable. Daniel Walker Howe's new book on the history of the United States between 1815 and 1848 returns to an older model, offering a synthetic account (if one can accuse a 900-page behemoth of synthesis) of the period between the end of the War of 1812 and the end of the Mexican- American War. The Oxford History of the United States, under whose imprimatur Howe's work appears, reflects and preserves the traditional approach to American history as consisting of discrete eras, but _What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848_, the sixth title in that eminent series, implicitly offers readers some newer grounds for thinking about the utility of the concept of the short period. For starters, the suggestion (not in itself unique to this period survey) that America entered modernity within the book's 33- year stretch might support the argument that some short eras are especially deserving of more chronologically focused attention. But on a deeper level, Howe's pervasive preoccupation with accelerating rates of communication raises the possibility that this period was characterized by changing conditions and perceptions of contemporaneity--and therefore might warrant a particular approach to the passage of time. At the outset, Howe announces that the period under consideration is best understood as a "communications revolution," and his narrative is consistently sensitive to two themes in the history of that subject. First and foremost, he underscores the point that the time it took for messages to travel from one place to another was crucial to the unfolding of momentous historical events, especially in the realms of war and diplomacy. Howe's emphasis on the introduction of the electromagnetic telegraph (the event from which his Biblical title is drawn) reflects his larger interest in the diminishing time lag for information transmission and diffusion. Second, Howe reminds readers that major religious and social movements depended and capitalized upon new institutions of long-distance communication (and here he emphasizes the postal system and the newspaper more than the railroad and the telegraph, though by the end of his story a powerful relationship between news gathering and telegraphy was forged in the form of the Associated Press) to reach their expanding audiences and achieve their profound impact. Still, the nature of this communications revolution is hard to pin down. Howe prefers this term to two related titles that have been famously applied to the period--George Rogers Taylor's transportation revolution and Charles Sellers's market revolution--but the stakes and implications of this preference are not always clear. Howe acknowledges that accelerations in communications reflected and reinforced advances in transportation and that both processes extended and served market forces, but the overlap among the three terms is even more significant. Transportation and communication are hard to distinguish, both in practice (mail carriages, steamboats, and eventually railroads conveyed both persons and messages in antebellum America) and even as a matter of definition. The circulation of goods, persons, and information in the decades Howe studies did not entail discrete processes, and the argument for privileging information over the other two never emerges explicitly. Howe's rejection of the term "market revolution" reflects numerous developments in the current scholarship, including new research into the transition to capitalism during earlier periods, that make it harder to describe market relations or market mentalities in the years after 1815 as revolutionary in the sense of being profoundly new. Long- distance communication, of course, was not new to this period either, but Howe's particular approach to the subject, which emphasizes technological inventions and innovations, easily embraces the language of novelty and continually marks new thresholds crossed. Whether (and when) innovations such as the telegraph and the railroad revolutionized experiences of distance, connection, or the passage of time between 1815 and 1848 (experiences that Sellers associated with the market) is an important and interesting question that Howe's narrative cannot satisfactorily answer. A full account of what was revolutionary about this period in the history of communications in the U.S. would need to pay sustained attention to more users (rather than designers and administrators) of networks, would need to expand the subject beyond long-distance communication and beyond measures of speed, and would probably de-emphasize technology. As Howe knows well, information circulated in more forms, along more routes, and with more complex social implications than the familiar story about steam and electricity implies. And adding the post office to the story does not necessarily explain what was revolutionary about the period presented in this book. In 1840, Howe notes, the average American received twice as many live Methodist sermons as posted letters (though posted newspapers were another story). That disparity would disappear over the following two decades, but the book's communications revolution thesis offers little guidance for thinking about the meaning of that shift. _What Hath God Wrought_ is not in fact a history of communications, and does not pretend to be. Instead it is an updated version of a traditional narrative about national politics during the period of American history that is still typically labeled Jacksonian. Howe's version of the story is more thorough, patient, and judicious than that of Sellers and far broader in scope than the corresponding volume of Sean Wilentz's recent work (and on the whole more persuasive than either), but Howe shares their overarching pursuit of the ideological meaning of political conflict during the Second Party System. Howe studiously avoids (rejects) the term Jacksonian America, not because it posits partisan politics as the key to understanding life and thought in the United States, but because it privileges one side of the partisan divide. _What Hath God Wrought_ essentially privileges the other side. It is a Whig history, not in Herbert Butterfield's sense, but in that it confers coherence, centrality, and far-reaching significance upon a political program of national economic development, public education, religious revival, and moral self- improvement that created and defined the opposition to Jackson. Though tendentious, Howe's approach reflects an unmistakable trend in the current scholarship toward rosier assessments off the Whigs at the expense of their Jacksonian adversaries. Fifteen years ago it was far more common for historians to contrast the Democrats' populism, commitment to democracy and equality (not simply of opportunity but also of condition), openness to new immigrants and non-Protestants, and comfort with the grittiness of an expressive big-city culture with the Whigs' stuffy gentility, nativist bigotry, evangelical self- righteousness, and quiescent attitude toward economic inequality. Many historical factors probably contributed to the decline of this interpretation, including the end of the Cold War and renewed interest in globalization and modernization during the telecommunications boom at century's end, but sympathetic treatments of Jackson and company suffered most obviously from a growing consensus that slavery, white supremacy, Indian Removal, and the violent culture of honor (all of them older topics to which historians were devoting increasing attention) were central rather ancillary features of the Jacksonian program. Juxtaposed against that program, Whig interest in restraint, self-fashioning, and salvation has garnered more sympathy. To Howe, and to the dominant interpretation his narrative epitomizes, the Whigs offered a coherent alternative vision that linked economic growth, technological progress, literacy, and personal transformation. The nineteenth-century term that encapsulates this vision is "improvement," and Howe's book is really more about improvement, in its multiple senses, than it is about communications. It is worth noting that the current rehabilitation of the Whigs does not return us to the counter-Progressive view of rival parties without meaningful ideological differences. Howe accepts several of the basic components of the approach that took Jacksonians seriously as democratic anticapitalists, but simply evaluates them differently. Democrats were in fact less optimistic than Whigs about the prospects of economic growth, he allows, but that meant that the Whig program was better positioned to spread education and revolutionize gender relations. Democrats were more committed advocates of popular sovereignty, Howe suggests, but at the expense of the rule of law and with consequences that promoted neither democracy nor equality. That Howe tends to overcompensate for some of the biases of earlier scholarship (underemphasizing or depreciating the experiences and perspectives of non-Protestants, traditionalist artisans, working- class rowdies, sporting men, sex workers, sensationalist authors, popular performers, immigrant pamphleteers, and others) should not obscure how much his work shares with Sellers and how compatible their accounts of the period actually are. Even Sellers's notoriously reductionist distinction between arminian and antinomian religious outlooks corresponds to Howe's (subtler and more accurate) taxonomy of premillennialist and postmillennialist strains of evangelical ferment. Persistent homologies between Howe's pro-Whig survey and the accounts of its pro-Jackson predecessors underscore how this latest attempt at synthesis remains attached to an older model of political history. Howe has read widely in the recent scholarship and touches upon countless areas of everyday experience that earlier synopses of the Jacksonian era studiously avoided or blithely ignored. The erudition is impressive and the versatility admirable. Only in the chapter entitled "American Renaissance," where he ill-advisedly uses the Transcendentalists as a springboard for a thin and anemic discussion of literature and theater, did a subject's distance from the author's intellectual comfort zone noticeably undermine his command of the material. For most of the trek, readers will find themselves learning new things about issues far from the home base of national politics. But the promise of a survey of social, cultural, and economic change in this era goes unredeemed. A communications revolution, like a market revolution, could form the basis of a more integrated account of how people's lives changed between 1815 and 1848, but not if communications (or the market) is treated primarily as an object of political debate rather than as a social process at work in everyday life. Perhaps future attempts by a new generation of historians to justify the detailed study of a short period of time in nineteenth-century America will forsake the coherence of established markers of political transition and try to make their case based on accelerated changes in lived experience. Howe sets up the expectation early on that such an argument might be forthcoming, by calling attention to the fact that Jackson's 1815 victory in New Orleans significantly postdated the signing of the Treaty of Ghent ending the war. Of course to dwell excessively on that irony is to retroject later expectations of simultaneity onto a set of historical circumstances to which they do not apply. Only within the context of particular experiences of news transmission do soldiers or commanders take the battlefield in a multi- continental war imagining a real-time audience for their actions several thousand miles away. Did railroad tracks, improved roads, regular transoceanic steam travel, the proliferation of post offices, the profusion of partisan newspapers, more precise reckoning of time spent in the workplace, expanded educational opportunities, widespread participation in rituals of mass consumption, the industrial production of timepieces, the coordination of presidential election days, or the arrival of Morse's telegraph create (or mark) by 1848 a world in which meaningful experiences of long-distance simultaneity had taken hold? Howe's narration of the time lags that framed both the onset of hostilities and the peace negotiations during the invasion of Mexico might suggest otherwise. More frustratingly, the question itself is faintly posed. David M. Henkin University of California at Berkeley 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 MICHAEL A. MORRISON ON POLITICAL HISTORY (Nov. 3) http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-SHEAR&month=0811&week=a&msg=7lyPqVnVCIx6iIXmEMx2ig