If You Could Ask the Author of One of Those Big Oxford Histories What He Learned He'd Say ...
Mr. Howe is the author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, the newest addition to the award-winning Oxford University History of the United States series.
I have just finished writing a thick book about a comparatively thin slice of history: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Am I any the wiser for having done so? I’m sure that I am—for my book did not simply confirm in detail a set of preconceived hypotheses. I wrote the book to tell a story, not to demonstrate the truth of an argument. Now that it is done, I am starting to comprehend the implications of its story.
I wrote the book in response to an invitation from Oxford University Press to contribute a volume to their series called “The Oxford History of the United States.” Some volumes in the series had already appeared, so I knew they were all big books with strong narratives. I also knew I wanted to combine traditional history (political, diplomatic, and military events) with the newer kinds of history (social, cultural, economic) that had attracted so many historians in recent years. Both are essential, I am convinced, to a full understanding of the past. I also knew that I wanted to address (for the first time in my career) not only other historians and their students, but the general literate public.
I have a great deal of respect for lay people who read history; they are busy people but they make time for this. They want an engaging story with characters who have personalities and beliefs, who face conflicts and make choices. And, of course, in the end they expect history to teach lessons of relevance to the present.
The years between 1815 and 1848 witnessed dramatic changes in the United States. In 1815 the United States was what we would call a third-world country. People lived on isolated farmsteads; their lives revolved around the weather and the hours of daylight. By 1848 the United States had become a transcontinental major power. A revolution in communications facilitated this transformation. Samuel F. B. Morse's demonstration of the electric telegraph on the 24th of May, 1844, constituted a technological moment in world history. Seated amidst a hushed gathering of national leaders in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, the professor tapped out a message on a device of cogs and coiled wires: “What Hath God Wrought.” This quotation from the Bible (Numbers 23:23) encapsulated the meaning of the electric telegraph for the devout inventor himself and for his religious countrymen.
For thousands of years messages had been limited by the speed with which messengers could travel and the distance eyes could see signals like flags or smoke. Neither Alexander the Great nor Benjamin Franklin (America’s first postmaster-general) knew anything faster than a galloping horse. Now, instant long-distance communication became possible for the first time. The commercial application of Morse’s invention followed quickly. American farmers and planters—and most Americans then earned a living through agriculture—increasingly produced food and fiber for far-off markets. Their merchants and bankers welcomed the chance to get news of distant prices and credit.
Instant long-range communications, coupled with the improvements in transportation represented by railroads, steamboats, and canals, revolutionized American life between 1815 and 1848. Their impact went far beyond commerce to influence every aspect of life. The cheap newspapers they spawned made mass politics possible. Mass literacy, and institutions of public education to deliver it, acquired increased civic importance. With the expansion of the printed media, battles over public opinion became more fervent. Even unpopular minorities, such as Mormons and advocates of the immediate abolition of slavery, could now spread their messages around the nation—and, indeed, around the Atlantic world.
Almost all Americans of that period wanted and expected their nation to change and grow, but not all in the same way. Some of them thought primarily in terms of geographical expansion across the continent. Others envisioned enriching the quality of American life: through industrialization, increased educational opportunities, or improving the treatment of women and racial minorities. These rival visions of the future dominated political debate.
I had set out to tell a story. I learned, in the end, that the narrative I had created contained a lesson that in the beginning I hadn’t comprehended fully. What I had learned by writing the book was how our country became what it is today. Today the United States is the prime successful example of thoroughgoing modernity. It displays to the world productive capitalism, efficiently mechanized agriculture, technological sophistication, constitutional government, religious freedom, a culture oriented to consumption, and a high material standard of living. Our nation is able to make this demonstration so effectively because of its domination of mass communications. Not all those who observe us like what they see; we certainly have enemies who hate it. Even our friends increasingly criticize us for wasting natural resources and polluting the atmosphere they have to share with us.
At the end, then, I realized that my book was about how the present came to be. Beyond this, I had learned that improvements in material terms fostered improvements in moral terms. To some extent this was deliberate: The people who supported economic diversification and development in many cases also supported more humane laws, wider access to education, a halt to the expansion of slavery, even, sometimes, more rights for women. And although the supporters of economic development did not always realize that their canals and factories would foster social morality, the consequences still tended to flow. With economic development come wider vocational choices and opportunities for personal independence. When young girls left the family farm to go to work in textile mills, they weren’t just the victims of long hours and low wages; they also felt liberated by having, for the first time in their lives, some money of their own. The lesson for today’s third world: Improvements in living standards should encourage, not preclude, democracy and human rights.
But unfortunately, the story of America’s transformation during the years 1815 to 1848 is not entirely morally uplifting. It is also a story of the expansion of slavery, dispossession of the Native Americans, and aggressive war against our Mexican neighbor. The war against Mexico provides several parallels with Vietnam and Iraq, although I did not pause the book’s narrative to point them out. The war with Mexico was provoked by action of the U.S. executive branch, which Congress was persuaded to ratify after the fact by the argument that it must support the troops. Critics of the administration denounced the Mexican War every bit as strongly as opponents of more recent wars have done. The contrast between Mexico and more recent wars, however, is quite instructive. Although the Mexican War took longer and cost more in blood and treasure than the Polk administration had expected, the campaigns achieved uniform success within a period of less than two years. The lesson seems clear. If the American nation is to wage a war open to moral criticism, the war needs to be successful and over with quickly.What Hath God Wrought may well contain other lessons. I have already learned from those perceptive friends who read the book in manuscript that a sensitive reader can expose meanings in a book that the author did not consciously put there. Perhaps I miss the forest for the trees. Let me know.
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