Few books are more authoritative that the volumes in the Oxford History of the United States–a series that includes masterpieces such as The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff (on the American Revolution) and Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson (on the Civil War).
JOHN J. MILLER: Why did you choose the text of Samuel F. B. Morse’s first telegraphic message as the title for your book? DANIEL WALKER HOWE: The quotation “What Hath God Wrought” works well for me in three ways. In the first place it calls attention to the dramatic technological changes characteristic of the years between 1815 and 1848, revolutionizing communication and transportation. In the second place, this quotation from the Bible (Numbers 23:23) illustrates the importance of religion in the history of the period. And in the third place, it calls attention to the idea that in rising to transcontinental power, the United States was fulfilling a divine providential destiny, a self-image that America shared with ancient Israel, to which the phrase originally applied.
MILLER: Was the invention of the telegraph in 1844 more significant than the spread of the Internet today?
HOWE: The electric telegraph probably lowered the costs of business transactions even more than did the Internet, and it certainly seemed to contemporaries an even more dramatic innovation. 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. With the electric telegraph, instant long-distance communication became possible for the first time. Commercial application of Morse’s invention followed quickly. American farmers and planters — and most Americans then earned their living through agriculture — increasingly produced food and fibre for far-off markets. Their merchants and bankers welcomed the chance to get news of distant prices and credit. The newly invented railroads used the telegraph to schedule trains so they wouldn’t collide on the single tracks of the time. The electric telegraph solved commercial problems and at the same time had huge political consequences. Along with improvements in printing, it facilitated an enormous growth of newspapers, which in turn facilitated the development of mass political parties. To sum up, then, the telegraph had many of the same effects in the 19th century that the Internet is having today: to speed up and enable commerce, to decouple communication from travel, to foster globalization, and to encourage democratic participation. The tsar of Russia worried about the democratic implications of the telegraph, just as the rulers of China worry now about the Internet.
MILLER: You write about the period from 1815 to 1848. How was the America of 1848 different from the America of 1815? HOWE: The America of 1815 was what we would call a third-world country. Most people lived on isolated farmsteads; their lives revolved around the weather and the hours of daylight. Many people grew their own food; many wives made their own family’s clothes. Only people who lived near navigable waterways could easily market their crops. Improvements in transportation such as the Erie Canal, the steamboat, and the railroad wrought enormous transformations by 1848. Americans were more and more integrated into a global economy. Revolutionary innovations in communication expanded the printed media, with consequences as varied as the rise of the novel in literature and the rise of mass politics and nationwide political parties. Together, the improvements in transportation and communication liberated people from the tyranny of distance. That is, they liberated people from isolation — economic, intellectual, and political. Meanwhile America was extending its territory westward until it stretched from sea to sea, creating a transcontinental empire that these improvements in transportation and communication could integrate. The America of 1848 was significantly more like the America of today. Like all conscientious historians, I seek to be faithful to representing the past, with its many differences from the present. Still, my book shows how the present came to be.
MILLER: Religion is important in politics today. How does it compare with the period treated in your book?
HOWE: The political salience of religion is nothing new. To take a clear example, Evangelical Protestants have formed an important voting block within the Republican party ever since the party first appeared in 1854. What’s more, the predecessor of today’s Republicans, the Whig party of Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and the young Abraham Lincoln, also counted Evangelical Christians among its strongest supporters. On the other hand, in the 19th century, Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Only in recent years have Evangelicals and Catholics been able to make common cause on behalf of certain issues of social morality. Of course, in the period I treat religion was important in many other ways as well. For example, most colleges had been founded to propagate a particular version of Christianity, and took that mission seriously. Religion provided a key incentive to scientific investigation, since virtually all scientists believed that the universe manifested intelligent design. Finally, most of the social reform causes characteristic of the period, notably the movement to abolish slavery, were primarily religious in motivation.
MILLER: Why did you dedicate the book to John Quincy Adams? Why not Martin Van Buren?
HOWE: Adams was a man of principle and vision; Van Buren was a skillful political manipulator. Neither enjoyed success as president. Van Buren seems the more likable, for he had a genial, ingratiating manner. But Adams possessed by far the more profound sense of American national destiny. Adams’s well conceived programs proved politically unrealizable, in large part because Van Buren so cleverly mobilized opposition to them. Van Buren, once he became president, would have liked to sit back and enjoy the office as his reward for a lifetime of scheming. But instead he confronted economic hard times, for which he had no solution. Both presidents served but one term. Adams, however, went on to a distinguished post-presidential career in the House of Representatives, defending the free speech of unpopular minorities, the rights of women, and mobilizing public opinion against slavery. Van Buren, even when he embraced the cause of “free soil” (restricting the extension of slavery) in 1848, did so essentially to preserve the political machine he had built up, not because he really cared about the slavery issue. He soon returned to the pro-slavery Democratic party and remained in it for the rest of his life, opposing Lincoln in 1860.
MILLER: When you started writing this book, you were already an expert on the period. What’s the most interesting thing you learned during your research–something you didn’t know or fully appreciate beforehand? HOWE: Before I wrote this book I had never really grasped how often improvements in material terms fostered improvements in moral terms. The people who encouraged 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, greater equality for women. The two heroes of my story, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln, both illustrate this. The economic development that they wanted to promote empowered the average person in all kinds of ways. It brought wider vocational choices and opportunities for personal independence. In today’s third world, improvements in living standards should similarly encourage democracy and respect for human rights. Adams and Lincoln both valued capitalism as a moral as well as material benefit, and they were right to do so. This is the most important thing I learned from the experience of writing the book.
MILLER: In the final chapter, you mention the period’s “dark side” and cite “the waging of an aggressive war against Mexico.” Didn’t that war actually have a tremendous upside — i.e., the acquisition of Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, etc.?
HOWE: Practically every historian who has studied the origins of the war with Mexico has concluded that President Polk’s military invasion of the disputed area between the Rio Grande and the Nueces was legally unwarranted (that goes even for Justin Smith, the historian most sympathetic to Polk). Waging aggressive war is wrong. The United States could probably have acquired much of the same territory by more peaceful negotiations. Still, you are right that victory in the war brought enormous benefits to the United States. Arguably it also benefitted the world as a whole (for example, by enabling the United States to frustrate the designs of Imperial Japan in the 1940s). God moves in mysterious ways, and He is perfectly capable of bringing good out of evil.
MILLER: Do today’s students learn enough history in high school? Do they know enough history when they graduate from college?
HOWE: Schools have been downgrading history for a long time. First it was subordinated to “social studies.” More recently, it has suffered from the priority accorded reading and math, now that they are the only two subjects tested for the purposes of evaluating the schools. In reality, of course, the study of history could do a great deal to improve reading comprehension. Colleges could do a better job imparting a general knowledge of history to undergraduates. At research universities, faculty members are often reluctant to teach the survey courses that nurture an informed citizenry; instead, they want to teach their latest research article. Compounding the problem is the movement to substitute courses in “world civilization” for the customary “western civilization.” Unfortunately, the faculty members are seldom qualfied to teach such a diverse curriculum, and the students end up with an undigested hodge-podge. Until courses in world civilization can be better organized, I think undergraduates are better served by taking western civ. If world civ is to be taught, then it should take two years to cover it, since one year is barely enough for what needs to be taught about western civ.