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A Kind of Glory

By (February 1, 2008) No Comment

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

by Daniel Walker Howe
Oxford University Press, 2007

The looming election would be hard-fought, and both the main contenders were prepared to pull no punches. Partisan newspaper editors had been conscripted in every county of every state, and although no detail of either contender’s background was considered off limits, the essential conflict would be the same as it had been in the scandal-wracked previous election: the conflict would be as much about the men as about their political beliefs.

The fact that they were each vaguely cartoonish made it easier for all concerned to caricature them to an amusement-hungry populace. The one, the literature went, was a doer, a uniter not a divider, somebody who styled himself a ‘man of the people’ despite the fact that he lived in a mansion furnished with dozens of domestic staff; the other was an intellectual, a deep thinker and thus suspect of being independent-minded, undemonstrative and thus vulnerable to being seen as remote, even wooden. ‘He writes – I fight!’ the former candidate said (or allowed his minions to say in his stead), as if the one must perforce exclude the other.

One candidate authorized a handbook for his adherents, including a terse but biting summary of his opponent:

You know that he is no jurist, no statesman, no politician; that he is destitute of historical, political, or statistical knowledge; that he is unacquainted with the orthography, concord, and government of his language; you know that he is a man of no labor, no patience, no investigation; in short, that his whole recommendation is animal fierceness and organic energy. He is wholly unqualified by education, habit, and temper for the station of President.

‘No investigation.’ The opposition correctly pinpointed the gigantic dangers of an American president who does not possess an inquiring mind. In any era, stark catastrophe results from such a baleful makeup. No ruling officer – indeed, no person – is ever more dangerous than the one who not only never thinks about what he’s doing but who’s proud of that fact.

The era in question, specifically the eve of the 1828 presidential election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson, was no different. The contest was between the smart, articulate candidate who wanted to change the way the country operated and the coarse, proudly uncomprehending candidate who managed to sell staying the course – mission accomplished – as the way of being. As Daniel Walker Howe puts it:

Adams stood for a vision of coherent economic progress, of improvement both personal and national, directed by deliberate planning. Instead of pursuing improvement, Jacksonians accepted America the way it was, including the institution of slavery.

Howe’s grand new book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, is a vast and sprawling account of the United States from the end of the War of 1812 to the end of the Mexican-American War, but it has at its heart that central conflict in visions: stay the course, or change and maybe improve.

Howe’s volume is the latest installment in the Oxford History of the United States, a series that has featured such marvelous, soaring triumphs as Robert Middlekauf’s Revolutionary War history The Glorious Cause and such tedious, bombastic tomes as James McPherson’s Civil War volume Battle Cry of Freedom. Considering that this present volume is longer than any of its predecessors, readers should consider themselves fortunate: it’s quite good. Howe has his imperfections – odd burps of current idiom will erupt in the middle of passages of serious, stately prose (the effect is as discordant as if Ethel Merman had suddenly been heard belting out tunes with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), and he’s overly enamored of that pernicious practice of modern historians, citing his own works in footnotes (he does this more than any historian of recent memory, and it’s unfailingly tacky – a note to all future historians: your works are there to be cited by others, not you; there is no dignified way to heap praise on yourself). But he’s done a prodigious amount of research – the 30-page bibliographical essay at the rear of the book is worth the price tag by itself, and the notes convey a sense of almost supernatural industry – and he’s covered every inch of ground in the story he wants to tell.

And what a story! No sooner had the conflagration of the War of 1812 ended –encompassing both the disgrace of the British burning the White House and the stunning honor of the U.S.S. Constitution unceremoniously mauling the French ship Guerriere in under 30 minutes – than the newly blooded nation was leaping and bursting in all directions, as fraught with new mythologies as any young thing always is. The titans of the Revolutionary generation had given way to their aides and lieutenants – Washington was dead, and Jefferson and John Adams with him. The break with England had been made in one gushing heave, and the nation was growing exponentially. Treaties were forged with Spain, France, even England; territories were expanded, and more: internal improvements – extended railways, canals, and road systems – were knitting the country together in ways unprecedented in what was looking to become the modern world. The very fiber of political reality was changing in no less momentous ways: after the election of 1824, the vast majority of state legislatures began changing their systems to something closer to what we know today. In allegedly democratic Jeffersonian times, state legislators appointed the electors who voted for President of the United States – the common people, very much including the more sophisticated, intelligent members thereof, were excluded from the process.

Such a process could be rightly said to be open to insider corruption, which is certainly a bad thing; obversely it could also be said that no every jack-a-day illiterate plebian idiot had any say under such a system in choosing the leader of what would soon be the most powerful nation in the world. The rationality of such a difference was swept aside in the era under Howe’s examination, much to the ultimate detriment of the country – and many other old-style conventions were overwhelmed as well. Commerce among even middling merchants was becoming more global; and in no short supply giants were walking the national stage as they have done in such numbers never before or since.

This was the age of the Alamo and its bloodthirsty avenger Sam Houston; the age of ‘Black’ Daniel Webster and his thundering oratory; the age of Mary Baker Eddy, Nat Turner, and the great Massachusetts abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. This was the time of James Fenimore Cooper and his myth-making novels, the time of the great explorer John Charles Frémont, the time of Alexis de Tocqueville and his nation-defining writings. The California Gold Rush spurred a massive wave of White westward expansion, and the Irish Potato Famine spurred a massive wave of Irish immigration to eastern American shores, a wave that would change the face of the workforce and invigorate the artistic and political landscape for generations. Howe charts all these upheavals with unflagging diligence, but he also pauses to paint beguiling little pictures of less well-known events:

The volcano of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa erupted in a series of giant explosions commencing on April 7, 1815 and lasting for five days. It was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, far surpassing that of Krakatoa in 1883 or Mount St. Helens in 1980. The volcano and the tsunami it generated killed some ten thousand people; many more died of indirect consequences. Gases emitted by Tambora included sulfur, which formed sulfuric acid droplets high in the atmosphere. For months, these droplets slowly girdled the Northern Hemisphere, absorbing and reflecting the sun’s radiation, lowering the surface temperature of the earth. Sunspot activity compounded the meteorological effects. By mid-1816, strange disturbances affected the weather and ocean currents in the North Atlantic. Snow fell in New England in June, July, and August; otherwise little precipitation appeared. South Carolina suffered a frost in mid-May. Widespread crop failures led to food shortages in many parts of North America and Europe. No one who lived through it would forget ‘the year without a summer.’

This age was characterized by gigantic advancements in communication technology, mass printing techniques, and the advent of the telegraph – indeed, the book’s title is a quote from the Book of Numbers, a quote tapped out by F.B. Morse in the chamber of the Supreme Court to a colleague forty miles away in Baltimore. These advancements knitted a rapidly-expanding nation paradoxically closer than ever. The nature of the American people was changing as a result, as Howe summarizes:

In traditional society, the only items worth transporting long distances had been luxury goods, and information about the outside world had been one of the most precious luxuries of all. The transportation and communications revolutions made both goods and information broadly accessible. In doing so, they laid the foundation not only for widespread economic betterment and wider intellectual horizons but also for political democracy, in newspapers and magazines, in post offices, in nationwide movements to influence public opinion, and in mass political parties.

It’s a momentous story, the most so in the young country’s history – the hard-won independent creature of the Revolution stumbling and grasping its way into adolescence in enormous ungainly leaps and lunges. There’s no way around it, and Howe chases everywhere to show it in all its detail. It isn’t a pretty picture, regardless of the vantage point from which it’s viewed; a young nation so eager for its own expansion that it was willing to enslave a quarter of its own inhabitants and dispossess a quarter more, a nation filling with distance-devouring new technologies without having the first idea of their long-term ramifications, a nation struggling in all arenas of thought to determine its own identity.

Sordid as it could be, there was still a kind of glory in it all, and Howe’s sympathetic narrative is sensitive to record all the triumphs it legitimately can – beginning in 1815 with an actual military triumph, Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans:

The battle had turned into another Agincourt, with Americans playing the role of the English archers and the British themselves cast as the gallant but luckless French knights.

Fought technically after peace had been negotiated, the battle catapulted Jackson to national fame and presidential politics. But Howe is equally aware of quieter victories no less significant:

The United States pioneered higher education for women, and by 1880 one-third of all American students enrolled in higher education were female, a percentage without parallel elsewhere in the world. Scholars have often debated how far American history is ‘exceptional’ by comparison with the rest of the world. No better example of American exceptionism exists than higher education for women.

Howe is extremely good on John Marshall’s Supreme Court, he paints extremely vibrant miniature portraits of such larger-than-life figures as John Randolph, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun, and he stops to note that on October 16, 1846, William Morton successfully administered ether for the first time during an operation at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

Some of his side-notes are a bit silly or over-earnest in a way that cannot fail to produce an involuntary smile, like this looney little lapse:

The Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature, but it has never been accorded the status it deserves, since Mormon’s deny Joseph Smith’s authorship, and non-Mormons, dismissing the work as a fraud, have been more likely to ridicule than to read it.

(A pause here while reader insert their own favorite Twainism.)

Or this blasé example of ivory tower blindness:

As this chapter is written in the early twenty-first century, the hypothesis that the universe reflects intelligent design has provoked a bitter debate in the United States. How very different was the intellectual world of the early nineteenth century! Then, virtually everyone believed in intelligent design.

We beg to point out that the north-east corner of the United States does not comprise the entirety of the Western intellectual world, and that in the nine-tenths remainder of that world, the Creationism (‘intelligent design’ being only the most modern euphemism) that Howe thinks is bitterly disputed remains almost universally accepted.

Other outbursts are more serious, as in this passage purporting to assess President John Tyler, was Vice President under William Henry Harrison and became President when Harrison died:

It would be easy to demonize Tyler as a sinister frustrator of the popular will, wrecker of the Whig Party’s only clear mandate, and the president who prostituted the Constitution to evade the requirement that the Senate ratify treaties. But the historian’s duty is to understand, not simply condemn. In his own mind, John Tyler exemplified high principles.

It’s difficult to know what to make of this moral mollycoddling – surely every man, including Josef Mengele, exemplifies high principles in the all-forgiving galleries of his own mind. A historian’s duty is to understand, yes – but then to tell the story of what he understands, and, yes, to condemn when the facts call for condemnation. By any reading of the facts whatsoever, the only man of the era more vicious, violent, bigoted, corrupt, and hypocritical than John Tyler was the president he succeeded. If there is a Hell, it has streets and schools named after Tyler – and if a dutiful historian can’t say this about him, who exactly can?

But such concerns are minor, especially when viewed as the digressions they are – digressions from what emerges as Howe’s main story: the epic, virtually Manichean struggle between two men for the very soul of a country. It is immensely to Howe’s credit that when it comes to describing this struggle, he departs from the craven objectivity he observed with John Tyler and instead condemns to his heart’s delight.

The two men in question are of course the two involved in that ‘he writes, I fight’ presidential conflict of 1828 – Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s political machine tried to characterize him as a ‘man of the people,’ despite the fact that he was a millionaire who owned dozens of slaves, and it tried to characterize Adams as an effete Boston Brahmin, even though Adams had long since alienated all the aristocrats of the Bay State. As Adams scholar Leonard Richards has written:

The election of 1828 did not pit a western democrat against an eastern Brahmin. Rather, it matched a slave-holding aristocrat against a Yankee aristocrat.

Even so, the two men could hardly have been more different, although each was born in 1767. Jackson was born in South Carolina and earned his military reputation as much for slaughtering American Indians (first the Creek and then later the Seminoles) as for New Orleans. Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusetts and was fluent in five languages by the time he was in his mid-teens, when he was serving on the staff of the American envoy to Russia. His diplomatic service took him to London, Lisbon, Berlin, and the Hague, and he negotiated the peace treaty between the United States and England at the close of the War of 1812. As Secretary of State under President Monroe, he wrote the doctrine which bears that president’s name.

As president, Jackson allowed mobs to shatter china in the White House, cleared out whole bureaus of competent, experienced office-holders to fill the places with his own cronies (‘to the victor goes the spoils’ was coined about him), exercised the presidential veto to an unprecedented, virtually monarchical extent, and was the first president ever to be rebuked by Congress with a censure.

Adams, alternately, refused to fire competent office-holders even when they publicly disagreed with him, championed the rights of women and the emancipation of slaves, and sought a comprehensive program of national improvement.

Howe rightly characterizes the election of 1828 as one of the dirtiest and most sleazily fought in American history (even as early as 1828, that was saying something). It brings out some of his finer prose:

The Jackson campaign did not confine its falsehoods to defenses of the candidate’s honor but invented others to attack his rival. The scrupulous, somber Adams might not seem to offer much of a target for salacious arrows, but Jacksonians did not let this inhibit their imagination. Jackson’s New Hampshire supporter Isaac Hill retailed the libel that while U.S. minister to Russia, Adams had procured an American girl for the sexual gratification of the tsar. Less preposterous, and therefore perhaps more dangerous, was the accusation that Adams had put a billiard table in the White House at public expense. In truth, Adams did enjoy the game and had bought such a table, but paid for it out of his own pocket.

Adams, Howe writes, stood for “a vision of coherent economic progress,” a vision that had as its centerpoint economic diversification made possible by improvements in internal transportation and manufacture. But the American economy was driven by slave-grown agricultural products – any program of diversification would strike at the very life of the nation’s wealthiest men. Such men understood this perfectly, as Howe points out, and they wanted a candidate who did too:

In the South, Jackson’s popularity was enhanced by the feeling that only he could be relied upon to maintain white supremacy and expand the white empire, to evict the Indian tribes, to support and extend slavery.

Four times as many people voted for president in 1828 as had in 1824. Aided by new advancements in the popular press, encouraged by new changes in the electoral process, and invigorated by the entertainingly personal nature of the campaign, the great common mass made itself heard as never before: Jackson was rapturously elected twice and then hand-picked his successor. The country came under the rule of ‘Old Hickory,’ and every single helpless faction therein suffered for it. Slavery was revitalized and so prevented from dying the gradual, natural death to which economic diversification and technological advancement would otherwise have consigned it. Representational democracy was dealt a setback by a president who abused the veto as though it were his own personal rod and scepter. Womens rights advocates were once again subjected to the ‘courtly’ condescension of the landed Southern gentry. And Jackson’s old adversaries, the American Indians, became his hapless victims – roughly 46,000 were dispossessed in his two terms, and as many more in the term of his successor. Howe is witheringly clear on this point:

After the white populace and their state governments had looted and defrauded the helpless minority group, Jackson (as the historian Harry Watson has put it) ‘struck a pose as the Indians’ rescuer,’ offering deportation as their salvation. During the Removal process, the president personally intervened frequently, always on behalf of haste, sometimes on behalf of economy, but never on behalf of humanity, honesty, or careful planning.

After his defeat Adams returned to Quincy to lick his wounds, but soon he baffled his peers (and a still-wondering posterity) by accepting election to the House of Representatives, where he served from 1830 until his death in 1848. In fact, he collapsed on the floor of the House and died in the Speaker’s office. Fittingly enough for a man who’d kept an exhaustively detailed private journal for sixty years, his final words were “I am composed.” An old political adversary offered the best epitaph, which Howe in his far-reaching research has found: “Death found him at the post of duty; and where else could it have found him?”

Jackson and Adams both lived into the age of photography, and there are daguerreotypes of each taken in old age that speak more eloquently than many volumes of history could. One in particular of Jackson shows a shrunken old man with chin dipping into his shirt collar, feeble toothless mouth seeming to pout. The warrior of New Orleans is no longer even faintly visible, and the expression in the eyes under their defensively upturned eyebrows is quietly terrifying: it is the self-conscious expression of a man who has for some time (perhaps, damningly, all along) realized that he has been advocating evil, doing evil – indeed, being evil. The same expression can be seen in other, more explicit photos: its visible on at least half a dozen faces in the crowd at every lynching in the South. Looking into Jackson’s face in that photo, one can see all the horrors of the American Civil War, waiting impatiently.
The photo of Adams is quite different, although it, too, was taken only shortly before his death. Quite different, but in its way no less terrifying: in it, the full and daunting cold intellect of the Adams family is seen clear, shorn of any human artifices. Adams sits upright on a hard wooden chair, one leg hooked over the other, fingers crossed in his lap, great hatchet of a face staring intently straight into the camera. One would never guess that such a face had ever once been beautiful (although it was, when Copley painted it over fifty years before). Books are piled on the table behind him, but book-chat is far from his mind. Instead, that almost inhuman intensity is trained squarely on his viewers, as though demanding that they account for themselves.

Those two faces – one looking forward, the other looking back – have always been the two sides of the American democratic experience. Each has its ideology and each its adherents. Daniel Howe acquits himself wonderfully as a broad-minded, objective historian, but he is not above taking sides in this great battle, and he isn’t averse to admitting it. His book is dedicated to the memory of John Quincy Adams.

Steve Donoghue worked for most of his life as a mule-driver along the Erie Canal, during which time he composed hundreds of ballads and chanteys inspired by the territory. When his job was rendered obsolete by the steam tug he turned to the study of history and today he hosts the literary blog Stevereads.