James Gault reviews What Hath God Wrought – The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe
As you might guess from the title, Mr Howe is not an author for whom brevity is a virtue. This is a heavy book: physically at over 900 pages, and stylistically with his long sentences, detailed academic arguments and plethora of facts. It’s a hard read, but it has some important things to say.
I came to it with a knowledge of American history gleaned almost exclusively from Hollywood. I had a very benevolent view of the growth of the world’s most influential nation. This book has convinced me I had been too kind and forgiving.
The story the author presents is one of naked greed for power and prosperity.; a saga of the determined pursuit of self-interest devoid of any consideration of the common good. We are presented with a succession of US presidents totally devoted to assuaging the desires of themselves, their friends and their political supporters, with the ultimate goal of enhancing their own reputations and legacies. Whether it was in the defence of slavery, the opening up of the Wild West, the systematic usurpation of the rights of Native Americans, or the imposition of protective trade tariffs, every decision was underpinned by what was in it for them or their mates.
To combat this unashamed abuse of power, the author cites the mitigating influence of groups of ordinary people. Most, but not all, of these were Christian organisations, and predominantly Protestant ones. These people took the underlying moral messages of the Bible literally, and formed Benevolent Societies, abolitionist groups and other popular political movements to counteract the excesses of the ruling classes. What is presented is a game between Good and Evil where Evil held all the cards and used them mercilessly. Sadly, even in modern day USA, the outcome of this contest is far from resolved.
I suspect that this book is not really meant for the general reader. Part of the Oxford University Press series ‘The Oxford History of the United States ‘, its intended audience is probably other academics and assiduous students of the subject matter. It suffers from the common flaws of academic books: long convoluted argument predicated on a prior knowledge of most of the facts; a veritable downpour of names and dates which the lay reader has no chance of remembering; an arrogant disregard for the comprehension problems that result from long convoluted sentences where ideas are joined together with doubtful and ambiguous grammatical constructs.
It’s a pity. It’s recommended reading for the determined intellectual in search of enlightenment into a key period of US history. For the rest of us mortals, perhaps the author may consider producing an abridged best-seller version of this very important story.