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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 0 comments
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
What Hath God Wroughtby Daniel Walker Howe
W H A T H A T H G O D W R O U G H T
Forty miles away, in Baltimore, Morse's associate received the electric signals and telegraphed the message back. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world.
The years between 1815 and 1848 witnessed dramatic transformations in the United States. In 1815 it 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 it had become a transcontinental major power: industrialization, urbanization, and diversification of both population and economy were all well under way. Revolutions in communications and transportation facilitated these innovations.
I wrote What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 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 have attracted so many historians in recent years. Both are essential, I am convinced, to a full understanding of the past. Most of all, I 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 laypeople who read history; they are busy, 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 they want history to speak to their lives in the present. I tried to write What Hath God Wrought to meet their expectations.
For thousands of years communication was limited by the speed with which messengers could travel and the distance eyes could see signals such as flags or smoke. Neither Alexander the Great nor Benjamin Franklin (America's first postmaster general) two thousand years later knew anything faster than a galloping horse. The electric telegraph, in combination with improved printing presses and the new railroads, steamboats, and canals, revolutionized America between 1815 and 1848. The dramatic innovations in transportation and communications influenced every aspect of life. Mass literacy, and institutions of public education to deliver it, acquired increased civic importance. The cheap newspapers that proliferated made mass politics possible. 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 some of them thought of expansion primarily in terms of geographical spreading across the continent. Others thought of it in terms of 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 the political debates of the time.
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. This is a book about how our present came to be.
The book shows that improvements in material terms often 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, more rights for women. 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. In today's third world, improvements in living standards should encourage, not preclude, democracy and human rights.
However, the story of America's transformation during the years 1815 to 1833 is by no means all 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 waged 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 then persuaded Congress to approve by arguing 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 U.S. administration had expected, the military campaigns achieved uniform success within a period of less than two years. The administration's war lost the support of the U.S. electorate, but it was victorious on the battlefield and over with quickly.
"What Hath God Wrought" the message sent to demonstrate the telegraph was a quotation from the Bible (Numbers 23:23). It typified the attitude of the devout inventor and his religious countrymen. In the King James translation, it is an affirmation, and ends with an exclamation mark. But in Morse's time it was often misquoted as ending with a question mark. I use it without punctuation as an ambiguous quotation, that serves, as does my book, both to affirm and question the American experience in the years between 1815 and 1848.
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Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus, Oxford University, and Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Political Culture of the American Whigs and Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. He lives in Los Angeles.