Review of “What Hath God Wrought” by Daniel Walker Howe

Everything goes fast now-a-days; the winds, even begin to improve upon the speed which they have hitherto maintained; everything goes ahead but good manners and sound principles.

– Philip Hone

In the conclusion section, Howe says, “This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis.” That couldn’t be more unture.

The book is Whig history if anything is.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting time period and it was long enough ago that even a mainstream historian treats most of the events with a reasonable amount of dispassion. For example, you can say stuff like:

Ethnoreligious and negative reference group voting influenced politics more in the North than in the South, since the North had greater ethnic and religious diversity.

But I digress.

The book’s title comes from the first telegraph. The overarching theme of the book is the consequences that result from massive declines in transportation and communication times. These improvements happened at the same time as New England’s control over the political dimensions of the US really began to wane.

So, if you read between the lines, the book is really about how New England maintained control of the US after it could no longer due so through the established political process. To stretch the story a bit (and perhaps beyond the point I should), this time period can be thought of as the rise of the Cathedral.

As Howe puts it: “The history of the young American republic is above all a history of battles over public opinion.” Howe does an excellent job showing how New England came to dominate the process of controlling public opinion. More explicitly:

The political power of New England waned with the growth of the Middle Atlantic states and the trans-Appalachian West. Nevertheless, New England Unitarians could take consolation in their importance for the world of print; through it, they had found a means to exert a more subtle influence across the broad republic.

Or, when that didn’t exactly work, you could always just kill everyone that disagreed, “Eventually, the Whig vision prevailed, but only after Abraham Lincoln had vindicated it in the bloodiest of American Wars.”

A few parts of the story will be particularly interesting to us.

The first is the outbreak of the Second Great Awakening. What happens what the citizens of the United States get really religious? The answer appears to be that they get really progressive.

“Some of the most important debates of the period did not take place within the arena of politics. Much of this discussion occurred within the religious communities.”

If, as Samuel Johnson said, the first Whig was the devil and the second may have been Cromwell, the first in the US may just have been Lyman Beecher. That’s obviously stretching it, but he may reasonably be considered the godfather of the American Cathedral.

In a sense it’s literally true that he was the father of the thing, since his children include: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Beecher, Edward Beecher, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Catharine Beecher, and Thomas K. Beecher.

Here’s Howe on the family:

Taken together, the members of the Beecher family demonstrate how the heirs of the Puritans coped, not simply with the disestablishment of religion, but also with the demise of the Federalist Party and New England’s shrinking political influence in a growing Union. They devised new means of influence public option outside politics: education, literature, magazines, religious revivals, and organized reform.

Moldbug couldn’t have said it better.

Beecher was concerned primarily with temperance, but it’s his means (much more than his preferred end) that would live on, as the foundation for future “movements.” Particularly those against slavery and in favor of woman’s suffrage.

Howe puts Beecher on the “conservative wing of evangelical reform” let’s move on to the liberal one with Charles Finney.

Finally:

If Lyman Beecher’s followers represented the conservative wing of evangelical reform and Charles Finney’s its liberal one, those of Elias Hicks contributed the radical vanguard, what contemporaries called “ultraism.” All three of these evangelical groups could agree on many issues, such as temperance, prison reform, and public support for elementary schools. But the Hicksites displayed a willingness to pursue causes that other thought quixotic. Hicksite Quakers provided disproportionately large number of recruits to the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery. And when at last a movement endorsing equal rights for women surfaced, the little minority of Hicksite Quakers would make themselves conspicuous in its support.”

Let’s end the Second Great Awakening with one more quote:

Like many others of his generation Baird saw evangelical Protestantism as the legatee of Puritanism, the core of American culture, the source of American democratic institutions, the primary engine of economic and political progress, and ultimately the hope of the world. The American version of evangelical Protestantism represented, for him, what God hath wrought.

The Second Great Awakening also saw the first (for the US or anywhere else) experiments in utopianism and “socialism” (see, e.g. Robert Owen), to say nothing of Bible Communism and free love. And I suppose I should mention unitarianism.

Mormonism also began during this period. Howe doesn’t spend much time on it, and doesn’t have much interesting to say about it.

In some ways, the review could end there, but then we’d miss out on the fact that the US annexed Texas in the exact same way that the Southwestern US is now being annexed by Mexico. It’s too fun to let that pass without a brief commentary.

Even Howe can’t resist a bit of fun at the expense of the Mexicans (if not the modern Americans):

“The old Latin mistake had been repeated,” the historian Frederick Merk wryly observed: “admitting Gauls into the Empire.”

Indeed, “By 1836, there were at least thirty-five thousand Anglos in Texas, now outnumbering Hispanics ten to one.”

In a shocking turn of events, Texas relatively quickly became part of the US.

Howe doesn’t really like Polk, but he can’t but admit that – on his own terms – Polk was an incredibly successful President. After annexing Texas, Polk proceeded to . . . instigate . . . the Mexican-American War.

“’No power but Congress can declare war’, noted Daniel Webster, ‘but what is the value of this constitutional provision, if the President of his own authority may make such military movements as must bring on war.’” Such was the history of all subsequent American wars.

The story of how the war ended was quite interesting – and was something I wasn’t already aware of.

There are two more subjects which I must at least comment on given the time period covered by the book. The first is Andrew Jackson and the second is the Civil War.

The book encompasses the “age of Jackson” and many of the main characters (Van Buren and Polk, for example) seem to remain largely in his shadow.

Howe tells the story by contrasting Jackson and John Quincy Adams. That methodology worked very well. Jackson won virtually all the battles, yet somehow (see above) Adams wins the war.

As he left office, Jackson noted two dangers: nullification and abolition.

The Civil War looms large over this period. It’s tempting to shoehorn all the events of the era into ominous foretellings of upcoming War. Howe falls victim to this temptation constantly.

Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t, as for example, when South Carolina secedes over a very high tariff in 1832. Howe devotes pages to explaining how it’s really about slavery, but it’s never very convincing. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

There are certain inconvenient facts for Howe’s narrative that emerge as well. For example, “In Philadelphia and New York, the life expectancy of newborn babies average only twenty-four years during the 1830s and ‘40s, six years less than that of newborn southern slaves.” Or, “No strong sectional pattern emerged in the election of 1840.”

Despite these drawbacks, Howe does an excellent job of showing how the rise of extreme abolitionists creates so much of the increasing polarization.

Howe ends the book with a section on women’s suffrage. As the next era would be the era of increased electoral participation. Indeed, at times it just seems like abolition became a voting issue. As Howe notes, “If the suffrage were to be expanded, Democrats wanted to include immigrants but not black men; Whigs preferred the opposite.”

Ending on this topic allows Howe to connect it all back to abolition and radical Christianity as well:

And like most abolitionists, the Grimke sisters came to their antislavery convictions through the experience of religious conversion . . . Garrison welcomed them into his American Anti-Slavery Society, calling abolition and women’s rights two “moral reformations” bound together in “pure practical Christianity.”

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28 Responses to Review of “What Hath God Wrought” by Daniel Walker Howe

  1. VXXC says:

    Great Post.

    However take Heart, nothing lasts forever. Including New England.

  2. -Sometimes an approved member of the establishment comes right up to the edge of saying what’s really going on. Walter Russell Meade does this every once in a while.

    -The Puritans have been good at situationally recruiting allies. The won the Civil War by getting the Free Soilers on their side.

    -Alt-righters like to note that the term “racism” is a communist invention from the 1930’s. Garrison coined the term “white manism” in the 1850’s apparently to mean the same thing, but I can’t find anything about this.

    -Foseti, you mentioned you’re from Minnesota. I’m in the Upper Midwest now and while Puritans clearly run things, there is a somewhat uneasy relationship between them and their Central European subjects. They can pass gay marriage, but the rural DFL legislators are afraid to vote for more gun control. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about this.

    • Foseti says:

      @thrasymachus33308 – Politics in MN is a lot like politics in Scandinavian countries. The non-elites (probably not Central European – maybe German, but no more central than that) are highly functional (except of course for the newly arrived Somalis, but they’re not in the very Democratic rural areas). I spent some lovely summers hitchhiking in northern MN and never had any problems of any kind. I’m sure you could still do that.

      I think Sailer once said that all of Matthew Yglesais’s policy ideas begin with the premise (implicit but never stated) that your population consists of Swedes, in which case most of his policy ideas would work just fine. In MN, they generally do.

  3. IA says:

    The problem is that what you are talking about is millenialism, which existed in the west long before puritans. There is another book you should read called “The Pursuit of the Millenium” by Norman Cohn.

    An excerpt, page 29: “The third century saw the first attempt to discredit millenialism, when Origen, perhaps the most influential of all the theologians of the ancient Church, began to present the Kingdom as an event which would take place not in space or time but only in the souls of believers. . . . What stirred his prfoundly Hellenic imagination was the prospect of spiritual progress begun in this world and continued in the next; and to this theme were theologians to give incresing attention.”

    As karstens points out over at raptros these social justice fanatics have erupted routinely in western history. There was nothing new about puritanism. And these millennialists, who would create heaven on earth, always lost. The trad christian establishment always won. That is, until the 19th cent.

    • Foseti says:

      @IA,

      While much of the 2nd Great Awakening was millenialism, some wasn’t. See unitarianism, for example. Nor does millenialism explain organized religion’s support for communism 120 years later (but that’s the subject of a different review).

  4. IA says:

    Reading a review by Steven M. Anthony at amazon: “. . . and repeatedly painting Jackson with the brush of “white supremacist”. Not to suggest that Jackson was not a white supremacist, only that virtually 100% of the white American population of the time (including abolitionists) were rabid white supremacists.”

    ?

  5. Lesser Bull says:

    Fascinating.

    The decline in the study of history is one of the greatest strengths in the Cathedral’s arsenal. Ignorance is strength.

    The normal Cathedral MO is to keep the masses ignorant of history except in a highly abstract mythologized way, and to keep academics immune from their greater knowledge of history by having them approach it through layers of theory and abstraction. (C.S. Lewis describe the technique, already existent in his day, which aims to have the scholar categorize and process the themes he studies without ever wondering if any of them are true).

    Howe and Meade, folks like that, are in danger of their liberal souls, because they can’t write narrative that is accessible to the middle-brow without first making it accessible to themselves. Like everyone else they have strong internal Big Brothers that keep them from too much crimethink, but they still can’t help whispering ‘eppur si muove’ from time to time.

    P.S. It’s “Wrought.”

  6. fnn says:

    OK, what were the Puritans doing when the Redemption came and when Jim Crow was established? And why did they support the Immigration Act of 1924? It’s also curious that the that the POTUS who was the epitome of Puritan Progressivism was born in Virginia, never lived north of New Jersey and was a big fan of the KKK.

    • fnn says:

      http://books.google.com/books?id=FHgM9NjYQ6EC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA78#v=onepage&q&f=false

      “Patrician Anti-Semitism

      “For the New England brahmins, the Jew served as a symbol of the greed and corruption of the new order. By assailing Jews, they attacked the industrialists, financiers, and railroad barons who were displacing them in the nation’s political and economic life. This fear was expressed in a stream of anti-Semitic writings and speeches on the part of New England’s leading public figures and intellectuals during the late nineteenth century.”

      “These themes were echoed by other New England patricians, including Henry James who used Jewish characters to symbolize greed and the decline of society. Similarly, Henry Adams’s brother, Brooks, in his 1896 work, The Law of Civilization and Decay, demonstrated that throughout history Jews had used their money and financial acumen as instruments of exploitation, domination, and oppression. In the United States and Britain, productive industrial capitalism had been replaced by parasitic finance capitalism, symbolized by the Jewish usurer. This became a common theme in the literary and scholarly works of the New England patricians and other upper-class intellectuals. The Jew was attacked as the representative of a materialistic society with no values or culture.”

      Immigration Restriction

      “From the patrician perspective, not only was the Jew was a symbol of the corruption of America’s new ruling class, but the Jew symbolized the decay of American values in another was as well. To the patricians, Jewish immigrants, along with other newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe, represented a threat to American culture, society, and the Anglo-Saxon race.”

      “One major vehicle for this aspect of the patrician attack on the industrialist regime was the Immigration Restriction League. The League was founded in 1894 by a trio of New England bluebloods – Charles Warren, Robert Ward, and Prescott Farnsworth Hall – and a group of their Harvard classmates. The League quickly promoted the creation of affiliates throughout the nation, often making use of the Harvard alumni network and other organizations of transplanted New Englanders.”

      “Among the League’s most important intellectual spokesman was Edward Ross, one of the pioneers of American sociology. In his widely read 1914 work, The Old World and the New, Ross explains the importance of protecting Anglo-Saxon Americanism against pollution through immigration.”

      Populist-Patrician Alliance?

      “The initial support for immigration restriction was provided mainly by the political spokesman of the Northeastern upper classes. However, the vague outlines of an alliance began to develop around the issue of immigration–and on opposition to the industrialist order more generally–between the Brahmins and the political representatives of the South and rural West.”

      “For a brief moment at the turn of the century, what might have seemed to be an improbable alliance between agrarian radicals and patricians, an American coalition of the top and bottom, was a possibility. The two groups were divided by an enormous cultural chasm, but, nevertheless, shared a common hatred for the new capitalist order and the forces that it was bringing to power.”

      • josh says:

        The common theme of revolution in the last century seems to be. Jews encourage group toward revolution against common enemy (often based on Jewish interpretation of scriptures calling for an imminent, earthly new Jerusalem) with money, influence, and direct pedagogy. Group fights with Jews for control of the revolutionary vanguard, if group wins it becomes “anti-semitic” thus demonstrating that their is nothing at all Jewish about the movement. If the gentiles lose, the Jews were just assimilating.

        Some questions. What did the English Puritans do for a living? What group, who practiced their religion in secret, moved en masse from Spain to the Netherlands at the same time as the rise of Calvinism? Cromwell did just fall out of the sky, you know.

    • They realized they had bitten off more than they could chew and needed to retrench.

    • Foseti says:

      @fnn

      On the end of Reconstruction, I highly recommend the very short speech from ur-Puritan Charles Francis Adams (as in John and John Quincy).

      As Howe notes, the Puritans of the time preferred enfranchising blacks and not immigrants. Not sure if a similar dynamic was at play in 1924, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’d opposed immigration in one way or another. As is so often the case, it depends on who the immigrants are.

      • fnn says:

        .Not sure if a similar dynamic was at play in 1924, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’d opposed immigration in one way or another. As is so often the case, it depends on who the immigrants are.

        But it starts to get like the typical Jewish paranoid fantasy/conspiracy theory about the whole world being out to get them: reactionaries, progressives, Communists, you name it.

  7. josh says:

    “The Second Great Awakening also saw the first (for the US or anywhere else) experiments in utopianism and “socialism””

    Nope.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taborite or
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Münster_Rebellion

    Your confusing Christianity with revolution, which once fell within the broad heading of heading of Christianity while rebelling against traditional understandings of Christianity and the institutions that had been charged with adjudicating Christianity.

    Their is always a revolutionary vanguard. It was once the Hussites, the Anabaptists, the Calivinists, the Rosicrucions, the Christian Cabalists, the Puritans, the New Lights, the Republicans, the Communists, the Soviets, the Cubans. Holding property and women in common is a common theme among all of these revolutionaries. Butt-piracy is also not uncommon.

  8. Kgaard says:

    I suppose you’ve read The Fourth Turning, in which the authors make the exact connection you mention: Hippie generations (one of every four) become moral absolutist fanatics when they get into power in their later years. That pattern held for the Transcendentalists (who spawned Lincoln), the Progressives (FDR), and the ’60s hippies (Hillary Clinton, Obama). We can go back one four-generation cycle before the Civil War find the Revolutionary fanatics who had grown up in the first Great Awakening (Benjamin Franklin in particular).

  9. […] Review of “What Hath God Wraught” by Daniel Walker Howe | Foseti […]

  10. Fake Herzog says:

    Foseti,

    This book is on my shelf waiting to be read — your review might be the inspiration that finally gets me going.

    In the meantime, I just read this review about a new book on the Civil war that I think you and your readers will find interesting:

    http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/why-they-fought_739252.html

    According to Fleming, both the abolitionists and the Southern race-baiters have blood on their hands:

    “Early on, Fleming points out that only 6 percent of the Southern population owned slaves, and that fewer than that percentage of Confederate soldiers owned them, calling into question the assertion that Southern soldiers were fighting to preserve slavery. Instead, he postulates that over time the South had developed an almost paranoid fear (“disease in the public mind”) of slave insurrections—such as the savage uprising that had occurred in Haiti and in Nat Turner’s bloody revolt in Virginia—or a race war, if slaves were emancipated.

    […]

    “A similar disease, Fleming asserts, had fixated itself in the public mind of the North, which became known as abolitionism. African slavery had existed in America for nearly 250 years before the Civil War, was enshrined in the Constitution, and was retained after the colonies became the United States. Indiana and Illinois, for example, abolished it in their constitutions when they became states in 1816 and 1818, respectively; but New York maintained some forms of slavery until 1841, New Jersey until 1846, the District of Columbia until 1862, and Delaware until the end of the Civil War.

    But New England, which had resented the South since the initial flurry of Virginia presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Tyler—abolished slavery soon after the Revolution and expected everyone else to do so as well. It was in New England—which itself had attempted to secede from the Union in 1814 over dissatisfactions with Madison’s War of 1812—that the abolition movement began. By 1820, it had been well established on the premise that slavery was a social evil, and abolitionists agitated on that basis until the early 1840s, when leaders decided that slavery was a “moral wrong.”

  11. dearieme says:

    “The book’s title comes from the first telegraph.” Are you sure? I’m surprised that Wheatstone used such florid language. Its pretentious tone sounds more American to me.

    WKPD: The first commercial electrical telegraph was co-developed by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, and entered use on the Great Western Railway in Britain. It ran for 13 miles (21 km) from Paddington station to West Drayton and came into operation on 9 July 1839.[14] It was patented in the United Kingdom in 1837, and was first successfully demonstrated by Cooke and Wheatstone on 25 July 1837 between Euston and Camden Town in London.[15]

  12. […] responded in a series of book reviews meant to highlight the fact that the US has gone through several periods of increased religious (Christian) conviction and that those periods have also been periods of […]

  13. […] This was a cool theory . . . until it happened and we got . . . more Leftism. […]

  14. oogenhand says:

    Irony here. Abraham Lincoln justified the Civil War with the idea that violence against bad people, and therefore non-Christians is moral.

    However, if violence against bad people/non-Christians is moral, Christians would the right to enslave Heathens, like those in West-Africa, presuming the Christian framework that Christians are good, and Heathens are bad. This is the paradox, if not contradiction of Abraham Lincoln.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I am quite surprised to se the reviewer’s observation that Howe didn’t spend much time on Mormonism. My take is quite the opposite. In fact, I came across this review while searching for information about Howe, motivated by what I see as his book’s .excessive attention to and exaggerated importance of the Mormon Church in this period of history.

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