American Awakening

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe. Oxford History of the United States. Oxford 2007

Image: Camp Meeting by A. Rider and H. Bridport, circa 1829

I listened to the Audible edition. This volume in the Oxford History of the United States, subtitled “The Transformation of America,” describes the momentous changes that occurred between the end of the War of 1812 and the US victory in the Mexican War in 1848.

Howe, like the other authors in the series, covers a wide range of topics. The transformative changes occurred in many areas, from economics to religion. Among the most significant was the Second Great Awakening, the protestant religious revival that swept the country, especially after 1820. Howe emphasizes its millenarianism: the expectation of the end of the world as described in Revelation, according to some, but to others not the end but the complete transformation to a peaceful and just world, governed according to Protestant, democratic principles. The Great Awakening stimulated numerous communal experiments, most of which did not last very long, but which left their marks on both culture and geography.  A development which particularly struck me was the rise of Mormonism. Howe depicts Joseph Smith with much more sympathy and respect than Sidney Blumenthal in A Self-Made Man, where he is described essentially as a charlatan and sexual predator. Howe calls the Book of Mormon an American epic, praising its literary qualities (I may have to check that for myself – my previous look into it left me feeling it was a parody of the King James Old Testament)

A second transformation was in political parties, which began to take on modern form. This started as early as around 1800, but with the decline of the Federalists after the War of 1812, James Monroe and others hoped that parties would wither away and usher in an Era of Good Feeling, and indeed, the period is sometimes called that. But it was not in fact nearly so copacetic. The split between Jeffersonian democratic republicans and their opponents, especially in New England, took shape in stronger organizations that formed around supporters of John Quincy Adams, heir to the Federalists, and Andrew Jackson, popular hero of the war of 1812. The Adams vs Jackson struggle occupied much of Adams’s presidency, and led to the failure of much of his agenda.

In fact, the first modern national political convention was not organized by either the Democrats or Whigs, as the parties came to be called, but by the splinter Anti-Masonic Party in 1831. Freemasonry, which many of the founders had belonged to, came to be seen as both anti-Christian and elitist, and the party enjoyed modest success among more democratic elements for a short while in the 1830s.

Jackson’s election in 1828 was driven by populist sentiments throughout the country, including distrust of political and financial elites and federal government power. Jackson himself was no great believer in democratic process, however. He used his power in ways that often undermined the rule of law. His successor, Martin Van Buren rode the wave of his popularity as well as employing his own immense political skills, but his presidency foundered on the rock of economic crisis, caused in large part by Jackson’s financial policies.

Hard times from 1837 to the early 1840s led to the success of the Whigs in putting William Henry Harrison, into office, whereupon he died and was succeeded by John Tyler. Harrison’s supporters had outmaneuvered Henry Clay’s to win him the nomination. Tyler, although chosen as vice president to mollify his friend, Clay, did not support many of the Whig party’s policy preferences, and his presidency had little success.

The election of 1844 was a turning point in US history, according to Howe. A dark horse candidate was selected – James K Polk. He narrowly defeated the Whig Henry Clay. Had the close election gone the other way, Howe thinks Clay might have prevented the Civil War. Instead “Little Hickory,” as Polk was known, went on to achieve his major goals: settling the Oregon question with Great Britain, annexing California and New Mexico as well as Texas from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande, lowering the tariff and creating a system of sub-treasuries. In terms of his own program, Howe thinks Polk was our most successful president.

These party and personal struggles revolved mostly around three or four big issues: banking, the tariff, internal improvements and expansion of territory and slavery. Jackson his supporters distrusted banking, especially the Bank of the United States. They wanted hard money, gold and silver, but there was a chronic shortage of these until California gold began to flow after 1850, so paper money was the only real option. Once he vetoed the renewal of the Bank’s charter, Jackson had to rely on private banks to hold and lend federal funds, without the close oversight that the Bank of the United States had provided. Since much of the lending supported the trade in cotton, a worldwide drop in prices triggered panic and the Hard Times that began after Jackson left office.

The debates over the tariff and internal improvements reflected the mostly sectional interests of manufacturing and commerce versus plantation agriculture. By the time Polk succeeded in lowering the tariff, it had ceased to be the divisive issue that almost tore the nation apart during the Nullification Crisis. Debates about internal improvements were more about who should pay than the old disagreement between Hamilton and Jefferson about a commercial versus an agrarian economy. National planning and financing, which Adams had hoped for and that Clay supported, were rejected. Jackson, who felt improvements were a state or private responsibility, vetoed several major proposals, but he allowed others and continued to support the work of the corps of Engineers, begun under Adams.

The expansion and slavery issue was the one that persisted beyond the period of this history and led to the Civil War. It began with the Indian removal crisis. This came to a head under Jackson, who condoned Georgia’s refusal to abide by treaties that allowed the Native Americans to remain in the southeast, while ceding much of their land. White racism was undoubtedly as much a factor as economic interest and helps account for Jackson’s failure to insure that the Creeks and other tribes had adequate provisions for their forced march to Indian Territory. There was nevertheless considerable support for the Native Americans among whites, including the US Supreme Court, whose decisions Jackson ignored. The moral outrage of his opponents became a source of partisan animosity.

Indian removal permitted the spread of cotton into the vast territory of Alabama and Mississippi, creating a renewed demand for slaves, reversing a trend that had begun in the eighteenth century and cementing the southern opposition to any form of emancipation. Texas, which split from Mexico in 1836, became the focal point of southern ambition to expand into new lands suitable for cotton and slavery. Whether to annex Texas thus became a point of contention between north and south. There was support from expansionist northern Democrats, despite their distaste for slavery, enough to help get Polk elected in 1844. Once Texas was added to the union, imperialism focused on Oregon, northern Mexico, especially New Mexico, and California.

The Mexican war was Polk’s ambition, strongly opposed by Whigs and memorably by Thoreau in his “On the duty of civil disobedience.” By deftly acceding to sharing Oregon with Britain, Polk insured that his imperial ambitions could move forward without interference from the greatest imperial power of the time, and he soon devised a pretext for war. It was his fortune and misfortune to have as capable military leaders, two Whig generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. They overcame both the geography of Mexico and the stubborn resistance of its people. Mexico was left in such a helpless position militarily and financially, that it had no choice but to cede a vast chunk or its territory to the conquering United States.

Despite his success, Polk chose not to run in 1848, and as he had feared, one of his generals, Zachary Taylor was nominated by the Whigs and won.

The power of the United States was on display in the war, but it stemmed from the peaceful development of revolutionary means of transportation and communication. The building of canals, turnpikes and the railroads made it possible to have strong connections between producers and consumers of agricultural products and manufactured goods despite the distance. Likewise, the development of newspapers, the postal system and, in the 1840s, the telegraph, linked markets, facilitated political organization and brought citizens closer to one another. In this way, doubts that an extensive territory could be governed democratically began to fade. Manufacturing was especially facilitated and the economy began to grow more rapidly. An influx of immigrants both aided development of an urban working class but also deepened social divisions. This was even more rapid after 1848 and the failed revolutions in Europe. The Know Nothing Party would develop in response, and nativism has continued to shape our politics down to the present, with Trump’s Muslim ban and border wall. Then the religious suspicion was directed against Catholicism, now the target is Islam. The ethnic prejudice was against the Irish, now Hispanics.

Howe ends by pointing to a development that had little impact at the time, but which marked the beginning of one of America’s great contribution to human freedom. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention marked the beginning of more than a century and a half (so far) of advocacy for equal rights for women. Beginning with the words,

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed,”

the convention’s declaration echoed Jefferson, identifying the cause as a continuation of the struggle that began in 1776. While almost nothing tangible resulted at the time, or indeed until much later, aside from important ongoing legal reforms, the idea of completing the work of liberation became a touchstone for causes, most notably abolition of slavery, but also temperance, education reform and more that reflected the millenarian hopes engendered by the Second Great Awakening. In Howe’s view then, the religious revival that began the period gave at the end a vision of a future that reasserted America’s role as a beacon of liberty. It might also be thought of a guide through the darkness that followed as sectional divisions hardened and civil war became essentially unavoidable.

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