The Change, It Had To Come

What God Hath Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe (2008)

The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz (2005)

Given how much of the past decade was spent by Europeans chastising Americans for their allegedly poor judgement and intellectual inferiority, it is deeply ironic that American historiography is so full of depth and so enjoyable. The stamp of a Pulitzer Prize winner or even a Nominee is enough to get me interested, such is their record.

I don’t know if I can begin to explain why this is. Perhaps it is the funding advantage American universities have, but that seems too simple. The more surprising fact is that America, the alleged country of rugged individualism, is so much more expert in collective histories. Take the two books above (I read Daniel Walker Howe’s opus earlier this year). Both cover a period of between thirty to sixty years, have a narrative arc, and are thematic. British historiography currently appears to be obsessed by memoirs and biographies. Even then, history undergraduates should be set the first hundred pages of the third volume of Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson; Master of the Senate, a vivid interpretation of the Senate as the driving force behind the history of the United States of America, or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s political biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals.

Part of the reason for this might be America’s reverence of its constitution and its sense of itself as a collective endeavour. Britain has no such founding myth, and its history is therefore often a vote of thanks for the few on behalf of the many, to abuse a phrase. Still, the British wallow in their history – as does the publishing industry, which often seems to keep WH Smith afloat through sales of WWII histories and Andy McNab novels. Perhaps Americans stock more of their trash-lit in other genres, like self-help, and religion. Perhaps the rise of television history in Britain has had an impact on rigour.

Whatever the reason, American historians ought to be a protected species, so good are they at picking out trends over a long period. Sean Wilentz highlights the rise of universal suffrage between the Presidencies of Jefferson and Lincoln, with the attendant political and cultural shocks, showing both an organic process and one with many ruptures. It also includes the magnificent, timeless line; ‘Democracy in America was the spectacle of Americans arguing over democracy.’ (p.xxi).

Daniel Walker Howe, covering a similar period, focuses on the Transformation of America (as part of the Oxford History of the United States) through the communications revolution (the telegraph – Andrew Jackson made his name in the Battle of New Orleans, conducted three weeks after a peace treaty had been signed with Britain), overcoming the tyranny of distance (railways, roads, etc.) and the battles of ideas and sovereignty and postmillennialism and premillennialism within religion (the former requires mankind to reach a certain state of evolution before the Second Coming, where the latter anticipates divine intervention as the driver behind the end of history).

What God Hath Wrought is a more complete picture of the period, if that is what you are after, but both are worth reading because they so readily disagree with each other. Howe lauds the American Whigs, and in particular the influence of John Quincy Adams, whose view on internal improvements and moral improvements he contrasts to the often cruel Andrew Jackson. Wilentz, while not openly supportive Jackson, clearly gives him more credit for his ability to follow the American people. The Democracy, and indeed democracy, is both a hero and an anti-hero in Wilentz’s book, while in Howe’s interpretation, the Democratic Party was founded and united on the policy of Indian Removal. Howe is also sympathetic to Mexico’s cause in the 1848 War.

Ultimately, all antebellum American history has to explain the Civil War. For all the shifts between Whig and Democrat in Howe’s interpretation, the Democrats are undoubtedly the more successful between 1828 and 1848. The seed for their destruction, however, was laid in the conquests of Texas and huge swathes of Mexico. The agitation this caused to the slavery question allowed the Whigs to return with new vigour in an alliance with other antislavery candidates as the Republicans, and for Abraham Lincoln to act as a sort of Whig Messiah, delivering the stronger federal government, internal improvements and enlightened liberalism that John Quincy Adams represented. Wilentz describes a geographically divided polity – Northern and Southern Democracies. The War reconciled these two and Abraham Lincoln contrived, as he put it, to return to the principles of Jefferson, and to put ‘the man before the dollar.’

It would be very surprising indeed if American historians were as partisan or as opposed as their political counterparts are. They are dealing with undoubted evils, such as slavery, and the at best disproportionate consequences of Indian Removal. Nonetheless, political vitality and an abundance of controversies contrives to keep these historians interesting. Combined with an American-sized dosage of hope and faith in progress, they confront big questions with relish.

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