In this addition to the esteemed Oxford History of the United States series, historian Daniel Walker Howe illuminates the period from the Battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era of revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated America's expansion and prompted the rise of mass political parties. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party but contends that John Quincy Adams and other advocates of public education, economic integration, and the rights of blacks, women, and Indians were the true prophets of America's future. Howe's panoramic narrative?weaving together social, economic, and cultural history with political and military events?culminates in the controversial but brilliantly executed war against Mexico that gained California and Texas for America.
Walking away with a richly deserved Pulitzer in 2008, Howe takes a long view of his subject(s) and provides the kind of context and overarching narrative that other, more provincial historians routinely avoid. I've tried (and failed) to read biographies of Andrew Jackson; here the "Jacksonian" period is covered with lucidity, insight and unsentimental clarity. It was an absolute pleasure to read.
He emphasized the developments in transportation and communication. From the building of the Erie Canal to a railroad network that exceeded the miles of track in Europe America in this period built the infrastructure that led to the Industrial Revolution in the last half of the century.
The use of steamboats meant that no longer did westerners sail down the Mississippi, break up their boats and sell the lumber and walk back home.
The penny newspaper carried information to a country where for the first time the rate of literacy in women equaled that rate in men. The development of the telegraph led to speed of light communication from one end of the country to the other making the information in newspapers more timely.
Jackson's political revolution masterminded by Martin van Buren gave rise to the spoils system and the growth of national parties. Jackson also led the beginning of manifest destiny with the wholesale ethnic cleansing of native Americans living in the American southwest and southeast. Howe does not pull any punches in describing the practices that destroyed the inheritance of the five civilized tribes in the name of white superiority. Jackson's disdain of the rule of law in getting done what he wanted to leaves little doubt as to who was civilized.
Religion was another topic covered in detail in the book. The Methodist church grew in this period from a small sect to 2.7 million members by 1850. The Baptist and Roman Catholic churches also grew in this era the former based on the efforts of traveling preachers and the latter gathering members by immigration. When the American Methodist Episcopal church was founded in 1816 it was the only institution in the country under black control. Temperance and abolitionism were causes supported by the growth of religion. Howe also describes the founding of Mormonism and its move to Utah after the assassination of Joseph Smith.
This era saw the rise of abolitionism and the growth in the South of pro-slavery ideology. The life and career of Sojourner Truth provide a good example of how abolitionism began and grew.
The book ends with the U.S.-Mexico war and the presidency of James Polk. Howe gives a thorough description of the events of the war and the political controversy that surrounded it. Abraham Lincoln's speech in opposition to the war details the Whig opposition to the war. The annexation of Mexican territory fueled the debate over the expansion of slavery foreshadowing the controversy that led to the Civil War.
There is a 20 page bibliographical essay at the end of the book. The author describes numerous sources for each of the topics covered in the book. This is an excellent resource for further study.
I enjoyed the book very much. This review is only a brief outline of the wealth of information provided in a well written and accessible fashion. I have read some criticism of the author for distorting the narrative of events in the name of political correctness. What I found was an even handed, accurate and honest portrayal of events. America is a great country but the government and people of the country have done some reprehensible acts in the course of their history. Any honest history of the country has to include those actions.
We think the Congress we're living with is contentious! The current bozos have nothing on the Whigs and Democrats in the 1840s as far as partisan bickering goes. They often beat up on each other. (Maybe that's a better approach than duking it out on the talk shows.) White supremacists are considered a fringe group today, but back in the early 1800s, white (male) supremacy was the law of the land and ... and all the white guys pretty much hated immigrants, too. Then the targets were the Irish (Catholics) and the Germans. I knew nothing about how President Polk started an unprovoked War with Mexico to gain land he coveted ... usurpation of power by the executive branch didn't start with W. I don't think much of this was covered in any American History class I took in high school or college, but it's entirely possible I wasn't paying much attention.
I'm planning to read my way through the list of books that won the Pulitzer Prize for history -- and this is my first one. I hope they're not all 850+ pages!!!
As suggested by the title of this work, the period from 1815 until 1848 was indeed a time of transformation, from the agrarian, East Coast dominated economy of the Revolutionary era, to the geographically expanding and urbanized economy created in large part by the Industrial Revolution. That having been said, I can’t say that I was mesmerized by this book and found it somewhat of a grind to get through. I don’t know if it was the subject matter or the writing style, but the story seemed disjointed and never flowed smoothly. Much of the writing is in the style of a textbook, and as a result failed to capture my attention.
It seemed that fully half the book focused on the Presidency and policies of Andrew Jackson, and suffice it to say, the author is no fan of Jackson. While there is much to condemn in Jackson’s character and administration, it is no exaggeration to suggest that if the creators of Mount Rushmore had room for one more bust, Jackson’s would almost certainly have been the one chosen. And though the author correctly points out valid criticisms of Jackson, he at times tries a little bit too hard, such as strenuously 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.
Also, the author seems to be exceptionally fond of Henry Clay, suggesting that had he been elected in 1844, the Civil War might have been avoided. The author relies upon Clay’s willingness to enact a program of compensated emancipation, as if the South were interested in such a plan. Had he attempted such a program, it is more likely that the War would have accelerated rather than avoided. And while one may argue over the morality of the Mexican War, it is hard to argue with results (acquisition of Alta California, New Mexico and much of what is now Texas), and Clay was on record as being adamantly opposed to the aforesaid territorial expansion, even after the war had been concluded.
In summary, the book is a laudable effort to fill in a period of American history often glossed over. It is well researched and comprehensively presented. It is not however an engrossing read and suffers somewhat from an overly negative bias as relating to the period of Jacksonian administration, and a consequently overly positive viewpoint toward those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
I've read so much about Jackson, much of it unqualified admiration of his presidency, that it was a relief to read who else was prominent and what they were up to. It does include Jackson's fight against the national bank, the results of his feuds with political enemies (of which there were many), and of course the Eaton affair. It is on the brink of being biased against Jackson as well, I must admit.
I learned more about the Mexican War and the acquisition of Texas, New Mexico and California than I have ever known. And I felt this was a good background book for reading about the Civil War. I recommend this book and believe Howe wrote it in an easy style for a non-academic to read. However, I would caution that it is an 855 page book. This isn't a fast read but slower, careful reading is rewarding.