As bookends to this period I have read a significant number of books about the American Revolution and its aftermath and a whole lot of fiction and non-fiction about the Civil War and the American West in the last half of the century. My reading from the period has almost entirely been about either the Napoleanic Wars in the fiction of OBrian and Cornwell or tales of pioneers, explorers, and mountain men by Guthrie and McMurtry (The Big Sky, The Berrybinder Narratives). Especially notable was the deadly removals of most of the Indians east of the Mississippi (think Trail of Tears) and the acquisition most of the American southwest and California from Mexico as the spoils of a war we started. In Philbricks Mayflower I learned of peaceful relations with the Indians for about 100 years, and in Ambroses Undaunted Courage, I was left amazed how the Lewis and Clarke explorations in the Louisiana Purchase was welcomed by many tribes and was almost entirely violence-free. The other tarnish on our plucky little republic I sought to remove in this read concerns the mystery of why it took so shamefully long to end slavery and whether there wasnt some chance to do it without the Civil War. What I learned is that there is some sort of inevitability to history, that in the words of a David Mitchell character the weak are meat the strong do eat. Jackson and Polk, my new targets for shame Jackson is admired by many due to his ideals of individual sovereignty against the tyranny of the majority and corrupt power of the elite, core elements of the Democratic Party he founded. He got his juice from as a kickass military hero, though he was particularly brutal in his part in the Indian wars and overblown as a winner of the Battle of New Orleans. The engagement of the British in New Orleans in the War of 1812 turned out to be of limited import coming as it did after a peace treaty was already set in London. It was his policies to encourage southern states to put the Indians under their laws and powers and to allow federal minions to force unfair agreements with the Indians and carry out poorly planned removal actions that led to the travesty and tragedy that resulted. In all the U.S. got 100 million acres from the Indians, including a lot of rich farmland, in exchange for 50 million acres of poor land in Oklahoma and total expenses of $70 million. Texas declaring independence soon after Mexico gained independence itself from Spain provided Polk with annexation of the region as a state. The expected skirmishes with Mexicans who saw them as invaders kicked off a war that Polk planned in advance to take advantage of. Despite having no standing army, it took only a surprisingly modest number troops and volunteers to New Mexico and California to defeat the meager military outposts Mexico had in place. Politically, Polk balanced conciliatory negotiations with the Brits in the northwest, i.e. letting them have British Columbia over the 54-40 or fight crowd, against the favorable outcome of the Mexican War. The acquisition of future states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California for about $18 million was a bounty that fed into the sea-to-sea Manifest Destiny conception that moralistic opponents could not reverse. Another black mark for me is that he mouthed the words of deploring slavery but even while in office quietly acquired a bunch for his Kentucky plantation The new lands and new states being formed out of the Louisiana Purchase made the whole conflict over slavery worse as political forces wrangled over how many would be slave states or free, which affected the balance of power in Congress. The book ends with a meeting of early feminists at Seneca Falls New York to forge a revised Declaration of Independence, one with women added to all men are created equal and assertion of their rights to work, own property, and vote. As a current resident of Maine, I can better understand how it came to pass it was occupied by the British in the War of 1812 and later played a part in the manufacturing revolution linked to the water power of its rivers.
"In America I saw more than America," Tocqueville explained; "I sought there the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress." Tocqueville is quoted here, in this marvelous work of history, a statement made contemporaneous to the time examined (1815-1848), but one that would serve a look-around today. By sharp contrast is the portrait of John Quincy Adams, who continues to grow in my estimation. I found this: To the Memory of John Quincy Adams. I will eventually read the rest of the 'Oxford History' series (this is my third), but there are also more books on Adams and Polk which now seem essential. _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ Polk's war on Mexico, John Quincy Adams believed, reduced the Constitution to "a menstrous sic rag." He has to learn to say what he really thinks.
October 2013 - Second reading - remarkable entry into the history of the time, full of details, synthesis and well-considered opinion. But Howe is remarkable with intellectual life, cultural developments, the nature of Whig political thought, and the details and contours of religious life. If the book is not as breezy as the McDougall I finished earlier this year, its intellectual richness, depth of detail, and clear and well-thought writing is more than enough to keep my memories of the class with Howe alive.
Howe has thoroughly mastered the literature of the period and he writes a compelling account of the nation's development during these critical years.
This is a true cultural history, not merely a political or economic history as so much of the literature on Jacksonian America is. In fact, he rejects the term "Jacksonian America" -- rightly, in my opinion -- and even dedicates this book to the memory of John Quincy Adams.
In the first part of the book, Howe argues that this period in America constituted a "communication revolution," which is a thread he never fully develops, choosing instead to pick it up and drop it off at various points. For instance, Howe has a chapter called "The Awakenings of Religion." In this chapter, he talks about revivals, millennial movements, the great preachers, e.g., Lyman Beecher, and the evolution of various religious sects. This calls for a separate timeline than the rest of the book; that is, he'll talk about religion during the presidencies of John Quincy Adams through James Polk, then in the next chapter, you'll be back in the presidency of Adams. The book is exhausting in its determination to tell of this period of American history from all viewpoints. For instance, during the chapter on the Mexican War, Howe devotes several paragraphs to the role of women in the war. One of the great services of this book is tearing Andrew Jackson down from his pedestal and putting him in the pig pen where he deserves. The crowning achievement of Jackson's presidency was the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Cherokee Indians - who had developed white customs, a written language, and started farming, like we told them to - being forced to march to Oklahoma. Here, Howe goes a bit overboard (he overplays his hand by dedicating the book to JQA). I suppose, though, it's understandable, since Howe wrote a book on the Whigs. Winfield Scott is also rescued from the dustbin of history and repositioned as perhaps the greatest American general of all time. The lasting achievement of this book is taking a long, hard, critical look at a mostly forgotten gap in American history.
These years are sometimes considered by those with shallow historical knowledge to be merely the time which transpired from the early nineteenth century until the beginnings of the Civil War, but in fact it was a time of fundamental change in the country. Howe demonstrates that Morse's lifting of a quote from the Biblical book of Numbers was not an accident, as it reflected the opinions of many Americans who saw the huge expansion of the nation's territory by that date as the fulfillment of a providential (or heavenly) destiny. Howe bristles at typical references to "Jacksonian Democracy", concerning the power of the popular vote in choosing a president for the first time, and the channeling of ideology into two dominant political parties. As Howe states, there was no democracy for the huge number of slaves, or for the great majority of free blacks living in the country; neither were women given the chance to participate in democratic elections. Howe early, and often, ascribes the focus of Andrew Jackson's presidency, reflected later in the administration of James Polk, as a dedication to the preservation and extension of African American slavery, and expropriation of Native Americans and Mexicans. By the time that war had ended, there were many, and Adams was their leader, who saw the shortcomings in the nation's transportation and manufacturing infrastructure as damaging to the country's war effort and impediments to future economic progress. By 1834, defections would occur in Jackson's now-named Democratic Party in response to the president's placing of the government's political power into the hands of his close friends, nicknamed the "kitchen cabinet", and his placing of the old National Bank's funds into the hands of bankers friendly to his administration. As Howe states, the Whigs and Democrats would constitute the nation's two major political parties for the next twenty years. America would have a whole new Southwest by the end of Polk's first term, but his accomplishments would sink his presidency and make the Civil War inevitable. The very war which fulfilled the imperial ambitions of Polk and his Democrats created dissension in his own party; he was replaced by a Whig general, (Taylor), who had become a public hero. Howe's contention is that the Democrats dominated American policy during these years, but America's future was represented by the lineage of Whigs from John Quincy Adams to Abraham Lincoln, who favored a strong national government and economic modernization.
Howe takes us through Americas transition from a rural nation of family farmers to one in the throes of industrialization, urbanization, the communications and transportation revolution, increasingly diverse immigration, emerging religious plurality, millennialism, the birth of the womens rights movement, powerful political parties and intense divisive politics, ethnic cleansing, imperialism, dependence on king cotton and slavery, and disingenuous self-serving presidents. Two themes stood out to me: (1) greed as a primary driver of slavery, ethnic cleansing, imperialism and political divisiveness; (2) the impact of the Second Great Awakening and the transportation and communication revolutions on social values. It led to the divisive politics that fought against the national bank and all government programs aimed at economic development, least the bank or government become powerful enough to challenge the slave owners. The importance to the South of keeping the federal government small created deep political divisions. In opposition the defeated president John Quincey Adams and others who believed in federal government investment in America formed the Whig Party. The Whigs were strongest in the industrializing North where businessmen believed the federal government should be an instrument of progress. This led to the beginning of the womens suffrage movement in 1848. The addition of Mexican territories brought to a head national division over slavery beginning with the Wilmot Proviso and ending in the Civil War. A third event was the Irish potato famine which brought huge numbers of Catholics to Protestant America resulting in nativism, gang warfare and deep ethnic political polarization that also contributed to the war.
My theory: he mentions in the footnotes that he reuses parts from his own previously published articles.
He is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford University in England and Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. Howe graduated from East High School (Denver, Colorado), and received his Bachelor of Arts at Harvard University, magna cum laude in American History and Literature in 1959, and his Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley in 1966.