What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
By Daniel Walker Howe

Illustrated, maps bibliographical essay, index, 855 pp., 2007. Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016, $35 plus shipping.

Reviewer: Walt Albro
Walt Albro is a magazine writer and editor who lives in Rockville, Md.

If Henry Clay, a member of the Whig party from the slave state of Kentucky, had won the U.S. Presidential election in 1844, the Civil War would not have been fought.

This is one of the remarkable assertions in this excellent book by historian Daniel Walker Howe. It is the latest addition to the multi-volume Oxford History of the United States (an earlier title in the series is Battle Cry of Freedom, 1848-65 by James McPherson).

The 1844 election was won instead by James K. Polk, a Jacksonian Democrat. What followed were the Mexican War, the Wilmot Proviso and inflamed sectional passions over the issue of slavery in the territories.

Although President Clay would have faced a Democratic Congress, he probably would have used the prerogatives of office to strengthen the Whig party — forestalling the need for a new political party, the Republicans, to emerge in the 1850s, Howe speculates.

“In the South, he would have encouraged moderation on the slavery issue, including the acceptance of an alternative future characterized by economic diversification and, in the long run, the gradual compensated emancipation which he had advocated all his life,” Howe writes.

This rumination about a possible alternative history for the 1860s is just one of the many Civil War-related issues discussed in this authoritative volume, technically a history of the Age of Jackson, which covers the period from the battle of New Orleans (1815) to the end of the Mexican War (1848). There is plenty here to whet the appetite of those with an interest in Civil War history.

During this era, there were huge advances in such fields as transportation (the rise of the railroad and steam-powered ships) and communications (the telegraph, mass-circulation newspapers). Also, the nation expanded to absorb such giant land masses as Texas and California.

Although this period is commonly referred to as the Jacksonian Era, Howe argues that the term is misleading. He says that Jackson’s belief in white supremacy and steadfast defense of the institution of slavery led the country down the wrong path, a road that ultimately ended in Civil War.

While Jackson’s version of America’s future was flawed, Howe insists that Federalists (later Whigs) such as John Quincy Adams got the future right. The Federalists worked for an economically diverse United States, supported public education and advocated the rights of native Americans, women and African-Americans.

Howe notes that the Whigs, “facilitated the transformation of the U. S. from a collection of parochial agriculture communities into a cosmopolitan nation integrated by commerce, industry, information and voluntary associations as well as by political ties. The Whigs were the party of America’s future.”

Howe does a good job of reviewing events of the 1840s and 1850s that would ultimately come back and haunt the Confederacy in the 1860s.

One telling incident happened after the Panic of 1839. Eight states plus Florida territory defaulted on interest payments of their bonds, two-thirds of which were held overseas. All but one of these states were in the South or West.

In addition, Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida territory repudiated the principal on these bonds. Twenty years later when representatives of the Confederacy, hats in hand, asked British bankers to extend credit to the fledgling Confederacy, the London money men recalled their earlier losses.

They remembered in particular that a Southerner named Jefferson Davis had defended the repudiation. Not surprisingly, the bankers chose to extend only a token line of credit to the Confederacy.

The South’s fiscal irresponsibility in the 1840s foreshadowed its defeat before the Civil War even began.