What Hath God Wrought|
Daniel Walker Howe, 2007
I didn't feel like reading separate books about the slew of C-listers who
make up the presidential roster between Jackson and Lincoln. It'd be like
reading Solo Avengers issues about Starfox and Doctor Druid. And
since I had enjoyed Howe's Political Culture of the
American Whigs, I thought I'd tackle this book, his history of the
U.S. from (roughly) 1815-1848.
Unfortunately, unlike in Whigs, Howe by his own admission has no
grand argument to make here. He does claim that the main engines of change
in these years were advances in communication and transportation technology
rather than any kind of overarching transformation of the economic system.
He also makes the case that these years represented a move away from the
notion of citizenship as a privilege conferred by material success and
toward one of citizenship as a right of all white males — but
only of white males. Howe points out that even as the franchise was
extended to those without property, it was taken away from the blacks and
women who had qualified for it under the aristocratic 18th-century laws.
And of course this is the period in which the philosophical differences
of the revolutionary era gave way to the more strictly sectional disputes
that gave rise to the Civil War. However, one thing that comes through in
Howe's treatment is the extent to which U.S. history has always been the story
of two significantly different countries awkwardly sharing a government.
Northern history during the period of What Hath God Wrought is a story
of canals, of textile mills, of dismal Dickensian cities, of discrimination
against the Irish. Federalists such as John Adams had hoped that the War of
Independence would represent a separation from Britain, but not any great
departure — the way a grown son might really want to leave home
without actually rejecting his family and all it stands for — and
in the North, this was more or less the case. But whatever problems the North
had were magnified to nightmarish proportions in the South. Swap out the
incipient depredations of capitalism and swap in chattel slavery, people owning
other human beings, beating them, raping them, selling them as commodities.
Swap out xenophobic immigrant-bashing and swap in what is today euphemistically
called "ethnic cleansing," the wholesale extirpation of several nations' worth
of people from their homelands. Howe notes that while riots were endemic to
the entire country, the casualties were always an order of magnitude greater in
the South, and that lawlessness there extended from the streets (where
gunfights and mob violence substituted for a justice system) to the highest
levels of government. Every 8th- and 11th-grade U.S. history class spends
time on the Nullification Crisis, for instance, but I was more struck by Howe's
account of how Southern officials casually ordered the burning of all
abolitionist mail, which was a new story to me. No wonder that when Southern
presidents got elected they tended not to care whether their actions were,
Speaking of whom, on to the presidents (since the purpose of this exercise was
to be able to provide myself snappier sound bites than the ones I was able to
give Saer Coulter when she asked me for a rundown last year). This book starts
at the tail end of the Madison Administration and ends with Zachary Taylor in
office, so I might as well just recap the whole bunch:
George Washington: A robot programmed to
relentlessly pursue personal success. Did some uncommonly noble things
(chiefly, rejecting the kingship of America) but mainly with an eye toward
his place in history.
John Adams: A pompous martinet who, a noted,
wanted to separate from Britain without departing from its social forms.
Noteworthy for his wonderful relationship with his very impressive wife.
Thomas Jefferson: The geek president with
a scientific/technological bent. More interested in abstract political
theories than in the actual human lives affected by them. Endlessly
James Madison: Nerd! Held in thrall by
fixed ideas (e.g., embargoes are great) even if they didn't work or couldn't
pass in the legislature. Awful at handling people.
James Monroe: Seems to have been kind of an
empty suit. His cabinet and generals kept themselves busy, but the extent
to which he directed their actions seems pretty limited. I was hoping Howe
would have more to say about him than Gary Hart did, but Monroe still came
off as a cipher.
And that brings us to the star of What Hath God Wrought:
John Quincy Adams: Howe's hero!
In a very superficial sense, John Quincy Adams set the template for George
Walker Bush: son of a still-living former president, trotting out his middle
name (or at least his middle initial) to distinguish himself from Pops.
That's pretty much where the resemblances end. For in the Adams clan, John
Quincy was the good son, the dutiful son, the one groomed for a life in
politics, the one who spent his childhood and adolescence attached to
diplomatic missions, while his brother Charles barely made it to 30 before
succumbing to alcoholism. Compare the Bush brothers: the "good son," the
one who graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2½ years, was close to his father,
and was groomed for a political career, was
. The one who became president was the fuckup.
John Quincy Adams led a monkish existence of Bible study and early-morning
cold-water swims; in this respect and in his earnest virtue he reminds me
of no one more than
Fred Rogers. His presidency was undistinguished, but after his term
was up he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he became a
master of parliamentary judo and a gadfly on the left, dodging gag rules
in order to present petitions against slavery and on behalf of increased
civil rights for women, free blacks, and indigenous peoples. He spoke out
in favor of government support for science, education, and infrastructure
and against the Southern Democrats'
The period covered by What Hath God Wrought was marked by and a widespread sense that the mid-19th century
constituted the End Times. Among those awaiting the eschaton, two strains
were dominant. The premillennialists believed that Jesus was returning
posthaste — quite possibly on
1844 — and that he would usher in a thousand-year golden age
before the last judgment and the end of the world. More interesting to me
are the postmillennialists, who believed that Jesus would only return
after a thousand-year golden age, which would have to be brought about
by us. And while premillennialism, which has of late eclipsed its cousin,
is a highly destructive creed — , who wanted to open all U.S. land to extractive industry,
famously dismissed the idea of conserving resources for future generations
because "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the
Lord returns" — postmillennialism was a major progressive force
in America. One of my favorite factoids in Howe's book is that John Quincy
Adams called for the U.S. to convert to the metric system, thusly:
"But if man upon earth be an improvable being; if that universal peace, which
was the object of a Saviour's mission, which is the desire of the philosopher,
the longing of the philanthropist, the trembling hope of the Christian, is a
blessing to which the futurity of mortal man has a claim of more than mortal
promise; if the Spirit of Evil is, before the final consummation of things, to
be cast down from his dominion over men, and bound in the chains of a thousand
years, the foretaste here of man's eternal felicity, then this system of common
instruments to accomplish all the changes of social and friendly commerce, will
furnish the links of sympathy between the inhabitants of the most distant
regions; the metre will surround the globe in use, as well as in mutiplied
extension; and one language of weights and measures will be spoken from the
equator to the poles."
That's John Quincy Adams in a nutshell: so postmillennial he was a
Andrew Jackson: Howe points out that by the
end of the 1830s the northern U.S. had caught up to or even surpassed Europe
in many areas of development: it had the best dentistry in the world, for
instance, and by far the best educational system for women. But the southern
U.S. was the equivalent of what we today call the third world, and Andrew
Jackson was a third-world strongman.
In the Amazon reviews of this book you'll find a few Jackson fans out there
who hate this book, charging it with "political correctness" — I
guess if Newt Gingrich can make a comeback, so can this phrase. Even one of
the positive reviews chides Howe for his "insistence on applying contemporary
moral standards to judge historical figures. Just about every dominant
personality from the time period is appraised on whether, from our modern
point of view, they were 'correct' about race and gender issues." The basic
form of this argument is that "you can't criticize someone for being a man
of his time." But I think that this very charge reveals the motivation behind
one of the most distinctive aspects of Howe's book, its heavy emphasis on John
Quincy Adams. Adams's existence gives the lie to the argument that to attack
Andrew Jackson is to be guilty of anachronism. It demonstrates that Jackson
wasn't a loathsome human being merely by 21st-century standards — he
was a loathsome human being even compared to his immediate predecessor. Howe
says that he hates the phrase "the Jacksonian Era" because it implies that
the nation was more or less in lockstep behind Southern Democratic ideology
when, on the contrary, there was a range of opinion even in Jackson's own time.
Jackson and the Southern Democrats were on the morally inferior end of that
It seems to be a reflex among conservatives, when their policies inevitably
lead to disaster, to argue that everyone else was just as blind as they were.
Nobody could have predicted the collapse of the New Orleans levees! Nobody
could have predicted that the war in Iraq would devolve into a quagmire!
Nobody could have predicted that deregulation of the financial system would
cause the economy to tank! But in fact there were farsighted people who
predicted all of these things. Similarly, even in the era of supposedly
unquestioned white male supremacy, there were those who questioned and
fought it. I've seen a number of reviews attack Howe's book for mentioning
the women's rights movement, arguing that it wasn't "major" or "important"
during this period. These are likely the same people who argue that the
hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to voice their
opposition to the coming war in 2003 weren't important either. Part of the
role of the historian is to show that, in any era, there are a visionary few
who, rather than being smugly content to be
recognize that they have a responsibility to try to get out ahead of theirs.
Martin Van Buren: The Little Magician! I knew next to nothing about
this guy; I'd heard his name associated with the advent of machine politics,
but little else. It turns out that he fancied himself quite the puppetmaster.
Here's an example of the sort of shit this dude pulled. The demise of the
Federalist Party on the national level meant that the 1824 election came down
to a four-way melee among members of the sole remaining party, the Republicans,
rather than a contest between two distinct camps. The congressional caucus
that normally chose the Republican nominee chose Treasury Secretary William
Crawford, but he suffered a stroke and so it looked as though the election
would be a three-way fight among Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and
House Speaker Henry Clay. However, Van Buren, then a senator from New York,
continued to support Crawford, and took advantage of the fact that, in
elections in which no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote, the 12th
Amendment specifies that the House of Representatives select a president from
among the top three finishers. The New York legislature had allocated New
York's electoral votes as follows: Adams 25, Clay 7, Crawford 4. But when the
electors actually met, Van Buren made the rounds and flipped one Clay voter
to Adams, one to Jackson, and one to Crawford. The result was that instead
of the ultimate electoral vote being Jackson 98, Adams 83, Clay 40, Crawford
40 — all four thus eligible in the House that Clay led —
it was Jackson 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41, Clay 37. Clay was now out!
Next came the House vote, conducted as follows: each state's congressional
delegation voted, and the winner received that state's endorsement. With
24 states in the union, the first man to receive the endorsement of 13 states
would become president. The tally, minus New York's vote, was Adams 12,
Jackson 7, Crawford 4. Not quite enough: Adams still needed New York. And
of New York's delegation of 34 members, the number who had decided to vote
for Adams stood at... 17. Perfect! Adams needed a single vote to
win New York and thus the presidency; Van Buren relished the prospect of
being able to name the favor he would receive in return for supplying that
vote. The only problem was that Stephen Van Rensselaer decided on his
own initiative to become Adams's 18th vote, preventing Van Buren from playing
Van Buren's next move was to attach himself to Jackson, who named him secretary
of state following his own election as president in 1828. Jackson's term in
office was immediately dominated by the ridiculous Petticoat Affair, in which
the wives of Vice President John Calhoun and most of Jackson's cabinet refused
to have anything to do with War Secretary John Eaton's wife Peggy, whom they
considered slutty. Jackson demanded that his underlings get their wives under
control; instead, they resigned. Van Buren, however, was a widower, and saw
his opening: he was very courteous to Peggy, and in return became Jackson's
favorite and, following Jackson's break with Calhoun, his vice president and
political heir. He would become the last sitting vice president to be elected
to the presidency until George H.W. Bush in 1988.
But, like Bush, Van Buren had attached himself to a president whose disastrous
fiscal policies left him to inherit an economy that was headed off a cliff.
Jackson had promoted deregulation of the financial industry, and banks took
full advantage; while, in theory, the banknotes they wrote could be exchanged
for gold or silver, as long as not too many people actually attempted to do
so the banks could essentially print as much money as they wanted. Treasury
officials noted that government coffers were filling up with an awful lot of
dubious paper, as people would go to wildcat banks, ask for a loan (and the
banks were all too happy to oblige, since a $1000 loan is easy to give when
all you have to do is print a $1000 banknote), and then use the wildcat notes
to buy land the government had seized from the indigenous nations. So Jackson
issued an order that the government would no longer accept any payment for
land other than gold and silver. People rushed to the banks to find that
they could not in fact turn in their notes for gold and silver and that their
paper money was therefore worthless. Their imaginary wealth vanished, the
banks collapsed, and the U.S. entered a depression. And with Jackson having
killed the Bank of the United States, there was no central agency capable of
countercyclical measures, so the depression lasted for six years.
Doing nothing was a central theme of the Van Buren administration. There are
people who run for president because they want to use the power to some
purpose, and there are those who run because they think it'd be cool to sit
at the top of the mountain. Van Buren was one of the latter. And his most
famous quote perfectly captures the essence of the slimy politician concerned
entirely with election and not at all with governance: "Your cause is just,
but I can do nothing for you. If I take up for you, I shall lose the vote of
William Henry Harrison: "I died in 30 days!"
As such, Harrison illustrates how, despite the temptation to see history as
a chain of inevitable events, it is actually extremely susceptible to the
butterfly effect. Henry Clay was Mr. Whig. Had he ever become president, the
country would have proceeded along a very different ideological footing from
that pursued by Jackson, Van Buren, and Polk. He certainly tried often enough.
He ran for president in 1824, 1832, 1840, 1844, and 1848. It is well known
that he came extremely close in 1844 — he lost by a razor-thin
margin in New York, and New York would have given him the White House. Less
well known is that in 1840, Clay got even closer. He led on the first through
fourth ballots at the convention before Winfield Scott's supporters stampeded
to Harrison on the fifth; Van Buren was weak enough that any Whig would very
likely have won the general election. Harrison's people then offered Clay
the opportunity to select the Whigs' VP candidate, including himself if he
so chose. And while we know what would have done, Clay refused to
participate any further in the process if he couldn't be the nominee for the
top of the ticket. Had he accepted the VP nod, he would have had to wait
a grand total of one extra month before taking office. Had Clay been
president through the 1840s, there would have been no war with Mexico and the
Civil War would likely not have occurred.
John Tyler: This is why you don't nominate Sarah Palin for vice
president, especially if you're a doddering old man.
Tyler was chosen because he'd been in Clay's camp during the convention but
didn't feel the need to get permission from the unresponsive Clay before
accepting a spot on the ticket. He was also from the South, which seemed
like a good way to "balance" the ticket given that Harrison was a Northerner.
Overlooked was the fact that Tyler had been a Jacksonian who had only joined
up with the Whigs because he was pissed off at Jackson over the Nullification
Crisis. As president, he vetoed the entire Whig program and was . The poster of presidents
in my fifth-grade class listed both the 9th and 10th presidents as Whigs, as if
they neatly balanced the Democrats who had been the 7th and 8th. In reality,
from March of 1829 to March of 1849, Whig control over the executive branch
amounted to little more than the two hours that William Henry Harrison spent
reading his inaugural address without a damn coat.
Everyone hated Tyler. His cabinet quit on him early on, except for Daniel
Webster who quit on him later. John Quincy Adams tried to get him impeached.
He went 1-for-6 in his Supreme Court nominations. Four of his cabinet nominees
were spiked, one of them three times on the same day. On the other hand, he
did manage to marry a thirty years his junior while in office, so
perhaps he just tailored his appeal to untraditional demographic segments.
James K. Polk: Young Hickory. Alito to Jackson's Scalia. Wikipedia
says, "Scholars have ranked him 8th to 12th on the list of greatest presidents
for his ability to set an agenda and achieve all of it." Hey, you know who
else had that ability? Genghis fuckin' Khan.
Polk's agenda was to invade a neighboring country, seize most of its territory,
and cut tariffs while doing so. On its face this seems not to make much
sense — like, how are you going to pay for your war? —
but we've seen the same combination of aggressive war and tax cuts this very
decade and a moment's thought reveals how they go together. People will pay
any price to survive a defensive war, but the whole point of a war of conquest
like Polk's war on Mexico is that you're trying to take stuff. And people
motivated by greed don't like taxes.
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, "I like paying taxes — with
them I buy civilization." But while buying civilization was the essence of
the Whig agenda, Southern Democrats such as Polk had little use for it. In
the past I've used Sid Meier's Civilization series as a metaphor here:
the Whigs were like players who furnish their cities with every last available
building and lay down roads in every square, while Democrats were like
those — more successful in early versions of the game! —
who rarely let their cities build up beyond size 1 or 2 but instead just
crank out units to gobble up more land. What's interesting here is that
barracks are buildings. Which is to say that maintaining a standing
army requires a strong central government with a functioning taxation system.
Military men such as Washington and Jackson had always made the army an
exception to their otherwise libertarian leanings, but civilian Republicans
of the 18th century and Democrats of the 19th did not. They continued to
believe that the military needs of the United States could be met by gathering
mobs of volunteers. This led to strange ironies such as the faction that
would later become the Democrats promoting as Jackson's 1824 campaign song a
ditty called "Hunters of Kentucky," a tribute to the very Kentucky militia
that Jackson had singled out as entirely useless during the Battle of New
Orleans. The short of it is that Polk's faction wanted to go to war, but hated
the army, which was made up of Whigs. As Thomas Hart Benton noted, "They
wanted a small war, just large enough to require a treaty of peace, and not
large enough to make military reputations, dangerous for the presidency. Never
were men at the head of government less imbued with military spirit, or more
addicted to ."
Polk jerked his generals around — capriciously shuffling troops
from one to another, etc. — for fear that one of them would somehow
wind up as a war hero and capture the White House for the Whig Party. Despite
Polk's meddling, this is precisely what happened in 1848, as General Zachary
Taylor was elected. But he'll have to wait for the next installment, along
with Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan. (And if the guys above were Starfox and
Doctor Druid, now we're getting into Living Lightning and D-Man territory.)
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