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Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
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The Transformation of America, 1815–1848

A-What Hath God WroughtIn our national drama, the first half of the 19th century is often regarded as an intermission between the era of the Founding Fathers and the Civil War. Yet according to Daniel Walker Howe, the events of these years set up nearly everything that followed—not just the War between the States but conflicts that animate American life even today. Howe delivers a comprehensive account of the period and explores markets, religion, voluntary organizations, territorial growth, literature, social reform, political parties, and the concept of democracy. No economic determinist, he holds a particular place in his heart for the Whig Party (the book is dedicated to the memory of John Quincy Adams) and especially for the communications revolution brought about by the telegraph of Samuel Morse (whose biblically themed first telegram inspired the title).
Oxford University Press. 928 pages. $35. ISBN: 0195078942

Atlantic 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Howe covers it all—the Jacksonian and market ‘revolutions,’ the rise of sectional tensions, westward expansion, the Transcendentalists, revivalism—through astute pen portraits, authoritative analysis, and gripping narrative. The Oxford series has been uneven, but this volume is a masterpiece."

New York Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"An expert in the field, Mr. Howe has skillfully framed a story, between the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, that becomes eloquent once you think about it: The rise of nationalism, the temperance movement, and booming growth all add up to an America much more familiar to us than that of James Madison. … Lauded by other historians as an important yet accessible landmark, Mr. Howe’s study promises odd new angles on America in an election year." Benjamin Lytal

New Yorker 4 of 5 Stars
"The women’s-rights movement, which grew out of the antislavery movement, which grew out of revivalism, which was made possible by advances in transportation and communication, is the strongest evidence for the interpretive weight that Howe places on social, cultural, and religious forces as agents of change, and makes What Hath God Wrought a bold challenge. … Howe’s synthesis does what a synthesis is supposed to do: it brings all these things together." Jill Lepore

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Howe brings an impressive array of strengths to the daunting task of encapsulating these busy, complicated three-plus decades within a single (admittedly, very long) volume. … [Howe] is a genuine rarity: an English intellectual who not merely writes about the United States but actually understands it." Jonathan Yardley

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"What Hath God Wrought examines is the dark side of American history—and the impending crisis over slavery. But Howe is too Whiggish not to see its ‘more hopeful aspects.’" Glenn C. Altschuler

Critical Summary

Both academics and lay readers praised What Hath God Wrought, but they appreciated it for different reasons. It is certainly an exhaustively researched and well-written historical survey—exactly what a volume in the Oxford History Series ought to be. American historians admired its elegant synthesis but also understood that Howe is attempting to lead his readers and colleagues away from the strictly economic explanations that have often dominated writing on this period. Historian Jill Lepore, for example, thought that the change in perspective helps Howe subtly explain many aspects of the period, such as the women’s rights movement. Only historian Glenn C. Altschuler believed that Howe has some "axioms to grind" in his reworking of so-called Jacksonian Democracy. Howe’s approach also brings nonacademic readers back into the conversation, though at over 900 pages, the book is probably best suited for history buffs.