What Hath God Wrought

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

When Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated his invention of an electric telegraph in 1844, his famous message, “What hath God wrought,” expressed the attitude, quite common at the time, that divine providence was responsible for the nation’s territorial expansion as well as its technological and scientific developments. When later transcribing the message, Morse added a question mark, which unintentionally changed the affirmation of a providential faith into a question about whether the United States was a divine blessing to humanity. Daniel Walker Howe explains that he uses Morse’s statement without punctuation in his book’s title because he “seeks both to affirm and to question the value of what Americans of that period did.” While emphasizing the theme of economic and social progress, he also recognizes that “American history between 1815 and 1848 certainly had its dark side: poverty, demagogy, disregard for legal restraints, the perpetuation and expansion of slavery, the dispossession of the Native Americans, and the waging of aggressive war against Mexico.”

What Hath God Wrought is the most recent addition to the prestigious series The Oxford History of the United States and winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in history. Another historian, Charles Sellers, had earlier been commissioned to write the book for the period, but Sellers’s work, which was published in 1991 under the title The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846, was rejected by the late C. Vann Woodward, the series editor at the time, reportedly because of its lack of balance and controversial point of view. According to Sellers, the United States during this period changed profoundly from an agrarian to a capitalistic society, which benefited a small capitalistic class to the detriment of the working-class majority. Rejecting Sellers’s influential “market revolution” thesis, Howe concludes that the weight of historical evidence shows that an active market economy already existed in the eighteenth century. He further argues that the early nineteenth century was first and foremost a period of technological revolutions in communications, transportation, manufacturing, and farming, just as most contemporaries recognized at the time.

Sellers and Howe have fundamentally different views about the developing capitalism of the period. Whereas the former emphasizes its costs and inequalities, Howe tends to focus on its benefits and efficiencies. Sellers holds that the majority of Americans living in the agrarian society of the preceding century were happier and better off than those living in the more modern, urbane society of the nineteenth century. In contrast, Howe sees evidence of real progress and improving conditionsa glass that was at least half full. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, commodities became cheaper and more accessible to the average person. A mattress that sold for fifty dollars in 1815, for instance, was selling for five dollars thirty years later. Although uncertain about whether the disparity between the rich and the poor increased during these decades, he writes that if inequality did grow, it was likely caused primarily by the arrival of large numbers of poor immigrants. Acknowledging that workers resented the inequality that existed, he finds that the small scale of antebellum manufacturing permitted many opportunities for social mobility and “thus blurred the line between capitalist and working classes.”

Looking upon technological innovations as the motor force behind most historical changes, Howe discusses the efforts and accomplishments of many innovators, including Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts, Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, John Deere’s steel plough, and Peter Cooper’s improved locomotive. Howe’s treatment of the communications and transportation revolutions goes far beyond the information to be found in most historical syntheses. The building of turnpikes was of considerable significance, even though they were slow, undependable, and often called “shun-pikes” because of the ease of avoiding the tollbooths. Steamboats provided a dependable way of traveling against the current on powerful rivers like the Mississippi, although they were quite dangerous, with forty-two exploding boilers killing 273 people between 1825 and 1830. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 allowed New York to become the “Empire State,” with the number of ships in New York harbor growing at least 500 percent from 1820 to 1850. Railroads, beginning with the B & O Railroad in 1828, had an even greater impact. By end of 1830, there were 450 locomotives and 3,200 miles of track, twice the number as in Europe....

(The entire section is 1913 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Atlantic Monthly 300, no. 5 (December, 2007): 114-115.

Library Journal 132, no. 8 (November 1, 2007): 83.

The New Yorker 83, no. 33 (October 29, 2007): 88-92.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 25 (June 18, 2007): 45.