Posts Tagged ‘David Walker Howe’

A true history of the Jacksonian era

July 10, 2014

WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by David Walker Howe (2007)  is a masterly synthesis of political, economic, military, social and cultural history, throwing new light on many aspects of the so-called Jacksonian era of American history.  Howe dedicated his book to John Quincy Adams, and asserts that Adams, not Jackson, represented what was best and most important in this era.

I once thought, along with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Age of Jackson and innumerable Democratic speakers at  Jefferson-Jackson Day picnics, of Andrew Jackson as a champion of working people, or at least of white working men, and of the Democratic Party of today as a continuation of the Democratic Party of that era.

        I modified that view over the years without entirely giving it up, but Howe’s book shows me how completely wrong it was, and also what a mistake it is to project the political divisions of the present onto the past.  The basic principle of Jackson’s Democratic Party was white supremacy.

White men, regardless of social status or economic class, were regarded as equally superior to blacks, Indians and Mexicans.

Jackson’s deeds as a slave owner and Indian fighter were as historically significant as his campaign against the Bank of the United States.  The Cherokee, Creek and other Indian tribes once held legal title to most of the land area of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and large sections of other states.

General Jackson’s defeat of the Cherokee and Creek and President Jackson’s support of Indian Removal opened up the Deep South to cotton cultivation, giving slavery a new lease on life.  Cotton quickly became the leading U.S. export crop, and the availability of cheap high-quality cotton provided the basis of the British and New England textile industries, the leading manufacturing industries of their day, so this was an important historical event.

Jackson’s vision of the United States was like Thomas Jefferson’s – a nation of independent white farmers and craftsmen, independent of governmental authority or exploitation by government-chartered banks and corporations.

His opponents, the middle-class Whigs, believed in progress through improvements in technology, infrastructure (canals and railroads), public education and humanitarian reform. Most Whigs were not abolitionists, but most abolitionists were either non-political or Whigs.

Evangelical Protestantism in this era was a strong force for progress, according to Howe.  Protestantism, progressivism and patriotism were not at odds; neither were self-improvement and social reform.  Most evangelical Protestants, in Howe’s telling, regarded them as part of the same thing.  They thought the Second Coming of Christ was coming soon, and they thought they could hasten it by becoming better people and making the world a better place.  This is very different from the defensive evangelical Protestantism of our own day.

Most of the great Unitarians and Transcendentalists also were Whigs.  Most Catholic immigrants, believing in a different theology and in conflict with native-born Protestant workers and business owners, were Democrats.

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Andy Jackson and the battle of New Orleans

November 20, 2010

When I was a boy learning American history in grade school 60 or so years ago, we were taught how in 1815, Andrew Jackson and his unlettered Tennessee militia in the Battle of New Orleans defeated the British regulars through their superior marksmanship.

Our imagination was captured by the story of how American common sense and self-reliance defeated European training and discipline.  The song by Jimmy Driftwood became popular later, but it expressed how we boys saw things.

Recently I learned what Paul Harvey would have called “the rest of the story” in the opening chapter of a Pulitzer-winning history entitled What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 by David Walker Howe.  The marksmanship of the Tennessee militia was not especially accurate or devastating.  The mass slaughter of the British troops was from the superior accuracy of the American artillery.  The cannons, firing grapeshot, were cast in government armories and fired by expertly trained gunners.

The Tennessee militia were not particularly accurate in their shooting, not because they were bad marksmen, but because most of them carried muskets instead of rifles.  Members of the Tennessee militia lost an informal marksmanship contest to New Orleans city militiamen because the New Orleans marksmen had rifles.  There also were Kentucky militia who were even more poorly armed, and they broke and ran in the face of the British troops.

We Americans remember the battle of New Orleans because it was our only victorious major land battle in the War of 1812.  During most of the war, the trained, professional British army marched up and down the country at will, easily defeating the untrained, amateur American militia.  On the other hand, as Howe noted, we Americans more than held our own in the war at sea because of the superior American gunnery – in other words, because of our industrial and technological capability.

We celebrate the frontier marksmen over the trained artillery gunners because we conflate education and training with aristocratic privilege.  Of course the artillerymen didn’t win the battle all by themselves either.  The Tennessee militia’s hardihood and General Jackson’s forceful leadership were admirable and important – just not substitutes for professionalism and expert technique.

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