The search for and, when it cannot be found, the construction of a usable past remains the overriding task of our official historians, who believe that we are forever on the cusp of a new age.  The opposite could be said of Thucydides, who sought “an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble it.”  Daniel Walker Howe titles the Prologue to his grand synthesis of American history between the second English and first Mexican War “The Defeat of the Past.”  The idea that the past can be defeated, overcome, or transcended is an Enlightenment conceit that found receptive soil in North America; it has since grown into one of our most powerful and persistent myths.

For Howe, the past is but the prelude to the present; its persons and parties are neatly divided between those who are hastening its glorious and godlike consummation and those who persist in hindering it.  In Howe’s telling, history is emptied of all tragedy and contingency.  He would deny the charge, but his tragedy consists in merely not doing sooner what eventually will be done, and contingency is a mere detour on the road to our providential destination.  When he anoints the Whig Party of Henry Clay “the party of America’s future” who “deserve to be remembered,” what is he saying but that everyone else deserves to be forgotten?

Howe’s volume is the latest addition to the Oxford history of the United States.  Some readers may recall that Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (1991) was initially chosen for this historiographical niche.  Its reduction in rank marks the ascendancy of race and sex over class in the trinity of oppression.  We can say goodbye to the tribunitian view of Andrew Jackson argued for by Arthur Schlesinger and, most recently, by Sean Wilentz.  Howe portrays Old Hickory as an authoritarian, a racist, and an imperialist.

Howe rejects the term Jacksonian Democracy as “inappropriate” because only white men could vote.  He argues that the Jacksonians were essentially white supremacists and imperialists, dedicated to the perpetuation of African slavery and the “extension of white supremacy across the North American continent.”  Everything else they claimed to stand for was secondary to those ends, or merely instrumental.  Readers familiar with the volume next in line, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (1989), will recognize in Howe a kindred spirit, aflame with zeal to trample out the grapes of wrath.

The back of the jacket includes praise for the book by one Prof. Kathryn Kish Sklar, who finds it “a compelling new interpretation of the historical foundations of modern America.”  Historical scholarship must be “new” in order to be published, as if historical research were like medicine or astrophysics rather than a liberal art.  The truth is that no history of the American past is really “new.”  Howe’s interpretation is novel only in relation to that which immediately preceded it.  His perspective is that of an abolitionist and Radical Republican.

Historians are not supposed to take sides in past political conflicts, nor are they supposed to project the values and preoccupations of the present into the past, yet they all do it to one degree or another.  Retrospective partisanship has the same effect on the mind as does partisanship in the present: It simplifies, blinds, and divides.  By siding with the National Republicans against the Old Republicans, the Whigs against the Democrats, the North against the South, Howe creates an alternate history (“if only”) in which the slaves might have been freed, the Indians groomed for citizenship, rapacity checked, violence put to an end, the economy planned and regulated—if only the enlightened nationalism of James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay had prevailed over the racism and demagoguery of the Democrats.  It all went wrong in 1829, when that devil Andrew Jackson rode into the White House.

It is easy for Howe to project onto the Whigs his various fantasies, for the Whigs never really exercised power during their brief 20-year existence.  But we do have an idea of what they would have done.  Starting in 1861, under a new name, they did exercise power, and we know what followed: a riot of privilege, a cornucopia of corruption, reckless expansion, financial panics, and violent class warfare.  When Howe praises the Whig ideal of “a government acting in partnership with private enterprise to promote public prosperity and enlightenment,” he betrays a shocking naiveté.  Americans rebelled against that kind of system in the 1770’s, then known as mercantilism: Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations (1776) against it.  The Jacksonians were economic liberals, as well as agrarians, but Howe portrays them as economic primitives, opposed to “modernization.”

If there is one thing that is novel in this book, it is the author’s praise of Christianity.  (Academic historians generally have treated religion as a method of social control.)  Howe believes that American Protestantism fostered literacy, popular education, scientific research, social reform, and the practice of democracy.  He reveals much that will make an ACLU lawyer squirm: that Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation” was a later judicial imposition; that “a strict separation of church and state . . . did not characterize the young republic”; that “Bible-reading in the common schools remained widespread”; and “that virtually everyone believed in intelligent design.”

Nevertheless, he fails to understand religious developments of great significance.  For instance, the Great Awakening represented a move away from traditional Protestantism.  Luther and Calvin had both insisted on the necessity of a learned ministry and affirmed the creeds of the Church, and Calvin practiced systematic theology.  The revivalists substituted the inspired amateur and radical subjectivism, and thus prepared the soil for the flourishing of heresy, including Mormonism.

“Historians still disagree about whether to classify Charles Grandison Finney [the leader of the revivals] as a Calvinist or an Arminian.”  Clearly Finney was no Calvinist, as his own writings, as well as those of his contemporary Charles Hodge, the great Princeton theologian, testified.  Howe’s failure to discover this plain fact reveals not only an excessive reliance upon secondary sources but points to the pseudoscientific fallacy that pervades “the profession” of history.  When he writes “historians still disagree,” he is saying that, since the science is not yet in (i.e., historians have not yet reached a consensus), the question is still open, and thus he cannot render a judgment.  Conversely, when professional historians come to an agreement on a matter, that means the question is closed.

Besides whether, or how far, to expand beyond the original boundaries of the United States, the fundamental political question before the country in the period embraced by Howe’s study was whether to preserve the federated, constitutional republic and the sovereignty of the people or to substitute a unitary republic, in which the national government was effectively sovereign.  This means nothing to Howe.

On his last day in office (March 3, 1817), James Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill, which would have created a permanent fund for internal improvements, on the grounds that the federal government had no constitutional authority to do such a thing.  Howe considers the veto to have been a “mistake,” and Madison’s call for an amendment to delegate the power, “politically impractical.”  Why?  “Amending the Constitution is a protracted and imponderable process.”  Howe agrees with the “broad constructionists who did not want to establish the precedent of having to amend the Constitution every time someone called a federal power into question.”  The precedent that they did not want to establish was that of abiding by the Constitution!  Instead, they wanted the freedom to act, thus presenting the public with a fait accompli.  The Supreme Court would then recognize the fact as an authoritative precedent conferring constitutionality (as it did with the national bank in McCulloch v. Maryland).  Howe clearly agrees with this procedure, for he endorses Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in that case.  Thus, not only does Howe prefer political expediency over constitutionality, he prefers a different constitution, a constitution of precedents in which the amending power is effectively ceded to Congress, the president, and the courts.

Gov. DeWitt Clinton of New York, a man whom Howe wrongly identifies as an economic nationalist in favor of a broad construction of federal powers, warned against the exercise by the federal government of a power to fund internal improvements as a “harbinger of certain destruction to the State Governments.”  It “breaks down the barriers between a Government for national, or exterior affairs, and local Governments for domestic or internal concerns.”  “As well might Congress take cognizance of agriculture, common schools, universities, penal codes, and the whole range of local and internal regulations, as of roads and canals.”

In Barron v. Baltimore (1833), Marshall, writing for a unanimous court, ruled that the Bill of Rights applies only to the federal government.  This, of course, was the original understanding of those amendments, and Marshall’s opinion was correct.  Yet Howe complains that

it would take the Fourteenth Amendment and much elaborate reasoning in the twentieth century for the Supreme Court to undo the consequences of Marshall’s uncharacteristic decision in favor of state rights.

Howe professes to believe that “the historian’s duty is to understand, not simply to condemn.”  Yet he never strays from the land of “historical self-righteousness” mapped out by Wendell Berry: “If we had lived south of the Ohio, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land.”  Nor does he ever cease trying to justify the way things are now by rewriting the past.


[What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe (New York: Oxford University Press) 904 pp., $35.00]