Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Daniel Walker Howe's "What Hath God Wrought"

Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus at UCLA. He lives in Sherman Oaks, California.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 - 1848 and reported the following:
On the 24th of May, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out a message on a device of cogs and coiled wires: “What hath God wrought.” Forty miles away in Baltimore, Morse’s associate received the electric signals and telegraphed the message back. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world.

The years between 1815 and 1848 witnessed dramatic transformations in the United States. In 1815 the U.S. was what we would call a third-world country. People lived on isolated farmsteads; their lives revolved around the weather and the hours of daylight. By 1848 the United States had become a transcontinental major power; industrialization, urbanization, and the diversification of both population and economy were all well underway. Revolutions in communications and transportation facilitated these innovations.

I have written a book about this transformation and about how the America we know came into being. It is not an academic argument to demonstrate a hypothesis; it is a story with characters. The characters, both famous and obscure, have personalities and make choices, both public and private, that, taken together, make history.

On page 99 I am telling the story of how the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1819 as a consequence of Andrew Jackson's decision to invade Florida with his army. Whether Jackson’s invasion had been authorized by President Monroe, or was undertaken on his own, has never been entirely clear, and it provoked bitter controversy at the time.

The administration decided to turn over the main theater of operations to General Andrew Jackson.... The choice of Jackson showed a disposition in Washington for a commander of demonstrated energy and aggressiveness. (He was also known to disobey orders, having refused to return lands to the Creeks in 1815.) There is a letter dated January 30, 1818, in which the president tells Secretary [of War] Calhoun to instruct Jackson “not to attack any post occupied by Spanish troops” [and confine himself to making war on the Seminole Indians.] But Calhoun never sent the order. Perhaps he forgot to send it; perhaps the president changed his mind and told him not to....

But Monroe did compose a letter to Jackson dated December 28, 1817, giving him vague yet momentous instructions, or rather, exhortations. “Great interests are at issue, and until our course is carried through triumphantly & every species of danger to which it is exposed is settled on the most solid foundation, you ought not to withdraw your active support from it.” ... Jackson seems to have chosen to interpret this letter ... as presidential authorization for the conquest of Florida.

What did the Monroe administration really hope for from Jackson? Did they intend him to attack only Seminoles or Spanish forts as well? ... It is conceivable that the administration deliberately chose ambiguity, leaving the impetuous Jackson to expose the weakness of Spanish authority, while allowing the president to disavow later an intention to wage an undeclared war.... Many a covert action in the area of foreign policy has been undertaken in such a way as to preserve official deniability. Andrew Jackson, however, proved to be a more dangerous loose cannon than his civilian superiors had foreseen.

No single story can illustrate the variety of What Hath God Wrought. It includes both the traditional kinds of history (political, diplomatic, and military) and the newer kinds that have preoccupied historians in recent years (social, economic, and cultural) because I am convinced that both kinds are necessary to an understanding of the past.
Read more about What Hath God Wrought at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue