John Turner: Wilentz, God, and What Hath God Wrought, Part II



I haven't yet had a chance to read Daniel Walker Howe's What God Hath Wrought (see Paul's post below). There is only time for so many 900-page books, especially when one is forced to stay up late at night pondering the possibility that God might be a sports fanatic from Boston (I retain the irrational belief that Jesus, who understands suffering, still favors the Fighting Irish).

Alongside Charles Sellers's Market Revolution -- as Lepore notes in her review of What God Hath Wrought -- Howe's book should also be read alongside (and in partial opposition to) Sean Wilentz's recent The Rise of American Democracy, which out-hefts Howe's effort by more than 100 pages. As Gordon Wood commented in the New York Times, "Wilentz makes no concessions to his readers' patience." For an engaging discussion of Rise of American Democracy, see the Journal of the Historical Society's December 2006 forum on the book (not available online, alas, but worth tracking down). And while we're in the habit of plugging Jill Lepore reviews, her account of Wilentz's book (also in the New Yorker) is again witty and engaging.

Like Sellers, Wilentz despises Howe's heroes and extols anti-capitalist movements that fought against "the monied interests" in the Jacksonian age. Wilentz admires Andrew Jackson, finds the presidency of John Quincy Adams uninspiring at best, and identifies an arch-villain in Nicholas Biddle. Like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Wilentz credits democrats (later Democrats) from Jefferson to Jackson for rejecting the aristocratic republicanism of the Federalists and proto-Whigs and ushering a much more robust and inclusive American democracy. As Wood notes: "The key to Jacksonian politics," Wilentz says, was "a belief that relatively small groups of self-interested men were out to destroy majority rule and, with it, the Constitution."

Gordon Wood observed that "Andrew Jackson is Wilentz's hero." "Not so," Wilentz responded to the New York Times, and he also rejected Wood's attempt to link his portrait of the Jacksonian age to contemporary partisanship (I wonder what Daniel Walker Howe thinks of Sellers's comment on their "warring assumptions). "If I intended to portray any president, warts and all, as heroic, it was Abraham Lincoln, and he was no Democrat at all." Perhaps I was fatigued by the time I reached Lincoln, but I thought Jackson was Wilentz's "hero" as well. To be fair, however, Wilentz's book (unlike Schlesinger's, I would argue), is no simple morality play. While he cannot applaud the Whig Party as a whole, he praises evangelical Whigs like Joshua Giddings for their fervently moral opposition to slavery. Having begun the book with a fairly negative impression of Andrew Jackson because of Indian removal and white supremacy, I found myself at least partly persuaded by Wilentz's careful portrait of the bank war, somewhat less persuaded by Wilentz's emphasis on the radical Democratic contribution to abolitionism.

What of religion? Wilentz does not mention William Miller and only briefly discusses Mormonism in connection with "the evasive truce of 1850." Henry David Thoreau only appears in the context of John Brown and Harper's Ferry. Wilentz does include lengthy and informative passages on the role of evangelicalism in disestablishment campaigns, Sabbatarianism, anti-Masonry, and Whiggery, and I am impressed with the amount of scholarship on evangelicalism and other religious movements that Wilentz digested and incorporated into his synthesis of the Early Republic. Moreover, his pages on the religious diversity of urban environments provide a quick introduction to a number of intriguing sectarians and radical thinkers, such as the Universalist and union leader William Heighton in Philadelphia.

Especially apart from anti-slavery agitation, Wilentz has little sympathy for the Whig Party's "Politics of Moral Improvement." But like Howe writes of the dominant political figure of the 1820s and 1830s (if not also the 1840s): “Jackson was a controversial figure and his political movement bitterly divided the American people.” Given the disparate treatments of this era of American history by Wilentz and Howe, Old Hickory continues to divide contemporary historians as well. Therefore, I'll have to move What God Hath Wrought toward the front of my reading list.


Edward Blum at: October 29, 2007 at 2:16 PM said...

As one who is tiring of reading 800+ tomes, I was thrilled to get Vernon Burton's _The Age of Lincoln_. It ranges basically from 1830 to 1900 and does so in, gasp, 400 pages (and that includes a hefty, wonderful bibliography). And Burton does a lot with religion. I've reviewed it for the JAH so I don't want to say much more - but Burton's accomplishment is pretty terrific.

Luke at: October 29, 2007 at 7:07 PM said...

I haven't read Howe's tome yet (though I look forward to it), but these recent posts on What God Hath Wrought have been quite helpful.

Also, I second Ed's comment. Burton's Age of Lincoln is worth reading--and worth recommending.

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