Accessibility links

Breaking News

Author Traces Transformation of Early 19th Century America


Historian Daniel Walker Howe has chronicled a time of transformation in 19th century America in his recent book What Hath God Wrought. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan spoke with the author in Los Angeles about this latest installment in the Oxford History of the United States.

The book opens in 1815, and Howe says the United States was what we would call today a Third World country.

"Most people lived on isolated farmsteads and their lives revolved around the weather and hours of daylight," he said. "Many people grew their own food, and many wives made the clothes for their family."

And distances were great. The country was big in 1815 by European standards, and it would get even bigger. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of the United States.

We hauled some barges in our day
filled with lumber, coal and hay.
We know every inch of the way, you know,
from Albany to Buffalo.
-(lyrics, The Erie Canal)

In 1825, the Erie Canal opened, to serve as a crucial waterway through New York State. Howe says the canal cemented economic ties between the Midwest and Northeast, promoted the growth of New York City and helped integrate the region economically.

The period also saw a communications revolution. For the first time in history, news could travel faster than a galloping horse.

Howe says the telegraph, developed by Samuel Morse, promoted long-distance trade in commodities such as cotton, which was grown in the southern states and shipped to the north and Europe.

"The news of the price of cotton when it arrived in New York was instantly of enormous interest to people in Mobile and Savannah and New Orleans, and once they could get that news immediately, that made a huge difference for the efficiency of distribution," continued Howe.

The telegraph also fostered commerce by allowing quick checks of people's creditworthiness, permitting the transfer of money and effectively shrinking the distance between cities.

The title of Howe's book, What Hath God Wrought, is the text of the message sent by Samuel Morse as he demonstrated the telegraph in 1844. The phrase comes from the Bible, and the author says it reflects the importance of religion throughout the period, for example, in establishing schools and colleges. America's many denominations would compete to set up their own centers of learning.

Howe says steamboats and rail lines linked growing cities that offered opportunities for talented young people.

"A wonderful example is Abraham Lincoln, who had zero interest and zero aptitude in being a farmer like his father, Thomas. When it came time to help with the backbreaking farm chores, he would be found reading a book," he said.

With little formal education, young Lincoln left the farm, studied law books on his own and became a lawyer.

Howe's book finishes in 1848, when a treaty ended the controversial war between the United States and Mexico, and Mexico ceded the territory that is today the southwestern United States. Howe says his publisher determined the date because the next book in the Oxford series starts in 1848.

"And so, of course, I had to dovetail with that. Nevertheless, I am very happy with ending in 1848 not only because of the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but also because of the women's rights convention in Seneca Falls of that year, which provides a wonderful vision of America in the future," he said.

Howe says the women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, foreshadowed the opening of politics and the professions to women, while the growing abolition movement spread demands for the end of slavery. The author says the first half of the 19th century laid the groundwork for more momentous changes to follow.