In making my way through the newest (June 2008) issue of the AHR, I came across Harry Watson’s review of David Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought (2007). Howe’s book has garnered a Pulitzer Prize and, only slightly less prestigious, a mention or two on this blog. The nature of Howe’s accomplishment was an issue in my mind, until I read Watson’s review. A selection of the key passage:
“To an unusual extent, Howe has shaped his argument as an explicit rejoinder to two other recent syntheses, Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (1991) and Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005). Behind these loom a host of still older historians of “Jacksonian Democracy,” from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., back to George Bancroft. Where Sellers concluded that “democracy was born in tension with capitalism” (Sellers, p. 32), Howe insists that “economic development did not undercut American democracy but broadened and enhanced it” (pp. 850–851). Whereas Wilentz gives primacy to politics itself, and focuses on what he calls “the most profound political transformation in modern history: the triumph of popular government” (Wilentz, p. 4), Howe insists that “some of the most important debates of the period did not take place within the arena of politics” at all (p. 851). In other words, and perhaps inevitably, a partisan age has generated its own partisan historiography. “
Watson omitted his own work, Liberty and Power, which looks to political ideology as the central conflict of the period. Rather than a tension between democracy and capitalism (Sellers), or a tension between elite and popular control of government (Wilentz), or a tension between differing political theories of liberty and power (Watson), Howe sees the triumph of the reforming Whigs, connected to the expansion of evangelicalism, as the central force of the Age-formerly-known-as-Jacksonian. In other words, he rejects economics, politics, and political ideology in favor of culture.
If I were forced to choose, I would put my money on Sellers. Watson’s telling characterization of Sellers’s work as “recent,” when in fact it is nineteen years old, suggests the still fresh power of Sellers’s historical vision. But in this age of specialized histories, it is refreshing to have not one, nor two, but four works vying to be the definitive history of the era. -DS