What Hath God Wrought is an 850-page entry in a well-written series of books called “The Oxford History of the United States”. It covers the period between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, part of our national history that is overshadowed by what came before and what came after.
In roughly thirty years, America became much more recognizably modern. Improved transportation (railroads) and communications (the telegraph) had widespread effects. Modern political parties were created and the population became more diverse as immigration increased. The population soared. The women’s rights movement began.
In fact, Howe points out that President James Polk, an obscure figure today, added more territory to the United States than any other President, even more than Jefferson added with the Louisiana Purchase. By the end of Polk’s four-year term, everything from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, as well as Texas, was American territory.
The principal lesson I took from this long book, however, was that the same political divisions we find today were already in evidence before the Civil War. The Whigs, as exemplified by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, were the progressive political party. They wanted slavery eliminated and federal money spent on infrastructure. Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress as a Whig.
The Democrats, as exemplified by Andrew Jackson and Polk, were basically white supremacists. They preferred a weak federal government that wouldn’t interfere with slavery. Yet they supported territorial expansion by any means, including the extermination of the Indians and armed aggression against Mexico.
In other words, the early Democrats (especially Jackson) were real bastards. The Whigs weren’t. But now we have the Republicans, the progressive successor to the Whigs, as the war-mongering, white-supremacist party, and the Democrats as the modern-day Whigs. The Republicans are now the real Party of Jackson, while the Democrats are the real Party of Lincoln.