Daniel Howe: What hath God wrought?

You think the Internet is changing things? You should have seen the telegraph. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian talks about the lessons we can learn from early-19th-century America.

Daniel Walker Howe is an emeritus professor in Oxford University and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.” Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2008, the book describes a series of technological changes in early 19th century America that were as revolutionary as any in the past 50 years.

The first message ever telegraphed by Samuel Morse, “What has God wrought,” Howe contends, is also an appropriate signal for the many changes that technological innovation brought about in American life -- cultural, political and religious -- in the early 19th century.

Howe answered questions from Faith & Leadership about the continuities and discontinuities between that era and our own.

Q: How does our current information revolution compare with the one that occurred in the early 19th century?

It’s useful to compare the impact of the telegraph with that of the Internet in our own time. The telegraph probably lowered the cost of business transactions even more than did the Internet, and it certainly seemed to contemporaries an even more dramatic innovation. Commercial applications of Morse's invention followed quickly.

Most Americans then earned their living through agriculture. American farmers and planters increasingly produced food and fiber for far-off markets. Their merchants and bankers welcomed the chance to get news of distant prices and credit. The newly invented railroads used the telegraph to schedule trains so they wouldn't collide on the single tracks of the time. The electric telegraph solved commercial problems and at the same time had huge political consequences.

Along with improvements in printing, it facilitated an enormous growth of newspapers, which in turn facilitated the development of mass political parties. To sum up, then, the telegraph had much the same effects in the 19th century that the Internet is having today: to speed up and enable commerce, to decouple communication from travel, to foster globalization and to encourage democratic participation. The Czar of Russia worried about the democratic implications of the telegraph, just as the rulers of China today worry about the democratic implications of the Internet.

Q: Many religious groups spent the early 19th century founding colleges and universities, hospitals and various other institutions to achieve various social benefits, the fruits of which are still with us today. What was it about our forebears that made them willing to risk starting a new venture?

Early 19th-century American Protestants -- I’m slightly amused that you term them “our forebears,” considering how much immigration has occurred since then -- were incredible optimists. You point out, rightly, that many of the institutions they founded “are still with us today.” But many others are not. Innumerable little colleges, churches, chautauquas and reform organizations have failed along the way.

Yet from the Second Great Awakening through the Progressive Era, the energy and creativity of American Protestantism as a whole did not fail. Undoubtedly the environment of a new society, of being able to start afresh, the legitimacy of novelty, a sense of possibility -- all were important.

Religious institutions were not the only purveyors of novelty; secularists like the followers of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier founded utopian communities too, although their survival rate was not as good as those of religious groups.

For the religious, I think millennialism was important: the belief that they were preparing the way for the Second Coming of Christ. One of the most successful and enduring of the religious movements was the Mormons, whose Utah was the largest of all utopian communes, and whose zeal was fostered by the belief that they were living in the Latter Days.

Q: Most evangelicals you mention in your work were identified with political causes that sound “liberal” to us -- prison reform, building of asylums, relief for the poor and so on. But today, politically engaged evangelicals tend to be conservative. What should we make of the way these political alliances can shift so dramatically?

Nineteenth-century evangelical Protestants wanted to remake the world, to bring it into conformity with God’s will. They enlisted the power of the state to further their objectives and generally worked with the parties that favored strong government, first the Whigs and then the Republicans. In the early years of the 20th century, the reforming evangelicals stood at the zenith of their power and confidence. They successfully backed Prohibition and, outside the South, women’s suffrage, both of which won addition to the Constitution.

They saw themselves as the cutting edge of progress and Western civilization. Repeal of Prohibition in 1933 signaled the turning of a historical tide against the evangelicals and the failure of their dream that a redeemed American society could lead the world into the establishment of Christ’s kingdom.

Meanwhile an ironic role reversal was occurring between the two major political parties. Beginning with the populist movement of the 1890s and decisively since the New Deal, the Democratic party has remade itself into the party of strong government, while the Republicans have become the party of laissez-faire.

In the 20th century, many evangelical Christians found the remade Democratic party congenial -- William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter constituting prominent examples. Black evangelicals switched massively from the party of Lincoln to the party of FDR. More often, however, white evangelical Protestants have stuck with their historic Republican affiliation. In doing so, they have signaled their transformation from an innovative to a culturally conservative force in American life.

This transformation has not, on the whole, made for success. Since the repeal of Prohibition, evangelicals have sustained a long series of social, cultural and political reverses. Not only alcohol but addictive drugs have become readily available. Likewise readily available are contraceptive devices and pornography, once legally restricted. Censorship of films and television, once tight, has become loose.

After all that Protestant Christianity did to foster public education, public prayer and Bible-reading have been banned in the public schools. Divorce by mutual consent spread suddenly after years of resistance from state legislatures. Since the Second World War the U.S. Supreme Court has often, though not always, ruled against the evangelicals, most notably in the landmark decision, Roe v. Wade.

Meanwhile the liberalization of immigration laws, in combination with a tidal wave of illegal immigration, have produced a demographic transformation in the composition of the American population, largely in a direction away from Protestantism.

Of course, one supremely important and successful 20th-century reform movement reflected evangelical Christian passion: the civil rights movement, led by the Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. Tragically, however, many Southern white evangelicals opposed the movement and continued to support racial segregation. Those white Christians who came to the support of the black churches over civil rights were mostly theological as well as political liberals. Within the mainline Protestant denominations, the clergy often supported civil rights more than their laity did, creating a political division within mainline Protestantism that has not since been resolved.

Having lost the “modernist” Protestants -- those who accepted evolution and higher criticism -- the evangelicals began to look for other allies. To a considerable extent, they found them among Roman Catholics -- unlikely allies from a historical point of view, but logical ones once the abortion issue became salient. American Catholics had voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the days when most of them were poor immigrants. By the late 20th century, however, Catholic political partisanship became more uncertain. The hierarchy lent its moral authority to humanitarian social policies and nuclear disarmament, but opposed the Democratic party on abortion.

The Republican Party in recent years has catered to its evangelical constituents by siding with them on abortion and various other issues like opposition to homosexual marriage. This support, however, has been largely symbolic. The evangelicals’ loyalty to the Republican Party has actually delivered very little to them in substantive terms, as they increasingly realize. Ronald Reagan promised them a constitutional amendment to legitimate school prayer; whatever became of it?

To view this question in historical perspective is to see that American evangelicals have been politically active for a long time, especially although not exclusively in the Republican Party; that the direction and strength of their influence have varied; that they have often played constructive roles in the past; and, finally, to notice some of the limitations on their current cultural and political influence.

Q: Several competing visions of America were at work in the people you study. Which one or ones won out? Which ones can we learn from?

The antebellum vision I find most relevant to our own time is that of the Whig Party. The party stood for both economic development and moral reform movements. It took me a while to see the connection between material progress and moral progress because we don’t often make the connection today -- but we should.

Earnest young Whigs like Abraham Lincoln wanted government-aided transportation projects, a protective tariff, and a national bank because they wanted economic diversification and development. Lincoln also hated slavery, supported the temperance movement, struggled to attain an education under unfavorable circumstances, and even endorsed women’s suffrage. For Whigs like Lincoln, economic development was a means to the realization of human potential. It multiplied job opportunities to meet the needs of different human talents.

I see this old Whig vision as a hopeful one for developing countries today. Economic development not only brings a higher standard of living, it fosters moral benefits too, like the rule of law, more opportunity for education, less violence between ethno-religious groups and a higher status for women. In fact, the connection between economic progress and human progress is clearest in the case of women. That’s why I chose to make the section on women’s rights the climactic moment of my story. Of course, this Whig vision is not politically correct in American academia today. I suppose that’s why it took me so long to figure out a connection that was perfectly clear to John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln.