This is a very well-written, thoughtful narrative history of American political, economic, and social development during a period of extraordinary change and national expansion. While Howe demurs that "this book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis" (p. 849), it is nevertheless fair to say that the story he tells argues the thesis that "the most important forces that had made American democracy meaningful during the years since 1815 were three. First, the growth of the market economy ... Second, the awakened vigor of democratically organized Protestant churches and other voluntary associations. Third, the emergence of mass political parties offering rival programs for the electorate to choose." Howe describes these forces engagingly through the events that embodied them. Anyone interested in how the American economy, American churches, or American politics developed - and why they are the way they are today - will find much useful knowledge in these pages.
From the book:
"This book is a narrative history of the American republic between 1815 and 1848, that is, from the end of the War of 1812 to the end of the war with Mexico. ... The most common name for the years this book treats is 'Jacksonian America.' ... Andrew Jackson was a controversial figure and his political movement bitterly divided the American people. ... The Jacksonian movement in politics, although it took the name of the Democratic Party, fought so hard in favor of slavery and white supremacy, and opposed the inclusion of non-whites and women within the American civil polity so resolutely, that it makes the term 'Jacksonian Democracy' all the more inappropriate... Another term that has sometimes been applied to this period ... is 'the market revolution.' ... [A] market economy already existed in the eighteenth-century American colonies. To be sure, markets expanded vastly in the years after the end of the War of 1812, but their expansion partook more of the nature of a continuing evolution than a sudden revolution. ... Accordingly, I provide an alternative interpretation of the early nineteenth century as a time of a 'communication revolution.' ... During the thirty-three years that began in 1815, there would be greater strides in the improvement of communication than had taken place in all previous centuries. ... The early national period witnessed new and controversial ideas being formulated, publicized, and even in many cases implemented. The history of the young American republic is above all a history of battles over public opinion."
Howe incorporates the crucial insight that early America's economy was in fact a conscious extension of the British imperial economy. The PBS documentary, "Andrew Jackson," also explores its implications (http://www.pbs.org/kcet/andrewjackson...
). The wars Jackson fought against the Native American people in the American south were intended to seize prime cotton growing land - cotton had long been a mainstay of the British imperial economy, and Britain was the South's largest customer - and that new land was bought mostly by the largest plantation owners. Howe employs the South's dependency on empire to shed light on the wider field of American political, economic and social development.
By emphasizing the revolution in communications and the increasing role of public opinion, Howe provides a link between American and European history in this period. The period from the end of the War of 1812 to the end of the Mexican War is also the period from the fall of Napoleon to the revolutions of 1848, and starting with the Congress of Vienna Europe's politicians also had to learn how to take into account public opinion made volatile by the transmission of the extraordinary radicalism unleashed by the French Revolution to all the peoples of Europe. (Adam Zamoyski's "The Rites of Peace" touches on this aspect of the deliberations of the Congress of Vienna.)