Friday, May 7, 2010

What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe

This is the huge book I have been reading for many weeks, with an occasional light mystery thrown in for a break. It is 855 pages of text followed by a bibliographic essay and index! Part of The Oxford History of the United States, its subtitle explains the length: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

I love American history, particularly the antebellum period, so I bought this book knowing I would enjoy it. However, I expected it to be rather dry, not something I would recommend for nonacademic readers. Just shows how wrong you can be. I really would recommend it for the general reader who is interested in the early years of our country, the people (famous and otherwise) who peopled the land, brought about the industrialization of the North, brought Texas into the U.S., initiated our free educational system, and all the other things that make America what it is.

One of the many interesting things I learned involves the Smithsonian Institution. It's common knowledge, I think, that it was the result of James Smithson's will. He was an English scientist, a very wealthy one in fact, who willed his estate to us for "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Congress voted to accept the money and it was shipped across the Atlantic in 1838 in the form of a half million dollars in gold coins. You see, President Jackson didn't trust paper money so he would only accept gold.

Then there ensued a long debate over what the heck to do with all that gold but finally in 1846 Congress agreed on a museum, laboratory, library and an art gallery, collectively called the Smithsonian Institution. Thanks to the bequest, we have museums and art galleries that we could spend days in and not see everything. I personally have toured the place until my feet practically fell off and I would go back in a minute.

Obviously I can't relate everything of interest in this monumental work, but despite its length I have been engrossed for weeks. Actually I haven't finished it yet but hope to in the next few days; I just couldn't wait any longer to tell you about it. This is easy reading that isn't the old history of dates and presidents and wars. This is, to borrow a subtitle from a PBS special, the story of us, our culture, national personality, religions, educational institutions, plus presidents and wars, and so much more. I recommend it, but put aside a good long time to read it.

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