Author asks, ‘What hath God wrought?’ at lecture series

Dr. Daniel Walker Howe, 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning author, signs a copy of his book, "What Hath God Wrought," for Brandi Rankin, senior elementary education major. | Photo by Victoria Stargel

By Ellen Reinhard

Dr. Daniel Walker Howe quoted Samuel Morse during the Carls-Schwedferger History Lecture Series, Oct. 26, when the co-inventor of the telegraph and Morse code said he wanted to “baptize the American telegraph with the name of its author: God.”

The verse coded over the telegraph was taken from the biblical passage of Numbers 23:23, “What hath God wrought?” Howe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, said the selection shed light on the state of the country and “this choice characterized the ideas of America’s value of the Bible during the 19th century.” Howe said this sparked a period of change for America.

Students, faculty and history-lovers gathered in G. M. Savage Memorial Chapel to listen to lecture series, a lectureship that began 14 years ago for the purpose of bringing prominent historians to Union to discuss directed topics of study in history. This year, Howe spoke on his best-known work, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848” written in 2007.

For this book he won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in history, the 2008 New York Historical Society American Book Prize and the 2008 SHEAR Book Prize for the best work in history and culture discussing the early American republic.

The historian is currently a Rhodes professor emeritus of American history at Oxford University and professor emeritus of history at the University of California in Los Angles.

Dr. David S. Dockery, university president, began the night by saying Howe was a “marvelous scholar and brilliant speaker.” Dr. Stephen Carls, professor of history and chair of the history department, thanked the audience, noting the high school teachers and “community effort that supports this event.”

“Between the years 1815–1848, America changed rapidly,” Howe said. “The revelation of communication created by the telegraph liberated people from isolation.”

In addition to the value of religion, Howe discussed how the new form of communication changed the culture between 1815–1848. Morse combined science and religion, a stark difference from today’s present society.

This advancement in communication created a growth of education, printing, public schools and flow of information for businesses and religious organizations. The telegraph also helped newspapers advertise and allowed more people to hear about travel opportunities.

He said the invention of faster ways to communicate in 1848 compares to America today and the use of the Internet. Information began to be more accessible and it “created a wider public for people to be informed.” The revolution of the Internet allowed for quick information transfer similar to that of the telegraph in the 19th century.

“The comparison of the telegraph and the Internet opened my eyes to the long-term implications of technology, especially on how we change as a country,” said Sarah Hill, sophomore marketing and Spanish double major, who attended the lecture. “The Internet connects us globally how the telegraph connected America nationally in the past.”

Dr. Keith Bates, associate professor of history, said, “The hinges of history are not always the big events, but the smaller inventions, like the telegraph. They change how people think and live.”

The lecture concluded with a question-and-answer session for the audience and a book-signing in the foyer.

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