- Category: History 117 Week 4
- Published on Friday, 28 December 2012 23:53
- Written by Dr. Eric Mayer
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Democracy was something of a taint in the days of the lordly Federalists. Martha
Washington, the first First Lady, was shocked after a presidential reception to
find a greasy smear on the wallpaper--left there, she was sure, by an uninvited
But by the 1820s, if not before, aristocracy was becoming a taint, and democracy
was becoming respectable. Politicians were now forced to unbend and curry
favor with the voting masses. Lucky indeed was the aspiring office seeker who
could boast of birth in a log cabin.
In 1840 Daniel Webster publicly apologized for not being able to claim so
humble a birthplace, though quickly adding that his brothers could. Fatally
handicapped was the candidate who appeared to be too clean, too well
dressed, too grammatical, too high-browishly intellectual. In the West,
especially, the belief was spreading that a man was well qualified for high office
if he was a superior militia commander or a victorious Indian fighter, like Andrew
Jackson, or even an outstanding hunter, like Davy Crockett.
The semiliterate Crockett was elected to Congress mainly on the basis of his
prowess with a rifle. He once killed 105 bears in a season, and his Tennessee
constituents began to talk of running him for the presidency. Yet colorful
characters like Crockett were exceptions. Most high political offices continued to
be filled by "leading citizens." But now these wealthy and prominent men had to
forsake all social pretensions and cultivate the common touch if they hoped to
Jeffersonian democracy had proclaimed that the people should be governed as
little as possible; Jacksonian democracy now added that whatever governing
was to be done should be done directly by the people.
The common man was at last moving to the center of the national political
stage: the sturdy American who donned plain trousers rather than silver-buckled
knee breeches, who besported a plain haircut and a coonskin cap rather than a
powdered wig, and who wore no man's collar, often not even one of his own.
Instead of the old divine right of kings, America was now witnessing the divine
right of the people.
The New Democracy, so called, was based on universal white manhood
suffrage rather than the old property qualifications. The frontier state of Vermont,
admitted to the Union in 1791, was the first to place the ballot in the hands of all
adult white males. This trend continued, notably in the West, where land was so
easily obtained as to render almost meaningless the old property qualifications.
Property tests for officeholding were also widely abolished, and even judges
were now being popularly elected. The South trailed other regions in giving up
property requirements, but it, too, eventually extended suffrage and the right to
hold office to all white men.
Snobbish bigwigs, unhappy over the change, sneered at "coonskin
congressmen" and at the newly enfranchised "bipeds of the forest." To them, the
tyranny of King Numbers was no less offensive than that of King George. But
these critics protested in vain. The masses marched unswervingly toward a
fuller measure of control over the Republic's political affairs. If they made
mistakes, they made them themselves and were not the victims of aristocratic
domination. If at times they stumbled, they stumbled forward. The New
Democracy had arrived to stay
The woods were full of presidential timber in 1824. Four candidates towered
above the others: Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, the tall, silver-maned, and
hollow-cheeked "Old Hero" of New Orleans; Henry Clay of Kentucky, the gamy
and gallant "Harry of the West"; William H. Crawford of Georgia, a giant of a
man, able though ailing; and John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, highly
intelligent, experienced, and aloof.
All four rivals professed to be "Republicans." Well-organized parties had not yet
emerged, as illustrated by the fact that John C. Calhoun appeared as the vice-
presidential candidate on both the Adams and the Jackson tickets.
The results of the noisy campaign were interesting but confusing. Jackson, the
war hero, clearly had the strongest personal appeal, especially in the West.
Foreshadowing the themes that would later shape the historical identity of his
presidency, Jackson's campaign appealed for the salvation of republicanism
from the forces of corruption and privilege in government, especially as
embodied in "King Caucus."
He polled almost as many popular votes as his next two rivals combined, but he
failed to win a majority of the electoral vote. In such a deadlock the House of
Representatives, as directed by the Twelfth Amendment (see the Appendix),
must choose among the top three candidates. Clay was thus eliminated, yet he
still presided over the very chamber that had to pick the winner. Since he
enjoyed all the influence of a popular Speaker of the House, he was in a position
to throw the election to the candidate of his choice.
Clay reached his fateful decision by a process of elimination. Crawford, recently
felled by a paralytic stroke, was out of the picture. Clay hated the "military
chieftain" Jackson, his arch-rival for the allegiance of the West. Jackson, in
turn, bitterly resented Clay's public denunciation of his Florida foray in 1818.
The only candidate left was the puritanical Adams, with whom Clay--a free-living
gambler and duelist--had never established cordial personal relations. But the
two men had much in common politically: both were fervid nationalists and
advocates of the American System. Shortly before the final balloting in the
House, Clay met privately with Adams and assured him of his support.
Decision day came early in 1825. The House of Representatives met amid tense
excitement, with sick members being carried in on stretchers. On the first ballot,
thanks largely to Clay's behind-the-scenes influence, Adams was elected
president. A few days later, the victor announced that Henry Clay would be the
new secretary of state.
The secretaryship of state was then the prize plum, even more so than today.
Three of the four preceding secretaries had reached the presidency, and the
high cabinet office was regarded as an almost certain runway to the White
House. By allegedly dangling the secretaryship as a bribe before Clay, Adams,
the second choice of the people, apparently defeated the first choice of the
people, Andrew Jackson.
Masses of angered Jacksonians, most of them common folk, raised a roar of
protest against the "corrupt bargain." The clamor continued for nearly four years.
Jackson condemned Clay as the "Judas of the West," and John Randolph of
Virginia publicly assailed the alliance between "the Puritan [Adams] and the
black-leg [Clay]," who, he added "shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by
moonlight." Clay, outraged, challenged Randolph to a duel, the bloodless
outcome of which proved nothing, except perhaps shaky nerves and poor
No positive evidence has yet been unearthed to prove that Adams and Clay
entered into a formal bargain, corrupt or otherwise. But appearances were so
damning as to render denials unconvincing. Even if a bargain had been struck, it
was not necessarily corrupt, for "deals" of a similar nature are the stock-in-trade
of politicians. But this "bargain" differed from others in its apparent flouting of the
popular will by both Adams and Clay. Both men erred, the one by offering the
post in circumstances sure to arouse suspicion, the other by accepting it."
"The touchy tariff issue became one of Adams's biggest headaches. Congress
had increased the general tariff in 1824, from about 23 percent on dutiable
goods to about 37 percent. But wool manufacturers, dissatisfied with their share
of protection, bleated for still-higher barriers.
Ardent Jacksonites, seeking to unhorse Adams, seized this opportunity to play
politics with the Tariff of 1828. They rigged up a bill that was seemingly more
concerned with manufacturing a president than with protecting manufacturers. A
part of their scheme was to push the duties as high as about 45 percent on the
value of certain manufactured items. At the same time, they would impose a
heavy tariff on certain raw materials, notably wool. These materials were so
urgently needed for manufacturing, especially in New England, that even this
industrial section would presumably vote against the entire measure. Adams,
whose stronghold was New England, would thus be given another political black
eye, and Jackson would receive a boost, especially in the middle states. There
many voters were politically uncertain but protection-prone.
But the New Englanders spoiled this clever little game. Though disliking the
proposed duties, they were anxious to continue the principle of protection. As a
consequence, enough of them choked down the dishonest Tariff of 1828, as
amended, to force its passage. Daniel Webster, who had earlier fought the mild
Tariff of 1816, and John C. Calhoun, who had sponsored it, had by this time
completely reversed their positions. They and others now clearly saw that the
future of New England lay in the factory, rather than on the waves, while the
destiny of the South lay in the cotton fields.
Southerners, as heavy consumers of manufactured goods, were shocked by
what they regarded as the outrageous rates of the Tariff of 1828. Hotheads
promptly branded it the "Black Tariff" or the "Tariff of Abominations." Several
southern states adopted formal protests; in South Carolina, flags were lowered
to half-mast. "Let the New England beware how she imitates the Old," cried one
eloquent South Carolinian who remembered 1776.
Why did the South, especially South Carolina, react so angrily against the tariff?
Underlying the southern outcry were growing anxieties about possible federal
interference with the institution of slavery. The congressional debate on the
Missouri Compromise had kindled those anxieties, and they were further fed by
an ominous slave rebellion in Charleston in 1822, led by a free black, Denmark
The South Carolinians, still closely tied to the British West Indies, also knew full
well how their slaveowning West Indian cousins were feeling the mounting
pressure of British abolitionism on the London government. Abolitionism in
America might similarly use the power of the government in Washington to
suppress slavery in the South. If so, now was the time, and the tariff was the
issue, for taking a strong stand on principle against all federal encroachments on
Nearer the surface was the real economic distress of the Old South--the
seaboard area first settled. It was now the least flourishing of all the sections.
The bustling Northeast was experiencing a boom in manufacturing; the
developing West was prospering from rising property values and a multiplying
population; and the energetic Southwest was expanding into virgin cotton lands.
Overcropped acres of the Old South were petering out, and the price of cotton
was falling sharply. John Randolph of Virginia grimly quipped that masters
would soon cease to advertise for their fugitive slaves, and slaves would
advertise for their fugitive masters. So the Old South was seeking a scapegoat,
and the tariff proved to be a convenient and plausible one."
"Southerners believed, not illogically, that the "Yankee tariff" discriminated
against them. They sold their cotton and other farm produce in a world market
completely unprotected by tariffs and were forced to buy their manufactured
goods in an American market heavily protected by tariffs.
The plight of the South may be illustrated by a hypothetical case. Suppose that
in 1828 an English manufacturer sold shoes in South Carolina at $1.25 a pair,
whereas a Massachusetts shoemaker, paying higher wages, would have to
charge $1.50 for a pair of equal quality. South Carolinians would naturally buy
the British footwear.
But if a tariff of $0.50 a pair were levied on foreign shoes at the Charleston
customshouse, the British shoes would cost $1.75 a pair. The Massachusetts
shoemaker could now safely raise the price to anything less than $1.75--say,
$1.74--and still undercut the British competitor by selling the cheapest shoes in
South Carolina. South Carolinians would thus be forced to pay higher prices,
while the profits of the Yankee manufacturer were commensurately fattened.
This artificial inflation of prices has always been among the most objectionable
features of high tariffs.
The South also objected to other consequences of towering tariffs. Higher prices
generally lead to a reduced volume of purchases. And if Americans bought fewer
English textiles, the British would in turn buy less southern cotton with which to
make the textiles. Southerners thus would suffer both as consumers and as
producers, as importers and exporters. Little wonder that southern leaders
regarded the protective tariff as a foe of their economic development. On the
other hand, many failed to appreciate that in the long run a prosperous
manufacturing economy in the Northeast could itself contribute to their prosperity
by consuming their cotton and other farm products.
South Carolinians took the lead in protesting against the "Tariff of
Abominations." Their legislature went so far as to publish in 1828, though
without formal endorsement, a pamphlet known as "The South Carolina
Exposition." It had been secretly written by John C. Calhoun, one of the few
topflight political theorists ever produced by America. (As vice president, he was
forced to conceal his authorship.) "
The Exposition" boldly denounced the recent tariff as unjust and
unconstitutional. Going a stride beyond the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of
1798, it bluntly and explicitly proposed that the states should nullify the tariff--
that is, they should declare it null and void within their borders.
Calhoun found himself caught in an awkward straddle. Still a Unionist and a
nationalist, he was also a southern sectionalist. He therefore desperately sought
a formula that would protect the minority in the South from the "tyranny of the
majority" in the North and West. Seizing upon nullification, he undertook by this
explosive device to preserve the Union and prevent secession. Calhoun's aim
was not to destroy the Union but to salvage it by quieting the fears of those
forces that might one day destroy it.
Calhoun's "Exposition," at least immediately, was a false alarm. No other state
joined South Carolina in its heated antitariff protest. But the disruptive theory of
nullification was further publicized, and the even more dangerous doctrine of
secession was foreshadowed. South Carolina was not then prepared to force the
controversy to a showdown. The election of Carolina-born Andrew Jackson to
the presidency had occurred two weeks earlier, and the "Old Hero"--a fellow
cotton planter and slaveowner--was expected to sympathize with the plight of
General Jackson, victorious on the battlefields, was no less victorious at the
ballot boxes. The popular tally was 647,286 votes for him to 508,064 for Adams,
with an electoral count of 178 to 83. Support for Jackson came mainly from the
West and South, and to a considerable extent from the sweat-stained laborers
of the eastern seaboard. Generally speaking, the common people--though by no
means all of them--voted for the Hero of New Orleans. Adams won the backing
of his own New England, as well as the propertied "better elements" of the
The election of 1828 has often been called the "Revolution of 1828." Actually,
as in 1800, no upheaval or landslide swept out the incumbent. Adams, in fact,
polled a respectable 44 percent of the popular vote. A considerable part of
Jackson's support, moreover, was lined up by machine politicians, especially in
New York and Pennsylvania, and not entirely among the leather-aproned
artisans and other manual workers.
But the concept of a political revolution in 1828 is not completely farfetched.
The increased turnout of voters proved that the common people, especially in
the universal-white-manhood-suffrage states, now had the vote and the will to
use it for their ends. A discontented West, with its numerous rustics and
debtors, generally voted for Jackson. The results show that the political center of
gravity was continuing to shift away from the conservative eastern seaboard
toward the emerging states across the mountains.
So in a broader sense the election was a "revolution," comparable to that of
1800. It was a peaceful revolution, achieved by ballots instead of bullets, by
counting heads instead of crushing them. "Shall the people rule?" cried the
Jacksonians. The answering roar seemed to say, "The people shall rule!" In the
struggle between the poorer masses and the entrenched classes, the homespun
folk scored a resounding triumph, befuddling some members of the elite
establishment. "I never saw anything like it," a puzzled Daniel Webster mused
about Jackson's inaugural. "Persons have come five hundred miles to see
General Jackson, and they really seem to think that the country is rescued from
some dreadful danger."
America hitherto had been ruled by an elite of brains and wealth, whether
aristocratic Federalist shippers or aristocratic Jeffersonian planters. Jackson's
victory accelerated the transfer of national power from the countinghouse to the
farmhouse, from the East to the West, and from the snobs to the mobs. If
Jefferson had been the hero of the gentleman farmer, Jackson was the hero of
the dirt farmer. The plowholders were now ready to take over the government--
Adams, though president-reject, was still destined for an enviable public career.
Ever high-minded, he did not deem it beneath his dignity as an ex-president to
accept election to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. ("No
person can be degraded by serving the people," he declared.) There he served
with conspicuous success for seventeen fruitful years. Affectionately known as
"Old Man Eloquent," he fought stalwartly for free government, free speech, free
soil, and free people. A rough and savage debater, he finally was stricken on
the floor of the House in 1848, at age eighty. His funeral was the greatest
pageant of its kind that Washington had yet seen. Ironically, the popularity that
had escaped him in life came to him in death
Under Jackson the spoils system--that is, rewarding political supporters with
public office--was introduced into the federal government on a large numerical
scale. On a percentage basis, Jefferson, with reluctance and discrimination, had
already made about as large a beginning. Jackson, with more ruthlessness,
extended it to more people, while complaining about those "clamoring for a
public tit from which to suck the treasury."
The basic idea was as old as politics. Its name came later from Senator Marcy's
classic remark in 1832, "To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy." The
system had already secured a firm hold in New York and Pennsylvania, where
well-greased machines were operating. Professional politicians, by ladling out
the "gravy" of office, had been able to make politics a full-time business rather
than a sideline. The emphasis was more on spoils than on responsibilities.
A housecleaning of some sort in Washington was clearly needed. No party
overturn had occurred since the defeat of the Federalists in 1800, and even that
had not produced wholesale evictions. During the ensuing twenty-eight years,
festering evils had developed in the civil service. The old colonial-system ideal
of holding office during good behavior had bred some incompetence and
corruption, as well as considerable indifference and insolence ("uncivil
servants"). A few officeholders, their commissions signed by President
Washington, were lingering on into their eighties, drawing breath and salary but
doing little else.
Jackson fully shared the view of the New Democracy that "every man is as good
as his neighbor"--perhaps "equally better." As this was believed to be so, and as
the routine of office was also thought to be simple enough for any upstanding
American to learn quickly, why encourage the development of an aristocratic,
bureaucratic, officeholding class? Experience, of course, had some value. But
alertness and new blood had more--at least in the eyes of the Jacksonians.
The New Democracy also trumpeted the ideal of "rotation in office"--or "a turn
about is fair play." Since experience was discounted and since officeholding
provided valuable training for citizenship, let as many citizens as possible feed
at the public trough for at least a short time. This was a polite way of saying,
"Throw the rascals out and put our rascals in
Sectional jealousies found a spectacular outlet in the Senate during 1829-1830.
Hidebound New England, resenting the marvelous expansion of the West, was
determined to call a halt. The lavish distribution of western acreage was draining
off eastern population while further upsetting the political balance. Late in 1829,
therefore, a New England senator introduced a resolution designed to curb the
sale of public lands.
Sectional passions flared angrily in the Senate, as the western senators sprang
furiously to the defense of their interests. The South, seeking sectional allies in
its controversies with the Northeast, promptly sided with the West. Its most
persuasive spokesman was Robert Y. Hayne, of South Carolina, one of the
silver-tongued orators of his generation.
Hayne's oratorical effort in the Senate was impressive. He roundly condemned
the obvious disloyalty of New England during the War of 1812, as well as its
selfish inconsistency on the protective tariff. Airing in detail the grievances of the
South, he reserved his heavy fire for the "Tariff of Abominations" (1828). He then
acclaimed Calhoun's dangerous doctrine of nullification as the only means of
safeguarding the minority interests of his section. Hayne, like Calhoun, did not
advocate a breakup of the Union; rather, he was seeking to protect southern
rights within the Union and under the Constitution. But his arguments were
carefully stored up by nullifiers and secessionists for future use.
The "Godlike Daniel" Webster, spokesman for New England, now took the floor.
Matchless orator and leader of the American bar, he awed audiences with his
majestic presence. Webster had craglike brows, flashing eyes, a sonorous
voice, a noble head, and a well-chested frame. His life up to this point, including
his frequent appearances before Chief Justice Marshall, had been a preparation
for this nine-day running debate with Hayne in January 1830.
After defending New England with vigor, if not complete candor, Webster, the
ex-Federalist, passed on to the larger issue of Union. Insisting that the people
and not the states had framed the Constitution, he decried the insidious doctrine
of nullification. (Here he was on shaky historical ground, the original preamble
of the Constitution of 1787 had read, "We the people of the states of"--and then
they were listed by name. But when it was objected that all the states might not
ratify, the formula "We the people of the United States" was adopted.
For the text of the preamble, see the Appendix.) Either the Supreme Court would
judge the constitutionality of laws, or the Republic would be torn by revolution. If
each of the twenty-four states were free to go its separate way in obeying or
rejecting federal statutes, there would be no union but only a "rope of sand."
Webster's concluding outburst, which brought tears to listeners' eyes, was a
magnificent tribute to the Union, ending with those imperishable words, "Liberty
and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable
Webster did not overpower Hayne with his thunderous oratory; Hayne did not
defeat Webster with his seductive eloquence. There were no official judges. The
polished southerner was sounder on historical and economic grounds; the
impassioned New Englander was sounder on constitutional practicalities and
common sense--on things as they were rather than as they had been. Each
section was satisfied with its champion. The impact of Webster's reply was
About forty thousand copies were printed in three months, and arguments for the
Union were seared into the minds of countless northerners. Among them was
young Abraham Lincoln, just turning twenty-one and moving from Indiana to the
Illinois frontier. Webster's inspirational peroration was printed in the school
readers and was memorized by tens of thousands of impressionable lads--the
Boys in Blue who in 1861-1865 were willing to lay down their lives for the Union.
Webster, beyond a doubt, had a large hand in winning the Civil War. He
probably did more than any other person to arouse the oncoming generation of
northerners to fight for the ideal of Union. His admirers have claimed that the
nation was saved hardly less by the thunder of Webster's replies to Hayne than
by the thunder of General Grant's replies to the cannonading of General Lee.
Hot-tempered "Old Hickory" had meanwhile been keeping strangely silent on
southern grievances. States' rights leaders, at a Jefferson Day banquet in 1830,
schemed to smoke him out. Their strategy was to devise a series of toasts in
honor of Jefferson, onetime foe of centralization, that would lean toward states'
rights and nullification. The plotters assumed that the "Old Hero"--a fellow
southerner--would be swept along by the tenor of the toasts and speak up in
favor of states' rights.
Jackson, forewarned and inwardly fuming, had carefully prepared his response.
At the proper moment he rose to his full height, fixed his eyes on Calhoun, and
with dramatic intensity proclaimed,
"Our Union: It must be preserved!"
The southerners were dumbfounded;
and Calhoun haltingly replied, in part,
"The union, next to our liberty, most dear!"
Some seventy other anticlimactic toasts followed this exchange, but in effect the
party was over.
Jackson's military ire was aroused. As commander in chief, he would stand for
no back talk from the states or particularly from the hated Calhoun. But, as fate
decreed, the showdown with defiant South Carolina was postponed for over two
The rise of Andrew Jackson, the first president from beyond the Appalachian
Mountains, exemplified the inexorable westward march of the American people.
The West, with its raw frontier, was the most typically American part of America.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1844, "Europe stretches to the Alleghenies;
America lies beyond."
The Republic was young, and so were the people--as late as 1850, half of
Americans were under the age of thirty. They were also restless and energetic,
seemingly always on the move, and always westward. One "tall tale" of the
frontier described chickens that voluntarily crossed their legs every spring,
waiting to be tied for the annual move west. By 1840 the "demographic center" of
the American population map had crossed the Alleghenies. By the eve of the
Civil War, it had marched across the Ohio River.
Legend portrays an army of muscular axmen triumphantly carving civilization
out of the western woods. But in reality, life was downright grim for most pioneer
families. Poorly fed, ill clad, housed in hastily erected shanties (Abraham
Lincoln's family lived for a year in a three-sided lean-to made of brush and
sticks), they were perpetual victims of disease, depression, and premature
death. Above all, unbearable loneliness haunted them, especially the women,
who sometimes cracked under the strain. These women settlers were often cut
off from human contact, even their neighbors, for days or even weeks, while
confined to the cramped orbit of a dark cabin in a secluded clearing.
Breakdowns and even madness were all too frequently the "opportunities" that
the frontier offered to pioneer women.
Frontier life could be tough and crude for men as well. No-holds-barred
wrestling, which permitted such niceties as the biting off of noses and the
gouging out of eyes, was a popular entertainment. Pioneering Americans,
marooned by geography, were often ill informed, superstitious, provincial, and
fiercely individualistic. Ralph Waldo Emerson's popular lecture-essay "Self-
Reliance" struck a deeply responsive chord. Popular literature of the period
abounded with portraits of heroically unique, isolated figures like James
Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Herman Melville's Captain Ahab--just as
Jacksonian politics aimed to emancipate the lone-wolf, enterprising
businessperson. Yet even in this heyday of "rugged individualism" there were
important exceptions. Pioneers, in tasks clearly beyond their own individual
resources, would call upon their neighbors for logrolling and barn raising and
upon their governments for help in building internal improvements
The westward movement also molded the physical environment. Pioneers in a
hurry often exhausted the land in the tobacco regions and then pushed on,
leaving behind barren and rain-gutted fields. In the Kentucky bottomlands, cane
as high as fifteen feet posed a seemingly insurmountable barrier to the plow.
But settlers soon discovered that when the cane was burned off, European
bluegrass thrived in the charred canefields. "Kentucky bluegrass," as it was
somewhat inaccurately called, made ideal pasture for livestock--and lured
thousands more American homesteaders into Kentucky.
Other pioneers altered the environment of the American West in additional ways.
By the 1820s American fur-trappers were setting their trap-lines all over the vast
Rocky Mountain region. The fur-trapping empire was based on the "rendezvous"
system. Each summer, traders ventured from St. Louis to a verdant Rocky
Mountain valley, made camp, and waited for the trappers and Indians to arrive
with beaver pelts to swap for manufactured goods from the East. This trade
thrived for some two decades, until the hapless beavers had all but disappeared
from the region.
Trade in buffalo robes also flourished, leading eventually to the virtually total
annihilation of the massive bison herds that once blanketed the western prairies.
Still farther west, on the California coast, other traders bought up prodigious
quantities of sea-otter pelts, driving the once-bountiful otters to the point of near
extinction. Some historians have called this aggressive and often heedless
exploitation of the West's natural bounty "ecological imperialism."
Yet Americans in this period also reverenced nature and admired its beauty.
Indeed the spirit of nationalism fed the growing appreciation of the uniqueness
of the American wilderness. Searching for the United States' distinctive
characteristics in this nation-conscious age, many observers found the wild,
unspoiled character of the land, especially in the West, to be among the young
nation's defining attributes. Other countries might have impressive mountains or
sparkling rivers, but none had the pristine, natural beauty of America, unspoiled
by human hands and reminiscent of a time before the dawn of civilization. This
attitude toward wilderness became in time a kind of national mystique, animating
literature and painting, and eventually kindling a conservation movement.
George Catlin, a painter and student of Native American life, was among the first
Americans to advocate the preservation of nature as a deliberate national policy.
In 1832 he observed Sioux Indians in South Dakota recklessly slaughtering
buffalo in order to trade the animals' tongues for the white man's whiskey.
Appalled at this spectacle and fearing for the preservation of Indians and buffalo
alike, Catlin proposed the creation of a national park. His idea later bore fruit
with the creation of a national park system, beginning with Yellowstone Park in
The invasion by this so-called immigrant "rabble" in the 1840s and 1850s
inflamed the prejudices of American "nativists." They feared that these foreign
hordes would outbreed, outvote, and overwhelm the old "native" stock. Not only
did the newcomers take jobs from "native" Americans, but the bulk of the
displaced Irish were Roman Catholics, as were a substantial minority of the
Germans. The Church of Rome was still widely regarded by many old-line
Americans as a "foreign" church; convents were commonly referred to as
Roman Catholics were now on the move. Seeking to protect their children from
Protestant indoctrination in the public schools, they began in the 1840s to
construct an entirely separate Catholic educational system--an enormously
expensive undertaking for a poor immigrant community, but one that revealed
the strength of its religious commitment.
They had formed a negligible minority during colonial days, and their numbers
had increased gradually. But with the enormous influx of the Irish and Germans
in the 1840s and 1850s, the Catholics became a powerful religious group. In
1840 they had ranked fifth, behind the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and
Congregationalists. By 1850, with some 1.8 million communicants, they had
bounded into first place--a position they have never lost.
"Native" Americans were alarmed by these mounting figures. They professed to
believe that in due time the "alien riffraff" would "establish" the Catholic church
at the expense of Protestantism and would introduce "popish idols." The noisier
American "nativists" rallied for political action. In 1849 they formed the Order of
the Star-Spangled Banner, which soon developed into the formidable American,
or "Know-Nothing," party--a name derived from its secretiveness. "Nativists"
agitated for rigid restrictions on immigration and naturalization and for laws
authorizing the deportation of alien paupers. They also promoted a lurid
literature of exposure, much of it pure fiction. The authors, sometimes posing as
escaped nuns, described sin as they imagined it behind brick convent walls,
including the secret burial of babies. One of these books--Maria Monk's Awful
Disclosures (1836)--sold over 300,000 copies.
Even uglier was occasional mass violence. As early as 1834 a Catholic convent
near Boston was burned by a howling mob, and in ensuing years there were a
few scattered attacks on Catholic schools and churches. The most frightful flare-
up occurred during 1844 in Philadelphia, where the Irish Catholics fought back
against the threats of the "nativists." The City of Brotherly Love did not quiet
down until two Catholic churches had been burned and some thirteen citizens
had been killed and fifty wounded in several days of fighting. These outbursts of
intolerance, though infrequent and generally localized in the larger cities, remain
an unfortunate blot on the record of America's treatment of minority groups.
Immigrants were undeniably making America a more pluralistic society--one of
the most ethnically and racially varied in the history of the world--and perhaps it
was small wonder that cultural clashes would occur. Why, in fact, were such
episodes not even more frequent and more violent? Part of the answer lies in the
robustness of the American economy.
The vigorous growth of the economy in these years both attracted immigrants in
the first place and ensured that, once arrived, they could claim their share of
American wealth without decreasing the wealth of others. Their hands and
brains, in fact, helped fuel economic expansion. Immigrants and the American
economy, in short, needed one another. Without the newcomers a
preponderantly agricultural United States might well have been condemned to
watch in envy as the industrial revolution swept through nineteenth-century
A group of gifted British inventors, beginning about 1750, perfected a series of
machines for the mass production of textiles. This enslavement of steam
multiplied the power of human muscles some ten thousandfold and ushered in
the modern factory system--and with it, the so-called industrial revolution. It was
accompanied by a no-less-spectacular transformation in agricultural production
and in the methods of transportation and communication.
The factory system gradually spread from England--"the world's workshop"--to
other lands. It took a generation or so to reach western Europe, and then the
United States. Why was the youthful American Republic, destined to be an
industrial giant, so slow to embrace the machine?
For one thing, virgin soil in America was cheap. Land-starved descendants of
land-starved peasants were not going to coop themselves up in smelly factories
when they might till their own acres in God's fresh air and sunlight. Labor was
therefore generally scarce, and enough nimble hands to operate the machines
were hard to find--until immigrants began to pour ashore in the 1840s. Money for
capital investment, moreover, was not plentiful in pioneering America. Raw
materials lay undeveloped, undiscovered, or unsuspected. The Republic was
one day to become the world's leading coal producer, but much of the coal
burned in colonial times was imported all the way from England.
Just as labor was scarce, so were consumers. The young country at first lacked
a domestic market large enough to make factory-scale manufacturing profitable.
Long-established British factories, which provided cutthroat competition, posed
another problem. Their superiority was attested by the fact that a few
unscrupulous Yankee manufacturers, out to make a dishonest dollar, stamped
their own products with faked English trademarks.
The British also enjoyed a monopoly of the textile machinery, whose secrets they
were anxious to hide from foreign competitors. Parliament enacted laws, in
harmony with the mercantilistic system, forbidding the export of the machines or
the emigration of mechanics able to reproduce them.
Although a number of small manufacturing enterprises existed in the early
Republic, the future industrial colossus was still snoring. Not until well past the
middle of the nineteenth century did the value of the output of the factories
exceed that of the farms
Samuel Slater has been acclaimed the "Father of the Factory System" in
America, and seldom can the paternity of a movement more properly be ascribed
to one person. A skilled British mechanic of twenty-one, he was attracted by
bounties being offered to English workers familiar with the textile machines.
After memorizing the plans for the machinery, he escaped in disguise to
America, where he won the backing of Moses Brown, a Quaker capitalist in
Rhode Island. Laboriously reconstructing the essential apparatus with the aid of
a blacksmith and a carpenter, he put into operation in 1791 the first efficient
American machinery for spinning cotton thread.
The ravenous mechanism was now ready, but where was the cotton fiber?
Handpicking 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) of lint from 3 pounds (1.36 kilograms) of
seed was a full day's work for one slave, and this process was so expensive that
cotton cloth was relatively rare.
Another mechanical genius, Massachusetts-born Eli Whitney, now made his
mark. After graduating from Yale, he journeyed to Georgia to serve as a private
tutor while preparing for the law. There he was told that the poverty of the South
would be relieved if someone could only invent a workable device for separating
the seed from the short-staple cotton fiber. Within ten days, in 1793, he built a
crude machine called the cotton gin (short for engine) that was fifty times more
effective than the handpicking process.
Few machines have ever wrought so wondrous a change. The gin affected not
only the history of America but that of the world. Almost overnight the raising of
cotton became highly profitable, and the South was tied hand and foot to the
throne of King Cotton. Human bondage had been dying out, but the insatiable
demand for cotton reriveted the chains on the limbs of the downtrodden southern
South and North both prospered. Slave-driving planters cleared more acres for
cotton, pushing the Cotton Kingdom westward off the depleted tidewater plains,
over the Piedmont, and onto the black loam bottomlands of Alabama and
Mississippi. Humming gins poured out avalanches of snowy fiber for the
spindles of the Yankee machines, though for decades to come the mills of
England bought the lion's share of southern cotton. The American phase of the
industrial revolution, which first blossomed in cotton textiles, was well on its
Factories at first flourished most actively in New England, though they branched
out into the more populous areas of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
The South, increasingly wedded to the production of cotton, could boast of
comparatively little manufacturing. Its capital was bound up in slaves; its local
consumers for the most part were desperately poor.
New England was singularly favored as an industrial center for several reasons.
Its narrow belt of stony soil discouraged farming and hence made manufacturing
more attractive than elsewhere.
A relatively dense population provided labor and accessible markets; shipping
brought in capital; and snug seaports made easy the import of raw materials and
the export of the finished products. Finally, the rapid rivers--notably the
Merrimack in Massachusetts--provided abundant water power to turn the cogs
of the machines. By 1860, more than 400 million pounds (182,000 metric tons) of
southern cotton poured annually into the gaping maws of over a thousand mills,
mostly in New England
One ugly outgrowth of the factory system was an increasingly acute labor
problem. Hitherto manufacturing had been done in the home, or in the small
shop, where the master craftsman and his apprentice, rubbing elbows at the
same bench, could maintain an intimate and friendly relationship. The industrial
revolution submerged this personal association in the impersonal ownership of
stuffy factories in "spindle cities." Around these, like tumors, the slumlike hovels
of the "wage slaves" tended to cluster.
Clearly the early factory system did not shower its benefits evenly on all.
While many owners waxed fat, workingpeople often wasted away at their
workbenches. Hours were long, wages were low, and meals were skimpy and
hastily gulped. Workers were forced to toil in unsanitary buildings that were
poorly ventilated, lighted, and heated. They were forbidden by law to form labor
unions to raise wages, for such cooperative activity was regarded as a criminal
conspiracy. Not surprisingly, only twenty-four recorded strikes occurred before
Especially vulnerable to exploitation were child workers. In 1820, half the
nation's industrial toilers were children under ten years of age. Victims of factory
labor, many children were mentally blighted, emotionally starved, physically
stunted, and even brutally whipped in special "whipping rooms." In Samuel
Slater's mill of 1791, the first machine tenders were seven boys and two girls, all
under twelve years of age.
By contrast, the lot of most adult wage workers improved markedly in the 1820s
and 1830s. In the full flush of Jacksonian democracy, many of the states granted
the laboring man the vote. Brandishing the ballot, he first strove to lighten his
burden through workingmen's parties. Aside from such goals as the ten-hour
day, higher wages, and tolerable working conditions, he demanded public
education for his children and an end to the inhuman practice of imprisonment
Employers, abhorring the rise of the "rabble" in politics, fought the ten-hour day
to the last ditch. They argued that reduced hours would lessen production,
increase costs, and demoralize the workers. Laborers would have so much
leisure time that the Devil would lead them into mischief. A red-letter gain was at
length registered for labor in 1840, when President Van Buren established the
ten-hour day for federal employees on public works. In ensuing years a number
of states gradually fell into line by reducing the hours of workingpeople.
Day laborers at last learned that their strongest weapon was to lay down their
tools, even at the risk of prosecution under the law. Dozens of strikes erupted in
the 1830s and 1840s, most of them for higher wages, some for the ten-hour day,
and a few for such unusual goals as the right to smoke on the job. The workers
usually lost more strikes than they won, for the employer could resort to such
tactics as the importing of strikebreakers--often derisively called "scabs" or
"rats," and often fresh off the boat from the Old World. Labor long raised its
voice against the unrestricted inpouring of wage-depressing and union-busting
Labor's early and painful efforts at organization had netted some 300,000 trade
unionists by 1830. But such encouraging gains were dashed on the rocks of
hard times following the severe depression of 1837. As unemployment spread,
union membership shriveled. Yet toilers won a hope-giving legal victory in 1842.
The supreme court of Massachusetts ruled in the case of Commonwealth v. Hunt
that labor unions were not illegal conspiracies, provided that their methods were
"honorable and peaceful." This enlightened decision did not legalize the strike
overnight throughout the country, but it was a significant signpost of the times.
Trade unions still had a rocky row to hoe, stretching ahead for about a century,
before they could meet management on relatively even terms
Women were also sucked into the clanging mechanism of factory production.
They typically toiled six days a week, earning a pittance for dreary stints of
twelve or thirteen hours--"from dark to dark." The Boston Associates pridefully
pointed to their textile mill at Lowell, Massachusetts, as a showplace factory.
The workers were virtually all New England farm girls, carefully supervised on
and off the job by watchful matrons. Escorted regularly to church from their
company boardinghouses, forbidden to form unions, they were as disciplined
and docile a labor force as any employer could wish.
But factory jobs of any kind were still unusual for women. Opportunities for
women to be economically self-supporting were scarce and consisted mainly of
nursing, domestic service, and especially teaching. The dedicated Catharine
Beecher, unmarried daughter of a famous preacher and sister of Harriet
Beecher Stowe, tirelessly urged women to enter the teaching profession.
She eventually succeeded beyond her dreams, as men left teaching for other
lines of work and schoolteaching became a thoroughly "feminized" occupation.
Other work "opportunities" for women beckoned in household service. Perhaps
one white family in ten employed servants at midcentury, most of whom were
poor white, immigrant, or black women. About 10 percent of white women were
working for pay outside their own homes in 1850, and estimates are that about
20 percent of all women had been employed at some time prior to marriage.
The vast majority of working women were single. Upon marriage, they left their
paying jobs and took up their new work (without wages) as wives and mothers.
In the home they were enshrined in a "cult of domesticity," a widespread cultural
creed that glorified the traditional functions of the homemaker. From their
pedestal, married women commanded immense moral power, and they
increasingly made decisions that altered the character of the family itself.
Women's changing roles and the spreading industrial revolution brought some
important changes in the life of the nineteenth-century home--the traditional
"women's sphere." Love, not parental "arrangement," more and more frequently
determined the choice of a spouse--yet parents often retained the power of
veto. Families thus became more closely knit and affectionate, providing the
emotional refuge that made the threatening impersonality of big-city industrialism
tolerable to many people.
Most striking, families grew smaller. The average household had nearly six
members at the end of the eighteenth century but fewer than five members a
The "fertility rate," or number of births among women aged 14 to 45, dropped
sharply among white women in the years after the Revolution and, in the course
of the nineteenth century as a whole, fell by half. Birth control was still a taboo
topic for polite conversation, and contraceptive technology was primitive, but
clearly some form of family limitation was being practiced quietly and effectively
in countless families, rural and urban alike.
Women undoubtedly played a large part--perhaps the leading part--in decisions
to have fewer children. This newly assertive role for women has been called
"domestic feminism," because it signified the growing power and independence
of women, even while they remained trapped in the "cult of domesticity."
Smaller families, in turn, meant child-centered families, since where children are
fewer, parents can lavish more care on them individually. European visitors to
the United States in the nineteenth century often complained about the unruly
behavior of American "brats." But though American parents may have
increasingly spared the rod, they did not spoil their children. Lessons were
enforced by punishments other than the hickory stick. When the daughter of
novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe neglected to do her homework, her mother sent
her from the dinner table and gave her "only bread and water in her own
What Europeans saw as permissiveness was in reality the consequence of an
emerging new idea of child rearing, in which the child's will was not to be simply
broken, but shaped. In the little republic of the family, as in the Republic at large,
good citizens were raised not to be meekly obedient to authority, but to be
independent individuals who could make their own decisions on the basis of
internalized moral standards.
Thus the outlines of the "modern" family were clear by midcentury: it was small,
affectionate, child-centered, and provided a special arena for the talents of
women. Feminists of a later day might decry the stifling atmosphere of the
Victorian home, but to many women of the time it seemed a big step upward from
the conditions of grinding toil--often alongside men in the fields--in which their
mothers had lived
In 1789, when the Constitution was launched, primitive methods of travel were
still in use. Waterborne commerce, whether along the coast or on the rivers, was
slow, uncertain, and often dangerous. Stagecoaches and wagons lurched over
bone-shaking roads. Passengers would be routed out to lay nearby fence rails
across muddy stretches, and occasionally horses would drown in muddy pits
while wagons sank slowly out of sight.
Cheap and efficient carriers were imperative if raw materials were to be
transported to the factories and if the finished product were to be delivered to
the consumer. On December 3, 1803, a firm in Providence, Rhode Island, sent a
shipment of yarn to a point 60 miles (97 kilometers) away, notifying the
purchaser that the consignment could be expected to arrive in "the course of the
A promising change for the better came in the 1790s, when a private company
completed the Lancaster turnpike in Pennsylvania. It was a broad, hard-surfaced
highway that thrust 62 miles (100 kilometers) westward, from Philadelphia to
Lancaster. As drivers approached the toll gate, they were confronted with a
barrier of sharp pikes, which were turned aside when they paid their toll. Hence
the term turnpike.
The Lancaster turnpike proved to be a highly successful venture, returning as
high as 15 percent annual dividends to its stockholders. It attracted a rich trade
to Philadelphia and touched off a turnpike-building boom that lasted about
twenty years. It also stimulated western development. The turnpikes beckoned
to the canvas-covered Conestoga wagons, whose creakings heralded a
westward advance that would know no real retreat.
Western road building, always expensive, encountered many obstacles.
Looming large among them were the noisy states' righters, who opposed federal
aid to local projects. Eastern states also protested against being bled of their
populations by the westward-reaching arteries.
Westerners scored a notable triumph in 1811 when the federal government
began to construct the elongated National Road, or Cumberland Road. This
highway ultimately stretched from Cumberland, in western Maryland, to
Vandalia, in Illinois, a distance of 591 miles (952 kilometers). The War of 1812
interrupted construction, and states' rights shackles on internal improvements
hampered federal grants. But the thoroughfare was belatedly brought to its
destination, in 1852, by a combination of aid from the states and the federal
The steamboat craze, which overlapped the turnpike craze, was touched off by
an ambitious painter-engineer named Robert Fulton. He installed a powerful
steam engine in a vessel that posterity came to know as the Clermont but that a
dubious public dubbed "Fulton's Folly." On a historic day in 1807, the quaint
little ship, belching sparks from its single smokestack, churned steadily from
New York City up the Hudson River toward Albany. It made the run of 150 miles
(242 kilometers) in 32 hours.
The success of the steamboat was sensational. People could now in large
degree defy wind, wave, tide, and downstream current. Within a few years
Fulton had changed all of America's navigable streams into two-way arteries,
thereby doubling their carrying capacity. Hitherto keelboats had been pushed
up the Mississippi, with quivering poles and raucous profanity, at less than one
mile an hour--a process that was prohibitively expensive. Now the steamboats
could churn rapidly against the current, ultimately attaining speeds in excess of
10 miles (16 kilometers) an hour. The mighty Mississippi had now met its master.
By 1820 there were some sixty steamboats on the Mississippi and its tributaries;
by 1860, about one thousand, some of them luxurious river palaces. Keen rivalry
among the swift and gaudy steamers led to memorable races. Excited
passengers would urge the captain to pile on wood at the risk of bursting the
boilers, which all too often exploded with tragic results for the floating firetraps.
Chugging steamboats played a vital role in the opening of the West and South,
both of which were richly endowed with navigable rivers. Like bunches of grapes
on a vine, population clustered along the banks of the broad-flowing streams.
Cotton growers and other farmers made haste to take up the now-profitable
virgin soil. Not only could they float their produce out to market but, hardly less
important, they could ship in at low cost their shoes, hardware, and other
More than anything else, the desire of the East to tap the West stimulated the
"transportation revolution." Until about 1830 the produce of the western region
drained southward to the cotton belt or to the heaped-up wharves of New
The steamboat vastly aided the reverse flow of finished goods up the watery
western arteries and helped bind West and South together. But the truly
revolutionary changes in commerce and communication came in the three
decades before the Civil War, as canals and railroad tracks radiated out from
the East, across the Alleghenies and into the blossoming heartland. The
ditchdiggers and tie-layers were attempting nothing less than a conquest of
nature itself. They would offset the "natural" flow of trade on the interior rivers
by laying down an impressive grid of "internal improvements."
The builders succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Mississippi was
increasingly robbed of its traffic, as goods moved eastward on chugging trains,
puffing lake boats, and mule-tugged canal barges. Governor Clinton had in
effect picked up the mighty Father of Waters and flung it over the Alleghenies,
forcing it to empty into the sea at New York City. By the 1840s the city of Buffalo
handled more western produce than New Orleans. Between 1836 and 1860,
grain shipments through Buffalo increased a staggering sixtyfold. New York City
became the seaboard queen of the nation, a gigantic port through which a vast
hinterland poured its wealth and to which it daily paid economic tribute.
By the eve of the Civil War, a truly continental economy had emerged. The
principle of division of labor, which spelled productivity and profits in the factory,
applied on a national scale as well. Each region now specialized in a particular
type of economic activity. The South raised cotton for export to New England
and old England; the West grew grain and livestock to feed factory workers in
the East and in Europe; the East made machines and textiles for the South and
The economic pattern thus woven had fateful political and military implications.
Many southerners regarded the Mississippi as a silver chain that naturally linked
together the upper valley states and the Cotton Kingdom. They were convinced,
as secession approached, that some or all of these states would have to secede
with them or be strangled. But they overlooked the man-made links that now
bound the upper Mississippi Valley to the East in intimate commercial union.
Southern rebels would have to fight not only Northern armies but the tight bonds
of an interdependent continental economy. Economically, the two northerly
sections were Siamese twins.
The emergence of a specialized, continental-scale economy also had far-
reaching social effects. As more and more Americans--mill hands as well as
farmers, women as well as men--linked their economic fate to the burgeoning
market economy, the self-sufficient households of colonial days were
transformed. Most families had once raised all their own food, spun their own
wool, and bartered with their neighbors for the few necessities they could not
make themselves. In growing numbers they now scattered to work for wages in
the mills, or they planted just a few crops for sale at market and used the money
to buy goods made by strangers in far-off factories. As store-bought fabrics,
candles, and soap replaced homemade products, a quiet revolution occurred in
the household division of labor and status. Traditional women's work was
rendered superfluous and devalued. The home itself, once a center of economic
production in which all family members cooperated, grew into a place of refuge
from the world of work, a refuge that became increasingly the special and
separate sphere of women
"Revolutionary advances in manufacturing and transportation brought increased
prosperity to all Americans, but they also widened the gulf between the rich and
the poor. Millionaires had been rare in the early days of the Republic, but by the
eve of the Civil War several specimens of colossal financial success were
strutting across the national stage. Spectacular was the case of fur-trader and
real estate speculator John Jacob Astor, who left an estate of $30 million on his
death in 1848.
Cities bred the greatest extremes of economic inequality. Unskilled workers,
then as always, fared worst. Many of them came to make up a floating mass of
"drifters," buffeted from town to town by the shifting prospects for menial jobs.
These wandering workers accounted at various times for up to half the
population of the brawling industrial centers. Although their numbers were large,
they left little behind them but the homely fruits of their transient labor. Largely
unstoried and unsung, they are among the forgotten men and women of
Many myths about "social mobility" grew up over the buried memories of these
unfortunate day laborers. Mobility did exist in industrializing America--but not in
the proportions that legend often portrays. Rags-to-riches success stories were
Yet America, with its dynamic society and wide-open spaces, undoubtedly
provided more "opportunity" than did the contemporary countries of the Old
World--which is why millions of immigrants packed their bags and headed for
New World shores. Moreover, a rising tide lifts all boats, and the improvement
in overall standards of living was real. Wages for unskilled workers in a labor-
hungry America rose about 1 percent a year from 1820 to 1860. This general
prosperity helped defuse the potential class conflict that might otherwise have
exploded--and that did explode in many European countries
new pattern of American foreign trade also emerged in the antebellum years,
though businesspeople concentrated on developing the wondrously rewarding
domestic market. (Foreign commerce seldom added up to more than 7 percent
of the national product.)
Abroad as at home, cotton was king and regularly accounted for more than half
the value of all American exports. After the repeal of the British exclusionary
Corn Laws in 1846, the wheat gathered by McCormick's reapers began to play
an increasingly important role in trade with Great Britain. Americans generally
exported agricultural products and imported manufactured goods--and they
generally imported more than they exported.
A crucial step came in 1858 when Cyrus Field, called "the greatest wire puller in
history," finally stretched a cable under the deep North Atlantic waters from
Newfoundland to Ireland. Although this initial cable went dead after three weeks
of public rejoicing, a heavier cable laid in 1866 permanently linked the American
and European continents.
The United States merchant marine encountered rough sailing during much of
the early nineteenth century. American vessels had been repeatedly laid up by
the embargo, the War of 1812, and the panics of 1819 and 1837. American
naval designers made few contributions to maritime progress. A pioneer
American steamer, the Savannah, had crept across the Atlantic in 1819, but it
used sail most of the time and was pursued for a day by a British captain who
thought it afire.
In the 1840s and 1850s, a golden age dawned for American shipping. Yankee
naval yards, notably Donald McKay's at Boston, began to send down the ways
sleek new craft called clipper ships. Long, narrow, and majestic, they glided
across the sea under towering masts and clouds of canvas. In a fair breeze they
could outrun any steamer.
The stately clippers sacrificed cargo space for speed, and their captains made
killings by hauling high-value cargoes in record times. They wrested much of the
tea-carrying trade between the Far East and England from their slower-moving
British competitors, and they sped thousands of impatient adventurers to the
gold fields of California and Australia.
But the hour of glory for the clipper was relatively brief. On the eve of the Civil
War, the British had clearly won the world race for maritime ascendancy with
their iron tramp steamers ("tea-kettles"). Although slower and less romantic than
the clipper, these vessels were steadier, roomier, more reliable, and hence more
No story of rapid American communication would be complete without including
the Far West. By 1858, horse-drawn overland stagecoaches, immortalized by
Mark Twain's Roughing It, were a familiar sight. Their dusty tracks stretched
from the bank of the muddy Missouri River clear to California.
Even more dramatic was the Pony Express, established in 1860 to carry mail
speedily the 2,000 lonely miles (3,220 kilometers) from St. Joseph, Missouri, to
Sacramento, California. Daring, lightweight riders, leaping onto wiry ponies
saddled at stations approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) apart, could make
the trip in an amazing ten days. These unarmed horsemen galloped on, summer
or winter, day or night, through dust or snow, past Indians and bandits. The
speeding postmen missed only one trip, though the whole enterprise lost money
heavily and folded after only eighteen legend-leaving months.
Just as the clippers had succumbed to steam, so were the express riders
unhorsed by Morse's clacking keys, which began tapping messages to California
in 1861. The swift ships and the fleet ponies ushered out a dying technology of
wind and muscle. In the future, machines would be in the saddle