On the twenty-fourth of May 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated amidst a hushed gathering of distinguished national leaders in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, tapped out a message on a device of cogs and coiled wires:
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT
Forty miles away, in Baltimore, Morse’s associate Alfred Vail received the electric signals and sent the message back. The invention they had demonstrated was destined to change the world. For thousands of years messages had been limited by the speed with which messengers could travel and the distance at which eyes could see signals such as flags or smoke. Neither Alexander the Great nor Benjamin Franklin (America’s first postmaster general) two thousand years later knew anything faster than a galloping horse. Now, instant long-distance communication became a practical reality. The commercial application of Morse’s invention followed quickly. American farmers and planters—and most Americans then earned a living through agriculture—increasingly produced food and fiber for distant markets. Their merchants and bankers welcomed the chance to get news of distant prices and credit. The New York Journal of Commerce, conceived by Morse himself and published by the famous Christian businessmen and philanthropists Arthur and Lewis Tappan, could put such intelligence carried over the telegraph to good use. The Journal has published continuously from 1827 to the present—since 2000 on the Internet as well as in print.
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. Along with the traditional subject matter of history— political, diplomatic, and military events—the story includes the social, economic, and cultural developments that have extensively concerned historians in recent years. This reflects my own conviction that both kinds of history are essential to a full understanding of the past.
The invention of electric telegraphy, coming near the close of the period treated here, represented a climactic moment in a widespread revolution of communications. Other features of this revolution included improvements in printing and paper manufacturing; the multiplication of newspapers, magazines, and books; and the expansion of the postal system (which mostly carried newspapers and commercial business, not personal letters). Closely related to these developments occurred a simultaneous revolution in transportation: the introduction of steamboats, canals, turnpikes, and railroads, shortening travel times and dramatically lowering shipping costs. How these twin revolutions transformed American life will be central to the story told here. Their consequences certainly rivaled, and probably exceeded in importance, those of the revolutionary “information highway” of our own lifetimes.
Morse’s telegraph had particular importance for a large country with a population spreading into increasingly remote areas. Thomas Jefferson had declared the United States “an empire for liberty” and by his Louisiana Purchase had put the new nation on course to dominate the North American continent. In 1845, the ambition to occupy still more land would be characterized by John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review as the fulfillment of America’s “manifest destiny”—a term that soon became as important as “empire” to describe American nationhood. Samuel F. B. Morse shared this view, which he reinforced with a religious sense of divine providence. Nation-builders awaited news as eagerly as did people selling crops.
Within a few days of the initial demonstration of his invention, Morse was keeping members of Congress in Washington abreast of developments at the Democratic national convention in Baltimore as they happened. The professor felt disappointment when his favorite candidate, the imperialist Lewis Cass of Michigan, missed out on the presidential nomination but was soon reassured to report that it went to another expansionist, James Knox Polk of Tennessee. Polk won the ensuing election and led the country into a war with Mexico. The conquest of that large republic by the small armed forces of the United States, despite formidable geographical difficulties and in the face of a hostile population, constituted one of the most amazing military achievements of the nineteenth century, and the early telegraph lines helped keep the U.S. president and public abreast of events. When the momentous conflict came to a close, the United States stretched from sea to sea, having acquired Texas, California, and everything in between. The electric telegraph then helped integrate this continental empire.
The text of Morse’s demonstration message came from the Bible: “It shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!” (Numbers 23:23). Credit for applying the verse to this occasion belongs to Nancy Goodrich Ellsworth, who suggested it to her daughter Annie, who in turn provided it to Morse. (The professor was in love with Annie.) The quotation proved the perfect choice, capturing the inventor’s own passionate Christian faith and conception of himself as an instrument of providence.
As Morse later commented, the message “baptized the American Telegraph with the name of its author”: God.1 The American public appreciated the significance of the message, for biblical religion then permeated the culture in ways both conventional and sincerely felt. Morse’s invocation of the Bible typified that recurrent importance of religion which has long characterized American history.
Morse’s synthesis of science and religion represented the predominant American attitude of the time; only a few eccentrics believed there was any conflict between scientific and religious truth. Revelation and reason alike, Americans were confident, led to knowledge of God and His creation. Religious awakening, expansion of education, interest in science, and technological progress all went hand in hand. Evangelists welcomed technological advances along with mass education as helping them spread the good news of Christ. Literature, like education and science, was saturated with religious meanings and motivations. The writers of America’s literary renaissance took advantage of the improvements in communications technology to market their art and their moral values to larger and more widespread audiences than writers had ever before enjoyed.
A combination of Protestantism with the Enlightenment shaped American culture and institutions. Morse’s telegraph appealed to both these strains in American ideology, for it fostered what contemporaries called the brotherhood of man and could also be viewed as promoting the kingdom of God. Many Americans interpreted their nation’s destiny in religious terms, as preparing the world for a millennial age of free institutions, peace, and justice. A Methodist women’s magazine explained the role that the electric telegraph would play in this process, revealing both the optimism and the arrogance characteristic of the time:
This noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this mighty influence.... The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and Christian....Wars will cease from the earth. Men “shall beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.”... Then shall come to pass the millennium.2
1. Quoted in Samuel Prime, The Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York, 1875), 494.
2. “The Magnetic Telegraph,” Ladies’ Repository 10 (1850): 61–62; quoted in James Moor-head, American Apocalypse (New Haven, 1978), 6.
The first practical application of Morse’s invention—to report a political party convention—was no accident. The formation of mass political parties, their organization on local, state, and national levels, the application of government patronage to knit them together, their espousal of rival political programs, and their ability to command the attention of the public all combined to give this period of American history its distinctive, highly politicized quality. The rise of mass parties has often been traced to the broadening of the franchise (the right to vote) to include virtually all adult white males. However, no such parties with mass followings could have come into existence without the revolution in communication. Many newspapers of the time were the organs of a political party, existing to propagate its point of view; influential policymakers might be former journalists.3 The newspapers quickly enlisted the telegraph in their quest to gather and distribute information; the newspapers of New York City formed the Associated Press wire service “to secure the transmission of news from the South, and particularly from the seat of War in Mexico, in advance of all ordinary channels.”4
The most common name for the years this book treats is “Jacksonian America.” I avoid the term because it suggests that Jacksonianism describes Americans as a whole, whereas in fact Andrew Jackson was a controversial figure and his political movement bitterly divided the American people. Even worse difficulties arise from the familiar expression “Jacksonian Democracy.” Our own age finds the limitations on the democracy of that period glaring: the enslavement of African Americans, the abuse of Native Americans, the exclusion of women and most nonwhites from the suffrage and equality before the law. 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 as a characterization of the years between 1815 and 1848. Nor did Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaigns constitute a nationwide struggle on behalf of universal white manhood enfranchisement. In most states, white male suffrage evolved naturally and with comparatively little controversy.
3. Jeffrey Pasley has compiled a list, Printers, Editors, and Publishers of Political Journals Elected to the U.S. Congress, 1789–1861, found at http://pasleybrothers.com/newspols/images/Editors_in_Congress.pdf (viewed March 2, 2007).
4. Moses Beach in 1853 recalling events in 1846–48, quoted in Menahem Blondheim, News over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 1844–1897 (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 50.
The consequences of white male democracy, rather than its achievement, shaped the political life of this period.5
Another term that has sometimes been applied to this period—more by historians than by the general public—is “the market revolution.” I avoid this expression also. Those historians who used it have argued that a drastic change occurred during these years, from farm families raising food for their own use to producing it for distant markets. However, more and more evidence has accumulated in recent years that a market economy already existed in the eighteenth-century American colonies.6 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. Furthermore, their expansion did not occur in the face of resistance from any substantial group of people preferring subsistence farming to market participation. Most American family farmers welcomed the chance to buy and sell in larger markets. They did not have to be coerced into seizing the opportunities the market economy presented.
Accordingly, I provide an alternative interpretation of the early nineteenth century as a time of a “communications revolution.” This, rather than the continued growth of the market economy, impressed contemporary Americans as a startling innovation. 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. This revolution, with its attendant political and economic consequences, would be a driving force in the history of the era.
The America of 1848 had been transformed in many ways: by the growth of cities, by the extension of United States sovereignty across the continent, by increasing ethnic and religious diversity as a result of both immigration and conquest—as well as by expanding overseas and national markets, and by the integration of this vast and varied empire through dramatic and sudden improvements in communications. But while the citizens of the giant republic largely agreed in welcoming the growth of their economy, they were very far from uniting in a bland consensus. The nature of the expanding economy constituted one of the
5. My interpretation differs from that presented in Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York, 2005), which affirms the democratic role conventionally attributed to Andrew Jackson.
6. The older view was powerfully presented in Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (New York, 1991). For an introduction to the new evidence, see Richard Bushman, “Markets and Composite Farms in Early America,” WMQ 55 (1998): 351–74.
most frequently debated issues: Should it remain primarily agricultural, with manufactured products imported, or should economic diversification and development be encouraged along with economic growth?
Not all Americans endorsed their country’s imperial destiny of territorial expansion. For some people, the Christian religion provided a fulcrum for criticism of American national aggrandizement rather than an endorsement of it. America’s national mission should be one of democratic example rather than conquest, they insisted. The government’s massive dispossession of eastern Indian tribes in the 1830s aroused bitter protest. Later, a strong political opposition criticized Polk’s war against Mexico. Opponents of slavery deplored territorial expansion as a plan (in the words of the poet James Russell Lowell) “to lug new slave states in.” Critics of American culture wondered whether Morse’s invention was merely an improved means to an unimproved end. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” noted Henry David Thoreau, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”7
In fact, the various improved means of communication carried very important messages. 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. The political parties debated serious issues, economic and constitutional; political divisions were sharp and party loyalties fierce. Meanwhile, innovators at least as original as Morse explored novel approaches in law, in education, in popular politics, and in corporate organization.8 Workers tried to legitimate labor unions in the eyes of public opinion and struck in defiance of the common law. Like technology, politics, and economic development, American religion displayed remarkable originality. Millenarians warned of the imminent Second Coming of Christ. The evangelical movement prompted national soul-searching and argument over the country’s goals and the best means to achieve them. Reformers motivated by religion challenged long-held practices relating to the treatment of women, children, and convicts; utopians of every stripe founded communities dedicated to experimenting with new gender roles and family relationships. Manners
7. “The Biglow Papers,” Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell, ed. Marjorie Kaufman (Boston, 1978), 182; Henry David Thoreau, Walden, intro. Norman Holmes Pearson (New York, 1964), 42.
8. None of the basic science that the electric telegraph applied originated with Morse.
and customs came under as much criticism as institutions: Cockfighting, dueling, and drinking alcohol (among other traditional pursuits) became controversial. All such reforms were created, discussed, and propagated through the enormously expanded media of print and wire. Through these debates, disparate groups competed to define America’s national mission. That America, among the nations of the world, had a mission no one doubted. Whatever America stood for, whether an empire for liberty or a light of virtue unto the nations, the Hand of God had wrought it.
More than any other discussion, the debate over the future of human slavery in an empire dedicated to liberty threatened to tear the country apart. The communications revolution gave a new urgency to social criticism and to the slavery controversy in particular. No longer could slaveholders afford to shrug off the commentary of outsiders. Critics of slavery seized upon the new opportunities for disseminating ideas to challenge the institution in the South itself. Alarmed, the defenders of slavery erected barricades against the intrusion of unwelcome expression. Better communication did not necessarily foster harmony.
In the King James Version of the Bible, an exclamation mark follows the words “What hath God wrought.” But when Morse transmitted the message, he left off any closing punctuation.9 Later, when transcribing the message, Morse added a question mark, and thus it was often printed in accounts of his achievement. This misquotation had its own significance. Morse’s question mark unintentionally turned the phrase from an affirmation of the Chosen People’s destiny to a questioning of it. What God had wrought in raising up America was indeed contested, in Morse’s time no less than it is today. In the title of this book I leave the final punctuation off, as Morse originally did. This allows the title to explore both potential meanings, as the book itself seeks both to affirm and to question the value of what Americans of that period did.
9. The original strip of paper with the dots and dashes of Morse’s transmission can be seen at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/atthtml/morse2.html (viewed Feb. 22, 2007). Modern biblical translations render the expression as “See what God has done” (New Revised Standard Version) or “Yea Israel, what God has planned” (Jewish Study Bible).