1800-1860: Communications: Overview
1800-1860: Communications: Overview
Facing West . The early national period was marked by a fascination with the West. Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address in 1801 that Americans possess a “chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation.” In pursuit of that vision, Jefferson created the Corps of Discovery, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s amazing expedition up the Missouri River across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. This journey set the tone for the nationalist expansion of the first half of the century, offering white Americans the promise of new lands, vast wealth, and great opportunity for those brave and strong enough to move west and open up the territory. Walt Whitman, a former newspaperman and the first truly American poet, also saw hope and progress in the West. In one of his “songs” from Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman imagined the satisfaction of the open range, a masculine vision of adventure and oneness with the land:
Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh killed game,
Soundly falling asleep on the gathered leaves,
my dog and gun by my side.
Romantic Visions . This romantic vision of the West imagined a place where Americans could live out their dreams, finding not paradise, perhaps, but fertile land and open spaces in which they could build a magnificent, new American civilization. The nature of this civilization—and its effects—was made clear in some of the nationalist paintings of the era. One such painting was The Old House of Representatives, completed in 1822 by Samuel F. B. Morse, the man who would later invent the telegraph. In Morse’s painting, candles are being lit while Congress is assembling for an evening session. But the painting also includes an Indian named Petalasharoo peeking from the balcony, a reminder of the nation’s Western gaze. “That very evening perhaps Congress will decide his destiny, and that of his people, as the nation turns to the West,” the historian William Goetzmann wrote about this scene. By the 1840s the romantic idyll of Western expansion had given way to a harder, more practical vision. A painting by John Gast, widely reproduced as a lithograph, was called Westward Ho. Gast showed Indians, buffalo, and bears fleeing progress, embodied by several hearty pioneers tramping west with tools and a plow. They were followed by a wagon, a stage, and two trains. Overhead was the white-robed Goddess of Liberty, flying west, with a book of laws in her arms, stringing the telegraph wire as she sailed along. Here were the elements of American progress in the early nineteenth century: the “sacred plow” of the farmer, the wood and steel of a transportation revolution, and the wires that would someday link Atlantic to Pacific, uniting America and making Manifest Destiny a reality.
Promoting Progress . American journalists were no exception to this movement. Indeed, many editors were leading proponents of expansion, using their papers to promote economic growth and advocate the conquest of western lands. Journalists promoted the West in at least two ways. First, explorers, newspapers, and travel writers advanced the ideology of Western expansion. From Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune to George Kendall of the New Orleans Picayune and William Byers of the Rocky Mountain News, American editors and their readers embraced the idea that the United States was entitled to a vast empire that would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Second, newspapers themselves spread rapidly in the new territories, each village and town providing a place for the local editor to promote. In Denver, for example, editor Byers started with few readers and even fewer advertisers. But every new strike in the mining districts—as well as agricultural and business successes—gave Byers more to crow about in the Rocky Mountain News. Denver grew and the publisher prospered, a pattern repeated throughout the West. The result of this journalistic drumbeat was a sustained ideology of growth and progress, constantly renewed by the dreams of new editors in new towns. Although there were some important exceptions, most antebellum editors were true believers in the gospel of expansionism.
“Uncle Horace” and the West . Horace Greeley was a native New Englander who lived most of his adult life in New York. As editor of the popular New York Tribune and an outspoken advocate of Western expansion, however, Greeley’s influence on Western immigration was considerable. For one thing, “Uncle Horace” became a familiar figure around the nation, widely read by farmers and small-town folk in the Tribune weekly, semiweekly, and Pacific Coast editions. In the 1850s the Tribune weekly circulation grew steadily; by 1860 the pressrun topped three hundred thousand, and his readership was estimated at one million weekly. Greeley attracted readers by crusading. He spoke out boldly on many issues, including the spread of slavery into the Western territories, which he opposed. Greeley was also a tireless supporter of the Homestead Act, legislation he believed would give poor Eastern laborers an escape from the miseries of the city by allowing them to become landowners in the West. He is best known, however, for his advice to “Go West, Young Man. Go West!”—a slogan he did not coin. “Everyone knew the words were Greeley’s,” his biographer wrote, “although no one could remember just when he had first uttered them.” The truth, biographer William Hale concluded, was that Greeley had given some form of this advice to hundreds of people over the years. In 1854, for example, Greeley received a letter from a young man named William H. Verity, who told Greeley that he was in love but had just learned that he was ill with consumption (tuberculosis). What should he do about the woman? Greeley answered: Marry her and go west. Verity did, settling in Illinois and living until 1930, when he died at the age of ninety-seven.
Greeley Goes West . Uncle Horace himself went west only once, in 1859, to see the country he had long imagined and to promote the transcontinental railroad. He used the trip to write letters to the Tribune, reporting firsthand on the tribulations of stagecoach travel and the natural wonders of the West. He wrote enthusiastically about the fertile land in Kansas and Colorado as well as the gold he saw in Central City. Greeley was less impressed by the Indians he encountered. Traveling across Kansas, Greeley saw Indians sitting when, in his opinion, they should have been farming. If the West was to be settled and improved, Greeley was certain, it would take ingenuity and hard work. To Greeley, son of a failed New England farmer, there was no excuse for the Indians’ idleness. Indians, he decided, were simple but dangerous children, sorely in need of a work ethic and a progressive spirit. Greeley described Indian “braves” as unredeemable creatures. “Squalid and conceited, proud and worthless, lazy and lousy, they will strut out or drink out their miserable existence, and at length afford the world a sensible relief by dying out of it.” If Indians could be saved, Greeley concluded, it would be up to Indian women who, unlike native men, were willing to work. They could be taught simple household, farming, and manufacturing skills, improving the condition of their people. Greeley’s critique of Indians was harsh and paternalistic, but it reveals the contours of his expansionist ideology. Much of the West was productive country, Greeley concluded, ready for hard-working men and women to till and improve. For Indians, people in his view too lazy and dull to join the march of progress, there was little hope. Depressed by Indians, Greeley was cheered by the beauty and opportunity of California, and he traveled throughout the region examining its resources and peoples. He wrote glowing reports and sent the story East, first by Pony Express, then telegraph, to an anxious public. Greeley had taken his own advice, and he made sure that his readers knew that he had been right about the West all along.
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