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1815-1850: Communications: Overview

1815-1850: Communications: Overview

On the Move. A traveler heading west over the National Road in 1817 noted the continuous stream of family groups behind and before us and concluded that old America seems to be breaking up and moving out to settle the frontier. Census statistics bear out his observation. By 1840 fully one-third of the nations thirteen million souls lived between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, an area that prior to 1812 supported a substantial Indian population but only a few hundred thousand AngloAmericans. American military success in the War of 1812 led to the expulsion of the Indians from their homelands and started a mass exodus from the East. At the same time the United States experienced a boom in population, especially in the port cities of New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.

Market Access. Such rapid expansion, however, strained the crude communications and transportation networks of the young republic. Western farmers wanted to get their surplus grain and livestock to markets in the East, but in 1815 the muddy tracks that passed as roads over the Appalachians made it cheaper for farmers to send their produce to Philadelphia on a three-thousand-mile boat journey via New Orleans than three-hundred-mile trip by land. Eastern merchants wanting to market manufactured goods in the West experienced the same problem in reverse.

Binding the Republic. The federal government was concerned about poor transportation and communications, and not just because Westerners continually clamored for better postal service. During the War of 1812 American forces had experienced several embarrassing defeats on the Western and Northern frontiers, partly because the pitiful condition of roads made rapid troop movements and military provisioning difficult and expensive. As historian George Rogers Taylor noted, for every $400 spent buying a cannon in Washington in 1814, $1, 500 or $2, 000 had to be added to transport it to the northwest frontier of Ohio. Leaders in Washington also retained fresh memories of secession conspiracies and rumors of disunion rampant in the West before the war. In his 1817 call for a new national system of transportation Secretary of War John C. Calhoun alluded to these concerns: Those who understand the human heart best know how powerfully distance tends to break the sympathies of our nature.... Let us then bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space it is thus that a citizen of the West will read news of Boston still moist from the press.

Costs. In the nationalist euphoria of the postwar decade most Americans agreed with Calhoun on the need to build a national infrastructure, or internal improvements, as they were commonly called. What they did not agree on was who should finance this perfect system of roads and canals. Calhoun and his supporters thought that many of the improvements contemplated are on too great a scale for the resources of states or individuals they required the general superintendence of this government to effect and complete them. Yet an equally large constituency thought that the federal government did not have the constitutional power to build anything other than postal roads and naval vessels. The Bonus Bill of 1817, on behalf of which Calhoun spoke so passionately, was vetoed by President James Madison not because he opposed internal improvements (in fact, he favored them) but because he thought Congress had overstepped its constitutional authority.

Liberty and Power. Like many, Madison worried that any expansion of federal power in the area of internal improvements would eventually intrude on the liberties of the states and individuals to decide their own destinies in matters totally unrelated to roads and canals. As he put it, signing the Bonus Bill would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them. In short, if Congress could build roads by legislative fiat, they could theoretically also threaten states rights, slavery, freedom of speech, and all of the other liberties the separation of powers supposedly protected. Through the first half of the nineteenth century this objection repeatedly led lawmakers to defeat proposals for a federally funded and controlled system of internal improvements. As a result private capitalists, with assistance from states and localities (and some federal help), financed and built most of the roads, canals, railroads, bridges, and steamboats constructed during Americas transportation revolution. An unintended side effect of private construction was that the desire to bind the republic together often gave way to questions of private profita lasting legacy of the era.

Revolution. In 1815 it took forty-nine days for news of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 between Britain and America, to reach Washington from Europe. By 1850 the fastest Atlantic steamship would make the same trip in less than ten days. In 1830 passengers had to endure almost three weeks of travel to get from New York City to Saint Louis by some combination of canal, road, and steamboat though a letter might arrive a little earlier if sent on the express mail service. By the mid 1850s railroads had cut traveling time for the same passengers to less than three days, and the message in the letter took only a few minutes to reach Saint Louis along the recently completed telegraph lines. In the span of one lifetime Americans experienced a revolution in transportation and communications, for better or worse. Visiting Europeans complained constantly about the relentless pace of American life, and even some Americans began to doubt their attachment to speed in the age of the iron horse. One American lamented that we are born in haste our body is a locomotive, our soul, a high-pressure engine. However, whether they liked it or not, in a few short decades Americans had undergone a fundamental reordering in their conception of time and space. They set their clocks and watches by railroad whistles and insisted on timeliness. They expected the newspapers to provide accounts of national events almost as soon as they happened. And woe to the train conductor or steamboat captain who did not rush to his destination.

New Way of Life. The new national conception of time and space depended on an infrastructure of iron rails, steamboats, telegraph wires, and canals. Much of that infrastructure was devoted to the prosaic but essential task of moving massive amounts of grain, lumber, iron, coal, and cotton from the countryside to the expanding industrial cities of America and Europe. From there it returned over the same paths once converted to cookstoves, enamelware, textiles, and locomotives. Of course, telegraphs, railroads, steamboats, and canals also allowed loved ones to hear from one another more than once a year and maybe visit each other more than once a decade. And no longer did a move to the western frontier have to mean a final farewell to parents or childhood friends.

Business. Alongside these changes came a parallel revolution in the business of America. The new infrastructure removed many previous obstructions and bottlenecks in transportation and production. Grain and meat could now travel hundreds or even thousands of miles before it spoiled. News of changes in commodity prices moved at the speed of electrical current across the telegraph wires, allowing wily brokers to corner markets in wheat, corn, and hogs. In short, massive amounts of money could now be made by maximizing flows of capital, goods, information, and services through new conduits. Fortunes also came to those who built the infrastructure itself. Railroads, for example, consumed mountains of money and steel. Bankers and stockbrokers profited greatly from supplying the former while foundries and locomotive works grew large providing the latter. In fact, many of Americas post Civil War business tycoons and engineers used the entrepreneurial-system builders of these antebellum decades as their models, and thus much of modern corporate America was born.

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