07 January 2013

Jeffersonian America

An extended excerpt from Stephen E. Ambrose's Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West:
“When Thomas Jefferson took the Oath of Office as the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, the nation contained 5,308,483 persons. Nearly one out of five was a Negro slave. Although the boundaries stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, from the Great Lakes nearly to the Gulf of Mexico (roughly a thousand miles by a thousand miles), only a relatively small area was occupied. Two-thirds of the people lived within fifty miles of tidewater. Only four roads crossed the Appalachian Mountains, one from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, another from the Potomac to the Monongahela River, a third through Virginia southwestward to Knoxville, Tennessee, and the fourth through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.” (p. 51) 

“Fewer than one out of ten Americans, about half a million people, lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, but as the Whiskey Rebellion had shown, they were already disposed to think of themselves as the germ of an independent nation that would find its outlet to the world marketplace not across the mountains to the Atlantic Seaboard, but by the Ohio and Mississippi river system to the Gulf of Mexico. This threat of secession was quite real. The United States was only eighteen years old, had itself come into existence by an act of rebellion and secession, had changed its form of government just twelve years earlier, and thus was in a fluid political situation. In addition, it seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire continent. The distances were just too great. A critical fact in the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef (or any beef on the hoof, for that matter), no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster. Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson's contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would."

To the west, beyond the mountains, there were no roads at all, only trails. To move men or mail from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Seaboard took six weeks or more; anything heavier than a letter took two months at least. Bulky items, such as bushels of grain, bales of fur, barrels of whiskey, or kegs of gunpowder, could be moved only by horse-, ox-, or mule-drawn wagons, whose carrying capacity was severely limited, even where roads existed. People took it for granted that things would always be this way. The idea of progress based on technological improvements or mechanics, the notion of a power source other than muscle, falling water, or wind, was utterly alien to virtually every American…” (p. 52) 

“…The Americans of 1801 had more gadgets, better weapons, asuperior knowledge of geography, and other advantages over the ancients, but they could not move goods or themselves or information by land or water any faster than had the Greeks and Romans.” (p. 53) 

But only sixty years later, when Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office as the sixteenth president of the United States, Americans could move bulky items in great quantity farther in an hour than Americans of 1801 could do in a day, whether by land (twenty five miles per hour on the railroads) or water (ten miles an hour upstream on a steamboat). This great leap forward in transportation – a factor of twenty or more – in so short a space of time must be reckoned as the greatest and most unexpected revolution of all – except for another technological revolution, the transmitting of information. In Jefferson’s day, it took six weeks to move information from the Mississippi River to Washington, D.C. In Lincoln’s, information moved over the same route by telegraph all but instantaneously.” (p. 54)
Early American transportation and information movement is emphasized even more in Ambrose's other book Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869.

It's staggering to realize that the world of Jefferson's presidency described above and our cyberspace-driven world are separated only by the length of three extended lifetimes (205 years). 


  1. Completely staggering, and if it ever ceases to be staggering, then I am not thinking about it properly.

    We are the contemporaries now and it is just as impossible for us to imagine what 2050 will be like as it was for Jefferson to imagine Lincoln's time. But it's fun to try. Given the leaps forward, some kind of Star Trek teleportation device MUST be on tap.

    1. Or a dystopian future... but it will be different in ways we can't imagine.

    2. The Star Trek universe has its own set of dystopian futures as well. The Eugenics Wars, for example. But, they worked through them bad times, and held on to the promise of a better tomorrow. All it took was perseverance.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...