The newest Pulitzer Prize historian on America before the Civil War and the messages that can help make sense of the world we're in now
For 10 years I immersed myself in writing a big book about the United States between 1815 and 1848. Now that it's out I enjoy the chance to look at America today in the light of what I learned about an earlier period. Many of the contrasts between that time and our own are obvious enough: the slowness of travel then, the practice of slavery, the unashamed discrimination based on sex and race, the far lower standard of living, the prevalence of disease, discomfort and dirt. More surprising, perhaps, are the many close parallels between the challenges faced in that America and our own.
The antebellum United States witnessed a communications revolution at least as dramatic as ours. In 1844 Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrated his new electric telegraph by transmitting along a wire for 40 miles a quotation from the Book of Numbers: "What hath God wrought." For thousands of years messages had been limited by the speed messengers could travel and the distance eyes could see signals like flags and smoke. Now, instant long-distance communication has become a practical reality. The wide-ranging consequences of the telegraph in the 19th century bear comparison with those of the Internet in the 21st, facilitating commercial transactions and investment decisions, fostering globalization. The telegraph, along with improvements in printing, paper-making and transportation, stimulated mass-market newspapers and the popular politics that fed upon their partisan reporting. The enhanced media empowered reform movements--including antislavery and women's rights--by spreading their demonstrations and manifestoes before wide audiences. The tsar of Russia worried about the democratic implications of the telegraph for his country, just as the rulers of China today worry about the democratic implications of the Internet.
The years between 1815 and 1848 witnessed a vast expansion of international commerce. Then as now the United States participated in the global economy with massive agricultural exports. Improved communications enabled American farmers and planters to get news of distant prices and credit. The invention of steamboats and railroads, along with the expansion of canals like the Erie, helped them ship their produce to distant markets. Cotton was "king," people said, and Southern cotton provided the key raw material for the Industrial Revolution taking place in Great Britain and New England. The antebellum United States, an importer of capital and manufactured goods, paid its way in world trade partly with wheat grown on family farms, but primarily with products of enslaved labor like cotton and tobacco.
The two major American political parties of that time were the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs (the latter precursors of the present Republican Party, founded in 1854). Like today's parties, they balanced each other in strength just about evenly, and polarized sharply over policy. Often they debated modern-sounding issues such as banking, tariffs, education and highway-building. To win elections, each concentrated more on mobilizing its own supporters than on persuading moderates.
The events of the war with Mexico have an eerie familiarity for someone of our time. President James K. Polk provoked war with a reluctant adversary by sending the U.S. Army to invade a disputed area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. When the exasperated Mexicans finally resisted by force of arms, he declared that they had "shed American blood upon American soil," and called upon Congress to support the troops (then as now a powerful appeal). Congress complied. Although the Mexican Army proved weak, the civilian population resisted U.S. occupation with partisan tactics and occasional uprisings. The opposition party (the Whigs) slowly became bolder in denouncing the president's taking the country into war when the conflict dragged on longer than the administration had foreseen. …