Horace Greeley, Nineteenth-Century Crusader

By Glyndon G. Van Deusen | Go to book overview

Prologue

The American generation that grew up after the War of 1812 was a prey to all the seven plagues of Egypt, and more. People roasted by the thousands in steamboat explosions and railroad wrecks. Hustling, bustling cities were stricken with terror and despair by the dreadful scourge of cholera. Consumption took such a toll of the population and was so much feared that it furnished a favorite theme for the poets and poetesses of the period. The beautiful Ohio, the wide Missouri, and the Father of Waters flooded without let or hindrance, doing millions of dollars' worth of damage to what politicians even then called "Our Priceless Heritage." It was a generation that knew little or nothing about combating the fly in the wheat or the blight that stunted and rotted the potato crop, and both fly and blight abounded.

Nor were accidents and Nature alone the cause of American woes. A laissez-faire economic engine, fired by the recklessness of the frontier spirit, stoked by venturesome and often unscrupulous profit seekers, hurried time and again up blissful slopes of speculative delight, only to find a precipice at the peak and plunge headlong down into the valley of depression. In 1819, in 1837, in 1857 there was widespread and long-drawn-out panic, suffering, and despair. As if this were not enough, sectional jealousies burst out with a frequency that seemed chronic into rancorous struggles over the tariff, over internal improvements, over the disposition of the public lands, most of all over slavery. America was truly a harried land.

But curiously enough this land of troubles was also a land of great achievement. Despite scourges and disasters, its workers toiled and spun with a furious and productive energy. They expanded educational opportunities at a prodigious rate. They created a literary tradition that rivaled anything nineteenth-century Europe could offer. They forged new democratic customs and practices, both political and social. They laid the bases of an economic order at once so stable and so fruitful that, a century later, it could furnish the sinews of victory in two world wars, pour billions into European recovery after those wars, and at the same time maintain a standard of living far beyond that of any other quarter of the globe. These

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