If America is an enterprise (“A project or undertaking, one that is difficult or requires effort”), its history falls into cycles that are typical of all large enterprises. At the beginning, Colonial America was essentially an extended period of market research. The Pilgrims were seeking a new place to exercise their religious freedom, and inevitably the merchants followed. All agreed on the virtues of the New World’s market: almost infinite supplies of land, resources and freedom. The next cycle, Revolutionary America, created and installed the basic operating system for America – documents and ideas that remain as vibrant and meaningful today as when they were written (for an appreciation of the Founders’ collective brilliance, see the first installment of “Remembering Who We Are” below).
The third cycle covered in Paul Johnson’s “A History of the American People,” roughly 1800-1860, or what Johnson refers to as Democratic America, saw the American operating system moved out of beta testing and into the real world. It’s a fascinating era in which six fundamental levers emerged that would drive the growth of the country’s economy and character for the next century.
The Population Explosion Just before 1800, the population of America was roughly 3 million people. That’s a little larger than the city of Chicago, according to the 2014 Census. By 1810, the population had grown to more than 7 million and by 1820 it was nearly 10 million. It was primarily organic growth. Johnson recounts a thumbnail demographic analysis from a local congressman at the time: “I invite you to go to the west, and visit one of our log cabins, and number its inmates. There you will find a strong, stout youth of eighteen, with his Better Half, just commencing the first struggles on independent life. Thirty years from that time, visit them again; and instead of two, you will find in that same family twenty-two. That is what I call the American Multiplication Table.” Immigration accelerated too, driven by oppressive taxation in Europe, cheap travel and the promise of free land in America. It was just a foreshadowing of the immigration surge that would explode at the turn of the century and beyond.
Infrastructure With a growing population and the ability to innovate at will, two great catalysts for growth were put in place: transportation and communication. These are fundamental to the growth of commerce and their expansion converged during this period, starting with the Pony Express (a letter delivered from Missouri to California in 10 days!), which was replaced by Ezra Cornell’s Western Union Telegraph Company, whose telegraph lines followed the contours of the emerging rail system in the U.S. The creation of the Associated Press in 1827, along with the telegraph, was the Twitter-Google complex of its time, accelerating the rate of change and growth in the fledgling country.
The “Big Bang” of the Industrial Revolution The mechanization of the cotton industry, from steam-powered cotton-spinning machines to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, jump-started America’s nascent agricultural-industrial complex. It had global impact. World markets were flooded with cotton, whose price dropped dramatically. As a result, “hundreds of millions of people, all over the world, were able to dress comfortably and cleanly at last.” More than anything, it demonstrated to American inventors and merchants the power of automation at scale.
Here Comes Capitalism! America was founded on agrarian ideals and culture. Then along came John Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. Marshall had absorbed “The Wealth of Nations” and its lessons on the invisible hand, as well as Edmund Burke’s history of the French Revolution and its lessons on the rule of law. Marshall then set to work erecting the framework of America’s economy, which would have far-reaching impact. “If one man can be said to have wedded the US indissolubly to capitalism, and particularly to industrial capitalism, it was Marshall. His rulings made the accumulation of capital possible on a scale hitherto unimaginable and he can justly be described as one of the architects of the modern world.”
Energizing Democracy One of the great political actors of the era was Andrew Jackson, who helped migrate political power from the elites to the streets. Jackson, a “hungry, almost uneducated orphan,” made a fortune in land acquisition, helped found the state of Tennessee, where he assumed control of the state’s militia and eventually ascended to the presidency. By 1820 or so, Washington was experiencing its first wave of corruption and “Jackson became the first presidential candidate to grasp with both hands what was to become the most popular campaign theme in American history – ‘turn the rascals out.’ His task, as he saw it, was to liberate and empower this huge moral popular force by appealing to it over the heads of the entrenched oligarchy, the corrupt ruling elite.” Sound familiar?
The American Voice American culture was accelerating its move away from its English roots, most notably in language and literature. The uniquely American idiom was taking shape with the rise of catch-phrases like keep a stiff upper lip, fly off the handle, get religion, knock-down, stay on the fence, in cahoots, horse-sense, barking up the wrong tree, no two ways about it, and get the hang of a thing. And it was this period that created the first unique voices in American literature: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Emerson and Thoreau, Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman. Whitman was particularly unique in the way that he foreshadowed modern writers like Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. It was also in this period that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published. It was a phenomenal and unprecedented best-seller and one of the first multimedia publishing platforms, spinning off “statues, toys, games, handkerchiefs, wallpapers, cutlery and plates.” The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was so successful because she “wrote in the American language and her theme was the great issue which was already beginning to dominate American politics to the exclusion of almost everything else. It was widely believed that she was responsible for Lincoln’s election, and so for the chain of events which led to the bombardment of Fort Sumter.”
So by the mid-19th century, the operating system of America was in full force. There was, however, a bug in the system that would metastasize into a near-meltdown of the entire enterprise. To be continued . . .
(Note: This is the second part of a highly subjective reading of Paul Johnson’s masterpiece, “A History of the American People.” All unattributed quotes are taken directly from the book. For readers with excess time on their hands, the first installment can be found here )