Democracy and Progress in America: The Machine


What was to become of democracy?

As the frontier began to disappear, as the pastoral ideal and wide-open spaces of America disappeared, a new symbol for democracy had to be created. The Industrial Revolution in America was in full swing by the mid-nineteenth century with its focus on progress, and seemed at the time ready-made for the democratic ideal. Leo Marx argues that the vessel for progress, after the advent of Industrialism, is no longer the land, but the machine.

...with rapid industrialization, the notion of progress became palpable; "improvements" were visible to everyone. During the nineteenth century, accordingly, the awe and reverence once reserved for the Deity and later bestowed upon the visible landscape is directed toward technology or, rather, the technological conquest of matter (197)

The idea of democratic progress was transferred to the machine. "To look at a steamboat, in other words, is to see the sublime progress of the race." (197) Americans came to associate their democratic liberty with mechanization. "What freedom man achieves is the direct result of mechanical inventions," (185) and "To the citizen of a democracy, inventions are vehicles for the pursuit of happiness." (205) Americans had "seized upon the machine as their birthright." (205) The power of the machine became associated with American's ability to be free--from "lives of dull, repetitive labor" (174) and free in the Enlightenment sense of unlimited possibilities: "History has a meaning, a purpose, and a reachable goal: it is nothing less than man's acquisition of the absolute truth." (198)

The appropriation of technology as the symbol of democracy in America was a necessity: politically, socially, and psychologically. As the fact of industrialization began to pervade nearly all aspects of American life, the frightening changes had to be justified and explained. If technology was connected with progress and improvement, it would not be quite as threatening; in fact, it could be seen as downright American. The emerging corporations of America sensed this shift in outlook, and characteristically, sought to capitalize on it.

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