The New Calculus of Western Energies
The very fertility of the Northwest posed a dilemma with respect to the agrarian ideal. The hardy yeoman came out into the wilderness seeking land, and his search was rewarded: he acquired title to his farm and reared his numerous children amid the benign influences of forest and meadow. But the land was so fertile and the area under cultivation increased so rapidly that a surplus of grain and livestock quickly appeared, and the Western farmer was no longer content within the primitive pattern of subsistence agriculture.
Timothy Flint noted this problem as early as 1827: everyone who was willing to work had an abundance of the articles which the soil produced, far beyond the needs of the country, and it was a prevalent complaint in the Ohio Valley that this abundance greatly exceeded the chances of profitable sale.l A farmer who wants access to markets becomes interested in internal improvements. He agitates for highways and canals, for improved navigation of the rivers, and later for railways. Developing commerce creates depots like Cincinnati and Louisville cities in the wilderness. The cities have banks and at least rudimentary manufactures such as the packing industry, and eventually it is they rather than the farming communities that set the tone of the West.
The rapid growth of cities and the development of an elaborate transportation system presaged a time when the West at least the older West of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes would no longer be predominantly agricultural. This process led to a greater and greater disparity between the agrarian ideal cherished
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by the society and the changing facts of its economic organization. The agrarian ideal had supplanted mercantilist theory in the latter part of the eighteenth century because at that time it had corresponded more closely to the actual state of affairs in the North American interior and had provided a much more reliable basis for charting the course of Western history in the immediate future. One index to its adequacy was the vigor and persuasive power of the symbol of the yeoman that had been developed from its premises. But by the 1830's a new calculus and new symbols were required to interpret the new West that was being created by forces wholly foreign to the agrarian assumptions. The greatest of the new forces was the technological revolution which set loose the power of steam in boats on the western waters, somewhat later in railways, and eventually in factories. Steam power hastened the transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture, caused the accumulation of capital in units of unprecedented size, transformed the older western cities, and created new cities on a metropolitan scale like Cleveland and Chicago. These changes spelled the end of the simple economy which in the first stages of settlement had corresponded at least approximately to the agrarian ideal. In the long run the virtuous yeoman could no more stand his ground against the developing capitalism of merchant and banker and manufacturer in the Northwest than he could against the plantation system in the Southwest. But the disparity between the static agrarian ideal and the drive of economic change was by no means clear to contemporary observers. Amos Stoddard, for example, the Massachusetts lawyer and veteran of the Revolution whom Jefferson appointed first governor of Louisiana, was equally enthusiastic over the future agricultural development of the vast regions on the Mississippi and the splendid tokens of industry and commerce which they would exhibit.2 The prophetic picture of the West drawn in 1815 by Daniel Drake, a Cincinnati physician with an interest in social science, has much in common with Stoddard's:
the opinion that these states cannot support even a denser population than any in the East, is altogether groundless; the associations of wildness and ferocity, ignorance and vice, which the mention of this distant land has hitherto excited, must ere long be dissolved; and our
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Atlantic brethren will behold with astonishment, in the green and untutored states of the West, an equipoise for their own. Debarred, by their locality, from an inordinate participation in foreign luxuries, and consequently secured from the greatest corruption introduced by commerce secluded from foreign intercourse, and thereby rendered patriotic compelled to engage in manufactures, which must render them independent secure from conquest, or even invasion, and therefore without the apprehensions which prevent the expenditure of money in solid improvements possessed of a greater proportion of freehold estates than any people on earth, and of course
made industrious, independent and proud;the inhabitants of this region are obviously destined to an unrivalled excellence in agriculture, manufactures and internal commerce; in literature and the arts;in public
virtue, and in national strength.3
The West, in other words, can have everything; it does not need to choose among good ends.
The contemporary attitude toward the introduction of steam transportation upon the western waters illustrates the general failure to comprehend the magnitude of the new forces. Timothy Flint, for example, saw in the internal commerce of the valley merely a means of extending the society of virtuous yeomen over wider area.4 He depended on the old agrarian calculus, for which the technological novelties of canals and steamboats and railways had no real meaning. Few of his contemporaries were able to see into the future more clearly than he did. It is true that John Filson in the 1780's and Gilbert Imlay in the 1790's had understood that the experimental steamboat of James Rumsey of Virginia might be highly valuable for Kentucky.5 And beneath the dazzled awe with which backwoodsmen greeted the first snorting river monsters there was a dim intimation of what these machines might do to the shape of society in the West. Morgan Neville of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati wrote in James Hall's Western Souvenir in 1829:
The rudest inhabitant of our forest . . . is struck with the sublime power and self-moving majesty of a steamboat;lingers on the shore where it passes and follows its rapid, and almost magic course with silent admiration. The steam engine in five years has enabled us to anticipate a state of things, which, in the ordinary course of events, it would have required a century to have produced. The art of printing
scarcely surpassed it in its beneficial consequences.6
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Yet it was natural to be impressed most of all, as Flint was, by the sheer picturesqueness of the steamboat. In 1827 he wrote:
An Atlantic cit, who talks of us under the name of backwoodsmen would not believe, that such fairy structures of oriental gorgeousness and splendor, as the Washington, the Florida, the Walk in the Water, the Lady of the Lake, &c. &c., had ever existed in the imaginative brain of a romancer, much less, that they were actually in existence rushing down the Mississippi, as on the wings of the wind, or plowing up between the forests and walking against the mighty current "as things of life," bearing speculators, merchants, dandies, fine ladies, every thing real, and every thing affected, in the form of humanity, with pianos, and stocks of novels, and cards, and dice, and flirting, and lovemaking, and drinking, and champaigne, and on the deck, perhaps, three hundred fellows who have seen alligators, and neither fear whiskey, nor gunpowder.7
Flint had a literary interest in the way such an apparition brought a little of Paris, a section of Broadway, a slice of Philadelphia to the backwoods, troubling the minds of the young, and no doubt of their elders as well.
Other observers, however, were beginning to perceive that the steamboat had more important functions than these. As Henry S. Tanner remarked in his clearheaded View of the Valley of the Mississippi, "No other country on earth will be benefitted to an
equal extent by this wonderful invention." 8 For one thing, the steamboat would tend to weld the nation into unity. Caleb At water of Ohio had pointed out as early as 1829 that the river system seemed designed by God to make the Americans one people.9 James Hall declared that
the name of Fulton should be cherished here with that of Washington:
if the one conducted us to liberty, the other has given us prosperity
the one broke the chains which bound us to a foreign country, the other
has extended the channels of intercourse, and multiplied the ties which
bind us to each other. 10
Hardly to be distinguished from the function of the steamboat in fostering unity was its impetus to commercial prosperity, for trade was the force that was expected to bind the parts of the nation together. The genius of man was never more nobly employed, wrote the Mississippi historian John W. Monette in the middle of the 1840's, than when Fulton applied the force of steam to the
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navigation of the western waters. This was all that the West required to make it the noblest and richest country on earth. Nature and a great man had collaborated in the Mississippi Valley to exhibit the triumph of steam in the exaltation of the American Republic. Monette declared that the revolution wrought in the West by this magical power was equal to any recorded in the annals of history.ll
Yet even when such men called the advent of steam a revolutionary force, they hardly seem to have realized what drastic changes it was destined to work. The steam engine was not only to subordinate the yeoman farmer to the banker and merchant of the new Western cities; eventually it transformed him into a producer of staple crops for distant markets and thus placed him at the mercy of freight rates and of fluctuations in international commodity prices. One of the most significant facts of American intellectual history is the slow and inadequate fashion in which the momentum of the new forces was appreciated, or, to put the matter another way, the astonishing longevity of the agrarian ideal as the accepted view of Western society. In 1846 an Illinois newspaper editor declared, "The West is agricultural; it has no manufactures and it never will have any of any importance." 12 This opinion persisted long after it ceased to correspond to the facts. Writers reporting on the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 for Eastern magazines note with naive surprise that the West had grown up into urbanism and industrialism while the world's back was turned.l3 An observer as shrewd as Henry Adams found it difficult to assimilate what had happened in the interior. "That the Exposition should be a natural growth and product of the Northwest," he wrote, "offered a step in evolution to startle Darwin..." 14 Despite the educational impact of the Exposition, most Americans long continued to think of the West as a primitive agricultural region. The persistence of this idea throws into bold relief the prescience of a solitary Western analyst who had begun fifty years earlier to assess the industrial revolution in the Mississippi Valley. This man was Jessup W. Scott, Whig editor of the Toledo (Ohio) Blade. Between 1843 and the outbreak of the Civil War, Scott contributed almost a score of articles to Hunt's Merchants'
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Magazine of New York and DeBow's Review of New Orleans, discussing the probable future development of the West. In Scott's analysis agriculture had all but sunk out of sight. He fixed his attention on the forces of trade and industry that were rapidly becoming dominant, and protested against the prevalent notion that the destiny of the Mississippi Valley had "fixed it down to the almost exclusive pursuit of agriculture, ignorant that, as a general rule in all ages of the world, and in all countries, the mouths go to
he food, and not the food to the mouths." 15 Scott likewise pointed out how outmoded was the doctrine of the primacy of maritime commerce.
Old ideas [he remarks], whether hereditary, or the fruit of early education, are hard to eradicate or supplant. The salt sea, and commerce and great cities, are naturally associated together in the minds of Western Europeans, and their descendants in America. As naturally is the interior of a broad continent associated, in their minds, with gloomy forests, desert prairies, and slow movements in all the channels of business.
Both these old beliefs ceased to be valid when steam transportation came to the Mississippi Valley. Although the fact had been slow to register itself on the public mind, internal commerce had developed to such a point that it now rivaled foreign trade in importance.16 Future changes resulting from the use of steamboats, locomotives, and Macadam highways would be even greater, for these machines are but just being brought into use; and he is a bold
man who, casting his eye 100 years into the future, shall undertake to tell the present generation what will be their effect on our North American valley, when their energies shall be brought to bear over all its broad surface.1
Scott used his new calculus to predict the course of Western society. He saw first of all that it would be urbanized. The use of machines in transportation and industry fostered "The increasing tendency to reside in towns and cities, which is manifested by the inhabitants of all countries, as they make progress in the arts and
refinements of civilization." 18 Vast cities would grow up at points determined by transportation routes and the availability of raw materials and fuel for factories. In 1843 Scott declared that the dominant Western city would be near the Great Lakes, although he was not certain just where: it might be Cleveland, or Maumee, Ohio (where he had once lived), or Detroit, or Chicago.l9 But regardless of the exact location, "No logical induction, no mathematical demonstration can be clearer to our mind, than that here will come together the greatest aggregation of men in cities,out rivalling in splendor as in magnitude, all which past ages have produced." 20
The growth of huge cities would hasten the inevitable shift of dominance from the Atlantic seaboard to the interior: the central power of the continent was certain to move to the border of the Great Lakes and remain there permanently. For industrial developments sooner or later control the political element, so that the economic analyst need not concern himself with political forms.2l Economic forces unrecognized a generation earlier gave new meaning to the old theme of the westward course of empire. The climactic moment in universal history which Gilpin had prophesied as a consequence of American access to the trade of Asia, Scott foresaw as the outcome of the economic development of the Mississippi Valley.
The westward movement of the Caucasian branch of the human family [he declared] from the high plains of Asia, first over Europe, and thence, with swelling tide, pouring its multitudes into the New World, is the grandest phenomenon in history.
The entrance of this tide into America was its climax: the whole process began to find its true meaning when population streamed into the great valley of the West.
While . . . we contemplate with patriotic pride [Scott asked in conclusion] the position which, as a nation, we hold in the world's affairs, may we not indulge in pleasant anticipations of the near approach of the time when the commercial and social heart of our Empire will occupy its natural place as the heart of the continent, near the centre of its natural capabilities.22
Scott shared with other writers about the West the belief that the Mississippi Valley guaranteed the continuance of the Union. The natural network of rivers and lakes, together with ten thousand miles of railways certain to be built within twenty years and a corresponding maze of telegraph wires, he wrote in 1852, would
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give to the entire population of thirty millions a community of ideas and interests which must soon mold them into homogeneousness of character, and "make us one country in heart as in government."23 A year later he put the idea more epigrammatically: steam on the western waters and on the railways "has made our commerce one and our people a brotherhood." 24 As late as 1859 he was insisting that the iron bands of the railways, accentuating the physical unity of the great western plain, were daily strengthening the Union.25 If Scott failed to appreciate the political and social forces that were about to bring on a Civil War in defiance of the growing forces of economic integration, his analysis has been triumphantly vindicated in the long run.
Nature and technology had combined in the Mississippi Valley to underwrite the American Union and to render all efforts to break it not only criminal but futile: on the eve of the crisis of 1860, the agrarian myth of the garden and the newer calculus of technological change led to the same conclusion. The idea of national unity was as clear a part of manifest destiny as had been the earlier doctrine of an inevitable expansion to the Pacific. A basic Western article of faith, it came out in pleas for the Union uttered by the two great Westerners, Douglas and Lincoln. In an unscheduled speech delivered in April 1861 at Bellaire, Ohio, not far from Wheeling, Douglas asked the question that secession raised for the West. He was appealing to the Virginians west of the Blue Ridge whose fathers had been Faulkner's constituents and whose great-grandfathers had stormed at John Jay for surrendering the American right to navigate the Mississippi. If the few states upon the Gulf could secede and close the Mississippi, how long would it be before New York would do the same, taxing every dollar's worth of Western produce that went out through her port, and every dollar's worth of imports that came in for the Western market? With "a great wave of emotion checking his utterance," he proclaimed the Western faith as if it were an incantation:
This great valley must never be divided. The Almighty has so arranged the mountain and the plain, and the watercourses as to show that this valley in all time shall remain one and indissoluble. Let no man attempt to sunder what Divine Providence has rendered indivisible.26
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A few days later, in a speech at Springfield which moved one witness to write, "I do not think that it is possible for a human being to produce a more prodigious effect with spoken words," Douglas made his plea for the Union on the same grounds: "I ask every citizen in the great basin between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghanies . . . to tell me whether he is ever willing to sanction a line of policy that may isolate us from the markets of the world, and make us dependent provinces upon the powers that thus choose to isolate us?" 27
After more than a year of war Lincoln invoked the idea of a geographical unity confirmed by technology in a last solemn effort to frame a compromise that would avert a fight to the finish. For him, as for Douglas, the physical fact of the valley of the Mississippi had an almost transcendent importance. "One generation passeth away," he quoted, "and another generation cometh. But the earth abideth forever."
It is of the first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever enduring part [of the nation]. That portion of the earth's surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family, and it is not well adapted for two or more. Its vast extent and its variety of climate and productions are of advantage in this age for one people, whatever they might have been in former ages. Steam, telegraphs, and intelligence have brought these to be an advantageous combination for one united people.28
The "great interior region bounded east by the Alleghenies, north by the British dominions, west by the Rocky Mountains, and south by the line along which the culture of corn and cotton meets" would have fifty millions of population within fifty years if not prevented by political folly or mistake. The Interior Valley, especially the Northwest, was the great body of the Republic; the other parts were but marginal borders to it. Without searching the future to guess what industrialization would make of the valley, Lincoln was content to take it as it was, a region still predominantly agricultural one of the most important in the world, yet no more than well launched toward its ultimate development. "Ascertain from statistics," he went on, in words that echo a hundred earlier statements, "the small proportion of the region which
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has yet been brought into cultivation, and also the large and rapidly increasing amount of products, and we shall be over overwhelmed with the magnitude of the prospect presented." 29 Speaking directly to the men of this agricultural Northwest he argued that because of their need for outlets to markets they could not conceivably accept a negotiated peace and the independence of the Confederacy:
this region has no sea coast touches no ocean anywhere. As part of one nation, its people now find, and may forever find, their way to Europe by New York, to South America and Africa by New Orleans, and to Asia by San Francisco; but separate our common country into two nations, as designed by the present rebellion, and every man of this great interior region is thereby cut off from some one or more of these outlets, not perhaps by a physical barrier, but by embarrassing and onerous trade regulations.... These outlets, east, west, and south, are indispensable to the well-being of the people inhabiting and to inhabit this vast interior region. Which of the three may be the best is no proper question. All are better than either, and all of right belong to that people and to their successors forever. True to themselves, they will not ask where a line of separation shall be, but
will vow rather that there shall be no such line.30
Seen in the vast perspective of the geography of the continent, the civil strife was but an incident. It did not spring "from our permanent part, not from the land we inhabit; not from our national homestead.''3l The continent itself demanded union and abhorred separation. In the end it would force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost.
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