When Our Ancestors Became Us

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It is a commonplace that the American Revolution determined the political destiny of the country. Far less noted is the fact that the Revolution’s consequences, profound as they were, had little, if any, impact on the daily existence of most Americans. The social structures and economic realities that had determined the everyday lives of the British subjects living in the colonies continued to determine the existence of the American citizens of the new Republic. Many still spent their whole lives within a few miles of where they had been born, and those who left home rarely returned. Most made their living by agriculture or commerce, and nearly all lived much as their parents and grand-parents had lived before them.

 

It required another revolution, the industrial one, to shatter this timeless pattern of everyday life and bring into existence ways of living that are familiar to us today. As Jack Larkin detailed in “The Secret Life of a Developing Country (Ours)” (American Heritage, September/October 1988), the reality of day-to-day existence in the early Republic was not the idyllic picket-fence-and-cottage-garden image created by Currier & Ives and others in the middle of the nineteenth century. Far from it. By modern standards the people of those days led lives that were overwhelmingly backward, dirty, drunken, and impoverished. And yet, when that life began to fade away, it evoked an intense nostalgia (a nostalgia Currier & Ives exploited most profitably).

 

At first the changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were hard to discern and affected most people only indirectly (just as the Information Revolution in our times began thirty years before the computer became a universal fixture about a decade ago). Then, beginning in urban areas in the 1820s and spreading out to the countryside, a series of developments turned people’s ordinary lives upside down in a single generation. The railroad, good interior lighting, running water, central heating, cookstoves, iceboxes, the telegraph, and mass-circulation newspapers all became common place within a period of thirty years. In those same three decades the rapidly expanding middle class came to dominate American society.

To the people of that era the sudden transformation of their world was both exhilarating and profoundly disturbing: exhilarating because the quality of everyday life improved immensely; disturbing because the landmarks and rules of the old society vanished and a new, far more complex economic, social, and political universe emerged.

As early as 1844 Philip Hone, a mayor of New York City and the author of a vast diary that is indispensable to the study of his times, was utterly bewildered by the whirlwind of change that had come about in his lifetime. “This world is going on too fast,” he wrote. “Improvements, Politics, Reform, Religion—all fly. Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. Flying is dangerous. By and by we shall have balloons and pass over to Europe between sun and sun. Oh, for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!”

Hone, by this time, was an old and deeply conservative man, and his use of the phrase “the good old days” is the earliest recorded. Before the 1840s there had been no need for such a phrase: the old days had been much like the present.

They never would be again.

A Revolution Rides the Rails

The new world that emerged during Hone’s lifetime would not have been possible without the rail-road, the seminal invention of the nineteenth century. Until the 1820s sustained land speeds over any great distance were limited to the pace of a brisk walk. In 1829, after Andrew Jackson had been elected President, he needed a full month to make his way by coach from Nashville to Washington for his inauguration. Until the age-old problem of overland transportation was solved, the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, which had begun half a century earlier, were limited by the markets the goods could reach.

Before the late 1820s the only solution was the canal, and many canal projects were undertaken in the new United States. But while canals could move freight and passengers cheaply and in large quantities, they were expensive to build, could not operate in Northern winters, and were extremely restricted as to where they could be placed.

At the very turn of the nineteenth century, an Englishman named Richard Trevithick designed a practical locomotive around a new type of steam engine, and the railroad was born. Many engineering problems had to be solved before the railroad was a practical transportation system; it was only in 1829, the same year as Andrew Jackson’s bone-bruising journey, that an engineer named George Stephenson built the Manchester and Liverpool Railway in England, the first commercially successful steam-powered railroad.

With the Manchester and Liverpool thriving, railroad projects blossomed in both Europe and America. Most were small, local affairs, designed only to break particular transportation bottlenecks or connect towns to the existing transportation system of river and canal. But soon much larger railroads were planned or came into existence by consolidation. By 1835 there were a thousand miles of railroad track in the United States. In 1840 there were three thousand. By the time of the Civil War more than thirty thousand miles of railroads laced the country together.