Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester

I heard Simon Winchester, author of the book, The Men Who United the States, on the Dennis Prager show. His book sounded interesting and I like the title, so I gave it a shot. 

It was OK, somewhat interesting, but definitely not my usual cup of tea. 

Lots of interesting stories about interesting people who contributed in one way or another to bringing unity to America, whether through travel and the opening up of previously undiscovered areas or innovation. 

Winchester states at the beginning, “America is, after all, a nation founded as a home for the single simple idea of universal human freedom. The country was established as a grand experiment, with people invited from all over the world to take part, to help build a nation of free souls, each to be given an equal opportunity to seek as each saw best the greatest happiness for themselves. The question I try to address in the following chapters is: just how has it managed to adhere, to keep itself annealed into one for all the years and decades since?”

To organize an admittedly ambitious project, he uses the rubric of the ancient elements: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. Each builds on the other in roughly chronological order. 

He begins with the time America was dominated by wood. Specifically, the woods. He highlights Thomas Jefferson in particular for opening up vast territory to the newly independent United States with his Louisiana Purchase. Believing, unlike the Native Americans, that land should be surveyed and owned, he sent out the Louis and Clark expedition to detail what this new land encompassed. He embodied a form of American exceptionalism that declared we would own the land from sea to sea. He both opened up a new frontier and gave America a mission to keep pushing borders and boundaries. Louis and Clark and their fellow explorers united the nation geographically and topographically. 

Soon America’s story takes her beneath the earth. The men who further united the nation geologically dove under the land to both map it and determine its substance. As amateur geologists began to discover the potential of the land, people set out in multitudes “because of what they knew, what they had heard told, or what they suspected about the very earth of which the West was made. Men like Stephen Long, Lieutenant Eliakim Scammon, and John Fre´mont became famous for filling the blank spaces of the maps. Ferdinand Hayden, a character in his own right became famous for discovering Yellowstone, a heretofore rumored area hidden behind difficult terrain. 

After mapping the United States, travel became a great concern. This is where America’s story turns to waterways. From the earliest days in the New World, explorers had searched for the holy grail, a navigable waterway which would transverse the continent. John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, first began the quest. Richmond now stands where he was forced to turn back. If God hadn’t provided a way, Americans would make one. Canal building started up with the energy and intensity of any new technology. George Washington himself was a big proponent of canals to strengthen and enervate a new country in desperate need of an economic boost. Small canal building led to larger canals as new technologies developed which eventually led to the Erie canal at 363 miles long. This canal “would change the face of America.” In addition, the Mississippi River literally united the nation from north to south. It would take a corp of engineers to tame the might river and control it for economic uses. 

Eventually, despite the tremendous advances, America’s story turns to one of fire. In order to go farther, faster, America needed more power than offered by water. We needed engines. A Scotsman named John McAdam first saw the need to improve the roadways before any engine-powered vehicle could safely make the trek. His improvement in road making soon carried his name as a generic term: macadam. Soon his macadam roads were covered in tar. Today we call these tar macadam roads, tarmac. Of course, before individual engine-powered vehicle could travel these new roads, investors and business engaged in a flurry of railroad building, uniting the states east to west, but also causing a disunity north to south. The most famous example of this east to west unity is seen in the transcontinental railroad. Now fire united the nation.  Of course trains could only go from station to station. To be able to get off at a station and continue on your journey required the genius of Henry Ford. McAdams early roads would need improvements to handle the new and growing traffic. This became the obsession of Dwight Eisenhower, to create a unified Interstate Highway System of roads suitable for a rapidly developing nation. Soon automobile travel opened up to air travel. The nation was not only becoming more united, it was becoming smaller. 

America was not only united by fire with the building of the railways, but united by metal. Not only the metal tracks which crossed its girth, but telegraph lines went up simultaneously with each mile of track laid. For this ingenious innovation, Samuel Morse deserves credit. His first declarative transmission, “What hath God wrought” seemed “a suitable portentous epigraph for an era of change.” Then Alexander Graham Bell joined Morse in fame with transmission of voice. Thomas Edison worked out how to record those voices as well as introducing electricity to the nation. Today the lines that criss-cross America are fiber-optic, carrying the internet all over the nation. 

Winchester is an engaging writer. The men whose stories he tells so well are engaging, often eccentric, figures. His progressive biases show once in a while, like when he declares NPR non-partisan, and repeated extols the involvement of the government in the technological feats. But these are small irritants in an otherwise interesting and well-researched book.

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