The development of America had little patience for the South and
Washington, D.C., once the country was into the nineteenth century.
The Capital was a dismal and uncomfortable hangout for politicians
and placemen. The Southern system, once it had leapt forward with
the Yankee inventor's cotton gin, hardly changed over the sixty years
until Secession: the same crops, the same exhaustive soil practices, the
same slavery, the same application of these to the West as far as the
slave owners could betake themselves. Its population was steadily
declining in relation to the North. Its industries lagged. Still, because
of the two-seat equality of States in the Senate, and because politics as
a way of life appealed more to Southerners than to Northerners, the
South was well represented in national affairs.
Eleven out of sixteen Presidents up to and including Lincoln were
Southerners by birth or culture. Yet constructive participation in the
creation of the modern age came entirely from the North. This
phenomenon was to continue because the South was its own worst
enemy. As it had become addicted earlier to whiskey and tobacco, the
South fell prey to its cotton crop. In the eighteenth century cotton had
been in great demand everywhere, but was difficult to comb because of
its tight seeds. When a long-staple variety was bred, it could be
combed readily, but could not stand higher terrain than
In 1792, Eli Whitney, recently graduated from Yale, was visiting a
schoolmate in Georgia and, after hearing that seed-picking averaged a
pound per day, he labored for ten days and came up with a cotton en-GIN-e
that could de-seed ten times the amount. With a few
improvements, such as fixing pins on a drum, the cotton gin was
capable of twenty times the prior productivity.
Substantially the South was fixed for life.
Cotton bales piled up on the wharves of New Orleans,
now the greatest export point of the country. Cotton fields devoured
the old Eastern South and moved ever Southwestward.
They afforded a cash crop, but the need for cash seemed endless
and the land, which seemed endless, too, was progressively exhausted
until modern chemistry brought in cheap fertilizers just
before the stroke of midnight.
In the North, machines were changing agriculture also.
The plow, thousands of years old, suddenly acquired
well-tempered iron blades, then steel ones.
A Virginian, Cyrus McCormick developed a reaper.
He moved to Chicago where he prospered mightily.
Next came mowers, and then threshers, until the
individual farm family could handle three times as many acres
as it could before, provided it could
pay for the machines and maintain them in good repair.
The exploitative industries were getting into full swing.
The lumber industry was gnawing its way out of New England
and New York into Michigan and Wisconsin. Hardwood forests
were vanishing in the East, and with them their ecology.
Fur trade had provided over a third of the exports of
New York and Pennsylvania before the turn of the century,
but now it had gone West, all the way to the Pacific coast in fact,
even before the acquisition of these territories.
John Jacob Astor, a young German immigrant, set up
a string of trappers and trading posts, dealing with
typical unscrupulousness and using mafiosi muscle on the
Indians and independent traders. His fortune founded a family
conglomerate, that was to be in finance, merchandising, and real estate.
Its extensive tenement holdings in the slums of New York City
were a favorite target of early social reformers,
Mining was coming into its own as a miracle fortune producer,
coal and iron of Pennsylvania, copper of Michigan
(where Indians had dug, aeons before), lead from Missouri,
and gold and silver in a number of places, mostly West
of the Mississippi. Natural water power and steam engines
provided energy that supplemented human digging and hauling.
Explosives were used, although hard to handle until the
invention of dynamite late in the century.
One after another, exhausted and abandoned mines
came to dot the topography of America.
It would be a century before public notice was taken of the
degeneration of river and soil systems occurring from the
very start. Early European visitors to these areas commented on how
avid for land Americans were, and yet how little they cared for it.
Conditions in the mines were unspeakably bad, of course.
Labor was casual and treated with stalag hospitality;
the death and injury rates were sky-high, but untallied.
As did the farmers, the mine-owners, to get workers,
dipped into the human tide that ebbed and flowed around
the great country, while generally moving westward. Often mines
would become the focal point for larger settlements by providing
employment, a stimulus to trade by the needs of the mine staff, and
some semblance of law and order.
When a mine would fail, its town would despair and shrink.
In 1802 the U.S. Corps of Engineers was
established and located at West Point, where it eventually
became an elite corps to which many of the best students aspired.
The Academy of the Army itself, as well as the Corps,
was modeled quite along French lines, a wise choice,
emulating the top engineering school of the world, the
École Polytechnique. Ever afterwards, public
construction in America related to the Corps;
much of it was the work of the Corps - roads, bridges,
harbors, drainage, dams, flood control -
all in all a wide variety of projects,
until the Corps became politically powerful,
dealing with Congressmen, exchanging favors and projects,
also advising forcibly the state and local governments on their
infrastructural needs and possibilities and budgets.
In retrospect, it is evident that the Corps became
megalo-minded, seeking big costly developmental
projects, and paid little attention to the upcoming crises of the
environment. They made of the Missouri River, it's been said,
a plumbing system, with six dams and reservoirs
upstream and a shaped straightened deep channel downstream,
destroying wetlands now cherished and giving
passage to barges now few in number. The Corps'
task lately was changed to deconstruction and rewetting.
In wartime, the Corps of Engineers would supply a critical branch of
the Army services; in peacetime it was the most active element of the
military. In fact, the Corps history shows very well how an army
component can work usefully at all times, and on occasion, as in the
Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression, the Army did
organize civilian projects for employing the
youth of the country.
The enormous American military system could have slid readily into
full-time employment in transformed roles at high priority civilian tasks,
upon the collapse of the Soviet Union,
had Congress and the Presidency reconceptualized the new world,
and provided due initiative.
Instead, reduction in the war function was ill-conceived
as a problem of how to fire a great many people
despite the many pressures to keep thousands of
smoothly functioning units on the job with the same military roles.
Providing and supporting a single job whose product is
sold outside a community - that is, exported -
will support a couple of jobs within the community and several dependents
A single mine hiring thirty men will support
a settlement of a couple of hundred persons. And as with
mines, so with construction projects of roads and turnpikes (toll
roads), canals, bridges and railroads.
There is a progression to be observed in the settlement of an area by
European Americans moving from the Atlantic coast. First come the
fur and gadget traders, mountain men, escaped felons, prospectors, all
living at the lowest level of subsistence, often hanging out, when
allowed, on the fringes of Indian villages or in settlements occupied by
French or Hispanic or British or even, as in San Francisco, near Fort
Ross, that was bought by the Swiss immigrant Sutter from a Russian
company, his Russian predecessors. These fringe-men will supply
information to newcomers, and if they do not rob them,
may help them.
The newcomers are usually regarded as the pioneers, even though,
wherever they go - upper New England, Florida, the Great Lakes
region, the Mississippi valley, Texas and the Southwest and the West
Coast, they encounter Indian tribes, both settled into villages and
nomadic, French settlements like Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River in
Illinois or the impressive city of New Orleans, Spanish settlements in
Florida, and all over the Southwest and in California.
Still, Kaskaskia in the 1790's appeared to a French traveler as a
settlement of savages in dismal huts, clothed in breech-clouts,
more prodigal and reckless by far than the Indians roundabout,
and given to gambling and fighting in Virginia frontier style -
no holds barred, eye-gouging a specialty.
A French priest, not so dauntless as some of his forbears,
departed finally in fear lest some zealous Protestant in the
new lot come for him with a scalping knife.
The first wave of Easterners, that is to say, had arrived.
Revise, therefore, the Hollywood and textbook image of
the population moving along a vast front Westward and
Southward in blissful ignorance of what would befall pioneers,
and encountering a vast nothingness of nature; they usually
bumped into a human culture the equal of their own,
but less of it, of course.
The first pioneers on the trail of the wild men would hope
to have some piece of paper filed somewhere to a claim
on the land, or at best a title from the faraway state title office.
There were all degrees of entitlement to be found,
including the shoot-out. Squatting was a form of title.
The squatter might ordinarily expect that whoever came with a
better title would lop off a piece of the land just to appease him and
have him around. We are talking here about many millions of acres,
large parts of every state and territory in the final summation. The
weakness of land title in the United States is proverbial;
one cannot go very far back without discovering some
egregious error or incident, and in the beginning,
the whole, of course, was based upon forceful seizure.
Meanwhile the pioneer, relieved to see the first denizens slump off
with the Indians, would be building a sod house or log cabin or shack
of sawed boards, with a dirt floor. He would use the outdoors for a
toilet or build a seat over a hole for reflective contemplation while
eliminating. He would plant seeds for fruit trees and build a garden
fence of rails and boughs. He would turn up two or three acres of the
sixty or more that he claimed to own. He would slash underbrush, cut
trees and burn stumps. He might assemble an ill-assorted group of
animals. And he would wait for a purchaser to come along. If he
could, he would sell his property for enough cash and goods
to move on in better style than he had enjoyed on arrival.
The next man, who might or might not have a woman and even
children, would have at least a start on life in the new area and be
furnished with knowledge of his neighbors, the wild life, waters, and
directions to the nearest sources of supplies and the nearest market for
selling any surplus that he might put aside for cash sale or trade. That
is, he would receive more than just land; he would receive some kind
of legal claim, improved land, fittings and animals, and a short
Usually such a farmer, for that we can now call him, came in
association with several others - kin, old neighbors, a church group,
army buddies. With luck there might be some French, Spanish or
friendly Indians within a few miles. If not, a village might well grow up
shortly. Unlike the Old Country farmer or the New England and
Northern East Coast farmer, his family would live not in a village but
at a considerable distance from the nearest neighbor.
Yet, if a person had a skill, it would be put to use -
a woman of experience would be called on to assist in childbirth,
a man who knew how to throw up a house
would be called to take charge of an instant construction or
cabin-raising, and so forth.
Somewhere in the area there would be a crossroads, and
here a general store and trading point would be set up,
soon to be followed by a hardware store, saloon,
lawyer's office, a grain dealer, a barber or even
a printer to purvey news, and a blacksmith, the whole characteristically
American in that the stores lined themselves up along a street, the
inevitable "Main Street."
Preachers, schoolteachers, and back-packing peddlers
would call at isolated houses beyond the settlements.
Often the process of settlement would be precipitated by
several neighbors, who would plot a developmental area
where their lands joined, and promote it as a settlement location.
Often, too, speculators and promoters would lay out lots in an area,
draw pretty pictures of them, and sell them far and wide.
Second-story facades, as in a Hollywood Western movie, were
often constructed as a hopeful sign, and to lend a loftiness to the drab
rows of stores. Failures were as numerous as successes,
in every aspect of the process of settlement.
Frequently frauds mingled with failures, so that
it was hard to tell foolish mistake from moral delinquency.
Whether in the country or in a village, family housing would be about
the same. Larger towns and cities would carry West their models from
the East. Little from Europe was tried directly in the West.
Folk housing pertained to three, some say four, styles
corresponding to the triple belts of culture from North to South.
New Englanders built from frame, and developed clapboards.
They built two-rooms deep, in two stories, with a central chimney.
Later came a central hall with chimneys at both ends.
Still later came a story-and-a-half with a central chimney.
Then in the nineteenth came a two-story house with a
gable on top and side- wings.
The pluralist culture of the Mid-Atlantic and its western extensions
had the log cabin, often expanded, sometimes to form a double cabin
with a corridor between them. The other form was a two-story frame
or brick rectangle with gables at both ends. There were also New York
Dutch styles, often lending a porch to other American forms as well.
The Chesapeake Bay region imitated the English cottage with end
chimneys and a front porch. Out of Louisiana came the Creole house
with paired front doors and an inset porch. The chimney was centrally
located. The large plantation homes adapted a Roman-Greek style,
usually in brick.
No fully American design was invented,
no wooden wigwams until the hamburger age.
A method of putting up houses fast was developed in
the 1830's, approaching prefabricated housing of a century later.
A new abundance and cheapness of nails and lumber invited this
response to the mobility and immediacy of American needs.
A house could be set up or disassembled in a few days
with a crew of men, a lot of boards and wood shingles
for the roof, all done with saws, hammers, and nails.
These "basket-houses" were not flimsy, and cut costs by two-thirds.
They were more common and authentically American than log cabins.
Cheap and abundant lumber and nails, the saw and the hammer:
there's the winning American combination of the age.
The "balloon-frame" house was a common type -
a light frame of studs and frames nailed together.
American towns, even off Main Street, acquired a typical and
distinctive look or air, a je ne sais quoi, with their generous lots and
elms and chestnut trees. They carried straight across the country,
entangling themselves with some additional central European elements
in the North and Spanish elements from the South until the whole
began to reverse itself in a variety of ranch houses, colonials, Cape
Cods, and truly modern (rare) homes and office buildings in the
A booming invasion of Southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and also of
the Mississippi Valley, occurred in the first decades of the nineteenth
century. After the defeat of the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers
in 1794 reassured people that they might move into the Ohio Valley,
a wide-scale occupation began. It was struck by a price and money panic
in 1819. In the early 1830's a recession set in, banks began to fail,
money became scarce, many farms and villages were abandoned; it
seemed that everyone owed money that they could not repay. The
recession plunged into depression, from which the country did not
recover until 1845.
Humanity would flow through, trying, failing, looking for better
chances. A cadre would be left behind in charge. These would usually
be the more successful in one way or another, the more committed, the
exhausted. Often a town would shrink from an initial boom and remain
with a few of the original inhabitants; these would become the elite of
the town, boastful historians, scrutinizers of all new faces to try to
hold some and send others on their way.
A single memorial generation was sufficient for this process to begin
and mature, yet to hear people talk, it seemed as if the place were
some ancient Rhineland village or a Stratford-on-Avon,
draped on a bluff of the Mississippi River.
The Southern portions of the above-mentioned states of the Midwest,
beginning with Southern Pennsylvania and going straight across the
Mississippi River and as far as Colorado were usually of Southern
culture, of the type of the family of Abraham Lincoln. Very few
escaped anonymity and poverty, however. The Northern belt of
settlements did better, bringing with them more steadfast farmers, who
were better capitalized through connections in Philadelphia,
New York and Boston.
Quincy, Illinois, perched upon the Mississippi River, was one of the
successful new towns, although from its (re)founding in 1825 by a
John Wood, who rode West from New York in 1818 and built a
substantial home in 1835, to the early decades of the 1900's, a score of
architectural styles graced the homes of the well-to-do, who profited
from a three-generation-long 3000-boat annual traffic, carrying goods
from the whole world and taking wood, livestock, and cereals back
down the River; styles ranging from Mr. Wood's Greek Revival
mansion (Southern fashion) through the Palladian to Frank Lloyd
Wright's "prairie modern." In the East End of town every U.S.-
adapted European period and style of over a century of time lent its
model. After traveling extensively, one bachelor erected an
Islamic culture-schmeer, from minaret to harem,
overlooking the Father of Waters.
A direct German immigration of the mid-1800's built a neighborhood
of small two-room and four-room brick houses, still occupied today.
Shacks abounded. Frame houses came and went, as did most
immigrants and residents of the town, as did the steamboats. Still, half
a century was and has been a respectable average time of thriving for
an American town. The rest has been prologue and epilogue, brutally
cut short or nostalgically and indefinitely prolonged. There always
remained much babbitry and know-how, both, in towns like Quincy.
The White population that stayed managed fairly well, drawing upon a
rich agricultural region and special manufactures.
There settled into these hundreds of towns all over the Midwest a new
elite. They were the cadres that continued to lose their populations,
but hung on and prospered. The top of the social pyramid had a
degree of proud constancy, but the total base of the pyramid was being
continuously renewed, 70% more or less, even as fast as 50% per year.
They remind one of the U.S. Army cadres of World War II, regular
Army volunteers, holdovers used to train the mass of recruits
streaming into the camps. Or of teachers handling
one grade of children after another.
The elite followers celebrated and honored each other and wrote their
histories and did their best to get hoi polloi to join in the masquerade
even if en passant. They assured that the local media, their media,
recorded the veneration emanating from the passing crowd, as if these
had remained in place like themselves, and tried to make the throng of
ordinary cooperative "extras" appear to be more or less everywhere
part of a permanent scenario, their lower class base.
Thus functioned "high society" in America.
The process formed swiftly.
In one memorial generation, 1833 to 1898,
Chicago, typically, grew a social and industrial elite
that presented and represented itself as
having been in place since times immemorial.
And, mirabile dictu, was able to surround itself
with a mass of countryfolk and immigrants,
wave after wave, who saluted them in passing through,
cheering internally ad astra per aspera!
People followed roads, and roads people. In the initial phase, there
were the ancient Indian paths, far more extensive than acknowledged
by the latecomers. Hiawatha and Tecumseh, on their evangelical
journeys, centuries apart, to unite the Indian nations, traveled rapidly
and knowing full well where they were going and whom they would be
encountering - just as well, shall we say, as the preachers and peddlers
of the mid-nineteenth century. The Wilderness Road, first publicized
by the doughty scout Daniel Boone in 1795, as I mentioned earlier,
soon began to carry Virginians through the mountains
into Kentucky and Tennessee.
It was a path, then a practically impassible road, then with the efforts
of one local group after another, a cart-traversable road with bridges
and well-marked fords, then in places a turnpike charging a fee, and so
on until stage coaches could manage the whole journey in exchanges at
a going speed of perhaps six miles an hour. The second great road was
the National Road, that carried one from Baltimore through
Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, to Vandalia, Illinois,
thence to St.Louis, Missouri.
Waterways were many, beginning with the St. Lawrence on the North
that, with portages, could direct a person ultimately to Lake Huron,
where from Detroit one could go overland to Chicago. Better than this
route, one could in the late thirties go by boat up the Hudson River,
transfer to the Erie Canal for a 350-mile ride, and thence
proceed via Lake Erie west.
Governor De Witt Clinton of New York worked assiduously for years
to finance and build the Erie Canal, and, once its success was
publicized, every area wanted its own canal; 3000 miles of them,
mostly in the North and Midwest, were built by mid-century. It was
possible theoretically to go by water from New York to New Orleans,
but the busy coastwise sea lane connecting the
two cities was greatly preferred.
Swift packets were also available for the Atlantic crossing, several
times a week from New York, a score of lines running between other
American seaboard cities and Europe. Early in the century, they were
square-rigged sailing vessels; in some places the American-designed
clipper ship was stream-lined and tall-masted with a rigging set for
speed. This boat for twenty years stupefied everyone with its velocity
in voyages around the world, carrying a good proportion of the
adventurers of the California gold fields, with their supplies and
support personnel, male and female. The clipper was especially good
at bringing back oriental tea that was still fresh. However, steamships,
tried out in England and elsewhere for more than a century, finally
took workable form for trans-Atlantic voyages and dispossessed most
sailships. But this would only occur in the sixties and seventies.
Steamboats moved onto the Mississippi River and its tributaries very
early. The flat-bottomed paddle-steamers were well designed to avoid
the bars and rocks of the shallow rivers. Their boilers often blew up in
their captains' enthusiasm for speed, killing and maiming crew
members and unlucky passengers. Irish stokers were sometimes
employed because their deaths would cost nothing, while a slave was
expensive. (But this may have been a report spread by Irishmen who
would risk death for a job involving travel.)
Soon a great many locomotives would need their Irish firemen. A
threat to boats and canals, a shaper of the topography of use as against
nature, a front-runner for coal and iron mines against water power:
such was the railroad. By the fifties, railroads had far outstripped in
mileage the canals of the country. They began only several years after
the first railroads of England (1825) and the Continent, with the
Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1830, reaching the Ohio River but only
in 1852. Needless to say, most devices and designs were pirated.
The Americans, with great distances to travel, built track and
locomotives feverishly. Their locomotives were lighter and less durable
than the British, cultural symptoms of a country where nothing was
thought to last long. They were also made to run fast to
make up for the long distances, and powerful, to
climb long, steep grades.
For those who look at maps of the American railroad networks of
several successive decades, the pace of building appears to have been
most rapid. The fact is, however, that for many years the federal
government turned its fiscal hindside to all forms of transportation.
From Jefferson onwards, most politicians in Washington held the
belief, as long as was permissible, that local governments, states and
private companies should build turnpikes, canals, and railroads. The
dominant political aggregations believed in minimal expenditures and
activity in Washington.
So railroad construction was actually constrained in America. (In
Europe, by contrast, the central governments were active in every way
from the beginning, ending up with thoroughly socialized, and
generally efficient systems.)
But then, every financial device was exercised, other than federal
participation. A common form for a railroad to take would be the
corporation, privately organized, with some private money and liberal
distribution of shares to politicians for little or nothing, which
company would then receive extremely liberal charters that would
permit them every freedom except grand larceny (which was
understood to be present without saying), with loans from cities and
state governments, with guarantees against being taxed for a period of
time, and with grants of land along their proposed right-of-way,
including not only the necessary land but large swatches of land on the
sides of the tracts, such that a railroad could go into the business of
selling land, plotting settlements, building hotels, and
setting up shops and industries.
The increasing use of machinery and the availability of the means of
transporting crops permitted sections of the agricultural economy to
go onto a cash basis, borrowing money, investing it in machines and
freight charges, and collecting it from the sales. Of course, middle men
came into the picture. There had to be men who built grain elevators
to hold crops for shipment on order. Commodity speculators came
into being who bought and sold crops at all dates forward, sight
unseen. These made the market. But, too, the market made them. And
the market was in the Northern cities and Europe. (The South was
self-sufficient in practically all foods, despite its concentration upon
tobacco, cotton, and whiskey.)
Here and now the American farmers re-experienced the fate of farmers
everywhere. It seemed that every good year was more than matched
by a bad year for the crops. The farmer had to pay interest on his
machines and other purchases that he had no cash to pay for. He
appeared to be forever in debt, the question continually posing itself
whether his total assets of land and buildings and machines did not add
up to his debt. But this was determined, like the market for his crops,
by factors beyond his control, the money supply and interest rates.
It is mistaken to review the history of farming as though farming were
an ordinarily prosperous occupation. The American farmer, North,
South, East, and West, has always been more of a financial failure than
a success. Where he appears to have succeeded it has been due to
subsidies paid to him indirectly or in hidden form by the government.
The great majority of American farmers have failed and left the land,
beginning with the Pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers and coming
down to present times. The farmer could really only survive and
prosper when he behaved as a subsistence farmer,
to whom cash was a luxury.
In the whole of New England, farming became, first,
a misery, and then an avocation. Instead of the eldest son being
favored with the farm, he escaped, and the youngest son was
stuck with it. In this ante-Bellum period, New Englanders
streamed West, abandoning their farms to poor relatives, handymen
and city cousins. When they reached the rich undisturbed prairies, they
bathed in a paradise of "unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful, for
which the speech of England has no name, the prairies." So wrote
Poet William Cullen Bryant in 1865.
Yet, by then, most prairie was shorn, and the rest would go in the
following memorial generation; in the late 1900's patches of prairie
flowers and grasses and their animal companions were being
laboriously restored in small part by conservationists.
The question then arises, if this is true - and it will have to be studied
later on - has not farming in America from the very beginning been
viewed in a totally illusory fashion, the dream of agricultural riches
based upon cheap land initially stripped from barbarians? The riches
came out of the farms, and were spread far and wide, not excluding
the agricultural sector; still most farmers had to be forever on the edge
of bankruptcy, if not this year, then next year was the year to go bust.
Moreover, at least half the farmers, so-called, of America
never nor now deserved that appellation.
"Poor country-folk" is perhaps the most exact neutral
term for them; derogatory names given them
were and continue to be numerous. They lived a
marginal existence away from the growing cities
until the time came for most of them to
descend upon the cities, as individuals continually,
but sometimes in waves of migrants. In 1880
25% of farmers were tenants, in 1900 35%, with
sharecropping in the South and cash rents North.