(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
I am in the middle of reading a fascinating book about James K. Polk called A Country of Vast Designs. Stow that scoff soldier! Any reader of this book will quickly reach the conclusion that Polk has been hugely underestimated. This book details non-stop intrigue within Polk’s Democratic Party, political warfare between the Democrats and the Whigs, and Polk’s high stakes gambit to obtain sole possession of the Oregon territory (disputed by the world’s then preeminent military power), the Republic of Texas and the American southwest. Polk risked simultaneous war with both Great Britain and Mexico and national ruin in the process. Love him or hate him, Polk was a man of purpose and resolve that played a huge role in creating the country we live in today.
In any case, 132 pages in the book contains a striking passage describing a national zeitgeist that seems sadly diminished today:
The United States that accepted James Polk’s leadership in March 1845 was a nation on the move, animated by an exuberance of spirit. The population, having roughly doubled every twenty years since the Revolution, now stood at 17 million, equivalent to that of Great Britain. The national economy had been expanding at an average annual rate of 3.9 percent. Not even the Panic of 1837, for all of its destructive force, could forestall for long this creation of wealth. And throughout the land could be seen a confidence that fueled national success. “We are now reaching the very height, perhaps, to which we can expect to ascend,” declared the Democratic Wilmington Gazette of Delaware. “Every branch of industry is receiving its reward, and a just, settled policy…is all that is required to prolong, if not perpetuate, such blessings.”
The faith in the future produced an explosion of new technological developments, most notably steam power and Samuel F.B. Morse’s magnetic telegraph. Steam was propelling people and goods across the country at speeds never before imagined-over rails connecting more and more cities and through the waters of America’s many navigable rivers and man-made canals. By the 1830s, during Jackson’s Presidency, the country had 450 locomotives pulling trains over 3,200 miles of track. Now the country’s track mileage exceeded 7,000, and train travel over vast distances had become routine. Henry Clay’s first trip to Washington from Lexington Kentucky, in 1806 had taken three weeks; now he could make the journey by rail in four days-and with much greater comfort.
As remarkable as this was, it seemed almost commonplace alongside Morse’s ability to send information across vast expanses almost instantaneously-”the improvement that annihilates distance,” as Thomas Benton put it. Morse had strung his famous wires from Baltimore to Washington in time for the Democrats’ nominating convention the previous May, and had thrilled Washingtonians with the latest news of developments there. On the rain-soaked day of Polk’s inauguration, Morse had been on the platform, hunched over his little gadget, clanking out detailed descriptions of the inaugural events an expectant crowd in Baltimore and for subsequent readers of newspaper extras rushed to the streets with unprecedented immediacy.
Now the idea was emerging of those wires crisscrossing America along with the expanding ribbons of locomotive transport-connecting North and South and stretching westward with the human migrations then becoming an increasingly powerful element of the American story. All this served as a resounding reply to the hidebound skeptics who asked whether America’s expansionist impulse would eventually outstrip the country’s ability to govern itself. The answer was no: Just as America was encompassing ever greater distances, technology was obliterating the sluggishness of distance.
And so the impulse of exuberant expansionism continued-sending more and more citizens westward and into ever greater cities; fueling an entrepreneurial spirit and technological inventiveness that in turn generated an ongoing economic expansion; spreading a sense of national destiny. “America is the country of the Future,” declared Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844. “It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”