4. We let technology guide how we communicate.
Abraham Lincoln was a techie. A product of the Industrial Revolution, Lincoln is the only president to have held a patent (for a device to buoy boats over shoals). He was fascinated with the idea of applying technology to war: In 1861, for example, after being impressed by a demonstration of ideas for balloon reconnaissance, he established the Balloon Corps, which would soon begin floating hot-air balloons above Confederate camps in acts of aerial espionage.
Lincoln also encouraged the development of rapid-fire weapons to modernize combat. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, the author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, notes that Lincoln personally tested the "coffee-mill gun," an early version of a hand-cranked machine gun.
But above all, Lincoln loved the telegram. Invented just a few decades earlier, the telegraph system had gone national in 1844.
As Tom Wheeler recounts in his book, Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, the White House had no telegraph connection. Twice daily throughout his presidency, Lincoln walked to the telegraph office of the War Department (on the site of today's Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just west of the White House) to receive updates and to send orders to his generals on the front. He sent this one to General Ulysses S. Grant on Aug. 17, 1864: "Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew & choke, as much as possible."
Before Lincoln's day, letters and speeches were often long-winded. With the telegraph came the need for concise communication. After all, every dot and dash of Morse Code carried a cost. Gone were the "wherefores," "herewith" and "hences." Flowery, formal speech was out.
Lincoln's Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses both demonstrate this new economy of phrase. "Events were moving too fast for the more languid phrases of the past," historian Garry Wills writes in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg. "The trick, of course, was not simply to be brief but to say a great deal in the fewest words. Lincoln justly boasted, of his Second Inaugural's six hundred words, ‘Lots of wisdom in that document, I suspect.'"
Not only did Lincoln's wartime dependence on the telegraph eventually lead to a wave of investment in new communication devices, from the telephone to the Internet (the latter invented, not coincidentally, for military use), but it also signaled the evolution of a language that morphs as quickly as the devices that instantaneously tweet our words around the globe.
Samuel F. B. Morse, elevated to fame and fortune by his invention of the telegraph, styled himself “an American who knows no North nor South nor East nor West, but who feels that everyone within the United States is his fellow countryman.” Lean, restless and pulsating with energy, the “Lightning Man” cherished the Union.
Yet the acute phase of North-South sectionalism coincided with the arrival of the telegraph, which rocketed information ahead at speeds that seemed miraculous. Was this merely a coincidence? Or could the telegraph somehow have made Americans more distrustful of one another, and placed the country on the high road toward civil war?
War between the United States and Mexico created the angry irritant that ultimately tore the Union apart — the question of slavery in the territories. An enormous region was about to come under America control — all of today’s California, Nevada and Utah, most of Arizona, plus parts of three other future states. Free soil advocates demanded that any lands seized from Mexico be declared off limits to slavery. But many white Southerners insisted they should have the right to take slaves wherever they pleased.
In 1846 and 1847, as fighting took place in Mexico, a war of words raged in Washington — and it did not cease when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended military hostilities in early 1848. Although the climate of the newly acquired southwest was too arid for plantation slavery, nothing could still the contest between those who would prohibit it there and those who would protect it.
One observer noted astutely that the two factions each wielded one side of “a pair of shears, neither of which could cut until joined together.” But with each side pulling its blade, the shears threatened to sever the Union. Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November 1860 ultimately brought matters to a head. He and the Republican Party were pledged to prevent slavery’s further expansion. And many white Southerners considered that an intolerable affront.
Notwithstanding his New England origins, Morse was well-disposed toward white Southerners. In his earlier career as a painter, he had traveled South to do commissioned portraits. He found no fault there. He regarded slavery as a benefit to everyone involved — it allowed “a weak and degraded race” to labor productively, protected and guided by Christian masters. And he held abolitionists in particular contempt — “a more wretched, disgusting, hypocritical crew, have not appeared on the face of the earth since the times of Robespierre.”
Morse’s telegraph, first successfully demonstrated in May 1844, became a booming business during the next four years. By the summer of 1846, just as American forces headed south into Mexico, the poles and wires were in place to inaugurate the first telegraphic connection between New York and Washington. Almost immediately afterwards, the line between New York and Boston opened. By September, New York was linked to Buffalo and soon to points west. Work then began on a Southern line from Washington to New Orleans, via Richmond, Charleston and Mobile. By 1848, when the Mexican War concluded, the telegraph linked North and South more closely than ever before.
Telegraphy transformed journalism. Newspaper publishers quickly grasped the new technology’s potential. The magical words “By Magnetic Telegraph” alerted readers to events that had just taken place hundreds of miles away.
Steam-powered rotary presses — another new invention — enabled publishers to rapidly print newspapers in great quantities, and with far lower per unit costs. So mid-century Americans bought and read more newspapers than any other people on the face of the earth. The telegraph and newspapers combined to exert a uniquely powerful influence on American culture. No other part of the world was so affected.
By 1860, there were 50,000 miles of telegraph in the United States, all built during the previous 16 years. Some 3,725 American newspapers were published daily or weekly. Fewer than 200 million newspaper copies were printed in 1840, but almost 900 million in 1860. New York City became the nerve center of American journalism — led by the New York Herald, the New York Tribune and the New York Times, founded in 1851. Even in many small and medium-sized localities, rival newspapers, each typically with a strongly partisan orientation, took hold.
These startling advances in communications were closely tied to huge improvements in overland transport. Railroads — yet another new technology — vaulted forward in the late 1840s and 1850s. Railroad mileage jumped from fewer than 3,000 miles in 1840, mostly in the East, to over 36,000 miles that stretched West and South by 1860, across all settled parts of the Union. Bigger, faster, more powerful trains sped both passengers and freight to their destinations. The telegraph proved to be an essential mechanism for coordinating these far-flung operations.
“Antebellum futurologists” expected that improved communications and transport would knit the Union together. They anticipated that Americans would become “more and more one people, thinking and acting alike,” writes Samuel F. B. Morse’s biographer, Kenneth Silverman. Prominent among the optimists was Morse himself. His famous motto — “What hath God wrought!” — fused personal success with national greatness.
Instead, of course, national unity unraveled as antagonistic North-South stereotypes hardened during the 1850s. The dominant modern narrative of mid-19th century American history suggests that North and South began to see each other more clearly — and that each discovered how genuinely different the other had become. While a fast-changing North embraced progress and improvement, the South remained wedded to an archaic, retrogressive labor system. Under the circumstances, Northern and Southern outlooks and values necessarily diverged.
There are powerful reasons why this image of a modern North and a static South is attractive — it so neatly seems to explain the bloodbath that soon followed. It says that two incompatible regions could not peacefully remain together. And the stereotypes at first glance make sense — nobody could mistake Massachusetts for Mississippi.
But there were other reasons why each section viewed its counterpart in such a harsh light. Partisan managers during the 1850s had motive to play up North-South differences. Republicans warned that a “slave power conspiracy” stood poised to rob free white Northerners of access to the fertile West, while Southern Democrats depicted Republicans as dangerous radicals whose success would lead to a violent abolitionist invasion of the slave states. As Elizabeth Varon recently wrote here, North-South acrimony also included deliberately offensive gendered insults — its Northern critics saw a white South filled with lustful sadists, whereas some Southerners satirized Northern men as effeminate weaklings.
By any reasonable standard, all of these images were overblown. And they especially distorted the border regions — the Upper South and the Lower North. Southern Illinois and Indiana actually had much in common with Kentucky and Missouri. And few whites living in the Upper South wanted their states to become more like the Deep South.
New communications technologies must have played a key role in transforming exaggerated stereotypes into compelling realities, and persuading Northerners and Southerners that they were more different from each other than they actually were. “It was surely no accident,” Edward L. Ayers has written, “that a long-brewing sectional animosity boiled over when railroads, telegraphs, and newspapers proliferated in the 1840s and 1850s.” Both North and South, “rival editors wrenched the most inflammatory words out of context, underlining their danger, amplifying their threat.” The “frantic rush in every direction” that accompanied new railroads sharpened anxieties about the future of the territories. Even though North and South “shared a great deal,” part of what they shared was popular politics and a print media that depicted the opposite section in sinister terms.
The possibility just sketched here — that his brainchild may somehow have fueled the fire — is one that Samuel F. B. Morse could not have accepted. Horrified by the course of events in early 1861 as the Union fractured and war threatened, he and some friends organized an “American Society for Promoting National Unity.” But it was too little and too late. The “Lightning Man” may have unleashed forces that neither he nor anyone else could control.
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References: Kenneth Silverman, “Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse” (New York: Knopf, 2003); Tom Standage, “The Victorian Internet” (New York: Walker and Co., 1998); Edward L. Ayers, “What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History” (New York: Norton, 2005); James M. McPherson, “Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question,” Civil War History 29 (Sept. 1983); Lorman A. Ratner and Dwight L. Teeter, Jr., “Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War” (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003); David M. Potter, “The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861″ (New York: Harper and Row, 1976).
Daniel W. Crofts is a professor at the College of New Jersey and author of “A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and ‘The Diary of a Public Man.’”
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