During the years between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War of 1846, the United States underwent a great transformation. In 1815, at the close of the second war with Britain, the US was what we would call a “developing” country. Most people worked in agriculture, often on semisubsistence family farms, eating food they grew, their lives governed by the weather and the hours of daylight. It was the slowness and uncertainty of transportation and communications that kept their lives so primitive. Only people who lived near navigable water could readily market crops; others relied heavily on barter with their neighbors and the local storekeeper. Only luxury goods could bear the cost of long-distance transportation on land, and information from the wider world was among the most precious of luxuries.
Thirty-three years later, in 1848, at the end of the war with Mexico, much had changed. The United States had become a transcontinental major power. Its expanded empire stretched from sea to sea, integrated by revolutionary innovations in transportation and communications. These included the railroad, the telegraph, the steamboat, the Erie Canal, the steam-operated printing press, and innovations in papermaking. The mechanization of agriculture had begun, with Cyrus McCormick’s invention of the reaper in 1831 and John Deere’s steel plow in 1837. Techniques of mass production, even more important than mechanical inventions, were starting to transform manufacturing’s age-old artisan traditions.
These innovations not only raised the standard of living but also fostered the growth of democracy. Improvements in communications rescued people from the tyranny of isolation. Cheaper paper, more efficient printing, and faster transportation encouraged the proliferation of newspapers and magazines. These could be distributed through the mails thanks to federal policies that multiplied small-town post offices and subsidized printed matter with low postage rates. The press in turn facilitated the development of nationwide mass political parties. Many newspapers were put out by political parties (or factions within parties) and existed more to voice a point of view than for commercial reasons. American democracy expanded as rival candidates exploited the newspapers and magazines to appeal to the nationwide public. Andrew Jackson filled his “kitchen cabinet” of informal advisers with newspapermen. By 1840, as many as four out of five qualified voters were going to the polls—a far higher level of participation than has been achieved by the expanded electorate of recent decades. Mass democracy had replaced the patrician republic created by the Founders.
Since this “middle period” in American history is so interesting and important, why does it get so little attention compared with the Revolutionary era of the Founders and the time of the Civil War? Even academic historians have had little to say about it in recent years, if one may judge from the number of papers presented at…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.