H.G. Wells > A Short History of the World > 60. The Expansion of the United States
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H.G. Wells (1866–1946).  A Short History of the World.  1922.

LX.  The Expansion of the United States


THE REGION of the world that displayed the most immediate and striking results from the new inventions in transport was North America. Politically the United States embodied, and its constitution crystallized, the liberal ideas of the middle eighteenth century. It dispensed with state-church or crown, it would have no titles, it protected property very jealously as a method of freedom, and—the exact practice varied at first in the different states—it gave nearly every adult male citizen a vote. Its method of voting was barbarically crude, and as a consequence its political life fell very soon under the control of highly organized party machines, but that did not prevent the newly emancipated population developing an energy, enterprise and public spirit far beyond that of any other contemporary population.   1
  Then came that acceleration of locomotion to which we have already called attention. It is a curious thing that America, which owes most to this acceleration in locomotion, has felt it least. The United States have taken the railway, the river steamboat, the telegraph and so forth as though they were a natural part of their growth. They were not. These things happened to come along just in time to save American unity. The United States of to-day were made first by the river steamboat, and then by the railway. Without these things, the present United States, this vast continental nation, would have been altogether impossible. The westward flow of population would have been far more sluggish. It might never have crossed the great central plains. It took nearly two hundred years for effective settlement to reach from the coast to Missouri, much less than halfway across the continent. The first state established beyond the river was the steamboat state of Missouri in 1821. But the rest of the distance to the Pacific was done in a few decades.   2
  If we had the resources of the cinema it would be interesting to show a map of North America year by year from 1600 onward, with little dots to represent hundreds of people, each dot a hundred, and stars to represent cities of a hundred thousand people.   3
  For two hundred years the reader would see that stippling creeping slowly along the coastal districts and navigable waters, spreading still more gradually into Indiana, Kentucky and so forth. Then somewhere about 1810 would come a change. Things would get more lively along the river courses. The dots would be multiplying and spreading. That would be the steamboat. The pioneer dots would be spreading soon over Kansas and Nebraska from a number of jumping-off places along the great rivers.   4
  Then from about 1830 onward would come the black lines of the railways, and after that the little black dots would not simply creep but run. They would appear now so rapidly, it would be almost as though they were being put on by some sort of spraying machine. And suddenly here and then there would appear the first stars to indicate the first great cities of a hundred thousand people. First one or two and then a multitude of cities—each like a knot in the growing net of the railways.   5
  The growth of the United States is a process that has no precedent in the world’s history; it is a new kind of occurrence. Such a community could not have come into existence before, and if it had, without railways it would certainly have dropped to pieces long before now. Without railways or telegraph it would be far easier to administer California from Pekin than from Washington. But this great population of the United States of America has not only grown outrageously; it has kept uniform. Nay, it has become more uniform. The man of San Francisco is more like the man of New York to-day than the man of Virginia was like the man of New England a century ago. And the process of assimilation goes on unimpeded. The United States is being woven by railway, by telegraph, more and more into one vast unity, speaking, thinking and acting harmoniously with itself. Soon aviation will be helping in the work.   6
  This great community of the United States is an altogether new thing in history. There have been great empires before with populations exceeding 100 millions, but these were associations of divergent peoples; there has never been one single people on this scale before. We want a new term for this new thing. We call the United States a country just as we call France or Holland a country. But the two things are as different as an automobile and a one-horse shay. They are the creations of different periods and different conditions; they are going to work at a different pace and in an entirely different way. The United States in scale and possibility is halfway between a European state and a United States of all the world.   7
  But on the way to this present greatness and security the American people passed through one phase of dire conflict. The river steamboats, the railways, the telegraph, and their associate facilities, did not come soon enough to avert a deepening conflict of interests and ideas between the southern and northern states of the Union. The former were slave-holding states; the latter, states in which all men were free. The railways and steamboats at first did but bring into sharper conflict an already established difference between the two sections of the United States. The increasing unification due to the new means of transport made the question whether the southern spirit or the northern should prevail an ever more urgent one. There was little possibility of compromise. The northern spirit was free and individualistic; the southern made for great estates and a conscious gentility ruling over a dusky subject multitude.   8
  Every new territory that was organized into a state as the tide of population swept westward, every new incorporation into the fast growing American system, became a field of conflict between the two ideas, whether it should become a state of free citizens, or whether the estate and slavery system should prevail. From 1833 an American anti-slavery society was not merely resisting the extension of the institution but agitating the whole country for its complete abolition. The issue flamed up into open conflict over the admission of Texas to the Union. Texas had originally been a part of the republic of Mexico, but it was largely colonized by Americans from the slave-holding states, and it seceded from Mexico, established its independence in 1835, and was annexed to the United States in 1844. Under the Mexican law slavery had been forbidden in Texas, but now the South claimed Texas for slavery and got it.   9
  Meanwhile the development of ocean navigation was bringing a growing swarm of immigrants from Europe to swell the spreading population of the northern states, and the raising of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oregon, all northern farm lands, to state level, gave the anti-slavery North the possibility of predominance both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The cotton-growing South, irritated by the growing threat of the Abolitionist movement, and fearing this predominance in Congress, began to talk of secession from the Union. Southerners began to dream of annexations to the south of them in Mexico and the West Indies, and of a great slave state, detached from the North and reaching to Panama.  10
  The return of Abraham Lincoln as an anti-extension President in 1860 decided the South to split the Union. South Carolina passed an “ordinance of secession,” and prepared for war. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas joined her, and a convention met at Montgomery in Alabama, elected Jefferson Davis president of the “Confederated States” of America, and adopted a constitution specifically upholding “the institution of negro slavery.”  11
  Abraham Lincoln was, it chanced, a man entirely typical of the new people that had grown up after the War of Independence. His early years had been spent as a drifting particle in the general westward flow of the population. He was born in Kentucky (1809), was taken to Indiana as a boy and later on to Illinois. Life was rough in the backwoods of Indiana in those days; the house was a mere log cabin in the wilderness, and his schooling was poor and casual. But his mother taught him to read early, and he became a voracious reader. At seventeen he was a big athletic youth, a great wrestler and runner. He worked for a time as clerk in a store, went into business as a storekeeper with a drunken partner, and contracted debts that he did not fully pay off for fifteen years. In 1834, when he was still only five and twenty, he was elected member of the House of Representatives for the State of Illinois. In Illinois particularly the question of slavery flamed because the great leader of the party for the extension of slavery in the national Congress was Senator Douglas of Illinois. Douglas was a man of great ability and prestige, and for some years Lincoln fought against him by speech and pamphlet, rising steadily to the position of his most formidable and finally victorious antagonist. Their culminating struggle was the presidential campaign of 1860, and on the fourth of March, 1861, Lincoln was inaugurated President, with the southern states already in active secession from the rule of the federal government at Washington, and committing acts of war.  12
  This civil war in America was fought by improvised armies that grew steadily from a few score thousands to hundreds of thousands—until at last the Federal forces exceeded a million men; it was fought over a vast area between New Mexico and the eastern sea, Washington and Richmond were the chief objectives. It is beyond our scope here to tell of the mounting energy of that epic struggle that rolled to and fro across the hills and woods of Tennessee and Virginia and down the Mississippi. There was a terrible waste and killing of men. Thrust was followed by counter thrust; hope gave way to despondency, and returned and was again disappointed. Sometimes Washington seemed within the Confederate grasp; again the Federal armies were driving towards Richmond. The Confederates, outnumbered and far poorer in resources, fought under a general of supreme ability, General Lee. The generalship of the Union was far inferior. Generals were dismissed, new generals appointed; until at last, under Sherman and Grant, came victory over the ragged and depleted South. In October, 1864, a Federal army under Sherman broke through the Confederate left and marched down from Tennessee through Georgia to the coast, right across the Confederate country, and then turned up through the Carolinas, coming in upon the rear of the Confederate armies. Meanwhile Grant held Lee before Richmond until Sherman closed on him. On April 9th, 1865, Lee and his army surrendered at Appomattox Court House, and within a month all the remaining secessionist armies had laid down their arms and the Confederacy was at an end.  13
  This four years’ struggle had meant an enormous physical and moral strain for the people of the United States. The principle of state autonomy was very dear to many minds, and the North seemed in effect to be forcing abolition upon the South. In the border states brothers and cousins, even fathers and sons, would take opposite sides and find themselves in antagonistic armies. The North felt its cause a righteous one, but for great numbers of people it was not a full-bodied and unchallenged righteousness. But for Lincoln there was no doubt. He was a clear-minded man in the midst of much confusion. He stood for union; he stood for the wide peace of America. He was opposed to slavery, but slavery he held to be a secondary issue; his primary purpose was that the United States should not be torn into two contrasted and jarring fragments.  14
  When in the opening stages of the war Congress and the Federal generals embarked upon a precipitate emancipation, Lincoln opposed and mitigated their enthusiasm. He was for emancipation by stages and with compensation. It was only in January, 1865, that the situation had ripened to a point when Congress could propose to abolish slavery for ever by a constitutional amendment, and the war was already over before this amendment was ratified by the states.  15
  As the war dragged on through 1862 and 1863, the first passions and enthusiasms waned, and America learnt all the phases of war weariness and war disgust. The President found himself with defeatists, traitors, dismissed generals, tortuous party politicians, and a doubting and fatigued people behind him and uninspired generals and depressed troops before him; his chief consolation must have been that Jefferson Davis at Richmond could be in little better case. The English government misbehaved, and permitted the Confederate agents in England to launch and man three swift privateer ships—the Alabama is the best remembered of them—which chased United States shipping from the seas. The French army in Mexico was trampling the Monroe Doctrine in the dirt. Came subtle proposals from Richmond to drop the war, leave the issues of the war for subsequent discussion, and turn, Federal and Confederate in alliance, upon the French in Mexico. But Lincoln would not listen to such proposals unless the supremacy of the Union was maintained. The Americans might do such things as one people but not as two.  16
  He held the United States together through long weary months of reverses and ineffective effort, through black phases of division and failing courage; and there is no record that he ever faltered from his purpose. There were times when there was nothing to be done, when he sat in the White House silent and motionless, a grim monument of resolve; times when he relaxed his mind by jesting and broad anecdotes.  17
  He saw the Union triumphant. He entered Richmond the day after its surrender, and heard of Lee’s capitulation. He returned to Washington, and on April 11th made his last public address. His theme was reconciliation and the reconstruction of loyal government in the defeated states. On the evening of April 14th he went to Ford’s theatre in Washington, and as he sat looking at the stage, he was shot in the back of the head and killed by an actor named Booth who had some sort of grievance against him, and who had crept into the box unobserved. But Lincoln’s work was done; the Union was saved.  18
  At the beginning of the war there was no railway to the Pacific coast; after it the railways spread like a swiftly growing plant until now they have clutched and held and woven all the vast territory of the United States into one indissoluble mental and material unity—the greatest real community—until the common folk of China have learnt to read—in the world.  19



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