Ep. 75: The Cords of Union: Slavery vs The Telegraph

Calhoun’s vision of Americans conquering space seemed even more possible with Samuel Morse’s invention of the magnetic telegraph.

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Historians usually mark off the years, about 1815 to 1845 as the Jacksonian era and for Americans, and many other people across the planet, these were years of singularity. This period of time is remembered for many inventions and innovations. Most notably was Samuel Morse’s magnetic telegraph. His magnetic telegraph “eliminated the greatest problem plagued by all republics since the ancient days of Rome” because it was able to connect the states through rapid communication. Originally, Congress thought that the telegraph would be used as an extension of the Postal Service, but they could find no way for it to be profitable, so they left it up to the private sector to decide how to best utilize the service.

When was the Jacksonian era? How did the way Americans travelled change through the Jacksonian era? What was the most impressive innovation of that era? How did the magnetic telegraph affect the way Americans communicated?

Further Reading:

Feller, Daniel. The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815-1840. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1995. Howe, Daniel Walker.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Calhoun’s “Cords of Union” Speech

Related Content:

There’s No Excuse for Slavery, Liberty Chronicles Episode

Defenses of the Right of Secession, written by George H. Smith

Why Did the Southern States Secede?, written by Anthony Comegna

00:04 Anthony Comegna: On February 4th, 1817 just a month before the new Monroe administration took office, a hotshot young representative rose to address the house. The subject on the table was what we called the Bonus bill, a proposal to use government revenues from the second bank of the United States to fund a permanent scheme of roads and canals especially throughout the west. The Bonus Bill was Henry Clay’s brain child, who else, and along with the new National Bank it would have helped implement his developing American system. But Clay was not alone in his lust for pork, and at this point in the debate, a perhaps unexpected ally came to his aid on the floor.

00:54 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

01:08 Anthony Comegna: The hot shot youngster argued that after the War of 1812, the most dangerous threat to Americans was internal. He believed disunion was the worst of all evils that could befall his New Republic. This was a country that could, if it wanted, remain at perfect peace with the world. A country of boundless territory and abundance and a people whose ambitions knew no limits. But with so much energy and drive crammed into America, it seemed only a matter of time before internal disputes divided the states. And my God, disunion would practically invite foreign invasion. The states might war with one another and destroy themselves, like those Europeans were always doing. To avoid this fate, too horrible almost to contemplate, our hot shot representative, John C Calhoun, pleaded to his fellows: Let us then bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads, and canals. Let us conquer space.

02:17 Anthony Comegna: Historians usually mark off the years, about 1815 to 1845 as the Jacksonian era and for Americans, and many other people across the planet, these were years of singularity. Singularities are different things to different academics but they all imply change that is impossible to predict. In geometry, it’s the point on a circle where the viewer’s vision is blocked from the rest of the curve. If you’re standing in the street looking at a circular building, there are two points on each side beyond which you can no longer see the circle’s curve, nor accurately predict what’s on the other side of the building. In physics, a singularity is a black hole, nothing escapes from its gravitational well, not even light itself, and so no observers can see the black hole, it remains a mystery we cannot directly observe, we can only try to understand its effects on the world around the point of singularity.

03:14 Anthony Comegna: In modern computing, a singularity is the point at which artificial intelligence is indistinguishable from human intelligence. At that moment, computer brains will be able to improve themselves at ever increasing and astronomical rates. Very, very quickly, absolutely everything changes. And good luck predicting what the world looks like when the entire human species’ brain power can be purchased on a home computer for a measly thousand bucks.

03:45 Anthony Comegna: Google futurist Ray Kurzweil expects us to reach that level of computing power by about 2045. It’s now 2018. We have about 30 years to prepare for that possible outcome. But prepare for what exactly? We’re living in our own Jacksonian era another period of existential singularity. In the Jacksonian Singularity, the astounding stream of new technologies never really stopped. You can see advertisements for new contraptions to maximize productivity at work, appliances for the home, medicine of every description. They litter newspaper pages. Every day some tinkerer out there was making some new thing to do God knows what and the cumulative effects could be bewildering.

04:34 Anthony Comegna: Foreign travelers to America noted that we are a people constantly in motion, never truly content. Endlessly buzzing about, to transform the frontier, reshape the world in more pleasing ways, refusing limitations of whatever sort. Americans would not, could not be hedged in. Not by any Indians or British Queens nor by grumbling Eastern politicians or even nature herself. If the continent was too vast to support a truly national culture, under a truly national constitutional order, then we must bind the vast reaches of America together fast with artificial means. We must do as Calhoun instructed and transform the world itself according to our vision for it.

05:25 Anthony Comegna: First came, the turnpikes, although their heyday was admittedly prior to the great Jacksonian singularity but they did help usher it in. Then came the canals and whether private, small ventures, or massive state boondoggles like the Erie Canal, these new waterways functioned as an expansion of the whole nation’s circulatory system. Canals and steamers dramatically cut transportation times from one area of the country to all others, and travel turned from months long dangerous affairs, to compact and efficient junkets. When railroads followed a generation later and boomed in the 1850s, the effect was complete. Americans really had conquered space, like no one else, since the age of tall sailing ships or the horsemen of Genghis Khan. But the most amazing invention of all, the least predictable, the most astounding and fantastical innovation of the whole century perhaps was Samuel Morse’s magnetic telegraph.

06:26 Anthony Comegna: And of course, Morse also stood on a mountain of other scientists and inventors, a whole century of experimentation with electricity and telegraph designs. But once he actually turned high theory into efficient reality, everything changed. With his machine, Americans thrust the world forward, from the age of steam into the first days of a new and unpredictable electrified future. What awaited them on the other side? No one could quite tell, though since when has that stopped people from guessing? Everyone was amazed, mystified, shocked by the implications of this new machine.

07:08 Anthony Comegna: In March 1843, Congress gave Morse $30,000 to build a line from DC to Baltimore. They imagined this new form of communications would become part of the Postal Service. Just over a year later, Morse tested the line by notifying the capital that Henry Clay had just been nominated for the presidency, by the Whig party’s convention in Baltimore. The next month, he sent his most famous and important electric message, and though it was not in any way the first telegram, it did express the people’s wonderment, in just 201 characters from the Book of Numbers: “What hath God wrought?”

07:49 Anthony Comegna: Among the most excited, the most transfixed at all the possibilities of it, were our heroes, the early libertarian Loco-Focos and their cultural counterparts in the Young America Movement. To them, Morse’s invention eliminated the greatest problem that plagued all republics since the ancient days of Rome, extended republics were extraordinarily fragile.

08:15 Anthony Comegna: Now, though Calhoun’s vision of Americans conquering space was truly a reality, they had learned to bend the laws of nature to suit their will and electrical forces could keep the states bound fast together. No longer were the states destined to slowly spin out of one another’s orbits. Telegraph lines would function as a sort of national brain, allowing for a level of interaction and communication never before seen in world history. In Pittsburg the local Loco-Foco paper clipped an article from the New York Herald, which was indicative of the larger public’s reaction to the new world of telegraphy. The Herald connected Morse’s machine with what appeared like a permanent peace between the US and Great Britain, yet another shift of world historical importance.

09:09 Speaker 2: Pittsburg, The Loco-Foco, 27 June 1844, Clipped From the New York Herald: In the Midst of a Revolution. We are in the midst of a revolution in society and government, on both continents, and one which will produce the most important changes in the physical and moral world. The combination of these two articles, may at first sight, appear incongruous to many minds, but a little examination and reflection will discover in these two remarkable movements, the significant and intelligible proof of the rapid solution in our day, of the problem of men’s capacity for self-government. The possibility nay, the practicability of uniting vast communities in one firmly united republic, and the rapid triumph of the social and political system of the United States over all others throughout Europe, are great truths which have for several years past, been sinking deep into the minds of civilized man.

10:11 Speaker 2: We are already not only neck and neck with our great rivals, on the other side of the water, but have passed them in the race of empire, and we’ll soon entirely distance them, and one of the greatest elements which will give power and energy and force and unity to the triumphant progress of the people of this country, under our free institutions, is undoubtedly the extraordinary and wonderful invention of the electric telegraph. By means of which the community at New Orleans can be informed in a few minutes, in half an hour of what is going on in the communities of New York and Boston. Once this extraordinary invention shall have been fully applied all over the country, the wonderful spectacle will be presented of a vast continent, as consolidated and united, and possessed as much, nay in a greater degree, of the means of rapid communication as the city of New York. It will tend to bind together with electric force the whole republic and by its single agency, do more to guard against disunion and blend into one homogenous mass the whole population of the republic, than all that the most experienced, the most sagacious and the most patriotic government could accomplish.

11:29 Speaker 2: Every doubt, of the safety of limiting the extent of our empire only by those external boundaries by which nature herself has limited the continent, will now be removed. The extension of the republic to the utter most extremities of this vast division of the Earth must now be seen as natural, justifiable and safe as the extension of New York to the Harlem River. It will be seen, therefore, that we are indeed on the dawn of a greater era in the history of human progress on this continent, than perhaps even enthusiasm itself has dreamed. With our railroads covering the land like a piece of network, with our vast steam power, our broad rivers, our ocean lakes, our innumerable safe and spacious harbors with the means of constructing a vast navy of steam ships, like the Princeton, we may indeed bid defiance to all enemies.

12:30 Anthony Comegna: Yet it must be said, there were pockets of opinion where fear still triumphed over inspiration. Interestingly enough, those voices who called most strongly for government regulation and even outright nationalization of the telegraph were often the very same people for whom free communications may well mean certain death or destitution. Who could I possibly mean? Who might lose their lives if the people could instantaneously reach out to one another from across the continent? Well, southern planters and northern corporates of course, they feared the telegraph for exactly the same reasons they feared slave literacy, free trade or the free movement of peoples. Liberty is the greatest enemy a slave holder ever knew. Let’s hear the case for nationalization from one of the South most ironically named and most violently pro-slavery papers.

13:31 Speaker 2: New Orleans Jeffersonian Republican, January 8 1846, The Magnetic Telegraph. A Washington letter in The New York Commercial points out many of the disadvantages and even injuries which may be visited upon the mass of the community, if the sole use and control of magnetic telegraph communication be vested in individuals or private companies, and suggests that the right be transferred to the government, which excludes any monopoly for improper or speculative purposes. This letter says the opinion is very general here, that the government ought to own and must own the magnetic telegraph. And manage it by responsible officials and in such a manner as to secure the public against the danger of any monopoly of this channel of information. In private hands, it must either be a monopoly or of no value at all as individual property.

14:26 Speaker 2: If conducted fairly it would afford no profit to individual stockholders, but speculators could afford to pay larger sums for the nominal monopoly of its use, so soon as the public should become aware of the partial operation of this medium of intelligence, they would extinguish it. Nor could any law, for its protection in that case, be obtained or enforced. I find that the western members are very desirous for its purchase and also the southwestern members. Unless the company should demand a very extravagant sum for the exclusive right, Congress, I think, will purchase it during this session, and establish a bureau connected with the Post Office Department for its management. A proposition will soon be made in Congress to carry a telegraphic wire from this city to Saint Louis, and thence across the Rocky Mountains to the naval stations that are to be on the Pacific Coast. This telegraphic system is to be an important branch of government.

15:26 Anthony Comegna: Congress did originally intend to use telegraphy, as an arm of the Postal Service, but officials could see no way to profit from it, and they released the field to the private sector. Investors flocked to Morse’s magnetic telegraph company in 1845, including Amos Kendall, Jackson’s postmaster general, the man who refused to protect abolitionists males from pro-slavery arsonists, and the main target of William Leggett conversion to abolitionism. Yes, that’s right, the era’s most notorious censor, helped found and fund the era’s most revolutionary communications technology. Good thing we don’t have those problems anymore. Within a few years, lines linked every major city and most decent sized towns in a vast national network. And one of my favorite experiences as a historian is seeing the speed of communications change right there in the documentary record.

16:24 Anthony Comegna: Suddenly once a telegraph appeared in your town, people really didn’t have to wait for more information before drawing their conclusions about far off events. All the information they needed was wired to their local papers every day, and whoever could afford a newspaper could afford to immediately, and deeply, involve themselves in the affairs of their fellow citizens. Again for most people, this was fascinating and exhilarating, it was democracy in action. But for those who stood to lose the most when public opinion shifted, telegraphy and all its attendant nationalization of culture and politics, spelled disaster.

17:02 Anthony Comegna: So let’s return to John C Calhoun between his 1817 speech on the Bonus Bill urging the conquest of space and the debates over the compromise of 1850. Calhoun had become his own opposite. When once he was a youthful and optimistic nationalist by the end of his life, Calhoun was the arch defender of all things sectional, traditional and paternalistic. To him, the primary forces binding the Union together were not strengthening much less multiplying, rather he said the cords of Union were snapping one by one, thanks to the reckless and nosey crusades of those damned abolitionists.

17:48 Anthony Comegna: On March 4th, 1850 as northern politicians scrambled to address the growing concern that the territories remain free soil, Calhoun delivered his final speech before the Senate, where he had spent most of his life. He was already an ugly enough guy, at least in my opinion, but that day he appeared like a mummy, who’s been temporarily reanimated. He was dying, so sick that he could not even speak, wrapped in a shroud, and he had to employ a colleague to do the speechifying for him. Yes, right up to the very end of his life, Calhoun was the very embodiment of the slave system, he loved so much.

18:30 Speaker 2: Calhoun, Cords of Union Speech, March 4 1850. Neither party in Congress had any sympathy with them or their cause. The members of each party presented their petitions with great reluctance. Nevertheless, small and contemptible as the party then was, both great parties of the North dreaded them. They felt that though small, they were organized in reference to a subject, which had a great and commanding influence over the northern mind. Each party feared to oppose their petitions, less the opposite party should take advantage of the one who might do so by favoring them. The effect was that both united and insisting that the petitions should be received and that Congress should take jurisdiction over the subject. To justify their course, they took the extraordinary ground that Congress was bound to receive petitions on every subject, however objectionable they might be, and whether they had or had not jurisdiction, these views prevailed in the House of Representatives and partially in the Senate and thus the party succeeded in their first movements. In gaining what they proposed, a position in Congress, from which agitation, could be extended over the whole Union.

19:45 Anthony Comegna: For Calhoun, the trouble stretched all the way back to the mails controversy of 1835. That fateful day when the Charleston mob burned abolitionist mail and Amos Kendall, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and company all looked the other way. For Calhoun, the real trouble began with the likes of William Leggett and our beloved Loco-Focos. They were the ones driving his sacred Union into the ground forcing he and his fellow southerners to choose between their nation and their slaves as if there was even a choice.

20:23 Speaker 2: I believed at that early period if the party who got up the petitions should succeed in getting Congress to take jurisdiction, that agitation would follow and that it would, in the end, destroy the Union. Had my voice been heeded. The agitation which followed would have been prevented and the fanatical zeal that gives impulse to the agitation and which has brought us to our present perilous condition would have become extinguished from the want of fuel to feed the flame. That was the time for the North to have shown her devotion to the Union. With the success of their first movement, this small fanatical party began to acquire strength and with that to become an object of courtship to both the great parties. The necessary consequence was a further increase of power and a gradual tainting of the opinions of both of the other parties with their doctrines, until the infection has extended over both. With the increase of their influence, they extended the sphere of their action. In a short time after the commencement of their first movement, they had acquired sufficient influence to induce the legislatures of most of the northern states, to pass acts, which in effect abrogated the clause of the Constitution that provides for the delivery up of fugitive slaves.

21:42 Speaker 2: Not long after petitions followed to abolish slavery in forts, magazines and dockyards, and all other places where Congress had exclusive power of legislation. This was followed by petitions and resolutions of legislatures of the northern states, and popular meetings to exclude the southern states from all territories. And Congress is invoked to do all this expressly with the view to the final abolition of slavery in the States.

22:14 Speaker 2: Is it then not certain that the South will be forced to choose between abolition and secession? Indeed as events are now moving it will not require the South to secede in order to dissolve the Union. It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be affected by a single blow. The cords which bound the states together in one common Union, are far too numerous and powerful for that. Disunion must be the work of time. It is only through a long process, and successively, that the chords can be snapped until the whole fabric falls asunder. Already, the agitation of the slavery question has snapped some of the most important and has greatly weakened all the others. The cords that bind the states together are not only many but various in character. Some are spiritual, or ecclesiastical, some political others social. Some appertained to the benefit conferred by the Union and others to the feeling of duty and obligation. The strongest of those of a spiritual and ecclesiastical nature consisted in the unity of the great religious denominations. All of which originally embraced the whole Union. All these denominations, with the exception perhaps of the Catholics, were organized very much upon the principle of our political institutions beginning with smaller meetings. Corresponding with the political divisions of the country, their organization terminated in one great central assemblage corresponding very much with the character of Congress.

23:52 Speaker 2: The ties, which held each denomination together, form a strong cord to hold the whole Union together. But powerful as they were, they have not been able to resist the explosive effect of slavery agitation. The first of these cords which snapped under its explosive force, was that of the powerful Methodist Episcopal Church. The numerous and strong ties which held it together are all broken and its unity gone. They now form separate churches and instead of that feeling of attachment and devotion to the interests of the whole church, which was formerly felt, they are now arrayed into two hostile bodies engaged in litigation about what was formerly their common property. The next cord that snapped was that of the Baptists. That of the Presbyterian is not entirely snapped, but some of its strands have given way. The Episcopal Church is the only one of the four great Protestant denominations which remains unbroken and entire. The strongest cord of a political character consists of the many and powerful ties that have held together, the two great parties, which have with some modifications existed from the beginning of the government.

25:11 Speaker 2: They both extended to every portion of the Union and strongly contributed to hold all its parts together, but this powerful cord has fared no better than the spiritual. It resisted the explosive tendency of the agitation, but has finally snapped under its force. Nor is there one of the remaining cords which has not been greatly weakened. To this extent, the Union has already been destroyed by agitation in the only way it can be, by sundering and weakening the cords which bind it together. If the agitation goes on, the same force acting with increased intensity will finally snap every cord, when nothing will be left to hold the states together except force. But surely that can with no propriety of language, be called a Union. When the only means by which the weaker is held connected with the stronger portion is force. It may indeed keep them connected, but the connection will partake much more of the character of subjugation, on the part of the weaker to the stronger, than the Union of free, independent and sovereign states in one confederation as they stood in the early stages of the government and which only is worthy of the sacred name of Union.

26:35 Anthony Comegna: Four weeks later on March 31st and not a moment too soon, Calhoun died in Washington, from tuberculosis. The same disease that claimed William Leggett at a tragically young age. The question for us here then remains, who was right? The optimists who marveled at the new and magical powers of electricity or the dour, sour, ugly, yet fundamentally accurate, portrait given by Calhoun. In some sense, as we will see, both visions for America’s national destiny were correct in their own ways, in contradictory ways. In ways really only resolved through national cataclysm. Calhoun was right, the cords of Union really were snapping before their eyes year by year, and there could no longer be any politics as usual. But the techno-optimist young Americans had the better of him in the end. Their cords of Union superseded the ones mourned in Calhoun’s death bed speech. Their electromagnetic unionism was the sort of forward thinking that could take a world destroyed by politicians, pick up the pieces and truly march the American people into the future, on their own terms for once, or at least that was the hope. But what did they know? No one can see past a singularity.

28:12 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.