What has made the United States the country it has become? There are myriad answers. All of them right—cada cabeza es un mundo—every head is a world. My answer reflects a revaluation of a view I’ve conceded which bears a more critical consideration than that proffered by Frederick Jackson Turner in the early part of the 20th century. Admittedly, the United States has transcended the continental bounds of its historical forty-and-eight configuration. Taken as a whole, including its extended and extra-territorial boundaries, there are a number of considerations that have contributed to the transcontinental evolution of the United States and the seeming cohesiveness of the American people, therefrom. Politics is certainly not one of them nor is religion. But the plaguing question remains: how to create a cohesive national identity based on solidarity?
The Evolution of the West and the Transcontinental Railroad
Frederick Jackson Turner thought it was the concept of the West that made the United States and its people the nation that it had become in the 19th century. That was certainly a contributing factor but not in the way that Turner characterized it. Turner thought of the West as a territorial settlement. That was part of it, but not all of it.
It was the concept of the West as “a transcontinental movement” from sea-to-shining-sea that gave impetus to e pluribus unum. Still, completion of that transcontinental goal helped to cement the notion of e pluribus unum in the consciousness of the American people.
No matter the history and circumstances that led to the acquisition of 529,000 square miles of Mexico’s sovereign territory, acquisition of such a sizeable chunk of real estate imbued Americans with a sense of grandeur, of completion. That feat was to become America’s Palestinian State with almost 3 million Mexicans who became Mexican Americans by conquest and by fiat.
Out of that expansion emerged the Transcontinental Railroad, linking east and west via rapid transit that exceeded the stagecoach and ocean travel. Moreover, the Transcontinental Railroad fueled the delivery of cargo from the Pacific to the Atlantic and all the space between, including the Santa Fe Trail and points west from Chicago to San Francisco. Settlements sprang up around train depots. Dendritically rail lines spurred out to north and south from the trunk line of the Transcontinental Railroad, spawning a feeling of oneness among Americans. Important to bear in mind is that the feat of the Transcontinental Railroad was made possible by the toil of illegally smuggled Chinese coolies and the Mexicans who had come with the dismembered Mexican territory. The Golden Spike was made possible by Chinese rice and Mexican tortillas. Agriculture and ranching of the west fed the rest of the nation.
That the twain of East and West would never meet became memorialized as an aphorism of defeat and relegated to the American scrapheap of mind-forged manacles as the 18th century English poet William Blake defined those notions of self-imposed barriers that keep up fearfully in place, never venturing into the unknown. The United States was on a roll. Come hell or high water, the United States would transcend the difficult. Its motto: The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.
A Monetary System
The standardization and regulation of American money equalized American business and commerce. The coin of the realm expedited the purchase of goods and services in every part of the nation. Alexander Hamilton’s Treasury and Federal Bank became the overseers and arbiters of monetary policy throughout the country. A dollar was a dollar in Maine just as it was in New York, Miami, Chicago, Saint Louis, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. A hit on the monetary system in any part of the country was a hit on the entire system. Wall Street came into being as a sustaining member of Main Street. The Gold Standard reigned supreme. Silver, a close second. Sentineled, Fort Knox became the depository of the national geld. Gold was in its heaven; all was right with the world. Americans were comforted by the banking system—that euphoria gave them a sense of unity, of e pluribus unum.
In his advice of political realism to the Prince on how to be a just though autocratic ruler Nicolo Machiavelli adjured him to keep his troops from violating women, abstain from seizing the property of his citizens, and avoid the corruption of money. A sound monetary system assured the Prince of the necessary income required to rule. Interestingly, Jefferson was wary of a national bank.
In 1791, Hamilton proposed that the United States charter a national bank in order to take care of Revolutionary War debt, create a single national currency, and stimulate the economy. Jefferson argued that the creation of a national bank was not a power granted under the enumerated powers, nor was it necessary and proper. Both gentlemen presented their arguments to Washington, and ultimately Washington agreed with Hamilton.
The decision did not sit well with Jefferson who harbored ill will toward Hamilton until his death at the hands of Aaron Burr. “The necessary and proper clause part of Article I of the Constitution allowed for Congress to make laws and provisions that were not part of the enumerated powers. Hamilton and Jefferson debated many times over what was meant by ‘necessary and proper.’ Hamilton took a more liberal reading of the clause and said that Congress should do anything it felt was necessary to carry out national responsibilities. Jefferson held that the clause meant that Congress should only take actions that were absolutely necessary, and no more” (Ibid).
For a nation spanning 3,000 miles of a continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, ease of communication via the telegraph diminished distance considerably. San Francisco was just a di-di-di da-da-da di-di-di away from New York City. The telegraph made all kinds of transactions readily and speedily possible. One could be 3,000 miles away instantaneously. This was the beginning of “words on a wire” even though the words were in the form of coded signals transmitted for long distances in a coded language. Being somewhere in person was immaterial. Our words were there. The word telegraph—meaning sending a graphic symbol over some distance—was coined by the French inventor Claude Chappe circa 1792. Many concepts about telegraphy emerged between 1792 and 1836, including the use of electricity.
The genius of Samuel Morse (1836) in actualizing the transmission of information via an electric current was a transformative global leap in the social structure of communities everywhere. Communities of any size became ethereal via the telegraph. The travails of isolation waned in the face of instantaneous communication. Indeed “What hath God wrought!” as Morse asked in his trial message from the Supreme Court chambers in Washington DC to his colleague Vail in Baltimore. Unum was becoming more possible every day as the telegraph made the concept more manifest and palpable.
The first commercial telegraph line was completed between Washington, DC, and New York City in the spring of 1846 . . . By 1851, there were over 50 separate telegraph companies operating in the United States.
In 1856 Morse’s company became Western Union—still with us today in transmogrified form, though not grotesquely. The telegraph buoyed the sense of oneness to new heights in the United States.
The Post Office
The term “post office” originated in England in 1635 prior to which mail was conveyed by “post” riders or couriers on horse from town to town, principally from Inn to Inn or person to person. In the waning days of the British colonies in America, Benjamin Franklin was appointed first Postmaster General by the Continental Congress. Expeditious delivery of mail not only catapulted Communications among the colonies but receded (if only virtually) the vast distances (at the time) between the colonies. Over the years well into the 21st century, the post office was the hallmark of communication in the United States, contributing to the unum of the nation.
The Cell Phone
The cell phone did not obliterate the telephone, only its initial iteration of cords. The cell phone freed telephone users from the statics of location to the freedom of phonic communication from anywhere—provided there’s a signal tower nearby. Today the cell phone is the emblem of that freedom. More importantly, however, is the unique communication function of the cell phone to transmit text instantaneously from one user to another. However, this capability has imperiled the Post Office—not entirely. Principally, like its phone predecessor, the cell phone connects one cell phone user to another cell phone user. Nevertheless, the cell phone seems to be “unumizing” the nation.
Like the camera obscura (pinhole camera of the early 17 century), the computer has become the magic box of today incorporating the capability of the typewriter, the textual transmission of the cell phone, and the uniqueness of telegraphy—all wrapped up with a keyboard, a screen, and a printer. The smart computer has telephone functions and can transmit images via webcams. Here too, while the computer challenges mainstay technology, it has created its own technological niche in “unumizing” the nation.
The Wright Brothers had it right in 1903 romping on the wind-swept beaches of North Carolina hoping they could get their “bicycle” to fly. The physics was right; so was the concept. Missing, was the technology. Like Galileo they persisted. And voila! Like the train at its inception, the airplane has become the preferred mode of travel. It’s fast and convenient. And has propelled “unumization ”forward in giant leaps but no gel. On trains people got to know each other; on planes only gossamer smiles shrouding identities.
Henry Ford changed the world in 1908. He didn’t invent the automobile; he made it accessible as the Model T with 2 forward gears and a 20 horsepower engine. Americans chugged along on dirt trails cum roads, waving gaily at each other as they whizzed by at 25 miles per hour. The auto ushered in the age of “automation.” Again a giant leap for “unumization” but no gel despite appearances to the contrary. There was a social gap in the nation. Slavs congregated with Slavs, Pols with Pols, Mexicans in barrios. Jews in ghettos, blacks in the hood. Occasional miscegenation popped up.
One can see from the preceding the effects of technology on civic progress but the “gel” of human cohesion is absent. A larger national population does not bespeak “unumization.” Nor does the rise and use of a common language—like English in the United States.
Language is not the glue of national unity, or “unumization.” Why not? Because the country is fissured by race, religion, and politics and, so far, language has not made us one. The rise of special interest groups engendered by the fissures has made matters worse.. It appears that we are nowhere near s solution to the “national question”—how do we create e pluribus unum out of many?
This was the question Lenin grappled with in 1913—the same question that puzzled Trotsky and Stalin. Much earlier in American history, American leaders sought an answer to the National Question as the first democracy to embrace a population of diverse peoples. It’s the question facing most if not all nations in their efforts to create a unified nation based on solidarity. All appearances to the contrary, the United States is in limbo with this question.
Getting out of limbo will require dealing with the issues of race religion, and politics head on, honestly, sin pelos en la lengua as Spanish-speakers say—without mincing words.
We must acknowledge that historically the United States was founded on white racial principles, not on high-blown concepts of human inclusion as so many Americans have come to believe. In the beginning blacks were commodities of slavery. Indians were too savage to be considered as citizens of a civilized society. Other people of color were marginalized. The nation was founded on white rebellion to favor white privilege. One can see that the words of the Constitution, for example, reflect a philosophy “devoutly to be wished” as Hamlet would put it. The affinity of the Constitution is aristocratic and chauvinistic which is why Americans sanctioned Indian Wars and Indian genocide, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. While slavery was constitutionally ended in the 19th century, Jim Crow exclusionary laws prevailed until well into the 20th century. Mexican Americans suffered the same exclusionary discrimination as African Americans—including lynching and mass executions. At Portland State in 1975 Toni Morrison exclaimed to her audience that “Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there are no doors!”
“When public policy is based on lies and misconceptions, a mentality emerges that ‘those people’ are undeserving” (A’Lelia Bundles, “Know Your History: Understanding Racism in the U.S.,” Aljazeera Magazine, 15 August, 2015). The rash of black men being murdered with impunity in the streets of American cities is only the tip of the iceberg of submerged racism in American society.
The First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s a constitutional restriction on Congress not on the public where wholesale efforts by religious groups assail each other without restrictions. Today’s Islamophobia is putting Muslims through the wringer the same way Catholics were put through the wringer earlier in the 20th century. Mosques are being torched like black churches were fairly recently. Synagogues are regularly graffitied. In many communities Churches are now as numerous as bars once were, each touting its priority on salvation This is not a condemnation on their blight, merely acknowledgement of chacun à son gout—everyone to their own taste. .
Religion can often cloud reality and impede interreligious communication. Religious history is replete with the wars of gods and men. This situation is not any better in countries with a state religion. Faith healers don’t make it any easier. The worst of religious fervor were probably the Crusades. The clash of religious fervor is usually over religious values, oftentimes over niggling interpretations which oftentimes create chasms of disdain and distrust.
Here’s the nub of creating one out of many—politics—as is evident by the American political landscape today. Politics have always been contentious but nothing like the flaying of its contemporary iteration. Ay caray! One man’s mead is another man’s poison. If two political parties can create the mȇlée of today’s political shenanigans, imagine what a bevy of political parties could do.
As I see it, political parties are the bane of politics everywhere. In the United States one would think that what’s good for the country would be paramount politically. Nah! It’s political party first. Forget the country. In politics everywhere it’s “my way or the highway!” What’s the alternative? Quien sabe? No telling where the Delphi Oracle is today. May be the Ouija Board has the answer?
One For the Road
It appears that the answer may lie in technology for the advent of the new seems to minimize social distance. A ver? What about the National Question? Hm? The world’s a playpen. The kids’ll work it out!
Wilson, Elise Stevens, “The Battle over the Bank: Hamilton v. Jefferson,” The New Nation: 1783-1815, The Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History, 1/16/2013.
Copyright 2016 by Dr. Philp de Ortego y Gasca. All photos used are in the public domain.