‘What Hath God Wrought’: The Communications Revolution of the 19th century

Daniel Walker Howe

Guest Column by Daniel Walker Howe

On the 24th of May 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, tapped out a message on a strange device of cogs and coiled wires. He used a code that he had recently devised and spelled out: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.”

Forty miles away, in Baltimore, Morse’s associate Alfred Vail received the electric signals and telegraphed the message back. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world.

For thousands of years, messages had been limited by the speed messengers could travel and the distance eyes could see signals like flags or smoke. Neither Alexander the Great nor Benjamin Franklin, 2,000 years later, had known anything faster than a galloping horse. Now, instant long-distance communication became possible for the first time.

The years between 1815 and 1848 witnessed dramatic changes in the United States. The America of 1815 had been what we might call a third-world country. Most people lived on isolated farmsteads; their lives revolved around the weather and the hours of daylight. Many people grew their own food; many wives made their own family’s clothes.

It was the difficulty of transportation and communication that kept their lives so primitive. Only people who lived near navigable waterways could easily market their crops and get the money to buy commodities that were not produced locally, for which they could barter with their neighbors or the local storekeeper.

On the other hand, by 1848, the United States was no longer a third-world country; it had become a transcontinental major power. The revolution in communications facilitated this transformation. Improvements in transportation, such as the Erie Canal, the steamboat and the railroad, also had wrought enormous transformations by 1848.

Americans were more and more integrated into a global economy. The improvements in transportation and communication liberated people from the tyranny of distance. That is, they liberated people from isolation — economic, intellectual and political isolation.

Meanwhile, America was extending its territory westward until it stretched from sea to sea, creating a transcontinental empire that these improvements in transportation and communication could integrate. The America of 1848 was significantly more like the America of today than it had been in 1815.

It’s useful to compare the impact of the telegraph with that of the Internet in our own time. The telegraph probably lowered the cost of business transactions even more than did the Internet, and it certainly seemed to contemporaries an even more dramatic innovation. Commercial applications of Morse’s invention followed quickly.

Most Americans then earned their living through agriculture. American farmers and planters increasingly produced food and fibre for far-off markets. Their merchants and bankers welcomed the chance to get news of distant prices and credit. The newly invented railroads used the telegraph to schedule trains so they wouldn’t collide on the single tracks of the time.

The electric telegraph solved commercial problems and, at the same time, had huge political consequences. Along with improvements in printing, it facilitated an enormous growth of newspapers, which in turn facilitated the development of mass political parties.

To sum up, then, the telegraph had much the same effects in the 19th century that the Internet is having today: to speed up and enable commerce, to decouple communication from travel, to foster globalization and to encourage democratic participation. The tsar of Russia worried about the democratic implications of the telegraph, just as the rulers of China today worry about the democratic implications of the Internet.

Instant long-range communications, coupled with the improvements in transportation represented by railroads, steamboats and canals, revolutionized American life between 1815 and 1848. Their impact went far beyond commerce to influence every aspect of life.

For example, the innovations in printing and the improvements in transportation facilitated the production and dissemination of books; this was what enabled the rise of the novel as a literary genre. Mass literacy acquired increased civic importance — and so did the institutions that fostered it, the public schools that taught children to read and the newly efficient Post Office that distributed the mass circulation newspapers that made mass politics possible.

With the expansion of the printed media, battles over public opinion became more fervent. The new media of communication brought rival party programs to the attention of a wider public than had ever before been politically engaged. In fact, a higher percentage of the electorate voted in the mid-19th century than goes to the polls today. The records were set in the presidential elections of 1840, 1860 and 1876, when 80 percent of the qualified electorate went to the polls; today, 60 percent is the most we can hope for.

The major political parties were not the only beneficiaries of improved communications. Even small and unpopular minorities, such as Mormons, and advocates of the immediate abolition of slavery could now spread their messages around the nation — and, indeed, around the Atlantic world. When the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848, the telegraph carried news of it all over the country, and newspapers ran editorials about it, often mocking it — but still publicizing its demands.

The Communications Revolution persuaded American policymakers that the acquisition of California on the Pacific Coast was a practical ambition; in earlier times, the Rocky Mountains had seemed the western limit of U.S. expansionism.

But the ease of instantaneous communication also had the effect of making southern slave owners more conscious of, and fearful of, northern antislavery criticism than they had been in previous generations. Thus the improvements in communications contributed to both the expansion of the United States and its breakup on the eve of Civil War.

Daniel Walker Howe is a historian and author. This article is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848.