Saturday, June 28, 2014

I am getting an earful

​​Daniel Walker Howe is a historian who retired from both Oxford University in England and UCLA in the US.  He has several books but I chanced onto the one called "What Hath God Wrought?"  This question comes from the Old Testament (Numbers 23:23) and was the first message transmitted over telegraph.  Howe's book is available in paper, ebook and audio form.  It covers the history of the US from 1815 to 1848.  That period seemed short to me but I am learning a great deal happened.

As you might expect, questions and disapproval related to slavery were a steady and growing source of strife and disagreement.  However, the country was still a very young one and its odd union of separate states left many other questions and confusions to be worked out.  We often hear today that our politics are terribly divided and crude, that good manners and respect for the opinions and brains of people who disagree with us are lacking.  As I listen to reports of events and behavior during this period, I hear about things that I think would truly shock us if they happened today. Duels to the death between two men who felt their honor had been insulted.  Fist fights in the halls of Congress.  Open disobedience of the law by authorities who were supposed to uphold the law.

The earful I am getting is not only about strife and behavior.  It is also about wonder, true amazement at the effects of the railroad, canals and the telegraph.  News, information could travel faster than it had ever before, anywhere.  The country had not reached its present size but it was still very big, very wild and had poor and limited roads.  Getting from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky in 25 days set a record in 1817. Now we can do it in 3 hours and 40 minutes by plane and 11 hours and 49 minutes by car.

You may feel that history of the US in that short early period just could not be very interesting.  I would have thought so, too, over most of my life.  But someday, give it a try.  You may get a surprising earful.

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