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Sunday, January 17, 2010

North, South, East, West


In my recent reading, I came across another reminder of the role that technology played in the development of the United States.  At the time of the revolution, the U.S. was a set of thirteen colonies arrayed along the Atlantic coast.  Virtually all economic activity within the colonies was confined to this natural North-South orientation.  But with independence, the lands west of the Alleghenies became open for settlement.  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 only expanded the available territory.  People had begun to move to the Kentucky territory along the Cumberland Road, laid out by Daniel Boone, even before the war, but peace brought a tremendous drive to move west.

Getting over the Alleghenies, even by the Cumberland Road, was not easy or for the faint of heart.  Almost all of the early settlers were attracted by the lure of cheap farm land.  For people that had next to nothing, farming offered not only a way to fill their bellies but a path to a more prosperous future.  The United States population expanded by a third between 1790 and 1800 (from 3.9 million to 5.3 million people).  Many of these pioneers headed for the lands to the west, especially in the Old Northwest Territory of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois.  More and more, farmers needed to find a way to get their produce to market and the only cost-effective route was by water.  The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers offered the only low-cost transportation option. Barges and keel-boats brought the products of the western farms downstream to New Orleans for shipment. The lack of any viable route to the east over the Alleghenies created a separate economy that was only marginally linked to the Atlantic seaboard.

So where did technology play a role in changing this linkage to New Orleans?  The leaders of the young nation (including Washington and Jefferson) recognized that a western United States without strong ties to the East was ripe for exploitation by a European power either by conquest or by political and economic alliances.  Washington even founded a commercial effort to link the West to the East using the Potomac River and a network of canals to form a water link.  That effort was a bust for both investment and technical reasons but the idea of a water route was successfully carried out with the building of the Erie Canal, opened in 1825.  With the Canal, the cost of shipping goods east to New York became even cheaper than sending produce to New Orleans.  The products of the farms started moving East.  More canals were built and then an extensive network of railroads, all to cheaply transport farm goods to both Eastern and European markets.  Transportation technology knit the Eastern and Western segments of the United States into a cohesive whole.

Technology also played a role in the North-South divisions.  As I wrote recently, the invention and massive replication of the cotton gin opened the way for the less fertile lands of the South (away from the coastal lowlands) to be put under cotton cultivation.  Such a massive expansion in cotton production could only be accomplished by increasing the number of slaves to work the land.  Hence, technology reinforced the institution of slavery and increased the divide between the interests of the North and the South.

When the Civil War came, the Old Northwest Territory went with the Union.  The economic self-interest of the East and West were tied together.  The South, with its limited resources to match those of the industrialized North, lost the war -- and a way of life.  Of course, the technologies that were nurtured in the North's manufacturing-based economy only strengthened the ties between East and West as the farmers looked to the factories of the East for their factory-made goods.

Technology is a powerful force in shaping the course of history.  I'm reminded of the old saw, "for want of a nail...the war was lost."  Maybe in the case of the United States it should be modified to "because of a canal ... the war was lost."

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