America’s Long Journey: Snapshot, 1850

The most important fact about America in 1850 is that it was a house divided. Half a century later, in 1900, slavery and the political, economic and social divisions it caused would seem a thing of the distant past. Half a century earlier, in 1800, as we shall see, slavery was not even a minor annoyance among the states, nor, for that matter, was it confined to the South. But in 1850, it was the one issue that had the potential to bring America’s experiment in self-government to a disastrous end.

A few of the most conspicuous differences between 1900 and 1850, looking backward:

* Compare the size of the population of the United States in 1850 as opposed to 50 years later or earlier. The population in 1850 was only a third what it would be at the turn of the century coming, but it was more than four times what it had been 50 years before.

1900                1850                1800

total     76,200,000      23,200,000      5,300,000

free      76,200,000      20,000,000      4,400,000

slave                            3,200,000        900,000

* The union had 31 states, as opposed to 45 in 1900 (the 48 mainland states minus Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico) and 16 in 1800 (the original 13 plus Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee).

* In 1850, only six states existed west of the Mississippi — Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, newly admitted Texas, and – after September 9 – California. What we know of as the frontier separated the settled states in the East from the former Mexican province of Alta California. Between the two were five territories, not yet populated enough to warrant statehood. There were no overseas territories at all.

* Railroad and telegraph were still in their first few years. The various parts of the nation were still tied together primarily by ship or by carriage over often execrable roads. Communication and travel between the Pacific coast and the rest of the States took weeks or months, depending whether you traveled on horseback across the plains or by ship via the isthmus of Panama or around the horn.

* There were no internal combustion engines, no fractional-horsepower motors, no electric lighting, no telephones.

* Neither transatlantic cable nor transcontinental railroad existed. News was conveyed partly by telegraph, partly by local newspapers reprinting the news of newspapers from other localities.

* Most important of all, in 1850, slavery seemed as permanent and as virulently alive as ever. The leaders of the slave states were set on slavery’s expansion, determined that the South would receive “its share” of the territories newly conquered from Mexico. Free-state men feared that slavery was on its way to becoming a national, rather than a regional, institution. It would have taken a bold prophet indeed to foresee that within 15 years the ancient curse would be gone.

* Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, were names unknown to the nation as a whole, as unknown as the vast unrolling future that would bring Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison, and Theodore Roosevelt.

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