America’s Long Journey: Vengeance

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


Thaddeus Stevens, the man who more than any other shaped the vindictive reconstruction policy that supplanted Lincoln’s reconciliatory approach, was an honest man, no hypocrite, no fool. But if any one man blighted the chance of postwar reconciliation, he was the man. Not out of greed, or avarice for power, not even for revenge of anything personal he had ever suffered, but out of hatred.

Stevens hated the men who had caused the Civil War. He hated the slave-owners who for 15 years and more tried to make slavery national. He hated slavery, and those who advocated and practiced it, and those who defended it. Having lived for years in the shadow of the triumph of slavery – for so it appeared to many a man in the years before the war — and then living through four years of unprecedented slaughter and destruction, years in which defeat seemed all too possible – he came through to the other side determined to take his revenge upon evil.

The arch fiend in this tragedy was not a man or a faction or a party. It was not even the human scavengers who preyed upon the helpless. The fiend was – hatred. And Abraham Lincoln knew that.

Stevens knew that Lincoln could not be depended upon to hate enough; perhaps it was as well that he was gone. Chamberlain’s magnanimous gesture at Appomattox, Sherman’s lenient terms to Johnston – Grant’s lenient terms to Lee, for that matter – seemed, to him, just short of treason. For what if the enemy’s seeming defeat was actually a sham, a biding of time? Lee in the mountains instead of prison? Criminal leniency! Nor was he alone in these thoughts.

No one ever embraces hatred without paying the full price sooner, then later. In the case of reconstruction, it was paid by all concerned – by the south initially, by the entire country for generations ultimately. Look at Mr. Lincoln’s golden words: “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” and contrast them to the brutal military occupation and martial law that unnecessarily humiliated and demoralized the defeated south, that set up puppet governments to assure Republican majorities in the national legislature, for the surer plundering of the national treasure. Is it not obvious that Lincoln would have been a great obstacle to this gigantic crime? And – this is a rhetorical question, but it needs to be posed – which of the two approaches made better policy? Which fostered better citizenship? Which sooner bound the nation’s wounds?

The Union soldier did his duty and fought for two causes he deeply believed in – preservation of the union and abolition of slavery. That vision was betrayed and perverted by a policy of calculated hatred, generating generations of hatred and strife. The enemy was hatred; the danger was hatred; the temptation was hatred, and the serpent in the garden, day and night, was hatred, and appeals to hatred, and the stirring up of hatred.

(And, a side issue. Jefferson Davis and his government failed their people in the way they let the war end. Davis and his government fled, rather than surrender, and of course in the event were captured anyway. General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army and made the best terms for them he could, even though he thought he would be imprisoned, maybe executed. General Johnston did the same. Davis did not surrender his government; he fled. If he had surrendered, even if he had been tried and executed, he would have helped his people, for he would to some degree have drawn the lighting.)

America’s Long Journey: Transcontinental

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


At the close of the Civil War, in 1865, a trip by stagecoach from Missouri to California took about 28 days of day and night travel. The Oregon, Mormon and California Trails, which were too rugged for cargo shipments, required anywhere from three to four months travel over mostly unimproved roads. To travel by sea (as did about half of the Pacific Coast population and more than 90% of the cargo they needed), required travel by sailing ship around the tip of South America (Cape Horn) or else paddle steamers to Mexico, Nicaragua or Panama, land passage across, and another paddle steamer up the Pacific coast.

In the first days of June, 1876, an express train made the journey from New York City to San Francisco not in months, not in weeks, but in three and a half days. That’s the difference the transcontinental railroad made.

The Union Pacific Railroad, using mostly Army veterans and Irish immigrants, built westward from Nebraska. The Central Pacific Railroad, worked east from California, using some of the 50,000 Chinese immigrants then living on the West Coast, and then importing laborers from China. The Central Pacific’s road lay through some of the toughest terrain in the country, the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Union Pacific had merely to lay track across the plains, and, despite repeated attacks on the builders of the iron horse by Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors, was far easier. The two railheads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, 690 track-miles from Sacramento and 1,086 from Omaha. Between them, the two companies built 1,756 miles of railroad in six years.

The details of the railroad’s construction are fascinating, as you will learn if you Google “transcontinental railroad.” Building that railroad was the kind of outsized challenge that caught the imagination and mobilized the energies of 19-century can-do America. It required monumental feats of engineering, staggering amounts of labor, and huge amounts of capital (more than $100,000,000 in 1860 dollars) over six years.

It also required government subsidies in the form of 30-year 6% U.S. government bonds (issued to the two railroad-building companies at $16,000 per mile for track laid at level grade, $32,000/mile for track laid in foothills and $48,000/mile for track laid in mountains). No one knew at the time whether the railroad companies would prove profitable. The U.S. bonds were issued on condition that if they were not repaid on schedule, with interest, all remaining railroad property, including trains and tracks, were to revert to the U.S. government for disposal. Perhaps because of this foresighted provision, the bonds and interest were, in fact, fully repaid on schedule. In addition, the companies were given alternate sections (a section is one square mile) of government-owned lands along the tracks for 10 miles on both sides of the track (altogether, 6,400 acres per mile of track) to use or sell.

Naturally a project of stupendous scale was a lure for bandits. The continuous need for more capital, the availability of government money, and the prospect of more, subject only to political oversight, assured that the railroad would be mired first to last in political and financial corruption, as we saw in the Credit Mobilier section above. It also assured that the railroad interests would buy and operate state legislatures and heavily influence federal legislation for decades to come, until political reform combined with the impact of new technology to reduce their influence.

But, corruption notwithstanding, the railroad was an outstanding accomplishment, the 19th century equivalent of the 20th century’s race to the moon. For instance, a Wikipedia site detailed the Central Pacific’s task:

“Essentially all of their manufactured railway supplies: picks, shovels, axes, hammers, saws, sledge hammers, spikes (about 5,500/mile), rock drills, black powder, bridge hardware, iron rails (about 350 rails/mile of 30 foot rails; 200,000 pounds/mile), fishplates (700/mile if using 30 foot rails), bolts and nuts to bolt the fishplates on, wrenches, railroad switches for the many railroad sidings needed on a one-way track, railroad turntables, steam locomotives, railroad freight cars, railroad passenger cars, telegraph wire, insulators, batteries, telegraph keys, etc. would have to be imported from manufacturers on the East Coast of the United States.”

This all traveled 18,000 miles and 200 days around South America’s Cape Horn or down to the Isthmus of Panama, across and up, which took about 40 days and cost twice as much per pound. At San Francisco, it was put onto riverboats and carried another 130 miles trip up the Sacramento River to Sacramento.

The Pacific Railroad revolutionized conditions for trade, commerce and travel. The fare for a one week trip from Omaha to San Francisco on an emigrant sleeping car, traveling far faster and more safely than by stagecoach or wagon train, was only $65 for an adult. That was still a substantial sum in those days, but not impossible. Combined with the effects of the Homestead Act of 1862 (which sold unclaimed government owned land cheaply, at 160 acres per applicant, provided that they would do certain prescribed work on it), the new railroad made settlement of the west much more rapid and inexpensive. Easy and cheap transportation meant more settlers more quickly, which meant more freight customers for the railroads. The railroad carried in a new population, carried them what they needed to buy, and carried away the goods they produced for sale. As the railroads spurred population growth, other connecting railroads were built, to serve communities and states off the original main track. Thus the transcontinental line helped settle the entire West.

America’s Long Journey: The North and the Gilded Age

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The North and the Gilded Age

There is a reason why the Civil War was followed by the Gilded Age. War defeats every society that engages in it, because it changes things. What both North and South alike lost in the war – beyond the loss of 600,000 men in the prime of life – was the prewar way of life. It wasn’t just the pre-war South that was gone with the wind. The North of thriving little communities and human-scale enterprises was destroyed as well.

What the North lost in the war isn’t necessarily obvious, but it wasn’t trivial. To beat the slavers, the government had to call up an army to beat them with, and war means profit, and the piling-up of profit means creating another class of predators. It was obvious in the postwar era that the government was being bought and paid for, and where do you think the money was coming from? It was money – and a big pile of it – that various companies had made on the war. Some made it honestly and some didn’t, but regardless, they had it, and they were not shy about using it to protect their interests.

The war piled up so many fortunes, it delivered the government into the hands of those that could pay for it. Ward, municipality, county, state, federal, all the way up and all the way down, it was the same. Now you could say – and it would be right in a way, and to a degree, that no matter what the new problems were, at least we had eliminated chattel slavery. People didn’t own other people and weren’t able to whip and kill and abuse them however they wanted. You could say at least the women weren’t owned by a class of owners, as in slave days. And that’s sort of true. But there were plenty of other kinds of slavery left.

Think of all those penniless whores of the postwar era. And why were people working in sweatshops 12 and 16 hours a day, for nothing much? Why were people treated as bad as the better-off slaves had been? Because economically they were slaves.

Why do you think the economic powers behind the government let in those millions of immigrants? Sentiment, as themselves the descendants of immigrants? Or was it to keep down wages and provide plenty of new fodder for their mines and factories? Yes, families did better themselves, over time, but that was just a side-effect that the owners didn’t care about one way or the other. It wasn’t why they were enticed here.

Can you say that people have economic freedom when they had to have a job and had to take what they could get, and what they could get was determined by a few men at the top? Can you say that people have political freedom, merely because they can choose between two sets of obedient puppets? One reason Theodore Roosevelt elicited such wild enthusiasm is that the people could see that here was one of the privileged elite who really did care about the welfare of the common man and woman.

Did the people have the ability to determine their own lives? Ask the strikers who were cut down by the National Guard, or beaten by the police, or by the scabs the police watched do it. Did they get clean water? Did they get nutritious food? Did they even get sunlight? You wouldn’t think a people that called themselves free would put up with having to live scarcely ever seeing the sun, would you? You might say it is one more effect of secession and civil war, which turned a nation of small towns governing themselves into a nation of cities governed by the agents of powerful corporations responsible to nobody but their directors.

Credit Mobilier and corruption

Perhaps this is too much space to give to one man’s crookedness, or perhaps the story of how one man’s crookedness bilked government and consumers may stand in for many others that might be told. Either way, it is important to remember that great enterprises may be accompanied by large-scale stealing, and that sometimes, perhaps, the great enterprise would never have been successfully undertaken unless some men had seen in it a way to prosper without risk.

The next section details the building of the great transcontinental railroad, built from the east by the Union Pacific and from the west by the Central Pacific. Here we look at the seamy underside of that project. The Central Pacific was dominated by four ambitious businessmen whose names are still legend — Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins. They did what they needed to do to finance the project, and they exploited every loophole to get government funds, but they stayed more or less within the law. The Union Pacific was a different matter. In contrast to the relatively straightforward arrangements for the Central Pacific, the Union Pacific was involved in one of the biggest scandals of the age.

The man behind the Union Pacific was Dr. Thomas Durant, when went from medicine to grain exporting to building railroads. In the 1850s, his contracting company, Farnam and Durant, raised the capital and managed construction for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (M&M). In 1862, Durant’s new company, the Union Pacific, was chosen to build the eastern section of the transcontinental railroad, and Durant, as general agent for the UP Eastern Division, was charged with raising money, acquiring resources and securing favorable legislation for the company.

It wasn’t supposed to be his company. The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 limited individual holding in Union Pacific to 10 percent of the total. But this made it hard to sell stock, so Durant persuaded investors to buy the stock in their own names, using money borrowed from him for the required 10% down payment. In this way, he issued $2.18 million of UP stock to subscribers and wound up controlling half the stock, which meant that he ran the company as he pleased.

Meanwhile, he made about $5 million manipulating the stock market, using rumors to run up the value of his M&M stock, then secretly buying competing rail line stock, then starting rumors that the new railroad was going to connect with those lines, then selling those stocks at inflated prices and buying back the M&M stock at depressed prices.

Then, through an associate, he had Union Pacific accept the construction bid of a company called Crédit Mobilier, which just happened to be a company he secretly owned with a partner. No other bids were solicited. And so Union Pacific paid Credit Mobilier to build the railroad. In essence, Durant hired himself to construct the railroad, paying Credit Mobilier with money given to the Union Pacific by government bonds and risk-taking investors. Credit Mobilier subcontracted the actual work to real construction crews, who charged significantly less than Credit Mobilier charged the Union Pacific, and keeping the difference.

The common unified ownership of the two companies was successfully concealed for years, as was the fact that the same corporate officers and directors were on both sides of every major construction contract drawn up between the Union Pacific and Crédit Mobilier. The company escaped detection by the simple measure of bribing enough members of Congress.

So, you might ask, who was harm by all this crooked dealing? Count the bodies.

First, the other investors, and the stock market speculators, and the owners of the other railroads whose stock prices he manipulated, and the railroad itself. Credit Mobilier charged the Union Pacific at least $23 million more than the actual cost of construction. As a result of this systematic looting, Union Pacific faced bankruptcy within three years of completion of the road, despite having received millions in government subsidies. Those who had invested in the railroad found themselves with nearly worthless securities on their hands. The money went into the construction company, and thence into the pockets of the crooks who owned it.

Second, the body politic. Durant put so many politicians on the payroll, directly or indirectly, that it became a national scandal when the facts finally began to emerge during the 1872 presidential election campaign.

Third, and perhaps worst, all the railroad’s future customers – mostly dependent one the one road, no competition existing – who were systematically overcharged for decades because what should have been a profitable enterprise began life crippled by shoddy workmanship that had to be corrected, and capital shortage caused by so much money having been stolen. The missing capital stock of these roads was estimated at $180,000,000.

And, worst of all, they got away with it. None of the crooks involved was ever punished by law. It is to be hoped that there is a hell, and that they are presently being roasted, but I’m afraid that’s too good to be true.

America’s Long Journey: Electricity

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)


As long ago as 1800, Alessandro Volta developed the voltaic pile, the first battery, which produced electricity from chemical reactions. In 1831, Michael Faraday figured out how to generate electricity from rotary motion. But it wasn’t until 1878 that Thomas Edison developed and sold a system to generate and distribute electricity. In 1879 he invented a practical incandescent light bulb, a carbon filament sealed in a vacuum, and began commercial production of carbon filament bulbs the following year. (He wasn’t the only inventor of the light bulb, but his was the one that succeeded commercially.) Then, in 1882, he opened power stations in London and New York City, providing commercially viable alternatives to gas lighting and heating. Edison’s Pearl Street Station in New York began with 85 customers using 400 lamps. By 1884 Pearl Street was supplying 508 customers with 10,164 lamps. Success. But each of Edison’s power stations could only serve a one-mile radius, due to restrictions posed by the use of a direct-current (DC) system. Thus his system would be practical only for city centers and special uses.

A brief painless explanation: Any electrical system has to choose how much voltage to send through the wires. The greater the voltage, the smaller the current, and therefore the thinner the transmission wire can be (smaller current generates less resistance). On the other hand, greater voltage comes with three disadvantages: It requires thicker insulation, and it won’t work with certain loads. (Also, it is more likely to give you a dangerous shock if you come into contact with it.)

The answer was alternating current, or AC, developed by Nikola Tesla and others and made practical commercially by industrialists such as George Westinghouse. AC transformers allowed the power station to send power at higher voltages. This reduced the current, and therefore reduced the size of the wire, and reduced distribution losses from resistance. At the other end of the line, transformers at local substations reduced the voltage to supply loads. Only AC made it possible to locate generators in one place, such as a dam, and distribute power over long distances.

AC was introduced only a few years after Edison’s initial power plants went into operation. He fought it tooth and nail as long as he could, but the advantages of the AC system were overwhelming. The War of Currents, as it was called, resulted in a complete victory for AC. DC systems were relegated to special uses. In a short while, electric wires were being stretched in all directions, a process that would continue in America at uneven rates for a period of about 70 years. One New Deal program often cited for its transformative effects is the Rural Electrification Agency, which brought electric power to places previously unreached.

A computer search beginning with the word electricity or electric-power generation or some similar term will lead you down fascinating byways, either technical or historical or both. The development of steam turbines, for instance, made generation of AC power much cheaper and more reliable. The development of the electric-power grid, which became the near-universal means of transmission, and upon which the country still relies, is another important story. Once you get the idea of the 19th century as being the century in which humanity burst through age-old constraints, you begin to see it as they did, as a century of marvels.

Electricity was but one more of the 19th century’s revolutionary developments. Initially it was steam, the first new source of energy harnessed since medieval man developed windmills. Steam engines powered boats that could travel without regard to the wind, and could steam up-river. Steam railroads traveled at speeds four or five times faster than a galloping horse, and unlike the horse they could keep it up day and night, as long as the fuel held out and the boiler didn’t burst. The electric telegraph provided virtually instant communication, day and night, wherever the wires extended. And now here was electricity, the equivalent of a power plant in every home and factory. Instead of candles and oil lamps, electric lights. Instead of belt-driven systems powered by steam engines, fractional-horsepower electric motors.

Like all new technology, electricity started out relatively expensive, relatively restricted in use. New users and technological improvements brought down costs and expanded applications, until within a relatively short time people became accustomed to doing things they hadn’t dreamed of being able to do only a few years before. We’ve seen it in our time with personal computers. Electricity in the home and shop was no less revolutionary to the Victorians.

America’s Long Journey: The Telephone


Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Telephone

Nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane? At least, that’s how it looks at first glance.

But the more you look at it, the more clearly you see how much that was to come depended on it. It turned every home and workplace into the equivalent of a telegraph office. It gave the individual the ability to contact others immediately, at that moment, without having to leave the room or depend upon a third party such as a telegrapher. At first they could reach across town, which was revolutionary in itself. With time, they learned to talk to different cities, then different countries and even – at great expense and for strictly limited times, at first – via undersea cables to other continents. In our time we saw the telephone networks coupled with radio technology, then with communications satellites, and then with computers. So that now we take for granted a global access that would have been unimaginable even to the 19th century which had come to take revolutionary changes in technology in its stride, as we shall see.

We, looking backward, can see how many future developments were built firmly upon that telephone network. Without a telephone network, no fax transmissions, for one thing, and no internet. And if today’s cell phones function without a nervous system of telephone wires, there never would have been such a thing as a cell phone, let alone an iPhone, if that system of landlines had not existed first. So let’s take a look at how the first aspect of everyday life came to function at electric speeds.

Inventions rarely spring from the labors of only one man; usually they build upon the work of others, acknowledged or otherwise, and sometimes the question of who should get the credit (not to mention the profits) is bitterly disputed. The invention of the telephone is one of those cases, but Alexander Graham Bell is commonly credited as the inventor of the first practical telephone, and this is not the place to pursue the claims of others. Regardless what others may have contributed, Bell was the man who obtained the patent, in 1876, and he was the man who made it into a practical business proposition. Developing commercially practical telephones, adapting telephone exchanges and switching plug boards developed for telegraphy, he developed a hugely successful business. It has been argued that, regardless whether it was Bell who invented the telephone, it has he who invented the telephone industry.

He was Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University, training teachers in the art of instructing deaf mutes how to speak. Information on how he came to invent the telephone, and how the telephone operates, is easily found. I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that on March 10, 1876, Bell spoke the famous sentence to his assistant, Thomas Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” and Watson answered. This was the first successful bi-directional transmission of clear speech.

In June, Bell exhibited a working telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In August, he made a call between two points 10 miles apart, setting up a telephone using telegraph lines. In 1878, Thomas Edison invented the microphone that made long-distance calls practical. From that point on, it was a matter of continuous improvement, with various inventors and engineers adding additional features. Already in 1876, Hungarian engineer Tivadar Puskás, working for Edison on another project, invented the telephone switchboard, which allowed for the formation of telephone exchanges, which were soon linked via “trunk” lines. Today’s fiber-optic cable and digital technology are only improvements on this basic framework.

Like most commercial innovations, telephones were expensive at first, and therefore were at first relative luxuries for individuals, being mostly limited to commercial use. By the turn of the century, however, forests of telephone poles supporting dozens of telephone wires were common sights in all American cities. You can imagine the effect of American life easily enough by remembering the effect the internet has had on your own. More input, quicker, with more people. At first a novelty, it became a convenience, then a necessity, with unanticipated side-effects (the decline of letter-writing, for one) and logical (but often equally unanticipated) further developments as one technology was married to another (the public opinion poll, eventually). At first sketchy and rudimentary (for decades, many rural areas would be connected via “party lines” sharing service, each household having a distinctive ring pattern to know that a given call was for it rather than its neighbors), services were upgraded gradually but pretty continuously (as party lines, for instances, became private lines).

Perhaps the most drastic effect was to subtly change America’s sensory mix, in the way that the internet today may be changing us. As I said, nothing romantic or exciting about the telephone. What could be more mundane?


America’s Long Journey: The Spanish American War

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Spanish American War

The 19th wasn’t Spain’s century, as we shall see, and the disaster of the Spanish–American War capped it. The war cost Spain Cuba, Puerto Rico and all of its remaining Pacific possessions. So traumatic was the loss, in three and a half disheartening and even humiliating months, that it gave rise to what is called “the generation of ’98,” a movement of intellectuals and politicians forced by events to give serious thought, finally, to Spain’s place in the modern world.

The results for the United States were happier, but equally profound. Arguably that war, and the Roosevelt Presidency which indirectly resulted from it, set the United States firmly on the path that many patriots had hoped it would never tread. No telling, of course. If it hadn’t been this, it might have been something else. But certainly it is true enough that U.S. possession of the Philippine Islands put this country squarely in the way of Japanese expansion and led to Pearl Harbor and all that followed, including, not least, the atomic bomb.

Not everybody who remembers the slogan “Remember the Maine” remembers what it references. The USS Maine was an American warship which blew up and sank while anchored in Havana Harbor. (It had been sent there to ensure the safety of American citizens and interests.) Jingoes in the States immediately insisted that the Spanish government had sunk it, though our modern experience of false-flag operations suggests that it is more likely the work of Cuban insurgents hoping to bring the U.S. to declare on war with Spain, hopefully leading – finally – to Cuban independence. Or perhaps it was an accident. Doesn’t matter. The direct cause of the war was American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence, following years of horrific reports of Spanish atrocities against the rebellious Cuban people. Spanish-American relations were so raw after years of American criticism of Spanish barbarity in fighting the insurgency that only a spark was needed. It doesn’t much matter who struck the spark, even if responsibility could be determined at this late date.

President McKinley, a better man than he is remembered, didn’t want war. (He had been a young officer in the Civil War, and he knew that war isn’t glorious.) Between the yellow journalism of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers and the general pugnaciousness and disgust of the American people, the pressure became overwhelming. The U.S. government sent an ultimatum to Spain demanding it surrender control of Cuba. And then, in an example of the old saying that “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,” the Spanish government declared war on the United States, despite the unanimous advice of the other European powers that it back down.

At this distance, knowing that the Spanish were suffering from delusions of competence, we find it hard to believe that the Dons thought they had a chance. However, many Europeans thought, and some hoped, that the upstart American republic would meet a fast come-uppance in a war with a European power. Irish poet William Butler Yeats, then in his early thirties, avidly followed news of the war, apparently thinking it was going to be a contest.

Some details are interesting at this distance. On April 19, while Congress was considering joint resolutions supporting Cuban independence, Republican Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado proposed the Teller Amendment to ensure that the U.S. would not establish permanent control over Cuba after the war. The amendment, disclaiming any intention to annex Cuba, passed the Senate 42 to 35; the House concurred the same day, 311 to 6. The amended resolution demanded Spanish withdrawal and authorized the President to use as much military force as he thought necessary to help Cuba gain independence from Spain. President McKinley signed the joint resolution on April 20, 1898, and the ultimatum was sent to Spain. In response, Spain severed diplomatic relations with the United States on April 21. On the same day, the U.S. Navy began a blockade of Cuba. Spain declared war on April 23. On April 25, Congress declared that a state of war between the U.S. and Spain had existed since April 21, the day the blockade of Cuba had begun.

(The Regular U.S. Army in the spring of 1898 numbered just 28,000 men. The Army wanted 50,000 new men but received over 220,000, through volunteers and the mobilization of state National Guard units.)

The result of the war was fundamental and astounding. In January, 1898, America was a regional power, supreme in its hemisphere mainly because of the width of the Atlantic separating it from the real world powers. By December, no one could doubt that the United States was a world power in its own right, a new factor in international relations. The full impact would not sink in for another few years – President Roosevelt would make it plain enough – but even that year, anyone with brains could see that America had come of age.

American naval power sunk Spanish squadrons in Santiago de Cuba and in Manila Bay, in the Philippines. A combinations of Cuban and American forces defeated the Spanish infantry in Cuba, and Philippine and American forces captured Manila. At San Juan Hill, the (dismounted) charge of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders carried the position and in a few months made him governor.

Madrid sued for peace, and got it in the Treaty of Paris. Spain was forced to abandon Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The United States gained the beginnings of an empire – and a fierce domestic political argument over the morality and wisdom of expansionism.

Distance in time obscures situations. We may be tempted to say that once we defeated the Spanish, we should have left the Philippines independent. Quite likely, but it might not have worked out that way, as this paraphrased excerpt from Wikipedia makes clear.

Following Dewey’s victory, Manila Bay was filled with the warships of Britain, Germany, France and Japan. The German fleet of eight ships, ostensibly in Philippine waters to protect German interests, acted provocatively – cutting in front of American ships, refusing to salute the United States flag (according to customs of naval courtesy), taking soundings of the harbor, and landing supplies for the besieged Spanish. The Germans, with interests of their own, were eager to take advantage of whatever opportunities the conflict in the islands might afford. The Germans expected the confrontation in the Philippines to end in an American defeat, with the revolutionaries capturing Manila and leaving the Philippines ripe for German picking. However, Commodore Dewey transported Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino leader who had led rebellion against Spanish rule in the Philippines in 1896, to the Philippines from exile in Hong Kong to rally more Filipinos against the Spanish colonial government. By June, U.S. and Filipino forces had taken control of most of the islands, except for the walled city of Intramuros. On June 12, Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines.

On August 13, with American commanders unaware that a cease-fire had been signed between Spain and the U.S. on the previous day, American forces captured the city of Manila from the Spanish in the Battle of Manila. This battle marked the end of Filipino-American collaboration, as the American action of preventing Filipino forces from entering the captured city of Manila was deeply resented by the Filipinos. This later led to the Philippine–American War, which would prove to be more deadly and costly than the Spanish–American War.

The U.S. had sent a force of some 11,000 ground troops to the Philippines. Armed conflict broke out between U.S. forces and the Filipinos when U.S. troops began to take the place of the Spanish in control of the country after the end of the war, resulting in the Philippine–American War. On August 14, 1899, the Schurman Commission recommended that the U.S. retain control of the Philippines, possibly granting independence in the future.

Lots of consequences, most of them unforeseen. Lots of chickens waiting to come home to roost.

The Wright Brothers

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

At first, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and their sister Katharine, fascinated the Europeans. They were so modest and unassuming, so businesslike, so down-to-earth, so willing and able to deal with workmen and with kings (literally) in an equally friendly but dignified manner. They seemed the very personification of the best of America’s supposedly classless society. Later, when patent infringement suits seemed to threaten the development of the airplane industry, they came to personify another aspect of America, a less attractive side. Yet the Wrights hadn’t changed. Circumstances had brought out a different aspect of their collective character.

It was an attractive partnership. Wilbur and his five-year-younger brother Orville played together as boys, tinkered together as teens, went into the bicycle assembly and repair business together as young men, and together solved the problem of flight by heavier-than-air machine. Together they wrestled with the intellectual and practical problems that had to be overcome – problems that had defeated everyone else from the beginning of time – and together they conquered them, one by one. After Wilbur died in 1912, age 45, Orville lived another three dozen years, but never made another significant contribution to aviation theory or practice. Their life’s work was done together, first to last.

Everybody knows the elements of the story, and those who don’t can Google The Wright Brothers. (Those who live in southwestern Ohio can go visit the Wright Museum in Dayton! In North Carolina, the museum is of course at Kitty Hawk.)

Wilbur was fascinated by the problem of flight; he set out to learn what was being done, hoping to make a contribution to the field. Concentrating not on powerful engines to force a machine into the air but on a reliable method of controlling the machine once it was there, he and Orville developed a method of three-axis control that made fixed-wing flight possible. They tested and developed different wing structures and propeller shapes, and in three years came up with an efficient glider that would carry a man and let him control it. Then they (and their friend and bicycle shop employee Charlie Taylor) built their own gasoline engine to power it! The first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flights took place, as all the world knows, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

But, to paraphrase Churchill, that was not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but more like the end of the beginning. They had a machine that flew. Now they had to patent their control system, and had to develop the airplane, and had to teach themselves how to fly, and had to keep it secret (to avoid patent infringers) while doing all that. And then, if they were going to make a success of all their years of work, they were going to have to sell it.

You wouldn’t think that would be difficult, but it was, because all the government agencies they approached – first the American, then the British and French – were wary of looking ridiculous. The United States government had helped finance Samuel Langley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, and his machine had been an expensive and very public failure. But finally the brothers won contracts from both the U.S. Army and a French syndicate representing the French government. The contracts depended on successful public flights meeting certain conditions, which meant that one brother had to be demonstrating in Europe while the other was demonstrating in America. Wilbur went to France.

On August 8, 1908 at a race track near the town of Le Mans, Wilbur made his first flight. It was only one minute 45 seconds long, but he made banking turns and flew a circle, and, on later flights, flew figure-eights, all of which was well beyond the capability of any other machine in the world. The other machines being developed were not really capable of controlled flight. At best, they could hop.

Wilbur’s triumph was complete, and was rendered particularly dramatic because, during the weeks he had been assembling his airplane, newspapers were calling him a “bluffeur,” adapting the American word. But his skillful piloting and his ingenious and effective flying machine silenced all criticism. Indeed, the very people who had been loudest in their derision fell all over themselves apologizing. The impossible had been accomplished, and they had seen it. And the field where Wilbur was flying became a Mecca for thousands of spectators.

In one flight, Wilbur had made “the Wright Brothers” world famous. Then, the following month, Orville demonstrated another Wright Flyer to the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia. His first flight was on September 3, 1908. Six days later, he made a flight of 62 minutes and 15 seconds, demonstrating that the new machine was not a toy but a useful piece of equipment that could be used – it was thought at the time — for scouting. It would be only half a dozen years before the new machines were being fitted with bombs and machine guns, but, in these final years of Europe’s sanity, that tragedy was yet undreamed of.

And, speaking of tragedy, on September 17, in Virginia, aviation suffered its first casualty, as Army lieutenant Thomas Selfridge riding with Orville as passenger (in his role as official observer) was killed in a crash that put Orville in the hospital with a broken leg and four broken ribs and (unsuspected and thus untreated for years) with three hip bone fractures and a dislocated hip. He was hospitalized for seven weeks. Katharine rushed from Dayton to be with him, probably not dreaming that this was the end of her career as school teacher and the beginning of another, quite unprecedented career as hostess/secretary for her brothers.

Wilbur spent the next few weeks setting new records for altitude and duration, observed by – among so many others — the kings of England, Spain and Italy. When, in January 1909, Orville and Katharine joined him in France, they charmed all Europe. From Pau, in the south of France, Wilbur continued his demonstration flights, trained two French pilots, and transferred the airplane to the French company. In April he did the same in Italy, giving demonstrations and training more pilots. By the time they headed back to the States, they were as beloved as they were famous.

But then the patent wars began. It’s a dismal story that arguably cut Wilbur’s life short. The brothers, having made flight possible for the world, logically enough thought that others should not profit from their pioneering work without paying them royalties. But Glenn Curtiss, for one, refused to pay license fees to the Wrights and sold an aircraft equipped with ailerons to the Aeronautic Society of New York in 1909. The Wrights filed a lawsuit, beginning a years-long legal conflict. They also sued foreign aviators who flew at U.S. exhibitions, including the leading French aviator Louis Paulhan. European companies which bought foreign patents the Wrights had received sued other manufacturers in their countries, and the lawsuits dragged on until the patent expired in 1917.

Wilbur took the leading role in the exhausting patent struggle, traveling incessantly to consult with lawyers and testify in what he felt was a moral cause, particularly against Curtiss. The Wrights wound up spending their time and energy on legal battles rather than on further work on airplane design. By 1911 European manufacturers had surpassed Wright designs. Orville and Katharine Wright believed Curtiss was partly responsible for Wilbur’s premature death, which occurred in the wake of his travels and the stress of the legal battle. The lawsuits damaged the public image of the Wright brothers, who began to be described as greedy. Europeans who were always ready to believe the worst about anything and anyone American seized on the stories of the patent disputes as evidence of a materialist, grasping society. Still, those thousands who saw Wilbur’s European flights never forgot the sight.

Many years later, in his old age, having seen the destruction rained from the air during two world wars, Orville Wright said of flight, “What a dream it was. What a nightmare it has become.” Perhaps Wilbur was the more fortunate, to die before the end of the long era of peace.