America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible
By Simon Winchester
Illustrated. 463 pp. Harper. $29.99.
On July 4, 2011, the British-born historian Simon Winchester took an oath to become an American citizen. It was a startling decision for someone Queen Elizabeth herself had made an officer of the Order of the British Empire not so long ago. Why the move? Winchester, it seems, was in love. But it wasn’t a woman who captured his heart. No, Winchester had fallen for an entire nation.
Winchester’s self-described “love affair” with America began when he hitchhiked across the country as a footloose kid. When he finally got his passport he felt moved to write a history of the quality that most entranced him: America’s improbable, at times incomprehensible, unity. How was it, he asked, that people of such wildly different backgrounds share a “near-mystical concord” — how can such an eclectic assortment of peoples “enjoy the same rights and aspirations, encapsulated in their shared ability to declare so simply, I am an American?”
When people are smitten, they are blind to flaws in their beloved. Winchester is no exception, and this book is less a history than a love letter. In today’s toxic political climate, the idea that Americans are united may seem laughable. But this misses Winchester’s bigger and otherwise valid point: The United States endures despite its conflicts. The country remains, for all its diversity and differences of opinion, united under a common government.
Why? Winchester acknowledges the “adhesive nature” of ideas, but believes the “ties that bind are most definitely, in their essence, practical and physical things.” For Winchester, land surveys, maps, canals, railroads, interstate highways and now the Internet are the “strands of connective tissue” that have allowed the country “to achieve all it has, and yet to keep itself together while doing so.” That’s debatable, but Winchester is sufficiently entertaining that it’s easy to forget the holes in his argument and enjoy the ride.
His tour mixes popular history with a contemporary travelogue. This frustrates attempts to tell the story as a conventional history, as do the many eclectic stories he narrates. Winchester solves the problem by dividing his book into five sections that correspond to the five “classical elements” in the Chinese philosophical tradition known as the wu hsing: wood, earth, water, fire and metal. Each corresponds to a different unifying force: early land surveys (wood), geological surveys (earth), canals and waterways (water), and so forth.
Chinese cosmology aside, much of what Winchester covers in these sections is familiar, particularly in the early chapters. Thomas Jefferson’s Land Ordinance of 1785 — which effectively laid down a system by which unsettled territory might be surveyed, settled and united with the rest of the country — gets prominent treatment, as does Lewis and Clark’s voyage of exploration. But other, less famous figures make lengthy appearances, like Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States, who implemented Jefferson’s vision. Winchester’s eye for detail makes these vignettes a pleasure.
Thanks to these surveys, Americans could visualize the country’s borders and boundaries; the next step was to map the details of the land itself. But maps were not in themselves sufficient. “For an American in Maine to feel true kinship with a brother American in Arizona,” Winchester claims, “people and the things they made needed to be able to move with speed and ease from one corner of the nation to another.” That meant canals and railroads promoted by memorable characters like John Stevens, who devised and operated the nation’s first steam locomotive on a small circle of track in Hoboken, N.J.
Winchester believes that while a modern transportation infrastructure was essential to forging an enduring union, so, too, was the communications revolution that began with Samuel Morse’s telegraph. “The moment instant communication was within the grasp of all,” he writes, “America was bonded and annealed into an almost unbreakable and indivisible one.”
Perhaps, but this ignores the fact that the telegraph — never mind the adoption of steamboats, canals and railroads — coincided with the disintegration of the country over the issue of slavery. Improvements in infrastructure didn’t prevent the outbreak of war; in fact, they may have accelerated it. From the steamboats and trains that carried pro- and antislavery settlers to “Bleeding Kansas” to the telegraph lines that reported every angry exchange in Congress, the nation’s infrastructure intensified the conflict. Moreover, the very westward expansion Winchester celebrates was a catalyst for conflict, as new territories applied for admission to the union, threatening the balance between free and slave states.
In the end, unity was maintained at a staggering cost of over half a million dead, and the physical integration of the country continued apace into the 20th century. Winchester is at his strongest here, profiling Theodore Dehone Judah, the eccentric promoter of the transcontinental railroad, and reprising the early career of Dwight Eisenhower, whose experience accompanying the Army’s Transcontinental Motor Convoy left him impressed with the need for a national road system.
Most fascinating of all is his account of Thomas MacDonald, known as Chief, the humorless but brutally effective head of the Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953. MacDonald, who gave the country its first modern road system, also paved the way — literally — for the Interstate highways. Yet he remains “forgotten, overlooked and dismissed in just about all the places he managed to bring together.”
The same cannot be said for many of those who connected the United States via metal wires, fiber optic cables and wireless broadcasting, including Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. But Winchester’s real passion is for the unsung architects of electromagnetic unity: Morris Llewellyn Cooke, the engineer behind the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration; Joseph Licklider, who first conceived of the Arpanet, forerunner of the Internet; and William Siemering, the driving force behind the creation of National Public Radio.
All of this is fascinating. But is the “connective tissue” of the United States really a matter of building highways, whether traveled by cars or electrons? Putting people in touch with one another doesn’t magically yield unity. As citizens from one part of the country communicate and mingle with people different from themselves, they do not automatically feel a kinship. These encounters can confirm existing prejudices and intensify half-formed hatreds.
So why doesn’t the United States fly apart at the seams? James Madison may have had it right when he argued that a large, decentralized republic spread over a vast territory was more likely to survive than one confined to a much smaller landmass. A sprawling, diverse nation like the United States would necessarily encompass so vast a variety of people that no single group could consistently impose its will on the others. In Madison’s pragmatic if paradoxical vision, our very differences would keep us together. The nation would remain united because no bloc or faction can command sufficient political power to divide it and destroy the union.
Of course, Madison couldn’t foresee the conflict over slavery, when two distinct sections of the country went to war over their differences. But this has been the exception, not the rule. Today, the nation is rarely, if ever, united on any single political issue. Our loyalties are too divided, too fractured and too unpredictable. Our diversity divides us, but in the process, guarantees that the larger union endures.
Winchester is America in miniature: many talents, many loyalties and numerous, often contradictory opinions. He’s a bundle of contradictions. Little wonder he finally feels at home.
Stephen Mihm teaches history at the University of Georgia. He is the author of “A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."