The Nineteenth-Century Networked Nation: The Politics of American Technology, 1776-1876

American Studies Seminar
Daniel Klinghard

Americans often talk of twenty-first century communications technology as if society were embarking on a novel endeavor towards a gleaming (virtual) city of the future. But what if our engagement with the technology of the present resonates with the experience of previous generations? And what if that past experience could teach us important lessons about the politics of technology in general? Could we learn whether—and how—politics can direct the development and adaptation of new technologies? This course attempts to uncover the answer to these questions, to distinguish the novelty of our present condition from recurring patterns in the politics of technology.

While there are a number of ways of conceptualizing the politics of technology, the focus here will be on how the adaptation of technology to political life altered American political life in the nineteenth century. From toll roads to canals to railroads to telegraphs, nineteenth century Americans confronted technologies that enhanced communications capacities, eased travel and commerce, and re-worked labor arrangements. These changes altered methods of campaigning, citizen organization, interest representation, and even governing. As political actors innovated new political practices, political thinkers both celebrated technology as fulfilling political values like democracy, liberty, and equality, and expressed anxieties about negative social effects and thereby spawned political efforts to govern their effects. Both encountered difficulties, pitfalls, and insights that resemble those we encounter today—particularly the common concern that technology develops according to its own logic, unrestrained by political leaders’ efforts to impose conditions or limits on its use.

This course will examine technologies of transportation, communication, information management, and labor—all technologies that influenced political thought and political practice, just as the internet, smart phones, and digital social networks are said to be doing in the present. This will include investigating transformations in the idea and nature of public opinion as a national media network emerged in the early republic. Further, we will see how parties and political organizations changed the way they mobilize voters and citizens, and how such changes permitted the emergence of a truly national political sphere. And we will examine the ways politicians struggled to both regulate and promote disruptive new technologies like the railroad and industrial machines, as well as the responses of business elites and labor movements to take advantage of and to manage the effects of these changes. Throughout we will ask whether American political thought has been routinely remade by technological change, or whether politicians and political thinkers have been able to constrain technology’s effects in keeping with deeply-held political values.

Students enrolled in this course will make extensive use of the Antiquarian Society’s holdings, and so will focus primarily on periods in which the Society has extensive holdings (although we will “check-in” with later phases of technological development throughout the course). Assignments will revolve around archival research, including two short papers that focus on single texts and a broader research paper that will invite students to choose and investigate a topic in significant depth.

The following American Studies Seminar research papers were written by students in the 2013 seminar, led by Daniel Klinghard, Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of the Holy Cross.

  • "The Telegraph that Bound the Nation," by Alex Caro
  • "The Standardization of American English: The Adoption of Noah Webster's Orthographical System as a Component of American Identity," by Maura Corbett
  • "Joseph Henry's Smithsonian and its Influence on the Professionalization of American Science," by Shannon Donnellan
  • "The Railroad: Its Technology, Economics and Regulation," by Jason Duke
  • "Spreading Political Idealogies through Children's Literature: 1790-1860" by Jennifer Gargan
  • "Modern Weaponry and its Effects on 19th Century Society," by Erich Grosse
  • "Astronomical Discoveries Through the Eyes of Printed Materials: Understanding the New York mid-1830s Moon Hoax via Science and Society," by Rachel Handel
  • "Science and Progress in the Religious Imagination: Sermons on the First Atlantic Telegraph," by Nicholas Huzsvai
  • "Solving Collisions and Corruption: the Western Railroad Company's Blueprint for the Future," by Cameron Hyde
  • "'Clinton's big ditch': An Analysis of DeWitt Clinton's Motivation for Supporting the Erie Canal," by Madison Keller
  • "The Balance Between the Sciences and Arts in Massachusetts Communities, 1841-1899," by Bryan Manning
  • "Land in Transition: The Origins of the Modern Environmental Movement in Nineteenth-Century New York," by Ryan Weitz

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