Miraculous new communications technologies have suddenly appeared, transforming everyday life. Everything is moving discombobulatingly fast. Globalization accelerates. Wall Street booms. Outside San Francisco, astounding fortunes are made overnight, out of nothing, by plucky nobodies. The new media are scurrilous and partisan. Marketing spin and advertising extend their influence as never before. A fresh urban-youth subculture has emerged, rude and vibrant, entertainment-fixated and violence-glorifying. Christian conservatives are furiously battling cultural decadence, and one popular sect insists that the end days are nigh. Ferocious anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise. Both major American political parties seem pathetically unable to deal with the looming, urgent issue of the day. Insurgents practicing asymmetrical warfare have, practically overnight, threatened to bring down the political order of Western civilization. And the President has tapped into patriotic rage to invade a poor desert country, having dubiously claimed that the enemy nation represents a clear and present military danger to America.
A decent thumbnail sketch of the past decade, sure--but also, as I was repeatedly flabbergasted to discover while researching my new novel, which takes place from 1848 to 1850, a perfectly accurate reckoning of the late 1840s as well. And while it's an excellent parlor game to point out the resonant particulars--history really does rhyme, if not repeat itself--I've also become sincerely convinced that that mid--19th century moment is, more than any other, when modern American life really began. The future--that is, our present--came into sight. The way we live now is the way we started to live then.
Consider all that happened in the first remarkable months at the beginning of 1848. On Jan. 24, gold was discovered accidentally on a river in Northern California--the first fleck of what would quickly become more than a thousand tons. Nine days later, a treaty was signed ending the U.S. war with Mexico--our first elective war, first imperial war--in one stroke extending the U.S. from the Texas border to the Pacific. At the same moment in London, meanwhile, a 29-year-old German philosopher named Karl Marx and his 27-year-old textile manufacturer friend Friedrich Engels published a pamphlet they called the Communist Manifesto. And days later, revolutions broke out in Europe, first in Paris, which overthrew the French monarchy, and then in several dozen other places on the Continent.
Back in the U.S., it took only a year after the discovery of gold to turn the sleepy little town of San Francisco into a boisterous city, the largest place west of Chicago. Modern California was born. More important, the Gold Rush was a ratification of the most fantastical version of the American Dream, the yearning for instant fortune and easy prosperity, for extreme liberty and land free for the taking from the natives. When they heard the news out of California, Marx and Engels understood that this bizarre phenomenon was another way in which the U.S. might not conform to their view of economic history inevitably unfolding. Engels wrote to Marx that the discovery of gold was a case "not provided for in the Manifesto: the creation of large new markets out of nothing."
Speed is a defining feature of modernity, and in 1848 technology had jacked up the speed of daily life in several quantum leaps. Photography, not yet a decade old, was still a staggering novelty--unimaginably "real" depictions of reality produced by a little machine!--and the miracle was in part a function of how fast it worked: a picture as detailed as any drawing made not in hours or days but minutes.
Samuel Morse had perfected his telegraph only a few years earlier, but by 1848 the country was wired, from Boston to New York City to Washington to Chicago and New Orleans. Again, the shift was sudden and profound--from days or weeks to send a message to instantaneous communication. Today we take for granted synchronized one-hour time zones as a kind of natural fact, but only after trains and the telegraph had connected distant cities were the U.S.'s time zones reduced from dozens to four.
Travel too was also incredibly faster. The first primitive railroads started here and there in the 1830s, but during the '40s, "railroad mania" had kicked in--four times as much track was laid in 1848 as the year before. Everyone spoke of the resulting "annihilation of time and space," and in a journal called the Quarterly Review a writer predicted that "as distances [are] thus annihilated, the surface of our country would, as it were, shrivel in size until it became not much bigger than one immense city."
It was during the late 1840s that the archetypal American migration, wagons of pioneers rolling into the West, began in earnest. What had been an insignificant trickle of immigrants in the early '40s, only dozens a year, increased 10 or 20 times during the middle of the decade, and then, with the Gold Rush, by more than another order of magnitude in 1849 alone. And just as the Western exodus reached full speed, American cities became true modern metropolises. In 1800, New York had only 60,000 people, but by the middle of the century, the population had grown to half a million. Filling the cities was the first tsunami of immigrants--in particular the Irish, driven to the U.S. by the famine that began in 1845.
Radically modern new modes of thought flowered as well. Charles Darwin was quietly and carefully constructing the theory of evolution that he would introduce to the dumbstruck world a decade later. In American politics, abolitionism was just beginning to move from the left wing into the mainstream. Feminism officially launched in August 1848 in upstate New York, at a convention of reformers who issued a shockingly stark declaration of women's rights, demanding suffrage.
Sudden technological progress plus suddenly large cities produced modern media. We know that today's digital revolution obeys Moore's Law, the doubling of computers' microprocessing power every 18 to 24 months. I discovered a comparable dynamic operating back in the old days. With steam power and new rotary presses during the first half of the 19th century, printing speed doubled every few years, which meant many more and much cheaper newspapers with larger circulations, and new illustrated magazines. Scientific American, Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly all started between 1845 and 1857. The New York Sun, Herald, Tribune and Times were founded between 1833 and 1851, and in 1846 the first three helped form the Associated Press.