Author:Comegna, Anthony

THE YEARS FROM 1815 to 1845 are usually called the Jacksonian Era, but no one person can define the lives of millions. If someone could, the better icon for that age might be Samuel Morse, who invented the most transformative, revolutionary device of the entire century. Even the railroads pale in comparison to Morse's telegraph.

It was a time of decentralized and dispersed but consequential activities. Innumerable tinkerers worked in shops littered across the land, and every day some new machine hit the market--some contraption to repair clothing, protect your hats, heat your home, cook, clean. Undergirding it all was the revolutionary system of cheap and efficient communications: first the steam presses and cheap newspapers, then telegraphy.

It was America's first singularity.

In geometry, a singularity is the point on a curve beyond which a fixed viewer can no longer see the curve. Imagine you're on the street looking at a circular building. There will be points at either end where the shape of the curve prevents you from seeing around the bend.

In astrophysics, black holes are singularities. Their gravitational wells are so strong that literally nothing--not even light--can escape. Approach one closely enough and the singularity will never let go. Gradually, it will pull you into itself, distorting your body, breaking it apart into one long strand of atoms. The black hole turns you into a piece of human spaghetti, sucking you up into its own mass.

In modern computing, the singularity is sometimes spelled with a capitals and takes on the flavor of a religion. The believers think our singularity will be the point at which artificial intelligence becomes indistinguishable from human intelligence. Machines could then improve themselves at dramatically increased rates, the costs of creating more intelligence would fall dramatically, and the explosion of intelligence would change everything.

For most people, the very prospect of a technological singularity is probably terrifying. But Americans have lived through one before, and they not only survived it but emerged to snatch global economic and political leadership from Great Britain. The Jacksonian singularity set the United States on track to become a superpower, the leading edge of global prosperity.

Decisions made during a time of singularity are perhaps the most important decisions human beings ever face, because they remake the world. Americans during the Jacksonian singularity both charted the nation's course toward a brilliant future and made titanic mistakes along the way. We now find ourselves in a historical situation analogous to theirs, but we do not have the luxury of making their mistakes anymore.

AS THE PACE of change quickened in the 1820s and '30s, a great threat to entrenched power came from an unlikely source: the post office. Delivery of the mail was far and away the most significant single duty of the national government, and the postal service employed more people than all the other federal bureaucracies combined. Even the farthest-flung places in America had post offices, and access was considered a universal, equal right for all citizens.

Because the post was a government monopoly, it was also an early focal point of conflict over slavery. In the 1830s, abolition societies organized themselves into formal social networks and used the postal system and steam-driven presses to flood Southern mail with abolitionist literature. This activism helped spur the cheap postage movement championed by Lysander Spooner and Barnabas Bates; it also prompted a fierce Southern backlash, complete with mobs burning abolition mail. The more the price of communications fell, the more abolitionists reached out to their fellow beings, touched their hearts, opened their minds, and transformed society.

Yet as Spooner understood, slaveholders could easily co-opt the pliant state monopoly, bending it to serve their interests. President Andrew Jackson's postmaster general, Amos Kendall, set the standard: When Charlestonians mobbed their post office to burn abolitionist literature in 1835, he ignored it and refused to protect equal rights to the mail. Rather than censuring Kendall and Jackson or reforming the postal service, Congress passed the infamous "Gag Rule" to prevent Northern members from considering abolitionist petitions. So Spooner and Bates attempted more radical methods of reform. Spooner established the American Letter Mail Company to directly compete with the postal monopoly, which it did with great success until the government shut it down. Bates diligently lobbied both Whigs and Democrats to lower postage rates in keeping with the British two-cent model. Both men now compete for philatelic recognition as the father of cheap postage in America.

Publishers benefited from privileged prices set by the postal service. Editors across the country exchanged free copies with one another and clipped the choicest articles from distant or significant places to share directly with their audiences. By 1822, more people read newspapers in the United States than anywhere else in the world, though no single paper circulated to more than 4,000 readers. Steam-driven presses and "penny papers" extended the drama even further. In New York City from 1832 to 1836, the circulation of daily papers shot from 18,200 to about 60,000.

Americans became the most literate people in world history. Information flowed across the land as never before and nowhere else on the planet--enough to send anyone reeling.

One randomly selected issue of the New York Daily Plebeian (July 11, 1843) contains advertisements for "marine and fire insurance," British steamship lines, the Staten Island Ferry, the New York and Erie Railroad, the Housatonic Railroad, the express train to Pittsburgh, and the Daily Express train...

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