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Trappers, fur traders, the Long Hunters and the Mountain Men...The Mormons carried fiddles across the plains, and there was dancing within the circle of wagons below the dry western mountains. Bold men and women ; scared, hungry, sick yet surmounting... Daniel Boone with his yellow eyebrows and sharp blue eyes ran the forest trails in Kentucky, fast as an Indian. A quiet man, serene and easy, who ended up with an appalling series of debts paid, 50� left over and a reputation for rifle shooting that would inspire American boys for a century.
These were Americans, the American type. And they developed not alone because the frontier stretched before them, limitless and inviting. Other countries possessed virgin lands, timber, rivers, mines, rich plains. Yet could Daniel Boone be imagined anywhere but in America? "All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people." The impact of such ideas, entered upon unitedly, set down on paper, signed and sealed, can send a man on a very far journey.
But political ideals, like law, are of no use unless implemented. It was union which gave us power; it was the federal idea which gave us scope. Nevertheless, even in America the doubters still spoke out. National federation on such a scale was impossible, they said; it was impractical altogether. The country had grown too big for union. In 1828, an election year, Harvard College had a debate: "How can one man be President of the United States when it is eventually settled from Atlantic to Pacific?" The noes were victorious. The nation would have to be cut up into republics, each with its separate president. Andrew Jackson could be president of Tennessee, John Quincy Adams of New England.
Thirteen states became 20, became 34. Through the terrible years, 1861-65, the Union held. When Richmond fell and the Civil War was over, citizens celebrated. In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, men stood on soapboxes, stood in pulpits to orate. But it was not the word victor) that stirred them. "The United States," they said, like a refrain. At the word united, the crowds went crazy. Tears poured down men's faces. "Yes, sir!" they shouted. "Yes sir, you bet! The U-nited States of America!"
"I have often inquired of myself," said Lincoln, "what great principle or idea it was that kept this [federation] so long together. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all would have an equal chance." To Americans an equal chance means a chance to excel, get ahead, win the race, beat the other fellow to the prize. Consider the year 1865, and a transcontinental railway to be laid. The scheme had been authorized by Congress. Two companies contracted for the work: Central Pacific, Union Pacific, the one to start laving track at Omaha, the other in California, and the tracks to meet eventually at Promontory Point, Utah. (A federation needs, above all, communication, interchange of commerce.) The railway has been called a work of giants; it was sparked and spurred by giants: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker the engineer.
In whatever spirit the project had been conceived, before two years were out it had become a race and a competition, unequaled for magnitude in sporting circles or business circles before or since. It was a game, an epic, an American legend:
"At the head
of great Echo,
Thousands of Chinese laborers from the West, Irish laborers from the East, competed under their bosses as to which gang could lay the most track, matched skill and endurance, or even fought it out on occasion with charges of dynamite and killed each other in the doing. Snow in the Sierras, higher than a man's head. Night storms in the hot Nebraska plains, the water foul to drink. By May 1869 the two companies were within a dozen miles of meeting. The whole country watched, getting the news by telegraph where it could. On May 10 the tracks came together, the last spike was hammered. In the cities cannon boomed, firebells rang, citizens paraded. Nobody remembered who had won, they only knew the goal was reached.
There was a joyousness about it, a shouting, lusty braggadocio. Competition! The great, reckless, expensive American game had begun. Followed now the captains of industry: steel kings, oil kings, railroad manipulators. In their day they were called promoters, and the word did not bear a pretty connotation. A rich land lay ready to their hand and they took it over: Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, men who founded dynasties that are powerful today. Choose the names as you will: Gould, Jay Cooke, Carnegie, Schwab, E. H. Harriman, J. J. Hill, J. P. Morgan. Bold men who, for the most part, came from plain beginnings, men whose imagination was limitless, who worked the country for what it was worth, using and discarding human material as they chose, and who built America into the greatest industrial productive system the world has ever seen. Pause for a moment on only one of them: Cornelius Vanderbilt of the New York Central and Hudson railroads, who made himself an empire. Observe him at 73, still powerful, erect, pink-cheeked, with an opulent spread of whiskers, and boasting a young southern bride and a stable of fine trotting horses. "Law?" said Commodore Vanderbilt. "What do I care about law? Hain't I got the power?"
These men seized opportunity and used it; such a chance would never recur. Over against them rose the labor leaders, Americans made bold in their turn by desperation. Uriah S. Stephens and Terence V. Powderly of the Knights of Labor, Samuel Gompers and, much later, the towering, scowling, well-nigh symbolic figure of John L. Lewis. Pushing along with them on the road came the bold men and women of moral protestation, fighting corruption in business and politics, fighting the evils of a too rapidly expanding industrialization. Ida Minerva Tarbell attacked the princes of Standard Oil, drove her lance against giants and lost the fight, but made her voice heard. Governor Altgeld of Illinois dared to pardon the anarchists after the Chicago Haymarket riots. Henry George, the visionary, promoted his single tax, ran for mayor of New York and polled more votes than Theodore Roosevelt. Jane Addams, Jacob Riis fought the city slums. The suffragettes and the temperance ladies marched with their banners: Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Anna Howard Shaw, Frances Willard, Carrie C. Catt and Carry Nation.