Our War With Paraguay-1858 and How to Sit In a Hoopskirt — America from 1848–1868 as reported by newspapers and magazines.
This is the introductory article in a series of 52 planned weekly essays and clippings on America’s forgotten history, much of it astoundingly like today’s headlines.
Journalism has been called “history’s first rough draft.”
Newspapers and magazines have been the public discourse for most of American history.
The “rough draft” is the only thing most people at a particular time and place have to frame their opinions and reactions.
Historians have the luxury of hindsight. Combined with access to private journals, formerly secret or undiscovered documents, and statistical facts unknown to the average person of the time allow historians to pontificate on “what was really happening.”
While writing a magazine article about my hometown, Raleigh, NC, on the eve of the Civil War, I was astonished at the difference between the “first rough draft” in the local newspapers of the time and what historians present the public with after their “editing and analysis.”
The American Library of Congress maintains a massive collection of newspapers and magazines stretching back to colonial times and up to the present day. It is a time machine freely available to anybody able to master navigating their web site. The collection serves as a “glass bottom boat” from which we can look straight down to specific dates and places to see what people were informed of and thought about events around them. From our perch 160 years above, we can observe headlines long since forgotten and problems and issues we consider long since settled.
We who are enlightened and better informed view our ancestors’ beliefs and reactions with either condescension or wonder at “how could they believe something so obviously untrue?”
The answer is the same as in recent times, technology drove social change much faster than social and governmental structures could accommodate.
I chose to look at the twenty years of American history between 1848 and 1868.
Then, as now, Presidential impeachment, government by a vocal minority embedded by seniority, the shortcomings of the Electoral College, and mass immigration roiled politics of the period.
The period has presidential book ends. 1848 sees the election of an apolitical war hero general, “Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor, a slave owner who admitted he’d never voted in an election in his life. It ends in 1868 with the election of an apolitical war hero general, U.S. Grant, who, only seven years before, had been working as a clerk in his father- in-law’s dry goods store in Galina, Illinois.
One major political party fell apart while a new one rose. The Republicans in 1856, ran on a platform dedicated to “abolishing the twin barbarisms of slavery and polygamy.”
Like today, the press reported stories of philandering preachers, gory murders, spectacular and tragic accidents, foreign wars, gossip about royalty and celebrities, along with daily reports of marriages, deaths, stock and farm prices, the weather, and more.
The telegraph was the internet of its day. Suddenly, it took a day or less to hear about events from distant places.
Steam engines were perfected to the point they could now efficiently power machinery such as looms, saw mills, and printing presses as well as trains, ships, and riverboats. Wood and coal were the fossil fuels of the day.
Raw materials could be sent great distances, goods produced quickly by machines to be dispatched unheard of distances in record time.
Ad in Raleigh, NC newspaper 1853. Take the overnight packet boat from Norfolk to New York for $8
Their issues are our issues in so many ways.
Just to name a many — or few — of them besides slavery:
Between 1848 and 1868 Americans bitterly argued over:
- massive uncontrolled immigration,
- prejudice against minorities,
- women’s rights,
- science versus faith,
- free trade versus tariffs (who could forget the famous case of United States Customs Service versus 149 walrus hides? The walrus hides won.)
- Presidential Impeachment
- corporate greed,
- government corruption,
- anti vaxers,
- conspiracy theorists mixed with religious cults and political parties,
- and “woke” young people called “Wide Awakes.”
- A gold rush in California started quickly populating the West.
- Special interests in the South financed intervention in Central America using mercenaries called “filibusters.”
- Private militias armed themselves and openly drilled.
- Miracle cures were touted,
- books were banned,
- voting rights were restricted,
- and flags were burned.
First class letter writing would certainly decline the US Post Office complained. The telegraph was cutting into its business, leaving the post office to deliver only newspapers and packages, junk mail being blessedly rare then.
People complained the press was biased. Of course, it was. Newspapers then were not supported by advertising so much as they were sponsored by political parties or special interests. Then, as now, people got their news and views from different silos much as people now tend to get their news from Fox News or MSNBC.
Corporations with a national reach suddenly proliferated thanks to new technology such as railroads, steamships, and telegraph lines. Corporate lawyers proliferated. Social media, search engines, and selling via the nascent internet began growing in 1995. Intellectual property lawyers proliferated.
Not to mention, taxes, government regulation, and fantastical new inventions such as photography, balloons carrying house sized baskets (plus the first aerial ascent by a man on horseback), and the sewing machine.
Nobody discussed women with tattoos or piercings, or hair dyed green and purple, wearing thongs or slacks. Back then the issues were why corsets and hoops skirts were considered liberating by many women, controversies over women wearing bloomers or even whether it were sanitary for women to wear underwear at all.
Today, Mexico’s government struggles with a fight against drug lords driving thousands to safety over the American border. From 1860 through 1865 the Mexican government faced an invasion by French and Austrian armies — driving thousands of Mexicans to safety over the American border.
Things we take for granted today but were unknown or revolutionary when introduced. The first presidential election held on the same day throughout the country was in 1848.
The United States did not print any paper money until 1863. Only banks could print paper money. The Federal government minted coins only, referred to as “specie.”
The Federal government strongly resisted financing “internal infrastructure building or improvements.” And state governments seldom stepped up to do so either.
The government did not license or regulate many businesses except whiskey before taking baby steps in 1836 and 1842 to require river boats pilots to pass examinations before being employed.
Travel by train or riverboat was insanely dangerous by modern standards. One scholar estimates over 7,000 people were killed in railroad accidents in the years before the Civil War. Newspapers regularly reported passenger ships lost at sea along with hundreds of lives. Riverboats, romantic as the modern view might be, were even worse. A St. Louis newspaper reported in 1860 that in the first six months of that year, 247 boats had sunk, burned or exploded “on the lower Mississippi.”
Sometimes, it wasn’t even safe on land. While a cholera epidemic swept St Louis in 1849, a riverboat docked there caught fire. A strong wind sent the fire ashore burning down much of the city as well as destroying 23 more riverboats.
With all this going on, I begin to wonder why anybody had time for a civil war, let alone a war with Paraguay.