Published by HarperCollins on October 15, 2013
Read synopsis on Goodreads
Buy the book: Amazon/Audible (this post includes affiliate links)
How is it that the United States, with no common ethnicity or culture, has managed to remain united all of these years? That’s the question Simon Winchester sets out to answer in his new book, The Men Who United the States. Informative, approachable, and quite insightful, Winchester’s retelling of America’s exploration and expansion is a must-read for history buffs. Using the five elements (wood, earth, water, fire, and metal) as a guide, Winchester walks the reader through the last several hundred years, starting with discovering what North America had to offer and straight through to today’s Internet. I loved Winchester’s breakdown of history in terms of the elements so much, that I’m going to review each section individually, with my final thoughts at the end.
“Without an engaged and functioning federal government, the development of these various strands of the country’s connective tissue would probably have been either delayed or never achieved at all.”
Chances are if there is land, man will endeavor to explore it. This was certainly the case of early Americans, whose risk-taking travels into the unknown helped create some of our very first maps. It could be said that it was this westward exploration (we did, after all, land on the East Coast) and our innate desire to explore America ignited our desire to go international. It was, after all, our manifest destiny.
Once we figured out what kind of land was on the other side of the Smokies, it was time to figure out what that land could be used for. Was it inhabitable? Could it be farmed? This is the time when geology was first born, as groups of men surveyed the land and discovered some of our greatest national treasures, such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. As more and more people began to hear about what lay to their west, they began their migration using the famed Oregon Trail.
Fun Fact: The author of the book Oregon Trail actually only travelled about 1/3 of it during the best time of year.
Now that there were people living west of the Mississippi, it was time to figure out how to move people and things back and forth. It was during this time that building canals and connecting rivers became a national priority. Explorers set out to determine which rivers flowed which way and how to use them. It was during this time that the Erie Canal was built, with more than 1,000 workers dying from malaria or other diseases during the process.
Fun Fact: The Chicago Sanitary Canal is the “last line of defense” against the aggressive Asian carp, a fish introduced into the Mississippi by commercial fishermen in the 1970’s.
Once we learned how to travel the country by boat, we shifted to land-based options that involved more than a horse. It was during this time that heat, which was known to produce energy on a small scale, was put to use on a larger scale via steam engines. After we figured out how to make things go, we had to figure how to route them, and thus the first formal roads and railroads were born. Although roads were not new, they were unofficial paths that were worn down by frequent travel, rather than a structured and intentional endeavor. It was President Eisenhower who, after crossing the country as part of a military exercise a couple of decades earlier, finally implemented the first highways with a grand vision that is the basis for today’s system.
It was also during this time that the country was finally and irrevocably connected by the first transcontinental roadway and railroad. The railroad, which was primarily built by Chinese immigrants brought in to do the hard labor that American workers shunned, was backbreaking work that involved heavy hammering. It was railroads, and their adherence to a schedule as they moved people and products from one place to another, that gave birth to the idea of “keeping time.” It is also argued that Bailey Yard, the hub of railroad activity in America, serves as the daily litmus test of our economy.
Fun Fact: The first national road was to be made with rocks no bigger than could fit in your mouth, so workers actually put rocks in their mouths to see if they would fit and, if not, hammer them some more.
The most recent period of history, in terms of the elements, is perhaps the one that people know the most about. It was during this time that the lightbulb, telephones, and radio were invented. Although the book delves into more recent inventions, such as computers and the Internet, it does so very briefly and focuses primarily on telegraphs and radio with a fascinating section on the development and history of NPR.
Fun (but sad) Fact: NPR was invented in the 1970’s but internal politics drove its founder out.
If I had to rank the sections from favorite to least favorite, they would be as follows: Fire, Wood, Metal, Water, and Earth. I’m personally interested in transportation and its infrastructure, which is why Fire is was my favorite section, whereas I felt a little lost at times during the Earth section because the discoveries began to blend together for me. That said, even my least favorite section was a good one and I have nothing negative to say about this book. Alhough this is a book aimed at highlighting America’s successes, it doesn’t ignore our failings. The role of the Civil War and the consequences of our expansion on both people and the environment are discussed in terms of their relevance. The Men Who United the States is not a sweeping history of America – it is a history of America’s infrastructure.
For me, there are three major takeaways from this book. The first is that, although globalization is a relatively new phenomenon, our interconnectedness is not. In fact, many of America’s greatest inventions came from immigrants. Our early engines were British, our geologists from Scotland, and our “electric age” was sparked by a Serbian. Even our first “American” radio broadcast was done by a Canadian-born engineer.
The second is that our current political debate regarding immigration is not a new one. When we first built our railroads and brought in Chinese immigrants to do the labor that American men shied away from, there was widespread fear that they would depress wages and put the “white men” out of work, resulting in efforts to keep Chinese immigrants from coming to America. Both of these are striking examples of how history can repeat itself and help to put current events into perspective. Regardless of one’s personal views on immigration policy today, the fact that the United States is a melting pot couldn’t be made more evident than in this book. It is, after all, The Men Who United the States, not The American-Born Men that United the States.
Lastly, the book builds a case for a strong federal government, for all of these national projects required a federal funding before there were individual state governments. This is not to say that the book is advocating for this, but rather it makes the reader think about how things have changed in the last several hundred years in terms of the role of government. For example, would the federal government have had the same role if there were individual states? Would the existence of competing state interests have hindered westward expansion (hypothetically)? Should the federal government have such a strong role today, or has it outlived its golden age? Personally, I don’t have the answers to these questions, but if you do, feel free to chime in in the comments.
Recommended for: Anyone who likes history or U.S. history. Or infrastructure. Or learning things. Honestly, this book was very approachable and, though quite serious and informative, a quick and interesting read. For the last two weeks I’ve been quoting facts from it (I spent some time on the highways in the Rockies, which makes several appearances in the book). Plus, I have a list of historical places in the CO/WY/MT area that I plan to visit. In the end, this is a book that will stick with you. It’s a great non-fiction read that will give you fun anecdotes for parties (well, depending on the type of party) and inspire some interesting debates over whether certain decisions were good ones or not. In other words, it’s a conversation starter that will teach you many things.