Throughout history there are moments of great importance. Events which shake the world and change it forever. This is were we come in. Each of us will choose one event per century, starting with the 18th, and explore their significance. Why the 18th? Cause Paddy doesn’t know shit about what happened prior to the French Revolution, nor is he interested.
But in all seriousness, the 18th century is the golden age of Enlightenment – a wonderful and turbulent time – and there’s plenty to talk about.
There is a rule to the discussion we are about to undertake: We will chose singular events. So bids like the “French Revolution” or the “First World War” do not count, since they are more a series of events. Any event within them is fair play, though.
So, without further ado.
The 18th century
Pole – The invention of the steam engine
Okay, this is where I cheat a little. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment for the invention of a steam engine. A task made even more difficult when we take into consideration the invention of a primitive steam turbine by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century A.D. However, it is accepted that the first stream powered machine was used to pump water out of mines in 1698. But the first proper steam engine was designed by 1705. This new tool truly kicked off an age of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Shaking up the social and political order like no other invention before it. This moment marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Even though it has its roots in the 17th century.
Paddy – The American Declaration of Independence
The American Declaration of Independence had the immediate, simultaneous effect of damning one continent and freeing another. That is not to say it was, as one might expect, the New World getting one over on the Old, quite the reverse. The invention of those United States, born more from ink than blood, meant the death of America.
The British authorities, for all their faults, prevented European colonists from encroaching too far into the plethora of Native American nations that were splashed across Turtle Island. But it is a result of great “American” heroes like Washington that we talk of upper New York state rather than the Iroquois Nation (although, technically, the British still recognise such a nation’s existence), and because of Jackson we have South Carolina instead of Cherokeeland and Mississippi rather than Choctawia (just imagine all the bother we could’ve saved if such states remained copper-skinned?). And it is only with the disappearance of such places – and people – that the USA stands as our single world power.
All that said, it wasn’t all bad. As I alluded to and will expand upon, the US liberated a people in 1776, and that’s nothing to sniff at. The the destitute of Europe in their bedraggled and diseased millions at that point had a new hope, a new home.
Pole – Yes, the formation of the US is a big one, but I think there is a more important document associated with it: the Constitution. Also, back then the US did not have the same impact on the rest of the world as it had following the Second World War.
The steam engine however, did not just change the system – it lead to the formation of a new one. The newly powered factories and railways caused the emergence of a new elite. An elite whose position was not based on aristocratic titles and chronicled bloodlines proving that one’s great, great, great, great grandmother was fucked by royalty. They gained their position because of capital.
The middle class rose, giving birth to the class system we are familiar with today. This trend crossed national borders: it was not confined to England, where the first steam engine was built. It offered us an unprecedented step away from feudalism, into the industrial society of today. It wasn’t the only one by any means, but there were none of such importance preceding it.
Paddy: You credit the steam engine with a lot. Not only did it crush the gentry, it apparently uplifted that squatty and industrious class – the bourgeoisie – to take its place.
The steam engine had a negligible impact on the 18th century. It could be argued that it was only after that epoch had had its day and when the engine had been transplanted to the New World that it received the conditions – and scope – it required to bring about some of what you credit it with.
Yes, in the great expanse of the Great Plains and in America’s deserts and mountain regions, the steam engine did indeed usher in its own kind of revolution, in land acquisition, transportation and communication. But that was a different time. And of course, it was dependent entirely on the nation we call the United States – a joining of words Thomas Paine, that moral and popular force behind the Declaration, gave us.
The tempered radicalism of the American Revolution opened the way for a system where Law is sovereign – a considerable change to the old British modus operandi where a king (or queen) stood atop and somewhat apart, dictating to all. It is in such a society based on law that science and commerce thrives, while moribund despotisms fester. Recall how it is the congenial air of America that Europe’s greatest innovators have found, and find still, liberation (and those all important government grants). From Paine himself, with his modest bridge building, to Joseph Priestley (chased out Tory mobs) and Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, as well as a good number of thosr scientists which gave physics its relativist and quantum transformations.
(There’s also the other side to all this: without the “removal”/genocide of the American Indians, and the subsequent slave system that was installed, the Industrial Revolution would’ve lacked the enormous quantity of cotton on which it depended. While doing this it also functioned as the world’s most pluralistic society, and one of its most literate. The States are, as you have said, the land of contradiction.)
The Industrial Revolution didn’t have a single cause as you seem to suggest. There were a variety of “sparks”, and many of those, I hope you can see, occurred because the United States existed. Without the Declaration we wouldn’t have had which, and, to your first point, nor the Constitution.
Pole: “U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A.!” is what I’m getting from your argument. Yes yes, America is great. However, you yourself admitted that it was thanks to the steam engine that Washington’s folk were able to built up their economy and expand westward. Without the rail system and steam powered modes of transportation the Wild West would be just that: Wild. So it was not the engine that became great because of the States.
Also, you’re talking about the 19th century America, which over that era has become a major player on the international and global arena. 18th century States were still a toddler as far as nations go. The reason the revolution succeeded and the States were able hold on to its independence afterwards is because the European powers had bigger problems than an upstart nation. The glory days of the Spanish Empire were gone. The French were having their own crisis with the bourgeoisie (not to mention that without aid from them the colonists were likely to loose). And the British were far more interested in India and China at the time.
I believe thinking that the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened if the United States didn’t exist is wrong. The Revolution had its start in Europe, Britain and the Netherlands to be more specific. Those countries were becoming less reliant on the peasant economy based on agriculture which was the foundation of the feudal system. The rising of their textile industry is where the industrialisation begun. I admit that the US played a major role in the later development, when the Industrial revolution was in full swing. But most of the innovations done there had their roots in Europe. Electricity was discovered by good old Benny Franklin, but it was the work of Micheal Faraday (an Englishman) that led us to the creation of the electric motor, light bulb and so on. Henry Ford borrowed the assembly line from the Brits and adopted it for his car manufacturing. Which would also be impossible without the steam engine. As far cotton production goes, do you really believe that the existence of the States would have had such a great impact? The difference would be that the ships transporting the cotton and other materials from the New to the Old world would be flying the Union Jack instead of stars and stripes.
Lastly, I believe that if the United States did not exist, all those inventions, discoveries and developments you mentioned would have happened regardless. It would just be at different places and by different people. Or perhaps at the same place and same people, they would just say biscuit instead of cookie.
Paddy: I did not say the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the US. All I did was highlight its importance as a producer of material wealth and its role as a harbor for greatness.
You, again, remind us of how comparatively insignificant (geopolitically) the States has been for most of its life. This ignores what was the point of these discussions: we are to pick a single event that “shake[s] the world and change[s] it forever”. What meets that definition if not the germinal moment of superpowerdom?
The US is enormously important today, has been for decades, and from its earliest days played a constructive role in world affairs – the Industrial Revolution included. Where, if you’ll allow me, is steam today?
I haven’t even explored how the signing of the Declaration meant the death notice of hundreds of nations – Native American nations whose names are immortalized in the names of everything from attack helicopters to golf courses. That was a monumental moment – the rejection of the European acceptance of Indian dominance in the Americas – and is not paid anywhere near the attention it deserves.
Pole: Yes the steam has gone away. But I think you cannot deny that the greatness of the United States was dependant on it. It was the industry powered by steam that allowed the States to grow into what it is today (as well as its relative isolation from other powers, and two world wars which eliminated its competition).
We probably could on. But I fell like we would just be repeating ourselves, and this thing is already too long.
I think it would be fair to say that the problem with arguing about those events is that they are so closely intertwined and co-dependent. The industrialisation of society and economy as well as the current capitalist system had their root in the steam engine. However they would have looked much different if the States were not there, or was not independent. Let us know what you think.