Democrats & Liberals Archives

New York in Modern America: An Alien World

I think there are timeless elements to our Founding Father’s wisdom, but there are also elements that are of their time, and which don’t fit ours. The stark reality one is faced with, if you learn enough about our past, and the development of our current civilization, is that our world would be an alien world to most folks from the late 18th Century.

I mean, lets start with the question of what a time traveller from 1790's New York would be confronted with.

They would approach a city that has more than twice the population of their newly founded nation: over 8 million citizens in New York City alone, as opposed to 3.8 million recorded in the United States of that time. The largest cities in America at that time could be housed in a neighborhood in ours. They would see endless city where once endless country reigned. The ethnic and religious mix would make it seem like the world had landed at the cities doorstep (one could argue it has!).

They would find the city quite clean, with no open sewers, the streets all paved, draft animals and steeds only there as relics of a bygone time. The air would seem fresh. what would probably get them is the noise from all the engines, AC Systems, Subways, and motorists honking their horns They would be surprised to find the toilets indoors, along with running water.

The buildings would be immense by their standards, the open windowed structure inconceivable to those who only knew masonry buildings That the largest buildings would rise thousands of feet would be difficult to comprehend in itself. Having their suport so strong that they could put in windows and weaken the support that much would blow their minds. The steel cable suspended Brooklyn Bridge would be simple amazing because no such materials would exist with the lightness, strength, and flexibility necessary to be used in such a manner.

The cliche of the automobile being a shock would likely come true. Once one gets past the mechanics, though, the biggest shock for a person of the 1790s might be that the vast majority of people in the country own one of this, or is part of a family that does. Aircraft would likely be the bigger shock. The jet engine might seem like a demon from the pit, with its loud whine and its fiery exhaust.

The speed and pace of information has collapsed to nearly nothing. We spend several orders of magnitude more time composing our messages than receiving them, typically. On the occasions that we actually use physical correspondence, we have our choice of what kind of message to send, and can provide people with multimedia information in addition to written text. Even a century ago, a person from the 1790's would be amazed to see a letter written on a typewriter- a portable movable type press, you could say! A modern letter author, though, could include a compact disc or DVD with their message. These, together with the parcels and packages that are still sent by physical distribution, could be sent across the country and around the world in a mere fraction of the time that it would have taken a 1790's person to send them, and with far greater reliability.

Confronted with the television and computer screen image, the average person from the 1700s might even have difficulty making sense of what they see. The modern age has trained our brains to interpret images and sounds in a much more sophisticated way.

Confronted with the morality of our times, the colonial response might be a mixed bag. The casual use of blasphemy would be quite alarming to them, though the failure to use words we consider rather raunchy or profane might strike the average colonial as a bit prudish. In terms of violence, the average colonial might very well see and inflict violence for themselves. What they see on television, with rare exception, would likely be tame in the extreme. That said, confronted with the weapons of our time, a resident of 1790's New York might faint dead away.

The average American soldier, given enough spare ammunition and his standard equipment, would easily be able to kill many of his counterparts of the olden days, even without calling in air strikes. His M-16 alone would be fearsome. The muskets of the old days were single shot, smooth bored, and were often loaded through the barrel. Our main troop weapon is a rifle, meaning it has a grooved barrel which spins the bullet, ensuring greater accuracy. It comes in cartridges with the propellant and other elements of a shot already pre-packaged. It can fire not only repeatedly, but one bullet right after another, a complex mechanism using the recoil from the last shot to load the next. In World War One, it was difficult for people to understand the implications of industrialized death dealing, and these were often industrialized people. What might somebody from another century away think of this?

What would they think of a nuclear weapon? They might think it truly a weapon from hell: a weapon capable of incinerating and wiping away an entire city of modern size, whose survivors would bear hideous burns and even more insidious illnesses besides.

The bodily existence of a person in those times would be substantially different. Nutritionally speaking, your average citizen of the 1790's would be malnourished by today's standards. They would typically be infested with lice, fleas and other nice insects, even if they were upper-class. The difference might be that they'd pick the fleas off themselves in a more well mannered way. They would be hit with any number of diseases the average person in America today would rarely be infected by. They'd be harder drinkers, and likely smoke and chew tobacco to a greater degree, especially as Americans. A traveller from their day here could survive injuries that would put them in the grave in their own time. The person in question would likely be shorter and more poorly developed by comparison to a person of our day. They would likely not go to a doctor or a hospital if they wanted to live. Pharmacology was a bad joke, and would remain so for at least a century and change afterwards.

The average American today knows more science and technology than a scientist of the 1790s. In fact, the person of that time would not be called a scientist, but rather a natural philosopher. The term scientist was born in the 1840s, a lifetime away from the time period of our traveller. A few elements were identified in our traveller's time. Now more than a hundred have been discovered or artificially created. Chemistry is considerably more sophisticated nowadays, with knowledge of the elements helping us to create unheard of materials. What was at best axle grease in this fellow's day we now refine into fuels, natural gas, plastics, road materials and much more.

In the 1790s, a naturalist did well to observe beasts and plants in the wild. The biologist of today can do much more, even to the point of creating creatures that neither God nor evolution thought of themselves. With knowledge of DNA and other elements of biochemistry, together with the paradigm of natural selection and evolution we have a much more complete understanding of the natural world around us.

The man trying to understand the universe in the 1790's might believe in planets and moons if he were educated, but he would likely adhere to a theory that pinned the world's geology on sedimentation from the Noachian Deluge. Modern theories would take the age of the earth millions of times beyond it. The abyss of time and space would open with similar proportion. We would go from being surrounded by a celestial sphere, to having a galaxy around us, to being surrounded with uncountable galaxies. Even more interesting, as we gaze farther in space, we see further back in time. Tilting our radio ears to the sky, we hear the echoes of the birthcry of the universe, 3K of microwave radiation everywhere we look.

Physics would take a similar dive into the microcosm, eventually ending up in the bizarre world of quantum mechanics. Our entire civilization is based on knowledge of this sort of physics. I'm not kidding you. Everything with a chip, an optical drive, a hard drive- hell anything with appreciable electronics in this day and age runs according to the engineering of the semiconducting and conducting properties of silicon, among other elements. Things will only get wierder as time goes on. To our traveller, this would be nothing short of magic. To us it's every day life.

Which brings me to a point: Our world has radically changed from the days of the Founding Fathers. Perhaps they saw what was coming in the effect that the printing press already had. Ben Franklin had personal experience of this. Others had it, too. The Founding Fathers weren't looking to be the source of a new ossified tradition. They were looking, ultimately, to wake civilization from all the old tyrannies.

They had wisdom. A number of them had it in bucketfuls, and we should be grateful to them for their foresight. What they realized, though, in the turbulence of their time, was they could only a form a more perfect union, not the perfect union. They couldn't have possibly have imagined the world we live in now. Instead, they left it to us to make our own choices, unhindered by the enforced dried out dogma of dead and their vanished worlds.

Much about mankind hasn't changed- in many places technology has only reset the stage, not changed the play. In others, though, technology has done its adaptation, and the devil is in the details of what has resulted. We're no longer the mainly agrarian, unindustrialized culture that settled on the east coast so long ago. I would have us remember that, and so would those who long ago did not presume to cast in stone the course of our future.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at May 16, 2006 6:58 PM
Comment #148751

Just imagine the confusion if you told someone of the 1700s that you were going to go online to Google Bush

Posted by: tony at May 16, 2006 8:10 PM
Comment #148756

Imagine if everything we rely on using today’s technology suddenly stopped working…very few could survive.

Posted by: dawn at May 16, 2006 8:21 PM
Comment #148797

Dawn your right we probably couldnt survive but oh that blessed quiet. No TV,No Radio, No motors, No engines,and so on and so forth. I would take my chances. They could keep the fleas though.

Posted by: j2t2 at May 16, 2006 10:47 PM
Comment #148799

Sorry to hear you have fleas j2t2.

Posted by: dawn at May 16, 2006 10:55 PM
Comment #148801

stephen, good post. since the dawn of time knowledge is expanding just like our universe.the purges, holocausts, and even in the name of a religon, could not stop the knowledge. the founders proved that.even a equation that could not be finished on a board,was years later finished by a large telescope.stephen,i at times worry about the future,but then i become inspired by many people on this blog, and many times it is by you!

Posted by: Rodney Brown at May 16, 2006 11:08 PM
Comment #148807

Nice post…
But I’ve lost my thrill at watching the barefoot pilgrims of the past marvel at our technology. Frankly, I’m sure many of the founding fathers could easily fathom everything that the average college graduate knows, and furthermore, take it to new levels. These were people of astonishing intellect, limited only by the shoulders they were standing on. They would rapidly (months, not years) become accustomed to our way of life, and would probably be great contributors even today. I think we like to worship our own technolgy, using these historical personages as proxies.
That said, I think the fascinating thing is actually what dawn pointed out. We have stopped being a group of people, each of whom can provide adequately for himself. By definition, we have become an organism — each cell requires the functions of so many others around it. Like the human body, the cells are interdependent, in a way that the people of the founding fathers’ era were not.
This does not mean we are necessarily a healthy organism. Our world has yet to really coalesce, from a global-sociological perspective. However, as Carl Sagan said, “our species is young and curious and brave…it shows much promise.”
Let’s get there.

Posted by: T. Jefferson at May 16, 2006 11:45 PM
Comment #148831

When it comes to science and technology, the relationship people have with it is always complicated. Many proponents of small government point to government at the time of the Founding fathers. That was workable for them based on the way things were.

We no longer have the luxury of a simple technological environment. We now have the power to cause acts of man just as bad as acts of God. Also, because of the nature of our advanced society, we have more to lose when our cities are struck by a disaster. For all the luxuries and necessities we enjoy, we require an infrastructure that can become compromised.

The logic of much of my agreement with liberalism, is an acknowledgment that we develop new vulnerabilities as we increase our dependence on different technologies. The automobile brought some, to be sure. Our love affair with the motor vehicle has caused us some pretty big entanglements. We would not have need to involve ourselves so quickly or so much had oil not been such a strategic resource.

Politics can spin itself into dizzy heights of rhetorical grandeur, but when it lands, it’s consequences are grounded in the needs, desires, and resources at hand.

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody has it all figured out, and nobody knows everything, so there is always some need to think out beyond the obvious, beyond the present, and beyond what’s right in front of us. The question, and the challenge, is how one maintains grounding in a world where you do not always know exactly where you stand on things. One thing is key, though: ignorance is not bliss. It’s a surefire way to screw up worse and more often. You have to have a talent to fly by the seat of your pants. Unfortunately, too many people overestimate their gifts in this regard.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 17, 2006 1:23 AM
Comment #148856

I once had a teacher in High School who pointed out, when we were reading greek literature, that people have not changed, only the context of their enviroment. They still have the same needs, desires vices, and virtues. They still make the same mistakes.

I recently relayed this to a 17 year old I know, when she was complaining about the way boys only want one thing.

The founding fathers fought like dogs with each other. They knew how many foibles men possessed. Even the greatest among them. That was their wisdom.

Posted by: gergle at May 17, 2006 5:04 AM
Comment #148868

What scares me most about the current administration is that the more they call something one thing, it usually means just the opposite (ie., the Patriot Act, the Clear Skies Initiative, etc.) And no president of recent memory has invoked more reference to our freedoms while whittling away at them. Remember, the founding fathers also were terrified of too much centralized power, especially in one person; the president. But Stephen is right that much has changed and we should change with it. I would just like to see it be a more thoughtful, articulate and intelligent debate, rather than the surreptitious manner it’s handled in now…and without all the rhetoric that masks the true intent and interests behind it.

Posted by: rbskius at May 17, 2006 7:05 AM
Comment #148877


Not to burst the bubble or anything,but I think the American Indian and enslaved African brought and exploited by some of these guys would have a differing view.

It’s all about perspective,isn’t it?

Your eyes mist up when you think of these people.

Eyes from the above 2 groups cry.

Posted by: sicilianeagle at May 17, 2006 7:32 AM
Comment #148889

For anyone who is a student of Roman History: this time, these Wars, these Policies, and this “leadership” by George “Little Boots” Bush have no surprises to offer…

Posted by: Betty Burke at May 17, 2006 8:17 AM
Comment #148892

Listen guys,I am not able to feel too superior!I just recently purchased a computer on May 13th.Four days I’ve been online.I’m pretty reluctant to embrace technology.I’ve been relying on newspapers,books,and TV for my information.I never felt deprived.My friends,however,shamed me into getting with the times.What I’ve discovered is that while we have a wealth of sources available to us,there aren’t many original thinkers out there.This site is very refreshing.Most people my age are on hook-up sites.

Posted by: Theresa at May 17, 2006 8:29 AM
Comment #148894

Stephen, a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one worth taking time to reflect upon as one reads through.

One glaring concept pushed through my consciousness as I read your article. The evolution of humans dictates that each generation born has more to learn to attain functionality and responsibility than the previous. This appears to be walking hand in hand with our evolving to live far longer lives. Yet, our marketing and PR world continues to stress youth as the greater value to age, experience, knowledge and wisdom. This fact, I find perilously disconcerting.

In our forefathers day, before the multi-billion PR, markteing and advertising phenomena, age, knowledge and wisdom were respected and elected to lead. Today, there are large segments of our society and indeed, many western societies, in which age, experience, knowledge and wisdom are becoming ever more suspect and even blamed for the ills of the world.

Look at the attacks upon the academic and journalist world from the far “right”. Look at the attacks upon the technological and scientific communities from the far “left”.

In a time when errors in knowledge and jugdement translates into horrendous losses of life and limb and security, (Iraq war for example, FEMA’s response to Katrina), logic would dictate that our societies elect to be led by those with age, experience, knowledge and wisdom.

Yet, that is not a widespread and prevailing sentiment. My daughter has at least 2 extra semesters of history to learn to be abreast of modern times over what I had to learn in the 1950’s. Yet, her curriculum has one less semester of history than I had to take. This is a very dangerous sign of our times.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 17, 2006 8:37 AM
Comment #148907

Stephen - excellent post.

“For anyone who is a student of Roman History: this time, these Wars, these Policies, and this “leadership” by George “Little Boots” Bush have no surprises to offer…”

Betty Burke - so glad someone else has finally seen this. The major empires of the history of the world were destroyed more often by one thing than any other, including the Roman Empire, BANKRUPTCY!

According to U.S. Dept of Treasury records, from the first year George Washington was in office, 1789 to 2000, the last year Bill Clinton was in office, all presidents combined borrowed from banks and the international community 1.01 trillion dollars. In 2001 to 2005 alone, George Bush has borrowed 1.05 trillion dollars…..and he came into office with a surplus!!! Now, I understand inflation and the cost of living, but common!

Posted by: Lisa C. at May 17, 2006 10:15 AM
Comment #148925

Perspective of what? Slavery and the near extermination of the Native Americans are both national tragedies. I would not deny, but rather emphasize those events.

We can’t change the past. We can’t change the misguided thoughts and actions of our ancestors. We should acknowledge them, acknowledge the wrong done.

We can’t undo the conquest or slavery, can’t bring the people back to life. We can, however, see better to the conditions of their descendants, and heal the divisions and separations brought on by the evils of long ago.

The men and women of long ago had different roots, different ideologies from which their beliefs sprung. Some were good, some where evil, most were a bit of both. The tangled nature of the human heart was no different then than now. The only difference is we have the benefit of a broader, less culturally autistic understanding of the morality of our actions. Hopefully, we can learn from the mistakes of our past.

Betty Burke-
We may disagree on many things, but here I do agree with you. When the Planes hit the WTC towers on 9/11, the first fear that came to me was that this is how Republics like ours fall, become something worse. That, in part, is something of the motivation that drives what I write, both in its passion and in its moderation.

I also came to enjoy this site for its refreshing maturity. I hope you enjoy reading and posting to Watchblog for some time to come.

David R. Remer-
I don’t believe evolution, natural or cultural perfects things in any ladder of life sense. We simply adapt, and whatever culture or creature takes on adaptations with optimal returns on survival and continuation wins. That can mean going in any number of directions.

The Youth Market may just be an ephemeral result of the Baby-Boomer generation, and the advent of visual mediums that put an premium on appearance. All that taken into consideration, though, wisdom is not dead, nor is the desire for it.

I see the melee of the academic and cultural worlds with some degree of detachment. The desire for control of what people want in terms of consumer goods and what people watch on television and in the movies does not equate with the actual presence of that control

The key here is that wisdom and experience are being hard pressed to keep up with the changes inthe underlying paradigm of society, and the cultural shifts that result. What we need isn’t more anxiety. What we need is for people to make strides to reintegrate the old wisdom in the new world. We shouldn’t be depresssing ourselves over the way the old world is slipping away, or looking with anxiety to the future. Instead, with mature understanding, we should be finding ways to restore the heart of that timeless wisdom in the context and situations of the world we live in now.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 17, 2006 11:33 AM
Comment #148937


Care to elucidate???

Look at the attacks upon the academic and journalist world from the far right. Look at the attacks upon the technological and scientific communities from the far left.

It seems to be the far right that attacks science…they simply deny it and don’t believe it…global warming is but one small instance of their pooh-poohing scientfic findings…throw evolution in there, too…

Please give some examples of the left attacking tech and science…

Posted by: Lynne at May 17, 2006 12:12 PM
Comment #148991

Lynne, check out GreenPeace, or any number of other environmental organizations who use the courts to block engineering and technological developments. I am not saying they are wrong or right to do so. I am saying the far left and right are both targeting knowledge systems. The far left is attacking economic knowledge systems in the form of globalization of the markets.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 17, 2006 3:30 PM
Comment #148993

Stephen, you appear to have agreed with I wrote. Or I appear to have agreed with your reply. Whichever.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 17, 2006 3:31 PM
Comment #149039


Nice article.

I agree that it is worthwhile to put the Founders into context from time to time. I have been reading a lot biographies from that time lately, and the image that got me most was the trip that Adams and Jefferson took together to visit the gardens in England during their stint in Europe. Even in the highly civilized UK, the travails of travel were amazingly difficult.

What was more interesting was the view into a friendship of political rivals that just couldn’t happen even 50 years later much yet today. It seems a great part of their ability to impart wisdom grew out of their shared experience as fellow traitors to the King. That common bond allowed them to work through the policital differneces more easily (or at least with less venom).

I think they also had it easy in some ways. Putting their signatures on the Declaration and contributing to the writing of the Consititution were definitely braver and smarter than anything our leaders will ever do again. But it was an act of creation. Maintainence always seems harder doesn’t it. I read somewhere that one of those beautiful gardens that Jefferson drug Adams to see if not tended would revert back to wild woodlands in 100 years. Is governing really any different?

I wonder what it would be like if those two were with us today. Rare are the brighter minds than they in any generation. But would they be able to achieve so much today without the creative spark that comes with new endeavors be able to achieve so much so quickly? I doubt it.

Posted by: Rob at May 17, 2006 6:28 PM
Comment #149058

Stephen, do you mean the ‘living’ constitutionalists may be more correct in their assumptions than the ‘rigid’ constitutionalists?

What would Scalia say about that?

Posted by: Marysdude at May 17, 2006 7:50 PM
Comment #149083

People move on, societies change, and what brought one result yesterday, brings another today. In some cases, at least. There are also questions as to whether you could really reconstruct the original sense, and whether its evolution wasn’t just an organic development of things in the first place.

We don’t understand the world completely as it is. We do good to work things out in the here and the now. Attempting to bring things back to the way things were is often an exercise in futility and unintended consequences.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 17, 2006 9:29 PM
Comment #149090

Steven, I was recently watching a C-Span airing of a judicial commitee hearing on the appointment of a federal judge, who got cornered into trying to explain what judicial acitvism was. He eventually acknowledged it was purely conjecture colored by politics, in his legalistic-non-answering sort of way.

Posted by: gergle at May 17, 2006 9:52 PM
Comment #149103

Betty , i thought it was the lead, that did the Romans in. and bush, never mind! i just answered my own question.

Posted by: Rodney Brown at May 17, 2006 10:34 PM
Comment #149195

My impression of “judicial activism” is that it’s not unlike “The Liberal Media”, the “Ivory Tower Academics”, and other similar stuff.

The basic, common notion is a fifth column subversive perversion of American institutions that basically cheats in the system, defeating the good Republicans’ honest efforts.

It’s a way of refusing to believe that their inability to shift America’s consensus their way, to fully control the courts and the other institutions could is a result of any problem with their own attitudes or beliefs. In each case, the claim is made that dishonest means are used by the other side, that biases prevent them from getting a fair shake, and that allowing the consensus to remain where it is will send America into the toilet.

This is how the Far Right in the Republican establishment hijacked the party: paranoid fear, and unconditional rejection of contaminated ideas and concepts.

It works to keep party discipline, but like all paranoid points of view, it alienates folks from other people, creating strife, and it also alienates folks from a reality-based, moderate approach to politics and policy.

Ultimately, that blindness means a crash and burn. It also makes it more difficult to adapt with the times, or to determine what the spirit of the times even is. This is what is crippling the Republican party.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 18, 2006 10:39 AM
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