A while back, while innocently strolling through downtown Portland, I encountered a used book store that featured a nice selection of books for 35¢ each. I picked up a copy of “The United States in 1800” by Henry Adams. This has always been a period of American history that’s fascinated me.
Adams goes to great lengths to emphasizes how isolated each region was from the other. Travel was slow, dangerous and unreliable. He writes (pp. 6-8):
The union of New England with New York and Pennsylvania was not an easy task even as a problem of geography, and with an ocean highway; but the union of New England with the Carolinas, and of the seacoast with the interior, promised to be a hopeless undertaking. Physical contact alone could make one country of these isolated empires, but to the patriotic American of 1800… the idea of ever bringing the Mississippi River, either by land or water, into close contact with New England, must have seemed wild. By water, an Erie Canal was already foreseen; by land, centuries of labor could alone conquer those obstacles which Nature permitted to be overcome.
In the minds of practical men, the experience of Europe left few doubts on this point. After two thousand years of public labor and private savings, even despotic monarchs, who employed the resources of their subjects as they pleased, could in 1800 pass from one part of their European dominions to another little more quickly than they might have done in the age of Antonines. A few short canals had been made, a few bridges had been built, and excellent post-road extended from Madrid to St. Petersburg; but the heavy diligence that rumbled from Calais to Paris required three days for its journey of one hundred and fifty miles, and if travellers ventured on a trip to Marseilles they met with rough roads and hardships like those of the Middle Ages. Italy was in 1800 almost as remote from the north of Europe as when carriage-roads were first built. Neither in time nor in thought was Florence or Rome much nearer to London in Wordsworth’s youth than in the youth of Milton or Gray…
While Europe had thus consumed centuries in improving paths of trade… America was required to construct, without delay, at least three great roads and canals, each several hundred miles long, across m0untain ranges, through a country not yet inhabited, to points where no great markets existed…
Even the lightly equipped traveller found a short journey no slight effort. Between Boston and New York was a tolerable highway, along which, thrice a week, light stage-coaches carried passengers and the mail, in three days. From New York a stage-coach started every week-day for Philadelphia, consuming the greater part of two days in the journey; and the road between Paulus Hook, the modern Jersey City, and Hackensack, was declared… to be as bad as any other part of the route between Maine and Georgia. South of Philadelphia the road was tolerable as far as Baltimore, but between Baltimore and the new city of Washington it meandered through forests; the driver chose the track which seemed least dangerous, and rejoiced if in wet seasons he reached Washington without miring or upsetting his wagon.
This is why, until fairly recently, each rural region and valley had its own accent. Given enough time, American would have produced hundreds of separate dialects and languages.
But people didn’t want isolation; they wanted progress, commerce, access to the outside world, opportunities and exotic products to grace their homes and their bodies. Isolation is a hardship, much like dieting or frugality. People don’t enjoy dieting or frugality – but they do enjoy the long-term results. Just as a person rejoices in his svelte physique, which he acquired through sacrifice, so too might a community rejoice in its distinctiveness, which it acquired through the sacrifice of isolation.
These days, people are encouraged to relinquish their differences. Cross-ethnic coupling is touted as a positive development. Neighborhoods, schools and workplaces are required by law to mix. Ironically, people who object to the destruction of their distinctiveness are accused of opposing “diversity.”
But when it comes to the animal kingdom, the powers that be are less ambiguous. With animals, true diversity is the law. Even a population of rats, about which there is some disagreement over whether it constitutes its own subspecies or not, can stand in the way of development and cost millions of dollars. We read, in a 2007 Fox news story:
A new study reinforces a tiny rodent’s reputation as the mouse that roared, and that could block millions of dollars in development in Wyoming and Colorado if it hangs on to its endangered status.
For the second time, a study has found the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is distinct from other types of mice and deserves federal protection…
Eighteen months ago the Interior Department announced it was withdrawing the Preble’s endangered status based on a study that concluded it was actually a more common subspecies of jumping mouse.
Developers cheered the decision, but after a chorus of complaints by other scientists and environmental groups, the decision was delayed and a new study was ordered.
Should human populations be treated the same as animal subspecies? One of the differences between animals and humans is that the former lack free choice – but when the government steps in and denies us our freedom of choice, by forcefully integrating us, by imposing its own favored cultural mores and dialect (through the corporate-owned media, with which it is symbiotic) and by importing hordes of foreigners, then we too lack free choice.
It might be argued that human diversity (biological and cultural) should be valued more than animal diversity. Human societies endured generations of deprivation as the price for their diversity. When humans suffer for something, the product of that suffering is given a higher premium. The fact that many soldiers died for our country is furnished as a reason to be more patriotic. The suffering of Jesus, and Christian martyrs, is used to instill piety among modern Christians. Jews recall the ultimate sacrifice of the ten martyrs twice a year in order to bolster our own commitment.
But this concept is not applicable to animals. We may value a thoroughbred, but not due to the suffering of its ancestors. There were no martyrs among the ancestors of the modern Preble’s meadow jumping mouse.
Feel free to read my earlier post, “Of ducks and men“, for more on this.