October 2013

The journey to become one nation

By Simon Winchester
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Some readers may not feel the United States today is quite the unum that Simon Winchester declares it to be in his engaging and informative The Men Who United the States. But after living in many places around the world and traveling extensively in the United States, the English-born Winchester became a U.S. citizen on Independence Day 2011, so he should be allowed a sparkler-flare or two of unalloyed, optimistic patriotism.

Besides, the unity he writes about so well is not political or cultural. Rather, Winchester believes “the ties that bind are most definitely, in their essence, practical and physical things.” He is most interested in the continent-spanning technologies—canals, railroads, highways, electricity, telegraph, radio, telephones and television—that have brought Americans together over vast distances.

Winchester tells the stories of the continent-spanning technologies that have brought Americans together.

What makes this book so enjoyable is that he ties the development of these advances to some brilliant but idiosyncratic personalities. Clarence King, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, exposed the Great Diamond Fraud and later led a fascinating secret life. The abstemious Nikola Tesla may have had a greater impact on modern uses of electricity than Thomas Edison. And who knew that Theodore Judah, the possibly mad son of a Connecticut preacher, successfully promoted a transcontinental railroad route but died before it was completed?

Winchester draws, too, from his own travels in the U.S. In one of the book’s best segments, he recounts a cross-country road trip using Dwight David Eisenhower’s 1919 diary from the U.S. Army’s Transcontinental Convoy, sent to assess how quickly troops could be deployed across the country. Not very quickly, it turns out, giving rise to President Eisenhower’s commitment to building the interstate highway system.

As a new citizen, Winchester also notes something that is far more controversial than it used to be: the important role of big government in forging e pluribus into unum. Without a lot of fanfare, he reminds us that for all its flaws, American government is not them; it’s us.

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