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Michel Chevalier. By: Leon Cogniet.

In 1833, a French engineer, Michel Chevalier, arrived in America and was fascinated by the infrastructure that surrounded him. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 241.

Chevalier concluded, after touring America, that the improvements in infrastructure “had democratic implications,” as travel required “a long train of luggage, provisions, servants, and guards,” leaving travel to only those who had the means. Id. at 241-42 citing Michael [sic] Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, trans. T. G. Bradford (Boston, 1839), 208-10.

Freedom to travel, Chevalier stated, was fundamental to democracy and to universal suffrage. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 242. Chevalier elaborated further: “To improve the means of communication, then, is to promote a real, positive, and practical liberty; it is to extend to all the members of the human family the power of traversing and turning to account the globe, which has been given to them as their patrimony; it is to increase the rights and privileges of the greatest number, as truly and as amply as could be done by electoral laws. The effect of the most perfect system of transportation is to reduce the distance not only between different places, but between different classes.” Id. at 242 citing Michael [sic] Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, trans. T. G. Bradford (Boston, 1839), 208-10.

Americans, already a mobile, adventurous people, who had become literate and technologically advanced, relished the opportunity to take advantage of the communications and transportation revolutions happening during the time that Chevalier visited. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 242.

With these societal changes came a wider participation in democracy, as newspapers, magazines, post offices, public opinion, and political parties all flourished during this time in a way that had not existed prior to the transportation and communication revolutions. Id.

The growing infrastructure of the early Republic allowed Americans to participate in their society in unprecedented ways. To outside observers, like Chevalier, this was a remarkable achievement for Americans. Without question, it was creating a more dynamic society. Americans were not sitting idly by as the world changed around them. Rather, they were participating, continuing to be informed, and eager to change their country.

That spirit has undoubtedly continued to the present day, while the extent of it may be questioned, as the nature of media has changed. Regardless, Americans would do well to remember that their empowerment is an avenue toward reform and tailoring their society to their wishes. Sitting idly by as the dynamic world moves on can only hurt a society.

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