Digital History

The Roots of American Economic Growth

Speeding Communications Previous Next
Digital History ID 3510



Poor communications had also impeded development. During the 1790s, it took 3 weeks for a letter to travel from New York to Cincinnati or Detroit and 4 weeks to arrive in New Orleans. In 1799 it took 1 week for news of George Washington's death to reach New York City from Virginia. A decade and a half later, it still took 49 days for word of the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 to reach New York from London.

By the early 1830s, a decade before Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, the transmission of information had improved considerably as a result of improved roads and faster sailing ships. In 1831 it took just 15.5 hours for the text of Andrew Jackson's State of the Union address to travel from Washington to New York--eight times faster than in 1799. By 1841 a letter traveled between New York and New Orleans in 9 days and between New York and Cincinnati in 5 days--three times faster than in 1815.

The volume of information transmitted also increased considerably. In 1790 the United States had just 92 newspapers, with a total annual circulation of less than 4 million. By 1820 the number of papers published had jumped to 512, with an annual circulation of 50 million; by 1835 there were 1,258 newspapers in the United States with a circulation of over 90 million. When Alexis de Tocqueville, a French observer, visited the United States in 1831, he was shocked at the amount of information available even in frontier regions: "I do not think that in the most enlightened rural districts of France there is an intellectual movement either so rapid or on such a scale as in this wilderness."

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