“For the Benefit of the Whole Human Race”: The Significance, Memory, and Legacy of the Postal Telegraph Movement in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:40 AM
Ontario Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Richard John, Columbia University
Historians have long known that telegraph inventor Samuel F. B. Morse labored diligently in the 1840s to convince lawmakers to purchase his telegraph patents and operate the telegraph network as a branch of the Post Office Department.  Morse’s failure to convince lawmakers to buy him out was not forgotten; rather, and in curious and idiosyncratic ways, it influenced—and, in some instances, distorted—the post-Civil War public debate to regulate the telegraph network.

This paper reconstructs several key features of this postwar debate over what contemporaries called postal telegraphy in an effort to highlight its significance not only for post-bellum statecraft, but also the present-day public debate over the regulation of the internet.  In particular, it show how in the 1860s corporate publicists led by the political economist David A. Wells distorted Morse’s pre-Civil War support for government ownership; how in the 1870s radical Republican Ben Butler deployed historical arguments to shape public assumptions concerning the relationship of the federal government and the press (assumptions that found their way into the landmark Supreme Court case Pensacola v. Western Union); and how a generation of postal officials (of whom the most important were John A. J. Creswell and John Wanamaker) built on pre-Civil War precedents to craft an expansive justification for government regulation of communications networks (a justification that in the 1910s would shape corporate policy at AT&T). 

This paper is based on my ongoing research on nineteenth-century communications policy—research that has included an extensive survey of published and manuscript sources—and will form a part of my current research project on the history and legacy of the anti-monopoly tradition in American business, politics, journalism, and social theory.

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