15 Past the Century in America

15 Past the Century in America

By Sean Braswell

american history


Because sometimes the best way to understand where you’re going is to see how far you’ve come.

By Sean Braswell

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see history unfold before your very eyes? To journey through time — not in some haphazard, Time Traveler’s Wife fashion where you turn up naked in a strange garden, but in a steady march through history, arriving at regular intervals so you can witness a greater narrative unfold? What would, for example, America look like if you visited it once every century, and how would it differ in 1615, 1715 and so on?

Hold on to your chair, close your eyes and let’s dial back that clock. Clothing optional.

Jamestown, Virginia, 1615

Welcome to Jamestown, a 1,000-person settlement at the fringes of a sprawling, and previously occupied, continent. Here you’ll mostly encounter white men from England, many of whom are indentured servants in what is essentially a company town, run with military precision for the benefit of the Virginia Company and its stockholders an ocean away. About 75 percent of early colonists to America were indentured servants who, in exchange for passage, worked as laborers in the New World under contracts that could be bought and sold, and with a 50-50 chance of dying before earning their freedom.

On the bright side, there is plenty of rum, and, thanks to planters like John Rolfe, recently married to a young girl from Powhatan named Pocahontas, there is tobacco, which will become the colony’s chief export. Two other landmark developments in 1619 will shape the young colony: the advent of representative government and a boat carrying the first 20 African slaves. By 1715, there will be almost 60,000 slaves in America, and the conditions they will endure will make the hardships and contractual chains in Jamestown pale by comparison.

Boston, 1715

The American colonies have slowly spread up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Before you is Boston, the embodiment of the famous “city upon a hill.” Except that Boston is more like a grungy small town, its 15,000 residents navigating the muddy quagmire of sewage that passes for roads, their Puritan noses accustomed to the unholy stench.

But business has been good for the godly in Boston, and while fellow colonists in Virginia — with their tobacco plantations and slaves — have been busy re-creating mother England on a new shore, New England has ironically started thumbing its nose at her. It will be more than 50 years before a shipment of tea will be dumped into Boston’s harbor, but trouble is brewing, and most here are already fed up with the mercantile system that has lined the pockets of British merchants.

New Orleans, 1815

You are now in the United States of America, which, thanks to the gargantuan Louisiana Purchase, extends west here to New Orleans and beyond. In addition to a lot more land, there are a lot more people. The young nation’s birthrate is growing phenomenally, the population doubling to 9.6 million this decade. Immigrants are starting to flood in from Northern and Western Europe, too, many without documents. According to Paul Johnson, author of A History of the American People, more than 100,000 of those who come ashore in America in the next five years will do so “without having to show a single bit of paper.”

The War of 1812 and the ongoing struggles with the British have finally been put to rest after Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s recent victory here, and a prosperous nation is thriving. In the wake of the war, the country will experience a surge of nationalism, begetting universal suffrage … for white males. America’s reviving religiosity and its growing number of slaves (approaching 1.3 million in the South) are increasingly at odds. “Religion would have swept away slavery in America without difficulty early in the 19th century,” claims Johnson, “but for one thing: cotton.” Cotton, the largest single source of the nation’s wealth, will indeed be king and the nation’s clothes will be far cleaner, even if its conscience remains sullied.

New York, 1915

Before you is a nation of almost 100 million, with 5 million in its largest city, New York. Many residents now own telephones, refrigerators, radios and soon … cars (the number of registered vehicles will explode from 2 million to 26 million in the next 20 years). In two years, women will at last have the right to vote in New York, then nationally in five.

The U.S. has become the richest country in the world, its industrial economy dwarfing all others, but it is still an uncoordinated collection of states focused mostly on local matters. Following the First World War, in which it will loan allies hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase its own goods, America will be a globally minded world power.

Back to the Future

And here you are back in 2015. Things have changed dramatically again, and one can only imagine what America will look like in 2115. To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, “History moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”