Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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TELEGRAPH. The electric telegraph, by annihilating time and space, is destined to play in the world a part analogous to that of steam. These two marvelous discoveries, by lending a helping hand to each other, have profoundly modified social relations, and we may, without exaggeration, assert that they are the beginning of a new era for humanity. The electric telegraph, which is still only in its infancy, has not yet yielded all the results which it is destined to produce; but we may even now get an obscure glimpse of what they will be. In politics it simplifies diplomatic relations, by putting governments themselves, by means of dispatches—which follow one another, so to speak, minute after minute—in direct communication, and by doing away with the hesitation and perplexity of their agents abroad. Without doubt political questions remain none the less obscure and embarrassed on this account, but the different opinions formed, the new facts which arise, becoming known instantly to the states interested in them, may have for effect rapid decisions and effectual measures, which but for electricity might arrive too late. From the point of view of the security of governments, the electric telegraph is one of the greatest administrative forces, for it gives the authorities the means of knowing immediately what is taking place at the points the most remote from the centre, and of making their action felt there without delay. In criminal matters the telegraph is a powerful auxiliary of the police; it prevents the flight of the guilty party by shutting him up in its wire-work as in the meshes of a net. By the telegraph line a general-in-chief may be present on every square of the chess-board on which the terrible game called a military campaign is played, and he may keep in constant and direct communication with his lieutenants. Unfortunately the net-work of telegraphs does not long remain intact in times of war, for the destruction of lines is one of the first acts of hostility. However, in the Italian war (1859) a successful effort was made to organize a system of lines which the enemy could not reach: this was the flying telegraph, the apparatus of which, that is, the posts and the wires, put up rapidly by agile workmen, followed the different army corps, and assisted in every movement. Prussia made a noteworthy use of this system in 1870.


—We consider the electric telegraph one of the most powerful means of civilization which has been given to man; and we are of opinion that its future was opened to it only the day on which it was placed within the reach of everybody. The telegraph, which up to that time, in Europe, had been only a mysterious agent in the hands of governments, became an indefatigable apostle of human progress. From the point of view of morals, it is scarcely necessary to point out the influence of the relations it established among all the nations of the globe, of its diffusion of light which tends to raise all nations to the same level, and to the community of interests by which it draws them nearer to each other, or unites them. From the politico-economic point of view, the results are still more striking. By saving the time formerly spent in negotiating commercial affairs, the telegraph has increased commercial transactions in an incalculable proportion. It furnishes, moreover, sure and rapid information which enables merchants to expedite in time to a distant point, goods, the demand for which is urgent. Lastly, it establishes, among all the exchanges and all the markets of the world, a solidarity which prevents or attenuates catastrophes. In a still other order of facts, what misfortunes the telegraph may prevent! In case of a conflagration, it calls assistance from all directions; in case of a flood it warns those who live on the banks of rivers of their impending danger; on railways it averts the most frightful accidents by its power of vastly surpassing in speed the utmost rapidity of steam. We here recall the influence of the telegraph on facts of the moral order, and its influence economic and material, for neither politics nor political economy can be indifferent to these results. The increase of enlightenment and wealth is advantageous, not to individuals only; that increase is an increase of force in which the state which has known how to develop wealth and enlightenment finds the elements of its power. And hence it is that the most civilized peoples, who are at the same time the greatest peoples, were the first to understand the necessity of extending their network of telegraphs as rapidly as possible.


—In the United States the exploitation of telegraphic lines is still left to private industry. And so it was in England before the law of July 31, 1868 (31, 32 Viet., ch. 110), which authorized the government to purchase the telegraph. The great states of Europe have reserved to themselves the monopoly of the telegraph. Apart from the fiscal interest which urges governments to find new sources of revenue, there prevailed not long since in Europe a powerfully accredited opinion, that the telegraphic mode of correspondence should be reserved to governments. But since the introduction of railways and the immense movement of relations and affairs which has been the consequence of that introduction, the telegraph has been looked upon as the necessary complement of that new means of transportation, and European governments have considered, that, with certain guarantees, the use of telegraphic correspondence should be allowed to the public.*136


Notes for this chapter

Aristide Dumont wrote in 1854: "The use of the telegraph, once it has been popularized, is called to render to the production of wealth services which have some relation to those created by economic and rapid ways of circulation, since these services shorten time, that stuff of which life is made, and since, in every industry, they impress greater activity upon production, and, as a consequence, diminish the amount of unproductive capital, lower the amount of current expenses in business, facilitate exchanges, and abridge transactions of every kind.

—But from another point of view, the telegraph is called to render much greater services to industry. If we suppose the net-work of telegraphs extended and popularized, not only over the entire surface of Europe, but over every civilized point of the world, a single day would be sufficient to exchange news between the most distant markets; thenceforth there would be none of those uncertainties which so frequently disturb commercial relations, and none of those rumors which facilitate stock-jobbing [?]. A sort of equilibrium would become established, and production would become more independent of the emotions produced by politics. Is it not true that if the electric telegraph had embraced, in the course of the year 1853, the Danubian provinces, Constantinople, St. Petersburg, Odessa; and that if it had been possible to exchange a dispatch, in one day, between these different points and Paris, France's public funds and industrial values would have undergone fewer fluctuations? Kept constantly informed of what was happening, Frenchmen would have been less excited, and this would have prevented the rum of a great many individuals.

—Thus the electric telegraph facilitates the production of wealth in two ways: 1, by saving time and permitting a diminution in the amount of unproductive capital; 2, by establishing a sort of equilibrium between all markets, and of thus diminishing the influence of the uncertainty of politics on industry.

—But if we consider the telegraph from the moral point of view, we believe that it has introduced into the world a revolution still more profound. If, in fact, the various continents are united, and they will-be united in the course of this century [a prophecy fulfilled not very long after it was made]; if communication can be had in a few hours between London, Canton, New York, Calcutta and Paris, a new force will be added to the civilizing power of humanity, to the diffusion of enlightenment and to the radiation of good upon evil. The limits which pen peoples up will be blotted out, and peoples the most remote from one another acquire solidarity and unity. Men will emigrate more freely, for they will be no longer morally separated by any barrier. The superabundant population of Europe will feel less repugnance to transfer their activity to shores hitherto unknown; for, if they go even to the antipodes, they will not be, as formerly, remote from their country, their relations and their habits. This fear of remoteness has been hitherto a great obstacle to the spread of civilization. Some peoples are less subject than others to this species of nostalgia, and it is they who have accomplished the greatest things. The telegraph will tend more and more to remove that obstacle."


End of Notes

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