Defining Progress in America
To progress by definition means: to develop to a more advanced stage, or to move forward. As historians look back on certain events and happenings that have shaped America over the course of time, one of the main questions they consider is whether or not that particular event fostered progress in America. During the 19th century, a young America saw huge advancements in mobility and trade. These advancements in mobility fueled an expansion of commercialism in free and enslaved people alike. The Artificial River by Carol Sheriff and The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano give a prospective on the “progress” in trade and mobility in the 18th and 19th centuries that leaves the reader wondering whether or not America was really experiencing progress at that time. By focusing on these two novels, it will be shown that the increase in commercialism brought both valued benefits as well as unwanted repercussions to free and enslaved people alike, and that determining progress is not so straightforward. The objective then is to make sense of the ambiguities of progress rooted in mobility and trade for these two groups of people, and come to some assessment of whether or not America was indeed experiencing progress during that time period.
The Artificial River covers the history of the Erie Canal from the digging of the first spadeful of Erie Canal dirt in 1817, through it’s successes and failures up to the year 1862. The construction of the Erie Canal brought many valued benefits that could be considered progress to the people involved at the time. The Erie Canal opened up new jobs, established a new mercantile class, reduced distance and time for transportation, increased tourism, expanded commercial agriculture, and in some cases became the source of great personal success and financial freedom for those who played their cards right.
For some people, the building of the Erie Canal, and the resulting expansion of trade and mobility that came with it, produced the opportunity to become independent, or “free” if you will. Although it was not the same type of freedom an enslaved person sought after, it was freedom from debtors or creditors. One such a person, who sought this type of financial independence, was Mary Ann Archbald. Through the building of the Erie Canal, Archbald and her family were able to sell their surplus of goods (i.e. cloth and wheat) to a greater market. The selling of goods to a broader market proved to be the key to the Archbald family’s financial success, for it was not long after the construction of the canal that Archbald was able to boast that she was rich (in the sense that, to her, rich meant out of debt) (Sheriff, p. 13).
Much like the Erie Canal helped Archbald gain her freedom from debtors, enslaved peoples sometimes were able to capitalize on the expanding trade economy during the 18th and 19th centuries to gain their freedom. Olaudah Equiano was one such a slave...