National treasuresthe Crown Jewels
of England, King Tuts Tomb, the Amber Room of Russiaare fascinating
not only because they are unique, priceless, and of inestimable value, but also
because they are symbolic of the cultures that created them. They are more than
just collections of precious metals and gems.
treasures often represent extravagance and exploitation uncharacteristic of
more democratic societies. They often emerge from a strong caste system: a
nations homage to a leader, a kings purposeful accumulation of
wealth, an autocrats share of the labors of his people.
democracy like the United States, created "of the people, by the people, for
the people," there is no king or pharaoh, no czar, and hence no crowns, no
kings jewels, no pharaohs tombs. Accumulated treasures that do
exist in America are either public or private, such as great collections of art
or other important cultural relics. However, these tend to lack either the
intrinsic monetary value or the national symbolism of traditional national
treasures. On rare occasions, a significant treasure may be accumulated
accidentally, the result of an act of nature or an act of God.
the United States Mail Steamship Central America sank in deep water off
the coast of the Carolinas during a monstrous 1857 hurricane, it created just
such an accidental accumulation of treasure. Bound for New York with 578
passengers and crew, and 38,000 pieces of mail, the Central America also
held tons of gold ingots, coins, nuggets, and dust mined from the western gold
fields during a defining quarter-century when the country came of age.
Lost for 131 years, the Central America shipwreck is a unique time
capsule of information and artifacts of an era in which the very character and
spirit of America blossomed.
The treasure symbolizes one of the most
significant periods in American history, the quarter-century between Samuel
Morses 1837 invention of the telegraph, which launched the countrys
first electronic information age, and Abraham Lincolns 1863 Gettysburg
Address, which gave voice to the unspoken question that lingered for decades in
the hearts and minds of the American peoplewhether the United States "or
any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
becoming students of this period, we found ourselves part of a movement of
people whose interest in American history had increased dramatically. This
interest has resulted in a variety of modern perspectives on the
quarter-century that included the discovery of western gold, the Central
Americas sinking, and the economic panic of 1857.
We concur with
the school of thinking of noted scholar Page Smith and others who view the
period before and after the sinking of Central America as one of the most
defining periods in American history, a time when, as Smith titled his 1981
history of the era, "the nation came of age."
The telegraph the
communication miracle of this electronic information agecaused the
nations first electronic information explosion. Until its invention
Americans shared news the hard way, by walking, riding a horse, or sailing from
one place to another and then returning home. The speed of shared information
could be no faster than the speed of any particular round trip.
1840s, as the telegraph became part of the fabric of the nation,
Americans east of the Mississippi could share news at the speed of light. News
in Savannah reached New York immediately. A presidential address set wires
humming throughout the East. Americans began to share their enthusiasms,
aspirations, and emotions not only as individuals and regional groups, but also
as a nation.
The dramatic increase in the speed of shared information
led to a dramatic increase in "emotional connectedness." With the ability to
exchange ideas quickly, being an American became a more immediately shared
experience. For the first time, many Americans began to believe in their hearts
and minds that the democratic experiment was succeeding and prospering. That
belief allowed the national character to blossom into a uniquely American
spirit and a robust drive toward progress. The American dream was alive.
In 1893, noted scholar Frederick Jackson Turner defined this developing
American character as a "coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and
acquisitiveness; that the practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find
expedients, that masterful grasp of material things; that restless, nervous
energy; that dominant individualism."
Today many nations around the
world admire and emulate what it means to be American. Americans, both as
individuals and as a nation, are characterized as spirited, optimistic,
visionary, forward-thinking, adaptable, and entrepreneurial, traits symbolized
by the pioneers, adventurers, and nation-builders aboard the Central America.
With courage and ingenuity, passengers and crew endured the hurricane
the hurricane and bailed their sinking ship for more than 40 hours. In a final
heroic act, Captain William Lewis Herndon and his crew rescued the women and
children by lowering them into lifeboats at the sacrifice of their own lives.
The values and beliefs that inspired their industry in life and tenacity in the
face of death endure today in a shared American spirit.