The `wash 'n dry' cycle of US history

I get giddy every April Fools' Day, taking enormous delight in expounding my no-foolin' theory of American history. It's called the wash 'n' dry cycle. The wash cycle began in colonial times when the most important Americans were merchants whose goods moved across the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, these were difficult times: The technology of shipping was poor, and many businessmen went under. And there were few financial institutions in the New World at the time, with the possible exception of river banks. However, if merchants wrote checks on funds on deposit in English banks, they had the longest float in recorded financial history, about six to eight months.

Along with the Navigation Acts, the most pressing economic issue by the mid-18th century was liquid: tea. American merchants simply didn't like the idea of relying on a single British supplier for their afternoon refreshment. Hence, the origin of the Boston Tea Party.

The wash cycle continued with the first President, George WASHington, and soaked, then rinsed the era of Thomas Jefferson. Important political issues dealt with H2O: the Whiskey Rebellion, the disputes with Spain over the Mississippi River, the maritime frictions with Great Britain and France, and the Barbary pirates.

After the War of 1812, the nation entered a dry phase. One of the most important products was cotton, which had a tendency to swab a lot of economic matter. Even the names of statesmen in this era suggest dehydration -- Henry Clay is a case in point. And the industry that took off in the 1830s was purposefully designed to keep Americans high and dry, namely, shoe and boot manufacturing. As for the infant railroad industry, well, one economic historian points out that the trains almost dried up: ``The earliest railroads in the United States (as in England) were experimental. The Baltimore & Ohio experimented with every form of track construction and gauge, wasting millions of dollars. Locomotives were unsatisfactory -- for instance, they would not run in rain.''

The election of William Henry Harrison in 1840 gushered in a new era. The victor of the Battle of TippeCANOE, Harrison had to be all wet. So was his campaign, which centered around log cabins and cider barrels. Two wars were fought in the 20 years after 1840, and both centered around water: the Mexican War originated in disagreements over the Rio Grande River, and the Mormon War and the Great Salt Lake were synonymous.

Actually, the Civil War was pretty arid; that is, it was a land war. And with the exception of President Grant's secretary of state, whose name was Hamilton Fish, there is little in the post-Civil War years to evoke the vision of a stream of American history.

By the 1890s things got moist, with some pump-priming during the Depression of '93 and some sweaty palms after the sinking of the Maine in '98.

The early 20th century was a mixed (slightly damp) historical bag -- with one lame-duck president and one winning by a landslide. But the 1920s brought a return to the monsoon season of our history, what with Teapot Dome, the Washington and London naval treaties, Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, and the fad of swallowing goldfish.

Perhaps the most important man of the decade, Herbert Hoover, fell victim to an economic riptide (the Great Depression), but this was after he served as director of a relief effort for Mississippi River flood victims in 1927. He was inaugurated in the rain on March 4, 1929, and, significantly, chose fishing as his favorite pastime.

I could go on and on, but I'm certain the question foremost among readers is, ``What about the future?'' Well, it's too early to predict whether we'll see a tidal wave electoral victory in 1988, with one party heading for the high and dry ground. But I am absolutely certain about the immediate future: Between now and April 15 when income tax returns are due, a lot of Americans will simply be trying to keep their heads -- excuse me -- above water.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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