Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
By Richard White
(W.W. Norton, 660 pp., $35)
The scene is iconic, known to many Americans even casually acquainted with their history. Locomotives of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads come engine grate to engine grate, separated by a mere railroad tie, at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, commemorating the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. And there, as federal officials, other dignitaries, reporters, and a large collection of laborers look on, Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, steps up, silver hammer in hand, to drive the last—and this one a golden—spike into the track, bringing to fruition an epic feat of engineering and imagination, and a proud testament to the nation’s new industrial might and capitalist prowess. So significant did the moment seem at the time that the hammer and spike were connected to a telegraph wire, enabling people from San Francisco to New York City to experience the ceremony with a simultaneity theretofore incomprehensible. It may have been America’s first national media event.
As it turned out—this is rarely included in the story’s telling—Stanford whiffed. He swung and missed, and many of the laborers looking on, chiefly Chinese and Irish, could not help but snicker, guffaw, and howl, much to Stanford’s annoyance. Who could blame them? They had endured endless disputes with Stanford and his associates as they built the Central Pacific out from Sacramento. How could they not take cynical pleasure in the paunchy boss’s inability to carry out the most basic of road construction tasks?
The railroads, especially the transcontinentals, have long symbolized all that seemed inventive, powerful, and “modern” about American capitalism. At a time when the workings of our capitalist economy appear opaque and intangible, the railroads have a satisfying substance and solidity. They mobilized capital and manpower in unprecedented proportions. They took on the great challenges that nature presented. They developed close relations with the state and its many levels of governance. They organized management and labor in innovative ways, pioneering the corporation and many “rational” business practices. And they created the vital thoroughfares of an expanding national and international market.
Richard White just rolls his eyes. His deeply researched, brilliantly rendered, and irreverent new book raises serious questions about virtually every aspect of this representation, and sets its sights both on the railroad promoters of the mid-to-late nineteenth century as well as their interpreters in the twentieth. Clearly influenced by the dot-com bubble that enveloped his surroundings at Stanford University, White offers a withering critique of how the transcontinentals were built: of their economic proclivities, their financial mismanagement, their political corruption, and their cost to the United States and its people. And although he does not mention the Leland Stanford whiff at Promontory Summit, the episode serves as a fitting prologue to a story whose darkly humorous telling prevents it from descending into unremitting tragedy.
ENVISIONED BY the many imperial eyes of early nineteenth-century America, the transcontinental railroad was finally born in the midst of the Civil War. Unlike previous roads, mostly trunk lines that paralleled or intersected with canals or turnpikes and were locally financed with assistance from individual states, the transcontinentals were something new under the sun. They were products of federal legislation, the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. They came with extravagant incentives as to land grants and credit instruments. And they were built across a vast territory of arid plains, mountains, and deserts where marketable surpluses of crops, livestock, or precious metals had yet to be produced. The idea was to bind the West Coast to the Union and encourage white settlement of the trans-Mississippi West (large numbers of native peoples were, of course, already settled there); not incidentally, Congress passed the Homestead Act that same year, making cheap land available for white cultivators.
It was a huge undertaking. But did it make any economic sense? White offers up a categorical “No!” and shows how the economic illogic of the roads opened the way to practices of finance and management that bilked the companies and the country while enriching the entrepreneurs who directed them. Best-known for his stunning treatment (in The Middle Ground) of Native Americans and their cultural exchanges in the Great Lakes region of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, White is also a major scholar of the American West and a thoughtful historian of political economies. The care and the patience with which he has mined the vast record collections, the critical eye and the questions that he has brought into the archives, his refusal to be seduced by the bravado of his main subjects together with the serious attention he accords them, enable White to find and trace the lifeblood of the “transcontinentals.” While the cast of important actors includes surveyors and engineers, hyper-exploited laborers, skilled railroad workers, and managers at several levels, his chief concern is with the owners and the entrepreneurs and, to a lesser extent, with an array of social and political groups who tried to mobilize against them.
How did the railroad men pull off what was, in essence, a gigantic scam? It was not because they knew much, if anything at all, about railroads. The Pacific Railway Act granted two corporations the right to build. One, the Central Pacific, had already been organized to construct a road in California and was run by five men known as the Associates. Although their names would become legendary—Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles and Edwin Crocker, and, the driving force, Collis P. Huntington—at the time they were Sacramento merchants with a collective net worth of around $350,000.
The other corporation, the Union Pacific, was a creation of the legislation itself and the first corporation chartered by the federal government since the Bank of the United States in 1816. The men who initially emerged as the major stockholders were Thomas Clark Durant, a onetime surgeon and grain exporter who became a railroad company broker and an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, and George F. Train, a merchant and speculator. What they had in common was a keen sense of how to work the political system and an abiding commitment to lining their own pockets. They quickly managed to persuade an enthusiastic Congress (by distributing bonds to their “friends of influence”) to sweeten the pot by doubling the already generous land subsidy and guaranteeing the interest and principal on the bonds that the roads had been permitted to sell. The land grant to the Union Pacific alone was equivalent to the land mass of New Hampshire and New Jersey put together. In White’s judgment, it was “the worst act money could buy.”
Had the Civil War gone on for another five to ten years, the first of the transcontinental railroads might have been of some use politically and militarily. The railroads east of the Mississippi River, most of which were in the Northeast and Midwest, did play an important role in moving troops and supplies, and in holding the states of the lower North and upper South to the Union side. As it was, when the war ended in 1865, only a small portion of the transcontinental had been built, and so the most profitable thing for the railroad directors to move—even after the Union Pacific/Central Pacific was completed—was also the most readily available: other people’s money to their own benefit.
THE KEY, as White points out, was for the bosses to observe two cardinal rules: put little or no money down, and negotiate only among yourselves. Since the roads’ debt obligations quickly surpassed their assets, not to mention their operating profits, everything depended on their ability to borrow. Indeed, their most creative endeavors had little to do with deciding where to lay tracks or how much to pay laborers or how to fix rate schedules; they had to do with organizing sham construction companies to peddle stocks and bonds at prices designed to curry the favor of influential politicians eager to buy in and to keep the money flowing into their coffers. For a time it worked remarkably well. Between 1862 and 1873, the Associates of the Central Pacific managed to turn an investment of around $275,000 (only some of it theirs) into a corporation capitalized at more than $135,000,000.
The most infamous of these construction companies, hatched by the Union Pacific, was the Crédit Mobilier, which took in lucrative contracts, purchased railroad stock in the parent company with the proceeds, and then redistributed the stock to shareholders (mostly themselves) as dividends on the order of 50 to 100 percent annually. Since the Crédit Mobilier was a private corporation, unlike the Union Pacific, it avoided public scrutiny; and because bribes were paid to important political “friends” in the form of stock, few in positions of power had much interest in blowing the whistle. The scheme had an architecture that Bernie Madoff would have appreciated.
Railroad lines were, in fact, built. The twenty years after 1860 saw enormous interest in transcontinentals and their equivalents, not only in the United States but also in Canada and Mexico. In many ways, they were the products of new centralized nation-states looking to better integrate their territories: the Juárez and then Díaz governments in Mexico; the Macdonald government of the new Canadian Confederation. To be sure, American investors tried to get their hands into all of these, and succeeded particularly well in Mexico (the reckoning would come with the Mexican Revolution). But in the United States alone, track mileage doubled between 1865 and 1873.
It seemed, at least to the railroad directors, an almost flawless mode—so long as they could keep borrowing. But in 1873—the “annus horribilis,” as White calls it—the money began to dry up. After some revelations, Congress opened an investigation of the Crédit Mobilier that implicated a number of prominent politicians, including the vice president of the United States. European investors had already lost interest in the American roads, and the federal government, shifting to monetary conservatism, had been contracting the money supply. In September, the firm of Jay Cooke, who had made a fortune selling government bonds during the Civil War and was deeply involved with the Northern Pacific, another transcontinental, failed to meet its obligations and closed its doors, initiating the Panic of 1873. The United States and much of the industrializing world went into an economic tailspin known as the First Great Depression, and would remain in economic turmoil for more than two decades.
Amid the enormous economic ruin they helped to cause, the transcontinentals survived, and before too long they were engaged in further rounds of borrowing, extracting subsidies, bribing, bilking, and, yes, even building. As late as 1880, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific remained the only roads to link the midsections of the United States and Canada to the Pacific (they were never truly transcontinentals); by the mid-1880s, they were among many others, and the battles between the railroad entrepreneurs—of different companies and within the same company—only intensified. White does a remarkably good job of revealing all this, and of helping us understand company organization (more accurately, disorganization), from the financial and managerial operations to the workplaces. White paints very deft portraits of railroad workers at various levels of skill and influence, and of the tensions that emerged among them as well as between them and their bosses. He reminds us, too, of the breathtaking changes the roads demanded in how Americans conceived of time and space—of what it meant to calculate journeys not in feet and miles, but in hours and minutes or dollars and cents. It was the railroads, in fact, that pressed for standard time so as to better coordinate their schedules.
All this has encouraged historians to see increasing rationality and efficiency coming out of the conflicts and challenges that the transcontinental railroads (and others, especially west of the Mississippi) encountered: new institutions, new hierarchies, new social relations, new ways of moving goods and calculating costs. White can hardly believe how completely they have been deceived. Only by listening to the directors talk about themselves rather than delving into the belly of the beast, he suggests, could scholars have possibly come up with such a view. For what White sees rising out of the mountains of records is quite the opposite. His is a portrait of rampant irrationality: of endless infighting, widespread mismanagement, elaborate networks of patronage, and outright ignorance as to the most basic elements of railroads operations. The more lines that the companies built, the more places they connected, the more disorder they created. Not surprisingly, much of the money promoters made tended to come from the dummy finance, construction, and development companies, not from the railroads themselves.
BUT THINGS did change in the years after 1873. Some of that change appeared to emanate from inside the operations, as men like Charles Francis Adams Jr., of the famed American family, became president of the Union Pacific Railroad in the mid-1880s. Having already written a critical account of the Erie Railroad and served on the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners, Adams had the bona fides of a reformer and vowed to rein in the excesses and bring a semblance of financial order. His ambition was to have the Union Pacific make its profits not by engaging in stock manipulation or deceptive borrowing, but by providing efficient transportation. Predictably Adams failed, and after displaying his own ruthlessness, he was forced to resign. Far more important, from White’s point of view, was escalating popular opposition to what the railroads were doing and, especially, to how they were doing it. Wide-ranging in its geography and social character, this movement nonetheless shared a political sensibility that White, following other historians of the era, terms “anti-monopoly.”
Anti-monopoly was not the product of the transcontinental railroads or the post-Civil War political economy more generally. Its vintage was longer and more substantial, developing earlier in the nineteenth century—and owing a strong debt to eighteenth-century republican thought—as a critique of accumulated wealth and power that seemed to depend on corrupt political practices. It fed the Jacksonian attack on commercial banks together with the anti-slavery attack on the economic inequalities of the slave South. But in the years after 1865, when the haughty slaveholders had been defeated and an alliance between Republican policymakers and big-business interests appeared increasingly evident, anti-monopoly gained significant popular traction across the country. And no sector of the new industrial economy seemed more emblematic of political corruption in the service of corporate greed than the railroads.
Anti-monopoly wore many hats: this was its strength and its weakness. It encompassed small-town merchants and shippers who felt themselves at the mercy of the railroads’ power; grain and cotton farmers squeezed by discriminatory freight and interest rates; and skilled workers ground down by wage cuts and assaults on their control over the workplace. Together they imagined a smaller-scaled and more cooperative and participatory society, in which debtors might be favored as much as creditors and the goal would be not great wealth but economic independence. And together they were enough of a force to deny the railroads and their corporate allies many victories in the arenas of electoral politics. As White points out, for all its rhetorical and cultural influence, the “Octopus”—the railroad monster taking all within its grasp, relentlessly clutching everything from the soil to the state—was neither a useful nor an accurate model of empowerment. “The actual Octopus,” White writes, “was a sadly conflicted monster. Those tentacles of steel were as likely to be slapping at each other or poking into the monster’s own cyclopean eye as to be securing prey.... It was like watching a group of fat men in an Octopus suit.”
Yet for all of the comical ineptness of the “fat men in an Octopus suit,” the anti-monopolists failed to bring them to heel. They may have bested the railroad men at the polls and gained the moral high ground, but they were unable to translate their numbers into substantial regulation or, better still, into alternative paths of development. In part, the railroads’ resources and brazenness enabled them to choke off the legislative proceedings at state and federal levels, using “friends” and lobbyists to very good effect. But the thrust of White’s assessment is even more dispiriting. Anti-monopolists, he argues, effectively embraced much of the world that the railroads were helping to create and could find neither an alternative language nor a set of institutions and practices. In White’s telling, they shared an ideology of liberalism, accepted modernity and technological innovation, sought material prosperity and self-improvement, looked warily at the poor and dependent in their midst, and in many ways attempted to imitate—in their scale and devices—the corporations themselves.
THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR, to whom White properly devotes a good deal of attention, appeared to exemplify these dilemmas. Other than the Populists, no branch of anti-monopoly was more formidable in the Gilded Age, and especially during the 1880s, than the Knights. First established by Philadelphia tailors in 1869, the Knights grew slowly during the depression-racked 1870s and then, led by Terence Powderly, made their presence felt in the mid-1880s. Unlike trade unions of the time, they recruited unskilled as well as skilled workers “irrespective of party, race, and sex.” They cast their net widely, organizing workers in the marble quarries of Rutland, Vermont; the tobacco factories of Richmond, Virginia; the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts; the iron-rolling mills of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the sugar plantations of lower Louisiana; and the coal mines of Boulder, Colorado. They refused to observe a strict division between workplace and political activities, and during the 1880s they ran independent labor tickets in a variety of places, winning impressive victories and souring their opponents on electoral democracy. In New York City, their candidate for mayor in 1886, Henry George, the author of Progress and Poverty, finished second in a three-way race, beating the young Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. Their agenda included a number of important demands designed to re-arrange the balances of power in American society, chief among them the establishment of the eight-hour day. But they captured the attention of the nation with special drama when they struck some of the most powerful railroads of the trans-Mississippi West.
The 1886 strike against the system of Jay Gould—known as the Great Southwest Strike—was the best-known of them, involving thousands of workers who, over several months, struggled against wage cuts, long hours, union-busting, and arbitrary dismissals. A smaller strike against Gould had been successful the previous year, and the Knights had gained confidence and notice. But this time they found the limits of their strength: not in the form of Gould’s resources (one of his railroads, the Texas and Pacific, had already gone into receivership) but in their own indiscipline and disorganization, and in the powers of the state that could be brought to bear.
However formidable, the strike was not well-coordinated. The Knights’ leadership lost its nerve, the rank-and-file was divided, and the wider anti-monopoly community (especially small-town business) was left confused about the goals and vulnerable to the disruptions of trade. State courts were quick to side with Gould and issue injunctions. And violence along the lines, some of it devolving into pitched battles, enabled Gould to call upon state militias as well as his own private armies to crush the strikers. It would be a devastating defeat for the Knights and it was in many respects a harbinger of the Pullman strike eight years later, when the American Railway Union would be squelched, largely by federal legal and military power, and its leader, Eugene V. Debs, imprisoned.
But the anti-monopolism of the Knights and of other Western workers had its nastier side as well. Their critique of corporate power at the top of the social hierarchy was accompanied by even more bitter hostility to many of those at the very bottom: the thousands of Chinese laborers who carved the road beds and laid the track. It was not knee-jerk racism or simple hatred of the alien “other.” The Chinese, who had come in large numbers to the United States between 1849 and 1882 (perhaps 180,000 of them), worked principally as contract laborers—“coolies,” as they came to be called. They were traded between merchants and railroad bosses, and were economically dependent, often indebted, and super-exploited. Like African American slaves before them, they were the symbols of degradation, inextricably tied to their masters and to the regime that their masters ruled, a veritable partnership that drove down wages and threatened whites with destitution. In White’s words, the Chinese “came to be the ideological embodiment of worker declension—supposedly inferior men who became the tools of an oppressive corporation.” Working-class politics in the 1870s and 1880s, in California and elsewhere in the trans-Mississippi West, targeted the Chinese and achieved more success on this front than perhaps on any other issue of “regulation”: helping to enact the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and then the Foran Act in 1885, which banned the importation of contract laborers.
Anti-monopoly survived the debacles of the Knights of Labor and the American Railway Union and gained new energy in the late 1880s and 1890s, especially in the cotton- and grain-growing districts of the South and the Great Plains. The organizational manifestations were the Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist Party, which together mobilized millions of supporters, shook the political structures of the United States, and put the railroads squarely in their sights. But in White’s telling they seemed encased by the world of power that the railroads and their political allies had constructed. The Farmers’ Alliance embraced the idea of large-scale cooperatives and of pragmatic political strategies, imagining “the imitation of corporations as the first step toward eliminating corporate abuse and power.” The Populists, for their part, managed to harness a great deal of public hostility to the railroads but had a difficult time turning that hostility into “meaningful law and regulation”—even when they claimed significant political victories.
As a result, the best that anti-monopoly could achieve was what White calls a “fragile truce” whose fruits were, first, the almost laughable Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 (as the U.S. attorney general put it, the ICC was “of great use to the railroads” because its “supervision is almost entirely nominal”), and then the potentially radical Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which outlawed all “combinations in restraint of trade,” but, thanks to the courts, was most effectively deployed against labor unions, not least the American Railway Union during the Pullman strike.
Yet the truce was not only a mark of anti-monopoly’s weaknesses; it was also a sign of the trouble and disarray on the railroads. They tottered into the 1890s, helping to precipitate the Panic of 1893 and the serious depression that followed, often fell into receivership, and were subject to massive reorganization under the auspices of finance capital. The strong hand, as both the railroads and the anti-monopolists understood, was that of the state, and while each bid to control the state’s levers, the railroads along with other large corporate interests won out.
RICHARD WHITE could easily, and logically, have ended his book here, with the depression of the 1890s and the corporate mergers that followed. Instead he offers something very different, very risky, and very captivating: a sobering reflection on the price that the transcontinentals and their supporters exacted from American (as well as Mexican and Canadian) society, together with an imaginative picture of how the United States might have developed had the transcontinentals not been built when they were. “Were the transcontinentals worth their costs?” he asks. “And did their rapid expansion, on balance, yield more benefits than harm?” Far from looking back wistfully to pre-industrial times, White reminds us that the issue, as he understands it, was never between railroads or no railroads but between the transcontinentals, with their subsidies and rapid construction in advance of white settlement, and a longer reliance on smaller, regional lines.
White is hardly confused about the answers. What he sees—much like the anti-monopolists—is a whirlwind of what Schumpeter would call “creative destruction,” in which the social good was sacrificed for the economic benefit of the very few. The transcontinentals promoted highly uneven development, lowered per capita incomes in most of the western states, increased the concentration of wealth and property ownership, destroyed bison herds, ended the open-range cattle industry, and played a central role in the suppression of Indian resistance. The transcontinentals, he writes, “helped create both what might be called dumb growth and environmental catastrophes.... [They] were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social, and environmental fabric of the nation.”
It could have been different. Instead of being built with large government subsidies and ahead of economic demand, the railroads could have been built without special subsidies and “as demand required.” Instead of being massive projects organized by politically privileged corporations, postwar railroads could have remained regional lines more closely tied to local interests and established forms of economic activity. Instead of seeking to disrupt native cultures and diverse ecologies that stood in their way, the railroads could have followed a more adaptive path. Instead of corrupting the state in desperate quests for profits and survival that the roads’ operations would not enable, they could have focused on the tasks of moving people and goods. And instead of taking the country on a roller-coaster ride of booms and busts, they could have attempted to serve the needs of manufacturers, farmers, and the many small towns along their routes. The pace of American growth certainly would have been slower, but as White puts it, “there might very well have been less waste, less suffering, less environmental degradation, and less catastrophic busts in mining, agriculture, and cattle raising. There would have been more time for Indians to adjust to a changing world.... There would have been less bloodshed and slaughter. There would have been fewer rushes and collapses, fewer booms and busts.” “Quite literally,” White concludes, “if the country had not built transcontinental railroads, it might not have needed them until much later, when it could have built them more cheaply, more efficiently, and with fewer social and political costs.”
But then it would not have been a country, or at least not a nation-state. White argues eloquently that contingency “is the mark of history as a discipline” and chides historians who resist engaging in counterfactuals. “We need to think about what did not happen in order to think historically,” he writes. I could not agree with him more. Historical outcomes are not preordained, and it is important for us to reveal the range of possibilities that are available and the different social groups who are struggling for them. Still, historical circumstances can make some outcomes more likely than others, and I wonder if Richard White, in his effort to deconstruct the history of the transcontinentals, may have his counterfactuals misconstrued.
FOR ONE THING, it is a mistake to represent the building of the transcontinentals chiefly in economic terms. The transcontinentals were not only an immense economic project, but an immense political and cultural project, too; and their history is much deeper than the Civil War, when their construction was finally authorized. Some type of transcontinental railroad was imagined almost as soon as the first railroads appeared in the 1820s and 1830s. By the 1840s, certainly, they came on the agenda of political leaders in various parts of the country and almost across the political spectrum.
The strongest interest was to be found in the Northern states, and advocates there included the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas as well as the Whig-turned-Republican Abraham Lincoln. But Southern slaveholders, especially expansionists in the lower Mississippi Valley such as Jefferson Davis, waxed enthusiastic as well. The Republican platforms of 1856 and 1860 included planks declaring that “the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid” to the construction of a “railroad to the Pacific Ocean by the most central and practicable route”; the Democrats in 1860 called for “Constitutional Government aid” for the same end. In 1859, Lincoln could insist that “there was nothing more important before the nation than the building of a railroad to the Pacific,” and as president he not only signed the Pacific Railway Act but also called for even more generous terms to secure private investors and thought about supporting a “proposal of simultaneously building three separate lines to the West Coast.”
Lincoln had close relations with railroad companies in his law practice, but his fixation on the transcontinental had more to do with saving the union and building a nation. In 1860, Lincoln won only a third of the vote in California and Oregon, and there was soon talk of Confederate sympathies and an independent Pacific coast republic. For Lincoln, the transcontinental railroad was the centerpiece of a larger policy to bind the trans-Mississippi West to the Union; lay claim to the gold and silver mines of New Mexico, Colorado, and the Sierra Nevadas; and keep hold of the California gateways to the trade of the Pacific. Not incidentally, the Republican Congress quickly created the Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and Montana Territories; finally admitted Kansas as a free state; and encouraged Colorado and Nevada to apply for statehood. It also reorganized military districts in the West with a view to raising more volunteers and keeping disloyalty (and Indians) in check.
So the transcontinental was not a scheme hatched by greedy entrepreneurs. It was an element of nation-state formation. Everywhere one looks in the nineteenth century, new and aspiring states built transcontinentals or their equivalents as part of the process of extending their authority, creating national markets, defining borders, and enabling the movement of troops and supplies when necessary. White is well aware of this. Yet in the American case it complicates the counterfactual. The making of a transcontinental railroad before the Civil War was blocked in Congress by the votes of slaveholding Democrats who worried that it would empower the central government and the non-slaveholding states at their expense. The only way that the project could have been derailed once most of the slaveholding states left the Union was if the war was lost and the United States was shattered (this is one of the relevant counterfactuals). Otherwise, the alternatives were not so much a transcontinental railroad or something far more modest in design, but a transcontinental railroad that was privately controlled or one that was publicly controlled—this was on the table of discussion and, given the comparative history of railroad development, it deserves more consideration.
WHITE'S EFFORTS to expose the economic costs, irrationality, and political corruption of the transcontinentals also prevent him from fully exploring an insight that is embedded in his story and has enormous ramifications: that the transcontinentals, in their financing, management, labor relations, and dependence on the state, were emblematic of the nature and dynamics of capitalism in the trans-Mississippi West—and that capitalism in the trans-Mississippi West may well have exemplified capitalism in the United States writ large during the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries.
The United States, it is important to remember, was a relatively late industrializer in the Euro-Atlantic world, well behind Britain and much of the continent. Although we often assume that the Northern states on the eve of the Civil War were well along the road of urbanization and industrialization, the country as a whole—outside of a narrow corridor in the Northeast—was overwhelmingly rural and agricultural. Farming was still the province of independent households, and much of the manufacturing, inside and outside cities, was organized on a craft basis.
Yet in a number of important ways this economy foreshadowed what would emerge full-blown in the postbellum West. Like the trans-Mississippi West, the advanced sections of the antebellum economy relied on unfree, legally dependent, super-exploited, and politically disfranchised labor: slaves growing staple crops; women and children producing textiles; slaves, free people of color, and Irish immigrants digging canals, laying railroad track, and dredging harbors. Like the trans-Mississippi West, merchant and banking capital—from both the United States and Europe—played critical roles in financing canals, railroads, textile mills, cotton plantations, land speculation, and the developing Pacific trade. Like the trans-Mississippi West, state institutions—municipal governments, state legislatures, and the courts—promoted developmental projects, often at the expense of small producers and operators. And like the trans-Mississippi West, federal and state authorities moved to expand the boundaries of white settlement through both conquest and the suppression and relocation of Native Americans.
White regards his book, in good measure, as “a study of how the unsuccessful and the incompetent not only survived but prospered and became powerful” (something like social Darwinism turned inside out, the survival of the “unfittest”), and he marvels at “a deeper mystery of modernity” that the history of the transcontinentals seems to expose: “how so many powerful and influential people are so ignorant and do so many things badly and yet the world still goes on.” The anti-monopolists of the time would not have expressed the same surprise. They surely did not think that their bosses were any smarter than they were or that the wealth they accumulated was a sign of their competence; if anything, anti-monopolists, whether farmers or workers, prided themselves on the knowledge they brought to the process of making things and setting them in motion, and called their bosses “robber barons” in part because they tried to appropriate that knowledge and render the producers dependent. They never bought into the world of power their bosses were making to the extent that White suggests (accepting many of the features of “modernity” is not the same thing as accepting its social relations), and they fashioned a critique that emphasized class privilege, political corruption, and the radical dislocations that capitalism caused.
This is why American capitalism in the nineteenth century—typified by the trans-Mississippi West—was so brutal and heavy-handed, and why the United States had the most violent social and labor history in the industrializing world. Much is said about America’s exceptional experience of industrialization with an enfranchised working class, but in truth the democratization of the franchise occurred before the period of industrial take-off and before the dramatic expansion of the American wage-earning class. From that point on—say, the 1850s-economic elites looked for various ways to scale political democracy back, beginning with the Irish, and were not reluctant to organize vigilantes and private armies to secure the power that the electoral arena might deny them.
Stanford, Huntington, Gould, Crocker, Cooke, and the others did not become rich and powerful because they were geniuses, or unusually clever. They became rich and powerful because they had advantages handed down to them, were in the right place at the right time, made useful connections, and figured out how to game the system. That system, known as capitalism, was—as nineteenthcentury observers and critics insisted—about moving money through new and expanding circuits facilitated by the state and its varied personnel. It still is. What seems to have been lost over the past half-century, as Railroaded grimly reminds us, are the political perspectives that anti-monopoly so forcefully expressed.
Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is writing a book about the United States and its world during the nineteenth century. This article appeared in the October 20, 2011 issue of the magazine.
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