RAILROADS AND THE CHARACTER OF AMERICA, 1820-1887 by James A. Ward

RAILROADS AND THE CHARACTER OF AMERICA, 1820-1887

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A series of engaging essays about the development of American railroading through the year Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, signaling the onset of a new, more bureaucratic era. A history professor at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, Ward argues convincingly that the rhetoric of railroading's early promoters reflected and contributed to a consensus desire for national unity. Though persuasive, the pitch was paradoxical, to the extent it was based on the notion that ""railroads could be both centrifugal and centripetal. . ."" Public acceptance of what Hawthorne called ""a mechanical demon"" was facilitated by the iron-horse conceit. This metaphorical construct afforded a comforting passage from the young land's rural past to a technological future. In the meantime, as the US pursued its Manifest Destiny, enthusiasts emphasized how railroads could serve the ends of national defense. The Civil (rather than the Mexican) War, however, was the first conflict America's generals fought with an eye to making the best use of railways. In their formative years, American railroads were viewed as transporting not only passengers and freight but also knowledge to the country's far frontiers. Ward cites a June 1847 entry from Emerson's Journal, which noted that ""railroads are to civilization what mathematics were to the mind,"" Westering had as much to do with economics as enlightenment or education, the author shows in his instructive account of the role played by land grants in the railroads' transcontinental expansion. Over time, Ward recounts, the major Eastern roads--e.g., the New York Central, Erie, Pennsylvania, and B&O--achieved the equivalent of nation-state status, But their imperial approach to commerce, which countenanced corruption of local legislators, rate-fixing, and rigging securities markets, was out of synch with the more confident, populist aspirations of the 1880's; they were eventually brought to book by a federal government whose strength they had helped to build. A scholarly but wholly accessible view of an exceptionally interesting aspect of the American experiment. The well-written and resourcefully researched text includes more than two dozen elegant line drawings of early locomotives and rail cars, plus other illustrations.

Pub Date: July 26th, 1986
Publisher: Univ. of Tennessee Press