Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White

27 05 2011

Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

by Richard White

Richard White is one of the greatest living American historians. He is the author of some really influential books on the American West, Native American history, and environmental history and is currently the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University. His 1991 book The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 is probably the work that is best known to historians of Canada. (Of course, White’s book reveals the problems with labelling historians as either “Canadian historians” or “American historians”).  White published another book in 1991 that I loved, namely “It’s Your Misfortune and None of my Own”: A History of the American West.  White’s research interests have centred on “the West” in North America, although was is considered west has differed according to century.

In the 1980s, White was one the founders a school within the American historical profession called the “New Western History”. Traditionally, the history of the Western frontier was a heroic tale of white (usually Anglo-Saxon) rugged individualists setting out into the harsh western lands and succeeding without any help from anyone, least of all the government. The reality, as White showed in this book, is that the western pioneers were heavily subsidized by taxpayers in the east, much as people in Alaska are heavily subsidized today. White’s book therefore demolished an important American myth.  Moreover, like the other New Western Historians, White expanded the focus of western US history from just whites and Americans to include Hispanics, Asians, and all of the other groups that make western Noth America such an interesting place.

I was, therefore, very interested to hear that White’s long-awaited history of the construction of the US’s transcontinetal railways will be published later this month. Here is the publisher’s blurb about the book.
A new, incisive history of the transcontinental railroads and how they transformed America in the decades after the Civil War.

The transcontinental railroads of the late nineteenth century were the first corporate behemoths. Their attempts to generate profits from proliferating debt sparked devastating panics in the U.S. economy. Their dependence on public largess drew them into the corridors of power, initiating new forms of corruption. Their operations rearranged space and time, and remade the landscape of the West. As wheel and rail, car and coal, they opened new worlds of work and ways of life. Their discriminatory rates sparked broad opposition and a new antimonopoly politics.

With characteristic originality, range, and authority, Richard White shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.

White’s research has some lessons for the present, as his recent op-ed piece in the New York Times about President Obama’s plans to build high speed rail in the United States make clear. White wrote:

In his State of the Union address, President Obama compared high-speed rail to the 19th-century transcontinental railroads as parallel examples of American innovation. I fear he may be right. For the country as a whole, the Pacific Railway Act of 1864 and subsequent legislation subsidizing the transcontinental railroads — the lines that crossed the continent from the 98th meridian to the Pacific Coast — were the worst laws money could buy. By encouraging dumb growth, those laws sacrificed public good for private gain. .

Read more here.

You can watch a short video of White below:

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