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Book Review: Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

[ 35 ] June 10, 2012 |

Richard White’s Railroaded is an utterly brilliant book.

White has been one of the leading historians of the United States over the past 30 years. His first book, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change might seem like a small, local study today but it was an important foundational book in the field of environmental history. He went on to write two books of Native American history, including the incredible The Middle Ground, redefining our understanding of the late colonial-early national Ohio Valley. He wrote one of the most important overviews of U.S. West history and then the fantastic The Organic Machine, about technology, work, bureaucracy, and environmental change on the Columbia River.

Clearly angry about the financial crisis and corruption dominating American life today, White has turned his attention to the transcontinental railroads of the Gilded Age. What he finds is a complete disaster of incompetence, malfeasance, corruption, and social disaster. He sees a group of capitalists plunging ahead into the American West with absolutely no idea what they were doing, fleecing their own companies, trusting no one, buying off the government in order to get subsidies, killing workers, creating enormous social and environmental damage, plunging the nation into repeated economic collapses, and decimating Native American lives.

And for what? Although past generations of historians have celebrated the railroads and lauded their leaders even if scolding them for their excesses, White makes it very clear that this entire industry was a disaster. These roads were built without any good economic justification. A couple of transcontinentals could have sufficed if built for particular reasons instead of dozens of competing lines built into places like western Kansas that could not bring enough traffic to justify their cost. While the railroads eventually spurred some demand for their services by convincing thousands of people to homestead, this meant that people were trying to dry land farm in western North Dakota and eastern New Mexico, a social and environmental disaster of its own.

Although White claims to enjoy studying these men, he has little patience with them. His writing drips bitterness and outrage. He seems most appreciative that Leland Stanford was so stupid that everyone had to lay all aspects of the railroads very clearly to him, making it easier for the modern historian to understand what’s going on. He also relies heavily on Charles Francis Adams’ writings, not because the descendant of presidents was any better, but because he was a blowhard who wrote tomes deriding everyone involved in Gilded Age railroads and American government. Henry Villard is a “superhero of bad management,” Kansas Senator J.J. Ingalls “was the kind of senator who thought Roscoe Conkling an honest man,” and “If Henry Clay was the Great Compromiser, John Sherman was the Not So Great Compromiser.”

About Grenville Dodge, engineer for the Central Pacific, White notes:

“He hated abolitionists and he hated black people, he hated immigrants and Catholics with impartiality. He was an eclectic hater who hated people who often hated one another. He hated loudly and demonstratively. In a Boston restaurant, irritated by a black man who kept his eyes “on the brass buttons” of Dodge’s coat, Dodge shoved a dish of stewed oysters in the man’s face and then ordered another. He thought himself “highly eulogized by the crowd for giving the Niggar so just a punishment for his audacity.”

But one thing the capitalists and their workers had in common was contempt for non-whites. White is clearly sympathetic with labor but spares them not for the racism that helped prevent the creation of an effective American working class. The white working class in fact defined “American” as “white,” making it real easy for railroads to crush solidarity by importing Chinese labor. The nascent unions saw both the Chinese and the corporations as destroying their manhood and it was a lot easier to attack the Chinese, leading to tragedies across the West including the infamous Rock Springs Massacre of 1886.

But the real impact of the book is for what it says about modern capitalism. Like the railroads in the first Gilded Age, the financial industry of the second Gilded Age buys the government, plunges forward in its business without any clue as to what it is doing, destroys labor and makes regulations laughable, spirals the economy downhill, and rewards incompetence. Jamie Dimon is Leland Stanford, Central Pacific is Goldman Sachs. Perhaps the greatest difference between 1885 and 2012 is today’s lack of working-class reform politics. Although badly hurt by their own exclusiveness, the white men of the late 19th century were genuinely outraged by the changes transforming their society. The antimonopolists searched for all sorts of answers–Single Tax, Bellamyism, trade unions, the 8-hour day, Chinese Exclusion, government regulation. Although foiled at every turn, they laid the groundwork for the reforms that would help tame capitalist excesses in the 20th century. Today, although we see resistance from labor, students, and Occupy, it remains small as the majority of working-class Americans more or less buy that the current iteration of capitalism looks out for their interests. Until that changes, we won’t see the collective power develop necessary to tame this corrupt, unruly beast.

White didn’t see any Octopus in the Gilded Age railroads and it’s probably a mistake to give the financial corporations credit that they know what they’re doing enough to call them the new Octopus. But like the railroad, they are some kind of animal, one that puts private profit before public good and corrupts everything in its way, regardless of political party. Railroads might have preferred Republicans, but Richard Olney was a completely acceptable Attorney General under Cleveland, crushing the Pullman Strike; modern capitalists may also prefer Republicans, but Tim Geithner does their bidding.

In the end, for its clear descriptions of the incredibly complex corruption of Gilded Age capitalism, its penetrating and angry writing, and its important insights into corporations past and present, I am comfortable saying that Railroaded is one of the 5 to 10 best books on American history written this century.

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  1. Hogan says:

    I finshed it earlier this week (having had the good fortune of serving on a jury, which gave me a lot of free time), and yeah, it’s outstanding. What surprised me was the quality of the writing; he may be channeling C. F. Adams in places, but the prose is the prose of Henry. “[Sen. George Edmunds] had his principles, and one was that no outside commission should investigate congressional corruption. That should be left to men like himself who were experts in such matters.”

    I heard about The Middle Ground and It’s Your Misfortune, so now I need to get caught up.

    (80-hour day? Ye gods, it was even worse than I thought.)

  2. gmack says:

    Today, although we see resistance from labor, students, and Occupy, it remains small as the majority of working-class Americans more or less buy that the current iteration of capitalism looks out for their interests.

    This seems like the wrong diagnosis to me. My own (largely unsupported) impression is that there really aren’t very many people around who believes that the “iteration of capitalism” is working for them. Large swaths of the public, it seems to me, think the system is rigged, that government is in the pockets of “special interests,” etc., etc. What seems to be missing now, in comparison to the 19th century, is not awareness of the problem, but the lack of a credible alternative.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I would argue the class resentment against public sector unions that convinces working-class people to vote for people like Scott Walker is pretty strong evidence against this.

      • Bill Murray says:

        I don’t see how this is people thinking the current system is working for them. It seems as much that economics may not provide the main differentiation in voting

      • gmack says:

        Maybe. But, first, I’d like to see the numbers on the actual voting preferences of “working class voters,” which of course would first require us to define the category (I don’t really know how you’re using the term here). Second, I’m also a bit dubious that electoral results demonstrate much of anything at all. People might have voted for Walker out of resentment over public employees, or because they disliked the alternative, or because they disliked the use of the recall, etc., etc. Besides, I don’t know what the specific turn-out numbers were in Wisconsin, but in off-year elections the numbers a typically in the 40% range. But even when we push the 60% range in Presidential election years, I don’t think it’s a good idea to use electoral results speak in generalities about “the public” wanting/believing X or Y.

        Finally, when I speak of many people being “aware of the problem,” I don’t mean that there is general agreement on how to characterize said problem. For instance, I think it’s perfectly consistent–though totally wrong–to think that the whole system is corrupt and rigged and to reject public unions, because one might see the unions as part of the “corrupt system.” The point is that I read your statement to be implying that most people really agree with how capitalism is currently operating, and my intuition tells me that things are much more complicated than that.

        • James E Powell says:

          For instance, I think it’s perfectly consistent–though totally wrong–to think that the whole system is corrupt and rigged and to reject public unions, because one might see the unions as part of the “corrupt system.”

          I am almost certain that this is exactly what most people think. And it’s hardly surprising, they have been told this by rich and important people for most of their lives.

          Right now the vast majority of Americans who have no experience in or understanding of public education will tell you that teachers’ unions are the whole problem or most of the problem. They believe this because they are told that this is true by people in whom they have placed their trust. It is one of those things that ‘everybody knows.’ It is a believe that will not change because the only voices disagreeing with it are teachers’ unions.

          • LosGatosCA says:

            You’ve hit a key point. On public education, the people is dumb, it’s a fact. And the elites are mostly evil and totally manipulative.

            The assault on teacher’s unions is the trifecta plus one for conservatives in their pursuit of inciting intra-class warfare:

            - the government is ineffective (my property taxes is too high)
            - the unions is lazy and overpaid (teachers is not working in the summer)
            - public educations is evil (the students is dumb AND in the urban hellholes dangerous, too)
            - sex (is) education (the students is sluts taking Planned Parenthood birth control before abortions and can’t pray)

            The bonus is that as the assault continues, they can actually sabotage the educational framework and by doing so keep the general citizenry poorly equipped to deal with the actual complexities of the world or have the critical thinking skills to see through the manipulations of the elites that think you and your (minority, gay, poor, union) neighbor should fight over scraps the elites leave behind.

          • DrDick says:

            Antonio Gramsci had something to say about that.

          • cpinva says:

            you are correct sir. as well, this is the same population that has been told, for most of their lives, that:

            1. the MSM has a liberal bias (it doesn’t).

            2. social security will not be there for them, when they retire, because it will be “bankrupt” (it won’t be).

            3. republicans are the party of fiscal conservatism, while the democrats are the “tax and spend” party (it’s kind of the other way around, republicans are the “spend and no tax” party).

            4. regulation of business, by gov’t, is always a bad thing, and harms the economy (it isn’t, and it doesn’t).

            all of these accepted “truisms” are, of course, false, and demonstrably so. i myself, in my foolish youth, tended to believe them, because that’s what had been consistently shoved down my throat, by the republican/conservative party. the party that would benefit the most by having me buy into them.

            it wasn’t until i started to do a little research of my own, that i began to realize the outright lies i had been told, by this same republican/conservative party. i expect i am not alone. i also expect that i am part of the minority that has actually made the effort to ascertain the truth, and i still don’t know all of it.

        • Lee says:

          I’m more inclined to go with gmack than Erik on this issue. In the 19th century, the working classes had all sorts of different and seemingly viable political options to choose from. The various forms of socialism and anarchism presented complete alternative systems to capitalism. Plus there were various crank systems to choose from to.

          This is somewhat lacking in the present. The Occupy crowd is mainly concerned with political theater to protest against Wall Street. Whats left of the various socialist groups either comes across as cult-like or too academic. Other left groups are focused on a single issue or group. What amounts to traditional liberal/social democratic policy advocacy usually comes from people that have a tendency to alienate the working classes for one reason or another.

        • Lee says:

          I’m more inclined to go with gmack than Erik on this issue. In the 19th century, the working classes had all sorts of different and seemingly viable political options to choose from. The various forms of socialism and anarchism presented complete alternative systems to capitalism. Plus there were various crank systems to choose from to.

          This is somewhat lacking in the present. The Occupy crowd is mainly concerned with political theater to protest against Wall Street. Whats left of the various socialist groups either comes across as cult-like or too academic. Other left groups are focused on a single issue or group. What amounts to traditional liberal/social democratic policy advocacy usually comes from people that have a tendency to alienate the working classes for one reason or another.

  3. James E Powell says:

    The white working class in fact defined “American” as “white,”

    And they still do, they still do.

  4. DocAmazing says:

    it’s probably a mistake to give the financial corporations credit that they know what they’re doing enough to call them the new Octopus

    Matt Taibbi favors “vampire squid”; do you prefer a different mollusc?

  5. DrDick says:

    Just for the record, The Middle Ground sucks. It is very shallow and superficial and grossly distorts the cultures and histories of the Native groups he examines. My expertise is in the Southeast (his Choctaw example) and everyone I know with expertise in any of the other groups has the same evaluation.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Well, I completely disagree. For historians, it was fantastic and played no small role in his receiving the MacArthur Grant.

      • DrDick says:

        The folks I know who do Indian history and specialize in one of the areas he included agree with my assessment (they are the primary group I was referring to in my prior comment). I could actually forgive him for not being perfect on one group, but all of them is too much.

        • DrDick says:

          I would add that, while it was initially well received (I liked it when it first came out), as people followed up on it and starting digging into the data, it did not really hold up to scrutiny. “Sucked” is probably too strong a word (I just get annoyed at seeing it lionized). It is more accurate to say that it is a provocative and influential, but deeply flawed work. Certainly there are things in there, and much of his major thesis, which are worthwhile and useful, even though he gets many of the details wrong.

          Wilma Dunaway has done much better work on this topic in the Southeast.

          • DrDick says:

            Urk! Just realized I was confusing The Middle Ground with The Roots of Dependency, which is the one that annoys me. You are right about The Middle Ground. It has been 20 years since I read either of them. FWIW, my copies of both books are autographed by Richard, whom I used to know.

            I think my feelings about The Roots of Dependency are somewhat like my feelings toward Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History. In both cases, the authors have a fundamentally sound big idea (a very similar one at that), but slip up on some of the evidence they use to support that idea. White’s real strength in my mind has been his ability to see broad patterns and coming up with big ideas.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              I am less of a fan of Roots of Dependency, mostly because I didn’t much care for his use of dependency theory.

            • Colin says:

              Yeah, Roots of Dependency is an interesting idea in theory [take the economic model some Latin American scholars in the 1960s and 1970s developed to describe their relations to the United States/Europe and apply it to indigenous peoples], but it’s one of those ideas where the immediately obvious temporal and contextual differences between indigenous peoples in the colonial US and Latin American countries’ ties to European colonizers discouraged it from becoming what it became.

  6. Western Dave says:

    The Navajo sections of Roots of Dependency hold up reasonably well, at least as a foil for later work like Marsha Wiesiger’s Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country. Like most important history work, White’s thesis was wrong, but he asked the right question. I’m not aware of source problems. It’s kind of like bitching about Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Sure it’s wrong, but it’s wrong in the most interesting ways.

    Another way of thinking about this is, historians never get proven right on anything that matters, but they almost always get proven wrong about something.

  7. cpinva says:

    adam smith, in “The Wealth of Nations“, warned us of the dangers of an unrestricted “free market”. though he personally loathed the hand of gov’t in the market place, he also recognized that, absent any outside controls placed on business, it would go wild, resulting in a constant cycle of boom & bust.

    humans do that which they perceive to be in their own best interests. businesses, owned and operated by humans, do the same. oftentimes, perception isn’t the same as reality. absent gov’t regulation, human beings, and the businesses they own/operate, will follow their basic instinct, which is to make as much money as possible, by whatever means necessary, whether those means actually make sense or not.

    the whole purpose of gov’t regulation is to keep businesses from destroying themselves, and (most importantly) taking the rest of us along for the ride. when businesses are able to thwart regulation, by corrupting those responsible for it, the door is opened for economic destruction. the only people who don’t (historically) suffer as a result, are the very people responsible for causing it.

    the main reason the corporate form became so popular, is the concept of the “corporate veil”, the invisible barrier protecting the shareholders/officers from personal responsibility for the illegal acts of the corporation. as well, shareholders are limited in personal liability, to only the amount they have invested in the company.

    the veil can be pierced, but wo be to the AG who attempts to do so, especially at the state/local level. most large corps. have assets available which dwarf that of most political subdivisions. the gov’t will be bankrupted sooner than the corp. will.

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