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

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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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