How the Railroads Changed American Government

Date01 September 2014
Published date01 September 2014
Alasdair Roberts is Jerome L.
Rappaport Professor of Law and Public
Policy at Suffolk University Law School in
Boston. His most recent book is
The End
of Protest: How Free Market Capitalism
Learned to Control Dissent
University Press, 2013).
Book Reviews
Sonia M. Ospina and Rogan Kersh, Editors
664 Public Administration Review • September | October 2014
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 74, Iss. 5, pp. 664–667. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12268.
trade with the American interior. Legislatures also col-
laborated with state courts in establishing an expan-
sive conception of eminent domain, making it easier
to obtain right of way for railroads. New railroad
companies benef‌i ted from state support in other ways:
through the grant of monopoly rights, state guaran-
tees of railroad bonds, exemption from state taxes, and
the right to hold lotteries and create special banks that
would attract the savings of state residents (29).  e
ingenuity of state legislators in devising methods to
support f‌l edging railroads was matched only by their
cheerful disregard for the prevailing doctrine of politi-
cal economy, which insisted that interference with
the market was “wrong in principle and pernicious in
practice” (Essay 1837, 55). In practice, the principle
of limited government gave way to the imperatives of
interstate competition.
e federal government was slower to provide sup-
port for the new industry, but eventually it did, and
on a massive scale. At f‌i rst the impediment was the
doctrine of states’ rights, which was propounded most
strongly by Southern states and denied any federal
role in supporting the development of railroads or
other transportation projects. Within three decades,
however, the situation had changed entirely. Many
railroads would not have survived without federal
subsidies for carrying the mail. Congress also sup-
ported the building of transcontinental railroads
with cheap loans and land grants equal in area to the
whole of France.  e U.S. Army surveyed potential
transcontinental routes and provided protection as
railroad companies invaded lands occupied by Native
Americans. Congress also provided incentives for set-
tlers to travel on the newly built roads.
Wolmar shows that the government’s role was not
limited to promoting railroad expansion. By the end
of the nineteenth century, the major railroad compa-
nies were vast and powerful businesses that could not
be regulated easily by state legislatures. As a result,
the federal government began to intervene more
frequently in railroad af‌f airs. Sometimes this worked
Christian Wolmar, e Great Railroad Revolution:
e History of Trains in America (New York:
PublicAf‌f airs, 2012). 448 pp. $17.99 (paper),
ISBN: 9781610393478.
Anyone reading the scholarly literature on the
“e-government revolution” might be tempted
to think that technological change has never
af‌f ected American government so profoundly as it
does today. Christian Wolmar’s e Great Railroad
Revolution:  e History of Trains in America provides
an invaluable corrective to this sort of thinking.  e
advent of the railroad was probably a more important
technological shock, and Wolmar’s book provides
an unusual opportunity to examine how it af‌f ected
the role and structure of American government.1 e
current fashion is to emphasize the ways in which
ideology and institutional inertia constrain the govern-
mental response to such shocks. But Wolmar tells a dif-
ferent story. In the long run, he suggests in e Great
Railroad Revolution, the governmental response to this
innovation was pragmatic, hardheaded, and f‌l exible.
e railroad combined several technical innovations: a
gravel track bed, iron rails, freight and passenger cars
rolling on f‌l anged wheels, and steam engines to pull
them. Combined, they of‌f ered a method of transpor-
tation that was faster and cheaper than steamboats,
canals, or highways. Wolmar says that the railroad age
began in the mid-1830s, shortly after the completion
of South Carolina’s 136-mile Charleston & Hamburg
line. At its zenith, in the 1920s, the nation was
covered by a quarter million miles of railroad. In the
following decades, the railroads faced intense compe-
tition from automobiles, trucks, and aircraft, and by
2008 the rail network had shrunk to about 140,000
miles of road.
Wolmar makes clear that the railroad age would never
have begun without innovation by government as
well. Legislatures in the New England and the Mid-
Atlantic states provided charters for new railroads
as they competed against one another for control of
How the Railroads Changed American Government
Sonia M. Ospina and Rogan Kersh, Editors
Alasdair Roberts
Suffolk University

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT