Via John Fea’s blog, I found Gary Gerstle’s review of Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Both White and Gerstle in his review are writing history for our times, friends:
For a generation now, historians have been reluctant to write about capitalism. Cultural history has been the rage, even as developments in the Second Gilded Age (1980–2008)—the unleashing of private economic power, the dismantling of government regulatory controls, and the deepening of income inequality—were making clear the need for a new reckoning with capitalism as a historical force.
Against this background, it is significant that one of the most distinguished historians of our time, Richard White, has written a book about an epic story of the First Gilded Age: the building of the transcontinental railroads between the 1860s and the 1890s. From the moment the first of these railroads was finished at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, these immense undertakings became an American obsession, eliciting both marvel and anger. The marvel was about the technological and organizational feats required to build these roads across vast and often difficult terrain and the profound ways in which these projects transformed America—economically, geographically, and politically. The anger was about the power accruing to the men who built these roads and their consequent ability to hoodwink investors, bribe congressmen, exploit farmers and other small shippers, and engage in speculative activities so dangerous that they periodically brought the entire U.S. economy crashing to the ground. No industry did more to galvanize anticapitalist fury or to generate movements for economic regulation during the First Gilded Age than the railroads.
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White is brilliant in documenting and reconstructing the precise ways in which the Associates and others feasted on the opening the government gave them.He demonstrates how small groups of private moneymen got access to the government, formed alliances with “friends” in Congress, and conspired in the notorious Willard Hotel in Washington and elsewhere to gain favors, buy votes, and steer legislative debates to desired outcomes. White’s portrait of an American government overwhelmed by corruption is breathtaking to behold and devastating to ponder. It alone is reason to read this book.
White is not as good, however, in explaining why a democratic state, a “government by and for the people,” proved itself to be so vulnerable to the moneyed interests. Some would say, of course, that America’s political system then was democratic in name only, given that more than half the people in the United States lacked the right to vote—women did not possess it, nor did most African Americans, except for the brief ellipsis of Reconstruction (1868–1877). But even as we acknowledge these restrictions on the franchise, we must also grant that in America more people were voting, both in absolute and relative terms, than in any other polity on the face of the earth.
If only the promise of the suffragists had come true, and that extending the vote to white women had made for a more virtuous government! Alas. It turns out that most women are just as ignorant of their true economic interests and just as persuadable by the diversionary tactics of two-bit pols (Fluoride! Communism! Gardasil! Socialism!) as most men. Gerstle shares some ideas of his own as to why the republic has remained resistant to democratic change over the sweep of American history. Short answer: it’s the money, honey!
The hastiness of congressional retreat in the face of capitalists’ recalcitrance exposed a chronic shortcoming in America’s democracy: its voracious need for money. The huge number of elected officials and the frequency with which they had to run for office made this democratic electoral system expensive. The Constitution had made no provision for funding this system. Thus the political parties that arose to get their members elected and make public policy also became, by necessity, money-gathering machines. The private organizations and individuals to which the government turned for assistance in accomplishing its railroad-building aims were the same ones in a position to supply funds for congressmen and senators in need of reelection. The promise of delivering such funds—or the threat of withholding such funds or giving them to a rival candidate—deeply affected the process through which Congress awarded contracts (which companies would get them) as well as the content of the contracts themselves (how lavishly these companies would be rewarded for their willingness to do the government’s work). These are the circumstances in which the Central Pacific Associates and other circles of financiers and elected officials got rich and in which the government ceded its authority and privilege to private corporations. The corrupting effects of the transcontinentals, then, arose not exclusively from capitalist practices but from the intersection of those practices with a democratic system structurally vulnerable to moneyed influence.
White came to Baa Ram U. a few years ago to give some lectures about his current project (Railroaded, which is worth a look for its excellent title alone!) and his career as a historian overall. This review of Railroaded is a model of how to write a review for an audience of intelligent general interest readers. Gerstle tells readers of Dissent why they should read this book in the first paragraph, and then Gerstle explains White and his career as a historian before giving an able overview of the book and an explanation for its importance. Nicely done.