A distinctive mix of public and private resources and action characterized antebellum American railroad development policy. Governments at the state and national levels encouraged development by contributing land, money, and expertise, while private companies built and operated the railroads. Initially, states furnished most of the government aid. By the 1850s, however, the federal government had superseded the state governments' role in railroad policy. In his insightful Railroads and American Political Development, Zachary Callen seeks to explain why the states dominated early railroad development, how and why the federal government took over from the states, and what the implications were for American politics and railroads. Callen's explanation emphasizes the inherent tensions within American federalism. The limitations federalism placed on federal power led to a significant role for the states in early railroad development. Local resource constraints and interstate competition, however, limited the ability of the states to forge an integrated national rail system. Consequently, the federal government assumed a larger role. In the legislative branch, coalitions formed to support federal land grants, while in the executive branch, President Millard Fillmore believed that federal action was both constitutional and electorally beneficial. The expanded federal role fostered political centralization and a railroad system that increasingly reflected the needs of centralized state authority rather than the aims of local actors. To explore the many dimensions of his topic, Callen employs an innovative mix of historical case studies, statistical analysis, and Geographical Information Systems (GIS). He applies statistical analysis to identify the factors that contributed to state adoption of rail-promotion policies and to congressional support of federal land grants. He uses GIS data to estimate travel times on each state's rail networks and the changes in these years. Appendices at the end of each chapter explain his methodology in detail. The book makes important contributions to the literature on American state building. First, Callen focuses on the oft-neglected antebellum period. Much of the writing on American state building concentrates on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Callen demonstrates that the seeds for the expansion of federal power during those latter periods were planted before the Civil War. Second, Callen highlights how the inability of antebellum states to address effectively the national issues for which federalism made them responsible led to an expansion of federal power. Callen also sheds light on the contours of American railroad history. He shows that the motivations underlying early American railroad development were almost entirely local. Most states paid little attention to the actions of neighboring states when formulating their rail policies. Instead, local factors such as economics, demographics, and topography determined states' rail policies. These local imperatives also governed the actions of ostensibly national institutions such as the Army Corps of Engineers. Army engineers based their decisions regarding which railroads would receive aid and their recommendations regarding how those railroads should be constructed on local political and commercial considerations. Callen's emphasis on the tensions within American federalism offers a fascinating perspective on American political and railroad history. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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