Railroads are inextricably linked to the history of government in the nineteenth century. By most accounts, the federal government promoted the development of a national railway network and, in turn, augmented its power within the U.S. federalist system. Zachary Callen’s book Railroads and American Political Development challenges this simplistic tale of a federal leviathan bestriding the U.S. railway system. Starting with local and state efforts to develop a railway network, Callen highlights their failure but also notes that later federal achievements were the direct result of states seeking (and shaping) federal subsidies for railroads. Exhaustively researched, this is an illuminating study of railway development and state-federal politics in the antebellum era. Callen’s monograph is based on in-depth quantitative research analyzing voting records, varying state support for railroads, the comparative quality of the rail network when compared to those of other nations (Britain and France), and numerous other issues. Doggedly asking questions of the evidence, Callen probes into nearly every aspect of antebellum railway policy. Thankfully for the nonspecialist, the author leaves the statistical apparatus to chapter appendixes. The resulting in-text narrative is dense but closely reasoned. For those seeking to understand the early development of railroads, Railroads and American Political Development is worth the effort. It will likely prove tough going for lower-level college courses but may find its place in advanced coursework in political science or history. The book is organized into eight chapters, with the first four chapters examining local and state efforts to build railway connections into something crudely approaching a national railway network. While acknowledging some early successes, Callen concludes that, due to lack of resources, competition from preexisting infrastructure (canals, waterways) and rivalry with neighboring states, local and state efforts failed to achieve a well-integrated network. The U.S. lagged behind Britain, which built a rail network through private means, and also France, which used the central state to create a dense network connecting outlying areas with the capital. Prior to 1850, the American model relied on private railway companies with local and state subsidies. Only later, when the federal government got involved, did the U.S. network more closely tie together the East Coast with the expanding West. This short review cannot do justice to the many questions Callen asks—and answers—about the diffusion of railways between and among states. Most significantly, Callen emphasizes the importance of federalism as, first, a barrier to national railway development and, second, an instrument of more rapid railroad building. In the first four chapters (leading up to the pivotal Land Grant Act of 1850), the federal government played a limited role. With states focused on their own railway construction, there was limited coalition building in Congress for rails that would cross state lines. By 1850, however, a nascent congressional coalition sought federal aid to supplement state efforts. Yet even if there was congressional will to act, U.S. presidents did not believe the federal government had the constitutional authority to act in this area. Earlier presidents had vetoed major internal improvement bills. The breakthrough came with an oft-forgotten president, Millard Fillmore, a Whig strongly committed to transportation infrastructure and willing to support the Land Grant Act of 1850, which provided federal land for the construction of railroads by private firms. Fillmore interpreted the Constitution as giving the federal government “implied powers” to make this grant and thus support railroad building (154). The last four chapters highlight the interplay of state and federal interests in expanding the power of the national state. Here, Callen highlights the continued influence of states in shaping the where, when, and how of federal railroad construction. Through their congressional representatives, some states fared better at securing federal aid. One theme is the development of a core—East Coast states—ensuring that the periphery—the expanding West—did not develop the capacity to compete commercially. Callen also explains the surprising rise of Chicago, at the expense of St. Louis, as a result of Chicago being in a “blank-slate” state with no preexisting investment in canals or other forms of transportation (197). The congressional delegation from Illinois was also more successful than most in shaping the direction of railway policy. The entire process is one Callen characterizes this way: “federal intervention into transportation infrastructure stemmed from local governments dragging the federal state into a new policy arena” (126, emphasis in the original). Once they dragged the federal government into railroad building, skilled politicians, representing the interests of their states, continued to influence the contours of rail policy. Callen’s book is not easy to read, in part because he is so fair with his treatment of the evidence. His various statistical models often produced weak, mixed, or complex results. A persistent reader will appreciate the meticulous work Callen has done in building, testing, and explaining his models. The result, however, can be a slow read. Nevertheless, particularly for specialists in nineteenth-century policy economy, this is a notable contribution to the literature. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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