Discover more from A User's Guide to History
What is government for?
The case of the transcontinental railroad
“The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but can not do at all or can not so well do for themselves,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in the 1850s. Lincoln wasn’t stingy in describing the areas where government could do better than the people alone: “public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.”
In Lincoln’s day, roads included railroads, an object of primary interest of Lincoln’s new party, the Republicans. And no railroad was of greater interest than the Pacific railroad, a line that would link the American East to California, home of the Gold Rush and the first state on the Pacific coast.
Since Lewis and Clark had exploded Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a water route across America (see here), scientists and surveyors had sought a feasible land route. The first such routes were trails, suitable simply for horses and following paths traced by Indians, themselves following animal trails. Next up were roads, over which wheeled vehicles might pass. Often these roads were widened trails, but where rocks or cliffs precluded widening, new routes were cut.
By the 1840s the leading edge of transport technology was the steam-powered railroad. In the East, railroads were built with private money, sometimes supplemented with grants from state governments. But private money wasn’t forthcoming for Western railroads, where the population and hence traffic were too sparse to support construction costs. And states didn’t exist in most of the expanse between the Missouri River and California. If a Pacific railroad were to be built, the federal government would have to fund it.
Lincoln and the Republicans were eagerly in favor. But the Democrats, in those days the skeptics of big government, balked, and the Pacific railroad languished until the Civil War, when the departure of Southern Democrats let the Republicans have their way with legislation.
Affairs in California supplied additional incentive. Once Southern states began seceding, Californians pondered a like course. Some Californians imagined connecting with the Confederacy; others preferred a revival of the Bear Flag Republic, a short-lived effort from the 1840s. In either case, California’s gold would be lost to the Union.
Lincoln couldn’t let that happen. He promised a Pacific railroad to prevent it. The offer worked. Most of the Californians had trekked for months to make their way west, leaving behind homes and families, perhaps never to be seen again. The idea of returning east in mere days, in the comfort of a railroad car, was more than secessionist sentiment could bear.
The Pacific Railway Act was approved by Congress and signed by the president in 1862. Its crucial clauses furnished land and loans to underwrite construction of a railroad from the Missouri River to California.
The law set in motion the greatest public works project in American history until then. Millions of dollars were channeled to the two companies chartered to construct the railroad: the Union Pacific, which worked from Omaha west, and the Central Pacific, which built from Sacramento east. Thousands of workers were brought to the construction sites, with Irish immigrants doing the heavy lifting for the Union Pacific and Chinese immigrants for the Central Pacific. Routes through the mountains—the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada—required blasting and tunneling on a scale never attempted; whole swaths of forest were leveled to provide ties for the track and timbers for tunnels and bridges. Indians, recognizing the threat to the buffalo herds on which they depended, harassed the workers. Summer heat and winter cold wore them down.
But the work went on, and was completed in 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific were joined north of the Great Salt Lake. Finally the East met the West; finally the dream of Columbus and Balboa and Jefferson—of a relatively straight path to Asia—was achieved.
Yet the larger importance of the transcontinental railroad lay in a different direction. A cheap route to Asia didn’t have the effect on the American economy the promoters of the railroad had promised. The China market for American goods was very slow to develop. Instead the Pacific railroad, with the other transcontinentals it inspired and the rest of the American rail network, became the transport backbone of the largest single market in the world. America’s railroads allowed manufacturers in any part of the country reach customers in every other part of the country swiftly and efficiently. Factories could be built to serve the entire national market, enabling American manufacturers to exploit economies of scale unavailable to foreign competitors.
Within thirty years of the completion of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific road, the American economy had become the largest and most powerful in the world. Americans enjoyed a standard of living never experienced by so many before. And the mighty economy underpinned America’s ascent to the summit of world power by the middle of the twentieth century.
Lincoln couldn’t have envisioned all this. Yet he would have been gratified, and he would have observed that it wouldn’t have happened without the initial funding from Washington.
That’s what government is for, he might well have said.