27 February 2009

Presidential History and the American Character

History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry.
President Barack Obama, "Address to Joint Session of Congress"
Nope. It didn't happen. Like every President before him, President Obama stretched the truth so far that it became a lie.

In 1862 during the Civil War, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act providing federal subsidies and land grants to private companies to stimulate the building of a transcontinental railroad. But, most of the construction took place after the war. The railroad was completed in 1869.

According to an old standard text, Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1949), the Central Pacific (the western line) had laid less than forty miles of track by the end of the Civil War.
The first track was laid in 1863 and inched forward slowly during the next years--twenty miles in 1864, twenty more in 1865, thirty in 1866, forty-six in 1867.
Billington, 644
The Union Pacific (the eastern portion) had easier terrain, but fared no better.
Construction was slow at first, as the company struggled to obtain workers and materials from a war-burdened nation; only forty miles of track stretched west from Omaha at the close of 1865.
Billington, 644.
The pace of construction picked up after the end of the war.
The Central Pacific built 360 miles of road in 1868, the Union Pacific 425. For a time, so great was the competition, they seemed destined never to meet; Congress had set no junction point and when the grading crews met they passed each other, laying out parallel roads a short distance apart. The farce only ended when Washington officials ruled the two roads must join at Promontory Point, a short distance from Ogden, Utah.
Billington, 645-646.
The last spike was hammered in a ceremony 10 May 1869.

Among the immediate consequences was the descent upon San Francisco of 9000 unemployed Chinese workers. It did not take long for California to pass laws restricting the rights of Chinese nationals, including the denial of citizenship to these migrant workers that had been imported when they were necessary to build the Central Pacific through the rugged mountains of California and Nevada. With the hardest work finished, these immigrant laborers were a burden to immigrants of European origin. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Irish, German, and Italian immigrants built the Union Pacific.

Corporate Welfare

Another legacy of the Pacific Railroad Act was the land grants. The initial law granted ten square miles of land for each mile of rail laid. This land was to be claimed in alternate sections to encourage development of the adjacent lands. This grand scheme of corporate welfare enables the paradox of the American West: "Fiercely independent region of the U.S. where the proud traditions of welfare logging, welfare mining and welfare ranching continue to this very day" (Tom Toles, "Editorial Cartoon," n.d.).

Billington's summary lays out the details regarding year by year miles of track laid. More recent histories of the West focus on the Western paradox. Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West (1991) contrasts the Western rhetoric of self-reliance with the realities of Federal apropriations.
In the imagination of modern America, the West has come to stand for independence, self-reliance, and individualism. Rhetorically, at least, modern westerners see themselves as part of a lineage that conquered a wilderness and transformed the land; they spring from a people who carved out their own destiny and remained beholden to no one. . . .
The American West, more than any other section of the United States, is a creation not so much of individual or local efforts, but of federal efforts. More than any other region, the West has been historically a dependency of the federal government. . . . [in the nineteenth century] Westerners usually regarded the federal government much as they would a particularly scratchy wool shirt in winter. It was all that was keeping them warm, but it still irritated them.
. . .
After 1960 . . . westerners favored more individualist solutions. They believed that the proper role of government was creating individual opportunities and not mediating between social groups or providing services individuals had failed to secure for themselves. Although couched in terms of frontier self-reliance and older western self-images, western individualism in its most recent form is very much the product of an urban, prosperous, middle-class West whose very existence was the result of federal programs and policies.
White, 57, 576
Obama's effort to highlight the strength of the American character evokes the political fault lines that divide Americans and their representatives in Congress. The fantasy is comforting; reality differs.

1 comment:

Doghouse Riley said...

The President's inaugural, like his standard stump speech, referenced "Western pioneers" settling lands "for us". If it's a political ploy maybe someone can explain the point to me; he was more successful capturing Red States in the South than the West, where he won only traditional swing states. The idea that a man possessing a BA in political science from Columbia earned in the last quarter of the 20th century, one not, so far as we can see, suffering some large neurological deficit, could miss just how problematic such statements are--on so many fronts--is beyond any explanation. Excepting "he can't", of course.

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