Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Steam Transport, Sovereignty, and Empire in North America, Circa 1850-1885

Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Steam Transport, Sovereignty, and Empire in North America, Circa 1850-1885

Article excerpt

Sovereignty and transport development are not often considered together. This essay makes the case for doing so with reference to North America circa 1850-85, a span in which the continent was the site of several of the world's most ground-breaking developments in transport and communications: the introduction of regular steamship traffic between New York and San Francisco (from 1849); the completion of transcontinental railroads in three different polities (Panama in 1855; the United States, first in 1869; Canada in 1885), as well as major north-south trunk systems such as the Illinois Central Railroad (1856) and the Mexican Central Railway (1884); and, not to be forgotten, the inauguration of the first regular transpacific steam line (connecting San Francisco, Yokohama, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, beginning in 1867).

If the steam revolution of the mid-nineteenth century remains persistently understudied, it is by no means unknown to historians of North America. Including an important body of literature in business history, national frameworks have dominated historians' approach to the political significance of the era's developments in transport. The national lens for studying steam transport has been particularly enduring in the U.S. historiography, which has a long tradition of connecting railroad development to national integration. Even recent works that critique the political economy of steam transport and place the frenzied finance of railroad development into a continental perspective have subtitles such as The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America and Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America. (1)

The national perspective for understanding transport developments can be traced to the views of historical actors themselves, who linked the development of steam transport to national formation. "Until this great work [the Canadian Pacific railroad] is completed," Canadian prime minister John Macdonald asserted in 1879, "our dominion is little more than a 'geographical expression.' We have as much interest in British Columbia as in Australia, and no more. The railway once finished, we become one great united country with a large inter-provincial trade and a common interest." (2) In the imagery of Canadian and U.S. nationalism, few pictures rival those depicting the completion of transcontinental railroads with the driving home of the last spikes in Craigellachie in 1885 and Promontory Summit in 1869. In Panama, mid-nineteenth-century intellectual Justo Arosemana is remembered as a national founding father for his political vision that paired liberal politics with the development of an isthmian transit system. (3) Perhaps Ulysses S. Grant--who, it should be remembered, promoted railroad schemes in Mexico after his presidency--most succinctly captured the nationalist interpretation of steam power in his 1885 Memoirs: "In the early days of the country, before we had railroads, telegraphs and steamboats--in a word, rapid transit of any sort--the States were each almost a separate nationality." (4)

Grant dictated these words in relation to his understanding of the intensification of the debate over slavery. He argued that improvements in transport and communications brought the sections of the Union into conflict in ways that previously had been avoidable. It is worth noting here that the "popular sovereignty" formulation of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in civil war, came into being because Stephen Douglas sought to advance the transcontinental railroad project. (5) In this case, political conflict over competing visions of sovereignty can be traced to the nexus of the slavery question and national infrastructure development.

Developments in steam transport thus destabilized, as well as fostered, nation-building projects. Other critiques of nationalist frames for understanding steam transport have been advanced. …

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