Richard White’s Railroaded and Contingent History

I read Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012) this summer (which means instead of gutting it, I read nearly every word). It’s a fantastic book that, at times, reads like a novel. White does a tremendous job of exploring the personalities and interactions between politicians, robber barons, reformers, and railroad workers. His breadth of research is on display as in one chapter he discusses the schemes of Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington with their “friends” and then offers an in-depth and personal character sketch of “A Railroad Life” that shows the plans in action through the lens of a railroad worker. These snapshots illustrate White’s extensive research. He condenses years of personal letters and journal entries into short 10-15 page sketches that recognize the agency of individuals, the sweeping influence of monolithic railroad companies, and unforgiving environmental conditions.

White’s central argument is that the railroads were as much a product of failure as they were success. He describes a world of corruption and greed that haphazardly built railroads as a way to fleece the government and accumulate wealth instead of meeting market demands. For him, the interesting story of the Gilded Age and railroad construction is the ineptness of politicians and railroad magnates. While they were given sweetheart deals, lavish land grants, and subsidies, they also experimented in insider trading and corporate money laundering that threatened their very existence. Through their failures, they managed to become more powerful by lobbying for even more subsidies, which put more of the U.S. economy in their hands. The book illustrates the ridiculous mismanagement and greed of the robber barons and explains how and why railroads in the U.S. West took the shape they did. He counters the traditional Gilded Age narratives of the competent businessman who rises to the top because of his acumen, asserting, “it was the triumph of the unfit, whose survival demanded the intervention of the state, which the corporations themselves corrupted” (509).

The book is fits a variety of history subfields including business, political, transnational, environmental, and the U.S. West. White shows that the transcontinental idea was not unique to the United States. Mexico and Canada also constructed their own lines often relied on funding schemes and faced problems similar to the United States. Likewise, robber barons crossed national boundaries in search of wealth and opportunity. He contends that railroads and railroad building shaped the North American West and played a significant role in (re)defining space and place by dictating both the cost of shipping and travel, and which cities became desirable destinations.

I realize my praise for White’s book is maybe a bit too effusive. The worst criticism I can offer is that the book is 500-plus pages, even though it is a quick read. The honest truth is I have a bit of a history crush on Richard White. He’s someone I aspire to emulate in my scholarship. I based one of the major themes of my master’s thesis on his concept of the “middle ground” and have always considered myself somewhat of a U.S. West historian. Railroaded is just the latest in his string of excellent scholarship on the American West, and I think it offers a lot of lessons on how to do history in the 21st century.

As I noted above, it crosses subfield boundaries and attempts to integrate a variety of approaches. White admits that he aspired to write more of a transnational and comparative history of railroads in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada at the outset, but the sources led him a different direction. This confession is important because emphasizes the role of sources in determining our outcome not our initial questions and goals. It is too easy, especially for us younger historians, to forget this and try to shove our metaphorically square sources into the round questions we are asking. Beyond this, much has been made of the immense time White spent researching the book: twelve years. As a reader this shows in important ways. The research packed into each of the “railroad life” sketches is tremendous. Each life helps move the narrative forward and balances the larger narrative about the robber barons with on-the-ground-stories of ordinary people. The juxtaposition of these lives teamed with the political and environmental conditions of the day provides a comprehensive view of the time period. And within that view, it becomes evident that nothing was predestined.

In his last few concluding pages, White makes a big deal about the idea the contingency of history. “Contingency –the idea that what happens in the world is often a result or the unexpected combination of quite particular circumstances– is the mark of history as a discipline…” he writes, “To say that choices are not limitless, that we always act within constraints imposed by the past, is not the same thing as saying there were, or are, no choices. A belief in contingency has as its corollary an obligation to imagine alternatives” (516). Of course, contingency is nothing new. The focus on rooting out teleological and Whiggish history is rabid among my graduate students peers in our historiography seminars.

The idea of imagining alternatives is one that I haven’t really thought much about. For White, however, this is part of avoiding Whiggish history. “Contingency,” he writes, “ demands hypotheticals about what might have happened. They are fictions, but necessary fictions. It is only by conceiving of alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined that we can begin to think historically, to escape the inevitability of the present, and get another perspective on issues that concern us still” (517). Thinking this way does several things for us as historians. First, its helps us isolate the significance of the events we are studying. By suggesting alternative outcomes we can isolate the impact of actions, decision, events, etc. Second, considering alternatives forces us to write a much more comprehensive history where we look more deeply into the larger debates, conditions, and contexts of events. By presenting various options we can better understand the motives and rationale for decisions, which might offer further insight into the priorities of individuals and/or cultures.

Considering alternatives and admitting that history is contingent requires us to take a step back as well as get inside of the head of our actors. To be sure, many of us already do this, at least partially. I often think about decisions and options from the perspective of my human actors. I’m uncertain, however, of how I would do it with non-human actors. It seems possible to do with institutions and organizations, but the environment seems trickier. This is why taking a step back is important. Environmental alternatives seem like they are easier to consider on a macro level. For example, let’s consider the Dust Bowl. We may start with the following question: would the Depression have been less severe without the Dust Bowl? Which then leads us to questions about if and how we could have prevented the Dust Bowl until we’ve constructed an alternative. This alternative then gives multiple perspectives to think about the history of the Dust Bowl and reduces our reliance on inevitability.

I admitted earlier that I haven’t thought too much about the idea of constructing alternatives, but that many of us historians do it naturally, at least at the individual level. Thinking about alternatives at all levels is important because it forces us to find each point of historical contingency. Crooked lines connect these points and texture our narratives with a lush understanding of the “what-ifs” of the past that make the reality more meaningful.

White ends his book with one last “what-if.”  What if the transcontinentals were never built, what would the American West be like, he wonders. He imagines a different world with fewer booms and busts, more land for Native Americans, and less environmental degradation and waste. There might be railroads, too. But he sees fewer of them that cost less and run more efficiently. This counterfactual hints at causation and connects the past to the conditions of the present. It is both a judgment and an eye-opener. He confirms that the railroads and robber barons played a significant role in shaping modern America, but suggests that it is in ways readers may not have previously considered.

One thought on “Richard White’s Railroaded and Contingent History

  1. reflectionsandcontemplations (@martinlugton)

    I like the point about contingency. I’ve come across counterfactual history before, but I liked the argument that it’s more than just an intellectual indulgence. Thinking about it now, I see that thinking about alternative ways things might have happened is inherently part of the process of evaluation we carry out when we try to understand the different forces at play in a given situation in anything other than a Whiggish fashion.


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