because this blog needs content

It is probably a practice frowned upon by the arbiters of blogger ethics but I’m going to start posting long comments I write elsewhere over here, for archiving purposes. On steamboats vs. railroads:*

1. Schwantes’ book on steam travel in the Northwest is beautifully illustrated. (As is his railroad book on the same region, which may have been the first to come out, though chronologically the sequel.) Just thought I’d recommend it, though I haven’t read the text.

2. As dware points out, railroads have not actually been in vogue in western history for a while. They might become so in the future if they aren’t already becoming so. (Disclosure: I came very close to writing a railroad dissertation.) I have the impression that some of the better regarded railroad-related books to come out more recently weren’t western railroad books.

3. I suspect steamboats lose out for a couple of reasons.

There’s the perception that their era didn’t last very long – the fact that you can start talking about railroads in the 1830s overshadows the fact that the east-(mid)west routes were not completed until later (the 1850s? I don’t remember the precise dates). And it takes a while for (railroad) Chicago to supplant (Mississippi River) St. Louis.

There’s the perception that their impact was still quite localized even considering its reach. You can have competition on the Mississippi but it’s pretty much all on the Mississippi. Competition between railroads involved competing routes in different sections of the country and competing communities along those routes. In terms of ports, you’ve got New Orleans as an endpoint on the one hand, and Boston vs. New York vs. Philadelphia vs. Baltimore on the other. It would be interesting to know if steamboats lack attention in histories of other regions. I assume they preceded railroads in a number of European colonies.

There’s the fact that they weren’t a new power source – steamboats and the steam engine were around already for ocean travel. And somewhat related to this is the fact that being able to get around the world sort of overshadows being able to get into the interior of a continent. But it can be argued that the steamship deserves more attention too. It certainly seems to get less attention than wind-based maritime exploration.

There’s the fact that water travel was already, and had long been, quicker than land travel. Traveling faster over a river is one thing; traveling faster overland – not being required to stick to (and build, in the case of canals) a watercourse – by an entirely new technology is quite another. A better boat is still a boat; a railroad is not a horse-drawn carriage.

4. Robert Fulton apparently thought that the submarine would, by being such an effective tool of war, force countries to make peace with one another rather than fight. He had some problems making this idea work in practice.

*Maybe one day I’ll link to a blog that is not that one.


From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:

PAGE BOY*: *Here you are Senator. Not a bad desk either. Daniel Webster used to use it.

JEFFERSON*: *Daniel Webster sat here? Holy Mackerel.

PAGE BOY*: *Give you something to shoot at, Senator. If you figure on doing any talking.

JEFFERSON*: *Oh, no. I’m just gonna sit around and listen.

PAGE BOY*: *That’s the way to get re-elected.

From Donald Ritchie, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents:

In the newly charged partisan atmosphere of Washington, a paper-thin line separated press reporting from promotion. As the Whig organ, the Intelligencer boosted Senator Daniel Webster’s national reputation by its handling of his celebrated reply to South Carolina Senator Robert Y. Hayne in 1830. Webster had personally invited Joseph Gales to report his speech, but the senator found Gales’s transcript devoid of emotional appeal. Since Webster had spoken only from notes, no other newspaper had published more than a brief summary of the speech. All waited for the Intelligencer‘s account. But Gales and Seaton delayed publication for an entire month while Webster revised his remarks. The famous reply to Hayne appeared in a form so heavily edited and rewritten that it bore little resemblance to the words Webster spoke in the Senate chamber. Reprinted extensively, the polished version became one of the most widely read speeches in congressional history, forever enshrining Daniel Webster as the Union’s most eloquent defender.

Not satisfied with re-editing after the fact, Webster seems to have devised a method of pre-editing. Writes Ritchie:

Webster diligently edited his speeches. The majesty of his voice and the strength of his arguments swayed his audiences, but they often heard him groping for the right word, trying out one synonym after another until he obtained the desired effect. One listener recalled Webster saying: “Why is it, Mr. Chairman, that there has gathered, congregated, this great number of inhabitants, dwellers, here; that these roads, avenues, routes of travel, highways, converge, meet, come together, here? Is it not because we have a sufficient, ample, safe, secure, convenient, commodious port, harbor, haven?” The senator removed all but the best before his words appeared in print.


The comments to this post – and the subject of the post itself – reminded me of something I wondered about some years back when I was thinking of the different ways different countries have approached dramatic transitions from one type of regime to another, such as the transition from authoritarianism to some form of democracy, or from a slave society to a free* society.

After the American Civil War, a number of legal restrictions were placed – at least temporarily – on people who served the Confederacy, but was anyone post-13th Amendment ever prosecuted or sued for the crime of slavery** committed before passage of the amendment? I suspect the answer if no, but I’m not asking rhetorically. I’m curious if suits were filed but thrown out of court.

*Recognizing that the failure of Reconstruction limited just how free that former slave society became.

**I’m not sure if one could literally sue someone for slavery or if it technically would have had to have been a suit against something like “unlawful imprisonment.” But you know what I mean.