05 March 2011

New Hampshire Skeptical of Railroads, 1840s

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 119-120:
Why were railroads so great? Who had benefited? When the Eastern [Railroad from Massachusetts to Maine] was proposed, stated one letter to the editor, people along the projected route in Massachusetts and New Hampshire were "lunatic" on the subject. "One would suppose that there was no other road in existence, that indeed to them belonged the discovery of the power of steam, engines, Railroads, &c, and that their fame exceeded the fame of any and all ancient and modern cities. It was said that the old men of the city assembled at the depot in the morning, and really forgot to go to their meals." Yet by 1841 most of the towns that had been courted had become minor way stations, hearing only the buzz of the engine on the way to Boston. It seemed a bad bargain altogether.

New Hampshire debated the right-of-way issue into the mid-1840s. Enterprise should have full scope, wrote the paper in Concord, but the point in dispute was the right of the legislature to empower a private corporation for private gain to take from a man his land against his will. In that regard the New Hampshire debate was much like the modern controversy over the proper uses of the eminent domain power, and here the state did not regard railroads as a true public use. The chief purpose of a railroad, the legislators thought, was to make money, not to serve the public. "If the constitution must be violated and the rights of individuals molested, it seems no good citizen can favor any project, which shall encroach upon the rights of freemen." This led one commentator to write in dismay that he was certain that in the state's "lamentable" stance toward railroads, it had "shut itself out from one of the most beneficial improvements of modern times."

Inevitably, the state eventually had more or less its share of railroads, and it learned to do what was necessary to accommodate them politically and socially. But New Hampshire remained proud that it had not swallowed the whole package. An editor in Portsmouth noted that credit could not be separated from character: "Integrity, industry, virtue, and character it is that commands the capital which changes the sailor boy in his tarpaulin to the captain of the beautiful packet ship." So at least it should be. New Hampshire retained its strict laws about individual liability and its narrow interpretation of eminent domain for some years.

The Albany Argus wrote in 1841, in the wake of the Panic of 1837, that "New Hampshire may well congratulate herself, that she has never embarked in any of the wild and visionary schemes of internal improvements, which have plunged other states into such an embarrassing and wretched state of want and indebtedness. She has escaped the bitterness of learning by experience the folly of a large community attempting to carry on public works with prudence, economy or even honesty." Would that Pennsylvania and Indiana, burdened with state works not paying even their current expenses and repairs on state railroad systems, not to mention the debt service, had done the same. The manic policy of the rest of the country was, according to some in New Hampshire, the "high road to beggary."
Boston thought such a policy was a "dreaded obstruction" to its enterprise. It was suspicious of presidential candidate Franklin Pierce just because he was from New Hampshire.

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