andrew johnson opposed railroads -- 4/26/16

Today's selection -- from Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed. As a Tennessee legislator, future United States president Andrew Johnson opposed the extension of railroads into his state because it would put inns and wagon haulers out of business:

"[Andrew] Johnson ... was no blind supporter of the [Whig] party. For instance, he was not at all on board with its determined support for building roads, canals, turnpikes, and linking the nation through the infrastructure of railroads. His own Tennessee had a primi­tive infrastructure that could have benefited from the infusion of money for internal improvements. Indeed, the yeomen of eastern Tennessee were very much in favor of modernizing their state, and Johnson put himself at odds with this portion of the popula­tion. When a proposal surfaced to extend a railroad line into that part of the state, Johnson placed himself squarely on the wrong side of history (and his constituents) by opposing the measure. His reason for opposition was that the railroads would put inns out of business and take work away from people who hauled goods by wagon.

Detail of an 1890 map showing the track system controlled by the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railway.

"There were, of course, many legitimate reasons to be concerned about the railroad industry: its often cutthroat policies, its ruthless exploitation of workers, the way the government tended to genu­flect before it at the expense of landowners and other relatively powerless citizens. Those questions went to how American rail­roads were added to the nation's infrastructure, not whether they should be added in particular places at all. Those questions about procedure could have been answered in a different way if the lead­ership within the government, that is to say, people like Andrew Johnson, had tried to intervene to curb some of the abuses. The efficacy of railroads themselves should never have been in serious dispute.

"Johnson's response to the idea of bringing the railroad to eastern Tennessee tells a great deal about him. His vision for America's future was limited. The man who had such keen instincts about how to engineer his own rise and future by stepping outside of conventional wisdom was never able to translate those insights to matters affecting anything other than his own personal progress. Contemplate for a moment the mentality that saw railroads as bad because they allowed people to move to their destinations so quickly that they didn't need to stop at taverns on the way. What about the towns and taverns that would spring up along the desti­nations that the railroad brought people to? They did spring up, and many people during Johnson's time foresaw that they would. This, from a man who as a fugitive from his apprenticeship had to walk thirty, sometimes seventy miles to get places, and whose family crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains dodging mountain lions and bears. Johnson's lack of forethought, and his poor understand­ing of the concept of progress in the world, would resurface in his days as president when he was called upon to imagine the future of the newly reconstituted United States.

"The legislation passed and, not surprisingly, Johnson's vote against bringing the railroad into areas that sorely needed it did not endear him to his constituents. People in eastern Tennessee wanted to be able to ride trains and go places just like other Americans, and they wanted to get there as quickly and safely as possible. It was not just his opposition to railroads that began to bother voters; it was a sense that he was against anything that cost money -- even if it meant a dramatic improvement in the standard of living for his constituents. He applied this philosophy at almost every turn. (Later, when he served in the U.S. Congress, he moved 'to reduce the salaries of government workers, voted against aid to famine-stricken Ireland, and even opposed appropriations to pave Washington's muddy streets.')"


Annette Gordon-Reed


Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 17th President, 1865-1869


Times Books


Copyright 2011 by Annette Gordon-Reed


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