In this engaging new study, Michael J. Connolly seeks to understand the interrelationships among political change, economic interests, and railroad development in northern New England prior to the Civil War. He analyzes the political thought of the region as it involved the growth of party confrontations—among the Radical Democrats in New Hampshire, the Whigs and Conservative Democrats in New Hampshire, and the Whigs in Essex County, Massachusetts—and the rise of voting activity. An assortment of antebellum demographic data on the various railroad lines is made clear by the maps in the book.
New England was an older region with settled patterns of political economy, and innovations like the railroad forced antebellum citizens to alter their patterns of life. Jacksonian Democrats debated among themselves the wisdom of railroad technology, its influence on political power, and its effect on regional economies, remaining skeptical about how this invention would improve their lives. They voiced serious concern that railroads would shrink private rights and destroy the existing “liberal capitalist” economy, all the while making northern New Englanders the minions of business interests far away in Boston and Canada. These concerns separated them from the Whigs.
Whigs remained ebullient over how railroads would transform their political and economic lives, improve the lot of every New Englander in the long run, and rescue a dying region from social oblivion. They believed that danger came in not developing railroads. Whigs were willing to extend public power to a remarkable extent: bridges were destroyed, courthouses demolished, land and buildings taken to make way for railroads. Less sophisticated in economic understanding than the Jacksonians, Whigs never worried over “illiberal capitalism”; they welcomed it. The great consensus between Jacksonians and Whigs was capitalism. No one opposed markets.
The antebellum conflict was not about whether America should be a market society, but what shape those markets should take; not about whether government should have power over private rights, but to what extent states could impose on private citizens. At the center of this debate was the railroad.
Providing an excellent view of the economics of railroad development and how it affected the factory and farm world of northern New England, Capitalism, Politics, and Railroads in Jacksonian New England makes a major contribution to our full understanding of the coming of the Civil War.