Railroads: Their Origins and Problems Paperback – November 1, 2005
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Part of the problem that those regulations sought to remedy is detailed in this important book by Charles Francis Adams Jr. A member of the elite Adams family of Massachusetts, Adams was nonetheless a partisan of the agrarians in their efforts to regulate the railroads less out of a sense of justice than his belief that economic chaos reigned in the industry. Adams rose to prominence during the Civil War and thereafter was appointed to the Massachusetts Railroad Commission.
One of the fastest growing, loosest, and potentially most lucrative sectors of the American economy in the latter nineteenth century, railroading was the internet bubble of its time. Adams tried to work with the railroad magnates to create greater order in their industry, for the good of all investors (but only tangentially for the public at large). He believed that by exposing negative traits to the public these railroad magnates would reform themselves. He was wrong. For reasons of self-interest, greed, and corruption his efforts along those lines never bore significant fruit.
In frustration Adams wrote "Railroads: Their Origins and Problems" in 1878, after having already exposed the railroad war between Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt in "Chapters of Erie" (1871). "Railroads: Their Origins and Problems" was an attempt to lay out the problems with the railroads and to prescribe processes whereby this massively significant transportation system might be stabilized. In the book Adams focused on issues of corporate power, the government's role in the industry as regulator or perhaps owner, and the problems of the unfettered freedom in the business that had led to the ruin of many. He argued for a more aggressive regulatory environment as something necessary for the good of investors. By coming together to create stability in the marketplace, he asserted, all those involved in the business would benefit. Not to do so would lead to one of two outcomes. Either many companies would become bankrupt and the industry would be decimated or state governments would step in to create a regulatory environment that would become a "crazy quilt" of various laws and conflicting philosophies. Neither outcome was desirable, Adams believed. This is the analysis that Adams lays out in this book, and the group action of the railroad owners eventually helped to create order in the system.
This book is an important statement of the requirement for government regulation. It helped pave the way for the Interstate Commerce Commission and other bodies aimed at maintaining order in the Gilded Age of the latter nineteenth century. I am pleased that Cosimo Classics has reprinted it so that it is available once again for modern readers.