Tag Archives: Barbara Young Welke

Recasting American Liberty

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 by Barbara Young Welke, part of the Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society, from Cambridge University Press.

Barbara Young Welke Recasting American Liberty from Cambridge University Press

In her study of American society between the Civil War and World War I, Barbara Welke points to the statistical tracking of railroad accidents as a paradigmatic instance of the manner in which statistics elicited to visibility the patterns of trouble and accident which motivated adjustments in “the balance between individual autonomy and corporate and state authority.” (8) Governments and corporations increasingly imposed regulations on blameless individuals in order to ensure freedom from injury and suffering. As technology introduced new hazards, and statistics forced their consequences into view, modern Americans found that “safety could not be left to individual choice.” (70)

Welke’s focus on railroads highlights the conjunction of earlier formulations of liberty as mobility (‘free labor’) and expansion (‘free markets’ and ‘free soil’) with new concerns about safety and dependency. She notes the irony of the relatively un-free labor used to construct the railroads themselves, as well as the growing sense that men were dependent on the functions and vulnerable to the mishaps of the great machines that had become essential to families, businesses, and governments stretched out over widening distances. So the notion of ‘free men,’ in a gendered sense, was also undergoing a certain erosion. In her analysis of railroad accident liability cases, Welke points out the salience of gender: men were expected to be responsible self-custodians, while women’s presumed helplessness exempted them from blame and entitled them to more solicitous care. Although these gender distinctions were deployed in the courtroom, they were often effaced in the legal treatises derived from court judgments, and the net effect was to legitimize a ‘feminine’ sense of dependency and lack of freedom for male plaintiffs in such cases. Modern technology had made the language of injury and the identity of victim equally available regardless of class, race, or gender.

None of which is to say that gender regimentation had been overcome in any wider sense. In fact, the railways provided perfectly clear instances of differentiated treatment for women and men. Trains were provided with “ladies’ cars” available only to women and their companions, and “smoking cars” which were the province of men. The Supreme Court upheld that women could be banned by law from certain occupations. In general, women were still not regarded as ‘free.’

Nor had Radical Reconstruction succeeded in establishing an egalitarian relationship between races. White supremacists had organized successfully in the South, and created new systems racial of discrimination and segregation to constrain black freedom under the rubric of Jim Crow. Again, train travel affords signal examples conditioned by the most modernizing circumstances of the day. Leveraging the idea of gender-segregated passenger compartments (blacks of any sex had never been welcome in the ladies’ cars) railways established segregated seating for black and white passengers that was a pioneering instance of the ‘separate but equal’ formula which would be the hallmark of Jim Crow. Racial conflicts provided the basis for train operators to safeguard the ‘liberty’ of passengers to travel, through the instrument of regulations that had the effect of preserving white status against the freedom of blacks.

Welke’s book is a significant achievement of historical writing. She breathes juicy narrative life into a carefully-researched history that has digested the dry data of statistical and legal sources, to give us a better idea of the historical changes of the American past, with respect to issues that still concern us today. [via]