No matter what President Obama does, it seems to be almost universal agreement on one criticism: He has tried to do too much.
This has come from left and right, everywhere on the political spectrum. New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented the administration’s “trying to use the financial crisis as an opportunity to do everything at once.”
Yet nothing could be more in keeping with the American character. We tend to progress in this country in bursts of what evolutionary scientists call “punctuated equilibrium”—all at once, after long periods of drift or dissension, and usually in times of crisis and conflict.
It was no coincidence that the reforms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal came at the nadir of the Great Depression, and during the crucible of World War II. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was passed at the climax of the civil rights movement and the Cold War, and just as so many other segments of the population—women, gays, Hispanics—renewed their fight for full citizenship.
All of these reform movements took on many, seemingly intractable problems at the same time. If they did not always succeed completely, they managed to move the country forward, to expand our rights and freedoms in crucial ways. Nor were such comprehensive reforms relegated to liberal and progressive movements. Ronald Reagan, too, sought to “do everything at once” upon taking office, simultaneously seeking to change the tax code, break union power, reduce federal regulations on business, and reinvigorate the Cold War fight in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
The fact is that solving our problems often requires doing big things at once, with ambitious efforts paying unexpected dividends. Just look at what the “space race,” contributed to the advancement of the electronics revolution. Then there was that amazing by-product of the Civil War, the Transcontinental Railroad.
The Civil War was fought over slavery, but one underlying aggravation was how the United States was to expand; whether the new territories of the West were to be admitted to the Union as slave states or free, and how our already immense country was to be held together. Throughout the war, Abraham Lincoln never took his eye off securing the nation’s physical or economic growth.
Trying to do too much? In the midst of the worst conflict in American history, with armed insurrections in the street even in the North, President Lincoln and the Congress passed such landmark legislation as the Morrill Land-Grant Act which, expanded to the South after the war, would produced 75 of our greatest universities, from MIT and Cornell, to the University of Wisconsin, Berkeley, and the Tuskegee Institute. With the national debt skyrocketing and the Union adjusting to “greenback” money, the 1862 Homestead Act granted any loyal citizen of the United States 160 acres of undeveloped land, for just a $10 filing fee. The greatest land giveaway in American history, it provided 420,000 square miles of farmland to 1.6 million homesteaders.
They might do better to heed the words of that quintessential American, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said, “Like all Americans, I like big things.”
The war brought dramatic advances in medicine, shipbuilding, communications, finance, and of course arms and munitions (manufactured in part in revolutionary, government-owned and -operated factories). All of this federal stimulus helped spark a private-sector boom. Entire new industries emerged, such as those in ready-made clothing, and mass-produced shoes.
A record 5,000 patents were issued in 1864—and not just for items directly related to the war effort. Americans were also hard at work inventing elevators, refrigerators, coal-oil lamps, clothes wringers and dryers, washing machines, fountain pens, flying machines, flypaper, ice and roller skates, stereoscopes, and steam-powered printing presses.
Yet the most visionary project of all was the idea of a railroad to stretch across the continent. One of the great public-private partnerships in American history, it was conceived by a passionate young engineer named Theodore “Crazy” Judah; built largely by intrepid immigrant laborers from China and Ireland; managed by the cold-eyed, “Big Four” financiers of California—Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins—passed by Congress in 1862, and signed into law by an enthusiastic President Lincoln.
It has been called the most complicated engineering project since the Great Wall of China. The road was laid from east and west, at a phenomenal rate of up to 10 miles a day, coming 1,087 miles in seven years through hostile Indian territory from Omaha, Nebraska, to the connection point at Promontory Summit, Utah; another 690 miles from Sacramento, with 13,500 men driving 15 tunnels right through the Sierra Nevadas, at elevations of up to 7,000 feet. The 50 snowsheds and galleries for the mountain passes alone cost $2 million, and the whole project was financed with government bonds to the tune of $16,000 a mile through the flatlands, and $48,000 a mile through the mountains.
Yet no one raised much objection to the cost. The most remarkable fact about the Transcontinental Railroad was how well Americans understood its purpose, and its benefits.
“You will see that it will change the whole world…” Asa Whitney, cousin of Eli and one of the railroad’s earliest proponents, told Congress. “It will bring the world together as one nation; allow us to traverse the globe in 30 days, civilize and Christianize mankind, and place us in the center of the world, compelling Europe on one side and Asia and Africa on the other to pass through us.”
For John C. Fremont, “the Pathfinder,” and the first Republican nominee for president, the railroad would make America “the golden vein that runs through the history of the world.” The most influential editor in America, the New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley, called it, “The grandest and noblest enterprise of our age.”
At the time, China was a poor and subjugated nation. But the Americans of the mid-19th century already understood the long-term advantages of putting the United States at the fulcrum of world trade—even as the nation staggered under the burden of the Civil War.
“If it is ever built,” General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote his congressman brother, “it will be the work of giants.”
Where are those giants today? It’s difficult to see, in a political season when candidates oppose building the most modest experiments in green transportation, or when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancels a rail tunnel planned to run under the Hudson to New York—never mind across a continent. The Obama administration itself recently announced a plan—or more accurately, a hope and a prayer—to bring high-speed rail to Amtrak’s well-traveled Northeast Corridor…by 2040, 30 years from now, or more than four times the length of time it took to build the Transcontinental Railroad.
They might do better to heed the words of that quintessential American, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said, “Like all Americans, I like big things.” He, too, was not afraid to do big things, such as digging the Panama Canal, at the same time that he was busy busting trusts, cleaning up our food supply, carving out much of our national park system, and even reforming college football.
Time to think big again.
Recently elected to the executive board of the Society of American Historians, Kevin Baker is the author of America: The Story of Us , as well as five novels, including the City of Fire collection of historical novels, Dreamland, Paradise Alley , and Strivers Row . He was the chief historical researcher for Harold Evan’s book The American Century , and was a longtime columnist for American Heritage magazine. He has also contributed to many other periodicals and collections, and is currently working on a social history of New York City baseball. Baker and his wife live in New York City.