Railroads and American Law
James W. Ely, Jr.
No enterprise is so seductive as a railroad for the influence it exerts, the power it gives, and the hope of gain it offers.—Poor's Manual of Railroads (1900
At its peak, the railroad was the Internet of its day in its transformative impact on American life and law. A harbinger and promoter of economic empire, it was also the icon of a technological revolution that accelerated national expansion and in the process transformed our legal system. James W. Ely Jr., in the first comprehensive legal history of the rail industry, shows that the two institutions—the railroad and American law—had a profound influence on each other.
“No historian has previously documented the full measure of [railroading’s] inflluence in such comprehensive fashion as Ely does in this book. . . . [An] impressive work.”
—Technology and Culture
“A major contribution to the legal history of railroads in United States history. Recommended for general audiences as well as specialists in United States legal history, railroading, and transportation history. Ely’s remarkable book changes the arguments about railroads and law and sets new parameters for the public and scholarly debates about railroads and public policy. This book is truly a significant and welcome achievement.”
—American Nineteenth Century HistorySee all reviews...
“This important account goes far beyond detailed exegesis into a rich history of the ways in which those who make and read the law have defined the competing rights of all Americans, and of the larger legacy of railroad law to the nation as it has evolved. . . . Balanced, insightful, and clearly written.”
—Journal of Southern History
“A masterful one-voume synthesis of this massive topic. . . . Railroads in American Law is a great achievement. Ely presents a complex, sprawling, and sometimes arcane topic using accessible language that convincingly demonstrates the impact the nation's first large corporations had on the law and society. Scholars and lay readers alike will be referring to Ely’s book for years to come.”
—Annals of Iowa
“A model work of legal history.”
—Journal of American History
“This is the best single book on the history of railroad law. The author addresses the two fundamental questions of railroad law: how did railroads shape the law, and how did law shape the railroads? This superb book should be on the shelves of every railroad, economic, and legal historian.”
“This is an important synthesis. Ely [provides] a very readable one-volume summary of the complex relationship between the railroads and the law. His study is balanced and well researched, and I enthusiastically recommend it.”
—Enterprise & Society
“Railroads are the engines of constitutional change in this book—perhaps the best book yet written on the topic. Riding the legal history of the railroads is really a history of the American Constitution. . . . Few books can be described as innovative and fun to read; this is an exception to this rule. Besides constructing a readable framework for understanding constitutional law, it also tells an important story about how the law can be used in service of the private sector and economic development, with positive and negative consequences. . . . An important contribution to constitutional law and knowledge of how the law is employed by, or deployed against private industry.”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“A huge topic handled with vigor and aplomb. Anyone remotely interested in history, law, and railroads should read this book.”
—Appellate Practice Journal
“A ground-breaking study.”
—History: Reviews of New Books
“A monumental achievement—it should be on the shelves of every railroad, economic, and legal historian.”
—Herbert Hovenkamp, author of Enterprise and American Law, 1836–1937
“Fills a large void in the field of legal history. There is nothing else available that covers this subject, or even comes close.”
—Lawrence M. Friedman, author of A History of American Law
“A unique and wide-ranging book on a relatively untouched subject that should appeal to anyone interested in the history of the American railroad.”
—John F. Stover, author of American Railroads
“An incredibly ambitious book from a master at writing about sweeping legal topics in a meaningful and readable way.”
—Paul Kens, author of Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on TrialSee fewer reviews...
Ely chronicles how "America's first big business" impelled the creation of a vast array of new laws in a country where long-distance internal transport had previously been limited to canals and turnpikes. Railroads, the first major industry to experience extensive regulation, brought about significant legal innovations governing interstate commerce, eminent domain, private property, labor relations, and much more. Much of this development was originally designed to serve the interests of the railroads themselves but gradually came to contest and control the industry's power and exploitative tendencies.
As Ely reveals, despite its great promise and potential as an engine of prosperity and uniter of far-flung regions, the railroad was not universally admired. Railroads uprooted people, threatened local autonomy, and posed dangers to employees and the public alike—situations with unprecedented legal ramifications. Ely explores the complex and sometimes contradictory ways in which those ramifications played out, as railroads crossed state lines and knitted together a diverse nation with thousands of miles of iron rail.
Epic in its scope, Railroads and American Law makes a complex subject accessible to a wide range of readers, from legal historians to railroad buffs, and shows the many ways in which a powerful industry brought change and innovation to America.