Saturday, March 15, 2014

On the Pennsylvania Railroad

On the Pennsylvania Railroad: A little more than a decade after the first steam locomotive (Tom Thumb) made its debut in the United States, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) received a business charter from Harrisburg in 1846. For most of the 1830s, Pennsylvania spent millions of dollars on canal construction, effectively trying to replicate New York's Erie Canal success. But the state's bankruptcy in 1841 (due to excessive spending on the canals) forced Pennsylvania to embrace railroads as an emerging transportation technology. Although the PRR's initial strategy was to model itself after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, it quickly became the B&O's biggest competitor for both passenger and freight traffic between the Northeast and Midwest. By the mid-1850s, the PRR had reduced travel times between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from 3.5 days to just 13 hours. In the 1860s, the PRR was the first American railway to use domestically-produced steel rails and install air brakes on its train cars. These decisions helped the PRR become the world's largest corporation in the 1880s. With approximately 30,000 employees and revenues in the hundreds of millions, the "Pennsy" had outgrown even the federal government. However, its growth became stunted by the simultaneous emergence of air travel and interstate highways in the mid-20th century. The PRR went bankrupt in 1968.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The Realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: On Memorial Day in 1895, Holmes delivered a famous address to graduating Harvard students titled "The Soldier's Faith." As a Civil War veteran himself, he warned of the "false faith" which came with war service. A soldier should never "blindly accept" his duty and throw away the joys of living, especially for a cause that "he little understands." Such thinking was in line with Holmes' realism, which he brought to the bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (and later to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1902). The two most notable cases where Holmes displayed his legalistic realism were Schenck v. United States (1919) and Buck v. Bell (1927). In Schenck, Holmes outlined what were perhaps the first federal (legal) limitations to "free speech" since John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Also with Schenck, which occurred on the heels of World War I, Holmes declared that speech could be criminalized if it created a "clear and present danger" to Congress' ability to govern in wartime. Another classic Holmesian legalism emerged in the Buck case, where he deemed the sterilization of the mentally disabled and criminally insane constitutional. In reference to Carrie Buck's family history, the plaintiff who had her Fallopian tubes cut, Holmes infamously decried "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."