Though in time we may laud their boldness and radical qualities, in their day most progressive dreamers are seen as permissive, wild-eyed extremists.
I came across a rather remarkable letter purportedly written over one hundred and fifty years ago by Martin Van Buren to President Andrew Jackson. The contents? A strong, critical warning that the “evil” new railroads would disrupt business, boost unemployment, and weaken our nation’s defense. Historians may debate the authenticity of this little epistle, but see if the underlying tone doesn’t sound vaguely familiar.
January 31, 1829
To President Jackson:
The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as “railroads.” The federal government must preserve the canals for the following reasons:
One. If canal boats are supplanted by “railroads,” serious unemployment will result. Captains, cooks, drivers, hostlers, repairmen and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed in growing hay for horses.
Two. Boat builders would suffer and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute.
Three. Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of the expected trouble with England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.
As you may well know, Mr. President, “railroad” carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of fifteen miles per hour by “engines” which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening our women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.
Martin Van Buren
Governor of New York
How wildly progressive can you get? Just imagine the shock of the Almighty(!) as those iron horses began to rumble by at such “breakneck speed.” It may be amusing in our day of moonshots, Concorde jet flights to London, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but when the late Governor Van Buren dispatched that epistle in the winter of 1829, he was sober and serious as a judge. The very idea of a President even tolerating such a thought smacked of temporary insanity. Maybe the heat from Old Hickory’s “kitchen cabinet” was getting to him.
Are you an eagle-type, soaring to heights beyond your peers? Do you find yourself bored with the maintenance of the machinery . . . yawning through the review of the rules . . . restless to cut a new swath . . . excited rather than intimidated by the risks? Don’t expect pats on the back or great waves of applause. Not today. Chances are good you’ll lose a few jobs, fail a few courses, ruffle tons of feathers, and be the subject of the town gossip. Mavericks who don’t color within the lines are also notorious for not staying within the fences. And that makes folks terribly uncomfortable.
There’s something about that old progressive giant that currently casts a shadow on your genius. But take heart! Many an alleged heretic today will be a hero tomorrow. Which is another way of saying, “first the cross, then the crown.”