Article Title

Tracking Liberty


R. W. Kostal


Barbara Young Welke, Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xx, 405. $65 (cloth), $23 (paperback).

This deeply researched and highly intelligent book revisits the theme of personal liberty in American life. Welke's aim, admirably fulfilled in the course of nearly 400 pages of minute illustration and discussion, is to show how American perceptions of bodily integrity and autonomy of action ("self-sovereignty or self-ownership") in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries "were transformed by mechanised technology, corporate power, and modernized space." This then is a study of American self-consciousness as a nation of free men and women. "My central question," Welke writes, "is how Americans' interactions with technology, with corporate power, and with each other in these years reshaped the lived experience and thus meaning of liberty." Her book describes the collision between the cherished American ideal of the "free man" moving uninhibited in the world and an illiberal trinity of machines, corporations, and states.

Railroads and streetcars were chosen as the focal point of the study because they "were instrumental in fulfilling a condition of individual liberty: freedom of movement." By the 1870s, railroads had become an integral and indispensable aspect of American life. As Welke stresses, however, the site of mechanised transportation was always a contested social, moral, and legal terrain. By the turn of the century the railroad car, station, and platform were among the most comprehensively regulated of all American spaces. American men and women became dependent on an industry that had steadily eroded their personal autonomy.