Did Martin Van Buren write an anti-railroad letter to Andrew Jackson?
Periodically, I come across a letter that Martin Van Buren allegedly wrote to Andrew Jackson calling for the creation of an Interstate Commerce Commission. The argument Van Buren made in this letter was that railroads were dangerous and destructive and that canals were preferable and profitable.
The earliest appearance of the letter I have found was in the March 1966 issue of The Bessemer Bulletin, pg. 4, a monthly publication “for employes [sic] of the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad, Pittsburgh, Pa.” The text of the letter was as follows:
Jan. 1, 1829
[Note: Sometimes the date is listed as 31 January 1829.]
President Andrew 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:
1. 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 the horses.
2. Boat builders would suffer and towline, whip, and harness makers would be left destitute.
3. Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In 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.
For the above mentioned reasons the government should create an Interstate Commerce Commission to protect the American people from the evils of “railroads” and to preserve the canals for posterity. As you may know, Mr. President, "railroad" carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 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 women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.
Martin Van Buren
Governor of New York
Most people today recognize that this letter is a fake, but in the pre-Internet days, it was printed multiple times in various publications. Even today, when people should know better, it has been published in compendia of historical trivia, economic analyses, railroad publications, and a surprising number of religious books.
Surprisingly (or maybe not, as I think about it), the letter even made it into congressional testimony. Executive vice president for Republican Carloading and Distributing Henry A. Ferro submitted the letter during a 1970 U.S. House Subcommittee on Transportation and Aeronautics hearing on surface freight rates. His purpose was to show the traditional opposition to new ways of thinking when it came to railroads and innovation. When subcommittee chair Samuel Friedel questioned the authenticity of the letter, Ferro admitted that he “did not go back and research” the original letter but had pulled it from the May-June 1967 issue of the CMSA Communicator [Note: CMSA presumably meant the California Moving and Storage Association].
Friedel subsequently followed up on the question of authenticity with the Library of Congress (LoC). A letter from Roy P. Basler, chief of the LoC’s manuscript division, was inserted into the above congressional record. According to Basler, the LoC had received enough queries about Van Buren’s purported letter that manuscript historian John J. McDonough had prepared a statement about it. The LoC had never found the original or a copy in their Andrew Jackson or Martin Van Buren collections, according to McDonough. He also identified contextual incongruencies about the letter: Van Buren addressed Jackson as president when he was not yet president; its description of 1820s railroads did “not ring true”; and Van Buren was generally “not friendly to internal improvements in general, and to canals in particular.” The LoC’s conclusion was that the letter was “spurious,” but Basler noted that “it might be possible to carry the investigation further” if Friedel could provide “the source of your copy.”
Over a decade later, a letter to the editor by former U.S. ambassador Robert J. McCloskey (Washington Post, 7 October 1983) asserted that Harold Moser, chief editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, had “confirm[ed] that no original of the letter has ever been seen” and that “the ‘internal inconsistencies’ of the text suggest it is a ‘20th century fabrication.’" When the 1829 volume of the Papers of Andrew Jackson was published, the editorial team led by Dan Feller did not publish the letter, a clear sign that its members agreed with earlier scholarly assessments.
Like the LoC, our project does not have any version of this letter as part of its collection. I also concur with the assessment made by McDonough and the Papers of Andrew Jackson editors. Unfortunately, scholarly consensus about a historical myth doesn’t always correct popular perpetuation of falsehoods. But at least we tried.
* My thanks to Tom Coens at the Papers of Andrew Jackson for his assistance in trying to trace the provenance of this letter.