When did American federalism–the public attachment to, and the concomitant political, legal, economic, and cultural distinction and authority of, the various American states–die? It’s a silly question, of course, because there are so many possible correct answers. It died with the corporate concentration of the media from the 70s through the 90s! No, it died with the creation of the interstate highway system in the 50s and 60s! No, it died with World War II! No, the New Deal! No, the 17th Amendment! No, the 16th Amendment! No, the Civil War! No, it died at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, with the death of the Articles of Confederation!

Or maybe, of course, you could argue that it hasn’t died, but rather is always mutating into different forms. As long as human beings exist in bodies that exist in particular spaces–that is, as long as we are not brains in vats being fed through tubes and communicating via the internet–then local attachments will form, and communities (whether healthy or not) will emerge, and federalism will stumble along, somehow.

Anyway, however you feel about that debate, I’ve something more to add to it. Via my friend Nate Oman, I’ve been alerted to this fine argument by Rick Hills, claiming that American federalism died on May 31-June 1, 1886, when a national consortium of railroad companies coordinated a massive switch-over in railway lines all across the country, imposing a single, standard-length gauge for all railroad tracks, thereby enabling any company’s railroad cars to transport whatever they were carrying to any destination, north or south, east or west, without any costly car-switching and freight-hauling. The economic and legal consequences of this market-driven standardization, Hills argues, were massive:

I argue that this two-day conversion was the most important constitutional event between the end of the Civil War and the New Deal. The switch to the uniform gauge dwarfs precedents like McCulloch in practical constitutional importance, because it destroyed federalism by eliminating the states as serious economic policy-makers.

As mail-order goods flowed into every remote Southern hamlet along the now-accessible Southern tracks, local merchants were turned upside down by Montgomery ward and Singer sewing machines. The South fought back by flooding the North with cheap textiles, courtesy of cheap transportation. Both regions consequently lost control of their economic destiny, paving the way for the federal government’s Progressive Era takeover of economic policy. The Race to the Bottom (or Top, if you prefer) was born on May 31st, 1886….

Is it a coincidence that, five months after the May 31st 1886 gauge conversion, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Wabash, St Louis, & Pacific Ry. v. Illinois that Illinois could not regulate rates for interstate rail trips? I doubt it: A breathtaking reversal of the Court’s 1877 precedents in the Grange cases, Wabash was legally indefensible but, once the nation was knit together by a single rail system, economically inevitable. Wabash was only the beginning: After the 1886 gauge conversion, the U.S. Supreme Court embarked on an aggressive campaign against non-discriminatory state regulation of goods and services….The Court became corporate America’s little helper, sweeping away communities’ regulation of the national market even when such regulation took the form of geographically non-discriminatory laws. Why? I suspect that even non-discriminatory subnational regulation was intolerable to judges impressed by the corporate achievement of standardized time zones, uniform grain grading, and the uniform gauge.

So enjoy Uniform Gauge Day. You can celebrate (or mourn) it by buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks, a book from Amazon.com, or some cheap clothes at Wal-Mart. Praise or curse these activities as your politics dictate. But take a moment to reflect on the birth of this market 134 years ago today, when tens of thousands of railroad workers, working feverishly over two days, simultaneously nudged steel rails three inches closer together and thereby (with a little help from SCOTUS) shoved states, towns, and counties off our constitutional map.

Perhaps someday, people will write the history of the day when national communities themselves died. Was in NAFTA? Was it the European Economic Community? Was it Bretton Woods? Persuasive answers, all of them. I suppose I’ll just keep hoping, conflicted participant in a world of liberal markets that I am, that somehow nations, in one form another, will survive, in the same way that states and cities still sometimes do as well.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Are we really that surprised to find such mantras as “C&O For Progress” in the realm of railroad advertising?

  2. For many many years I have said that the Interstate Highway System was as transformative as the Second World War. Not only did we lose living working communities linked together by a rail and bus system but we made the automobile and trucks and their manufacture the backbone of our economy. The result: dependence on oil and the trail of blood, pollution, and corruption that followed.

  3. Lincoln I could not agree more. But I would add that once we bisected our cities and the smaller communities that surrounded them with more highways we destroyed neighborhoods which were the bedrock of a successful community.

  4. 1886 was a bad year for the Republic, since it was also the year of Southern Pacific v. Santa Clara County, the ruling which, through a clerical error, established corporations as “legal persons.”

    Lincoln, I think the problem with the Interstates is that they are a “free”way system, which means the costs are externalized; the federal gov’t would collect local taxes to subsidize the destruction of localities, a process that is by now complete.

  5. The Interstate Highway System is as much military in its genesis as commercial. In fact, the inbreeding of commercial and military compulsions in the lapsed Republic is the chief culprit in the ongoing negation of civil communities.

  6. D. W. Sabin is correct in making a connection with Defense Department needs and the construction of the Interstate Highway System. The IHS was promoted as such by many, not the least of whom was President Eisenhower who remembered troop convoys struggling to cross the US in the 1920’s and Ike’s memory of the sleek Autobahn.
    When people pointed out that a land war was no longer feasible in the age of ICBM’s and nuclear weapons, the point was lost on deaf ears.
    Personally, I think this was cover for promoting the automobile. The Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower administration was Charles Wilson, or “Engine Charlie” as he was known when he was the CEO of General Motors.

  7. Wasn’t there a lot of big railroad money tied up in the GOP early in its history and also during the war and after? If so, then maybe 1861 and 1886 weren’t so very far apart, so to speak.

Comments are closed.