Pacific Postcards

Does Not Such a Meeting Make Amends? (Bridget Persson)

Hiding behind the promises of opportunity and economic prosperity for those the state determined fit, the United States has disregarded its actions of systematic racism and blatant discrimination for decades. This is apparent throughout nineteenth century history: the transcontinental railway allowed the United States and arguably the globe to economically escalate as the East and the West connected increasing trade efficiency at the expense of Native Americans and Chinese railroad workers. While the exploitive and oppressive actions the United States took towards minorities was undoubtedly wrong, these actions did accelerate international, as well as domestic growth, at astonishing rates. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper recognizes this double sided perspective of minority discrimination versus the “greater good” for all and proposes a question: “Does Not SUCH A Meeting Make Amends?” Leslie questions whether the self-serving actions of the United States against minorities are forgivable, or justified, by the positive domestic and international dimensions brought about by the transcontinental railway. Gordon Chang, on the other hand, in Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroads in Global Perspectives argues that the popular 21st century narrative of Pacific history that highlights the racial hardships and vicious conditions that the minority workers endured during the building of the transcontinental undermines and diminishes the narrative of “international dimension” the transcontinental enabled. However, Chang’s argument would be strengthened substantially if his narrative included all aspects displayed similar to Leslie’s narrative in Frank Leslie’s Illustrative Newspaper: all narratives of the transcontinental including both the celebration of advancement and the significant history of displacement, abuse, and discrimination against minority groups in the United States during the nineteenth century are displayed.

Leslies graphic exhibits two trains symbolizing San Francisco and New York coming together with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. On top of the train, settlers cheer with joy as the transcontinental railroad is completed. Contrary to the cheerful settlers, the animals as well as Native Americans fearfully run away suddenly displaced from the land that once was their home. This narrative illustrates the benefits to some at the expense of others. This displacement of minorities for the “greater good” that never became good for those minorities portrays SUCH a Meeting Does NOT Make Amends.

Chang's paper, on the other hand, discusses the “correct” narrative authors should apply to speak about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Chang argues that “much is omitted from, or underplayed in, this grand narrative” (Chang 27). More specifically, authors who criticize the completion of the transcontinental by discussing “the terrible toll on the construction workers of all backgrounds, the invasion and violent subjugation of native peoples, and the corrupt business practices of the railroad magnates in obtaining public funds” are less correct according to Chang as they “have overshadowed, even displaced, the immense international dimensions of the line” (Chang 28). Despite Chang’s argument that focusing on all minorities impacted masks the international value of the advancement, no narrative should exclude or downplay the vile treatment of minorities endured during the building of the transcontinental railroad, including the hardships faced by Chinese laborers and the displacement of Native Americans.

How does Leslie's illustration contrast to Chang’s perspective on the building of the transcontinental? Contrary to Leslie illustrating that the meeting of the East and West does not make amends by enhancing the fear and hardships minorities faced, Chang sometimes implies that Leslie’s sketch illustrating the deprivation of minorities as a result of the transcontinental should be excluded from the narrative. Chang’s perspective conveys that the international benefits immensely outweigh the popular narrative embellishing the toll on predominantly Chinese construction workers and Native Americans (in Leslie’s words, Chang believes that SUCH a meeting does make amends). 

In no way is Chang wrong that international benefits or dimensions should be included in the conversation and scholarly work. In fact, international dimensions of the transcontinental play an important and impressive role globally during this time as the effects of the transcontinental “revolutionized the travel and traffic of the world” contributing to the compression of geography and expanding “proximate for the traveler, businessman and merchant” (Chang 29). However, not only are the benefits of the transcontinental subjective to travelers, businessmen and merchants, but the benefits following the transcontinental may be predominantly subjective to Americans. Many did not benefit from the expanded “international dimensions.” 

In an article (Geography of Chinese Workers Building the Transcontinental Railroad) co-directed by Gordon Chang himself, Chang contradicts his perspective on the “correct” narrative and discusses the immense discrimination and inequity minorities, and more specifically the Chinese transcontinental railroad workers, suffered. For example, the article illustrates discrimination as “historians estimate that Chinese workers cost between two-thirds and one half of what white workers cost.” The article emphasizes that “overseers of the Chinese workers were abusive; the wages were low, and they were forced to work long hours, longer than first stipulated.” Examples of media in this article include the Sacramento Union, which “reported that the workers protested ‘the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment’” (Obenzinger). Despite Chang discussing the “terrible tolls on workers” and the “violent subjugation of native peoples” in Geography of Chinese Workers Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Chang excuses these horrible acts of racism in exchange for “the international dimensions of the line” in Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroads in Global Perspectives. The hypocrisy in narrative leaves readers to question what narrative or position to take when analyzing the transcontinental railroad.

In addition to the hypocrisy in narratives, Chang demonstrates inconsistencies in his argument through somewhat patriotic vocabulary. Through vocabulary, Chang implies that the significance of the transcontinental benefits actually resulted in more American benefits than international dimensions. In addition to discussing the transportation and globalization benefits, Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroads in Global Perspectives refers to the transcontinental as something of American pride and succession. In Leslie’s illustration, the cheering settlers on top of each train show how the “first transcontinental line is celebrated in mainstream American life as well as in scholarship as one of the signal episodes of national life, elevated by some even to the level of importance of the Declaration of Independence” (Chang 27). Chang continues on to discuss the transcontinental as a “marvel of American engineering and energy” or a “physical and metaphoric bind that united the nation politically, economically, and socially” (Chang 27). Was the transcontinental railroad intended to have great international dimension where multiple countries benefit or was it another self-serving action of the United States that exploited minorities for “overcoming the bloody division and healing national wounds?” (Chang 27). By frequently referring to the benefits of the transcontinental using nationalized and patriotic rhetoric, Chang weakens his argument that the “international dimensions” help make amends with affected minorities and instead emphasizes the extravagant benefits that one country, the United States, received. 

While there were clear benefits to the construction of the transcontinental railroad, Chang’s narrative which flips between the international and domestic benefits of the railroad (the railroad with “international dimensions” verses the railroad that “bind[s]…the nation politically, economically, and socially”) and that sometimes recognizes the hardship of those who built the transcontinental and sometimes does not (discussing the “terrible tolls on workers” in one paper verses minority hardship focused narratives having “overshadowed, even displaced, the immense international dimensions of the line” in a second paper) makes it difficult to not conclude there is hypocrisy prevalent in his work.  When minorities are essentially sacrificed for the “greater good” it seems essential to acknowledge the facts and pay proper homage to our past and the people who made it possible. A more compelling narrative would look similar to Leslie’s narrative and attempts to balance and include all aspects of the transcontinental railway from the intricate history minorities faced to the international dimensions and everything in between.

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