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Stereotyping and the Pacific Railway Issue, 1845-65 H. CRAIG MINER An individual may find it impossible to share his most subtle perceptions with his closest friend, much less with his block, town or nation. Therefore , when a group mandate, or consensus, is required regarding a public issue, communication is apt to take the form of stereotypes. To certain members of society, mostly those well-versed in the details of the problem at hand, these stereotypes appear to be oversimplified, generalized, and distorted shadows of reality. So they are, especially if one assumes non-relative truth and omniscient observers. They have been defined as constructs realistic enough to make identification plausible, and romantic enough to make it desirable. 1 Yet no historian concerned with defining an issue as it was understood by the public at a given time in the past can neglect study of the stereotyped arguments then popular. One such issue, in the mid-nineteenth century, was whether the United States should build a railroad to the Pacific Ocean. In speech-making and newspaper coverage of this issue, there can be located eight distinct stereotyped arguments, which are here designated "Seal of Union," "Highway of Nations," "Inlaid Fortress," "Challenge to History," "Desert Rain," "Crucible for the Republic," "Path for Providence," and "Victory of Will." While there were others, these eight are most often repeated, in all types of settings and in all geographic areas. Through them, it was hoped, the concept of a Pacific railroad would begin "fastening itself upon the public mind, and twining its tendrils around the common interests of the American people." Insofar as the mobilization of mass opinion upon the Pacific railway issue was concerned, the question of the exact relation of these to a reality not accessible to the relatively uninformed need not be considered. To "outsiders,'' who constituted the public at large, these repeated verbal constructs were the reality upon which they acted in this case. Nor is it certain that "insiders" were not influenced by a set of stereotypes of their own. As Walter Lippmann, the former idealist planner, resignedly put it in the early twenties: "Certainly at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.n 2 THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 1, SPRING 1975 Historians have been divided ,1bout how seriously the scholar should take the public rhetoric :iurrounding gre.:it issues. Sometimes, as in the debate over the causes of the war 1812, decades of study result at last in the conclusion that the rhetoric of the time was not so far wrong. On other subjects the debunkers hold sway, believing that, whatever the public thought, the course of action was determined by the concrete, usually economic, motives of a few men, unaffected by stereotyped delusions . Most earnest in taking seriously what they have called myths, archetypes or symbols has been the American Studies school. Certainly Henry Nash Smith's definition of myth as a fusion of reason and emotion, or Richard Slotkin's description of "a complex of narrative that dramatizes the world vision and historical sense of a people or culture, reducing centuries of experience into a constellation of compelling metaphors," are useful in discussing stereotyping. Whal' both are driving at is that perhaps all communication, bul certainly communication which significantly influences public opinion, simplifies and telescopes much individual experience in such a way as to "reconcile and unite ... individualities to a collective identity." 8 Lippmann's "stereotype" seems more at home with the nineteenth lentury than terms with classical or Jungian overtones. No claim is made here that the Pacific railway stereotypes represented the spirit of the age, or defined the national character through tirne; only that they were necessary devices for achieving public support, changing in content as requirements changed. It is not required in order to demonstrate their importance to say that their originators were unselfish romantics. William Gilpin had political ambitions, Thomas !fart Benton stood to benefit economically from the railroad, as did Asa Whitney, and every newspaper editor was looking for ways to build circulation. Nowhere did the stereotypers deny that a central...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 59-73
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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