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Published by EH.NET (August 2008)

Paul F. Paskoff, Troubled Waters: Steamboats, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. xvii + 324 pp. $48 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8071-3268-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael Allen, Department of History, University of Washington, Tacoma.

When Louisiana State University professor Paul F. Paskoff first began to study early American western river navigation dangers and resultant government policy, he sought to “establish quantitatively the extent of the antebellum federal government’s failure to make the country’s major rivers safe for steamboat navigation during the decades before the Civil War” (p. xv). But after extensive research, Paskoff reached a far different conclusion. In fact, he learned the antebellum American federal government’s “river improvements program … accomplished quite a lot, not least being the provision of a vital means for the settlement and development of the lands of the public domain” (pp. 187-88).

Louis Hunter’s masterful Steamboats on Western Rivers (1949) and Eric Haites, James Mak, and Gary Walton’s Western River Transportation (1975) stand at the apex of a dozen significant economic and technological histories of steamboat commerce on America’s Ohio and Mississippi river systems. Paralleling these efforts have been, literally, thousands of books, newspaper and magazine articles and movies by “buffs” in a field only slightly less popular (and romanticized) than railroading, George Armstrong Custer, and World War II. Alongside scholarly and lay interest in steamboat technology and economics has been a deep-seated (and at times morbid) fascination with steamboat explosions ? the “disasters” component of this book’s title. These were first described in grisly detail in James T. Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, and Disasters on Western Waters (1856), Frederick Way’s Way’s Packet Directory (reprinted 1994)) and, of course, Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883). In The Americans: The National Experience (1967), Daniel Boorstin effectively used steamboat explosions as a metaphor to portray the reckless side of antebellum American itinerancy, materialism, and exuberance.

No one has done so thorough a job studying federally subsidized western river improvements and public rivers policy as the author of the volume under review. In this sense, Troubled Waters serves the desired end of all monographic literature, providing bricks in the building of a truthful historical narrative based on thorough primary source research.

Paskoff systematically describes myriad explosions and wrecks, placing them into the context of the federal government’s evolving work in building and subsidizing infrastructure. He does this chronologically, using James K. Polk’s Democrat anti-infrastructure presidency as a demarcation line. Throughout, Paskoff carefully follows Congressional hearings, debates, and votes ? from John Quincy Adams’ and Henry Clay’s “American System” proposals, to debate over the “Army Engineers” river and harbor clearing and dredging projects, through Polk and states’ rights Democrats’ reactive opposition, to the 1860 eve of a Republican pro-internal improvements resurgence. The narrative is based on extensive data shown in nearly one hundred charts, figures, tables, and maps; the results and significance of the data are also woven into the narrative. Paskoff concludes, as noted, that the federal government “largely succeeded in making steamboat navigation safer by removing natural hazards on the Mississippi and its major tributaries” (p. xv).

This work is based on impressive primary source research, especially in government documents and congressional reports. The author might have done more work in extant marine insurance and marine hospital records. Paskoff’s work bolsters the assertions of classical liberal economists he does not cite. For example, Burton Folsom in The Myth of the Robbers Barons (reprinted 1996) argues that historians of nineteenth century American capitalism have often failed to distinguish between “political” vis-a-vis “market” entrepreneurs. Paskoff agrees that supposedly pro-market antebellum Whigs (and Lincoln Republicans) lobbied for subsidies and government assistance to business while many supposedly pro-labor Democrats espoused a laissez-faire economic platform aimed at keeping the federal government out of the marketplace.

Paskoff rightly concludes that one of the goals of river improvements advocates was “the welding together of distant and disparate regions into an even stronger federal union” (p. 188). This goal of economic and cultural nationalism was left to postbellum Republicans, and the Army Corps of Engineers, to fulfill.

Michael Allen, Professor of History at the University of Washington, Tacoma, worked for three years as a deckhand, tankerman and cook on the Illinois, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. He has written five books, including Western Rivermen, 1763-1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse (LSU Press, 1990) and A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror (Penguin/Sentinel, 2004). He is currently writing a book with a working title of Mississippi River Valley: The Course of American Civilization.

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