Great American Railroad Journeys – BBC 2


Despite currently being somewhat traumatised by hearing Donald Trump inform Piers Morgan that he was friends with Ed Glazer (there are some things you would really rather not know, and that’s one of them), I love the United States and I particularly love American history.  And I love Michael Portillo’s railway programmes.  It’s interesting how some people who are so annoying as politicians can be great in other guises – think Ed Balls in Strictly Come Dancing, as another example.   We haven’t actually had an awful lot of history from Michael in this series so far – although we have had food, rowing, fountain pens and various other things.  And we have had numerous references to the close ties between our two countries, which has been greatly appreciated – although the industrial espionage involved in Francis Cabot Lowell copying Lancastrian textile machine designs for use in Lowell, Massachusetts was rather less appreciated!  But we have had some history – and it’s said some of the best and the worst about the early days of the United States.

Massachusetts is, of course, home to Plimoth Rock, where the Mayflower landed.  The whole idea of the Pilgrim Fathers as the “founding myth” of America leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy, but that’s another story.  Another American legend, and one which actually is accurate, is the “Boston Tea Party”; and we saw Michael visit the site where that took place, and enjoy a historical re-enactment involving throwing imitations chests of tea into Boston harbour.  It was a terrible waste of good tea, but point taken – no taxation without representation.  Then on to Concord.  Concord, Lexington, Paul Revere’s Ride – there’s another American story which is both accurate and a legend.

So – the Revolution.  It’s always a bit weird for British historians to get their heads round, because we’re the ones cast as the baddies; and Michael was obviously feeling that, especially with all the comments about Tory spies 🙂 .  The way round it is usually to remember that the regime they were rebelling against wasn’t exactly representative of the people of Britain either – this was over half a century before even the very limited Reform Act of 1832.  And it is all genuinely stirring and inspirational.  I even feel quite inspired every time I read that chapter in one of the Little House books about the Fourth of July party, when they make the speeches and we’re told that Laura and Carrie both know the Declaration of Independence off by heart!  When I went to the National Archives in Washington, and saw original copies (there’s something wrong with the expression “original copies”, but never mind) of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (yes, I do know that the actual signing took place in Philadelphia, not Boston, but it’s all on the same theme), I really got quite emotional.  There’s something very special about it.  It’s very moving.  It really makes you feel something.

But then you remember that – quite apart from the lack of rights granted to women – slavery wasn’t abolished.  And that part of the reason for the discontent in Puritanical Boston was that Britain had agreed to full religious toleration for Catholics in what’s now the province of Quebec, ceded to Britain by France after the Seven Years’ War.  The Salem Witch Trials, which took place eighty years before the Boston Tea Party, are a sobering reminder of how dangerous Puritanical religious extremism can be.  Obviously it wasn’t just in Massachusetts that witch trials took place, but they were perhaps more closely linked to Puritan extremism there than they were in the Old World.  It was encouraging to see historical re-enactments teaching people about the dangers of witch hunts in Salem, though.  We could do with something like that here.  My blood boils every time I see one of the “Witch Way” buses – which is quite often, because their route, between Manchester city centre and the Pendle area, goes within a few hundred yards of my house – with silly pictures of broomsticks and pointy hats painted on them.  Ten people were executed as a result of the Pendle Witch Trials: it wasn’t a bloody fairy story.

So, that was the good, the bad … and we also got the rather weird, although it wasn’t gone into in all its glorious detail.   The visit to Concord actually missed out the battlefield, but did include the former home of Louisa M Alcott, best known as the author of Little Women … which was recently serialised (again) on TV.  Jo and Laurie were not meant for each other, OK!  Lay off Amy.  Jo turned Laurie down, so he was quite entitled to marry someone else.  OK, back to the point – the involvement of Louisa M Alcott’s dad in reform movements.  He was actually involved largely in the … fringe movements, for lack of a better way of putting it.  No eating potatoes because they grow downwards into the soil rather than bursting out of it.  No hot baths.  No tea!  No coffee and no alcohol either, but, seriously, how can you expect people to live without tea 🙂 ?   However, on a rather more mainstream level, the Alcotts were very involved with Abolitionism.  And the Reform movement in both Britain and America in the nineteenth century is, in its own way, as inspiring as the Revolution.  Abolitionism of course, but there were other aspects of it as well.  Think Josephine Butler. Think Elizabeth Fry.

And think John McEnroe.  No, he’s got nothing to do with either Michael Portillo or Bronson Alcott 🙂 , but he did make an amazing speech on Saturday, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in response to the furore surrounding Tennys Sandgren’s social media activity.  In it, he spoke about how the likes of Gottfried von Cramm, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King, people who were not only great tennis players but who also fought against the injustices of the world, and how people like them stood up for what they believed in.  He made the very good point that a lot of “tweeting” and so on goes on these days, but not so much actually getting out there and getting things done.   We’re all guilty of that.  Think of the Chartists.  The Suffragettes.  And people like the Rochdale Pioneers.

OK, I have now wandered well away from New England, and back to England.  But New England is an inspirational place.  And so is wonderful Eastern Canada, where Michael will be heading next – one of my favourite parts of the world.  I am so jealous of Michael Portillo for having this job!   If he ever feels like giving it up …   .  I’d even wear those horrible brightly-coloured clothes if that was part of the deal 🙂 .

7 thoughts on “Great American Railroad Journeys – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    The Declaration of Independence must rank as the most hypocritical document ever. Even so, the quest for independence was reasonable. My understanding is that the New England states typically started as proprietary colonies (or “plantations”) whose founders probably thought they owed no allegiance to the British Crown. The Brits spent a lot of money fighting the French during the Seven Years War, but, so far as I am aware, the American colonists never sought British protection against the French. Interestingly, Rhode Island (and the Providence Plantations) broke away from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the interests of religious tolerance and freedom. The new colony was initially dead against slavery, although Newport later became a center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What were the greatest American train journeys in history? (Just digressing a bit.)


    • He can only do short distances every day, or each episode’d get too long! And New England and Pennsylvania do tend to hog all the credit for independence, even though most of the “Founding Fathers” were from Virginia.


      • Chris Deeley

        I meant actual rail journeys of historical significance. The building a special railway carriage (by Pullman) for Lincoln’s body should immediately come to mind, but what was the other far greater rail journey for the body of another American President, who also died in office?


      • Chris Deeley

        Ah ha! The greatest rail journey in American history was from San Francisco to Washington DC. The train carried the body of President Warren G Harding, who had died of natural causes (in August 1923). How many people lined the tracks to pay their respects? Wait for it . . . . . nine million!


      • Chris Deeley

        Interestingly, Warren G Harding was not so popular to start with. The New York Times’ first ever front-page editorial was a piece condemning Harding (while still a candidate) as totally unsuitable to be President. Harding has since (and quite recently) been re-evaluated by the Hudson Institute. Wow! History tends to repeat itself, so take note: President Trump, who is not very fit and rapidly aging, may well die in office AND be re-evaluated in the (distant?) future.


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