Preventing "Those Terrible Disasters": Steamboat Accidents And Congressional Policy, 1824-1860
Responding to public outrage over the dangers of steamboat travel and entreaties by the press, inventors, and interest groups in the years before the Civil War, Congress investigated accidents, published data about the science of steam power, and suggested ways to improve vessel construction and operation. It also had the government test mechanisms, mandated certain safety devices, contemplated subsidizing inventors, and, in 1838 and 1852, passed laws requiring safety inspections and punishing steamboat operators for misconduct. These actions lend support to revisionist scholars of public policy who argue that the national government was more active and interventionist during this era than conventional historical depictions have portrayed. Members of Congress believed that the government was responsible for the safety of passengers and had the authority to intervene. They often endorsed policies without contested votes and drew support from Whigs and Democrats, as well as all geographical sections. These circumstances are inconsistent with archetypes of nineteenth-century policymaking, such as the "party period" paradigm, sectional contests between North and South, or the SouthernDemocratic alliance that sought to restrict government intervention. The idiosyncrasies of the legislative process were at least as important as outside forces in influencing the form, timing and disposition of steamboat legislation. Researchers should be alert to instances of energetic government, consensual policymaking, and the complex process of how Congress responded to persistent demands.
Steamboats; Accidents; Disasters; Inventions; Party Period; Government; Legislation; Congress; Public Policy
Silbey, Joel H
Baptist, Edward Eugene; Bensel, Richard F
Ph. D., History
Doctor of Philosophy
dissertation or thesis