Accidents build character

My research is currently focused on children and the transportation revolution. In a previous post, I noted that descriptions of snakeheads might lead historians to assume that antebellum railroads were highly dangerous, whereas examining the actual reports of accidents and some other factors suggest that antebellum Americans saw accidents as rare enough to be an acceptable risk when traveling. Although I wasn't anticipating spending so much time on accidents at this stage of my research, my reading in children's literature has given me some additional food for thought on this topic.

The first portion of Jacob Abbott's novel Aunt Margaret; Or, How John True Kept His Resolutions (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856) is occupied with the story of how young John True and his little sister, Lucy, take the train from New York City to western Massachusetts to visit their aunt. The decision to let Lucy travel under John's care alone is not made lightly. Indeed, it gives Mr. and Mrs. True an opportunity to reflect on the differences between their own upbringing and that which they are giving their children. Mr. True hopes that the railroad journey will help their children grow up, saying: "I think that the great danger which we have to fear in respect to our children, is, that they will grown up inefficient and helpless, on account of being waited upon and taken care of so much." Mr. True notes that when he and his wife were brought up, "we were thrown in a great measure upon our own resources and responsibility from our earliest years." By contrast, the Trues worried that their own children were being raised under very different circumstances. Mr. True fretted that "under pretense of saving them from getting hurt," children would not "ever acquire[e] any substantial experiences in respect to the laws of life" (pages 14-16).

As you would expect, John is thrilled with the idea of accepting the responsibility for his sister and undertaking the exciting rail journey. Discussing the trip with his mother, John informs her that he plans to pray that he and Lucy would not encounter "an difficulty or danger." To his surprise -- and frankly, to mine when I first read the passage -- Mrs. True responds that "it may be best for you that you should get into some difficulty or danger." What could this possibly mean? Mrs. True elaborated on her reasoning:
"There are a great many ways," replied his mother, "in which good comes out of accidents in traveling. In the first place you gain experience. You are called upon to act in unexpected emergencies; and thus your judgment and discretion are exercised, and you become better qualified to act in extraordinary emergencies afterward."
Thus, the railroad was something of a school which would prepare John in case anything much more dangerous happened later in life. Mrs. True didn't feel that the railroad itself was so dangerous that the children would be unduly at risk, but that it would force the children to find creative solutions to bad situations.

Mrs. True then continued with another example, telling John that it was possible that the engine could run off the track, which would result in "three or four hours" of delay. What might happen? "Then perhaps you would get hungry; and you might lead Lucy to a farm-house not far away, and get something to eat. You would have to consider in such a case a great many things. You would have to ask the conductor, before you went, how much time there would be; and you would have to be very careful not to stay too long. All these things would afford exercise for your powers of reflection, and judgment, and forethought, and so strengthen and improve them." The railroad's risks create opportunities for John to prove his ability to care for Lucy. Rather than praying to be free from accidents, Mrs. True says, "What we ought to pray to God for, chiefly, is a quiet and peaceful mind, to make us calm and submissive to his will, under all circumstances--and then whether things go seemingly right or seemingly wrong we shall almost always be happy" (pages 28-34).

In a recent article in the Journal of the Early Republic, Will Mackintosh has argued that transportation became commodified in the antebellum era. Travel went from something that travelers had to create (getting from town to town as best they could, inquiring about paths along the way) to something they purchased at a ticket booth. Here, Mrs. True wants to make sure that the commodification of travel hasn't dulled John's ability to fend for himself in the world. Accidents were not something to be feared, but an opportunity to prove one's popper attitude in a world where so many things are beyond one's individual control.

Additional reading: Will Mackintosh's " 'Ticketed Through': The Commodification of Travel in the Nineteenth Century" (Journal of the Early Republic 32 [spring 2012]: 61-89) is a much-needed corrective to the traditional view of the transportation revolution as a backdrop for everything else happening in the antebellum era.