"The Politics of the U.S. Steam Empire": History Colloquium with University of Oxford's Jay Sexton


University of Oxford Professor Jay Sexton began his February 12, 2016, talk at the Kinder Institute by framing his topic, the international rise of steam transport systems, within the context of the growing, but still nascent, field of 19th-century U.S. global history. Certain stones, he noted, are just now beginning to be turned. With regard to his specific subject matter, he pointed to how, while valuable scholarly work has been done on the economic and technological significance of advances in steam power and transit, relatively little attention has been devoted to examining the politics of how steam transformed the nineteenth century world, contributing to and accelerating nation building and imperial expansion both in the United States and abroad.

Unpacking the “politics of the U.S. steam empire,” he went on to explain, begins with understanding the degree to which the establishment of domestic steam transport systems—and particularly, in his talk, oceanic transport systems—would have been impossible without state support. In a model that would later be drawn on by the U.S. Congress in their dealings with companies like Pacific Mail, the British government set the bar for such state involvement, offering subsidies in the form of mail contracts to private corporations to jumpstart development by offsetting massive overhead costs. As with the tariff debates of the 19th century, however, the history of subsidizing steam in the United States isn’t without controversy. Party conflict, Prof. Sexton noted, “left no victory safe,” and a boom/bust cycle ultimately emerged, with overseas steam companies rising in the late-1840s and mid-1860s and then fading in the late-1850s and mid-1870s. As for cause, he traced these boom periods to circumstances that neutralized opposition: Polk, an expected detractor, supported steamship subsidies as part of his larger westward expansion agenda in 1847; and Southern Republicans were not in Congress in 1865 to push back against state support. Conversely, Prof. Sexton cited a number of factors that contributed to the erosion of overseas steam transport during the bust periods, including financial crisis, growing Sinophobia in the post-Civil War United States, and the relatively weak status of steamship lobbyists compared to their railway rivals.

With regard to establishing the broader significance of this political contest over steam, Prof. Sexton mapped these periods of growth and decline onto an examination of the U.S.’s early forays into overseas expansion, looking at steam’s role in increased American engagement/entanglement with Cuba, Japan, China, and, in his primary example, Panama. During the gold rush years, when the preferred route to California was via Panama rather than over the American continent, he observed how the territory surrounding Panama’s transcontinental railroad (the construction of which was funded by Pacific Mail co-founder William Aspinwall) became a de facto U.S. territory, with private U.S. corporations exercising sovereign power in towns along the rail line and the U.S. Military being called on to intervene when tensions flared between native Panamanians and gold-seeking American passengers who had taken up temporary residence on the isthmian route. Driven by an incentive for mutual profit, this arrangement proved quite beneficial to a number of parties—corporations like Pacific Mail, the Panamanian elite, the U.S. state, and the Panamanian government (then in Bogota)—and equally detrimental to the nation’s labor force, leading to the rise of activist, liberal politics in Panama City. Returning once more to steam’s boom/bust cycle, Prof. Sexton noted how the national instability that followed from the rise of resistance politics in Panama was simultaneous with the U.S. government’s de-funding of steamship transport in the late-1850s and, subsequently, the receding political influence of companies like Pacific Mail on the transcontinental railroad route during that time.

Sexton Bio PicJay Sexton serves as a Field Fellow and Tutor in History at University of Oxford, Corpus Christi College, as well as Director of the Rothermere American Institute, the largest interdisciplinary center for the study of U.S. history, politics, and literature outside of North America. He received B.A. degrees in History and English from University of Kansas, and his DPhil from University of Oxford, Worcester College, where he was a Marshall Scholar. He is the author of Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 1837-1873 (Oxford University Press, 2005, paperback ed. 2014) and The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (Hill and Wang, 2011), and co-editor of Empire’s Twin: U.S. Anti-Imperialism from the Founding Era to the Age of Terrorism (Cornell University Press, 2015), with Ian Tyrrell, and The Global Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2011), with Richard Carwadine. He is currently at work on a book project entitled, The Steam Empire: Transport and U.S. Expansion in the Nineteenth Century. Prof. Sexton has articles and book chapters forthcoming in The Journal of the Civil War Era, American Civil Wars (University of North Carolina Press), and The Transnational Significance of the American Civil War (University of Georgia Press), among other places,, and he is the past recipient of the University of Oxford Teaching Award, the Vice-Chancellor Oxford University Research Prize, a John Fell Fund Research Award, and an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship at the Huntington Library.