Stanford’s founder believed that American industries should be owned by its labourers


“Many writers upon the science of political economy have declared that it is the duty of a nation first to encourage the creation of wealth; and second, to direct and control its distribution. All such theories are delusive.”

We have a tendency to glorify the Ivy Leagues, be it for the seemingly superior quality education they promise to offer or the (generically speaking) ‘elite’ crowds they boast of hosting. Today these schools have opened their doors disparate communities and races, attempting to create a ‘cultural melting pot’. But the reality is that not too long ago these universities were the hotspots for rich, white privilege. Today, schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale still hold ridiculously exaggerated appeal, with the entire world clamouring to win a single seat at any, idealistically believing that it guarantees a secure and privileged future.

And it does. Just like these aspiring students, the rest of the world also hyper-rates these prestigious institutions. Quite often, candidates from these institutions who apply for any job will readily be given a preference, rightfully or not. Stanford University was established in California in 1885, amidst the backdrop of the historic ‘Gold Rush’. Its Founder, Leland Stanford, joined the throngs of American industrialists looking to tap into the unexplored and undiscovered wealth of the state. This phase is credited with promoting American industrialisation revolution, ushering in individuals who quickly dominated business world, like JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Like all ruthless industrialists, these business legends had one simple goal in mind – to make more money.

However, Leland Stanford’s ambitions weren’t restricted to making money and establishing a powerful business legacy. There was more.

While many businessmen turned to philanthropy in their later years, only a handful dared to challenge this firmly established system of capitalism that dominates America even today. And out of this handful, Stanford certainly did the most to do away with the core principle of capitalism, the classified distinction between the already-entitled business owners and their heavily disadvantaged labourers.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

While Stanford certainly contributed to the winnings of a holistic right-wing centred economy and society at large, he also did his bit to rally for the changes it desperately needed. These included supporting measures that called for the implementation of gender-equality and labour empowerment, two factors he believed had been grossly misrepresented and unidentified.

“When money is controlled by a few it gives that few an undue power and control over labour and the resources of the country. Labour will have its best return when the labourer can control its disposal,” he had once said.

On his 193rd birth anniversary, we examine why the Founder of the esteemed Stanford University was more than a power-hungry industrialist sitting atop a mound of dollar bills.

Gold Rush

While Stanford had initially intended to become a lawyer, an incidental fire that burnt down his house and office forced him to turn his attention elsewhere. Thus, he began working from the bottom-up again. This coincided with the California Gold Rush, which promised the realisation of the ‘American Dream’. In a moment of impulse, Stanford plunged headlong into the rush towards it, hoping to turn his fortunes. Going into business with his brothers, his first job was as a ‘keeper’ for a general store for miners at Michigan City. Later, he served as the ‘justice of the peace’ and dedicated the majority of his time and effort into building the Sacramento Public Library. This was a noteworthy triumph for him in light of the loss of his own library, gifted by his father.

The ‘Big Four’

The ‘Big Four’ was the name given to the top-ranking and highly influential businessmen who together incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad, the former name for the railroad network built between California and Utah in 1861. Having gained the reputation of a master-mind strategist and effective leader, Stanford was elected as the President of the Central Pacific Railroad and even had the railroad's first locomotive, named ‘Gov. Stanford’ in his honour. Having received this honour, Stanford indulged in a series of philanthropic projects to help the people falling in line with this particular stretch especially. Following this success, Stanford tried his luck at a series of other industrial projects and businesses, even founding a life insurance company in 1868.

The populist movement

Stanford always said, “Labour can and will become its own employer through co-operative association.” This is because he always believed that the labourers were the ultimate strong-holders of any business and that their indispensable quality should have won them the control of the same business. To him, the divide between the owners of the enterprise, who were generally disconnected from the everyday functioning of the company, received unfair advantage in terms of money and power, considering that it was the labourers who unofficially ran the company successfully. This trend to do away with the divide and secure ownership of the business for the labourers, was the main idea behind the famous ‘populist movement’ that arose around the 1980s and carried through till the 1990s, making Stanford a leader and proponent in the same.

Stanford University

Stanford University was formed in 1885 under the watchful eye of Leland Stanford and his wife Jane, in honour of their only son Leland Stanford Jr. Stanford and his wife donated about $40 million to the university for its development, aiming to give female students an equal seat in higher education, which at the time was still a luxury for many.

“I want, in this school, that one sex shall have equal advantage with the other, and I want particularly that females shall have open to them every employment suitable to their sex,” he proclaimed during its inauguration.

Today Stanford University has held rank at the top of the ladder for over 130 years, and is still one of the most sough-after universities in the world, boasting of a commendable alma-mater.


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