Credit: Justin Sullivans / Staff / Getty Images
*This piece was originally published on January 17th, 2020
When you hear the name “Stanford,” chances are a certain university neighboring Palo Alto in California will come to mind. But you may be less familiar with the story of Leland Stanford, the university’s founder. A railway entrepreneur and key player in West Coast politics, Stanford lived a controversial life that changed the history of California, strengthened the interconnectedness of a divided nation, and planted the seeds for the rise of Silicon Valley.
According to, a journalist, history professor and author of “ ,” the railway magnate was the equal of Carnegie or Rockefeller — even though his story has largely not been told.
- Though Stanford is best known for founding Stanford University, it is by no means his only claim to fame. Along with being a railway entrepreneur, Stanford served as a justice of the peace, Governor of California, and a U.S. Senator. And according to De Wolk, he leveraged these positions for his own benefit, bullying towns across California to invest tax money in California’s railway system — a system that he himself profited from.
- Stanford got away with his shady dealings, but just barely. He was known for making risky business decisions, De Wolk said, which left him near bankruptcy at the end of his life. Stanford once refused to repay loans worth millions of dollars from the federal government. When he was sued, it was only through his family’s connections .
- Leland’s vision of Stanford University was much different than we might imagine today. According to De Wolk, Stanford looked down on more traditional universities that were places to study languages and the humanities. Stanford’s vision of a school focused more on practical skills, and laid the groundworks for what we refer to today as Silicon Valley.
- According to De Wolk, Leland Stanford was a self-made man. But are true rags-to-riches stories disappearing in today’s competitive climate? Check out this article from Dame Magazine about whether the .
- Long before Citizens United v. FEC - a case that famously reconfirmed the right of a corporation to have some of the rights of a person under the 14th Amendment - Leland Stanford argued that corporations and people do share rights. The result of his case, and one misreported fact, had major consequences for our legal system, according to by The Atlantic.
- Jane Stanford, Leland’s wife, worked closely with her husband to make Stanford University what it is today and remained a trustee until she died. Read more about her work, and the mysterious circumstances of her death in by Stanford Magazine. (The San Francisco Chronicle at what appears to be multiple attempts to poison her.)