August 28, 2020

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 Roland De Wolk, a journalist, history professor and author of “American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford,” the railway magnate was the equal of Carnegie or Rockefeller — even though his story has largely not been told.

Three Takeaways:

  • 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 that the estate avoided penalty.
  • 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.

More reading:

  • 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 self-made billionaire is a myth
  • 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 this article 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 this article by Stanford Magazine. (The San Francisco Chronicle also looked at what appears to be multiple attempts to poison her.)

railroads, roland de wolk, Education, history, Stanford University, Culture

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