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Teow Lim Goh: The Ideology of Paradise

June 19, 2014

The Stanford legacy includes a gorgeous campus and the origins of corporate personhood.

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Image from Flickr via Hugo Pardo Kuklinski

By Teow Lim Goh

The Stanford University campus is beautiful. Its Mission Revival buildings sprawl under the warm California sky, evoking the haciendas of another era. Palm trees line long walkways that meander across the lawns. As I walked with my friend Amy, I began to see the grounds as a retreat from the quotidian and a sanctuary for art and scholarship. At that time I was beginning to write, trying to find the questions I wanted to ask, juggling my development as an artist with all the obligations of work and life. I fantasized about writing in this quiet and solitude. I imagined spending my days on these footpaths as I worked out problems in my head, the warm air, blue skies, and lush grass antidotes to the disembodiment of staring at a screen. This is a place, I said to myself, where we can wrestle with our deepest thoughts. This is a place where ideas are made.

Amasa Leland Stanford grew up near Albany in central New York. He trained as a lawyer, but when a fire destroyed his Wisconsin office in 1852, he followed his brothers west. Those were the years of the California gold rush, but he did not take his chances as a miner; he became a merchant in the camps, making his money off the fools who dreamed of gold. With Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker, he became one of the original four investors in the Central Pacific Railroad, the western half of the first transcontinental railroad from Omaha to Sacramento.

Among the students in the first matriculating class was Herbert Hoover, an orphan from Iowa. He graduated with a degree in geology, worked as a mining engineer, and in 1929, became the President of the United States.

The Central Pacific made him one of the wealthiest men of his time. His son Leland Stanford Jr. was born late in his life, after his wife Jane suffered a number of miscarriages. He brought up the boy to be a steward of wealth. In 1884, while on a grand tour of Europe, the boy contracted typhoid. He hovered between life and death for weeks before succumbing in Italy, a few months short of his sixteenth birthday. Devastated, and bereft of an heir, Stanford told Jane, “The children of California shall be our children.” In this spirit, they decided to found a university in their son’s memory on their Palo Alto ranch.

The Leland Stanford Junior University inaugurated in 1891. Harvard was the blueprint for the institution. Most of the initial fifteen faculty members were hired away from Indiana University or Cornell. The university did not charge tuition, which made it affordable to the poor and working class. It was also co-educational, uncommon in those times, though Jane Stanford instituted a quota for women, believing that a women’s college did not befit her son’s memory. The curriculum focused on the practical arts and sciences, the knowledge with which graduates could go out into the world as innovators and entrepreneurs. Among the students in the first matriculating class was Herbert Hoover, an orphan from Iowa. He graduated with a degree in geology, worked as a mining engineer, and in 1929, became the President of the United States.

We wandered our way to the Memorial Church. At the entrance, above the stained glass, a mosaic depicts the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples and followers are dressed in brightly colored robes, their faces turned and hands raised to Jesus. Palm trees dot the background. The sky is inlaid with gold leaf. Inside the church, I saw a clutter of stained glass, mosaics, and marble sculptures. Jane Stanford had a Victorian aversion to blank space and had filled almost every available space with art. The church was grandiose and overwhelming, but still I saw the space as sacred, dedicated to matters of the spirit.

Leland Stanford is most remembered for the university that bears his name. He was also adept at mixing business and politics for personal gain.

Next to the entrance, an inscription reads:

There is no narrowing so deadly as the narrowing of man’s horizon of spiritual things. No worse evil could befall him in his course on earth than to lose sight of heaven. And it is not civilization that can prevent this; it is not civilization that can compensate for it. No widening of science, no possession of abstract truth, can indemnify for an enfeebled hold on the highest and central truths of humanity. “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

The Memorial Church was among the last of the original structures to be built. The Stanfords believed that the education of the spirit was integral to the education of the mind, and to that end, they envisioned a non-denominational church at the heart of campus. Stanford died before it was built. That year, 1893, the nation was in a deep recession caused by railroad speculation and a run on the gold supply. In 1895, the federal government sued the Stanford estate for repayment of the loan it had made to the Central Pacific to build the transcontinental railroad. The lawsuit froze the estate’s assets and threatened the continued operation of the university.

Jane Stanford, until then a housewife, took over the university administration. She paid salaries and expenses from her own pocket and by pawning her jewelry. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and was settled in favor of Stanford’s estate. The money now freed, Jane began designing and planning the church. Before her husband died, they had traveled to Europe for inspiration; the final design resembled the medieval churches they saw in Italy. The Memorial Church was completed in 1903 and dedicated to Leland’s memory.

Leland Stanford is most remembered for the university that bears his name. He was also adept at mixing business and politics for personal gain. As the governor of California from 1862 to 1863, he often gave favorable contracts to his railroad cronies. He made the city and county of San Francisco pay for the tracks from the Central Pacific’s terminus in Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay Area, while the profits from the operation went to the railroads. As the president of the Central Pacific, he falsely classified the flat lands just west of the Sierra as mountain grades and claimed the higher rate of subsidy from the federal government. From 1885 to his death in 1893, he also served as California’s U.S. Senator.

Leland Stanford pioneered the modern corporation and its abuses of power. His legacies leave us the questions.

Amid this art and beauty, I thought of the United States Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The high court ruled that to restrict corporate spending on electoral campaigns violated corporations’ free speech rights under the First Amendment. Its implications on electoral politics are tremendous—it opened the gates to virtually unlimited corporate spending––but what troubled me most was that it conflated money with speech. Voices not aligned with the interests of power would find it difficult to be heard.

Citizens United hinges on corporate personhood, a legal concept first established in the 1886 decision Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The Southern Pacific, successor to the Central Pacific and of which Stanford was president at the time, argued that the tax the Santa Clara County sued them to collect, which applied to railroads and not natural persons, amounted to differential treatment, a violation of their equal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court ruled in favor of the railroad, but the case would have been just a minor tax dispute had the court not also reached, at the railroad’s behest, to grant corporations the rights of natural persons.

Leland Stanford used his tremendous wealth and power to found a great institution that advances our knowledge of the arts and sciences and ultimately of the human condition. At the same time, he pioneered the modern corporation and its abuses of power. His legacies leave us the questions: What lies beneath our dreams of paradise? What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Teow Lim Goh’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Open Letters Monthly, The Common Online, and The Philadelphia Review of Books, among other publications.

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