Leland’s legacy: how a robber baron built Stanford, sparked Silicon Valley and transformed America
A new biography from Bay Area journalist Roland De Wolk says Leland Stanford was a ruthless capitalist who cheated taxpayers…and became the godfather of modern tech
How much do you really know about Leland Stanford?
Sure, the term “robber baron” might surface as the sole sound byte from your class on 19th-century history, but how does that square exactly with your more current perception of him as the founder to America’s most sought after university? Was he truly the godfather of Silicon Valley? Or just a cutthroat capitalist with an interest in new technology? (Better yet…could he be both?)
That polarity is brought into new (and long overdue) focus with the recent biography, American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford, by longtime Bay Area journalist Roland De Wolk. And yes—spoiler alert—Stanford’s legacy is far more complex than one-note historical takes and juggernaut PR machines would have you believe: he was an uneducated anti-intellectual, yet defined himself as “a technologist” and wanted Stanford University to thrive as a trade school. He played a major role in vaulting America into peak ascendancy, yet had few qualms bilking taxpayers out of millions of dollars in the process (before going on to be a U.S. Senator). And those are just a few of the threads that De Wolk pulls to weave an engaging and highly relevant portrait of a profoundly influential, turbulent and, yes—“scandalous” life.
We spoke to De Wolk about his new biography for further insight into some of the many facets of Leland’s legacy, the nuance for connecting him to modern Silicon Valley…and why no one wants to discuss the alcohol-free origins of Palo Alto.
Take a look….
To start, can you tell me about your initial spark of interest that motivated you to write a new biography of Leland Stanford?
I’m a history grad of UC Berkeley and my interests have been pretty wide ranging. I have spent my entire adult life being a reporter, oftentimes down in Silicon Valley. I was at Stanford about 5 years ago working on a story … and I was thinking about Leland Stanford, who I realized that I knew very, very little about for some reason. I understood that he was the principal player in the university and had something to do with railroads, but I thought, “I don’t know anything about this guy.” And I started poking around and found that there is very little written about him. There’s a couple of hagiographies, there’s a book for 12 and under, some cartoon versions of his life, but if you’ve been a reporter for more than 13 seconds you know that nobody’s life is that simple.
So that was sort of the first spark because even though I was engaged in another project at the time, I was thinking, “maybe there’s a book in there.”
But what would be the hook? What would be the way to get people interested? Because the rub on Leland Stanford is that he was boring, stupid, inconsequential and that didn’t ring right to me — my news nose told me that there was something very wrong about that perception.
I think I very much had that particular viewpoint. But now, in getting through your book, I would say that his life was really quite the roller coaster and that it reads like a multiple-act Shakespearean tragedy.
Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. And as I was researching it was almost revelatory, I thought: “What a life!” And a life of some significance, not just to California and the West, but to the United States and arguably the world.
It made me wonder why he didn’t get this kind of attention before. You have the Vanderbilts, Carnegie, the Rockefellers…and I think I could argue pretty convincingly that they were not as consequential and perhaps even of less significance than Leland Stanford. But, of course, New York publishing is incredibly parochial and considers California to still just be someplace out West.
Without a Leland Stanford there would have been no Carnegie, because that steel fortune was based on the railroads. There would be no Rockefeller because he wouldn’t have been able to move his oil around. Stanford employed thousands and thousands of more people. The effect of the Transcontinental Railroad can’t even possibly be gauged compared to a guy who had an oil company, or a guy who made some steel. So California maybe needs to get people educated about how important someone like Leland Stanford was instead of relegating him to the shadows.
Can you touch on a place where you believe your book breaks new ground on his life and legacy?
Absolutely, and if I had to choose one it would be when the federal government finally got fed up with Stanford’s increasing announcements saying that he not only didn’t think he should have to repay the American taxpayers for what would be the billions of dollars of loans he signed for and had agreed to pay back, but that the taxpayers owed him more money. To me, there’s no question that this was one of the greatest scandals in American history.
The idea that they made this questionable deal for hundreds of millions of dollars for what would have been the biggest public works project in American history up to that time—and then saying he wasn’t going to pay it back? And then when the government said that they wanted to see the books and they had been destroyed and there were no consequences to that? That story is astonishingly revelatory.
I think it is relevant to today that Stanford conflated his businesses with his so-called public service. This is a very contemporary issue today: We keep making these same stupid mistakes over and over again as Americans because we don’t seem to appreciate history the way that other countries do.
You make the case for Stanford as a godfather of Information Age innovation…yet you’ve also received some criticism for drawing too straight of a line from Stanford to modern Silicon Valley, and I would like to get your response on that?
Stanford is very much the unwitting godfather of Silicon Valley. The case that I make in there … I will leave to any impartial scholar and I would challenge anybody to tell me that that case is not incredibly strong. Obviously, I’m not saying that Stanford is Robert Noyce or Frederick Terman. What I’m saying very clearly is that without Leland Stanford our history in America would be significantly different as far as tech is concerned. There are multiple reasons that Silicon Valley is located where it is, but one of the major reasons is Stanford University. And if there is no Leland Stanford, there is no Stanford University.
Leland Stanford wanted his university to be that kind of a trade school that created technological innovations for the marketplace. He didn’t want a big liberal arts university that taught Latin and History. He wanted a trade school that would bring innovations to market. And that’s what brought people like Frederick Terman to Stanford and in turn, guys like Shockley and Noyce.
In that same vein, I think it’s interesting, because I had always slept on the Eadweard Muybridge film experiments as an early case of Silicon Valley innovation, which is a very tangible example of Leland Stanford being directly connected to a technological innovation that would help to shape the modern age.
Yes. They called themselves “technologists.”
If you go to the Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park up in Sacramento, which was his first ostentatious mansion, you can get a sense for his worshipping of technology, and my book describes some of that. Stanford was very much an American in thinking that technology was something to worship, as we do way too much today as Americans.
So, our offices are here in Palo Alto and I’ve always been fascinated by this city’s alcohol-free origins. What’s interesting is that locals here seem to have this really hazy sense for the actual history of it. So, being that you’re a Stanford biographer, I was wondering if you could bring some clarity?
I’m glad you caught on to that, because I was fascinated by it as well. As you saw in the book, there’s this initial prohibition of any manufacture or sale of alcohol within the Palo Alto city limits, before they incorporated everything south of California Street.
But everybody in the city government (very à la Stanford University) declined to comment. They refused to answer my calls and any of my questions about it. You have a pretty vibrant historic community of people down there who are interested in Palo Alto history, but nobody seems to want to actually look into it. It seems a little bit on the taboo side.
Well there are two sides to it which are very interesting — on one hand Stanford is enforcing a “moral atmosphere” regarding alcohol and the University, yet on the other he is the country’s biggest wine producer.
Insofar as Stanford and Vina, it was the largest winery in the world. And Stanford explicitly stated to his wife that he believed that it would be the place that would produce enough revenue to sustain the university. And of course, it never turned a profit and continued to lose significant amounts of money all the time. So yes, the hypocrisy of that—which is a classic Stanfordian move—to say: my morals suggest we will not have any liquor, not only at this university but in this town, but outside of this we are going to be trying to make tons of money from booze.
It kind of reminds me of him criticizing Chinese immigration and then importing Chinese labor to build the railroad.
Exactly. That is his life.
And if you think of other people in power today, you might even suggest there is a parallel.
I was a bit perplexed at the University’s recent decision to change the name of Serra Mall to Jane Stanford Way, mindful of the fact that she had gone to great lengths to prevent female enrollment at the University.
It’s one of those Stanfordian paradoxes.
She didn’t want any woman at the university. She saw—and we have to put ourselves in her shoes—the university as a memorial to her dead son. And somehow emotionally for her (and remember—it’s a very different time and culture so we have to be sensitive to that) seeing girls there was a refutation of that principle of hers … She didn’t want any kind of female students on that campus. Like Leland, she had very little formal education. So a lot of this was emotional reactions to the their times. These were not intellectuals, these were anti-intellectuals…which is another paradox of the university. They didn’t want an intellectual community, they wanted a trade school.
The term “robber baron” is still very much attached to Leland Stanford, so I was wondering if you maybe see that characterization as a cautionary tale for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world: that no matter your impact, your historical legacy can still be reduced to a negative sound byte?
That’s one of the reasons Zuckberg’s name is in the prologue. I gave it a positive spin, but for more thoughtful people—yeah. John Lennon famously remembered that “the king is always killed by his courtiers.” And it’s something that folks like Leland should have known and that Mr. Zuckerberg might take into consideration.
Mindful of your research for this book…where do you think American history should land when it comes to Leland Stanford and his legacy?
I think he ought to be paramount with those other celebrity names [Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt] that the East Coast folks think are so important. These guys pale in comparison to Leland Stanford, so at the very, very least he deserves that same sort of scrutiny and respect. I could argue that he can be first among them, but he at least needs to be on the same bookshelf. He needs to have the same kind of attention. The consequences of his life should not be lost.
I hope this book will start not only the recognition of Leland Stanford, but the understanding that the weight of history was tilted to the West and we need to recognize its importance and what it means for our future.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
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