Railways, which first came into being in Britain in 1825, contributed greatly to the industrial revolution that characterized Europe in the 19th century. Following its British rival, France began building its first stretches of railway in 1830 and extended these to some 1,800 miles by 1850 (a long way short of the 6,600 miles of the British network at that same date). Nevertheless, the creation of the French rail network would, between 1838 and 1845, spark great public controversy and debates within the government and among parliamentary representatives.
The “Futures of Yesteryear” feature presented here was part of these debates. The piece in question is a speech delivered on 11 May 1842 by the parliamentary deputy (and poet) Alphonse de Lamartine in response to an amendment by Adolphe Thiers, which was aimed at thwarting the government project of building a railway system that radiated out from Paris by constructing a single line to run from the Belgian border to the Mediterranean through the capital. Lamartine opposed this plan vigorously, pointing out in particular the advantage for all France’s regions, and also for trade and industry –not to mention the military– of a network that covered most of the national territory. His address also underlines the importance of the state acting as a strategic agency in the service of those under its jurisdiction. Lastly, at the end of his speech, in response to various diatribes against technical progress (arising, in particular, in the wake of rail accidents), Lamartine stresses the extent to which that progress remains crucial for the forward march of civilization, despite the sporadic cases of harm it may occasion.