Making Private Enterprise: Railroad Dividends and the Urban Public in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore
This paper examines one strand of this debate, an effort by the B&O’s private stockholders to declare an “Extra Dividend” on revenues that had been spent on construction ten years prior. Led by future company president John W. Garrett, the campaign for an Extra Dividend laid out new understandings of the line between private enterprise and the public good. Its supporters argued that profits belonged by right to stockholders, and that city officials should not dictate corporate policy. Its opponents argued that large dividends channeled revenues away from the commonweal and into private hands. They warned that pursuing such policies would make the B&O a “mere private enterprise.”
Reconstructing conflicts over railroad dividends in the 1850s highlights the ways in which the development of corporate practices emerged in dialogue with an urban public. To make the B&O a private corporation, its stockholders had to transform the railroad from a local institution to a national enterprise. In the process they articulated new boundaries between public and private in the nineteenth-century city, redefining the relationship between individuals, corporate entities, and the body politic.
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