Leland Stanford built his wealth in railroads in the 19th century—an era of rough-and-tumble politics and crony capitalism. He is best known today, however, as the founder of one of the world’s most highly regarded universities, an institution that brought elite education west of the Rockies and incubated many of the 20th century’s technological achievements.
Born in 1824 and raised in the Mohawk River valley near Albany, New York, A. Leland Stanford never used his given name. (It was Amasa.) He studied in the small town of Cazenovia, apprenticed in law in Albany, and went west in 1845 to open a law practice in the new state of Wisconsin. Stanford spent seven years in the Badger State, where he married Jane Lathrop in 1850. But his business faltered, and after a fire consumed his law office and library, he turned his eyes farther west. In 1852, he migrated to California, where he joined his five brothers.
There is no denying that corruption made Stanford rich. But grief later motivated him to use his ill-gotten lucre to benefit the children of California, and all Americans.
Stanford started off in the ancillary enterprises of the California Gold Rush, keeping a grocery store then a wholesale shop in Placer County. In 1855, he sent for Jane. Stanford’s business career rose in tandem with his political career. He participated in the founding of California’s Republican Party and was elected Governor in 1861. That same year, he became one of the four principal investors in the Central Pacific Railroad, which Congress authorized in 1862 to build the eastbound section of the first transcontinental railroad.
The transcontinental railroad was a remarkable feat of engineering, especially the Central Pacific’s herculean efforts to carve tracks through the heights of the Sierra Nevada. Stanford, as president of the railroad, enjoyed the triumph of driving the “golden spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. For the rest of his life, Stanford would remain one of California’s best known figures. From 1868 to 1890, Stanford headed a second railroad, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which later merged with the Central Pacific. In 1885, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Political maneuvering made Stanford a very rich man. He participated in the worst practices of the Gilded Age: stock watering, kickbacks, rebates, bribes, collusion, monopoly. There is no acquitting Stanford on this front; his participation in such schemes is amply recorded in his letters. One historian of the transcontinental railroads argues that the principals of the era made clear their unsavory activities in correspondence in part “because the dimmer lights among them, such as Leland Stanford, had to have so much explained to them.”
Stanford is best remembered today, however, not for corruption but for a tribute to his only child. Leland DeWitt Stanford was born in 1868, and eventually came to call himself Leland Stanford Jr. On a trip to Europe in 1884, Leland Jr. died of typhoid fever. His parents were beside themselves. In their grief, the Stanfords pledged to themselves that “the children of California shall be our children.”
What the children of California needed, they determined, was a modern university. They traveled through the east, visiting colleges and universities along the Atlantic seaboard. They learned about the practical education and applied sciences taught at new land-grant institutions like Cornell. And they were impressed by the modernizing curricular reforms at many of the old, elite schools like Harvard.
In 1885, they founded the Leland Stanford Junior University. It would be private, co-educational, non-sectarian, and tuition-free. It would offer an education designed to “fit the graduate for some useful pursuit”—focusing on engineering, agriculture, and other practical disciplines in addition to the liberal arts and core sciences. It was consciously aimed to break higher education from its northeastern stranglehold, bringing a great university to the shores of the Pacific.
The Stanfords were intimately involved in virtually all aspects of the university’s planning. They located the school on their stock farm in Palo Alto and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to lay out the grounds. They chose the design of the school, settling on a main quadrangle with facilities made from local materials that reflected the nearby California landscape.
With total giving that would amount today to $478 million, Stanford personally funded the operations of the university during its early years. When he died in 1893, his estate was frozen by federal lawsuits over loan repayments on the construction of the Central Pacific. During the lawsuit’s six years, Jane kept the university afloat with her own salary as Leland’s executor.
Stanford University immediately attracted excellent students; Herbert Hoover was in its first class. It opened professional schools in business, engineering, medicine, and law, and soon resoundingly achieved its founders’ goal of making top-flight higher education a truly national rather than regional enterprise. Then in 1939, two Stanford alumni—Bill Hewlett and David Packard—opened an electronics business in their Palo Alto garage, spawning what is now called Silicon Valley, and turning Stanford University into ground zero for some of the most creative entrepreneurship of the digital age.
“Perhaps the greatest sum ever given by an individual for any purpose is the gift of Senator Stanford,” wrote Andrew Carnegie in 1889, “who undertakes to establish upon the Pacific coast, where he amassed his enormous fortune, a complete university, which is said to involve the expenditure of ten millions of dollars, and upon which he may be expected to bestow twenty millions of his surplus.” Impressed by Stanford’s philanthropy, Carnegie simply concluded: “He is to be envied.”
- Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of the Life of Leland Stanford: A Character Study (Biobooks, 1952)
- Bertha Berner, Mrs. Leland Stanford: An Intimate Portrait (Stanford, 1935)
- Norman Tutorow, Leland Stanford: Man of Many Careers (Pacific Coast Publishers, 1971)