Indian Country and the Railroad

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Missouri, at the exposed edge of the South with freedom on two sides and oddball demographics, disposed of its more atypical senator, Thomas Hart Benton, at the instigation of his nearly as atypical fellow senator, David Rice Atchison. For the moment, rather white, rather free, almost Northern Missouri cast its lot with the Lower South extremists. The apparent paradox of such a lightly enslaved state throwing in with the deeply enslaved states further south makes a certain amount of sense. Knowing Missouri slavery vulnerable, its advocates would naturally make themselves extremely vigilant and sensibly adopt the most extreme proslavery politics to deter their opponents and so both put themselves and their opposites on notice against hidden subversion like that which might hide behind Benton’s stand for silence on slavery.

But Benton’s almost free Missouri did not evaporate. He returned to Washington in 1853, representing St. Louis in the House. His supporters worked, without success, to repeal the Missouri legislature’s resolutions against him. But their efforts signaled that Benton had not closed the book on holding higher office again. Atchison would stand for reelection in 1855 and few things would please Old Bullion more than taking the seat of the man who took his away.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Benton and Atchison both favored a central route for the transcontinental railroad, and there the grudge match between them joins with the great sectional crisis that undid the Armistice’s finality after a mere four years. With the demise of the southern route, disposed of by Lewis Cass, Stephen Douglas, and Benton’s replacement Henry S. Geyer, any route chosen had to run through not Texas and organized New Mexico or Utah territory, but through Indian country. Per the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834, whites could not settle there. They couldn’t even trade there without a special license. They could not buy or hold land. They could only pass through on their way to the coast. All of that had to change for the railroad’s construction and, deeply connected in the minds of nineteenth century Americans, for the white race to fulfill its destiny by filling the continent.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas had worked on organizing Indian country as Nebraska Territory since he first entered the House. He didn’t care one way or the other about slavery. Douglas wanted his railroad, his profits, and the advancement of his race. But where Douglas in the House failed, Douglas in the Senate could succeed. In 1852, on his third try, the Little Giant submitted a bill to recruit a volunteer military force to build a series of forts across Indian country, string a telegraph line, and support itself through farming. After three years, each man in the force would get a section of land on the route. The law did not pass, says something about both Douglas’ ingenuity and how badly he wanted the land settled.

Douglas had good reason to think the time ripe. By the fall of 1853, two groups of whites had ignored the prohibitions of the Non-Intercourse Act and settled in the area. A group of Missourians settled around Fort Leavenworth, amid the very army charged under the law to evict them. To signal their enthusiasm, they elected a slaveholding Atchison man as their delegate to Congress. They had no authority to do any such thing, of course. Nor did the Iowans who settled across the river from Council Bluffs and elected a free soil man to send to Congress. Both groups stood in blatant defiance of the law, but like the filibusters they took what they wanted and dared Congress to make them give it back.

Missouri’s Other Atypical Senator

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Missouri, just to look at the demographics, hardly seems like the place to draw slavery radicals. It lacked the thick black belts of the Lower South. At its most enslaved, it could just barely match the figures for a typical Upper South state in the confines of three counties. In a state like that, one would expect a politician like Thomas Hart Benton. The Constitution, however, grants each state two senators. Since 1844, Missouri had sent David Rice Atchison to Washington alongside Benton. Both men had counties named after them, Atchison’s (1.79% enslaved) in the Platte Purchase area of northeast Missouri and Benton’s (9.17% enslaved) near the center of the state.

More people probably know Atchison from a popular myth than from his actual history. Suffice it to say that he never served as President, not even for the one day claimed. Atchison himself never thought so. But he did sleep through most of March 4, 1849. Atchison put in long hours and late nights for several days before polishing off the work of the previous Congress and, in all likelihood, a considerable amount of alcohol. Bourbon Dave liked his drink. He had both to sleep off that Sunday.

At first Benton and Atchison worked well together. Both men wanted Texas, but Benton didn’t mind if it came in free or a section of it got sliced off and made free. Atchison wanted it to save it from a conspiracy by the British to emancipate the Lone Star Republic. Benton denied, rightly so, that any such conspiracy existed. He also pointed to the excitement proslavery elements had for adding a new frontier to slavery the chief obstacle to Northern support for the annexation. If Atchison and his fellows just quieted down, they could get a new slave state or two at the small cost of a new free state or two carved from the same land, filled up by yeoman farmers not repulsed by so much din about the glories of bondage.

To Atchison, who rarely found a bit of proslavery paranoia he could resist and set about casting himself as Calhoun’s disciple, Benton spoke rank treason. What could he mean, except that slavery made lepers out of its practitioners? What kind of Southern man could think such a thing? And what did it say about the North that Benton must really speak for, if it found slaveholders so toxic that it could not abide their presence?

Atchison had his own Missouri, in the west section of the state along the Missouri river. There he kept his own plantation in Clay County (26.54% enslaved) and for a time represented Mormon prophet Joseph Smith in land disputes. Once he and Benton split, they stayed split. Benton’s support of the Wilmot Proviso and Taylor’s No Territory plan made him plenty of enemies in Missouri, and not just in Atchison’s gray belt counties. Bourbon Dave assembled a the bipartisan movement for Missouri’s anti-Benton resolutions and held his fellow Democrat’s feet to the fire.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

The man who put a bullet in Andrew Jackson did not back down and took to Missouri’s dusty roads at age 68 in 1849. He rode into the heart of Missouri’s not-so-black belts, Bourbon Dave’s country, and there Old Bullion mounted stump and stage to confront proslavery hysteria. Nothing that so alarmed slavery interests amounted to a genuine threat, not even the Wilmot Proviso. The North scorned abolitionists nearly so much as the South did. Bourbon Dave and his confederates wanted not security for slavery and slavery’s future, but secretly intended to break the Union for its own sake. Benton owned slaves and did not fear for his property, not in Missouri or anywhere else. Atchison and his ilk caused most of the Northern hostility toward slaveholding with their ceaseless agitation. Better they settle down and be silent on the subject. Be silent and let the tide of white immigrants fill Missouri and the West.

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

But what did Benton, personally, think about slavery? He opposed its expansion. Had Missouri entered the Union free, he would oppose slavery coming there. He would see it kept where it then rested and not expanded at all. Didn’t they understand that proslavery campaigns only discouraged white settlement and kept Missouri smaller than it could be? A decade later, an Illinois lawyer would run for president on a very similar platform.

Benton insisted it would take slow centuries to naturally end slavery, but Atchison and his supporters heard abolitionism. If whites flooded in and all Missouri looked more like St. Louis, would Old Bullion remain silent then? Or would he embrace a social revolution, pushing measures to sell slaves South until the institution withered on the vine? Come 1850, Benton’s party threw in with the Whigs and replaced him with Henry S. Geyer. Atypical Missouri proved, at least in that moment, quite typical indeed.

An Atypical Senator for an Atypical Missouri

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

To go with its demographic oddities, the Missouri that might fill with white settlers and free itself from slavery had an oddity for a Senator. Thomas Hart Benton, born on March 14, 1782, started life in North Carolina. He went off to study law at North Carolina College. Though Benton had the good judgment to pick well-heeled parents, cash belonging to his fellow students somehow ended up in his pockets. Benton admitted taking the money and decamped in disgrace to find his fortune in the new frontier just over the mountains: Tennessee.

In Tennessee, Benton earned a reputation as a tough frontiersman and bought a sizable patch of land he turned into a plantation. Along the way he also finished his law degree and spent some time in the state Senate. Benton’s bear hunting and dueling ways brought him to the notice of another rough frontier sort, Andrew Jackson. The two men took a shine to one another and when the War of 1812 came, Jackson made Benton his aide-de-camp and a lieutenant colonel. Then he sent Benton off to Washington to lobby the War Department, quite the opposite of the job Benton wanted.

Then two men found themselves in a bar together. Benton’s younger brother clashed with one of Old Hickory’s friends. Sufficiently lubricated, Benton and Jackson got involved. Benton spoke up. The general challenged him. Benton accepted and in short order both men fired. Jackson did violence to Benton’s sleeve, shooting a hole through it. Benton shot Old Hickory in the arm, walked up and seized the general’s sword, and broke it in front of him. Jackson bled enough to soak two mattresses. Benton, knowing full well that in shooting Mr. Tennessee he also shot dead his hopes of a political career in the state, picked up and relocated a second time.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Across the Mississippi, Benton found his new home in St. Louis. There he worked as a lawyer and fought more duels. When not shooting people, Benton made enough of a name for himself in Missouri’s small pond to win election as one of its first senators in 1821. Missouri elected him again and again, for a total of five terms. No other senator served so long, not even Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. In Washington, Benton stood by the Democratic party when it formed. One supposes that if Jackson demanded too much for him, Benton reserved the right to shoot him a few more times. Old Bullion certainly let the Senate know he could carry a grudge and hate with the best of them. They called him Big Bully Bottom Benton. Big Bully shot dead a man who called him a puppy.

At any rate, Benton proved a stalwart Jacksonian. To him, the government had a duty to fight against banks and paper money in order to secure a continental paradise for all white men. The Jackson administration taught him a very un-Southern lesson in where to find his other enemies: From Calhoun and the Nullifiers, Benton learned that slavery agitators would break the union if they could. Their every contrived crisis, from the tariff to the gag rule to Texas and Wilmot served that aim. They would bury the white man’s paradise in the grave of sectional strife.

None of that made Benton an abolitionist. He wanted all of Texas, with or without slavery but best if some of it turned free soil. He did not inveigh against slavery, but preached silence on the subject. It would go away on its own and Northern agitators produced much sound and fury but little substantial threat to the insitution. Furthermore, the North policed them quite thoroughly and kept them to the political fringes. Many Northerners saw him as a lone American voice in an increasingly disunionist South. To the South, especially to Missouri’s slaveholders, Benton often looked like a secret free soiler.

When the Missouri legislature passed resolutions against his heterodoxy in 1849, Benton eased off his enthusiasm for slicing up Texas. Then they demanded he stand with the South behind Calhoun’s Southern Address. Old Bullion the Big Bully cherished his principles and hatreds too much to knuckle under to the architect of his woes and refused.

Two Kinds of Missouri for Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Looking at Missouri’s 1850 census returns down to the county level yesterday got me wondering just how many different Missouris lurked behind the numbers. I decided to cut a few out and see what appeared.

It would not do to take this too far. I made no effort to geographically consolidate these states within a state, ensure they had sensible borders, or had anything else in common save for their demographics. Listing here should not imply some kind of secessionist, or even merely dissenting, movement from establishment Missouri or Southern politics. The point of the exercise is to tease out contours in the state’s demographics and liken them to peers and other, similar situations in a broader context.

Delaware in Missouri, 1850

Delaware in Missouri, 1850 (Click for a larger version.)

I began with the most obvious sectioning: the Missouri counties that had about the same number of slaves or fewer, proportionately, as Delaware in 1850. The first state’s three counties together held 2,290 slaves in that census, for 2.50% of the state population of 91,532. Delaware in Missouri includes twenty counties with a total population of 40,428 people and 603 slaves. That works out to 5.91% of the state’s total population, 6.72% of its white population, and 0.71% of its black population. It has less than half the population of the real Delaware and while 11.25% of Delaware’s black population lived as slaves, 93.93% of Delaware in Missouri’s black population did. To white eyes, Delaware in Missouri must have looked pretty free. Its 39 free blacks knew otherwise.

Still, one could read Delaware in Missouri’s demographics as an omen of the future. Few people lived there, but in 1850 Missouri still had frontiers left in it just waiting for free white settlement to drive the enslaved percentage down, form an indifferent and vaguely antislavery bloc, and grow the state to freedom. Thomas Hart Benton certainly thought so, and he had thirty years of statewide politics under his belt to back him up.

1790 New York in Missouri in 1850

1790 New York in Missouri in 1850 (Click for a larger version.)

Delaware would not take compensated emancipation even when Lincoln offered it, so perhaps we should not look there for demographic signs of incipient emancipation even if the state is such an oddity in the South. The last two states to emancipate before the Civil War, New York and New Jersey, might make for better benchmarks. In 1790, both still had slave codes on the books. New York held 21,193 slaves (6.23%) and New Jersey held 11,423 (6.20%). If they could emancipate with so few, then in principle Missouri could too. James Tallmadge certainly thought so in 1820 when he ignited the Missouri controversy by putting an amendment for gradual emancipation into the act admitting Missouri as a state.

Taking New York’s 1790 benchmark of 6.23% enslaved, we come up with more than forty counties. Together, they have 36.49% of the state’s population, 40.00% of its white population, 62.18% of its free black population, and 12.34% of its slave population. Once more, a vast majority (86.88%) of its black population live as slaves. New York enslaved 81.91% of its black population in 1790 and still managed to emancipate in 1799. More than a third of the Show Me State’s residents live in New York in Missouri and 1790 New York proved that a state with its degree of slavery could emancipate. Benton’s vision of a free Missouri does seem near at hand here, and in a section of the state with enough people that we can’t dismiss it as a remote aberration like we could Delaware in Missouri.

Missouri in 1850

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton thought his Missouri home a Western state, not a Southern state. Nor did he count his preferred transcontinental railroad route from St. Louis as a Southern route. Roughly midway between Chicago and New Orleans, Benton needed only show a map to support the claim. Missouri had slavery and so belongs in the South, but not quite in the same part of the South as the Carolina Lowcountry, Mississippi Delta, or Alabama river bottoms. Like the rest of the Border States, its demography ran somewhere between North and South.

I have previously looked at demographics on the level of states and sections, but Benton’s position seems like as good a chance as any to narrow the focus and look just within a particular state. The University of Virgina’s historical census browser supplied the raw data, down to the level of individual counties. It differs somewhere from the state aggregates I took directly from Census Department summaries, but across the whole state that adds up to less than a one percent discrepancy. That could come from human error on my part, especially considering the amount of numbers typed into a spreadsheet in quick succession, but I think it’s close enough to make fair comparisons in any event.

For context, the Sixth Census found the United States 13.82% enslaved, with a typical variance of up to 29.67% enslaved. Taking out the almost absolutely free North and just counting the South puts those numbers at 33.15% enslaved, with a typical range from 19.35% to 46.95%. How does Missouri measure up? It enslaved 12.88% of its population, including some of Benton’s own human property. That brings it in well below Southern norms. That low percent enslaved still meant bondage for 97.09% of its black population, though. One does not find another Delaware (2.50% enslaved and that amounting to only 11.25% of its black population) or Maryland (15.50% enslaved, 54.74% of its black population) beside the Mississippi and astride the Missouri. But nor does one find another South Carolina (57.59% enslaved, 97.73% of its black population) or Mississippi (51.09% and 99.70%, respectively).

But a place as big as Missouri, until the admission of Texas the biggest state in the Union, can hide a lot of diversity inside it. Fortunately the census has breakdowns by county. A county in most states probably does not seem like a big deal to most modern Americans. But in 1850 the telegraph didn’t even reach California from the East Coast. Nor, of course, did rail link the two. Most people moved by foot or by horse over roads we might barely recognize as such. Poorer, slower communication and transportation made for a much bigger world where the nature of small numbers and isolated populations could generate a lot of heterogeneous areas in a space we would call quite confined.

Due to the large size of the spreadsheet, I had to split it in two. Sorry about that.


Missouri in 1850, counties Adair to Knox


Missouri in 1850, counties Laclede to Wright and state totals.

Missouri’s hundred counties do not disappoint. The most enslaved, Howard, weighs in at 35.01% enslaved. While that makes Howard nearly thrice as enslaved as the state average, it hardly casts a shadow over South Carolina and Mississippi. It would hardly stand out in Virginia (33.24%) or North Carolina (33.20%). If we call a black belt county a county where half or more of the population live as slaves, Howard doesn’t fit even after it exceeds the national norms. Lafayette and Saline counties join it in enslaving more than 30% of their populations, but all three have more Upper South than black belt in their demographics. Only fourteen other counties exceed South’s lower bound of 19.35% and qualify as typically enslaved.

But Missouri at least includes a kind of Upper South. Did it also have a sort of Lower North? Not quite, as in 1850 the North had 262 slaves total, mostly in New Jersey, but all of those states outlawed slavery decades earlier even if gradual emancipation meant they still had residual slaves waiting for freedom and the occasional superannuated slaves born too early to benefit from the laws. As Missouri still had legal slavery, Delaware makes for a better benchmark. The first state had 2,290 slaves in 1850, just 2.50% of its population. Of its black population, 88.75% lived free. Twenty of Missouri’s counties came in below Delaware’s benchmark.

It appears then that we have two Missouris. One, including the Delawares and other very lightly enslaved places, looks very much like Benton’s vision. It includes much of the state’s land and its demographics do not differ all that much from states on the edge of emancipation decades earlier and a few degrees further North. But the other Missouri looks more like the Upper South. Down the Missouri valley, profitable plantations grew hemp and tobacco like those in Virginia and North Carolina. Standing there in 1850, with Indian country on the edge of organization and opening to white settlement so near, both measures Benton favored, the future must have looked very promising for slavery indeed.

Thomas Hart Benton and the Central Route

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

The Senate finally ratified a land deal for a southern transcontinental railroad, but by then the fall of the Rusk bill ended hope of using that land for the foreseeable future. That meant good news for Northern route proponent Stephen Douglas and his Illinois real estate portfolio. If he could deliver the railroad, it would boost his national reputation and position him to contend for the White House in 1856. It could even mend a Democratic party increasingly at war with itself and withering in the North, if to a much lesser degree, as the Whigs withered in the South. As a truly national project, the railroad might even yet slip the noose of slavery and stay an issue that the two sections could agree upon.

The dispute over where to build the railroad had a sectional character, but that dispute could play second fiddle to disputes over what individual states and which groups of land speculators and railroad executives got rich. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri illustrates the point: he preferred a railroad that started west from his St. Louis home. Such a route crossed the South, but only in its most contested borderland where chilly Missouri with its small number of slaves and ephemeral black belts, far too white to count as anything like that further south, full of tobacco and hemp instead of cotton of sugar, had not just a single northern border with slavery but rather two: across the Mississippi to the east sat Stephen Douglas’ and Abraham Lincoln’s free Illinois, to the north sat free Iowa. To the west lay Indian country, closed by the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834. Only to the south did Missouri have an extensive border with a fellow slave state, Arkansas

Benton’s St. Louis, thanks to waves of white settlement, had only a 1% enslaved population. In 1860, the deepest of its black belt counties, Howard on the Missouri River, weighed in at only 36.91% enslaved. That might sound downright horrific to us, but Lower South black belts routinely exceeded 50% enslaved. Missouri, like the rest of the Border States, looked like something different from both the Cotton Kingdom and the Lower North. Benton liked it that way and thought of his Missouri as part of the West, not the South. Though he owned slaves, he condemned the institution as evil. He saw a future for a Missouri where slavery withered away, drawing white settlement that in time would turn it into a new Illinois. The threat to that future came not from abolitionists, but hysterical Calhounites drooling at the thought of breaking the Union.

So why not run a railroad through Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri? It would enrich his interests, draw white settlement to advance his vision of the state’s future, and came close enough that Douglas’ Chicago could easily run lines to connect with the new road to the Pacific. Call it a central route, neither so far south as New Orleans nor so far north as Chicago, but running straight through the nation’s middle.

All the Congress had to do was authorize a territory government for the Indian country to Missouri’s west, extinguish Indian title, and invite white settlers to rush in. Better still for Benton and antislavery interests, the Missouri Compromise permitted Missouri and Missouri alone of all the territory Thomas Jefferson bought from France to practice slavery north of that state’s southern border. Free soil would encircle Missouri on three sides. A generation hallowed the Missouri Compromise as the first great sectional settlement and in all the controversy since, its paper rampart had never let slavery slip in. No sectional controversy could erupt over that, unlike territory in the Southwest that came into the United States with its future uncertain. The men of 1820 made the final settlement here. Old Bullion (so called for his opposition to banks and paper money) offered a simple compromise route that would keep the rail free from slavery agitation, for or against.

A Detour Through Mexico, Part Three

Mexico in 1850

Mexico in 1850

South Carolina railroad executive James Gadsden offered Antonio López de Santa Anna $50,000,000 ($1,359,509,422.48 in 2012 money) to buy Lower California and portions of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora. The purchase would resolve the dispute over the Mesilla Valley, prime railroad land, open a route including that valley to stretch a railroad from New Orleans by way of El Paso to the Gulf of California. He presented his offer on September 25, 1853.

The purchase would give the South its preferred avenue to connect the West Coast to the rest of the nation and almost certainly additional slave states. The new railroad might even spur movement of slaveholders and their human property into California, strengthening the movement to divide the free state in two. The additional land might not just reverse the South’s 1850 loss of the Senate, but return a brief Southern majority. At the very least, the nation could for a time return to the old practice of admitting states in pairs, one slave and one free.

Santa Anna needed the money. The area suffered Indian raids from over the border that he could not do much about. The sparse population and lack of local Mexican authority made northwestern Mexico prime real estate for filibustering, which both William Walker and the French consul in San Francisco noted with intense interest. But Santa Anna already signed one treaty giving over large sections of his country to the United States. Mexicans, like most other people, did not welcome the dismembering of their nation. To a battlefield humiliation in the recent past, Gadsden asked Santa Anna to add a second defeat at the diplomat’s pen. Santa Anna refused to sell.

Seeing that Santa Anna needed the money, but would not surrender so much territory, Gadsden made a second offer. For $15,000,000, the United States would purchase just land south of the Gila River, between the Rio Grande and Colorado, including a port on the Gulf of California. Gadsden told Santa Anna that they lived in an age of adventure when bold men would surely stage secession movements in the Mexican north. A smart man would sell. And by the way, the United States does not support or condone the activities of William Walker or others…but these things do happen. Santa Anna reached out to the British to intervene. The Court of St. James demurred.

The Gadsden Purchase (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Gadsden Purchase (via Wikimedia Commons)

Very well, the United States could have land south of the Gila, up very close to but not including the shore of the Gulf of California. If the Americans wanted a railroad to end there, they could have their commerce run through a Mexican port. Santa Anna signed on December 30, 1853 and the treaty went to the White House, where the Cabinet debated it in January. They wanted considerably more land than Santa Anna would give, and the lack of a port must have especially stung, but finally sent it to the Senate.

The Constitution requires the Senate to ratify treaties by a 2/3 majority, thirty votes in 1854. The treaty got twenty-seven. For the first time in the body’s history, it refused to take land offered to it. Divisions that only hinted in 1848 when Trist overstayed his instructions and delivered less land than the expansionists wanted came to the fore. Antislavery senators wanted no land, seeing it as virgin frontiers for slavery. Intense lobbying by railroad interests further tainted the treaty.

Quite aside from refusing the land, the treaty marked a new blossoming of sectionalism. Though the railroad might touch on slavery indirectly, it previously stood apart as an issue in its own right. It did no longer. The Senate finally ratified a treaty that gave the United States nine thousand square miles less for five million less on April 25.


Today in 1865, the Union general who had just taken charge of Galveston and assumed the military governorship of Texas, issued an order that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This surprised no one, since the arrival of the Union army had meant freedom in fact since fairly early on the war and in law since the Emancipation Proclamation. But it mattered in that as of that date not a single slave remained in the United States.

Andy Hall has much more over at Dead Confederates.

If national holidays express something about national values, or at least what the nation wants its values to seem like, why have we not made Juneteenth one of them? I always hear about how the United States is a free country. Americans love their freedom. Doesn’t the literal end of slavery in America count as freedom?

I think so, but I forgot Juneteenth. I roused myself from bed today with thoughts of the Gadsden Purchase and some shopping I need to do. I never heard of the holiday until the internet told me about it a few years back. One would think that a nation so obsessed with freedom would treat it, or maybe the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, as a second Fourth of July. I’m not a patriotic person. Most of the flag waving celebrations leave me cold, but even I know when it’s the Fourth. Juneteenth is recognized in my state, as in forty-one others, but we can probably all see how much that has done to raise its profile.

I suppose it gets ignored for the same reason we ignore Emancipation Day. To make a national fuss over it would require us to grapple with slavery and own up to freedom as a kind of national project, not a crystallized perfection handed down from men in powdered wigs.


A Detour Through Mexico, Part Two

Mexico in 1850

Mexico in 1850

Just as Franklin Pierce came to power in Washington, Santa Anna came back into power in Mexico City. He needed money to reform the Mexican army, what with all the Americans who saw the border as nothing more than a suggestion or temptation to filibuster. After Texas, the Mexican War, and William Walker’s attempt to seize Lower California and Sonora, anybody could see the pattern. Americans would cross the border, theoretically leaving the United States behind, but then find a way to bring it to them. Further complicating matters, while the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo obligated the United States to prevent Indian raids across the border into Mexican territory, the US did very little to that end and insisted that the treaty required no more than the same effort that Mexico expended on the same problem. The US lacked men, money, and infrastructure to police the entire border. It also refused to compensate Mexicans for their losses due to its inability.

On top of all that, Mexico and the United States disagreed on where the border actually ran. The treaty commissioned a binational survey team to plot it all out, which they did. There the problems began. The treaty drew a line from El Paso, but that line went on an attached map more than twenty years out of date. The surveyors learned that El Paso, actually rested some distance to the southwest of the old man. Did the true line, which ran from eight miles north of El Paso, follow the map copy or the results of the survey? Mexico naturally preferred the map, which left it with more land. The United States preferred the survey for just the same reason. A few thousand square miles of desert and a few thousand people might not seem like a lot to have an international dispute over, but who took responsibility for keeping order there? What would happen if the Mexican army and United States army arrived at the same place to prosecute their claims? An engineered incident just like that started the Mexican War. The disputed land also included the Mesilla Valley, a relatively straight, flat piece of land perfect for a railroad.

New Mexico’s territorial governor tried to resolve the dispute on his own, proclaiming the land part of his domain. That exceeded Pierce’s tolerance and he replaced the governor with another. But he sent, or rather ratified Jefferson Davis’ sending, of James Gadsden to negotiate a new boundary settlement with an eye toward the Mesilla Valley and other land for a railroad to the Gulf of California. That other land included all of Lower California, which had also been in the instructions James K. Polk sent with Nicholas Trist after the Mexican War. To that Pierce added sections of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora. The entire border would move southward, save for a small section that would still follow the Rio Grande in along west Texas, dramatically so in the case Lower California and at the Gulf of Mexico. In exchange for all that land, with its railroad route and known and suspected mineral assets, and concessions to build a canal or railroad over the isthmus of Tehuantepec, the United States would give Santa Anna $50,000,000, the equivalent of $1,359,509,422.48 in 2012.

A Detour Through Mexico, Part One

Mexico in 1850

Mexico in 1850

The Southern route of the great Pacific railroad for national security, personal profit, and a side of world domination died with the fall of Rusk’s bill. That largely mooted the value of the one territory that the expansionists in Franklin Pierce’s administration both lusted after and managed to gain.

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo set the United States-Mexico border at the Rio Grande, then a straight line west followed by a brief north-south line that intersected the Gila River. Then it ran with the river until it ran into the Colorado where another straight line went to the Pacific. By way of El Paso, a railroad from New Orleans could have, until Cass, Douglas, Shields, and Geyer made buying land out of a state for the route impossible, easily reached San Diego. Down that railway could run commerce, settlers, and slaves to a new California cotton kingdom.

Or so dreamed South Carolina railroad promoter James Gadsden. Like many Pierce appointees, Gadsden had impeccable Southern credentials. He supported the secession movement after the Armistice. But if he could not have the South out of the Union over a free California, why not enslave California? The southern section of the state had fewer Americans so a large movement of Southerners and their slaves might help facilitate California’s division. Gadsden concocted a scheme to colonize 1,200 Carolinians and Floridians and at least a few thousand slaves in the new state. California proved less than eager, but Gadsden, like many Southerners, did not give up his ambition to redress the defeats of 1850.

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Senator Henry S. Foote (D-MS)

Pierce came into office and saw fit to snub Southern unionists, even those of his own party like Howell Cobb and Henry S. Foote, despite what they considered their heroic, not to mention successful, efforts to save the Union. Instead he gave the War Department to Jefferson Davis, who had lately taken up Calhoun’s place as the standard-bearer for the radical South. To offset Davis and his radicalism, Pierce picked Massachusetts’ Caleb Cushing for Attorney-General. People who knew Cushing from his Massachusetts days saw him as a completely unprincipled Slave Power lackey. They had a point, as he went around writing about how the nation had to crush antislavery politics. His supporters warned him that he would never take a seat in the Cabinet except by slipping in as a surprise.  When the war finally came, he offered his services to Massachusetts, which refused them on the grounds of his suspect loyalty.

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Albert Gallatin Brown (D-MS)

Gadsden’s radicalism fit right in. He learned of his appointment as minister to Mexico from Davis, who had not yet seen fit to inform Secretary of State William Marcy. That also fit with the general practice. Davis and Cushing made most of the decisions not just about internal matters in their Departments, but about national policy. Pierce could moderate a Cabinet meeting, but not control his own administration.

Pierce, or rather Davis using Pierce’s name, sent Gadsden to Mexico to fulfill his own, Davis’, and the South’s territorial ambitions. If they could not steal some more of the nation’s neighbor to the South, they would buy more. Davis’ fellow Mississippian Albert Gallatin Brown wanted Cuba, of course, but McPherson quotes his Southern ambitions as fairly typical:

I want Tamaulipas, Potosi, and one or two other Mexican States; I want them all for the same reason-for the planting and spreading of slavery.

The railroad proved the perfect excuse to bring those dreams into reality.