The Little Giant’s Railroad

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Asa Whitney’s dreams of conquering the world with the commerce that flowed down the railroad he would build, with generous land grants, from Milwaukee to the Columbia river did not come to pass. Americans could not agree to a state-run railroad, even if they had long survived a state-run postal service that served many of the same goals of the transcontinental railroad by securing communications and providing ample opportunity for patronage.

The United States rarely suffered corporations in those days, distrusting their ability to concentrate wealth and limit risk. But the republic did endure joint stock companies to create and operate local infrastructure, often for a term of years. When those years ran out, the legislature that granted the charter would review it and if satisfied or adequately compensated vote to continue the contract. So it made good sense to nineteenth century Americans that the nation would hire out the work to private business, if not to Whitney’s sole proprietorship.

Young Stephen Douglas certainly thought so. All of thirty-two and serving his first term in the House, as the first representative of Illinois’ new 5th district, he advocated for a railroad like Whitney’s not a year after the New Yorker’s original 1844 proposal. The Little Giant, sixteen years Whitney’s junior, had no patience for such geriatric limping along as Whitney’s plan to build the railroad out of revenue from land sales along its route. Douglas would build the road first and build it fast, drawing settlement along instead of having it drawn along by settlement.

Whitney’s route would not suffice either. The transcontinental railroad should begin at Chicago, just coincidentally Douglas’ constituency, and proceed west. Instead of reaching the Columbia, Douglas would end his railroad in San Francisco. The City by the Bay presented the small impediment of a location hundreds upon hundreds of miles into Mexico, but Douglas allowed with a knowing wink that in time the United States might annex the necessary land. This Douglas wrote on October 15, 1845, before Texas’ annexation and more than six months before the outbreak of war, but just as Zachary Taylor marched his men into the disputed territory on Texas’ border.

Proceeding west from Chicago or Milwaukee alike involved surmounting another obstacle. The Nonintercourse Act of 1834 declared:

That all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi, and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas, and, also, that part of the United States east of the Mississippi river, and not within any state to which the Indian title has not been extinguished, for purposes of this act, be taken and deemed to be the Indian country.

Within Indian country, no one but Indians and authorized agents of the US government could go. You could not trade there without a special license. You could not buy from or sell to the Indians without that license. You could not hunt there or trap there. You could not use the land to graze your livestock. Violating any of the manifold provisions on non-Indian activity in Indian country meant at least a fine, often forfeiture of assets involved in the violation, and could result in your eviction by force. You could not buy land from the Indians in Indian country. You couldn’t even survey it.

Indian country ran right through the middle of both Douglas’ and Whitney’s planned routes to the Pacific. No railroad company could buy that land, survey it, develop it, or settle it. But the nineteenth century had a perfectly legal solution to that problem, used many times in the past: Congress could simply organize a new territory, specify its borders, and remove it from Indian country. Young Douglass proposed just that, drawing up a bill to organize the territory west of Iowa, itself previously separated from Indian country, and organize the new territory under the Indian name Nebraska.

Not yet even a Senator, let alone the floor manager of the Armistice or chair of the Committee on Territories, the Little Giant did not see his bill make it to the floor of the House.

Update: A previous version of this post mistakenly said Douglas’s bill made it to the floor of the House. It did not.

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