United and Divided by Rail

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas’ railroad, like Asa Whitney’s, did not leap at once into existence. All the usual political considerations confounded matters. Why should Eastern states, which already had a perfectly good infrastructure, spend tremendous sums on a railroad to benefit the West and Far West? Such a public works project would enhance the power of the federal government and that new power would not expressly serve the interests of slavery and its expansion. That brought skeptics out in the Southeast. Old school agrarians of Jeffersonian bent deplored making the West safe for mechanics, manufactures, and iron instead of for small farmers. Only in the Mississippi valley and further west had a strong consensus that a railroad must join the nation together.

That western consensus had adherents in North and South, who saw the West as the future for slavery or for the yeoman farmer respectively. It joined expansion-minded farm interests, who looked to the opening of virgin lands on the cheap, to commercial magnates with minds tuned to the machinery of industrial capitalism. By uniting the sections, the railroad avoided entanglement with slavery. As a western issue instead of a Southern or Northern issue, it ought to entirely slip past the sectional deadlock. When he presented his compromise measures, Henry Clay advocated them as a man of the west speaking for the west as a section of its own. Seward called the West a third section when debating Calhoun. Room thus existed in the rhetorical universe of the mid-1800s for a third section. The rail could be the first great issue that brought it together. With its inherent connection to internal expansion, a western section would tie into deep currents in American thought that ensured it allies elsewhere.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Yet no West emerged to vie with North and South or serve as a broker between them. The same west that united behind the railroad immediately split on where it should go. Stephen Douglas wanted it to run from Chicago, where he and his constituents stood with pockets eagerly open, just waiting for the rain of money to arrive. While they waited, they pushed out lines from Chicago in the hopes of linking up later on. But in St. Louis other men stood with Senator Thomas Hart Benton, their pockets just as open and held large railroad conventions.

New Orleans, so often the center of commercial-minded expansionism, stood at first apart in the hope that the rail would never come and so commerce would flow down the Mississippi and through her port before crossing the Central American isthmus, whichever one proved convenient, on its way to and from California. Pierre Soulé and Judah Benjamin involved themselves with a railroad across the isthmus of Tehuantepec. But the Crescent City, if it could not have the old order continue forever, preferred to hitch itself to the future and eventually entered the lobbying itself.

Other cities quickly got on the bandwagon, with promoters convincing local leaders eager for convincing on the project and profit from it that their homes, not those other cities, had the ideal geography for the great Pacific railroad. If not Chicago, why not Quincy, Illinois? If not St. Louis, why not Memphis, Tennessee? The idea did not die with Congressman Douglas’ failed bill in the 1840s, but instead came up for every Congress thereafter. Each time advocates of the routes not chosen in a particular bill united to crush it.

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