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.

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