Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eight

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Full text.)

Lincoln’s history lesson, if crossing familiar ground, did it well and thoroughly. But at last, six pages into my printed version, he came out of the Mexican War and the Compromise of 1850 and reached the KansasNebraska Act. For all the controversy of the late 1840s

Nebraska had remained, substantially an uninhabited country, but not emigration to, and settlement within it began to take place. It is about one third as large as the present United States, and its importance so long overlooked, begins to come into view. The restriction of slavery by the Missouri Compromise directly applies to it; in fact, was first made, and has since been maintained, expressly for it.

Until Stephen Douglas stuck his nose in, anyway. Lincoln agrees, at least by implication, with Douglas that Nebraska needed territorial government on account of white settlement. Sam Houston and John Bell had it right here, though. The settlement amounted to a handful of people just over the border. Strictly speaking, they squatted there illegally. A moderate politician or one disinterested in slavery could rest on that fact, call the whole law needless, and stand against it. But Lincoln came from Illinois, itself still something of a frontier, and would not place himself in the path of history and demand it stop. He believed in the nineteenth century every bit as much as Stephen Douglas did. A man in his position almost had to. Maybe Sam Houston, Mr. Texas himself, could dismiss the imperative of white expansion. Maybe John Bell, safe in his Senate seat, could agree. A failed politician trying to restart his career had no such luxuries, whether he had private doubts or not.

In 1853, a bill to give it a territorial government passed the House of representatives, and, in the hands of Judge Douglas, failed of passing the Senate only for want of time. This bill contained no repeal of the Missouri Compromise. indeed, when it was assailed because it did not contain such a repeal, Judge Douglas defended it in its existing form. On January 4th, 1854, Judge Douglas introduces a new bill to give Nebraska territorial government. He accompanies this bill with a report, in which last, he expressly recommends that the Missouri Compromise shall be neither affirmed nor repealed.

[…]

about a month after the introduction of the bill, on the judge’s own motion, it is so amended as to declare the Missouri Compromise inoperative and void; and, substantially, that the People who go and settle there may establish slavery, or exclude it, as they may see fit. In this shape the bill passed both branches of congress, and became a law.

This is the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

And now that the crowd knew exactly what Lincoln meant, and knew that he knew as much as they did:

I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska-and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other party of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

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Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Seven

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6. Full text.)

Lincoln took his history lesson up to the Wilmot Proviso, gathering up Stephen Douglas’ endorsement of the Missouri Compromise along the way. Slavery agitation did not end with the defeat of Wilmot, of course. With the Mexican Cession in American hands, soon the news of gold for the taking reached the East Coast and what must have seemed like half the continent arrived the next day. California had more than enough people to warrant statehood. They got up a free state convention that produced a free state constitution and sent to Washington for admittance as a free state.

The Proviso men, of course were for letting her in, but the Senate, always true to the other side would not consent to her admission. And there California stood, kept out of the Union, because she would not let slavery into  her borders.

And the California issue soon merged with the other issues of the day: the border South demanded a new fugitive slave act. Aside from preferring that California join the Union free, the North

clamored for the abolition of a peculiar species of slave trade in the District of Columbia, in connection with which, in view from the windows of the capitol, a sort of negro-livery stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets, precisely like droves of horses, had been openly maintained for fifty years.

Utah and New Mexico needed territorial government too, and that required deciding if they would go slave or free. The issue of Texas’ unsettled boundary also came in:

She was received a slave state; and consequently the farther West the slavery men could push her boundary, the more slave country they secured. And the farther East the slavery opponents could thrust the boundary back, the less slave ground was secured. Thus this was just as clearly a slavery question as any others.

Lincoln owns up here as latter-day neo-confederates never would: the issue in every case comes down to slavery, slavery, and an extra helping of slavery. But since all the issues came together and had the benefit of some ambiguity as to who did or did not break from precedent, why not throw them together in a compromise? Both sides gave a bit and got a bit.

The North, per Lincoln, received:

  • A free California
  • abolition of the open slave trade in the District of Columbia
  • and a Texas border quite far to the east.

The South, in turn, received:

  • a new and restrictive fugitive slave law
  • provision that New Mexico and Utah, when admitted to the Union, could come with or without slavery
  • and Texas got millions to satisfy its debts, which it could call payment for land ceded
Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Everyone went home a little happy and a little disappointed, but so goes compromise and after living with it for a while the nation settled down:

Preceding the presidential election of 1852, each of the great political parties, democrats and whigs, met in convention, and adopted resolutions endorsing the compromise of ’50; as a “finality,” a final settlement, so far as these parties could make it so, of all slavery agitation.

So that did it. The nation finished with slavery. Why did it find itself here again? One law or another covered all the land in its bounds. Both parties agreed on the fact. Both sections got something and gave something. What kind of, in Douglas’ words, “reckless” or “ruthless” villain would reopen the subject? And Lincoln, as before, could point across the stage at the man who spoke before him.

Know-Nothings vs. Know-Nothings 2.0

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The original version of this post should have gone live Friday. It did not and I lost it. You can imagine my discontent. So here I have reconstructed it from memory, my sources, chiefly Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union and Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and a copy of the old post forwarded to me after I wrote most of this. You get the best of both worlds, Gentle Readers.

The Know-Nothings lost in Virginia. Henry Wise extracted his narrow victory with accusations that the party, with all its private meetings and secret society trappings, provided a haven for abolitionism. Some antislavery men lived up to Wise’s accusation, even if others did not and still others men disdained nativism the same way they disdained slavery. But parties have come together from less coherent bodies. The Whigs started off as the official party of people who hated Andrew Jackson, though they eventually developed a more coherent ideology built around a national bank, internal improvements, and a more prime ministerial vision of the presidency. Ex-Whigs and rebel Democrats could do the same, and that new ideology might mitigate the American Party’s demographic challenges in the South. If they could get people fired up about other things in addition to immigrants, they had a road to electoral success even where immigrants had barely penetrated.

The election of 1856 would give nativism another chance. They would have a national convention and vote on a party platform. That national platform would serve as their ideological manifesto for the next four years. They had already staked out a position on the Union, introducing a Union degree in their rituals and getting maybe 1.5 million Know-Nothings to swear out an oath to stand against sectionalism from the North or South.

But state conventions fed into the national convention and each one saw in the convention a chance to swing the national platform their way. These state conventions, of course, lived in one section or the other and acted accordingly. Massachusetts and New Hampshire got the ball rolling by approving antislavery resolutions. New Jersey’s delegates arrived instead with a resolution that the party ought to seek the friendship of the South. Illinois found too much division to agree on a resolution either way. But those resolutions did not necessarily bind the delegates down the road. A few nonconforming states could be dragged to orthodoxy easily enough, right?

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

The Know-Nothing bigwigs got together in a National Council in Philadelphia in June, 1855, with an eye toward using the upcoming presidential race as their next stepping-stone to becoming the one true national Unionist party. The delegates agreed easily on excluding the foreign-born and foreign-schooled from office. They signed on for a twenty-one year wait before naturalization. They condemned Catholicism. (A Louisiana convention later condemned the condemnation on behalf of the righteous, native-born Catholics unfairly lumped in with the newly arrived sorts.) A majority of the platform committee damned Whig and Democrat alike for slavery agitation and pledged the party to preservation of the Union in its existing state. In other words, they pledged themselves to Kansas-Nebraska. The document went on to say that Congress ought not legislate on slavery in the territories again. All the slave state delegates, plus California and New York signed on.

That asked far more than the rest of the Know-Nothing North would give. Their minority report demanded either restoration of the Missouri Compromise or, failing that, refusal to admit any slave states to the Union from its former territory. That would make any future Kansas and Nebraska both free soil. When the majority would not accept those demands, the delegates from all the free states save New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California seceded from the convention.

This from the party of sectional comity and national Union?

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

Most sectional disputes prior to Kansas-Nebraska involved something like a united South forcing its will on a divided North. The South had its own internal divisions that we should not ignore, but the common interest in preserving slavery usually trumped the North’s indifference to the subject. The South did not always win all that it wanted, and never pleased its radicals, but one can reasonably argue that Southern, proslavery interests prevailed more often than not. That only stands to reason. A committed minority that cares far more about its signature issue than its opposition often prevails in a democratic system. The rickety constitutional structure of the American republic, packed to the gills with anti-democratic measures proved an able accomplice. Had matters involved just what the House of Representatives preferred, the Wilmot Proviso would have sailed into law. The Senate changed all of that.

One might expect, given the reversal of the usual pattern, that the House’s plan to bury the Kansas-Nebraska act would have succeeded. The more united section would prevail over the less united. Probably the men in the House who voted to bury the bill expected something like that. With Nebraska wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise repeal from the get-go, future Congresses would have a far harder time bringing it back than Stephen Douglas had in pushing the bill through the Senate. The South would accept the loss and move on. Maybe Union-minded Southerners would even come around and vote to defeat the bill as one provocation too far and to show themselves Union men first and Southern men second.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

Politicians with such hopes had good reason to hold them. In early 1854, as the Senate debated, ten free states had their legislatures in session. Only Douglas’ own Illinois could rouse itself to pass a resolution in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act, and that with considerable pressure from his supporters. Only fifty of the legislature’s hundred members voted on the issue. Rhode Island condemned it unanimously. Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin damned the bill by large margins. The New York legislature instructed its delegation directly to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. In the other five, Democratic majorities made their influence felt through inaction. Pennsylvania and New Jersey contemplated the issue, but refused to take a vote. Salmon Chase’s own Ohio kept the subject tabled, fearing reaction either way. The California Democracy, in firm control of the state, likewise opted for silence.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Other states did not have their legislatures in session, but voice their objections by other means. Connecticut, the conservative home of manufacturers with strong Southern business ties, saw its state conventions for both parties vote anti-Nebraska resolutions through. In Pierce’s own New Hampshire, which held the first election after the bill came before the Senate, the Democracy’s majority in the governor’s race dropped by two-thirds and the party lost its House majority of 89. Pierce insisted that Nebraska had nothing to do with the result, which would have surprised the voters. The Pennsylvania Democratic convention let Douglas down too, resisting pressure to toe the administration line. In Detroit, home of Mr. Popular Sovereignty Lewis Cass, elected an anti-Nebraska Whig mayor by the kind of margin that the Democracy customarily enjoyed. The town’s Democratic paper, the Times, insisted that Michigan stood against Nebraska and if the Little Giant’s bill passed, there would be hell to pay.

To answer all of that, and more, the South responded tepidly. Georgia and Mississippi endorsed the bill. The Tennessee Senate came just short, endorsing its principles but not Kansas-Nebraska itself. Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas opted for the same silence that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California chose.

Competing Cultures and Competing Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Sam Houston (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and John Bell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) had their say. So did Stephen Douglas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Salmon P. Chase (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). The Senate voted in the early morning of Saturday, March 4, after listening to Douglas’ final five and a half hour speech. Houston and Bell joined Chase, Seward, Sumner, and a divided North against a virtually unified South that carried the bill 37-14. I’ve touched on why the bill evoked such passions before, but it warrants a bit more unpacking.

In a functioning political system, people divide themselves and vote based on different value structures and priorities. Over time these tend to cohere into ideologies. To some degree certain values entail, or at least combine naturally with, other values. Others do not naturally match, but as one grows accustomed to sharing a side the combination appears more natural through habit. As social animals, we must accept that this will happen. The longer differences endure and the more hard-fought they become, the stronger partisan identity becomes.

Americans had lived together in a nation half free and half slave for decades. Even back in the colonial era, the colonies that practiced slavery on a larger scale developed differently from those which did not. The line dividing them came largely as a result of historical accidents. Englishmen who came to the Chesapeake more often arrived with dreams of getting rich quick and sailing for home than did Englishmen who settled New England. The latter wanted to go away from England and stay away from England so they could achieve a high degree of religious freedom for their religions and hitherto undreamed degrees of religious persecution for everyone else. Those generalizations don’t tell us everything, but they did impact the development of the colonies and up into the revolutionary era, the colonies remained substantially separated from one another so cultural cross-pollination took place on only a limited scale. Most had stronger ties with the mother country than with other parts of British North America.

New England, as every American child learns in history class, did not have great land suited to intensive cultivation. Nor did its climate suite the big cash crops of the colonial era, most famously tobacco. The geography and climate dictated smaller-scale farming for subsistence. While the Puritans would not have minded striking it rich in the slightest, they came over to found communities of like-minded men and women. To some degree, that naturally inclined them to form towns with fields around. It would be hard to police the religious conformity of a widely scattered populace, after all.

Down South, something very different went on. While they did have towns, from Jamestown onward, early Virginia in particular suffered from every man thinking himself a natural lord and none a natural subordinate. They had better land and better climate for cash crops, but ran short of people on the ground willing to work it for them. Even the most motivated single person or small family can only work so much farmland before hitting the limits of their energy and ability. They had all this land and not enough people. To solve the problem, they imported their fellow English subjects as indentured servants. While economic bad times ruled back in England, plenty signed on. When the economy turned around, indentures sounded like a terrible idea and fewer people took the bait. Into the gap, the Chesapeake brought stolen Africans.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One could call the rest history and stop there, but it went deeper than that. In New England, decisions often happened at the town meeting. Most everyone of the right religion and sex had a vote and thus the community decided, invested in that decision, and saw it enacted. A natural idea of themselves as a body politic, a commonwealth or res publica (from which we get republic) developed. This did not happen to the same degree down on the Chesapeake tidewater. There, town did not run into town, but rather plantation into plantation. Virginians even called their towns “plantations”.

A plantation did amount to a small community when it got big enough, but a decidedly private one. The planter owned the land and if you lived there, you worked for him. Maybe you rented some of his land to work. Maybe you lived adjacent on a much smaller plot and relied on the local planter to help you market your crop, with an eye towards maybe marrying one of his daughters and moving up in the world. If the roads washed out in a storm or a bridge needed repair, getting it fixed often meant not petitioning the distant government but rather going to the local government equivalent: the planter. Convince him that the problem needed fixing and he would open up his deep pockets and make it so.

That colonial pattern did not hold in all places or at all times, and certainly did not spread unmodified into the west, but it laid down deep cultural roots that successive waves of white Americans carried with them when they moved west. On that, both sections agreed. If one did not like one’s situation back east, one should save up, most west, and set up a farm. They differed on whether that meant moving west to become, or become a client of, a local planter or if it meant setting out to become the first members of something like a new town meeting, but in either case one went west for one’s future. After all, the land back east already had white owners. It also had the kind of social stratification which, in theory, the west would not have as nobody had lived there long enough to entrench their wealth and privilege.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Why not go west? A white, male nineteenth century American could have a big house, or just a prosperous farm in his future. There he would have no master save himself and make his own fate. Even if he did not strike it big, he could still strike it better than he could in the east where the old American dream became less attainable by the year.

The sections agreed on going west, but not on what west to go to. Would it be a private west of plantations and planters, with life centered around big houses and their social and economic clients or would it be a west of little commonwealths centered on towns? The nation settled things in 1820 by splitting the west in two, but Texasthe Mexican War, David Wilmot, California, and Stephen Douglas reopened the issue. By 1854 the sections had contended for their share of the American west for six years. It highlighted their differences and animated white America’s passions far more than it had in the past. Each section had the American Way. Why couldn’t the other section see that and adopt it? Or accept its equal share of the American future? Why couldn’t the other section play by the agreed upon rules?

The sections had very different views of America which probably no one could reconcile. The only solution that lasted any length of time required not speaking of those differences. By the middle 1850s, nobody could stay silent any longer. How did one make peace between the Atchisons, Calhouns, Chases, and Sewards of the nation? They wanted opposite things. Someone had to win and someone had to lose.

Douglas Defends Himself, Part Two

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas rose on January 30, 1854 to defend himself against the accusations Salmon P. Chase made in the Appeal of the Independent Democrats (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). In that defense, he insisted that Chase had the whole history of the slavery problem wrong, and used his native Illinois (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and addendum) as the case study to prove it. Contrary to Chase’s claims, Illinois practiced slavery. Then, later, Illinois chose on its own to abolish the institution. The Northwest Ordinance did not stop them from having a try at slavery and did not force them to give it up. Illinois did both itself. Popular sovereignty, the Little Giant’s favorite solution to the slavery question, did its work even if it had not yet gained that name. Douglas went on to tell the Senate that much the same story played out in Indiana and even, on a much smaller scale, in Ohio. It went on after to play out again in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.

He had a point. The Old Northwest did flirt with slavery. Its southern fringe had a largely southern population that brought their slavery-oriented culture with them in the first wave of settlement. But Douglas offered more to those outraged by his repeal of the Missouri Compromise. They could do more than hope for the best from local, democratic governments. The decision on slavery, he always said, came down to a question of climate and geography. White men could not work in the tropics, but black men could. Thus while the South needed slavery and could count it a positive good, the North did not and could dispense with it. Politicians did not really make the decision, but rather ratified the clear verdict of nature. So Douglas did not really propose to enslave Kansas, Nebraska, or any other territory. It just happened, like the weather. The fact that the vote came rather close and both sides hotly contested the issue at the time, despite the alleged clear verdict of nature, Douglas simply ignored.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

It all just happened unless, of course, Abolitionists got in the way and tried to force things. Maybe in the stormy years around 1850, Congress imposed antislavery in the Oregon territory bill. But Congress had left Oregon without government for years. One grew up anyway and prohibited slavery on its own before Congress got involved. Much the same happened in California:

How was it in regard to California? Every one of these abolition confederates who have thus arraigned me and the Committee on Territories before the country, who have misrepresented our position, and misquoted the law and the fact, predicted that unless Congress interpose by law, and prohibited slavery in California, it would inevitably become a slave-holding state. Congress did not interfere; Congress did not prohibit slavery. There was no enactment upon the subject; but the people formed a State constitution, and then prohibited slavery.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

See, Abolitionists? You don’t need a legal ban on slavery, imposed from Washington, to keep it out.  When you predicted that Congressional silence would enslave Utah and New Mexico, we stayed silent and made it an experiment. They remained free. Both territories did pass slave codes later in the decade, but Douglas couldn’t know that in 1854. This all amounts to no more than a bunch of folderol.

Like Chase, Douglas took some liberties here. Mexican law had made the Mexican Cession free soil. One can plausibly argue, and David Wilmot did, that the law stood unless Congress overruled it. That law, and the uncertainty of slavery in the west, helped keep it away in ways that an explicit repeal of an earlier ban would not. The Lower South furthermore had plenty of wide open space to expand still in Texas and Arkansas. Missouri, however, had Kansas just over the border from its most enslaved region. Chase’s fear of an enslaved Great Plains looks much more reasonable in light of that.

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.

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.

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.