Improving roads, bridges and rails is popular. But it’s also almost impossible to do.
Before railroads bound the nation together, they tore America apart.
This fact is easily missed today, as America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad and contemplates yet another vast building project. Whether commemorating past railways or anticipating future development, the nation’s leaders routinely rhapsodize about the unifying power of infrastructure.
Infrastructure spending even bridges some partisan rifts in Washington. Although Donald Trump’s presidency has become nearly synonymous with walls that divide, he occasionally pursues roads that unite. His 2016 campaign pledge of a $1 trillion infrastructure package proved broadly popular and sent stocks soaring after his election. In April, plans to restore America’s buckling roads, bridges and tunnels produced a rare, albeit fleeting, moment of cooperation between Democratic leaders and the White House.
A sufficient infrastructure plan would repair America’s deteriorating road system. Could it also mend the nation’s fractured political landscape?
The story behind America’s single greatest building project gives us reason to doubt. Although an enduring symbol of union, the first Transcontinental Railroad was, in reality, a nearly constant source of division. For two decades before its completion, rather than bringing Americans together, the railroad fueled the political fire over slavery and accelerated America’s path to civil war.
The long struggle over the Transcontinental Railroad began in 1845, when a dry goods merchant named Asa Whitney proposed building a continuous iron highway from the Great Lakes to the Oregon coast. Rival schemes followed from virtually every part of the country, with numerous cities vying to become the road’s eastern terminus (and major beneficiary of the anticipated trade).
Partisans in this debate expected a tremendous windfall for whichever section ultimately won the railway. The road would boost trade, encourage migration and strengthen political ties across all the lands it touched. But that also meant that the railway waded into the thicket of the most divisive political issue of the day: the westward expansion of slavery.
It all came down to where the railroad would run: across the free states of the North or through the plantation districts of the South? If the former, the railway would facilitate the expansion of an economic system that rejected enslavement. If the latter, slavery might extend across the continent.
Slaveholders, acutely anxious about their declining share of congressional power, proved particularly vigilant in pursuit of a Pacific railroad. Almost annually throughout the late 1840s and 1850s, leaders convened to advocate for a railroad through the slave states and into California.
But more than the American West was at stake. Slaveholders understood that an iron thoroughfare could also provide the plantation economy with a direct outlet to the Pacific trade, potentially rerouting Asia’s commerce through the slave South, and vice versa.
They hoped to build upon a burgeoning cotton trade to China, spurred by the first formal commercial arrangement between the two nations, signed in 1844. Planters had visions of transporting their cotton across the country via rail before shipping directly from ports along the Pacific.
Cotton was already king in the Atlantic world. A southern Transcontinental Railroad might push its dominion into the Pacific, as well, thereby safeguarding slavery and the slave economy in perpetuity.
In this race to the Pacific, slaveholders scored several major victories. In 1853, James Gadsden of South Carolina was dispatched to Mexico to negotiate a purchase of land from America’s southern neighbor. The “sole object” of his mission, according to Secretary of State William L. Marcy, was to secure the best possible route for a southern Pacific railroad. The final treaty — America’s last act of territorial expansion before the Civil War — purchased roughly 30,000 square miles of land along the western U.S.-Mexico border.
One opponent of the treaty complained that these lands were “so utterly desolate, desert, and Godforsaken, that … a wolf could not make his living upon it.” But the region’s aridity mattered little to Gadsden and his champion, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. To them, the land was perfect — flatter and more direct — for a southern Pacific railroad. A train from Memphis to Southern California, what some called the “great slavery road,” seemed almost certain.
Southern railroad boosters could claim two crucial trump cards: the shorter length of their proposed route and the people who would build it. Slave labor had already proved highly adaptable to railroad construction in the South. Southern railway corporations routinely rented enslaved people for a fraction of what Northern contractors paid their free white workforce. Furthermore, enslaved railroad laborers posed little threat of walk-offs, drinking binges, wage strikes or the ethnic rivalries that sometimes erupted among the European immigrant workers who built Northern rails.
And Southern railroad works had already amassed the huge concentrations of enslaved laborers necessary to build a transcontinental line. Collectively, the companies used an average of 10,000 enslaved people per year by the end of the antebellum period. One prominent advocate even boasted that, as the great slavery road moved west, it might also draw on the labor of unfree Native Americans and Mexican peons.
These advantages explain why, when Stephen Douglas proposed what would become the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, slaveholding railroaders clearly held the upper hand. In an effort to even the playing field, Douglas aimed to open Kansas and Nebraska to white settlement and thereby encourage railroad development through these new Northern territories.
Yet the only way he could secure the necessary Southern support for a bill that clearly threatened the great slavery road was to offer a crucial concession: repeal the Missouri Compromise and allow for the northward expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, so long as a majority of territorial residents acquiesced.
Almost immediately, antislavery Jayhawkers and proslavery Border Ruffians poured into Kansas to stamp their preferred labor order on the territory. The conflict between these forces, known as Bleeding Kansas, cost the lives of well over 100 settlers and is remembered today for setting the stage for the Civil War. But it also derailed the debate over the Transcontinental Railroad.
With sectional tensions at a breaking point, Northerners refused to countenance any southern route, while Southerners closed rank against construction along a northern line. Congressmen continued to agitate for various Pacific railroad routes, but with increasing jadedness and diminishing expectations.
Only with the secession of 11 slaveholding states in 1860 and 1861 could plans for a Pacific railroad begin again in earnest. Congress swiftly capitalized on the Southern rebellion and the decisive Republican majority it produced by passing the Pacific Railroad Act for a line between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Sacramento. Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in July 1862. The great slavery road was dead; the great Union road was about to break ground.
With some slight deviations in the proposed route, this is the Union road that America celebrates this year. And it is indeed a feat worth commemorating — a marvel of modern engineering and a monument to the labor of thousands of workers in a great continental endeavor.
The railroad sesquicentennial is also a timely distraction from our present-day political dysfunctions. Understandably, a nation riven by partisanship and plagued by a White House-turned-circus craves symbols of unity. The first Transcontinental Railroad provides one. Through these sesquicentennial celebrations, Americans can reach back for something we’ve seemingly lost: a sense of national solidarity and common cause.
Perhaps new building projects could mend some of this frayed national fabric. After all, various infrastructure packages have generated greater bipartisan support than virtually any other major political measure today.
Yet such an undertaking is bound to produce fresh divisions even as it prompts some cooperation, as well. The politics of American roads — whether iron, steel or asphalt — rarely proceed along straight lines.
Story by Kevin Waite for washingtonpost.com
Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the U.K. He’s currently writing a book on slavery and the Civil War in the American West.