In 1844, Asa Whitney, a merchant in New York, proposed that a transcontinental railroad be built. While he hoped to lead the construction of the railroad and reap the benefits of the ambitious project, that was not to be. However, three components of his plan captured the spirit of Americans toward the construction of the railroad: “There must be a railroad to the Pacific; it must be financed by grants of public lands along the route; and it must be built by private interests which received these grants.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 146.
There was widespread popularity for the railroad. Those in the middle of the country hoped the railroad would run through their closest city so as to bring with it the traffic and commerce that would inevitably accompany the railroad. In the Mississippi Valley, there were intense rivalries between towns who promoted themselves and vied for the railroad to run through their towns. See id. at 147. Speculators were abundant, sure that they could forecast the route of the railroad and cash in on it.
In 1845, Stephen Douglas, then a congressman from Illinois, proposed a bill to build a transcontinental railroad from Chicago to San Francisco. See id. As part of the bill, he also proposed that the region west of Iowa be organized as a territory named Nebraska. Id. citing Douglas to Whitney, Oct. 15, 1845, in Robert W. Johannsen (ed.), The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas (Urbana, Ill., 1961), 127-33. While the bill did not pass, it was the first of Douglas’ many efforts to consummate the creation of a transcontinental railroad.
In the following years, seeing that the federal government did not appear to be eager to take action, states took the lead on advancing the agenda. Legislatures in 18 states passed “resolutions in favor of Whitney’s plan.” Asa Whitney, A Project for a Railroad to the Pacific (New York, 1849), 89-107. The states around the Mississippi Valley were in favor of the railroad, but states in the South and the eastern part of the country were opposed as the benefits to the railroad were not as apparent for them. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 148. Conservatives throughout the country harkened back to the contentions of decades prior, arguing that the government had no authority to invest in infrastructure on a federal level. See id. Proponents of the railroad in the West saw no such obstacles and lobbied hard for its construction.
By December 1852, when Congress was convening for a short session, an expectation had permeated the country that action would finally be taken on the construction of the railroad. No such progress would be achieved in the session of Congress, however. On the last day of the session, the Senate voted to table a bill that Senator Douglas introduced that proposed the construction of the transcontinental railroad but also organized the territory west of Missouri. See id. at 151-52. The fatal flaw in the bill was that it fell within the scope of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, precluding slavery north of 36°30′. See id. at 152. Southerners would not accept such a proposal as it only served to limit the expansion of slavery, and without their support, the bill was tabled by a vote of 23 to 17. See id.; Congressional Globe, 32 Cong., 2 sess., 1020, 1111-1117.
Senator Douglas would not be deterred. The transcontinental railroad was far too important for him to back down. He gave a speech in the Senate which outlined the value of the transcontinental railroad:
“There is a power in this nation greater than either the North or the South—a growing, increasing, swelling power that will be able to speak the law to this nation. . . . That power is the country known as the Great West—the Valley of the Mississippi, one and indivisible from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, and stretching . . . from the Alleghanies to the Rocky Mountains. There, sir, is the hope of this nation—the resting place of the power that is not only to control, but to save, the Union.” Congressional Globe, 31 Cong., 1 sess., appendix, 365.
Few in the Senate could deny that the great orator had given another rousing speech. Senator Douglas, the man who was chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, introduced the bill in the House for Texas to become a state, and who sponsored the bill for statehood for Minnesota, was determined to see the railroad come to fruition. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 152-53.
Senator Douglas began crafting a plan to both organize the territory west of Missouri and begin construction of a transcontinental railroad. One of the biggest obstacles was dealing with the slavery question, as any bill to organize the territory would not pass without southern support and southerners would not vote for any bill limiting the reach of slavery. With the Missouri Compromise still in place, slavery could not be expanded, but there was a question of whether the Compromise of 1850 superseded the Missouri Compromise, leaving each territory to decide the issue of slavery for itself. See id. at 157. Generally, there was no indication that there was a relation between Congress’ approaches to the status of slavery in the territories. Congress had taken a different tact on the issue of slavery as new territory had been brought into the Union. Looking retrospectively, Congress used “the principle of exclusion in the Northwest Territory, the principle of geographical division in the Louisiana Territory, and the principle of popular sovereignty in the Mexican Cession.” Id. at 157.
When Senator Douglas drafted and introduced a bill to organize the territory of Nebraska that mimicked the language of the bills for Utah and New Mexico, southerners immediately pointed out that the Missouri Compromise applied. See id. at 158-59. Southerners were not going to be satisfied until Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise. When Senator Archibald Dixon of Kentucky introduced an amendment to explicitly repeal the part of the Missouri Compromise that “prohibited slavery north of 36°30′,” Senator Douglas reluctantly agreed. Id. at 160. Shortly thereafter, a new draft of the bill circulated with language explicitly repealing the Missouri Compromise and organizing the territory into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. See id.
Up to this point, President Franklin Pierce had not taken a position on the issue of whether slavery should be permitted in the new territory. A group of prominent southern senators and Senator Douglas convinced Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to meet with President Pierce to discuss the details of their proposed bill. See id. at 161. President Pierce, without the benefit of his advisors, agreed with the group and gave his blessing to the proposed bill. See id. In doing so, he had empowered the proslavery forces in Congress, knowing that if they could pass a desirable bill, President Pierce was certain to sign it into law.
Simultaneously, an antislavery coalition of politicians were meeting. Salmon Chase, Charles Sumner, Joshua Giddings, Edward Wade, Gerrit Smith, and Alexander De Witt styled themselves as “Independent Democrats” and drafted a manifesto titled the “Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States.” See George W. Julian, Life of Joshua R. Giddings (Chicago, 1892), 311; Chase to J. T. Trowbridge, Jan. 19, 1854, in Robert B. Warden, An Account of the Private Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase (Cincinnati, 1874), 338; J. W. Schuckers, Life and Public Services of Salmon Portland Chase (New York, 1874) 140, 160-61; Chase to E. L. Pierce, Aug. 8, 1854, in Diary and Correspondence of Salmon P. Chase, AHA Annual Report, 1902, II, 263. This coalition of individual was not going to accept an expansion of slavery into new territory for fear that once that precedent was set, it could not be reversed. Regarding the proposal brought to President Pierce, the Appeal stated:
“We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing 1852-1857 (1947), 111-12.
The Appeal clarified for many that the issue of introducing the Kansas and Nebraska territory was no longer about the transcontinental railroad as it was about slavery. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 163. The newly minted Independent Democrats were set on stopping Senator Douglas’ repealing of the Missouri Compromise and his acquiescence to southern desires. This was an effective strategy as it resonated with many Americans. Senator Douglas later said himself that he could travel from Washington to Chicago “by the light of his own burning effigies.” Id. at 165.
Senator Douglas was not going to back down, however. He “defended himself with astonishing resources—an accurate memory for the minor details of political transactions for thirty years back, a slashing directness and cogency in rebuttal, a sustained power suggested by the volume and pertinence of the evidence which he could bring to bear on almost any point, and a supreme virtuosity in the give-and-take of debate.” Id. After five weeks of his domineering in the Senate, the chamber passed Kansas-Nebraska bill by a vote of 37 to 14. See id.
Then, the House of Representatives had to pass the Senate-approved bill to send it to President Pierce. On March 21, 1854, the House took up the bill but refused to send it to the Committee on Territories, where it would have traditionally been heard. Instead, it went to the Committee of the Whole, put behind 50 bills to be heard. Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia became the “floor manager” for the bill, acting as Senator Douglas’ counterpart in the House. He was “no less resourceful in bringing the details of many years of political history to bear in his argument, and no less tenacious in his purpose.” Id. at 166. The debate in the House was as contentious as that in the Senate. As historian Michael Morrison wrote:
“A filibuster led by Lewis D. Campbell, an Ohio free-soiler, nearly provoked the House into a war of more than words. Campbell, joined by other antislavery northerners, exchanged insults and invectives with southerners, neither side giving quarter. Weapons were brandished on the floor of the House. Finally, bumptiousness gave way to violence. Henry A. Edmundson, a Virginia Democrat, well oiled and well armed, had to be restrained from making a violent attack on Campbell. Only after the sergeant at arms arrested him, debate was cut off, and the House adjourned did the melee subside.” Michael Morrison, Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (1997), 154.
Representative Campbell, expressing his hesitation at destroying the Missouri Compromise, argued on the floor of the House chamber:
“I came here to-day to assert the right of Congress to exclude slavery and involuntary servitude, except to punish crime, from this Territory, and all the Territories belonging to the American people. It is a power that has been recognized and exercised by every Administration of this Government from its organization until the present time. It is a power that has been acknowledged by statesmen whose memories we hold near and dear. . . . Gentlemen may sneer as much as they please, and as they have done to-day, about the proviso having been discarded but let me tell them that there is a spirit abroad in this free land which will soon rear aloft a standard upon which this very principle will be inscribed, if you dare, with ruthless hand, to-day, destroy the compromise of 1820.” Congressional Globe, 33rd Cong., 1st sess., p. 1240.
Representative Campbell, despite his best efforts, could not stop the bill from passing. On May 22, 1854, Representative Stephens brought the bill to its third reading and took a vote. The bill passed 113 to 100. President Pierce signed the bill into law, branding it the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
The Act itself was proof that, in 1854, Congress could not pass legislation without prolonged debate over the issue of slavery. Even the issue of infrastructure, thought to be unrelated to the issue of slavery, could not avoid the debate. While some, like Salmon Chase, attempted to rally support against the expansion of slavery, Senator Douglas had achieved a victory on behalf of slavery. The transcontinental railroad, which was intended to be a landmark piece of infrastructure, had been enveloped by the issue of slavery. These developments were due in part to the emboldening of the antislavery rhetoric, which brought together unlikely groups of individuals to coalesce in support of slavery.
Both antislavery and proslavery individuals, with the best of intentions, believed they were taking the most prudent course of action to preserve the Union. In reality, the divide was becoming irretrievably deep with further escalation of vitriolic debate inevitable.