The 1848 election of Taylor meant that the Whigs could fill the many patronage positions in the Federal government, none being more crucial to Douglas’ landgrant bill than the Commissioner of the U. S. General Land Office, in charge of overseeing all landgrants and sales of Federal lands. Political horse-trading within Taylor’s cabinet had determined that the office would be given to a Whig from Illinois to be named later. The two top contenders for the position were Chicago lawyer Justin Butterfield, and Springfield lawyer Abraham Lincoln who had been elected as a Whig to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1846 stating that he would serve but one term. The freshman Congressman, after having been in Washington for less than a month, had stood in the House of Representatives on Dec. 22. 1847, and offered eight “Spot Resolutions” that challenged then Pres. Polk’s veracity on the events that he quoted as having led up to the declaration of war on Mexico. Lincoln had supported Taylor in the 1848 election and thought that he had the inside track. The prior Congress, however, had formed a new Department of the Interior, into which the General Land Office had been merged. Taylor appointed Ohio’s Thomas Ewing as the Secretary of the new department, who requested that the President appoint his friend Butterfield, which he did. Therefore, it would be Butterfield, and not Lincoln, who would be responsible for working with Douglas to flesh out the IC landgrant bill.
The new Congress that was seated in March 1849 was divided politically and Sectionally more so than ever before, as the political resolution of the territories of the Mexican Cession continued to be vexed by the issue of the extension of slavery. Northern abolitionists supported the Wilmot Proviso’s prohibition of slavery from all the territories, while Southern extremists began to threaten secession (hence, Calhoun’s call for the Mississippi convention on October 1, 1849) if the “peculiar institution” was not allowed to expand beyond the Rio Grande River and the Missiouri Compromise line of 36° 30.’ The final disposition of the states of California and Texas, and the territories of New Mexico and Utah, as well as the impact of the composition of Congress itself, hung in the balance. This was the political situation in Congress when the first proposals to fund a transcontinental railroad began to be debated.
Into this inferno Douglas determinedly reintroduced his Illinois Central bill on Jan. 3, 1850, but still had to utilize all his political savvy to make the appropriate deals to revise the proposal to secure the votes needed to pass the bill in the Senate. In order to gain the votes of Southern legislators, Douglas had agreed to extend the scope of the route to Mobile, Alabama, on the Gulf of Mexico, with the construction of the Ohio & Mobile Railroad, thereby extending the landgrant into Mississippi and Alabama and, in essence, creating a manmade alternative to the Mississippi River south from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico that would, unintentionally, divert to Chicago most, if not all traffic originally bound for St. Louis. More importantly, with this stroke of political genius Douglas had, at one and the same time, managed to transcend sectional jealousies by creating a railroad that would link the NorthWest and the South (running north/south rather than the more typical east/west proposals) to insure that both, if not all three sections would support his proposal: while the Northeast would view the railroad, as it had the Chicago canal, as a means of furthering the economic bond between its Great Lakes system and the emerging NorthWest, Southerners saw the extension of the line to Mobile as an opportunity to forge a stronger counterbalancing link with the NorthWest. In essence, Douglas’s southern extension of the IC had increased the scale of the project to the point where it would be the longest route ever attempted to be constructed in the U.S. at this time. The total length of the proposed route was over 700 miles, which was almost double that of the longest railroad then being attempted, the Erie (450 miles), whose problems at this time only seemed to reinforce the doubts of those who voted against the measure. As it stretched across the country (albeit in a north/south direction) the IC, together with the Ohio & Mobile would be a dry run for the eventual construction of the much more ambitious transcontinental railroad to the Pacific. On May 2, 1850, the amended bill once again passed the Senate, but was stopped dead in its tracks in the House because by this date, the more inflammatory issues of California and Texas had grabbed center stage in the halls of Congress. Calhoun had called for a second convention to discuss the option of secession to be held in Nashville on June 3-11, 1850, as the threat of the Wilmot Proviso, like the sword of Damocles, still hung over the Congress.
Three months earlier on January 29, 1850, the “Great Pacificator,” Kentucky’s Sen. Clay had once again stood up in the Senate and offered a series of resolutions that attempted to address all these issues in a compromise to settle the heated Congressional debates, in which everyone got something they wanted, but no one got everything for which they were fighting. At the suggestion of Southern Senators, a Committee of Thirteen was formed to flesh out each resolution, that were eventually combined, against both Clay’s and Douglas’ better judgment, into one omnibus bill, that Clay introduced in the Senate on May 8, only six days after the Senate had approved Douglas’ IC bill. The all or nothing nature of the omnibus bill allowed the bill’s various opponents to unite and defeat it on July 31, after which Clay, thoroughly exhausted from the marathon, was forced to withdraw to nurse his tuberculosis. Clay handed his leadership of the compromise effort over to Douglas, recommending that Douglas return to his original idea of passing individual bills.
Douglas’ challenge in getting these bills passed in August and September 1850 had been eased, however, with both the accidental death of Pres. Taylor from food poisoning on July 9, who had been opposed to the extension of slavery, and the move into the White House of Millard Fillmore who was more interested in resolving these issues so as to move forward on more pressing items. Not one to dally, Douglas successfully singlehandedly shepherded a series of five bills individually first through his Committee on Territories, that he began the very next day, August 1, that followed the final defeat of the omnibus bill, and then through the Senate and House, ending with a bill that abolished the slave trade in Washington, DC, that was passed on September 16. These five bills compromised what is known as the Compromise of 1850, and may represent Douglas’ finest moment in the Congress. It was in this atmosphere of compromise and collaboration that Douglas had wisely waited before he had his supporters in the House bring the IC bill for a final vote, but, once again he wasted little time in which some might change their mind because it was finally approved by the House on September 17, 1850, the “day after” much celebration had occurred the night before (can you say hungover?) following the passage of the DC slave trade bill by the Senate.
As Douglas’ biographer, Robert Johannsen stated, “much of the story of the [IC’s] bill’s treatment in the House still remains shrouded in mystery, but it is clear that private bargaining and logrolling, carried on through personal contacts and behind closed doors, greatly contributed to the bill’s eventual success.” One of those whose personal contacts played a crucial role in securing the support of the Northeast was “Free-Soiler” John Wentworth, who could deal with those Representatives who were appalled by Douglas’ support of “Popular Sovereignty.” Pres. Fillmore signed the IC bill into law three days later, unleashing the great Illinois Central landrush. Douglas had succeeded not only in finally getting the IC off the ground, but with the Compromise of 1850, is also credited by many historians as having postponed the Civil War by ten years. As the Congress adjourned, Douglas was forced by his doctor to take to his bed for a week as a severe abscess had formed on his hip, thought to have been the result of the excessive amount of sitting he had to endure during the debates. Nonetheless, while William Ogden was beating the bushes in the western prairie for every dollar he might cajole from a farmer in order to keep the construction of Chicago’s first railroad progressing ever westward to the Mississippi River, Sen. Douglas had secured full financing from the Federal government for Chicago’s second railroad. The two companies thus represented the two extremes between which such American companies would traditionally operate: one was financed completely privately, while the other was to be subsidized by the Federal government through the sales of a landgrant. The stations that the companies each build would reflect this reality. Our interest lies in where these stations were to be built, for their location would greatly influence Chicago’s urban fabric and structure.
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago. 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Brownson, Howard Gray. History of the Illinois Central Railroad to 1870. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1915.
Harlow, Alvin F. Steelways of New England. New York: Creative Age Press, 1946.
Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas, New York: Oxford, 1973.
Johnson, Arthur and Barry E. Supple. Boston Capitalists and the Western Railroads. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– 2. New York: Knopf. 1940.
Stover, John F. History of the Illinois Central Railroad. New York: Macmillan, 1975.
Stover, John F. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. New York: Columbia University, 1978.
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