This was the situation on the ground when Douglas returned from his European travels. The treaty that resulted in the Gadsden Purchase, signed on December 30, 1853, had upped the pressure on the Northerners to find a solution to the Nebraska problem. Douglas believed he had to act before the date that Davis was to receive the results of the then-underway surveys, that initially was scheduled for February 6, 1854, or he would lose what little leverage he still had with the Southerners. Davis, at the same time, also understood that time was now acting against his plans, in that not only were the surveys not completed as scheduled, requiring an extension, but Farnum was quickly closing in on the Mississippi that he finally reached on February 22. Davis needed to slow down Farnum’s construction and finally realized that he had just the opportunity to do so by stopping Farnum’s bridge construction on the Federal jurisdiction of Rock Island. On April 19, he ordered Farnum to cease construction of the bridge, but got no response from the bridge company’s president, attorney Norman Judd. Davis then dispatched the U.S. Marshall for the District of Illinois to enforce his order who arrived in Rock Island on July 17, 1854. “For some unknown reason,” the Marshall, however, did not complete his assigned duties to confront Pres. Judd. Davis, however, did not give up without making a last-ditch attempt to stop Farnum’s progress; in July 1855 he asked for injunction to stop the construction of the Rock Island bridge. Fortunately, the case was heard in the U.S. Circuit Court for Northern Illinois, with Judd representing his company. Judge John MacLean ruled that as the Federal government had abandoned the island, it could not now claim that it still had jurisdiction over it. It was now public land, and thus, “a State has the power to construct a public road through public lands.” Ogden’s Pacific railroad continued to run right on schedule.
As the Rock Island battle was being played out, Douglas had been attempting to bring the Nebraska issue to a final resolution. Even though the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had required that all land in the Louisiana Purchase west of Missouri and north of Missouri’s southern border would be forever free of slavery, the Mexican-American War had revealed that much of the land south of this line was relatively uninhabitable, with the consequence that its population might not be sufficient to apply for statehood (indeed, Arizona did not achieve statehood until 1912), that could possibly put the Southern states at a long-term political disadvantage. Southern senators, therefore, were opposed to the Nebraska territory (which at this time included all of what would become the State of Kansas) being organized as a formal entity unless the concept of the Compromise of 1850, that is, the avoidance of the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition of slavery above the 36° 30’ line, was also applied to this territory as well.
Such insistence had prevented any resolution of the Nebraska issue during 1853 as Southerners held the majority in the Senate. Pressure from both sides, however, was mounting to form a territorial government as settlers were crossing into the area along its border. A meeting of such settlers was held in St. Joseph, MO, in early January 1854 to press the matter in Congress. Douglas wrote a letter to the meeting expressing his support of the issue and at the same time, Douglas released his draft of a Nebraska Bill from his Committee on Territories on Janaury 4, 1854, in which he had applied Popular Sovereignty, thereby once again choosing to ignore the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As opposed to his success in forging a compromise in 1850, however, the political winds of the country in 1854 had begun to harden on both sides of the slavery issue to the point where no such overarching solution as was the Compromise of 1850, would be agreeable to the majority of the country. Following three weeks of political debate and horse-trading, Douglas completely surprised the Senate on January 23 by presenting a completely new bill, one that had split the originally planned territory into two, carving out the Territory of Kansas in the south, while the remainder was to become the Territory of Nebraska in the north, appropriately changing the name of the legislation to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. While his Northern critics charged that he had given in to Southern interests, Johannsen argued that the changes were made by Douglas in response to more pragmatic and political concerns, more immediate to the securing of votes for its passage, for Farnum was scheduled to reach the Mississippi within a month, with the bridge then already under construction, and was about to begin laying tracks through Iowa.
The debate in both houses was long and intense, but eventually Douglas rammed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act over the objections of Northern abolitionists, including Douglas’ long-time Democrat ally John Wentworth, with President Pierce signing it into law on May 30, 1854. Southerners got a territory north of the Compromise of 1820 36° 30’ line where slavery could be approved in a vote by its residents, and for the cost of what was to become “Bleeding Kansas,” Douglas got a territorial government in Nebraska that could eventually charter the next link in Chicago’s railroad to the Pacific. The price for Douglas’ blind ambition for Chicago’s railroad to the west had been the de facto removal of the thirty-four-year-old ban on slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30’ parallel.
To Douglas’ credit, he believed that “geography and climate” would prove to be a natural limiting factor in the northern extension of slavery (short staple cotton required a minimum of 200 frost-free days) and had no doubt that he had snookered the Southerners (that history has proven to be true). Unfortunately for his immediate political ambitions, the more ideologically opposed to slavery “Free-Soiler” Northern abolitionists took Douglas’ tacit approval of the extension of slavery and foisted him on his own petard. His abandonment of the Missouri Compromise reignited the abolitionist sentiment of the Free-Soilers of 1848 and was directly responsible for the formation of the Republican Party later that year. In anticipation of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a group opposed to the extension of slavery had actually met on March 20, 1854, in Ripon, WI, where the name “Republican Party” was first mentioned. Following the final passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the name was formalized at the party’s first convention in Jackson, MI, on July 6. Beyond Douglas’ long-term presidential ambitions, however, as many of his former Chicago supporters, including Ogden, Wentworth, and Judd, abandoned the Democratic party and joined the new “Anti-Nebraska” Republican Party, the more immediate cost of the extension of Chicago’s transcontinental railroad toward the Nebraska territory would be the bloodshed in Kansas up to the start of the Civil War, that included at least 55 deaths, and the pillaging of the town of Lawrence on May 21, 1856.
Meanwhile, all Douglas had to do to continue assisting the construction of the northern route once the Kansas-Nebraska Act had been signed by Pres. Pierce, was to indefinitely stretch out the decision process over the transcontinental railroad in Congress as increased Sectional bickering prevented any financial support of the start of construction of any of the five routes. This played directly into the hands of Chicago’s railroad builders, for there were three private companies in 1856, the Chicago & Rock Island, the Galena & Chicago Union, and the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy, that were furiously continuing what Ogden had started back in the summer of 1848, that is, laying their tracks west to the Pacific. Left to their own devices, these companies following the signing of the Kansas/Nebraska Act would eventually be able to now build the transcontinental railroad into Nebraska without any further interference from Southern politicians. Farnum’s Rock Island had been the first to reach the Mississippi on Feb. 2, 1854, with its bridge being completed on April 21, 1856.
Meanwhile during the debate over the Nebraska Territory, Sec. Davis had finally received the reports from the survey teams studying the four potential routes that Congress had requested in 1853. Unfortunately, each one had its own negatives with the result that none had risen to the top of the list based solely on its scientific or financial merits, tossing the decision back into the political arena of Congress. Nonetheless, Davis published a three-volume summary of the surveys in the summer of 1855 that helped to frame the future debate over the issue. In August 1856, the House Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph distributed a report that stated the obvious:
“The necessity that now exists for constructing lines of railroad and telegraphic communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this continent is no longer a question for argument; it is conceded by every one. In order to maintain our present position on the Pacific, we must have some more speedy and direct means of intercourse than is at present afforded by the route through the possessions of a foreign power.”
While there was agreement about the necessity for such a railroad, it was the actual decision over which route it should take that continued to be unresolved by the stalemate in Congress, that would continue to play to Chicago’s advantage. Its railroads continued to lay tracks westward…
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Borneman, Walter R., Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroad West, New York: Back Bay, 2010.
Catton, Bruce, The Civil War, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
Galloway, John Debo. The First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Simmons-Broadway, 1950.
Karamanski, Theodore J. Rally ‘Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War, Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.
Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas, New York: Oxford, 1973.
Mueller, Ken S. Senator Benton and the People. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University, 2014.
Pfeiffer, David A., “Bridging the Mississippi: The Railroads and Steamboats Clash at the Rock Island Bridge,” Prologue Magazine, Summer 2004.
“Report of the House Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph,” U.S. House of Representatives, 36th Congress, 1st Session, No. 358, August 16, 1856.
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