Passage to India:
When Lewis and Clark reached the shore of the Pacific in 1804 they reactivated the oldest of all ideas associated with America--that of a passage to India. Columbus had been seeking the fabled wealth of the Orient when he discovered that a New World lay between Europe and Asia. Since his day, explorers of many nationalities had engaged in an almost continuous search for a route through or around this obstacle without traversing the Spanish possessions in America. Several expeditions were organized in Virginia during the seventeenth century "to find out the East India Sea," as Governor William Berkeley wrote in 1669 concerning his own plans.1 The distance was at that time not believed to be very great--perhaps ten days' journey beyond the Alleghenies. But as men gradually realized the enormous bulk of North America, they had given up this project in favor of an equally unavailing search for a northwest passage around the continent by sea.
Until the very end of the eighteenth century the West beyond the Mississippi was so shadowy and remote that it could be pictured in almost any guise that might occur to a writer's imagination. Nevertheless, some of these fantasies bear faint marks of purposiveness and a continuing tradition. The Freneau- Brackenridge commencement poem of 1771, for instance, in elaborating the idea of a westward course of empire, predicts that analogues of various imperial capitals of the Old World will spring up in the America of the future: a St. Petersburg amid the
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snows of the far north, a Babylon in Mexico, a Nineveh on the Orinoco in South America. In the Far West the future reveals
And sees the slow pac'd caravan return
O'er many a realm from the Pacific shore
Where fleets shall then convey rich Persia's silks
Arabia's perfumes, and spices rare
Of Philippine, Coelebe and Marian isles
Or from the Acapulco coast our India then
Laden with pearl and burning gems of gold.2
That Jefferson fully grasped the relation of the Pacific Northwest to Asia is evident in his plan for John Ledyard to approach the American coast by way of Siberia, and in the emphasis he gave to finding a trade route "between the higher parts of the Missouri and the Pacific ocean" in the instructions he prepared for Michaux.4 This document was composed in January, 1793. By that time enterprising American ship captains sailing out of Atlantic ports around Cape Horn had developed a lucrative trade between the Pacific Northwest and China by way of the Sandwich Islands, so that Jefferson could hardly have discussed the possibility of a transcontinental route without having the China trade in mind. The idea was current in the American press: in February, 1795 the Kentucky Gazette picked up from a New York paper a notice that Alexander Mackenzie had reached the Pacific overland. "This circumstance," the dispatch noted, "will in the course of time, be of the utmost consequence to this country, as it opens a direct communication with China, and may doubtless lead to further discoveries." 5
It is true that Jefferson himself nowhere dwells on the value of the Asiatic trade. Perhaps his desire for maintaining a simple agricultural society in the United States prevented him from growing enthusiastic over this commercial possibility. But his private instructions to Meriwether Lewis probably took for granted the importance of trade with the Orient:
The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such
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principal stream of it as, by it's course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.6
Furthermore, Lewis' confidential letter to Jefferson from St. Louis immediately after his return from the expedition seems to refer to a previous discussion of access to the Far East:
We vew this passage across the continent as affording immence advantages to the fir trade but fear that advantages wich it offers as a communication for the productions of the East Indias to the United States and thence to Europe will never be found equal on an extensive scale to that by the way of the Cape of good hope. still we beleive that many articles not bulky brittle nor of a perishable nature may be conveyed to the U'. States by this rout with more facility and less expence than by that at present practiced.7
This plan, however, could hardly be taken seriously in view of Lewis's rather lame suggestion that freight could be carried from the head of navigation on the Missouri to the head of navigation on the Columbia by means of horses, which could be procured "in immence numbers and for the most trivial considerations from the natives." 8
It is not clear what means of transport John Jacob Astor intended to use along the overland route to Astoria, the trading post he built in 1811 near the mouth of the Columbia. He meant to supply his fort mainly by sea, but he sent Wilson P. Hunt westward from the Missouri in the hope of finding a better route than Lewis's proposed combination of river boating and a packhorse portage. Hunt's men had an even worse time getting over the Rockies than Lewis and Clark, but a party of returning Astorians led by Robert Stuart discovered South Pass in 1813.9 Ten years later William Ashley's demonstration that wagons could be driven through the Pass suggested an overland wagon road to Oregon and revived the old dream of Asiatic trade. Caleb Atwater of Ohio declared in 1829 with stout Western confidence: "That this will be the route to China within fifty years from this time, scarcely admits of a doubt." He foresaw a dense population all along the way, with corresponding wealth, grandeur, and glory for the American people.10 It was nevertheless a long haul for wagons from Independence, Missouri, to the Columbia. The
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hardy frontiersman might learn how to plow it through with his family and household goods in four or five months, if he had luck, but Asa Whitney, an early propagandist for a Pacific railway was justified in pouring scorn on the notion that the Oregon Trail was any better than the Lewis and Clark route as a highway for Oriental imports. "I presume no man," he exclaimed, "will think of an overland communication with teams through a wilderness and desert of more than two thousand miles in extent!" 11 Only in the 1840's, when a transcontinental railroad began to be seriously discussed, did the notion of bringing Asiatic goods eastward across the continent come to deserve practical consideration.
Yet the idea of a passage to India, with its associated images of fabulous wealth, of ivory and apes and peacocks, led a vigorous existence pm the level of imagination entirely apart from its practicability. So rich and compelling was the notion that it remained for decades one of the ruling conceptions of American thought about the West. It was almost an obsession with Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who during the thirty years following the death of Jefferson was the most conspicuous and best-informed champion of westward expansion in Congress. Benton's public career extended from the beginnings of the Santa Fe Trail and the heyday of the Rocky Mountain fur trade to the eve of the Civil War. During all this time he was indefatigable in analyzing the problems of the West and urging the cause of expansion Defeated for the Senate in 1850 because of his free-soil views, he returned to the House of Representatives in 1854 and threw his energies into the cause of a Pacific railway. Almost to the day of his death in 1858 he was making speeches in behalf of the railway and the general development of the West.
Benton was a devoted follower of Thomas Jefferson. He believed, according to his daughter Jessie Benton Fremont, that a visit he paid to the aged statesman at Monticello late in 1824 was the occasion of a laying on of hands, a ceremony at which Benton received the mantle of the first prophet of American expansionism.12 So strong was Benton's piety, in fact, that he read into Jefferson ideas of his own which were not there or at most were present in an embryonic state. The point is not of great significance, but it is suggestive enough to warrant passing
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notice. In his Thirty Years View Benton wrote that Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark out to open commercial communicatlon with Asia. "And thus Mr. Jefferson," he added, "was the first to propose the North American road to India, and the introduction of Asiatic trade on that road; and all that I myself have either said or written on that subject . . . is nothing but the fruit of the seed planted in my mind by the philosophic hand of Mr. Jefferson."13 Jessie Benton is even more explicit concerning Jefferson's conception of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Paraphrasing this passage from her father's memoirs, she says that Jefferson told Congress the Lewis and Clark expedition would `open overland commercial relations with Asia; and enlarge the boundaries of geographical science'-putting as the first motive a North-American road to India, and the introduction of Asiatic trade over that road.14
The words enclosed in quotation marks do not occur in Jefferson's message to Congress proposing the expedition, or indeed in any other statement of Jefferson known to me. The notion of trade with Asia was so strong in the Benton tradition eighty years after the message was delivered that it actually colored Jessie Benton's memory.
Benton's interest in the passage to India grew out of an elaborate philosophy of westward expansion. After a childhood and youth in North Carolina and Tennessee, he served under Jackson with the Tennessee militia in 1812. His daughter says that this experience determined him to identify himself with the West, the vast basin of the Mississippi, and to repudiate "the exclusively English and seaboard influences to which he had been born and in which he had been trained." The Atlantic coast, for father and daughter alike, is identified with European tradition: it is "the English seaboard" and is viewed as an influence stifling the development of the American personality by imposing deference to precedent and safe usage. By contrast, access to Asia becomes a symbol of freedom and of national greatness for America. Benton adopts the role of a Moses leading his people out of bondage. Jessie Benton cites the inscription on her father's statue in St. Louis: "There is the East; there lies the road to India," a
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quotation from a speech he made in the Senate in 1825 favoring military occupation of Oregon.15
The image of Asia became for Benton the key to all modern history, which he saw as a series of conflicts between Britain and her successive rivals for world dominance. Jessie Benton asserts that when her father moved to St. Louis after the War of 1812,
he found himself confronting English aggression in another form. The little French town so far in the centre of our continent found itself direct heir to the duel of a century between England and France for the New World and the Asiatic trade, and France having withdrawn, was meeting the added resentment of English feeling against her late subjects, who now replaced France in that contest.16
Defeated in the struggle for the Mississippi Valley, the English still hoped by controlling San Francisco to dominate the Asiatic trade across the Pacific. American seizure of California would thus be an act of defiance to England rather than to Mexico, and would mean a great deal more than a mere occupation of territory. 17
Benton's thought concerning the passage to India and the related theme of Anglo-American rivalry can be traced through almost four decades of public discussion: ( 1 ) in a series of editorials written for the St. Louis Enquirer in 1818-1819, before the admission of Missouri as a state; (2) in his famous speech on the Oregon question, delivered in the Senate in 1825, (3) in his fostering of the exploring expeditions of his son-in-law Lieutenant John Charles Fremont, during the 1840's, and (4) in his concern with the proposed railway to the Pacific during the 1850s.
The editorials in the Enquirer were occasioned by the Treaty of 1818 with Britain providing for joint occupation of Oregon and the Spanish Treaty of 1819 establishing the Sabine and the Red River as the boundary between Spanish and American possessions in the Southwest. Benton's position is that John Quincy Adams, who negotiated the Spanish treaty, and Albert Gallatin, who negotiated the treaty with Britain, had made outrageous concessions to foreign powers at the expense of westward expansion. He insists upon the value of the western half of the
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Mississippi Valley and the inevitability of American commercial expansion toward the Pacific. Elaborating the theory of the course of empire he declares that westward advance has been through out recorded time "the course of the heavenly bodies, of the human race, and of science, civilization, and rational power following in their train." This vast perspective suggests grandiose reflections. Soon the American pioneers will complete "the circumambulation of the globe" when they reach the Pacific and look out toward that Asia in which their first parents were originally planted.18 The Arkansas, the Platte, and the Yellowstone rivers, their sources interlocking with those of streams emptying into the western ocean, will become for the people of the United States "what the Euphrates, the Oxus, the Phasis, and the Cyrus were to the ancient Romans, lines of communication with eastern Asia and channels for that rich commerce which, for forty centuries, has created so much wealth and power wherever it has flowed."19
For thousands of years merchants loaded with gold and silver have traversed the deserts on camels or the trackless sea in ships, in quest of the rich productions of the East. From the ancient Phoenicians to the English, the nation which has commanded the trade of Asia in each successive era has been the leader of the world in civilization, power, and wealth. It is her monopoly of this trade that has enabled England to triumph single-handed over the combined powers of Europe and to impress her policy upon every quarter of the globe. American mariners have already made inroads upon the English monopoly; and this enterprise, embryonic though it may be, forms the richest vein of American commerce. What then would be the consequences if Americans could perfect their own route to Asia, shorter than that open to the English?20
Lewis and Clark have demonstrated that such a route exists, by way of the Columbia River. Nothing is wanted but a second Daniel Boone to lead the way through the wilderness. Benton translates maritime commerce, which had always been carried on by wealthy merchants, into Jacksonian terms. The shortness of the American road to India will make it easy for men of moderate means to embark in the trade, which, by being made more acces-
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sible to all classes of the community, will be more valuable to the nation. Most important of all is the prospect that trade with the Orient will emancipate the United States from its dependence on Europe. No longer will Americans be "servile copyists and imitators," branded with Buffon's stigma of biological inferiority. They have built their own system of government; let them go on to nationalize their character by establishing a system of commerce adapted to their geographical position and free from European interference.21
Five years later Benton returned to the theme of contact with Asia in his speech on the occupation of Oregon. He had now become more fully aware of the agricultural resources of the Pacific coast, and predicted that within one hundred years a population greater than that of the present United States would exist beyond the Rocky Mountains. American pioneers would bring science, liberal principles in government, and the true religion to the peoples of Asia, and the oldest and the newest, the most despotic and the freest of nations might become friends united in opposition to a Europe which was determined to dominate and exploit them both.22
Yet despite Benton's exuberant expansionism his fidelity to Jeffersonian tradition exerted a markedly conservative influence on his thinking. Still cherishing the old fear, stemming from Montesquieu, that a republican government could not survive too great an extension of its boundaries, he considered it inevitable and desirable that the descendants of Americans who would settle the Pacific Coast should form an independent nation. The Rocky Mountains were a convenient, natural, and everlasting western boundary for the United States. There "the statue of the fabled god, Terminus, should be raised . . ., never to be thrown down. Such a delimitation of territory would in no way hamper American commercial expansion into the Orient because the new Pacific republic would stand beside the United States (against the combined powers of the Old World.23
The next phase of Benton's interest in Far Western expansion was the most significant of his career. By 1841 emigrants from the Missouri frontier, encouraged by the passage of a Senate bill donating 640 acres of land in Oregon to every settler
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(even though the bill failed to pass the House), were beating a broad path up the valley of the Platte River and through South Pass to Fort Hall and Oregon. The following year Benton was able to secure passage of a bill authorizing his son-in-law, John Charles Fremont of the Topographical Corps, to map the trail as far as South Pass. Publication of Fremont's report of the expedition, in a form owing much to the literary flair of Jessie Benton, fostered an increased migration out the Oregon Trail in succeeding summers. The further expeditions of Fremont, leading him eventually into California at the outbreak of the Mexican War, were a conspicuous and carefully publicized phase of the burst of expansionism that extended the boundaries of the United States to the Pacific by 1848.
Out of the war grew yet another development of Benton's program for the West, again in the spirit of his emphasis on westward movement, on the passage to India. On February 7, 1849, he introduced a bill to appropriate a part of the proceeds from the sales of public lands for building a Central National Road from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River. As a forerunner of the eventual federal subsidy for a Pacific railway, Benton's plan has an air of archaism. He favored construction of a railway as far as practicable, but was prepared for reliance upon sleighs through the snowy passes. The railway was to be built by the federal government and then leased to contractors who would operate trains over it. And throughout the entire length of the highway was to be built "a plain old English road, such as we have been accustomed to all our lives-a road in which the farmer in his wagon or carriage, on horse or on foot, may travel without fear, and without tax-with none to run over him, or make him jump out of the way." 24
This homespun conception, with its imaginative fusion of the Cumberland Road across the Alleghenies, the actual Oregon Trail with its covered wagons, and the Union Pacific Railway of the future, was balanced in Benton's speech by one of the majestic historical parallels with which he habitually dignified his remarks on westward expansion. He quotes Gibbon on the Roman roads that connected the remotest provinces of the Empire. Like these ancient highways, the road to the Pacific would
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facilitate sending troops to protect the frontiers. It would foster political unity by connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific states. (Benton has dropped the idea of the god Terminus at the Continental Divide.) But commercial considerations were most important of all, for here was Benton's ancient and preferred theme the passage to India. Each time he returned to this notion he added fresh ornaments to it. As he said, it was always for him "a boundless field, dazzling and bewildering the imagination from its vastness and importance." A pageant of universal history opened before him portraying the events which would follow completion of a transcontinental highway:
The trade of the Pacific Ocean, of the western coast of North America and of Eastern Asia, will all take its track; and not only for ourselves but for posterity. That trade of India which has been shifting its channels from the time of the Phoenicians to the present, is destined to shift once more, and to realize the grand idea of Columbus. The American road to India will also become the European track to that region. The European merchant, as well as the American, will fly across our continent on a straight line to China. The rich commerce of Asia will flow through our centre. And where has that commerce ever flowed without carrying wealth and dominion with it? Look at its ancient channels, and the cities which it raised into kingdoms, and the populations which upon its treasures became resplendent in science, learning, and the arts. Tyre, Sidon, Balbec, Palmyra, Alexandria among its ancient emporiums, attest the power of this commerce to enrich, to aggrandize, and to enlighten nations. Constantinople, in the middle ages, and in the time of the crusades, was the wonder of Western Europe; and all, because she was then a thoroughfare of Asiatic commerce. Genoa and Venice, mere cities, in later time, became the match of kingdoms, and the envy of kings, from the mere divided streams of this trade of which they became the thoroughfare. Lisbon had her great day, and Portugal her pre-eminence during the little while that the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope put her in communication with the East. Amsterdam, the city of a little territory rescued from the sea, and the Seven United Provinces, not equal in extent to one of our lesser States, became great in arms, in letters, in wealth, and in power; and all upon the East India trade. And London, what makes her the commercial mistress of the world--what makes an island no larger than one of our first class States--the mistress of possessions in the four quarters of the globe--a match for half of Europe--and dominant in Asia. What makes all this, or contributes most to make it, but this same Asiatic trade? In no instance has it failed to carry the nation, or the people which possessed it, to the
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highest pinnacle of wealth and power, and with it the highest attainments of letters, arts, and sciences.25
This imperial destiny, like the eighteenth-century dream of an American Empire, had two different aspects which seldom received equal emphasis at a given moment. There was on the one hand the world-historical mission of dominion over the seven seas, like that of Venice, or Amsterdam, or London, which could carry a nation to greatness without regard to its internal resources and population. The theme of the passage to India, as Benton developed it during most of his career, belongs to this aspect of the notion of empire. The economic basis which it emphasizes is that of ocean-borne commerce. But the highway to the Pacific was potentially more than a means of connecting the wharves of the seaport with the warehouses of merchants in the interior. It was not only an instrument of distribution: it could also become an instrument of production, or at least of creating facilities for production, in the area through which it passed. In the conclusion of his speech of 1849 Benton for the first time took cognizance of the internal development of the West which the highway would bring about. "An American road to India through the heart of our country," he declared, "will revive upon its line all the wonders of which we have read-and eclipse them. The western wilderness, from the Pacific to the Mississippi, will start into life under its touch." 26
This puts the problem in an entirely new light. It is no longer a question merely of extending the maritime commerce of the United States, but also of developing the trans-Mississippi region: the transition has begun from an outward-looking to an introspective conception of empire. The idea of gaining access to the trade of Asia had served as a rationale of American expansion to the Pacific, but with the formal acquisition of Oregon in 1846 and California in 1848, expansionism had reached the natural boundary of the ocean. Its goal had been achieved and the impulse itself was ceasing to be a major concern of American society. The debate was now to become one over federal policy concerning the development of the vast new area which had been added to the national domain. Beyond the Missouri there was no natural equivalent for the
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network of navigable rivers that had so magnificently furthered the agricultural occupation of the eastern half of the Mississippi Valley. The Far Western farmer would evidently have to depend on railroads to get his crops to market. But how should the railroads be built?
In this phase of the discussion Benton was joined by a man who for a five-year period, without holding office or commanding any established organ for reaching the public made himself a national figure through the sole agency of his thinking on the subject of a Pacific railway. This crusader was Asa Whitney, a New York merchant of New England origins who, after failing in business in the Panic of 1837 went out to the Orient as a mercantile agent and returned in 1844 with a fortune which gave him a comfortable income for the rest of his life. In January 1845 Whitney laid before Congress a request for a gigantic land grant to finance the construction of a railway from Lake Michigan to the Pacific. The audacity of the proposal-he asked for a tract of land sixty miles wide throughout the distance to be traversed by his road-together with the spectacular publicity campaign he conducted aroused an interest which temporarily obscured the impractical nature of his scheme.
When Whitney first entered the discussion, Benton, after twenty-five years' fervent devotion to the memory of Thomas Jefferson, was finding it difficult to understand the importance of the railroad. In a speech on the Oregon question delivered in May, 1846, which Whitney quoted with justifiable delight in a later altercation, Benton declared with all the emphasis of his momentous rhetoric: "Lewis and Clarke were sent out to discover a commercial route to the Pacific Ocean; and so judiciously was their enterprise conducted that their return route must become, and forever remain, the route of commerce...." The implication was that once Jefferson had made up his mind the geography had jolly well better get into line. Benton was willing to concede something to the wagon road of his friends the St. Louis fur traders-"the route further south, through the South Pass . . . will be the travelling road" -but nothing could be conceded to New Yorkers and technological innovation: commerce will take the water line . . . crossing the Rocky Mountains in latitude 47, through the North Pass." 27 The reason why Benton
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showed such a monumental inability to understand the revolution in transport that was under way was that he thought in terms of a tradition, a century of preoccupation with the network of natural waterways overspreading the Mississippi Valley. St. Louis, his home, was the metropolis of the trans-Mississippi trade because it dominated the Missouri, having the same relation to that river that New Orleans had to the Mississippi. The imaginary American East India merchant of the future (a significantly old-fashioned figure who dominates Benton's thinking until near the end of his career), having come by boat up the Columbia and then by an overland portage which may just conceivably depend upon the "steam car" for a short distance in the mountains stands at last beside the Great Falls of the Missouri, head of steamboat navigation upstream from St. Louis. Here his troubles are over. Before him he sees a thousand markets inviting his approach, each readily accessible along the rivers. What place had the railroad in such a panorama?
Yet Whitney was right in insisting that the railroad must be the technological basis both for the Asiatic trade and for large scale settlement in the trans-Mississippi. The rivers of the Far West could not compare with those of the eastern Mississippi Valley as commercial routes. The country could not be developed by any other means than the railroad. Benton himself finally conceded the point. As we have seen, for four or five years between 1848 and 1853 he advocated a railway to the Pacific constructed by the federal government.29 But he opposed Whitney's scheme on the very sensible ground that no individual could safely be trusted with the power conveyed by so vast a land grant.30 Convinced at last that sectional rivalries made federal action to build the road impossible, Benton turned to the private capitalists he had once so strongly criticized and threw his weight into promoting a Pacific railroad corporation headed by Abbott Lawrence of Massachusetts.
A discourse which Benton delivered before the Boston Mercantile Library Association in December, 1854 (and repeated in substance before a Baltimore audience and on the floor of the House of Representatives) sets forth the final state of his thinking about Westward expansion. Its most remarkable feature is its attention to the internal development of the trans-Mississippi as
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contrasted with the theme of the passage to India: Benton was at last renouncing his lifelong devotion to an archaic mercantilist point of view and was beginning to confront the theme of the "garden of the world" which was destined to supplant it in the main stream of American thought about the West. He brings to this new conception as contagious an enthusiasm as he had brought to the older one. Benton was not the man to do this sort of thing by halves; and the cause was one for which he was as he said, perfectly capable of becoming a Peter the Hermit to wander about preaching a crusade. Proclaiming that a line of states will be created between the Missouri frontier and California as great as the line stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, he demonstrates how each proposed far-western commonwealth abounds in natural resources. Kansas has a soil "rich like Egypt and tempting as Egypt would be if raised above the slimy flood, waved into gentle undulations, variegated with groves and meadows, sprinkled with springs, coursed by streams...."31 In similar fashion he deals with Colorado, the lyrically beautiful parks of the Rocky Mountains, and the Interior Basin beyond, emphasizing iron and coal when he can not manage to praise the fertility of the soil, and citing the ease of irrigation by artesian wells when he concedes an inadequate rainfall.
The same procedure enables him to say of a route through the Rockies of southern Colorado still considered impracticable for a railroad, that there was "Not a tunnel to be made--a mountain to be climbed--a hill to be crossed--a swamp to be seen--or desert, or movable sand to be encountered, in the whole distance." 32 One feels a kind of awe in the presence of a faith so triumphantly able to remove mountains; but a more appropriate attitude would be that which greets the ecstatic lover praising his mistress. For Benton was in love with the Far West. He had never seen it, except vicariously, through the delegated eyes of Frémont; but perhaps his love was only the more intense for being ideal and Platonic. We may leave him as he bedecks his mistress with jewels, fabulous cities-to-be strung upon the thread of the railway from St. Louis to San Francisco--
the channel of Asiatic commerce which has been shifting its bed from the time of Solomon, and raising up cities and kingdoms wherever it
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went--(to perish when it left them)--changing its channel for the last time-to become fixed upon its shortest, safest, best, and quickest route, through the heart of our America--and to revive along its course the Tyres and Sidons, the Balbecs, Palmyras, and Alexandrias, once the seat of commerce and empire; and the ruins of which still attest their former magnificence, and excite the wonder of the oriental traveller.33
Coming into the field more than twenty years after Benton had begun proclaiming the value of Oriental trade, Whitney took over Benton's main positions and added to them the fruits of two years' residence in China. Like Benton he declared that the commerce of Asia had been the foundation of all commerce since the earliest ages, controlling the rise and fall of nations, and furnishing the basis of Britain's greatness. He touched the familiar theme of how the Asiatic trade would in turn bring the United States to a peak of unexampled and permanent grandeur. "Here we stand forever," he exclaimed; "we reach out one hand to all Asia, and the other to all Europe willing for all to enjoy the great blessings we repossess, claiming free intercourse and exchange of commodities with all, seeking not to subjugate any, but all tributary, and at our will subject to us."34
A controversy between Whitney and Stephen A. Douglas embodied in a public exchange of letters in 1845, brought out an interesting and basic disagreement between the Easterner Whitney and this emerging western leader concerning the development of the trans-Mississippi. Speaking in behalf of the frontier farmer with his half-anarchic individualism, Douglas refused to endorse Whitney's plan because it was too contrived, too consciously planned from above, too little adapted to what Douglas conceived to be the way all American frontiers must advance. A Pacific railway, he agreed, was necessary and would eventually be built. But not all at once, and not according to any rational blueprint. A Pacific railway constructed according to the principle of "squatter sovereignty," as Douglas's doctrine came to be called later when he applied it to the problem of slavery in the territories, would be the work of years. It would have to
progress gradually, from east to west, keeping up a connected chain of communication and following the tide of emigration, and the settlement of the country. In addition to the India and China trade, and the
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vast commerce of the Pacific ocean, which would pass over this route, you must create a further necessity for the road, by subduing the wilderness, and peopling it with a hardy and industrious population who would soon have a surplus produce, without the means of getting it to market, and require, for their own consumption, immense quantities of goods and merchandize [sic], which they could not obtain at reasonable rates, for want of proper facilities of transportation.35
Douglas, spokesman for the West, considered the individual farmer with his primitive agriculture to be the ultimate source of social values and energies--an assumption derived, however remotely, from the agrarian tradition of Franklin and Jefferson. On the other hand, the New York merchant, Whitney, set out from the assumption that the prime source of social values and achievements is commerce. The notion seems at first glance hardly applicable to an agricultural frontier. But Whitney was as consistent as Douglas. If Douglas insisted that the individual farmer would create the Pacific railway, Whitney was as certain that only the railway could create the far-western farmer, in the sense of making him a useful member of society. The settler in the trans-Mississippi, Whitney pointed out, had no way of getting produce to market. In the wilderness, remote from civilization destitute of comforts, he was but a "demi-savage." It was true that his labor produced food from the earth: in this limited sense the ideal of subsistence farming was valid. But since he could not "exchange with the different branches of industry" that is, had no place in the commercial system, he was not source of wealth or power to the nation, and from the mercantilist point of view could hardly be said to exist.36 It was in this fashion that Whitney conceived what his friend and supporter Senator John M. Niles of Connecticut called the creative power of a railroad."37 The railroad was the only means by which the wilderness from the Great Lakes to the Pacific could ever be developed. Without it, this immense area must remain forever useless to mankind, "being the greater part without timber, and without navigable streams to communicate with civilization or markets." Whitney was in fact so little disposed to count upon Douglas's squatters that he planned to import European laborers to construct his railway.38