Passage to India: Thomas Hart Benton and Asa Whitney
Ever since Columbus, explorers had hoped to find a "passage to India," one which would open the way to the storied riches of the Orient. When Lewis and Clark reached the western shore of the continent in 1804, they revived this vision in America. Jefferson seems to have grasped the importance of the Pacific Northwest to trade with Asia but was primarily interested in the establishment of a static, uncomplex agricultural society. But Thomas Hart Benton, otherwise a fervent follower of Jefferson, passionately advocated westward expansion and lobbied throughout his Congressional life for the construction of a western Pacific railway. For Benton, the Atlantic coast was too derivative of and dependent on England; access to Asia, on the other hand, offered America true national greatness. The difficulty in transporting Asiatic goods eastward across the entire American continent hampered serious consideration of this process until the advent of the trans-continental railroad in the 1840s.
Benton thought that the nation with the most direct route to Asia would increase in wealth and power; and as Lewis and Clark had discovered a westward route, all that was needed was a trailbreaker to lead the way through the wilderness. Men of all classes of the community could participate in this effort and begin to emancipate America from its dependence on Europe. Asia, grateful for gifts of liberal government, scientific advances, and true religion, would unite with America against exploitative Europe. Benton's Jacksonian expansionism was tempered by Jefferson's conservative warnings that a republican government could not survive too great an expansion of its boundaries. Benton at one point proposed that the Rocky Mountains should separate the United States from the Pacific Republic, though the two would stand together against the Old World.
Ocean-borne commerce formed the economic basis for the theme of the "passage to India." Connecting the wharves of the world with the storehouses of interior merchants would develop and populate the West. This "highway to the Pacific" would make possible the distribution of goods to previously unreached areas and eventually make possible production in those areas. Asa Whitney, a New York merchant who had made a fortune in the Orient, realized that the transcontinental railroad was the key to both Asiatic trade and settlement of the trans-Mississippi region. He submitted an audacious proposal for a sixty-mile wide tract of land stretching from Lake Michigan to the Pacific which was subsequently denied. Though he came later to grant Whitney's point, Benton did not initially fathom the importance of the railroad because he drew only on his experience of networked waterway transportation in his native Mississippi Valley.
Both Whitney and Benton were in love with the West and agreed about the importance of Asiatic trade to the future development and grandeur of the United States. In 1845, Whitney debated Steven Douglas about the forces governing westward expansion. Douglas argued that individual farmers were the source of westward development, while Whitney maintained that from a commercial point of view, the isolated western farmers did not really exist, insofar as they were not incorporated into the larger economic exchange of goods and services. Whitney concluded that if the western railroad was built, it would create markets and the farmers would follow.