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North vs South on the transcontinental railroad

June 10, 2012

One of the many issues which pitted Southerners and Northerners against one another in the years leading up to Lincoln’s war against the South in 1861-65 was the transcontinental railroad. The push for this railroad was very much in line with the old Whig Party goal of constructing internal improvements with money raised by imposing a high tariff on imports. The South, which enjoyed many large, navigable rivers and relied upon an agricultural economy, had less need for internal improvements than did the North. What Southern planters needed was a low tariff in order to buy and sell at the best possible prices on the international market. Because Southerners manufactured little they bought most of the products they needed with the enormous wealth generated by their cotton, tobacco and (to a lesser degree) sugar production. A high tariff impacted the South much harder than it did the rapidly industrialising North. With their growing majority in the US House of Representatives based on the exploding Northern population (due to a great deal of European immigration, especially in the 1840s and 50s), Northerners were in the stronger position in the congressional war over the tariff and political/economic supremacy – which would shortly became an all too real physical war. The Republican Party replaced the Whig Party as the strongest Northern Party but maintained most of the key aspects of the Whigs’ platform, including the push for internal improvements. The transcontinental railroad was their biggest such scheme. Author Frank Conner explains the controversy over the railroad and how it was eventually brought into reality in the following excerpt taken from page 94 of his book The South Under Siege 1830-2000:

The Republicans wanted a transcontinental railroad following a northern route that would link New York and Chicago with San Francisco. This would give the North a monopoly on trade with the Far West. it would also enable the overland transshipment of goods moving between Europe and Asia, eliminating the long, dangerous voyage around the horn while enriching the Northern railroad barons and port cities. And it would lead to the rapid settlement of the Northwest, which would swiftly dilute into insignificance the South’s dwindling power in Congress.

The South bitterly opposed that railroad. Land had already been allocated for a Southern route, but the North had voted to block the funding to construct it. Not only would the Republicans’ Northern route stop the South from establishing trade links with the Far West, but the South would then have to bear (via the import tariff) the ultimate costs of building that exorbitantly expensive Northern rail line.

In 1862, the Northern Congress [with no Southern opposition given that the Southern States had seceded in 1860-61] enacted the Pacific Railway Act to build the Northern route. As amended in 1864, it gave the railroad barons public lands equal to two-thirds of the area of the state of Texas. It lavished hundreds of millions of federal import-tariff tax dollars upon the railroad capitalists – much of which they stole blatantly in gigantic scams such as the Credit Mobilier scandal.

In our time the transcontinental railroad has been made into a board game.

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