The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by Leonard L. Richards

Author:Leonard L. Richards
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780307267375
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Published: 2007-02-12T16:00:00+00:00

Davis never admitted his bias. Instead, he attributed his enthusiastic support of a southern railroad to two other factors. One was his job as secretary of war. The other was “science.” As he saw it, he was just doing his job, and the dictates of his job and “science” happened to coincide with the best interests of the South.

Jefferson Davis, secretary of war. Reprinted from Ben: Perley Poore, Perley’s Reminiscences, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1886), 1:476.

As secretary of war, Davis insisted that he had no choice but to support a southern railroad to the Pacific. The war with Mexico had added millions of square miles to the United States. On top of that, millions of dollars in gold had been discovered. How was the vast new national domain and its wealth to be defended? That, said Davis, was the single most pressing issue facing the War Department. And it mandated building a transcontinental railroad. For, in times of crisis, getting troops to the Pacific by sea not only took too long. It also would not be feasible against powerful foreign nations, namely Great Britain and France, as the U.S. Navy had only forty serviceable ships, whereas Great Britain and France had four hundred or more.

This argument, in turn, let Davis run roughshod over his “strict constructionist” past. As a strict constructionist, he had repeatedly argued that the Constitution limited what Congress could do to what was spelled out in the document itself. Where, then, was the clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to build a transcontinental railroad? There was no such clause. Then didn’t laying millions of tracks and ties across the West at federal expense violate strict-construction doctrine? No, argued Davis. The Constitution gave the federal government responsibility for national defense, and the railroad would be constructed largely for military purposes.6

Would such a railroad benefit the South? It obviously would. But that, contended Davis, was immaterial. As he saw it, he was a man of “science,” and “science” dictated a southern route. The Corps of Topographical Engineers had already spent much time and money surveying and mapping the Southwest. They had been at it since the war with Mexico. The results, contended Davis, “proved” that the best path was from San Antonio to El Paso and then along the 32nd parallel to the Pacific. It had the fewest mountains, the least snow. The only major problem was the lack of water. But that could be remedied by digging artesian wells.

To preclude the appearance of sectional bias, however, Davis decided that it might be prudent to send out three survey parties to check other routes, from the far north to the 35th parallel. Then, after realizing that there were gaps in the original Southwest study, he decided that it might also be prudent to dispatch still another survey team to study the 32nd parallel route once again. He had no fear. He trusted the surveyors to do their job, to measure the depth of snow and report on the availability of water and timber and the habits of Indians.


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