The Politics – and Products
Whitney first presented his plan in a brief memorial to Congress on January 28, 1845. After his memorial was published, Whitney led a western surveying expedition to confirm his route’s practicality, and then barnstormed the nation as a lecturer, explaining his plan to audiences from Alabama to Maine at special meetings, railroad conventions, and legislative assemblies – all while barraging Congress and prominent newspapers with new letters, reports, and petitions, and receiving news coverage and new reports in return.
The ink spilled and miles traveled paid dividends. Whitney’s ideas were hotly debated at the highest levels of government and intensely discussed across the entire country. He became a minor celebrity. More importantly, by 1849 a majority of state legislatures had passed resolutions supporting his project. By 1856 the construction of a road linking “the Atlantic and Pacific coasts” to open “the rich commerce of Asia” had become a major policy plank in the platforms of both the Republican and the Democratic parties, a rare point of agreement in antebellum politics. The highlight of Jefferson Davis’s career – achieved while he was still Secretary of War of the United States, before turning traitor as president of the Confederacy – was the successful organization of five massive territorial survey expeditions of the West “to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.” The expeditions were an attempt at objectively answering the question Whitney had raised, and in funding them Congress had accepted his premises about the value of a road. But while the twelve volumes the expeditions produced contained a wealth of scientific data and significant artistic achievements, they failed to craft a convincing argument for a specific route.
However, Whitney’s plan was never adopted, and his road was never built. Political rivalries and sectional conflicts in Congress over slavery, along with differences among the multitude of state and local boosters advocating for their own petty claims, spoiled the chance that any railroad plan, even Whitney’s, would get through an antebellum Congress unscathed. Only after the South seceded and Fort Sumter had fallen were Republicans in Congress able to pass legislation creating a transcontinental railroad.
Whitney realized his plan’s doom well before the shelling started. He concluded in March 1851 that his project could no longer succeed even if passed into law. Unwilling to abandon his personal quest, he traveled to Great Britain hoping to get backing for a Canadian version of his scheme. Meeting with no more success in London than he had in Washington, he returned to the United States, remarried, and retired to obscurity in suburban Maryland. His retreat from public view after 1852 was so complete, but his association with the transcontinental project still so strong, that during a House debate on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act one frustrated Congressman groused that “shade of Whitney – for I believe he is dead” should have been enough to convince his colleagues that such a road would be useful. This last burst of influence was indeed a miracle astral projection, as Whitney was still alive at the time, living a short distance from the Capitol at his farm in Maryland. He remained there, apparently content to enjoy private lands instead of public roads, until dying from typhoid fever on September 17, 1872.
Whitney did live to hear about the completion of a transcontinental railroad – the golden spike linking the Union Pacific with the Central Pacific was driven in by Leland Stanford on May 10, 1869 – but it was not his.