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Speech on the Pacific Railroad
May 5, 1862 in Congress


    Mr. Stevens. I have found considerable difficulty in coming to a conclusion what course to pursue as to this bill. That difficulty did not arise on account of the propriety of building this road. I believe few will doubt its utility as a great national work. We must either agree to surrender to surrender our Pacific possessions to a separate empire or unite them to the Atlantic by a permanent highway of this kind. The Romans consolidated their power by building solid roads from the capital to their provinces. Some of the most costly and stupendous works on record were these wonderful roads, whose solid remains at this day show what they once were.

    It is especially important that we should have such a road wholly within our own territory. In case of a war with a foreign maritime Power, the transit by the Gulf and the Isthmus of Panama would be impracticable. Any such European Power could throw troops and supplies into California much quicker than we could by the present overland route. The enormous cost of supplying our army in Utah may teach us that the whole wealth of the nation would not enable us to supply a large army on the Pacific coast. Our western States must fall a prey to the enemy without a speedy way of transporting our troops. The only question in my mind was whether, in the midst of this rebellion, it was wise to commence it. On full reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is as propitious a time as we shall ever find. I will give a few of the reasons which have led me to this result.

    In ordinary times, the chief cost of such a work through a distant and uninhabited country consists in the supplies for the workmen. Anyone who has known anything of building roads through uninhabited regions and rugged mountains, can testify to that. The West have generally an easy and cheap market for their produce down the great rivers; hence their produce bears a fair price. But now, since the blockade of the Mississippi river, they have no market, and their agricultural products are almost literally worthless. It is said they use their sound corn for fuel. It could now be had by the contractors at much lower rates than in times of peace.

    It would not only be profitable to the builders of the road, but it would be useful to the western farmers, by affording a large market for their grain and other products.

    But it will be opportune not only to the West, but to the whole country. The rails, chairs, spikes, and locomotives will furnish a large demand for American iron, a branch of industry now greatly depressed, and whose value seems to be but inadequately estimated by many grave legislators.

    Besides the advantages of cheap provisions, labor can be had cheaper now than ever again to build it. Generally labor is much scarcer and dearer on the distant frontiers than anywhere else. But now there are over some fifteen or twenty thousand laborers expelled from Missouri and further South, who are idle, and a burden on the people of Kansas, Nebraska, and the charity of others. They would be all immediately employed; and thus, while aiding the contractors, promote the cause of humanity.

    For the first two or three years but few of the United States bonds will be issued and bear interest, adding but little to our burdens during this war. The principle falling due in thirty years will hardly be felt by the mighty empire which will then be responsible for it. In the meantime, as the road progresses, the population, cultivation, and manufacturing, will so increase and enrich the country that the added wealth will afford taxation sufficient to indemnify the nation and pay the interest and principle of the bonds. I am making this statement on the basis of the present bill. If the disagreement among the western and northwestern members should clog the bill with further branches and other lines, it cannot have my support. These dissensions have generally defeated this measure, and bid fair to do so now.

    I listened with regret, when this was up before, to what seemed to me a very unwise and injudicious speech in its favor, by a member from Missouri. It contained a very unhandsome attack on the gentleman from Vermont, for his opposition to it. It involved an assault on the most beneficent measure of legislation which has passed Congress for twenty years; a measure without which this country would now lie prostrate before foreign creditors. (Stevens is here referring to the Morrill Tariff of 1861. Ed. Note.) But it bore the name of my friend from Vermont, and that produced sneers and the tasteless ridicule of the gentleman from Missouri, as if it were a fact to be ashamed of.

    Would to Heaven there were more public men who had the intelligence, the industry, and the patriotism to originate, mature, and carry through great public measures, worthy to bear the impress of their names and carry them to other nations and posterity. Such fame is worthy the ambition of lofty minds. If condemned by rival nations, so much greater the evidence of their merit. They will live in the archives of their country and the history of mankind, and perpetuate the names of their authors when these marble walls have crumbled into dust.

    The gentleman made grievous complaints of the hard treatment of Missouri during this rebellion. I have no reproaches to make nor regrets to utter. But the West have been the favored children of the nation. Our public lands, the property of the whole people, have been liberally given to build her roads and support her schools. I am willing to go further, and aid these hardy pioneers. But it is but illy repaid by querulous gratitude. But why does Missouri complain? The soldiers of the Northwest have moistened almost every rood of her soil with their blood in defending her against her own sons.

    But this is not a western measure, and ought not to be defended as such. The western soil is but a platform on which to lay the rails to transport the wealth of the furthest Indies to Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Portland, scattering its benefits on its way on St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Albany. Then our Atlantic seaports will be but a resting place between China, Japan, and Europe.

    I think this road should be speedily built. When this rebellion is extinguished, we shall have some scores to settle with foreign nations, who, in our troubles, have ventured to insult us. It will then be too late to begin it.

    But there is another consideration which, I confess, above all the others, sways my judgment to immediate action. When in the process of time I know not how long in the future our amiable Government shall have restored the Constitution as it was, and shall have given to our warm embraces in Congress our well beloved brethren, who have robbed the nation and murdered our brothers, kindred, and neighbors, we shall find them with the same arrogant, insolent dictation which we have cringed to for twenty years, forbidding the construction of any road that does not run along our southern border. The result will be no road, or, by necessary compromise, three roads the whole way. This would be too heavy to bear. I am, therefore, for passing this law, and making it so irrevocable as to require all the branches of the Legislature to undo it before those halcyon days shall arrive. This, if no other reason, would be conclusive for immediate action.

    Mr. Wickliffe. Will the gentleman withdraw his demand for the previous question, to enable me to make an inquiry?

    Mr. Stevens. I withdraw for that purpose.

    Mr. Wickliffe. Did I understand the gentleman to say that he was in favor of restoring the Union and the Constitution as it was, or against it?

    Mr. Stevens. I did not say what my opinion was on that point.

    Mr. Wickliffe. I should like to know what it was.

    Mr. Stevens. I will tell the gentleman, although it is not exactly pertinent to the issue. I am for subduing this rebellion, and I am for inflicting all the consequences of defeat on a fallen foe in an unjust war. I am for confiscating the property of the rebels, and making it pay the cost of the rebellion. Then I am for removing the cause. When we come to reconstructing the Government, I am for reconstructing it so that from the lakes to the Gulf, from the Penobscot to the Pacific Ocean, there will be one wide, free, and mighty empire. That is a little out of the way; but I give it to the gentleman from Kentucky.

    Mr. Wickliffe. Then I understand you are against restoring the Union under the Constitution as it was.

        Mr. Stevens. Not if you could restore it just as it was. But with it you must restore all that has been stolen, all that has been expended in this war. You must restore the ten thousand freemen who have been sent to death by murderous hands. Until full atonement and reparation is made, I shall never shake hands with the bloody murderers. I now renew the demand for the previous question.


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