Abstract: "A Great Thoroughfare for All Mankind": Asian Trade and the Antebellum Business Case for Building a Transcontinental Railroad

Dael Norwood


Returning from China after the Opium War had forcibly opened new ports to Western traders, and just as hostilities with Mexico were promising to secure the Pacific Coast for the United States, Asa Whitney conceived of a bold plan to exploit these vast new fields for American business—and in the process unite the growing American empire. The former merchant's plan was simple: use federal land granted to him personally to finance a railroad across the North American continent. In one stroke, he promised that the United States would become the "great thoroughfare for all mankind"—and profit from it, too. A widespread consensus on the importance and legitimacy of encouraging American trade with Asia earned Whitney's proposal an enthusiastic hearing in the press and among legislators. By placing Whitney's plan in a longer context of ideas about Asian commerce, I argue that his plan was more than another flight of "manifest destiny"&$150;style nationalist fantasy. Instead, it illustrates just how deeply rooted ideas about the revolutionary potential of Asian trade were in the political culture of the United States. Understanding the context in which Whitney's plan was developed and debated grants us a new perspective on how an attachment to global commerce shaped Americans' public-private collaborations.

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