Guest Essayist: Brian Pawlowski

The stories of our history connect generations across time in remarkable ways. The same giddy fascination Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant held for the potential of the railroad in the nineteenth century is present in countless children today. They tear through books like Locomotive by Brian Floca until the pages are nearly torn from constant re-reading. It is a wonderful book that conveys both the magnitude and the majesty of the transcontinental railroad in an accessible way. A more thorough treatment of the railroad, Nothing in the World Like It: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, written by historian Stephen Ambrose perhaps summarized it best by noting that, “Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the 19th century.”[1] Making this achievement all the more remarkable is the fact that it was hatched as the Civil War was raging: a project to connect a continent that was at war with itself.

In 1862, only a few months after the Union victory at Shiloh and just a month before the battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into law. It called for the construction of a railway from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. It appropriated government lands and bonds to corporations that would do the work, the first time government dollars were granted to any entity other than states. The companies, the Union Pacific starting in Omaha, and the Central Pacific begun in Sacramento, were in direct competition to lay as much track as possible and complete the nearly 2,000 miles that would be necessary for the railroad.

Construction technically began in 1863 but the war demanded men and material in such large proportion that no real progress was made until 1865. After the war, the railroads became engines of economic development that attracted union veterans and Irish immigrants in droves to the Union Pacific’s efforts. The Central Pacific sought a similar workforce, but the population of Irish immigrants in California at the time was not a sustainable source of labor. Instead, thousands of Chinese immigrants sought employment with the railroad. Initially there was resistance to Chinese workers. Fears of racial inferiority pervaded much of California at that time and many felt the Chinese were listless and lazy. These fears dissipated quickly, however, as the Chinese worked diligently, with skill and ingenuity that allowed them to push through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Before it was done, nearly 20,000 Chinese laborers took part building the railroad, employing new techniques and utilizing new materials like nitroglycerin to carve a path for the tracks in areas where no one thought it could be done.

In the summer of 1867, the Central Pacific finally made it through the mountains. While the entire effort represented a new level of engineering brilliance and innovation for its time, the Central Pacific’s thrust through the mountains surpassed expectations. To chart a course for rail through granite, an impediment no one in history to that time had crossed on anything other than horse or foot, ushered in a new era of more rapid continental movement. Before the railroad era, it took nearly four or five months to get from the east coast to the west. Upon completion, however, the trip could take as little as three and a half days.[2] Absent the ability to go through the mountains, this would not have been possible.

Throughout 1867 and 1868, both rail companies worked feverishly to lay more track than their counterpart. Government subsidies for the work increased and more track laid meant more money earned. The amounts were different and were measured by the mile, thus reflecting the difficulty the Central Pacific faced in conquering the mountains. By not having mountainous terrain to contend with, the Union Pacific made incredible progress and reached Wyoming by 1867. But the Union Pacific had challenges of a different sort. Rather than conquering nature, they had to conquer humans.

Native American plains tribes, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, knew the railroad would be a permanent feature on land that was prime hunting ground for the buffalo. They saw the construction as an existential threat. As the railroad continued on into the plains, new settlements sprang up in its shadow, on territory the tribes claimed as their own.[3] There was bound to be a fight. The railway companies called on the government to send the army to pacify the territory and threatened that construction could not continue without this aid. The government complied and as work resumed, army soldiers protected them along the construction route.

As the summer of 1869 approached, a standoff occurred between the companies on the location where they would join the railroad together. Ulysses S. Grant, by then the President, threatened to cut off federal funding until a meeting place was agreed to and ultimately, with the help of a congressional committee and the cold, hard reality of needing cash, they agreed on Promontory Summit, Utah. On May 10, 1869, a 17.6 karat golden spike was hammered home, finishing the railway and connecting the coasts.

The completion of the transcontinental railway brought about an era of unprecedented western expansion, economic development, and population migration. At the same time, it caused more intense conflict between those moving and developing the west and the Native American Indian tribes. Years of conflict would follow, but the settlement of the west continued. And with the new railroad in place, it continued at a rapid pace as more and more people boarded mighty locomotives to head west toward new lands and new lives. As Daniel Webster, a titan of the era remarked nearly twenty years earlier, the railway “towers above all other inventions of this or the preceding age” and it now had continental reach and power.[4] America endured the scourge of Civil War and achieved the most magnificent engineering effort of the era only five years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox.

Brian Pawlowski holds an MA in American History, is a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s state leadership network, and served as an intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps. 

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[1] Stephen E. Ambrose, Nothing in the World Like It: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 17.

[2], Transcontinental Railroad, September 11, 2019,

[3] H.W. Brands, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 295.

[4] Ambrose, 357.

Guest Essayist: Brian Pawlowski


While John Quincy Adams was not an exact contemporary of the Founding Fathers he was, in more ways than one, their offspring. Indeed, his bond with the generation of 1776 was familial as well as philosophical. And his sense of duty to that generation, the project they set in motion, and the preservation of the union they birthed was as deeply embedded in his body as the marrow in his bones. Also in his bones was a strong aversion to party politics, a trait John F. Kennedy would later admire in his book Profiles in Courage. Every action of John Quincy’s life revolved around a higher sense of duty and service to country. A prolific diarist, he wrote, “We are sent into this world for some end. It is our duty to discover by close study what this end is and when we once discover it to pursue it with unconquerable perseverance.”[i] One could understand this sentiment coming from a man like John Quincy, a man who had served his country as a diplomat, ambassador, Congressman, Senator, and President of the United States over the course of a public life spanning over 50 years. But John Quincy wrote these words long before he held any post. He was 11. At that age he found himself crossing oceans with his father in pursuit of independence. From his youth to his old age he would, as he later wrote to his children, “Let the uniform principle” of his “life be how to make your talents and your knowledge the most beneficial to your country and most useful to mankind.”[ii]

Perhaps no one in American history served in so many federal posts. John Quincy was first named Minister to the Netherlands by President George Washington and later as Minister to Prussia (Germany) by his father John Adams when he was President. In both capacities he sought to expand America’s trade and loan relationships and created a broad and effective network of diplomats and influencers he would draw upon in the future.

It was during this time abroad that John Quincy married his wife, Louisa Catherine. They would be together the rest of their lives, enduring multiple miscarriages together, the political fray, and prolonged periods of separation. They did not have the marriage of John and Abigail, but then, perhaps no one could. They would have four children together and John Quincy would push them in the same way he was pushed, encouraging his children to be productive members of society. For some of the children the pressure would be too much. Others would rise to their father’s expectations. All, however, benefited from their parent’s love.

Returning to the states after Thomas Jefferson ascended to the Presidency he entered, albeit with a modicum of foreboding, Massachusetts politics and in short order found himself elected Senator. He had been elected as a Federalist, the party of his father, although he preached the doctrine of independent judgement and country before party. When the time came to vote on Jefferson’s Embargo Act, a measure Federalists vehemently opposed, John Quincy supported it. While he knew the act would hurt Massachusetts industry, he felt it served the country well by keeping it out of a war with England America was ill equipped to fight. This endeared him to no one. The Federalists made their disappointment well known and John Quincy resigned his Senate seat early. He did not back down from his decision, however. He steadfastly proclaimed the ills brought on by partisan loyalties which in his mind too often trumped what was best for the country.

John Quincy, it seemed, was headed for the political wilderness. Taking up a professorship in rhetoric at Harvard he devoted himself utterly to the preparation and presentation of his lectures. But his time in the forests was short lived. A man with his experience, judgement, and lineage would not be on the political bench for too long.

James Madison actually offered John Quincy an appointment to the US Supreme Court, but he declined citing his wife’s heath. Still, Madison kept at it and asked him to become Ambassador to Russia. John Quincy accepted and sojourned to St. Petersburg in hopes of establishing a good relationship with Alexander I. While there the War of 1812 between the Americans and British broke out. The result was that John Quincy found himself paired with Henry Clay and others in Belgium negotiating the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 which brought an end to the war. Because of his work on the treaty John Quincy became Minister to Great Britain, the very same post his father had held years before.

James Monroe would also not serve as President without the tapping into the knowledge, experience, and wisdom he saw exhibited by John Quincy and in 1817 named him Secretary of State. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Monroe himself had all served as Secretary of State before going on to become President. The table seemed set for John Quincy.

As Secretary of State John Quincy ushered in an era of almost unprecedented geographic expansion through the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain which ceded the Floridas to the United States, a joint agreement on the Oregon Territory with Britain, and his clear enunciation of American hegemony in the America’s in what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine.

The Presidency came next. But it would not be achieved with ease. Nor would it be achieved without a deal that essentially doomed any chance John Quincy had of enacting his legislative vision. In addition to John Quincy, contenders for the Presidency in 1824 included Speaker of the House Henry Clay, former Secretary of War John C. Calhoun who would go on to become the spokesman for the South, General Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford. In the event, none of the candidates received an outright majority and thus the tie had to be broken in the House. While no record of any conversations between John Quincy and Henry Clay survive, Speaker Clay backed him in the House and encouraged others to do the same. A short while later, John Quincy named him Secretary of State. That Clay was qualified for the post did not matter. The politics, however, did. Allegations of a “corrupt bargain” hounded John Quincy throughout his Presidency and destroyed any chance he had of pushing an agenda. John Quincy became the second President in American history up to that point to not win re-election to the highest office in the land. The other had been his father.

Adams seethed but ultimately decided to dedicate the rest of his life to pursuing his love of literature and possibly writing a biography of his father. But this was not to be. For the only time in American history, a former President was headed back into the political arena. Influential members of his Massachusetts congressional district approached him to run for the House of Representatives. Adams agreed.

The story of John Quincy’s House career can be summed up with one word: antislavery. The story of the “gag rule” will be rightly told in another Constituting America essay. Suffice it to say here, however, that Adams had been antislavery his entire life. In Congress his focus on agitating on the slavery question and the Southern response to it served as an opening salvo in what would become the abolitionist movement. While he never became an abolitionist himself he understood the struggle over slavery. Before most others, John Quincy foresaw that conflict was inevitable. In a diary entry in 1820 he wrote,

If the dissolution of the Union must come, let it come from no other cause but this. If slavery be the destined sword in the hand of the destroying angel which is to sever the ties of this Union, the same sword will cut in sunder the bonds of slavery itself. A dissolution of the Union for the cause of slavery would be followed by a servile war in the slave-holding States, combined with a war between the two severed parts of the Union. It seems to me that its result must be the extirpation of slavery from this whole continent; and, calamitous as this course in events in its progress must be, so glorious must be its final issue that, as God shall judge me, I dare not say that that it is not to be desired.

John Quincy served in the House from 1830 to his death, on the floor of the Capitol, in 1848. As William J. Cooper has wonderfully put it, “Adams’ defeat ended one political era and ushered in another. The advent of Andrew Jackson signaled the beginning of a popular politics buttressed by organized, vigorous political parties” which John Quincy had deplored. And perhaps more important, “never again could a presidential contender wear a mantle that had literally been possessed by the Founding Fathers.”[iii] John Quincy’s life had been a testament to what the Founders envisioned and in service to the ideas that emanated from the Revolution they fought so nobly to advance.

Brian Pawlowski is a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s state leadership network and was a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He has served as a Marine Corps intelligence officer and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in American History.

[i] Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 26.

[ii] William Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp, 2017), 18.

[iii] Ibid. 258.


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Guest Essayist: Brian Pawlowski


Taken together, the political debates of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun guided American politics like no other group save the Founding generation. As Merrill D. Peterson put it, “their arrival on the political stage announced a new era of American statesmanship… they were representatives, spokesmen, ultimately personifications, of their respective sections: East, West, and South.”[i] History would proclaim them the “Great Triumvirate” in recognition of the awesome influence and sway they held for so long in national politics. They led every great debate about the union and its future from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 through the Compromise of 1850. Like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who Benjamin Rush famously called the north and south poles of the Revolution, they became the voices of American geography and symbolized the sectional strife always sitting ominously atop the union. Yet within two years of the 1850 compromise all three titans would be gone, passed from the scene just as the searing sectional debate about Kansas and Nebraska was taking shape. The union was about to be swallowed up in the maelstrom of sectionalism they had worked for so many decades to forestall.

Abraham Lincoln in a eulogy for Clay, said that “In all the great questions which have agitated the country, and particularly in those great and fearful crises, the Missouri question—the Nullification question, and the late slavery question, as connected with the newly acquired territory, involving and endangering the stability of the Union, his has been the leading and most conspicuous part” and with allusion to Pericles and Shakespeare said that Clay’s “career has been national—his fame has filled the earth—his memory will endure to `the last syllable of recorded time.’” Lincoln would claim Clay as his idol of statesmanship. Many others from different parts of the country would claim Webster or Calhoun. Even in death their ideas continued to shape the contours of debate.

Each man earned various monikers in his life. Clay of Kentucky was “the Great Compromiser” or the “Star of the West” and was “independent alike of history, or the schools… He has never studied models, and, if he had, his pride would have rescued him from the fault of imitation. He stands among men in towering and barbaric grandeur, in all the hardiness and rudeness of perfect originality, independent of polish and beyond the reach of art.”[ii] He was a fiery orator, quick on his feet, never utilizing notes or text, and utterly dedicated to preservation of the union.

Webster of New Hampshire was “the Yankee Demosthenes” or “Godlike Daniel” and was “a man of deep sentiment, so sentimental about the past, ancestors, the common law, hearth and home, his college, Washington, and the Constitution.”[iii] He was conservative in politics, a passionate orator, and utterly dedicated to preservation of the union.

Calhoun of South Carolina was the “Young Hercules”, “a fervent nationalist who took the whole country as his constituency” and “one of the master-spirits who stamp their name upon the age in which they live.”[iv] His “mind and character – hard, grave, inflexible – were all one” and he had attained his station through “tenacious self-discipline and driving ambition.”[v] He was the spokesman of the South, a stern orator who meticulously prepared his speeches, and was utterly dedicated to the preservation of a union that recognized the rights of the states and those of his fellow southerners. In the absence of that recognition, he was prepared for peaceable disunion.

From the first, their fame emanated from their oratory, which once held a far more prominent place in politics than it does today. To be sure, thirty second soundbites and poll-tested stump speeches are a product of current technology, never-ending news cycles, and the perceived attention span of voters. But the Triumvirates’ time was different. Addresses spanned hours, sometimes days, and were printed often verbatim in newspapers or pamphlets. Senate and House galleries would be packed, standing room only being too generous a description to describe the nooks and crannies people contorted themselves into just to hear one of the Triumvirate speak.

Perhaps none spoke with more at stake than in 1850. The union had held, navigated through the choppy sectional waters of the territorial, tariff, and slavery questions. But fear of disunion in 1850 was palpable. California was now American territory as were New Mexico and Utah, all got from the Mexican Cession. California was filled with gold, immigrants, but not slaves, and was ready for statehood. Utah and New Mexico were more barren but also had to be organized. And so the question: would slavery be allowed in these new places? The sectional balance between free and slave states was threatened.

Clay spent three weeks in thought and came to the floor of the Senate on 29 January to present his compromise measures. In brief, and presented as the first “omnibus bill”, they consisted of the admission of California as a free state, the settlement of the boundary between Texas and New Mexico, federal assumption of Texas public debt, allowance for the slavery question to be decided in New Mexico and Utah territories through popular sovereignty, abolition of the slave trade in Washington DC, and a stronger fugitive slave law. Clay knew many of the provisions would be unpalatable for many but he urged their passage and did so with a remarkable visual aid: a piece of George Washington’s coffin. Both Clay and Webster venerated Washington. Clay told the Senate that “it was a warning voice, coming from the grave to the Congress … to beware, to pause, to reflect before they lend themselves to any purposes which shall destroy the Union.”[vi] He went on for two days, at every turn stressing the vital importance of preserving the union.

There was, indeed, something in this mix for everyone to hate. And John Calhoun hated almost all of it. Old, frail, and unable to write or speak Calhoun dictated his (and largely the South’s) response to Clay’s measures. Touching up the draft with his own pen he then turned it over to Senator James Mason of Virginia to deliver it on the floor. On 4 March Calhoun was literally carried into the Senate chamber where he sat, cloaked in black, as Mason gave the speech.

Calhoun’s words mirrored his physical state. They were dark, haunting, ominous. They portrayed a south beaten down by the weight of northern opinion and economic interests. His speech put blame for the crisis squarely on the north and its disrespect, disregard, and disdain of southern ways. He stated candidly, “I have, Senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion.” His proposed solution was for the north to “do justice by conceding to the South an equal right in the acquired territory, and to do her duty by causing the stipulations relative to fugitive slaves to be faithfully fulfilled–to cease the agitation of the slave question, and to provide for the insertion of a provision in the Constitution, by an amendment, which will restore to the South in substance the power she possessed of protecting herself”. Calhoun believed that peaceful separation was possible and, now, likely. He closed, “I have now, Senators, done my duty in expressing my opinions fully, freely, and candidly, on this solemn occasion. In doing so, I have been governed by the motives which have governed me in all the stages of the agitation of the slavery question since its commencement. I have exerted myself, during the whole period, to arrest it, with the intention of saving the Union, if it could be done; and, if it could not, to save the section where it has pleased Providence to cast my lot, and which I sincerely believe has justice and the Constitution on its side.”[vii] It would be his last speech in the Senate. Calhoun would die by the end of March before the compromise measures finally passed.

Only three days later on 7 March Daniel Webster sought to stem the tide of pessimism and disunion. As usual, the galleries were overflowing, people eager to hear Webster persuade the country to save their union. He spoke for nearly four hours. He began, “I wish to speak to-day, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States… I have a part to act, not for my own security or safety, for I am looking out for no fragment upon which to float away from the wreck, if wreck there must be, but for the good of the whole, and the preservation of all; and there is that which will keep me to my duty during this struggle, whether the sun and the stars shall appear, or shall not appear for many days. I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union. “Hear me for my cause.”[viii]

Knowing he would reap a whirlwind of scorn from northern and abolitionist supporters he pleaded for compromise by asking that northerners recognize slavery as a reality where it existed, that they respect this reality and the south, and that they play their part in fulfilling the requirements of the fugitive slave law. The only alternative was disunion and war. Webster would go on in July of that year to give another speech, his farewell address, which was more sympathetic to the antislavery cause and in which he again urged the compromise measures be adopted. These two speeches moved opinion in the Senate as ultimate passage of the compromise would indicate but his own political reputation was severely damaged.

At the end of July Henry Clay watched as the measures failed to pass. In debilitating condition from tuberculosis, Clay vowed not to abandon his effort. But he could not continue. He left the Senate and traveled east to try and recuperate from the illness wracking his body. The task of passing the compromise fell to a young Senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. With Clay’s influence, he determined to vote on each part of the compromise individually and successfully put together majorities for every measure. All passed by the end of September and were signed into law. For many, the union seemed safe.

Clay, Webster, and Calhoun would not live to see the debate revived over the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. And as historian David Potter has rightly observed, the Compromise of 1850 was ultimately more like an armistice, marking time until the next territorial question brought the union under threat once again. Then, and in 1860, there were those who said that had the Triumvirate been still in the Senate the crises would have been averted. They were not there. And the country would endure a brutal Civil War over the very same issues Clay, Webster, and Calhoun had debated themselves. And it can be said that all three were, then and ultimately, wrong in their view of and the compromises they made with the moral evil of slavery. But in their hands, from the early to mid-1800’s the continued existence of the union, though in imperfect form, had been secure.

Brian Pawlowski is a member of the American Enterprise Institute’s state leadership network and was a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He has served as a Marine Corps intelligence officer and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in American History.

[i] Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 5.

[ii] Ibid. 8

[iii] Ibid. 37

[iv] Ibid. 27

[v] 27




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Guest Essayist: Brian J. Pawlowski, former Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow

Each year millions of Americans walk through the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives building in Washington D.C.  The Archives house our nation’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.  The combination of architectural beauty, august ambiance, and history is incredibly powerful.  There is something, however, that is not housed in the Charters of Freedom, something most Americans know nothing about: a deleted portion of the Declaration of Independence.  This part constituted the lengthiest section of Thomas Jefferson’s draft, was the most controversial, and was arguably the most vicious charge against the King of Great Britain.  The passage was about slavery.  Jefferson wrote: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, Read more