Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Baseline Road, Boulder County

Baseline Road is a major East-West road that starts in Boulder County and extends East through Weld, Broomfield, and Adams Counties. It stretches roughly 38 miles from end to end.

Baseline Road has a little more history to it than just being a major thoroughfare and a quick way to get across town. One of the more salient facts about Baseline Road is that it follows the 40th parallel. Most people who have lived in the area know this and it's a well-known bit of local trivia. The 40th parallel, and by extension Baseline Road, also served an important historical function prior to the existence of the state of Colorado.

The creation of Baseline road dates back to the 1840s and the various Territories Acts that the federal government put in place to control settlement and development of new land in the western United States. The creation of these territories, among them the Nebraska, Kansas, and, eventually, Colorado territories, tied together a handful of historical topics that shaped the development of the western states. Central to the creation of these new territories was the desire to build a transcontinental railroad. As early as 1845 the creation of a Nebraska Territory had been suggested as a first step towards building a transcontinental rail network. Previous plans to develop a transcontinental rail system had failed over arguments as to whether the railroad would follow a northern or southern route through the western United States.

The creation of these territories is also connected to the (potential) spread of slavery throughout new U.S territories, the growing friction between Northern anti-slavery politicians and Southern pro-slavery politicians, and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1852, haggling in the Senate had tabled the creation of the Nebraska Territory after Senators had refused to pass the bill if slavery had not been allowed in the new territory, the allowance of which would have broken the Missouri Compromise which explicitly forbid slave ownership in parts of the former Louisiana Purchase that fell above the parallel 36-degrees, 30-minutes north. The Nebraska Territory, as it was originally proposed, would have decided the question of slavery through popular sovereignty, the right of residents to decide whether or not to allow slavery within the new territory. As it was pointed out in Congress this did not solve the problems that arose concerning the Missouri Compromise, but instead ignored them, allowing for the creation of pro-slavery states above the 36th parallel. The solution, as was eventually proposed through an amended bill, was the creation of two new territories, The Nebraska Territory and the Kansas Territory.

And Baseline Road became important because the 40th parallel was the dividing line between the two territories. The Nebraska Territory was to the north and the Kansas Territory was to the south. The creation of these two territories is historically important because they divided the country over the topic of slavery and pointed towards the conflict that would become the Civil War. Since slavery within the territories was being decided by popular sovereignty large numbers of both anti- and pro-slavery activists crossed into the territories to vote. Ballot rigging, intimidation, and widespread violence were the result. This was particularly true in Kansas, with pro-slavery "border ruffians" crossing in from Missouri and anti-slavery "Jayhawkers" moving in from the east for the express purpose of making Kansas a free state.

The creation of these two territories, and the changes they caused in terms of notions of popular sovereignty and national politics regarding slavery, led to the effective nullification of both the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. The political upheaval over the creation of these territories also split the Democratic and Whig parties apart, leading to the creation of two new, and largely geographically defined, political parties; the Republicans, centering in the anti-slavery North, and the Democrats, based in the pro-slavery South.

An interesting side note...
In school we always heard about the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Everyone who took public speaking or participated in school debates heard all about these public debates between Abraham Lincoln, then a relatively unknown Senatorial candidate from Illinois, and Stephen Douglas, the incumbent Senatorial candidate and the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The general topic of the debates was slavery, and one of the primary themes was the expansion of slavery into new U.S. territories. A major talking point was Douglas' insistence on popular sovereignty in the new territories, a stance which he claimed would ensure the representation of the people but his opponents said was a tactic to prevent him from having to take a stance on the expansion of slavery and avoid any political problems. Abraham Lincoln argued that popular sovereignty nullified the Missouri Compromise and effectively nationalized and perpetuated slavery. It's an interesting argument and I have to say it's a lot more interesting now than when I was taking debate in high school.

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