Internal improvements

Internal improvements

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Internal improvements is the term used historically in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 for public works
Public works
Public works are a broad category of projects, financed and constructed by the government, for recreational, employment, and health and safety uses in the greater community...

 from the end of the American Revolution
American Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

 through much of the 19th century, mainly for the creation of a transportation infrastructure: roads, turnpikes, canals, harbors and navigation improvements. This older term carries the connotation of a political movement that called for the exercise of public spirit as well as the search for immediate economic gain. Improving the country's natural advantages by developments in transportation was, in the eyes of George Washington
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

 and many others, a duty incumbent both on governments and on individual citizens.

While the need for inland transportation improvements was universally recognized, there were great differences over the questions of how these should be planned, funded, developed and constructed. Also, with various route available, questions of where these improvements should be made, and by whom, the federal government the individual states or their localities, became the basis of political and regional contention. Federal assistance for "internal improvements" evolved slowly and haphazardly; it became the product of contentious congressional factions and an executive branch generally concerned with avoiding unconstitutional federal intrusions into state affairs.

Early project successes, both European and pre-revolutionary, demonstrated the time and cost savings as well as greater potential commerce and profit which these improvements created, but the early inability of congress to develop a system of appropriations hobbled federal efforts; this threw responsibility for internal improvements on the states, following the veto of the Bonus Bill of 1817
Bonus Bill of 1817
The Bonus Bill of 1817 was proposed legislation introduced by John C. Calhoun to provide a federal highway linking the East and South to the West using the earnings bonus from the Second Bank of the United States. Opponents feared that providing the means for settlers to travel would drain their...

. New York scored fabulous success in 1825 with completion of its Erie Canal
Erie Canal
The Erie Canal is a waterway in New York that runs about from Albany, New York, on the Hudson River to Buffalo, New York, at Lake Erie, completing a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. The canal contains 36 locks and encompasses a total elevation differential of...

, but other state programs sank in a combination of overambition, shaky financing, and internal squabbling. One early government-funded project was the Cumberland Road, which Congress approved in 1806 to build a road between the Potomac River and the Ohio River; it was later pressed on through Ohio and Indiana and halfway through Illinois, as well along what is now U.S. Route 40. It became the National Road and was the single largest project of the antebellum era, with nearly $7 million in federal dollars spent between 1806 and 1841. During the debates on Ohio statehood and on the Cumberland Road, there was apparently no significant discussion of the Constitutional questions involved.

The issue of government subsidies for internal improvements was a key point of contention between the two major political factions in America for the first sixty years of the nineteenth century —-- the mercantilist
Mercantilism
Mercantilism is the economic doctrine in which government control of foreign trade is of paramount importance for ensuring the prosperity and security of the state. In particular, it demands a positive balance of trade. Mercantilism dominated Western European economic policy and discourse from...

 Hamiltonian Federalists and the more-or-less laissez faire Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. Political support began with Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America's first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury...

 and his Report on Manufactures
Report on Manufactures
The Report on Manufactures is the third report, and magnum opus, of American Founding Father and 1st U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton...

 at the turn of the century, and continued with the Whig Party, led by Henry Clay from 1832 until its demise in 1852, and then by the Republican Party
Republican Party (United States)
The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists in 1854, it is often called the GOP . The party's platform generally reflects American conservatism in the U.S...

 from its formation in 1856. Support for internal improvements became a part of the economic plan
American System (economic plan)
The American System, originally called "The American Way", was a mercantilist economic plan that played a prominent role in American policy during the first half of the 19th century...

, and the economic school of thought
American School (economics)
The American School, also known as "National System", represents three different yet related constructs in politics, policy and philosophy. It was the American policy for the 1860s to the 1940s, waxing and waning in actual degrees and details of implementation...

 that would develop, but it would not come easily.

While the Federalist strand of republicanism defended internal improvements as agents of the "general welfare" or "public good," another strand unraveled from the republican tapestry to denounce such schemes as "corruption," taxing the many to benefit the few. Critics of individual improvement schemes did not have to dig deep under the veneer of "public good" to uncover self-interest. Washington's scheme for Potomac River improvement also happened to pass conveniently by his Mount Vernon estate and extend westward toward some 60000 acres (242.8 km²) of undeveloped land in his possession). By the end of the 1790s, leaders of the emerging Republican Party regularly assaulted the "monied gentry" and their improvement plans as visionary and extravagant, and gradually eroded public confidence in government action and authority. In their assaults on the Federalists' national agenda, Republicans perfected a language of opposition that provided the template for almost all future critiques of federal power: fear of centralized power, burdening taxpayers, taxing one locale for the benefit of another, creating self-perpetuating bureaucracies, distant governments undermining local authority, and subsidizing the schemes of the wealthy at public expense.

Background and early development


A federal role in funding and constructing internal improvements was one of the most persistent and contentious issues of American politics in the years after the revolution. With independence elites based in the various regional economies of the American coastal plain did share an interest in developing the transportation infrastructure of the country; unlike Europe, they were isolated from one another by poor inland transportation links and the legacy of their colonial trading patterns
Navigation Acts
The English Navigation Acts were a series of laws that restricted the use of foreign shipping for trade between England and its colonies, a process which had started in 1651. Their goal was to force colonial development into lines favorable to England, and stop direct colonial trade with the...

. They were also separated from their interior lands by formidable geographic obstacles
Appalachian Mountains
The Appalachian Mountains #Whether the stressed vowel is or ,#Whether the "ch" is pronounced as a fricative or an affricate , and#Whether the final vowel is the monophthong or the diphthong .), often called the Appalachians, are a system of mountains in eastern North America. The Appalachians...

. George Washington repeatedly pressed his vision of a network of canals and highways to be created and overseen through the auspices of wise leaders at the head of an active republican government. Unfortunately, this initial thrust for internal improvements fell victim to what Washington was convinced was the narrow-minded and exasperatingly provincial outlook of the individual states, which under the Articles of Confederation
Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation, formally the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was an agreement among the 13 founding states that legally established the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states and served as its first constitution...

 hamstrung federal authority to the point of impotence. The fledgling government
Congress of the Confederation
The Congress of the Confederation or the United States in Congress Assembled was the governing body of the United States of America that existed from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789. It comprised delegates appointed by the legislatures of the states. It was the immediate successor to the Second...

 however, set historic precedent and broad transportation policy in 1787 concerning new lands
Northwest Territories
The Northwest Territories is a federal territory of Canada.Located in northern Canada, the territory borders Canada's two other territories, Yukon to the west and Nunavut to the east, and three provinces: British Columbia to the southwest, and Alberta and Saskatchewan to the south...

 west of the original colonies in the Northwest Ordinance
Northwest Ordinance
The Northwest Ordinance was an act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States, passed July 13, 1787...

; it established free usage of its inland waterways and their connecting portage
Portage
Portage or portaging refers to the practice of carrying watercraft or cargo over land to avoid river obstacles, or between two bodies of water. A place where this carrying occurs is also called a portage; a person doing the carrying is called a porter.The English word portage is derived from the...

s, and expressed this intent for any other lands and resources in future states. While some consider that Washington watched as rivalries between the states of Maryland and Virginia gradually rendered his Potomac Company
Potomac Company
The Potomac Company was created in 1785 to make improvements to the Potomac River in order to improve its navigability. The Potomac Company built five skirting canals around the major falls...

, null and void by withholding public monies out of fear that a rival state might derive greater benefit from their own appropriations, others consider these events in a different light. The preliminary report of the Inland Waterways Commission issued in 1908, provides a unique topical perspective on these and other concurrent historical events on-going at the time. It notes: "The earliest movement toward developing the inland waterways of the country began when, under the influence of George Washington, Virginia and Maryland appointed commissioners primarily to consider the navigation and improvement of the Potomac; they met in 1785 in Alexandria and adjourned to Mount Vernon, where they planned for extension, pursuant to which they reassembled with representatives of other States in Annapolis in 1786; again finding the task a growing one, a further conference was arranged in Philadelphia in 1787, with delegates from all the States. There the deliberations resulted in the framing of the Constitution, whereby the thirteen original States were united primarily on a commercial basis —the commerce of the times being chiefly by water."

While the country has an extensive coastline, inland river systems and the largest freshwater lake system in the world, the 1803 Louisiana Purchase
Louisiana Purchase
The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition by the United States of America of of France's claim to the territory of Louisiana in 1803. The U.S...

 greatly enhanced the area claimed, as well as the need for developmental improvement; the purchase brought the lands of the Missouri
Missouri River
The Missouri River flows through the central United States, and is a tributary of the Mississippi River. It is the longest river in North America and drains the third largest area, though only the thirteenth largest by discharge. The Missouri's watershed encompasses most of the American Great...

, Ohio
Ohio River
The Ohio River is the largest tributary, by volume, of the Mississippi River. At the confluence, the Ohio is even bigger than the Mississippi and, thus, is hydrologically the main stream of the whole river system, including the Allegheny River further upstream...

 and Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...

 basins under federal control.

Many Americans also shared the belief that increased inter-regional communications would strengthen the fragile union by fostering shared economic interests. The case for federally funded internal improvements was thus strong, because such a program could serve both local and national economic interests as well as a critical nation-building role. Promoters furthermore made a convincing case that only the federal government could effect the desired projects, since the federal budget typically operated in surplus while the states lacked adequate resources, and the states faced difficult coordination problems best solved through national political institutions. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin
Albert Gallatin
Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin was a Swiss-American ethnologist, linguist, politician, diplomat, congressman, and the longest-serving United States Secretary of the Treasury. In 1831, he founded the University of the City of New York...

's 1808 Report on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals was one such early plan.