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   Chapter 13 INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS (1818-1824)

Rise of the New West, 1819-1829 By Frederick Jackson Turner Characters: 17663

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


The transformation by which the slender line of the Indian trail became the trader's trace, and then a road, superseded by the turnpike and canal, and again replaced by the railroad, is typical of the economic development of the United States. As the population of the west increased, its surplus products sought outlets. Improved means of communication became essential, and when these were furnished the new lines of internal trade knitted the nation into organic unity and replaced the former colonial dependence upon Europe, in the matter of commerce, by an extensive domestic trade between the various sections. From these changes flowed important political results. [Footnote: For the earlier phase of internal improvements, cf. Babcock, Am. Nationality (Am. Nation, XIII.), chap. xv.]

Many natural obstacles checked this process. The Appalachian mountain system cut off the seaboard of the United States from the interior. From the beginning, the Alleghenies profoundly influenced the course of American history, and at one time even endangered the permanency of the Union. In our own day the railroad has so reduced the importance of these mountains that it is difficult for us to realize the part which they once played in our development. Although Webster boasted that there were no Alleghenies in his politics, we have already seen [Footnote: See chaps, iii., vi., above.] that in the twenties they exercised a dominant influence on the lines of internal commerce, and compelled the pioneer farmers to ship their surplus down the Mississippi to New Orleans and around the coast, and thence abroad and to the cities of the north. The difficult and expensive process of wagoning goods from Philadelphia and Baltimore across the mountains to the Ohio Valley raised the price of manufactured goods to the western farmer; while, on the other hand, the cost of transportation for his crops left him little profit and reduced the value of his lands. [Footnote: Journ. of Polit. Econ., VIII., 36-41.]

Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that the natural opportunities furnished by the water system of the Great Lakes and the widely ramifying tributaries of the Mississippi should appeal to statesmen who considered the short distances that intervened between these navigable waters and the rivers that sought the Atlantic. Turnpikes and canals had already shown themselves practicable and profitable in England, so a natural effort arose to use them in aid of that movement for connecting east and west by ties of interest which Washington had so much at heart. New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, all subdivided by the mountains into eastern and western sections, fostered roads and chartered turnpike and canal companies. Pennsylvania was pre-eminent in this movement even before the close of the eighteenth century, subscribing large amounts to the stock of turnpike companies in order to promote the trade between Philadelphia and the growing population in the region of Pittsburgh. So numerous were the projects and beginnings of roads and canals in the nation, that as early as 1808 the far-sighted Gallatin made his famous report for a complete national system of roads and canals. [Footnote: Cf. Hart, Slavery and Abolition (Am. Nation, XVI.), chap. iii.]

When New York undertook the Erie Canal in 1817 as a state enterprise, and pushed it to such a triumphant conclusion that before a decade after its completion its tolls repaid the cost of construction, a revolution was effected in transportation. The cheapness of water carriage not only compelled the freighters on the turnpike roads to lower their charges, but also soon made it probable that canals would supersede land transportation for heavy freights, and even for passengers. For a time the power of Pittsburgh and the activity of Philadelphia merchants sustained the importance of the Pennsylvania turnpike. Until Great Lake steam navigation developed and population spread along the shore of Lake Erie and canals joined the Ohio and the lakes, the Erie Canal did not reap its harvest of trade in the west. But already Pennsylvania was alarmed at the prospect of losing her commercial ascendancy. While New York and Philadelphia were developing canals and turnpikes to reach the west, Baltimore was placed in an awkward position. The attempts to improve the waters of the upper Potomac engaged the interests of Maryland and Virginia from the days of Washington. But the success of the Potomac Company, chartered jointly by these two states in an effort to reach the Ohio trade, would have turned traffic towards the city of Washington and its outlying suburbs instead of towards Baltimore, which was already connected by a turnpike with the Cumberland Road, so as to share with Philadelphia in the wagon trade to the Ohio. On the other hand, Baltimore was interested in the development of the Susquehanna's navigation, for this river had its outlet in Chesapeake Bay, near enough to Baltimore to make that city its entrepot; and it tapped the great valley of Pennsylvania as well as the growing agricultural area of south-central New York, which was not tributary to the Erie Canal. But it was not possible to expect New York, Pennsylvania, or even that part of Maryland interested in the Potomac to aid these ambitions of Baltimore; and that city found itself at a disadvantage and Maryland's interests were divided. [Footnote: Hulbert, Historic Highways, XIII., 69 et seq.; Mills, Treatise on Inland Navig.; see chap, xvii., below.]

Meantime, Virginia, anxious to check the western exodus from the interior of her state, established a state fund and a board of public works for the improvement of her rivers, including the project of connecting the James and Kanawha. [Footnote: Babcock, Am. Nationality (Am. Nation, XIII.), chap. xv.; Adams, United States, IX., 164.] North Carolina was agitating similar plans; [Footnote: Murphy, Memorial on Internal Improvements; Weaver, Internal Improvements in N. C., in Johns Hopkins Univ. Studies, XXI, 113.] and South Carolina made appropriations for extensive improvements.

New England devoted her attention to canals along the seaboard and up the Connecticut Valley, to give the products of the interior of that section an outlet on the coast. Boston was feeling the isolation from the western trade that was enriching New York, and some voices were raised in favor of a canal to reach the Hudson; but the undertaking was too difficult, and the metropolis of New England devoted its energies to the ocean commerce.

Meantime, the west was urging the federal government to construct those interstate roads and canals which were essential to the prosperity of that section and which could not be undertaken by jealous and conflicting states. The veto by Madison of Calhoun's bonus bill, in 1817, [Footnote: Cf. Babcock, Am. Nationality (Am. Nation, XIII.), chap. xvii.] was followed nine months later by Monroe's first annual message, [Footnote: Richardson, Messages and Papers, II., 18.] in which he stated his belief that the Constitution did not empower Congress to establish a system of internal improvements, and recommended an amendment to convey the power. To Clay and the friends of internal improvements, these constitutional scruples of the Virginia dynasty, although accompanied by approval of the plan of a system of internal improvements at federal expense, came as a challenge. In an important debate on the constitutionality of national internal improvements, in 1818, the House of Representatives, voting on four resolutions submitted by Lowndes, of South Carolina, [Footnote: Annals of Cong., 15 Cong., 1 Sess., I., 1249] declared that Congress had power to appropriate money for the construction of military roads, and of other roads, and of canals, and for the improvement of watercourses (89 ayes to 75 nays). [Footnote: By count of names; the Journal gives ayes 90.] But after a debate which turned on the significance of the word "establish" in the Constitution, the House decided against the power to construct post-roads and military roads (81 to 84); against the power to construct roads and canals necessary to commerce between the states (71 to 95); and against the power to construct canals for military purposes (81 to 83).

It was clear after this debate that there was not a sufficient majority to override the veto which might be expected from the president. On the other hand, the majority were unwilling to hazard the rights which they claimed to possess, by appealing to the states for a constitutional amendment. The next year Calhoun, the secretary of war, responding to an invitation of Congress, submitted a report outlining a comprehensive system of internal improvements requisite for the defense of the United States. While avoiding

an opinion on the question of constitutionality, he declared that a judicious system of roads and canals, constructed for commerce and the mail, would be "itself among the most efficient means for the more complete defense of the United States"; [Footnote: Am. State Papers, Miscellaneous, 534.] and he favored the use of the engineering corps for surveying the routes and of federal troops for the actual work of construction.

By 1818 the National Road [Footnote: Cf. Babcock, Am. Nationality (Am. Nation, XIII.), chap. xv.; Young, Cumberland Road, 15; Hulbert, Historic Highways, X., chap. i.] had been constructed from Cumberland, on the Potomac, across the mountains to Wheeling, on the Ohio, and two years later Congress made appropriations for a survey of the road westward to the Mississippi River. The panic of 1819, however, left the treasury in such a condition that it was not until 1822 that the preservation and construction of this highway was again taken up with vigor. In that year a bill was introduced authorizing the president to cause toll-houses, gates, and turnpikes to be erected on the Cumberland Road, and to appoint toll-gatherers, with power to enforce the collection of tolls to be used for the preservation of the road. The bill further provided for a system of fines for violation of the laws of the road. It therefore involved the question of the right of jurisdiction as well as of construction.

The measure passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 87 to 68. The districts along the line of the Potomac and the Ohio, and the regions tributary to the road in Pennsylvania and western Virginia, were almost a unit in favor of the bill. Indeed, the whole vote of the western states, with the exception of two members from Tennessee, was given in the affirmative. But Pittsburgh, which feared the diversion of her western trade to Baltimore, opposed the bill. The area along the Susquehanna which looked to Baltimore also voted in the negative, as did the majority of the delegation from New York, who were apprehensive of the effect of the National Road as a rival to the Erie Canal. The Senate passed the bill by the decisive vote of 29 to 7.

Monroe vetoed this measure, on the ground that it implied a power to execute a complete system of internal improvements, with the right of jurisdiction and sovereignty. Accompanying his veto (May 4, 1822), he submitted "Views on the Subject of Internal Improvements." [Footnote: Richardson, Messages and Papers, II., 142-183; Monroe, Writings, VI., 216; Mason, Veto Power, 85; Nelson presidential Influence on Int. Imp. (Iowa Journal of Hist, and Politics), IV., 29, 30.] In this elaborate disquisition, he rehearsed the constitutional history of internal improvements, and expounded his conception of the construction of the Constitution, and of the relation of the states and the nation under the theory of divided sovereignty. Although he denied to the federal government the right of jurisdiction and construction, he asserted that Congress had unlimited power to raise money, and that "in its appropriation, they have a discretionary power, restricted only by their duty to appropriate it to purposes of common defense and of general, not local, national, not state, benefit." Nevertheless, he strongly recommended a system of internal improvements, if it could be established by means of a constitutional amendment. Both houses sustained the president's veto.

Acting upon Monroe's intimation of the power to appropriate money, and following the line of least resistance, the next year an act was passed making appropriations for repairs of the Cumberland Road. On March 3, 1823, also, was signed the first of the national acts for the improvement of harbors. [Footnote: U. S. Statutes at Large, III., 780.] The irresistible demand for better internal communications and the development of a multitude of local projects, chief among them a new plan for uniting Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio by a canal along the Potomac, resulted, in 1824, in the introduction of the general survey bill, authorizing the president to cause surveys to be made for such roads and canals as he deemed of national importance for commercial, military, or postal purposes. The evident intention of the bill was to prepare a programme for appropriations for internal improvements on a national scale, and for subscription to the stock of companies engaged in these enterprises. The discussion of the general survey bill brought out the significance of the problem of transportation, and revealed the sectional divisions of the nation in clear light.

Henry Clay made an earnest effort to commit Congress to the exercise of the power of construction of interstate highways and canals which could not be undertaken by individual states or by combinations of states, and which, if built at all, must be by the nation. He recounted the attention given by Congress to the construction of public buildings and light-houses, coast surveys, erection of sea- walls in the Atlantic states-"everything on the margin of the ocean, but nothing for domestic trade; nothing for the great interior of the country." [Footnote: Annals of Cong., 18 Cong., 1 Sess., I., 1035.] "Not one stone," he said, "had yet been broken, not one spade of earth removed, in any Western State." He boldly claimed that the right to regulate commerce granted as fully the power to construct roads and canals for the benefit of circulation and trade in the interior as it did the power to promote coastwise traffic. His speech was a strong assertion of the right of the west to equality of treatment with the old sections of the country. "A new world," said he, "has come into being since the Constitution was adopted. Are the narrow, limited necessities of the old thirteen states, of, indeed, parts only of the old thirteen states, as they existed at the formation of the present Constitution, forever to remain the rule of its interpretation?" [Footnote: Annals of Cong., 18 Cong., 1 Sess., I., 1315; Colton, Private Corresp. of Clay, 81.]

In contrast with the united attitude of the west upon internal improvements, which Henry Clay voiced with such lofty accent, the south showed divisions which reflected opposing economic interests in the section. Not only were the representatives of Maryland almost a unit in support of the bill, but also the western districts of Virginia and North Carolina, as well as a considerable fraction of the representatives from South Carolina and Georgia, supported the cause of the west on this occasion.

The opposition in the south found, perhaps, its most inflexible expression in the speech of John Randolph, [Footnote: Annals of Cong., 18 Cong., 1 Sess., I., 1296-1311.] who, with characteristic recklessness and irresponsibility, dragged from its closet the family skeleton of the south, and warned his fellow slaveholders that, if Congress possessed power to do what was proposed by the bill, they might emancipate every slave in the United States, "and with stronger color of reason than they can exercise the power now contended for." He closed by threatening the formation of associations and "every other means short of actual insurrection." "We shall keep on the windward side of treason," said he. [Footnote: Cf. Macon's identical views in 1818 and 1824, Univ. of North Carolina, James Sprunt Hist. Monographs, No. 2, pp. 47, 72.]

On the other hand, McDuffie, of South Carolina, the friend and protege of Calhoun and a later leader of the nullification forces, supported the measure and spoke as earnestly in favor of a liberal construction of the Constitution as any of the most enthusiastic supporters of the bill. He declared that the constitutional convention "did not regard the state governments as sentinels upon the watch-towers of freedom, or in any respect more worthy of confidence than the general government."

When the bill came to the final vote in the House of Representatives, New England gave 12 votes in favor and 26 against; the middle states, 37 to 26 (New York, 7 to 24); the south, 23 to 34; the west, 43 to 0. Thus the bill carried by 115 to 86. As the map shows, the opposition was chiefly located in New England and New York and in a fragment of the old south. The entire west, including the southwestern slave states, with Pennsylvania and the Potomac Valley, acted together. In the Senate, the vote stood 24 to 18. Here New England gave an almost solid vote against the bill.

Thus by the close of Monroe's administration the forces of nationalism seemed to have triumphed in the important field of internal improvements. It was the line of least resistance then, as it had been in the days of the Annapolis Convention. [Footnote: McLaughlin, Confederation and Constitution (Am. Nation, X.), chap, xi.]

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