Internal improvements

Internal improvements is the term used historically in the United States for public works from the end of the American Revolution 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 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 routes 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. New York scored fabulous success in 1825 with completion of its Erie Canal, but other state programs sank in a combination of over ambition, 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 Hamiltonian Federalists and the more-or-less laissez faire Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. Political support began with Alexander Hamilton and his Report on Manufactures 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 from its formation in 1856. Support for internal improvements became a part of the economic plan, and the economic school of thought 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 60,000 acres (240 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, Old 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.

Full article...



American History

Political History

Economic History

Early and Antebellum America (1789-1860)

Spread the Word