Restricted Authority: Slavery Politics, Internal Improvements, and the Limitation of National Administrative Capacity

By Mulcare, Daniel M. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Restricted Authority: Slavery Politics, Internal Improvements, and the Limitation of National Administrative Capacity


Mulcare, Daniel M., Political Research Quarterly


This article connects slavery politics with the curtailment of antebellum infrastructure policy and the limits placed on the development of the early American state. Because many Southerners feared that a unified Northern majority could hinder slavery's expansion or continued existence, they successfully worked to curtail federal power, even in areas seemingly unconnected to slavery. They helped to undermine a national improvement system, the federal government's ability to build improvements within state borders, and Congress's power to levy tolls to fund road repairs. In addition, Southerners' efforts to curb certain improvement projects curtailed the federal government's overall administrative capacity.

Keywords: race; ethnicity; politics; federalism; intergovernmental relations

The spring of 1 830 witnessed great merriment for those who championed state sovereignty. Along with President Andrew Jackson's Maysville Road veto, which furthered the doctrine that states held pri- mary authority to charter improvement companies and build roads and canals within their borders, rep- resentatives in the House defeated a measure that would have led to the national government's con- struction of a road from Buffalo, New York, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Of those individuals enthused that the legislation was voted down, North Carolina's Samuel Carson was one of the most jubilant. Concerned that improvement policies had a direct "bearing on a question in which the whole southern portion of the Union was not only deeply but vitally interested," he beamed that the result marked "a vic- tory over a monster which has been lapping the life- blood of the South." By negating the nefarious measure, he and his fellow representatives success- fully "harpooned the monster, and made his blood spout gloriously." Carson also boasted that the fiend would unlikely be resurrected, contending that "we have got the monster down - he is struggling and ready to expire, and I, for one, will keep my foot upon his neck, and hope to witness his expiring gasp." Such a hyperbolic statement underscored a growing sentiment in slave-holding states: the failure of nationalist improvement policies constituted a "victory of the South" precisely because it limited the national government's ability to control slavery (Register of Debates 1830, 804-5; Baker 2002, 456).

Because Southerners' reaction against measures like the Buffalo and New Orleans Road contributed to the limits placed on congressional improvement authority and helped to curtail the federal government's administrative capacity, it is necessary to examine the connections between slavery politics, antebellum infrastructure policy, and the development of the American state. Specifically, Southerners' concern that increased federal powers could curb slavery's extension and potentially lead to its abolition influenced their efforts to reduce the national government's authority. Southerners' attempts to protect their economic system did not exclusively concentrate on slavery policy; rather, their desire to contract federal dominion influenced other legislative spheres, such as internal improvements, that were seemingly unrelated to the slavery's existence. Because of their ability to translate their states' rights perspective into legislative practice, Southerners, along with their northern allies, facilitated the collapse of numerous improvement proposals. They also undermined the development of the national government's administrative capacity; these states' rights advocates limited the creation of new federal improvement positions, or when such offices did materialize, they ensured that these jobs did not become permanent parts of the national state.

In this treatment of slavery politics' influence on infrastructure policy and federal administrative capacity, I support and revise two main facets of American political development (APD) literature. First, I affirm the recent trend to explore the connections between racial politics and the structure of the United States' political system. …

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Restricted Authority: Slavery Politics, Internal Improvements, and the Limitation of National Administrative Capacity
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