I n the early nineteenth century, Americans displayed a passionate faith in "improvements." As the national boundaries steadily expanded, the need for transportation became urgent. Farmers, merchants, and manufacturers had to move themselves and their goods about the country. They wanted to have the oceans charted, lighthouses built, and ports equipped with wharves and breakwaters. They wanted rivers to be deepened and straightened and connecting canals to be built. They wanted the construction of highways and railroads. Assured by political philosophers that they were the more valuable class in society, farmers sought to acquire new fertile acres through drainage. Who was to pay for all these benefits? Whenever the cost was not excessive and the hope of return was great enough, private businessmen were eager to make the venture. It was an age of turnpike companies, canal companies, water companies, manufacturing companies, and banking companies. But many improvements cost too much, the benefits to be gained were too far in the future, and the probable profits were too small to be attractive to private capital. So demands for government spending were insistent. Everybody professed a belief in economical government, but everyone had his own favorite project for building roads, harbors, canals, or railroads. Some might need appropriations; others might need only land grants, and land was a resource that federal and state governments then owned in abundance.
Politicians came to differ on many aspects of the "internal improvements" issue. They set forth contrasting constitutional theories concerning the powers of the national government and state sovereignty. But the legislators usually reserved their constitutional scruples and budgetary fears for proposals involving other politicians' constituencies. Whether Federalist, Republican, Democrat,