Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Washington National Road Bill and the Struggle to Adopt a Federal System of Internal Improvement

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Washington National Road Bill and the Struggle to Adopt a Federal System of Internal Improvement

Article excerpt

Tocqueville: "How are roads made and repaired in America?" Poinsett: "It's a great constitutional question. . ."

In March 1830, the House of Representatives considered a bill for the construction of a road 1,500 miles in length. When completed, this national highway would have extended from Buffalo to New Orleans through the nation's capital, and would have been one of the most ambitious transportation improvements contemplated by Congress in the nineteenth century. For nearly a month, this legislation (hereafter referred to as the Washington National Road bill) dominated the congressional agenda. Several scholars have given passing mention to this hotly contested road bill, though no one has tried to place it within the larger context of the struggle to adopt a federal system of internal improvement. Two weeks after its defeat, supporters of a federal program of roads and canals introduced compromise legislation-the Maysville Road bill. Most scholars agree that Andrew Jackson's veto of the bill was a critical blow to a federal transportation system, but this is only part of the story. The history of the Washington National Road bill provides a more complete picture of the struggle to achieve a federal system of internal improvement than previously demonstrated by showing that the Maysville legislation was only one of two possible paths.1

The story of the Washington National Road bill also provides a window into the political culture of the early national period. What were the limits of federal authority? What was the role of the central government within the states? How does the issue of federalism connect to the emerging sectional crisis and the developing party system of this period?

The United States has witnessed three periods of federal expansion: the period following the Civil War, during the New Deal, and, perhaps less well known, the period between the War of 1812 and Andrew Jackson's presidency. Following the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, Congress pursued a number of economic policies that extended federal authority: the charter of the second bank of the United States, the passage of a higher protective tariff, as well as several attempts to secure a federal transportation program. By the late 1820s, the shifting sectional coalitions and party alliances had begun to harden over issues that could have extended the federal role within the states.

Scholars recognize the centrality of the transportation issue in shaping American political culture during the first half of the nineteenth century. There is, however, disagreement about why a federal transportation system failed to materialize. At the turn of the century, Frederick Jackson Turner called attention to this issue when he blamed the failure of coherent federal action on sectional bickering. In the1960s, Carter Goodrich also dismissed constitutional arguments and stressed regional or sectional conflicts. More recently, however, scholars have emphasized that a number of factors influenced the outcome. Daniel Feller has argued that the shifting sectional coalitions over internal improvements, federal lands, and the tariff gave way, by the late 1820s, to an alliance between the Southeast and the Southwest in opposition to a protective tariff and a federal transportation policy that could pose a threat to slavery. John Larson makes the case that the shifting sectional coalitions eventually fell apart over the jealousies that erupted during the scramble for federal aid following the passage of the General Survey Act in 1824. The central concern of opponents, Larson contends, was that a federal system would lead to corruption over appropriations and destroy the harmony of the Union. Other scholars, however, have placed constitutional arguments and the fear of federal encroachment on states' rights at center stage. Richard John argues that the expansion of the state into domestic policy after the War of 1812 ignited an anticonsolidationist campaign that by the late 1820s had turned into a states' rights argument by southerners that warned that if the federal government could build roads and canals, it could emancipate the slaves. …

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