THE ACCOMMODATION OF THE PUBLIC
LUTHER ROLL, prosperous owner of a carriage shop in Augusta, suffered considerable damage to his property and his business in the 1850s when a railroad and two roads were constructed adjacent to his shop. When he sought $24,000 in damages from the city council for authorizing such destructive improvements, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the city was not liable for consequential damages: "If the Legislature think proper to award damages under such circumstances, let them say so; otherwise, the parties who suffer are without remedy -- the Legislature considering that the interests of individuals must give way to the accommodation of the public."1
Lingering images to the contrary, antebellum Americans did not worship at the altar of laissez-faire. Although they opposed government-sponsored actions that damaged them, they sought to use public authority for a broad range of their own purposes. Public authority gave them leverage, far beyond their individual means, to effect improvements in society and the economy. Those improvements entailed costs as well as benefits, but men possessing both political power and economic resources had reason to feel confident that they could control the process and deflect the costs. If Luther Roll's interests could "give way to the accommodation of the public," however, perhaps anyone's could.
In the early republic, Americans employed public authority as an increasingly powerful tool to enhance their liberty and their property. By facilitating migration and the acquisition of land, governments promoted the individual independence that landownership brought. Governments contributed further to citizens' economic well-being by sponsoring transportation improvements that increased the value of that land. As early as 1806, the federal government promoted the National Road west from Maryland. New York embarked in 1817 on construction of the Erie Canal, which became a model of public enterprise in large-scale transportation facilities. Georgia began a similar venture in 1836, when the legislature authorized construction of a state-owned railroad, the Western and Atlantic.2