Internal Improvements

Author:Merrill D. Peterson

Page 1385

"Internal Improvements" was the name given to large public works programs in the first half of the nineteenth century. State governments engaged in planning, subsidizing, building, and in some instances owning and operating roads, bridges, canals, and railroads. Most had ambitious programs. None was more successful than New York's Erie Canal. Completed in 1825, it had profound effects on American economic development.

Federal support for internal improvements commenced in 1806 when Congress appropriated money for construction of the Cumberland, or National, Road. The policy was not then a serious constitutional issue, although President THOMAS JEFFERSON, proposing a major program, called for a constitutional amendment to place it beyond cavil. It became a serious constitutional issue after the War of 1812. A federal program was advocated on several grounds: to bind the Union together, to lower the cost of transportation, to effect the "home market" of the American System. Henry Clay and others found constitutional warrant for federal assistance in the powers to establish post roads, to provide for the common defense and GENERAL WELFARE, and to regulate INTERSTATE COMMERCE. In 1817 Congress passed the Bonus Bill to create a permanent fund for internal improvements from the bonus paid by the Bank of the United States for its charter and future dividends on government-owned Bank stock. Surprisingly, President JAMES MADISON, in a return to STRICT CONSTRUCTION principles, vetoed the bill and called for an amendment. His successor, JAMES MONROE, at first took the same position. In 1822, however, he conceded the unlimited power of Congress to appropriate money for improvements of national character, though not to build or operate them. Two years later he approved the General Survey Bill, which offered substantial government assistance. Many projects, the greatest...

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