Following the end of the War of 1812, the United States underwent a transportation revolution. This transportation revolution came about as a result of Americans moving westward but also as more Americans moved into cities to engage in industrial work. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 212.
One byproduct of the transportation revolution was the National Road, also called the Cumberland Road, which began in Cumberland, Maryland in 1811 and reached Wheeling on the Ohio River in 1818. Id. Congress had agreed to fund the building of the National Road in 1802, as Ohio was being prepared to be admitted as a state and Congress had proceeds rolling in from the sale of public lands. Id.
Congress, in 1822, passed a bill “to authorize the collection of tolls on the National Road, thereby making it self-funding,” however, President Monroe vetoed the bill. Id. In doing so, he used the same argument as President James Madison in 1817, arguing “that the country needed internal improvements financed by the federal government, but that only a constitutional amendment could authorize them.” Id. citing Joseph S. Wood, “The Idea of a National Road,” in The National Road, ed. Karl Raitz (Baltimore, 1996), 93-122; see also The Defeat of the Bonus Bill.
Soon thereafter, President Monroe argued that the constitutional power to levy taxes “for the general welfare” may be sufficient for spending federal funds on infrastructure, without a constitutional amendment, and he submitted a request to the United States Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the matter. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 213. Associate Justice William Johnson advised President Monroe “that federally funded internal improvements were constitutional.” Id. citing Donald G. Morgan, Justice William Johnson (Columbia, S.C., 1954), 122-25.
Steamboats helped facilitate the transportation revolution. The first commercially successful steamboat was in New York, with Robert Fulton’s Clermont running trips along the Hudson River beginning in 1807. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 214. Steamboats were a remarkable innovation as they could “carry eighty passengers with forty tons of freight in two feet of water.” Id. citing Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 199. However, steamboats were dangerous. Between 1825 and 1830, 42 boilers exploded on steamboats, killing 273 people. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 214. Philip Hone observed in 1837: “We have become the most careless, reckless, headlong people on the face of the earth. ‘Go ahead’ is our maxim and pass-word, and we do go ahead with a vengeance, regardless of consequences and indifferent to the value of human life.” Diary of Philip Hone, ed. Bayard Tuckerman (New York, 1889), entry for May 22, 1837, I, 260.
The Erie Canal, in just a few years, had become a resounding success. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 217; see also The Most Magnificent Achievement of Humanity. Within nine years of being built, “the $7,143,789 it had cost the state to construct the canal had been paid off in tolls collected; by then its channel was being expanded to accommodate more traffic.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 217 citing Ronald Shaw, Canals for a Nation (Lexington, Ky., 1990), 42, 49.
Cities along the Erie Canal route prospered: “Between 1820 and 1850, Rochester grew in population from 1,502 to 36,403; Syracuse, from 1,814 to 22,271; Buffalo, from 2,095 to 42,261.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 217 citing Ronald Shaw, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal (Lexington, Ky., 1966), 263. It expanded the market of New York, creating prosperity for many as the cost of furniture “fell dramatically: a clock for the wall had dropped in price from sixty dollars to three by midcentury; a mattress for the bed, from fifty dollars to five.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 217.
These internal improvements did not bring only positive change, however, as sometimes “local farmers or artisans went bankrupt when exposed to the competition of cheap goods suddenly brought in from far away.” Id. at 221.
Others were opposed to the internal improvements on ideological grounds, especially slaveholders. Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina remarked in 1818: “If Congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate.” Id. quoting Nathaniel Macon to Bartlett Yancey, April 15, 1818, quoted in John Lauritz Larson, “Jefferson’s Union and the Problem of Internal Improvements,” in Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter Onuf (Charlottesville, 1993), 105. He continued, “The states having no slaves may not feel as strongly as the states having slaves about stretching the Constitution, because no such interest is to be touched by it.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 221 quoting Nathaniel Macon to Bartlett Yancey, April 15, 1818, quoted in John Lauritz Larson, “Jefferson’s Union and the Problem of Internal Improvements,” in Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter Onuf (Charlottesville, 1993), 105. Slaveholders of Macon’s school of thought would oppose the modernization and advancement of the American economy to preserve the institution of slavery. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 221.
This transportation revolution is notable for several reasons. First, it is a prime example of the value of Americans investing in their infrastructure, despite the prospect of it creating debt. The Erie Canal, which had a hefty price tag for construction, seemed a gamble but became an overwhelming success in just a matter of years. The National Road would also be a wise investment, as it would ultimately be a predecessor to Interstate 70 in the Twentieth Century.
Second, Congress, and the federal government collectively, was becoming more active in managing affairs of the country. Justice Johnson’s advisory opinion to President Monroe would give him carte blanche to make improvements necessary, knowing that if any state or individual challenged those actions, appeal to the highest court would secure him a victory. This precedent was a boost in power to the federal government that has never been relinquished, which is not inherently bad, as it has facilitated the construction of infrastructure throughout the United States.
Finally, one last point to note is that with great economic expansion comes risk. That risk can be manifested in one’s occupation, like those artisans who were ultimately rendered obsolete, or it can be manifested in the safety of the public. With innovations like the steamboat, which promised to be hugely successful, regulation became a necessity to ensure that Americans would be protected from harm.
In sum, the transportation revolution of the early Republic set the stage for America to continue its westward expansion and thereby increase its prosperity, with portents of discontent emanating from the South.