Internal Improvements Acts

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Internal Improvements Acts

Chandra Miller Manning

In the nineteenth century Congress passed many acts for the purpose of creating internal improvements, a term that refers to federally funded public works such as building roads or digging canals. Such improvements were an important point of political debate in the early nineteenth century, when the survival of the American Republic depended on its ability to govern itself effectively and flourish economically. Efficient government and economic prosperity relied in part on adequate transportation networks, to enable both the exchange of information indispensable to competent government and the transport of goods to market, where they could be sold for cash that could be pumped back into the economy. Advocates of internal improvements argued that transportation networks constructed by the government achieved these ends and therefore protected republican government. Yet the issue of internal improvements provoked controversy about the power of the federal government, relations between states and the federal government, and the interaction between private interests and public authority.


A nationalistic economic plan called the American System, which matured between 1816 and 1828, consisted of a national bank, tariff, and internal improvements. Roads were particularly important. The chief architect of the American System was Henry Clay of Kentucky, who served in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Clay and other advocates believed that roads opened areas for settlement and allowed goods and people to travel between various parts of the nation, binding the United States closer together as they did so. The entire nation benefited from the boost that roads gave to national unity and economic prosperity. Thus federal involvement in road building was a matter of national interest and a contributor to the success of the nation's experiment in republican government.

The American System is identified with Henry Clay's political party, the Whigs, in the 1830s and 1840s. Precedent for government sponsorship of transportation projects emerged earlier with the Act Admitting Ohio to the Union (1802). This act allotted a portion of the proceeds of federal land sales in Ohio to road building. In 1806 Congress passed an Act to Regulate the Laying Out and Making of a Road from Cumberland, in the State of Maryland, to the State of Ohio. This act enabled the survey, construction, and maintenance of a road, at federal expense, from the Potomac River to the Ohio River. In 1808 Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin outlined a plan for a comprehensive national transportation network in his Report on Roads and Canals.

The War of 1812 stalled government appropriation (allotting money for specific purposes) for internal improvements, but it also convinced more Americans that the national interest required reliable transportation networks. In 1818 Speaker of the House Henry Clay observed that good roads led to military victory and prosperity, whereas the lack of good roads compromised national security and prosperity. The Bonus Bill, passed by Congress in March 1817, earmarked federal funds for a system of roads and canals, and an 1822 measure proposed additional plans to construct roads and maintain them through the collection of tolls.


Both the 1816 and the 1822 measures were vetoed for reasons that reveal some of the complications surrounding internal improvements. Strict constructionists, or people who believed that the federal government could claim only those powers explicitly described in the Constitution, opposed internal improvements for fear that they gave the federal government more power than the Constitution intended. No article in the Constitution explicitly says that Congress may build canals or collect tolls on roads. Far from shoring up republicanism, opponents argued, federal involvement in internal improvements threatened republicanism by dangerously enlarging federal power, and by upsetting the balance of power between the federal government and the states.

Southerners especially worried that internal improvements would pave the way for increased federal interference with state institutions such as slavery. North Carolina Senator Nathaniel Macon wrote in an 1818 letter to a friend, "if Congress can make canals they can ... emancipate," and he staunchly resisted internal improvements on these grounds. Others objected to internal improvements because they believed that federal aid to one state or section was unfair to the rest of the nation. Still others believed that competition among private companies for federal contracts would breed corruption.

Despite opposition, from 1816 to 1824 congressional interest in roads and canals escalated. The General Survey Act of 1824, which empowered Army engineers to survey lands for potential road and canal routes, represented a key victory. Meanwhile, work on the National Road continued. By 1833 it reached Columbus, Ohio, and by mid-century it stretched to Vandalia, Illinois. Between 1824 and 1828 Congress funded approximately ninety internal improvements projects, including canal construction, river and harbor development, and especially road construction. Throughout the Union, particularly in the West, federal funds and the labor of federal troops built roads between states.


Momentum for internal improvements declined in the 1830s, especially after President Andrew Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road Bill in May 1830. The Maysville Road Bill sought funds to improve sixty-four miles of road from Lexington, Kentucky, to Maysville, Kentucky, a town on the Ohio River. By connecting to the National Road on the opposite shore of the Ohio River, the Maysville Road would offer Kentuckians access to the National Road. Jackson vetoed the bill on the grounds that it unduly expanded federal authority, cost too much, and unfairly favored one state, Kentucky. In addition to the Maysville Road veto, growing sectional tensions between Northern and Southern states further undermined internal improvements in the 1830s and 1840s.

As Congress faced issues such as the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, increasing numbers of Southerners resisted internal improvements for fear that expanded federal power could undercut slavery. Yet, the internal improvements issue did not vanish. Henry Clay's last speech in the Senate in 1851 concerned waterway improvements. Still, because of waning enthusiasm and mounting regional tensions, states increasingly undertook transportation projects one at a time rather than as part of a systematic federal program.

Clay's American System did not survive the 1840s, but it remains pertinent. The National Road still exists as U.S. Highway 40. Perhaps even more significant, the tradition of political wrangling over federal transportation projects continues, as perennial debates over issues like federal highway funding make clear.


Baxter, Maurice. Henry Clay and the American System. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Jordan, Philip D. The National Road. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948.

Larson, John Lauritz. "Jefferson's Union and the Problem of Internal Improvements." In Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter S. Onuf. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

Remini, Robert. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York: Norton, 1991. Taylor, George R. The Transportation Revolution. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951.

The National Road

At the turn of the nineteenth century, overland travelers in the United States relied on country roads, many of which were developed from Indian trails or farming tracks. These roads were maintained by county governments, with local farmers working off their "road tax" by contributing time to repairs and construction. As the need for travel and trade with the West increased, so did support for a major East-West highway funded by the federal government. In 1815 construction began on a project known as the Cumberland Road, or, particularly in its western stretch, the National Road. Running west from Cumberland, Maryland, the highway reached Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1818 and its terminus in Vandalia, Illinois, twenty years later. The project faced strenuous opposition, with many detractors arguing that the federal government was not authorized by the Constitution to fund "internal improvements," and that it would take a Constitutional amendment to authorize such activity. Using this reasoning, in 1822 President James Monroe vetoed a bill establishing the collection of tolls on the National Road, which were to be used for maintenance. The federal government turned the highway over to the states and backed away from further efforts to develop a national network of roads. Nevertheless, as a major route to the West, the National Road was a huge boon to the development of the Ohio and upper Mississippi valleys; indeed, a traveler on the National Road in the 1840s wrote, "it looks as if the whole earth is traveling this way." After 1850 the highway was supplanted by the railroad as the major westward artery, and the importance of the National Road faded. With the development of automobile traffic in the twentieth century, the National Road became U.S. Route 40.

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Internal Improvements Acts

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