Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 March 2005
A federal role in funding and constructing internal improvements – building roads, canals, and railroads, river and harbor projects, and erecting lighthouses and other aids to navigation – was one of the most persistent and contentious issues of antebellum American politics. Elites based in the various regional economies of the American coastal plain shared an interest in developing the transportation infrastructure of the country: They were isolated from one another by poor inland transportation links and the legacy of colonial trading patterns; furthermore, they were separated from the interior by formidable geographic obstacles. Many Americans also shared the belief that increased interregional communications would strengthen the fragile union by fostering shared economic interests. The case for federally funded internal improvements was thus strong – the program could serve both local and national economic interests as well as a critical nation-building role. Further, promoters made a convincing case that only the federal government could effect the desired projects – the federal budget typically operated in surplus while the states lacked adequate resources, and the states faced difficult coordination problems best solved through national political institutions (see, for example, Albert Gallatin's 1808 plan). Despite all of this, a significant and sustained federal internal improvements program was not achieved, although appropriations did increase long enough for us to identify a short-lived “era of internal improvements” extending from about 1825 to 1837 (18th through 25th Congress). In short, the study of internal improvements is a study of political failure, which we can define as the prolonged failure of a majority to establish its favored policy.