America’s internal improvements begin

At the time of the American Revolution, outside of some modest port facilities, there was little in the way of engineered infrastructure or “internal improvements” as infrastructure was then described. As the thirteen original states began to unite as a single country, their need for internal lines of communication grew to enable defense, communications, and, especially, “interstate” commerce.

george washington 1772 public domain
George Washington, 1772. (Public domain)

Perhaps no one recognized this need more than George Washington. At the time of the revolution, he was one of the most traveled people in the country. As a land surveyor, starting at the age of 17, he traveled extensively in Virginia, which then extended to the Ohio river. In his military career, beginning during the time of the of the French and Indian War in the 1750s, he traveled to the Great Lakes and throughout much of the northern colonies. Virtually all of this travel was by horse.

With the formal conclusion of the War of Independence from Great Britain in 1783, the new United States acquired substantial territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. Washington and other new national leaders understood that to bring the new western territories effectively into the new nation, both politically and economically, and to have the ability to militarily defend its new territories, permanent logistical lines of communication were needed—roads, canals, bridges, and improved river channels. With navigable rivers then being the primary “highway” for internal travel and commerce, crossing the Appalachian Mountains to reach the Ohio River presented the first natural obstacle that needed to be overcome.

Cacapon River Overlook West Virginia 645
View of the Cacapon River, West Virginia. (© James Michael Snead; used with permission)

The above view west towards the Ohio River Valley (beyond the mountains) is taken from the Cacapon River overlook in today’s West Virginia. The Cacapon River is a tributary of the Potomac River. This overlook is close to where George Washington visited in 1784. The view shows the difficult terrain that needed to be crossed by settlers to reach the Ohio Valley. Without real roads, travel by wagon was extremely difficult.

On returning to Mount Vernon, after the 1783 Treaty of Paris was signed and he resigned his commission, Washington became impatient to just retire quietly to his plantation. In the fall of 1784, partly through self-interest in visiting his land holdings and family in western Virginia and Pennsylvania, but also due to a strongly held conviction of the need to find a way to open access to the new western lands, Washington and  small entourage undertook a 34-day, 680-mile trip on horseback across the mountains. Over terrain similar to that shown above, he averaged 20 miles per day with time off to visit friends and conduct business.

Washington 1784 trip west
George Washington’s 1784 trip. (© James Michael Snead; used with permission)

On his return to Mount Vernon, empowered with new knowledge about where to best try to cross the mountains, Washington became personally involved in trying to establish a canal company to build a canal westward along the Potomac River. This effort failed because of a lack of knowledgeable engineers to undertake the task—there being few such people in America at that time. Instead, Washington turned his efforts to gaining the cooperation of other states in recognizing the need for internal improvements to foster commerce.

At that time the United States of America was referred to in the plural, not the singular. It would be written as “the United States have” indicating the fact that there was, in 1784, no real national government. The former colonies, now states, were very loosely bound together by the Articles of Confederation. While this brought obvious difficulties, such as different currencies for many of the states, it also meant that the states’ focus was internal and not on an integrated whole. As 1785 opened, Washington came to realize that the states needed a different strategy if his vision of America as a powerful nation, capable of defending itself and taking full advantage of its immense natural resources, was to be achieved.

In a little known, but crucial piece of American history, Washington initiated discussions with representatives of adjoining states to address the need for internal improvements that could only be undertaken through “interstate” agreements. For example, the lower part of the Potomac River, at the center of Washington’s life in many regards, was a part of Maryland, not Virginia. Thus, to improve commercial navigation on this river, Virginia and Maryland had to work together and there was no established mechanism for this to be undertaken.

Washington used his prestige and home to advantage by hosting at Mount Vernon early meetings to discuss areas of mutual effort between the states. Washington was then the most revered man in America. He earned his reputation honestly and he “wore” his reputation well. He was also, by virtue of his land holdings, one of the wealthiest persons in the country. He adroitly used his position of influence to crystallize the political discussions of the need for changes in the means of national government. Just three years later, at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, with George Washington as the convention’s president, a new federal constitution was created. In 1790, after intense debate in many states, and often by very narrow margins, the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution by all thirteen original states was completed.

With ratification of a new U.S. Constitution, the many states ceded specific powers to a new Federal Government. In particular, the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, giving the power to Congress to regulate commerce, is directly attributable to Washington’s efforts to address the need for internal improvements. This clause would become the basis for Congress’ authority to build infrastructure and regulate many aspects of commerce, such as the regulation of the airworthiness of commercial airliners, the safety of railroads, food, and drugs.

When Washington became president, the affairs of the new nation took precedence over his desire to see internal improvements made.  A broad outline of a plan for such improvements would be developed in 1808 by President Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. (Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Subject of Roads and Canals). However, it was not until President Madison’s term that this broad plan would start to be implemented with the construction of the National Road beginning in 1811. The National Road would cross the Appalachian Mountains and go west cutting across the Northwest Territory heading for the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

Where did Albert Gallatin come from? He, as a young immigrant surveyor, met George Washington on September 24, 1784, in western Virginia near today’s Morgantown. The  young Gallatin—who had the impertinence to interrupt Washington when that was something no one at the time would dream of doing—had the answer to Washington’s question of where to build a road connecting the eastward and westward flowing waters. His answer set Washington on a course of action that began with his return to Mount Vernon. Today, we write the United States in the singular—the “United States is”— in part because of the determination of Washington and the impertinence of Gallatin.