Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Potomac Canal and the Constitution

Susan Dunn notes an irony in the fact that, in subsequent years, many of Virginia’s founding fathers disputed that the Constitution authorized the federal government to support “internal improvements,” as they were then known. After all, Prof. Dunn observes,
The Framers of the Constitution had come together in Philadelphia precisely to create a national government with the capacity to plan and support a system of roads and canals. From the very beginning, “internal improvements” – roads, canals, bridges – had been not only the new government’s mission but its raison d’etre.

As Prof. Dunn recounts, the pre-history of the gathering of the Constitutional Convention lay in the possibility of using the Potomac River to develop a Potomac Canal that would funnel trade from Ohio through Virginia. Thomas Jefferson supported the idea, and George Washington was particularly enthusiastic.

Because the Potomac River lay between Virginia and Maryland, Washington organized a “Mount Vernon Conference, at which representatives from Virginia and Maryland would meet in March 1785 to work out commercial and legal issues.” That plan developed into a larger conference, to be held in Annapolis in the fall of 1786, at which “representatives from all thirteen states would gather to consider a ‘uniform system’ for regulating commerce and transportation across the nation.”

The resulting conference, known as the Annapolis Convention, convened at Annapolis, Maryland in September 1786 to consider, in the words of the resulting Report, “how far an uniform system in their [the states’] commercial intercourse and regulations might be necessary to their common interest and permanent harmony.” The Annapolis Convention, however, “proved a disappointment, with delegates from only five states in attendance.” Nonetheless, the delegates issued a Report in which they called for yet another conference, at which, they hoped, delegates would agree to authorize the federal government to initiate and orchestrate infrastructure projects. In the words of the Report:
Your Commissioners, with the most respectful deference, beg leave to suggest their unanimous conviction, that it may essentially tend to advance the interests of the union, if the States, by whom they have been respectively delegated, would themselves concur, and use their endeavours to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of Commissioners, to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to, by them, and afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, will effectually provide for the same.

That proposed conference became the Constitutional Convention. “And so, a direct line of descent can be traced from the Constitutional Convention – at which Benjamin Franklin called for ‘a power to provide for cutting canals where deemed necessary’ – back to George Washington’s Potomac Canal.”

It is perhaps appropriate to give the last word to John Quincy Adams, who during his presidency “called once again for a national plan for internal improvements."
Unlike [James] Madison, [Adams] had not attended the Constitutional Convention, but he did not doubt that the Constitution allowed for such federal undertakings. If it had not, Adams mused, it could be said that the Founders “performed their work in a manner so ineffably stupid as to deny themselves the means of bettering their own condition.”

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