Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thomas Jefferson and Internal Improvements

Drew R. McCoy's The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America barely touches on the subject of “internal improvements.” But Prof. McCoy offers an intriguing hint that federal funding of internal improvements was not necessarily anathema to Jeffersonian Republicanism – or to Thomas Jefferson himself.

First, as I suggested in an earlier post, commerce formed a crucial element of Republican political economy. True, the term “commerce” was hopefully limited to the international export of America's agricultural surplus. But even so, American farmers could not export their bounty unless they could get it to a port; and they could not get those goods to port without adequate roads and canals and navigable rivers. Does that not suggest that the federal government had a role to play in building those roads and maintaining those rivers and ports?

Prof. McCoy implies that the answer to this question was “yes” (emphasis added):
Like most Americans . . . [James] Madison always realized that the viability of landed expansion in America was contingent on the ability of new settlers to get their surpluses to market. If frontier farmers had no way of marketing what they produced, there was little incentive to emigrate to the West at all. A non-existent or inaccessible market would turn those who did settle the frontier into lethargic subsistence farmers instead of industrious republicans . . . [and] they would degenerate into a socially and politically dangerous form of savagery. Expressions of this concern often accompanied appeals for the construction of “internal improvements” - roads and canals – that would rescue the fringes of American settlement from this danger by integrating them into a commercial economy.
Even more startling (to me at least) is Prof. McCoy's quotation from a remarkable letter from Thomas Jefferson himself to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours. The letter, dated April 15, 1811, makes fairly clear that Jefferson believed that the federal government should fund internal improvements (emphasis added):
We are all the more reconciled to the tax on importations [i.e., tariffs], because it falls exclusively on the rich [Jefferson assumes that imported goods are luxuries purchased only by the wealthy], and with the equal partition of intestate's estates, constitute the best agrarian law. In fact, the poor man in this country who uses nothing but what is made within his own farm or family, or within the United States, pays not a farthing of tax to the general government, but on his salt; and should we go into that manufacture as we ought to do, we will pay not one cent. Our revenues once liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, &c., and the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spare a cent from his earnings. The path we are now pursuing leads directly to this end, which we cannot fail to attain unless our administration should fall into unwise hands.
"Jefferson unequivocally opposed Henry Clay's 'American System,' which called for the creation of an integrated economy based on a national bank, a protective tariff for manufactures, and a program of federally sponsored internal improvements." But this does not eliminate the possibility that Jefferson's objection was not to the internal improvements aspect of Clay's program. Certainly the Hamiltonian national bank and tariffs designed to foster English-style manufactures were guaranteed to raise Jeffersonian hackles. Were internal improvements guilty only by association?

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