James Madison’s Proposals: Building a Strong Transport Network

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, 2ND EDITION

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The War of 1812 taught the Republicans some lessons about the workability of the ideas that Mr. Jefferson’s “revolution of 1800” had been built upon. Realizing the issues, President James Madison proposed a slew of initiatives to the 14th Congress, which included the building and improvement of the road, rail, and canal network of the country.

A poster shows a steam engine with car for fuel followed by two passenger cars styled after the stagecoach.
This poster from Mohawk & Hudson Rail Road shows the first steam railroad passenger train in America. Clearly, the public transport system needed a lot of improvement in the 1800s. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The country was in a financial mess after the War of 1812. And, there would have been very little point in the Republicans’ efforts to protect domestic manufacturing, build up the national credit system, and move American agriculture onto the markets of the world, unless there was a workable system of national transportation to get it there, and that simply wasn’t available in America in 1816. Thus, in 1816, President James Madison proposed a series of initiatives that included the construction of a national road system.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Turnpikes, the Cheapest Means of Transportation

In 1820, an ordinary stagecoach ride from Boston to New York cost about $10. That’s two days’ wages, and that said nothing for the cost of shipping produce or driving cattle to the market. Five weeks were needed to move a stagecoach from Nashville, Tennessee, to Washington City.

Thus, the cheapest, and most obvious, means of state-funded transportation was the construction of turnpikes. The first private turnpike system had been built in 1794 in Pennsylvania, and it linked Lancaster and Philadelphia. By 1810, New York corporations had built over 1,000 miles of turnpikes, and 4,000 miles by 1820.

But, even with the renewed frenzy of road building, the turnpikes would never be more than an extension of 18th-century modes of travel.

Rivers: Fast, Cheap Highways

An illustration of the North River Steamboat of Clermont.
Within a month after the Clermont’s trial run, she was carrying 90 passengers per trip. (Image: G.F. and E.B Bensell/Public domain)

In August of 1807, Pennsylvania inventor Robert Fulton launched a steamboat on the Hudson River. The North River Steamboat of Clermont, as Fulton named his creation, might have looked, as it was described by one person, “precisely like a backwoods sawmill mounted on a scow and set on fire”, but it drove 150 miles upriver from New York City to Albany in only 32 hours. Talk about speed! Within a month after the Clermont’s trial run, she was carrying 90 passengers per trip.

By 1820, 31 steamboats were operating on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Five years later, there were 75. Ten years after that, there were 361 steamboats on the Mississippi and on all of its various tributaries.

Before steam, it had cost $5 to move 100 pounds of freight by river between New Orleans and Louisville. By 1830, the steamboats had cut this cost to $2, and over the next 20 years, it fell to only 25 cents.

However, the only restraint the steamboats seemed to suffer was the fact that they could go only where natural waterways would permit them to go. Thus the great canal mania was born.

Learn more about setting up the ‘American System’.

The Great Canal Mania

Canals, like turnpikes, had been constructed by states and private entrepreneurs as a transportation solution during the first three decades of the republic’s existence. But, they had been small-scale affairs, none of them longer than 28 miles and probably amounting to no more than a total of about 100 miles throughout the country.

Then, in 1817, DeWitt Clinton, the Republican governor of New York, proposed a plan to build a gigantic canal across the length of upper New York state from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson.

The Erie Canal

There was no precedent for an engineering project of this scale anywhere in the world, and there were no engineers in America capable of designing it. In fact, the canal was surveyed and dug by two New York lawyers, who not only learned engineering on the job, but also, in the process, invented excavating machines and stump pullers.

A lithograph of the Erie Canal at Lockport, New York.
The Erie Canal was built across the length of upper New York state from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson. (Image: Herrmann J. Meyer/Public domain)

The Erie Canal opened on 2 November 1825. It was cut four feet deep and 40 feet wide, over 18 aqueducts and through 38 lochs that raised the water level a total of 568 feet.

The canal created thousands of public works jobs for the workers. Even more, the Erie Canal altered the economic complexion of the northeastern United States at one stroke. Freight between Albany and Buffalo, which had cost $100 a ton and 15 to 45 days to be hauled by wagon, now cost only six dollars a ton by canal boat, and took only nine days to make the trip.

Tiny villages on the canal’s route, like Syracuse and Rochester, became boom towns for servicing goods and moving traffic, while the tolls paid by the canal boats netted 42 million dollars for the state treasury over the next 60 years.

Learn more about transcontinental railroads.

Railroads

In the same year that the Erie Canal opened, yet another transportation innovation made a debut that, in fact, would render canals obsolete. This was the railroad or, to be more accurate, the steam-powered locomotive engine.

The first commercial rail line began construction on 4 July 1828, with the laying of the first rail of what would become the 73-mile track of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Two years later, with the rail line complete, a former brewer and brickmaker named Peter Cooper put his own locomotive, Tom Thumb, on the Baltimore & Ohio line and hauled the first load of 30 passengers around Baltimore.

Within 10 years, there was more railroad mileage in the United States than canal mileage, and over the next 20 years the railroads grew to cover 30,626 miles of track.

An Economic Turnabout

Now, taking canals, turnpikes, steamboats, and railroads together, the cost of transporting goods on land in the United States fell by 95% between 1825 and 1855. That’s how much the cost of moving goods fell in the midst of this great revolution in transportation, and the speed of carrying those goods accelerated five-fold.

Even more important was the dramatic way in which this revolution in transportation permitted the long fingers of the market to reach into what had once been the remote agrarian societies of independent patriarchal farmers.

Common Questions about James Madison’s Proposals

Q: When was the first private turnpike system built in America?

The first private turnpike system was built in 1794 in America.

Q: When was the Erie Canal built in America?

The Erie Canal was built in 1825 in America.

Q: When did the construction of the first commercial rail line begin in America? Who constructed it?

The construction of the first commercial rail line began on 4 July 1828, with the laying of the first rail of what would become the 73-mile track of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

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