Segment from In Plain Sight

Internal Improvements

The hosts talk about the tensions inherent in building and paying for any kind of infrastructure across American history.

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BRIAN: Peter, Ed– thinking about our conversation about lighthouses, something really jumps out at me. And that’s there’s incredible consensus over this really quite large infrastructure project for the time. It flies through Congress. I can’t think of any major infrastructure project today that doesn’t run into a buzz saw of opposition.

PETER: Well, the thing about lighthouses is they announced to the world that the nation exists. There is a capacity to direct traffic into places where you’re going to pay the tariff. For the United States to exist, it has to be able to collect revenue. That’s the key thing.

ED: It’s kind of like a giant “we’re open” sign.

PETER: You’re exactly right. Brian, I’ve got to challenge this business about consensus, because that suggests that Americans all over the United States were saying, hey, we got to get this thing together. We’re going to create a new nation, and it’s going to be the greatest power on earth. Well, we almost didn’t have a constitution at all. So to make it functional–

BRIAN: So Peter, you’re saying that this consensus is the quiet after the real storm, which is the creation of the federal government.

PETER: I would put it a little bit differently. I would say lighthouses are part of the Constitution. They’re part of the package. It’s what you got once you agreed to ratify.

And remember, it wasn’t an overwhelming majority of the American people who wanted the Constitution. The votes were close. It barely happened. But if it’s going to happen, this is what it does.

You have to think of the Constitution and the technology of the Constitution as much more than a piece of paper. You have to think of the kind of economy and society that it’s going to create. And that’s in flux. It’s dynamic. There’s a lot of tension, and there will continue to be throughout American history.

ED: So what you’re saying, Peter, is that the Constitution itself is infrastructure.

PETER: I think that’s the best way to think about it.

ED: And so the lighthouses are sort of beacons of the infrastructure of the Constitution, Brian, it strikes me. And that’s great as long as you’re looking outward, as long as this is fundamentally about commerce.

And I have to say– I don’t want to drive any listeners away, but it brings up a tried and true phrase from multiple choice tests, from everybody’s middle school and high school textbooks, which is “internal improvements.” It’s like, let’s turn this infrastructure to developing ourselves, to connecting the colonies– now the states– in ways that nature doesn’t seem necessarily to have done, but that we’re going to, if this infrastructure of the Constitution is going to flourish.

BRIAN: That’s right, Ed. You know, those lighthouses were mainly used for commerce between the states, but it was all along the East Coast, along the seacoast.

ED: So listen. Get the nation together on purpose. Started with turnpikes, which are roads that have their own internal funding built in with tolls. Let’s do it with then canals, the new technology that follows soon after that. Let’s do it with steamships that come after that. And all these ways, it’s a way of turning the gaze of the nation in upon itself so that it can take advantage of this external world of commerce that you’re talking about, Peter.

PETER: I think there’s a key thing that we have to emphasize. What is the role of the federal government, or of any government in promoting these improvements? I have a counterargument to you that many Americans will begin to make when they see that they’re going to face taxes, direct or indirect, to improve infrastructure.

They’re going to say, well, let nature take its course, because nature is not just the big trees that you can hug. Nature is the way people exchange things. It’s free trade. That’s the mantra. We don’t need government to do things that are going to happen spontaneously. And now that the world is at peace– there’s no major war or danger– let’s take the line of least resistance, because that’s what nature enjoins.

BRIAN: And Peter, that’s not to mention all those folks who were really pretty happy with those older, simpler infrastructures like lighthouses that were more externally oriented towards Great Britain, for instance.

ED: Well, it’s also the case that in the South in particular, we’ve got all these rivers that don’t freeze like in the North. And they go exactly where we need them to go. They go from the rich cotton-producing places right down to the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean.

So why should we pay big taxes to develop other parts of the country when, especially now that we have steamships that can go back up against the current, we have all that we need? And so ironically, this idea of internal improvements begins pulling the nation apart, rather than pulling it together.

PETER: There’s no question about it. And I think that’s a way in which what begins as a local issue becomes a national issue. If you can do something within the boundaries of the state, on the one hand, that’s investing federal money in a particular state.

But it means that the federal government has a kind of reach, it has the capacity, to affect domestic institutions. And many of the concerns about internal improvements have to do with protecting the sanctity of states’ rights control over the institution of slavery. If you can build a canal, you might end slavery.

ED: Yeah, I do think the number of internal improvements that run north to south are remarkably small.

PETER: Yeah, that’s right.

ED: And so the internal improvements of so many of the canals and so many of the railroads actually emphasize sectionalism.

PETER: Yeah, I think that’s right.

ED: It seems to be the man-made stuff that actually creates a sense of where the North and the South are. Many of the constitutional crises which we look back now and think of– slavery as pre-figuring the Civil War– are also tied in with the idea of improvement.

Of course, you have the transcontinental railroad. Yikes. Suddenly you’ve got an internal improvement that’s going to tie the whole continent together. Who’s going to control that? What will be the constitutional implications of all that?

PETER: Yeah. Think of the Civil War and the constitutional changes that take place in the wake of the destruction of the Confederacy as a new blueprint for the Union, as a new technology for improvement, changing the rules of the game.

ED: And yeah, once you do have that new blueprint for what a new America might look like, the role of infrastructure just accelerates. The golden age of railroads is after the Civil War. And then it’s not long until you have the golden age of highways and automobiles.

And so I do think there’s kind of a rebooting, Brian. You’d asked about lighthouses. That seems very far away by the time you get to 1870. And now suddenly, the United States is on the move, most of it internally.


It’s time for us to take another break. When we get back, the biggest infrastructure innovation of the 20th century that you’ve probably never considered.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.