President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure legislation has the political class seemingly locked in a debate about what “infrastructure” means. Biden and Democratic leaders—backed by a majority of the U.S. population—believe that “infrastructure” is more than just roads and bridges and encompasses all the structures that help modern society function. Their new bill reflects that understanding, including improvements to water pipes and the electrical grid, universal broadband access, charging stations for electric vehicles, physical upgrades to schools and universities, and—perhaps most innovatively—home care for the elderly and disabled, support for families with children, and expanded access to health care.
Republican elected officials, on the other hand, are fiercely opposed to a broad definition of the old term. Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” (Mitch McConnell) for massive tax hikes and expanded federal authority. It’s a “Socialist agenda” (Steve Scalise)—a “kitchen sink of wasteful progressive demands.” It will set the nation on a “road to hell” (Rachel Campos-Duffy of Fox News).
If all of this sounds a bit histrionic for a simple debate about replacing water pipes, we’ve been here before. Between the 1820s and 1850s Americans hotly debated the merits of public investment in roads, bridges, canals, riverways and, eventually, railroads. At issue was more than whether to tax and spend or the limits of federal authority. These advancements in transportation effected the collapse of physical space between different regions of the country, drawing ordinary people into new market relationships with one another.
America’s transition from a nation of dispersed communities and local economies to a national market generated exciting opportunities. It also created new winners and losers and fundamentally altered the people’s relationships to their neighbors, families and government. When they argued about whether to dredge a river or build a canal, Americans of the antebellum period were really arguing about what kind of country they wanted to live in. And that’s exactly what politicians are still fighting about today.
Prior to the 1820s, America’s infrastructure was a rudimentary and scattershot affair. Roads were locally built and maintained. Riverways were mostly undredged. Canals and railroads were nonexistent. The downstream journey from Pittsburgh, an emerging western market hub, to the Southern port city of New Orleans took at least six weeks; the return trip, upstream, took 17 weeks—which is why most people transporting goods simply broke their boats up for timber upon arrival in New Orleans and walked or rode back home. When newly elected Senator Henry Clay first made the journey from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, to Washington, D.C., in 1806, it took three weeks of hard overland travel.
Many Americans, particularly those who lived inland from coastal towns—those pushing outward beyond the Alleghenies and Appalachian range, extending as far as the Old Northwest territories—were essentially cut off from a regional, let alone national, market. Like many of their neighbors in the new state of Indiana, Abraham Lincoln’s family cultivated only a small portion of its land to grow corn and vegetables and raise hogs and cattle, leaving the rest fallow and overgrown. As a neighbor later explained, “there wasn’t no market for nothing else unless you took it across two or three states.” Though Lincoln’s father, Thomas, attempted on several occasions to take pork and corn by flatboat to New Orleans, in the absence of roads and canals, and with large parts of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers largely unnavigable, the cost of transportation all but erased the profit margin.
Without a market for goods, and in the absence of a developed cash economy, most families did what was logical, producing enough for home consumption and little more, perhaps selling a small surplus to neighbors, bartering with others for goods and services, manufacturing clothing and other necessities at home, and purchasing what few items they could not produce themselves—sugar and other dry goods, glass for windows—from a nearby country store. Survival demanded a collective outlook. Like other families, the Lincolns relied on a growing kinship network of cousins and in-laws who established small, adjoining homesteads and built an informal system of cooperative farming, home production and bartering.
That soon changed. Following the War of 1812, which exposed the logistical dangers of a fragmentary transportation system, federal and state governments made significant investments in roads and turnpikes.
Then came “Canal Fever.”
Completed in 1825, the Eerie Canal, a 363-mile wonder stretching from the Hudson River in Albany to Buffalo, thus making it possible to ship freight between New York City and the Great Lakes, set off a decade of construction that saw $102 million of public and private capital—a staggering sum in its day—invested in new connective waterways as far and wide as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland and Virginia.
Canal fever was followed by a boom in steamboat construction, which not only reduced the time required to carry goods downstream but made it feasible and worth the cost to move freight upstream. Suddenly, a trip from New York City to Albany—two weeks by sailboat, or a full day by coach—took just eight hours. This efficiency, in turn, reduced regional price disparities for different goods. In 1816 a resident of Cincinnati paid roughly $0.16 more for a pound of coffee than counterparts in Southern cities closer to New Orleans. Riverboats cut the difference to about $0.02.
Railroads were the final piece of the puzzle. Trains were virtually unheard of when Andrew Jackson arrived in Washington, D.C., by carriage to assume the presidency in 1829. Eight years later, he left the capital city by rail. By the end of the decade, the country claimed 450 locomotives and 3,200 miles of track. By 1850, 9,000 miles of track. On the eve of the Civil War, 30,000.
If canals and steamboats made travel faster, railroads were practically science fiction come true. The same three-week trip that Senator-elect Henry Clay made from Lexington to Washington, D.C., in 1806 took just four days by 1846.
Together, twin revolutions in transportation and information (inspired by the U.S. Post Office, which subsidized the delivery of newspapers and magazines, and after 1848, the telegraph) drew disparate communities into closer connection with one another and with an emerging market economy that relied on credit, surplus production and trade. America evolved quickly from an agrarian republic into a capitalist democracy.
It was a world that many Americans welcomed—but which equally as many dreaded and resisted.
Opposition to federal investments in “internal improvements” (the popular term for what we, today, call infrastructure) emerged as early as the 1810s—the Era of Good Feelings—when presidents James Madison and James Monroe both vetoed bills that would have directed funds to the improvement of national roads. Despite his assertion of the “great importance of establishing throughout our country the roads and canals which can best be executed under national authority,” Madison doubted the government’s authority to undertake most work without the benefit of a constitutional amendment.
It was a position echoed by Monroe, who vetoed plans to erect tolls on a national highway, and Andrew Jackson, who famously vetoed funding for the Maysville Road in 1830. All three presidents professed support for internal improvements, but only if they were principally financed by state and local governments, or by chartered corporations.
Qualms about the constitutionality of funding for infrastructure reflected a broader concern about the proper size and scope of the federal government. Often, that concern struck a nerve with Southern representatives who feared that a central government strong enough to build national roads might be strong enough to interfere with slavery. “If Congress can make canals,” a longtime representative and senator from North Carolina warned, “they can with more propriety emancipate.”
But opponents of federal funding for internal improvements feared more than just an empowered federal state. They understood that internal improvements would usher in a new reality—one in which a cherished agrarian republic gave way to a mixed economy of farms and small towns, factories and cities, agriculture and commerce. In a short story published in 1843, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a steadfast Jacksonian Democrat in politics, likened the railroad to “a sort of mechanical demon that would hurry us to the infernal regions.”
In North Carolina, opponents of state funding for internal improvements popularized an election ballad that framed canals and roads as the ruin of their agrarian paradise:
So therefore let it be our care,
To keep these men away from there,
Who build their castles in the air,
Who dream they can vast things perform,
Aid in a breadth God’s works reform,
[But to] us send such men as will
Cut no canals through vale nor hill.
In the eyes of opponents, where canals and railroads cut a swath through the countryside, they seemed to decimate local communities and turn once healthy, independent farmers into washed-out wage laborers. A New York editor invited readers to gaze on the “sallow complexions, emaciated forms, and stooping shoulders” of mill workers and consider what a “crime against society” it was to “divert human industry from the fields and the forests to the iron forges and cotton factories.”
The debate over internal improvements ultimately folded into the larger divide between Jacksonian Democrats, who generally opposed them (along with a national bank and tariff) and Whigs, who rallied behind Henry Clay’s “American System”—a bold agenda to modernize the American economy through a protective tariff that would encourage homegrown industry, investments in internal improvements and a banking system that could support these ambitions with a stable influx of paper currency.
Historians have long debated whether Democrats and Whigs really disagreed on fundamentals. At the state level, Democrats often championed internal improvements, even while opposing them at the federal level. As a Whig member of the Illinois state Legislature, and an ardent proponent of Henry Clay’s American System, Abraham Lincoln struggled to move a railroad bill through the chamber, only to see his then and future rival, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, pass his own version of the plan. As often as not, Democrats at the state level opposed infrastructure funding when Whigs were in charge, only to support it when they regained power.
But there were fundamental differences between the parties. Democrats generally supported expansion across space: They avidly hoped to build an American empire that extended from the Pacific to the Atlantic, from present-day Canada to Mexico and even as far south as Cuba. They believed that through territorial acquisition, America could swallow enough land to preserve its agrarian character, even in the face of rapid population expansion. Whigs, on the other hand, aspired to collapse time—to build communications and transportation infrastructure that would advance a thriving, mixed economy. The two visions were fundamentally at odds with each other.
There were also practical reasons for Democrats to oppose the American System. Federal funding for internal improvements would be paid by tariffs on foreign goods. Many farmers remote from the market resented the implication that they should pay to support its development. Internal improvements would also require a robust banking system. Urban wage earners, already smarting under new labor discipline and missing the autonomy they enjoyed as farmers or artisans, despised being paid in paper currency, which was subject to massive fluctuations in value.
Above all, infrastructure catalyzed change. It disrupted the rhythms of the subsistence economy and culture, created new incentive systems and upended social and economic hierarchies that had seemed timeless.
Not unlike the antebellum period, today’s debate over infrastructure—who should fund it, what it properly encompasses, whether it is even worthy of investment—reflects more than just a disagreement over roads and bridges. It’s a debate over the scope of government and the future of the country.
Conservatives seem to accept that “roads and bridges” are appropriate areas of investment. Some are willing to go so far as broadband or electrical grid improvements. But advances in electrical cars and wind power threaten the already dying extractive industries at the heart of many small communities where conservatism holds sway. More ominously, the idea that the federal state might broaden the concept of infrastructure to include direct payments to families or support for home health care violates many long-cherished conservative ideals (and myths) about the self-sufficiency of families and communities.
Like Henry Clay’s Whig Party, many Biden Democrats believe that strengthening the country’s physical and human infrastructure will underwrite future economic growth. It’s a bold and corrective step to counter decades of erosion in what the postwar middle class once took for granted (good highways and schools, private pensions and health care, stable retirement systems).
The debate over Biden’s infrastructure plan is probably going to last for months. Maybe longer. But as was the case almost 200 years ago, the real fight isn’t about what infrastructure means, or what the federal government’s role should be in building bridges. It’s about where those bridges actually lead.