The National Road, a Metaphor for Today’s Politics

The coach driver knew he had an important passenger that day in 1842, and was told to make a point to the former president who was seeking reelection as he travelled just beyond Indianapolis in Plainfield. President Martin Van Buren’s stagecoach was overturned because of tree roots in the National Road, sending him into the mud. President Van Buren was opposed to using federal funds to pay for improvements along the National Road. Legend has it this “accident” was intended to give the President a lesson on the importance of keeping the road in good repair.

Tension regarding the role of the federal government and funding its projects is as old as the country itself. The project is a textbook example of a political hot potato: funded, then not; federal, then state; cheered and jeered.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1795 specified that 5% of the proceeds from sale of federal lands were to go towards building of a road leading to the new state beyond the Ohio River. The Ohio statehood bill in 1802 included the said funding. Finally, debate was rancorous and bitter in 1806, the constitution only 19 years old. Would the road “provide for the general welfare”? Was an inter-state road restricted to the efforts of the states? Much of the land was federally owned within the states it would cross. Sale of this land would finance debt from the War of Independence; a good bet, given the swelling American economy.

A National Road would “shorten distances, facilitate commercial and personal intercourse, and unite … the most remote quarters of the United States,” said Gallatin in 1808, supported by Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Gallatin owned a great deal of land in the proposed area. Jefferson advocated a road to “accomplish a continued and advantageous line of communication from the seat of General Government to St. Louis.” At every decision time, Congress engaged in heated debate. If not on constitutional grounds, more on jealousies between states. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin’s hope to pay the war debt won out, and the bill was passed. Construction began in 1811.

Maps were not accurate enough for this project, a survey crew was appointed to select a route. The road would cross foreboding mountains, deep forests, swamps, rivers, all virtually unexplored to date.

 Funding came up again. “Let us bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals,” declared John C. Calhoun in 1817. The idea was bitterly debated, and when it finally passed, James Madison vetoed it on constitutional grounds. The federal government would fund building on land it owned, but was wary when it came to building across a state, military roads excepted. Should the federal government take such power to fund local projects? Would state rivalry and jealousy preclude it? The road would effectively divide the north and south, a critical issue of the times.

By 1818, the road was passable for wagon traffic to Wheeling. In 1825, (the same year as the Erie Canal opened), Congress Authorized funds to extend the road from Wheeling to Zanesville, Ohio, and to survey the route further across Indiana and Illinois. By 1850, a skeleton of the road now existed, through various federal local, private and state funding. Congress would willingly fund military roads, and on-and-off again funding of the National Road. Other private and state roads, and increasingly rivers provided transportation at least as much as the National Road. In 1820, Congress approved to extend the Road to the Mississippi. But it waited until 1825 to provide the $4 million needed, extending the road to Jefferson City, too. By 1838, ownership of the Road was return to easternmost states, and funding was rescinded for construction in plains states. 1850 saw a military roads and renewed funding for the National Road. By 1856, all rights connected with the entire road had been ceded to the states.  

Never at one time was the road complete and in good repair from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois. It never did reach its vaunted potential. Eventually, US highway 40 would largely replace it, constructed in the 1920s, and President Eisenhower’s interstate program built I-70 in the 1950s.

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About Jim

I've been leading outdoor environmental education in the YMCA since the 1970s. I love teaching nature, history, current events, being a dad, fixing stuff, groups, and general thinking.
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