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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: First plan for national infrastructure issued in 1808

In 1807, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution requesting the U.S. Treasury Department to prepare and submit “a plan for the application of such means are within the power of Congress, to the purposes of opening roads, and making canals,” and other recommendations on how the federal government could improve what was then an inadequate and fragmented national transportation system.

On April 4, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin submitted a wide-ranging report on the nation’s most critical transportation needs. He was the first to advocate the premise that if the United States was to become a major nation, it needed to have efficient transportation arteries.

A national infrastructure

Gallatin was born in Switzerland in 1761, emigrating to the United States in 1780 during the American Revolution. Among Gallatin’s proposals were canals; he had seen some of the extensive and advanced waterway networks that had been built in Europe.

At that time, the steam-powered locomotive was still years away. Although ships carried cargo between America’s eastern seaports and Europe, the majority of travel taking place in the United States in the early 1800s was either on horseback or by wagon and stagecoach. 

Gallatin had seen first-hand that “transportation systems” in the young nation were “dismal, rough and unreliable.” At that time, rutted and often muddy roads and impassable rivers “hindered the unification and prosperity” of the United States and made it difficult, often impossible, for farmers and craftsmen to move their goods to market.

Gallatin’s proposals

In his “Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors, and Rivers,” Gallatin proposed an unprecedented $20 million program that would be financed by the federal government. Among his specific proposals were: “an inland waterway from Massachusetts to North Carolina; a major turnpike between Maine and Georgia; more roads crossing the Allegheny Mountains; and a comprehensive series of canals linking the Atlantic seacoast, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.”

Unfortunately, most of Gallatin’s proposals for internal improvements were never authorized nor undertaken – at least at that time. Most elected officials hesitated because of the costs of Gallatin’s proposals; others worried about their constitutionality. 

However, over time, what Gallatin had modestly characterized as a “mass of facts” has grown in reputation as a major landmark report. By highlighting the “importance and possibilities of a robust and broad-based national transportation system, Gallatin arguably developed a template for everything from the transcontinental railroads to the Interstate Highway System” (IHS) that have served (according to his report) “to shorten distances . . . and unite, by a still more intimate community of interests, the most remote corners of the United States.”

Three key concepts

The report established three basic concepts. The first was the legitimacy of government aid to finance transportation projects that transcended local needs. To support this premise Gallatin wrote, “the through routes of national importance could be financed only by the General Government [federal government] because this central authority alone possessed” the resources for the completion of the improvements. 

Gallatin’s second concept was that only those routes that would yield reasonable returns on the original federal investment should be constructed. He believed and outlined that these federally financed projects “will acquire a value, and become a clear addition to the national wealth.” The econ­omic principles explained by Gallatin are still valid today. 

Gallatin’s third concept was that a “nationwide system of transportation was essential in the interests of national defense.” This was (and remains) one of the major arguments from the 1920s-1950s for the construction of the IHS. 

At the time Gallatin wrote his report, the recommendations focused on public roads and canals, which were the primary means of transportation at that time. But it was his concepts and conclusions that established a pattern that was modified and expanded as the nation’s frontiers moved westward from the Allegheny Mountains toward the Pacific Ocean.

Legacy

As noted above, Gallatin’s proposals had a long-range impact on the transportation systems that developed over the next 200 years. Many of his 1808 recommendations were part of comprehensive legislation introduced in 1810; unfortunately the War of 1812 delayed the implementation of the plans. 

However, after the War of 1812, there were numerous canals built, and many of Gallatin’s proposed projects were eventually constructed. Over the next 50 years, most of the projects were completed with a combination of private, state and local government funding rather than federal aid.  

Among Gallatin’s accomplishments were:

  • Serving in the House of Representatives from 1795-1801
  • Responsible for the Law of 1801 requiring an annual report by the Secretary of Treasury
  • Helped create the powerful House Ways and Means Committee
  • Appointed Secretary of the Treasury in 1801 by President Jefferson and continued under President James Madison until 1814, serving in that office nearly 13 years – the longest term of any Secretary of the Treasury in history
  • Pledged to reduce the national debt and eliminate the excise tax
  • Devised a plan to pay off the national debt by 1817
  • Advocated the promotion of manufacturing
  • Represented the U.S. negotiating the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 (ending the War of 1812)
  • Appointed minister to Great Britain in 1826 by President John Quincy Adams
  • President of the National Bank 1831-1839

Albert Gallatin is unknown to many in 2022. But his contributions from the early 1800s still impact the United States today.