Saturday, May 29, 2010

Madison on Canal Improvements, 1811

On the 23rd of December, 1811, perhaps early on a crisp but clear winter morning (as they tend to be in this area), James Madison quickly penned this letter to the Congress and enclosed it with the message he had recently received from several distinguished New Yorkers, including Gouvernuer Morris, De Witt Clinton, Robert Livingston, and Robert Fulton. The men had written the president indicating that they "crave... the credence and favorable notice" of Congress on the matter of a canal project underway in New York. Madison, as he had always been, was enthusiastic about the prospect of such internal improvements which had gained so much attention after Secretary Gallatin had published his report on the subject in the waning years of Jefferson's administration. The president's communication to Congress reflected this enthusiasm, but hurriedly, perhaps because Madison himself would soon be traveling in the direction of his famous predecessor in office. He wanted to make it to Montpelier before Christmas, and given the uncertain condition of the roads, travel could at times be dubious. Madison may very well have expected to see his friend Jefferson over the holiday season, and would have been excited to share the plans for the proposed New York canal with him. A canal in upstate New York would provide the elusive Potomac canal with stiff competition for Western trade, something that all scions of the Old Dominion feared. But the boon to the Union would be undeniable, and the revived interest in canal building held out hope for the old Potomac project spearheaded by Washington himself so many years ago.

Madison, looking forward to seeing his estate and his old friend again, sat down and wrote on that crisp winter morning so that he could pass on the New York peititon to Congress and begin his journey west:

Washington, December 23, 1811

To the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States:

I communicate to Congress copies of an act of the Legislature of New York, relating to a canal from the Great lakes to the Hudson river. In making the communication I consult the respect due to that State in whose behalf the commissioners appointed by the act have placed it in my hands for the purpose.

The utility of canal navigation is universally admitted. It is not less certain that scarcely any country offers more extensive opportunities for that branch of improvements than the United States; and none, perhaps, inducements equally persuasive, to make the most of them. The particular undertaking contemplated by the State of New York, which marks an honorable spirit of enterprise, and comprises objects of national, as well as more limited importance, will recall the attention of Congress to the signal advantages to be derived to the United States from a general system of internal communication and conveyance, and suggest to their consideration whatever steps may be proper, on their part, towards its introduction and accomplishment. As some of those advantages have an intimate connexion with arrangements and exertions for the general security, it is at a period calling for these, that the merits of such a system will be seen in the strongest light.

James Madison


  1. Some links I was able to scare up:

    "P. S. Have you considered all the consequences of your proposition respecting post roads? I view it as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress & their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money. You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a scene of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest. We have thought, hitherto, that the roads of a State could not be so well administered even by the State legislature as by the magistracy of the county, on the spot. What will it be when a member of N H is to mark out a road for Georgia? Does the power to establish post roads, given you by Congress, mean that you shall make the roads, or only select from those already made, those on which there shall be a post? If the term be equivocal, (& I really do not think it so,) which is the safest construction? That which permits a majority of Congress to go to cutting down mountains & bridging of rivers, or the other, which if too restricted may refer it to the states for amendment, securing still due measure & proportion among us, and providing some means of information to the members of Congress tantamount to that ocular inspection, which, even in our county determinations, the magistrate finds cannot be supplied by any other evidence? The fortification of harbors were liable to great objection. But national circumstances furnished some color. In this case there is none. The roads of America are the best in the world except those of France & England. But does the state of our population, the extent of our internal commerce, the want of sea & river navigation, call for such expense on roads here, or are our means adequate to it? Think of all this, and a great deal more which your good judgment will suggest, and pardon my freedom." - Jefferson to Madison, 1796

    "Among the means of advancing the public interest, the occasion is a proper one for recalling the attention of Congress to the great importance of establishing throughout our country the roads and canals which can best be executed under the national authority. No objects within the circle of political economy so richly repay the expense bestowed on them; there are none the utility of which is more universally ascertained and acknowledged; none that do more honor to the government, whose wise and enlarged patriotism duly appreciates them. Nor is there any country which presents a field where Nature invites more the art of man to complete her own work for their accommodation and benefit. These considerations are strengthened, moreover, by the political effect of these facilities for intercommunication, in bringing and binding more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy.

    Whilst the states, individually, with a laudable enterprise and emulation, avail themselves of their local advantages, by new roads, by navigable canals, and by improving the streams susceptible of navigation, the general government is the more urged to similar undertakings, requiring a national jurisdiction, and national means, by the prospect of thus systematically completing so inestimable a work. And it is a happy reflection, that any defect of constitutional authority which may be encountered, can be supplied in a mode which the Constitution itself has providently pointed out." - Madison's Comments in the Congress, 1811

    Madison's 1817 Veto Message:

    Nice bit on canal financing:

  2. Thank you Xenophon - great!

    I don't know where you stand on these, but I'm aware of the 1817 statement by Madison, and I'm aware that there were concerns at this time as well. The thing is, Madison (like all human beings, especially political human beings) said a lot of contradictory things on the subject. That either means he changed his mind a lot or he never made up his mind to begin with, or he had nuanced concerns that only appear to be contradictory to us. I posted the 1815 and 1811 statements earlier only because they are the less familiar positions of Madison.

    These are great - I appreciate it.


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