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The debate over internal improvements: canals, turnpikes, railroads and the soul of America.

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North Carolina’s 1800s debate over internal improvements – essentially a public policy debate over transportation infrastructure – was often a tactical battle over a specific canal, road or railroad project. But it was also a broad referendum on the soul of America, and that aspect of the 1800’s debate lives on even today.

How can we rouse Rip Van Winkle?

North Carolina in the late 1700s and early 1800s was in a state of economic stagnation. On this point, there was widespread agreement. Neighboring states – most notably in a burst of patriotism and economic expansion following the War of 1812 – had undertaken to create infrastructure to encourage commerce and connectivity. North Carolina had not. Outsiders began to refer to the state derisively as The Rip Van Winkle State. The implication was that North Carolina, like the character in Washington Irving’s 1819 novel, was sleeping through – and oblivious to – an vibrant era of American growth and prosperity. 

In fact, North Carolina was far from oblivious to its dire situation. In 1793, Hugh Williamson, a venerable politician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in a letter to a friend:

The exertions of other states in making roads and canals and opening rivers should make our people ashamed.

Nearly four decades later, in 1830, a legislative report exmined the cumulative results of that negligence. The report described North Carolina as:

…a state without foreign commerce, for want of seaports or a staple; without internal communications by rivers, roads or canals; without a cash market for any article of agricultural product; without manufactures; in short, without any object to which native industry and active enterprise could be directed.

Evidence of popular dissatisfaction with the state of the state was plain to see in the stream of people packing all their belongings in wagons and moving west over the mountains. Between 1790 and 1860, fully one third of North Carolina’s population abandoned the state rather than remain where they were forced to live a life that would never be more rewarding than subsistence farming.

In 1833, another legislative report strongly suggested that the people of the state were demanding that something be done:

The people now perceive that they have endured a state of privation, which sad experience shows to be a downward course, and when long forbearance would be but an aggravation of the evil. But the people, knowing their interest, with a voice not to be resisted hath proclaimed aloud that the period has arrived when SOMETHING OUGHT, SOMETHING CAN. and when SOMETHING MUST BE DONE to arrest the progress of our downhill march.

So the problem was recognized by the public and by the policy makers, and yet year after year, nothing seemed to get done.

Proponents of internal improvements raise their voices.

In the first decades of the 1800s, the state had long been dominated by a Democratic Party that represented the extremely conservative aristocratic planter class. These wealthy land owners – located primarily in the northeastern part of the state – dominated all public policy. And they did so in a manner that reflected their privileged circumstances: They lived a time-honored existence as patriarchs of largely self-contained, self-supporting plantations. When they did need something from outside their dominion – perhaps a grand carriage or fancy fashions from Europe – they had  easy access to coastal rivers that connected them to the world. There was little incentive to authorize internal improvements they themselves did not need.

But the newly-formed Whig Party saw the state differently. They saw a state increasingly dotted with small Piedmont farms. Too often, the state’s yeoman farmers were reduced to an “unwilling self-sufficiency” for the simple reason that they had no access to markets where they could sell their agricultural products. Why produce more than you can use yourself if there is no way to sell or barter it at market?

The Whigs saw the solution to North Carolina’s stagnation in the implementation of “internal improvements” – what we would call infrastructure projects or public works. In order for the state to thrive, it would be necessary to give upland farmers access to markets, and the way to do that was through improved roads, canals, better river navigation, and the newest transportation technology, railroads. Beginning around 1810, the Whigs became more and more vocal about their progressive views.

One of the strongest Whig voices was that of Archibald DeBow Murphey, a lawyer and state senator who was an early proponent of canals and improved river navigation. In 1815, with flight from the state on the rise, Murphey noted with alarm:

Portrait of Archibald DeBow Murphey
Archibald DeBow Murphey

…it is mortifying to witness the fact that thousands of our wealthy and respectable citizens are annually moving to the west in quest of that wealth which a rich soil and a commodious navigation never fail to create in a free state; and that thousands of our poorer citizens follow them, being literally driven away by the prospect of poverty. In this state of things, our agriculture is at a stand…

The cause was seconded by Joseph Caldwell, President of the University of North Carolina. He declared that  internal improvements in neighboring states had transformed what was once “a howling wilderness,” into a vibrant economy. And he pled the case that North Carolina needed to acquire the same “weapons” if it were to be economically competitive.

Portrait of Joseph Caldwell
Joseph Caldwell

To enter now the general market from our interior country, and cope with the prices, we must have railroads, or canals, or navigable rivers. We must contend with our antagonists in that field, and in that arena, with their own weapons. As well might we arm ourselves with bows and arrows, to go into battle against muskets and rifles and bayonets and cannon, as hope to contend in prices, without canals and railroads and steamboats, against those who are amply furnished with all these instruments of commercial rivalship.

A series of Internal Improvement Conventions allowed the Whigs too keep the issue in the public eye. In 1829, the convention framed the issue:

There is not an individual in the state west of a hundred miles from the sea who is not habitually suffering the most injurious consequences from the want of a monied market to which he may carry his production with a profit…

And by 1833, the Whig-dominated convention was lobbying the legislature directly for immediate action:

Again, we ask, can you hesitate? We tell you the spirit of improvement is abroad in the land – to burst the shackles of a jealous and short-sighted policy, to rise triumphant over physical obstacles and the still stronger mounds of local prejudice, and by your actions to elevate our beloved state to her proper rank as one of the political members of this great confederacy, and let her shine with a new light amid the states of our national galaxy.

Furthermore, in light of a depressing history of failed private projects, the Whigs believed that the only way to accomplish the necessary internal improvements was through government involvement in the process.

Archibald Murphey:

Isolated measures without plan and without system, have never yet made a stage great, nor a people happy: They baffle the efforts of honest industry by often giving to them the wrong direction; they disappoint the expectations of enterprise by their frequent abortion.

Old-guard conservative Democrats did not necessarily disagree with the crescendo of voices calling for internal improvements. There was consensus agreement that the business of America was agriculture, and North Carolina should take steps that would allow farms of all sizes to prosper.

But there were fundamental disagreements that would have to be sorted out before significant progress could be made.

From those opposed: concern over morality, suspicion of the federal government, and aversion to taxes

Conservative reservations about internal improvements fell into three broad areas.

The first was a patrician concern for the morality of the common people, based on the bedrock belief that agriculture was the only appropriate business for America.

The second, based on a strict reading of the United States Constitution, was that for the federal government to fund internal improvements in any state would set a very dangerous precedent.

And the third was the belief that if state funds were to be used for internal improvements, few would benefit, but many would pay.

Agriculture good. Commerce bad.

Both sides in the debate held a deep belief that agriculture was the proper foundation upon which to build a society. This was, in fact, the prevailing attitude in the United States: only by working the land – whether it be a plantation or a small farm – could a man cultivate the “civic virtue” that made him a good citizen of the republic. Many, especially among landed aristocrats, looked down their noses at commerce.

Thomas Jefferson, clearly a luminary in an age of deep political thinkers, wrote in a private letter:

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.

In fact, at one time Jefferson believed that the United States, upon gaining its independence, should be a nation dedicated exclusively to agriculture. Let the Europeans make things and ship them to us. He likened manufacturing – and the cities that grew up around it – to disease:

…for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.


Jefferson later changed his attitude and admitted to the benefits of some domestic manufacturing, but others were not that philosophically agile. In North Carolina, U.S. Senator Robert Strange maintained the earl Jeffersonian view:

All values are created by the spontaneous production of the earth, by human labor, by animal procreation, of by some of all these united…Everything therefore, which has a tendency to divert any considerable portion of a nation from agricultural pursuits, by turning them into speculation, professions, merchandise, or even to manufactures…has as a general rule the effect of diminishing the wealth of the nation.

Nathaniel Macon, one of North Carolina’s most venerated politicians (having served both in the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate), spoke for many of his fellow planters when he branded capitalist endeavors as a form of gambling which invariably involved one party cheating an honest producer out of his labor.

Portrait of Nathaniel Macon
Nathaniel Macon

Whatever enables the cunning to live on the labor of others is evil.

Let not love of improvement, or a thirst for glory blind that sound common sense with which the Lord has blessed you.

Internal improvements, the planter class seemed to believe, were tolerable in as much as they allowed farmers to transport their goods to market and prosper. But if enterprises sprang up to make that shipping more efficient, or if any money changed hands other than a buyer paying a farmer, then the country was on the road to a conniving, speculative hell.

They preferred the timeless tranquility of the self-contained plantation, as William Byrd had characterized it some years earlier:

Like one of the Patriarchs, I have my flocks and my herds, my bond-men and bond-women, and every sort of trade amongst my own servants, so that I live in a kind of independence on everyone but providence.

When it came to construction, strict constructionists

North Carolina’s debate over internal improvements was barely a generation removed from the essential federalist/anti-federalist debate that had hammered out a social and political framework for the new republic. Central to that earlier debate had been the question of an appropriate relationship between the federal government and state governments. Did the locus of power in this new nation properly reside with the newly-formed federal government or with the constituent states of the confederation?

For conservatives in North Carolina, there was no doubt. Their strict reading of the United States Constitution informed them that the federal government was, by our founding document, limited to a very narrow range of power.

Nathaniel Macon admonished those reading into the Constitution federal powers that were not in the document as written:

Be not deceived, I speak soberly in the fear of God, and the love of the Constitution, Let not love of improvement, or a thirst for glory blind that sober discretion and sound sense with which the Lord has blest you . . . add not to the Constitution nor take therefrom.

Macon was himself a living link back to the birth of the country. Born in 1757 Warren County, he was a young man during the revolutionary years, serving as a private in the militia. And when elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1791, he served with many who had been actively involved in the historic debates that molded our new political system. During North Carolina’s 1800s debate over internal improvements, he pointed out that in all their writings, the federalists – proponents of a strong central government – had never made the claim that there was federal power to create banks, roads or canals.

Conservative demands for a strict reading of the constitution and a constrained federal government were built on a foundation of principled political philosophy: In a republic such as ours, they believed power was best left to the states, where more local oversight could be exercised over policy decisions. It was, and is, a valid argument in our continuing effort to strike the best balance between federal and state powers.

But also underpinning the beliefs of the conservative planter class was an abiding fear that federal power threatened their traditional way of life. Macon was typical of the North Carolina’s planter class in that his Buck Springs plantation in Warren County relied on the labor of 70 enslaved people. He cut to the heart of the matter when he warned that allowing federal involvement in a state’s internal improvements would have dire consequences for the planters:

If Congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate.

Beware of government and tax

Conservative opposition to federal involvement in state internal improvements was straightforward and broadly held among the planter class. Not so with their attitude on the involvement of state government. Here, the reasons were more numerous and more narrowly held.

Fiscal conservatives believed strongly that state government should concern itself with eliminating state debt and lowering taxes on its citizens. They believed the proper mechanism for funding internal improvements was through private subscription in a for-profit venture. (Nathaniel Macon himself was an investor in the Roanoke Canal.) But to these conservatives, it was categorically wrong for the government to debase itself in such speculation. Government had a nobler calling.

Dr. Thomas T. Hall, planter, physician and politician from Edgecombe County, responded to the suggestion that government revenue be used to push a proposed canal project forward:

What in God’s name are we coming to in this country? …Do my fellow citizens really wish me to give away their money to every applicant, for whatever purpose? … Let the money be applied to pay the public debt and then reduce the taxes – this will do more public good than all this idle expense upon internal improvements, or anything else.

Much conservative objection centered around the intertwined questions of who would pay and who would benefit from internal improvements.

The Tarborough Free Press, a reliably vociferous conservative voice editorialized:

I do contend, and that too on the broad bottom of substantial justice, that it is unequal, unjust, oppressive, and radically wrong, that the poor of any county should be compelled to pay for the improvements of such county to the exclusive benefit of the rich and fine that reside adjacent to such improvements.

Nathaniel Macon made the same case:

Many poor people pay taxes who would not be benefitted [from internal improvements], what advantage would the hunter, the fisherman or the tar burner receive & many others who live on poor land?”

And then there were those who started with the assumption that all internal improvements were, when all their trappings were pulled aside, schemes to benefit the rich and subjugate the poor.

Sometimes the fault lay at the feet of the project itself, as when early railroads were dismissed:

…as only calculated to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor; that their construction had occasioned a heavy loss to the state without adequate return; and that, consequently, they deserved not the fostering care of the public.

And sometimes it was government in general that was condemned, as by Nathaniel Macon:

The operations of all governments are in favor of the rich . . . every paper system of every kind are for the interest of the rich & cunning, & not for the poor & honest.

Macon took a dim view of government in general. But he also held a belief – widespread among political thinkers of his day – that members of the aristocracy had a near-sacred duty to protect the common man. And while the government was designed to disfavor the poor, it still had a duty to save them from the moral degradation of commerce, in this case by protecting them from canals and railroads.

[Internal Improvements] would encourage a spirit of speculation among the people, which it is the duty of Government to discountenance.

The pendulum swings

The debate over internal improvements was protracted and vigorous. But in the 1830s, the balance of political power in North Carolina shifted from the conservative Democratic Party to the more progressive Whig Party. Popular support for the planter class declined as people increasingly came to see them as ostentatious aristocrats oblivious of the needs of the common man. In 1832, Whig David Lowry Swain, was elected as governor, and in 1835 a Constitutional Convention broke the long-standing power of the Democrats.

In their 15 years in power, the Whigs began to give state financial support – usually through the purchase of bonds – to many of the internal improvements they chartered, including canals, navigation improvements, turnpikes, and railroads. By the time the Democratic Party regained power in 1850, they too were on board, and they continued the run of state support, even surpassing Whig efforts. By 1854, the Democratic Party platform endorsed state support of internal improvements.

Among the internal improvements directly supported by state funds under the Whigs and Democrats were: The Cape Fear Navigation Company, The Roanoke Navigation Company, The Fayetteville & Western Plank Road; The Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, The Raleigh & Gaston Railroad, The North Carolina Railroad, and The Albemarle & Chesapeake Canal company.

North Carolina would have its canals, turnpikes and railroads, and it would prosper. But as with many policy debates in young America, while the issues at hand were resolved enough to move forward, the philosophical differences that drove the debate did not disappear. Any debate today over a new highway, toll road, or commuter rail line is driven by familiar considerations: Who will pay? Should funding be public or private? Will taxes rise? Who will benefit, and who will suffer? Is it designed to enrich some at the expense of others? To what extent can the federal government dictate public policy to a state?

As William Faulkner famously observed, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

Policy wonk opportunity: The Journal of the Internal Improvements Convention, 1833 can be read online at the North Carolina Digital Collections in the State Library. The link above takes you to it.

It is not part of the story of internal improvements, but I can’t resist passing on this anecdote about Nathaniel Macon, as found in the book “The Life of Nathaniel Macon.” At age 79, Macon had retired to his plantation, Buck Springs. He had been sick, and he decided his time was up. Macon shaved and dressed, then lay down on his bed. He summoned his doctor and paid him for  services rendered. Then he summoned the undertaker and paid him for services to be rendered. Some hour later, he died peacefully. On Macon’s instructions, all who attended his funeral were provided dinner and grog. Fifteen hundred people attended, and it was reported that “no one white or back went home hungry.”

For more about this fascinating North Carolinian, click here.

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