The Constitutional Politics of Roads and Canals: Inter-Branch Dialogue Over Internal Improvements, 1800-1828

35 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2006 Last revised: 6 Apr 2010

See all articles by Paul Chen

Paul Chen

Western Washington University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: August 29, 2006


In contrast to the plethora of Supreme Court-centered scholarship, the attached article discusses a topic that illustrates how national policies that implicate constitutional issues are discussed and resolved in a political context, a subject that is relevant to current academic debates about non-judicial constitutional interpretation - e.g. constitutional interpretation by the political branches of government. In this article, I discuss internal improvements - i.e. the building of infrastructure such as roads and canals - in early America. Far from being of merely quaint historical interest, internal improvements was a politically salient topic during the early part of the nineteenth century. The topic also serves to illustrate constitutional decision-making in an era in which the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet become a dominant player in the nation.

Why did the federal government, despite popular support as well as support from Congress and four consecutive presidents, fail to implement a national plan for an integrated system of roads and canals. The question becomes even more puzzling considering the actions that Congress took to achieve that goal - twice commissioning the treasury secretary in two different administrations to devise and report on such a system of infrastructure, and then passing key legislation to begin implementation of a system. As I show in the article, a comprehensive system of internal improvements did not fail for lack of political support, legitimate need, or sufficient finances.

After analyzing primary and secondary sources, focusing primarily on congressional debates and speeches by various lawmakers and the presidents involved, I argue that the federal government's failure to establish a coherent system of infrastructure was caused by two factors. First, the constitutional scruples of the Republican presidents initially prevented Congress from moving ahead with plans to build a system of roads and canals. Second, the corrupting influence of sectional interests within Congress later prevented both Congress and the president from supplying federal funds in a coherent manner to states and private corporations for building the infrastructure. What this article shows is that, despite all-around support for certain public policies, the interaction between constitutional principle and political interest may lead to unexpected results.

Keywords: internal improvements, early America, nineteenth century, canals and roads

Suggested Citation

Chen, Paul, The Constitutional Politics of Roads and Canals: Inter-Branch Dialogue Over Internal Improvements, 1800-1828 (August 29, 2006). Available at SSRN: or

Paul Chen (Contact Author)

Western Washington University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Bellingham, WA 98225

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