On April 4, 1808, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury in the administration of Thomas Jefferson, sent to the Senate his report on roads and canals. It begins with the assertion that " the general utility of artificial roads and canals . . . is universally admitted." The question is, who should build them. In some countries, "these improvements may often, in ordinary cases, be left to individual exertion, without any direct aid from Government." In the American case, two major circumstances," whilst they render the facility of communications throughout the United States an object of primary importance, naturally check the application of private capital and enterprise to improvements on a large scale." The first of these is the relative scarcity of capital. It is much more difficult than in Europe to attract investment by "prospects of remote and moderate profit." The second is " the extent of the territory compared to the population." With a sparse population, local traffic cannot be counted on to make profitable a local improvement. In general, a canal will be unproductive unless it opens " a communication with a natural extensive navigation which will flow through that new channel." For this reason, " some works already executed are unprofitable; many more remain unattempt, because their ultimate productive- ness depends on other improvements, too extensive or too distant to be embraced by the same individuals."
" The General Government ", declares the Report, "can alone remove these obstacles." Its resources are " amply sufficient for the completion of every practicable improvement." " With these resources, and embracing the whole Union, it will complete on any given line all the improvements, however distant, which may be necessary to render the whole productive, and eminently beneficial." he argument continues:
The early and efficient aid of the Federal Government is recommended by still more important considerations. The inconveniences, complaints, and perhaps dangers, which may result from a vast extent of territory, can no otherwise be radically removed or prevented than by opening speedy and easy communications through all its parts. Good roads and canals will shorten distances, facilitate commercial and personal intercourse, and unite, by a still more intimate community of interests, the most remote quarters of the United States. No other single operation, within the power of Government, can more effectually tend to strengthen and perpetuate that Union which secures external in- dependence, domestic peace, and internal liberty.
What, then, are the specific objects that on this argument require and justify action by the national government? Gallatin derives his answers from a broad view of the geography of the country. The main problems are to improve communications between the northern and southern states and to bring the settlers beyond the mountains into easy communication with the East. With respect to the former, he points out that the United States possesses" a tide water inland navigation . . . Which, from Massachusetts to the southern extremity of Georgia, is principally, if not solely, Interruptedly four necks of land." The four are Cape Cod, New Jersey between the Raritan and the Delaware, the peninsula between the Del- aware and the Chesapeake, and the "marshy tract, which divides the Chesapeake from Albemarle Sound." These should be cut by canals, which would total less than one hundred miles and would be useful " in peace or war" as protection against " storms and enemies". To this should be added " a great turnpike extending from Maine to Georgia . . . passing through all the principal seaports."
The problem of communication with the West presents a greater difficulty From New York to southern Georgia; the two great ranges of the Appalachians block the way. " In the present state of science," it is useless to think of crossing them by canals. There are, however, places at…