“Let’s build a national road across the country!” many Americans cried in the early 1800s. The idea of a national road was appealing because it would encourage settlement by connecting the East Coast with the interior of the recent Louisiana Purchase.
So popular was the idea that in 1806, Congress voted to fund such a road, and Thomas Jefferson signed the bill. Constitutional arguments were important in this debate. Those who favored the road argued that it was a “post road” for mail delivery, and thus was consistent with Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution.
But would the national road—which would eventually stretch from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois—be economically sound? Put another way, even if the road was a good idea, was government funding the best means to achieve it? After more than 700 miles and $7 million in construction costs, we can answer that question. No, the national road was not sound. Nor was it particularly helpful to westward settlement. By 1850 it was little used, and soon after that it was almost abandoned. What went wrong and why?
Three problems inherent in government funding help explain why the national road largely failed.
First, when government money is used to build a road, political decisions, not economic ones, dictate where it is built. In other words, congressmen with political pull will try to draw the road to their districts, whether that route is economically sound or not. As the national road moved north and west from Cumberland to Wheeling, (West) Virginia, it detoured through Union-town and Washington, Pennsylvania. Why? Because Jefferson’s treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, lived in Uniontown, and he persuaded Jefferson to swing the road there. Gallatin also urged Jefferson to run the road on a northern detour into vote-rich Washington County during an election year. “[T]he county of Washington,” Gallatin wrote Jefferson, “with which I am well acquainted, having represented it for six years in Congress, gives a uniform majority of about 2000 votes in our favor and that if this be thrown, by reason of this road, in a wrong scale, we will infallibly lose the State of Pennsylvania in the next election.” Jefferson responded curtly that “a few towns in that quarter [of Pennsylvania] seem to consider all this expense as undertaken merely for their benefit.” But he still sanctioned Gallatin’s detours.
Second, when the government builds a road, it will cost more than if entrepreneurs build it. The national road was built with stone (crushed and solid), and it became one of the most expensive roads, if not the most expensive, in the United States in the early 1800s. For example, the privately funded Lancaster Turnpike, also built with stone, cost $7,500 per mile—versus $13,000 per mile for the national road. The builders of the Lancaster Turnpike were spending their own money and had to spend it wisely, or the tolls would not cover their expenses. Those in charge of the national road, by contrast, were political appointees, described by one newspaper editor as being “as numerous as the locusts of Egypt.” Funded with taxpayer dollars, the national road never charged tolls, so it never had to turn a profit.
This leads to the final point. Because no one owned the national road, no one had a strong stake in building it well, or preserving it once it was finished. Almost every firsthand account we have suggests that the road was shoddily constructed. Even in its heyday it was never fully paved; it always had gaps and always needed repairing.
For example, Lt. Henry Brewerton of the Corps of Engineers inspected the road in Ohio and found inferior mortar and materials in its construction and tree stumps scattered throughout. Brewerton echoed those who claimed the road fell into disrepair faster than it could be built. Western travelers moaned constantly about the bumpy rides, the steep grades, and the mudslides. David Shriver, the superintendent of the road, complained that travelers stole bridge walls, milestones, and building materials. Lucius Stockton, who traveled the whole of the road and tried to run a passenger service on it, said, “Generally speaking the surface is entirely destroyed, or sunk under the foundation. .. . In one place the foundation itself has been carried away.”
R. J. Meigs, the U.S. Postmaster General in the 1820s, found the road almost impassable and the mail, therefore, almost undeliverable. So slow and erratic was federal mail delivery on it that many merchants along the road used private couriers to ensure speedy and reliable mail service.
Express Mail Started
How ironic! Using the national road as a federal post road was the key to making it constitutional—yet privatized mail service regularly outperformed the U.S. Post Office. In desperation, the Post Office added “express mail” service to try to compete with private couriers on the road, but even that often proved to be slower and more irregular than the private couriers. Angry residents along the road and elsewhere sent express-mail letters postage-due to congressmen complaining about the poor service. Reeling from an avalanche of hostile letters, the Postmaster General instructed all postmasters not to deliver any express mail postage-due to “the President or any head of department.”
By the 1830s, therefore, many congressmen were having second thoughts about using federal funds for the national road. Some of them, like John Campbell of South Carolina, asked, “Who can suppose that the opening of roads by the government is necessary to attract the farmer to the virgin soil of the West?” Other roads, built by the states or by entrepreneurs, also brought immigrants westward. These roads were clearly constitutional, and they needed no federal tax dollars to operate.
he U.S. government, therefore, began in the 1830s to give pieces of the national road to the states in which they were located. Pennsylvania and Maryland, however, refused to accept their pieces even as gifts until they were repaired and made more usable for travel. By 1840, railroads had emerged, and the national road, even the serviceable parts, was becoming obsolete. But it did serve a useful purpose in teaching Americans this lesson: federally funded transportation is neither a necessary nor a desirable way to fill a continent with settlers.