restricted access Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 175-176

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Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States. By John Lauritz Larson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xv+324. $55/$19.95.

Politics rather than technology lies at the center of this well-crafted study. Using internal improvements as his vehicle, John Lauritz Larson seeks to "illustrate the complex interaction of different strains of revolutionary republicanism with the actual practice of politics and government under new constitutions in environments of clashing interests and rapidly changing conditions—instabilities that were exaggerated by the Revolution itself" (pp. 2-3). Few Americans doubted the importance of internal improvements for the future of so sprawling a nation. Yet within a decade of the Constitution the high-minded goal of knitting the states together gave way to bitter debates over who was to get what facilities. The noble ideals of union were swamped by devotion to local interests, class conflict, regional jealousy, states' rights, and dark suspicions about corruption, subversion of democracy, and the exercise of what some deemed overweening federal power.

Amid this welter of strife, grounded in the time-honored American fear of political abuse and central authority, the ideals of republicanism were splintered and gradually replaced by a clamor for laissez-faire, as "midcentury Americans thought they saw in the 'invisible hand' of competition an incorruptible arbitrator for desperately clashing interests" (p. 6). The onset of industrialization completed the "transfer of power from popular democratic governments to supposedly self-regulating markets" (p. 6), an outcome that was neither intended nor predictable. During the two decades between the panic of 1837 and the Civil War, railroads emerged as the transportation medium of choice and the private corporation as the preferred vehicle for building them. "The resulting privatization of internal [End Page 175] improvements," concludes Larson, ". . . profoundly altered the relationship of government to business and transferred to the hands of capitalists most of the power to design the system that had motivated public works promoters since the founding of the republic" (p. 233).

Larson portrays the triumph of the market in a solid, readable narrative, unencumbered by economic theory. He draws heavily from primary sources and chooses not to engage in historiographical debate on matters that have aroused contentious exchanges in recent years. Given his emphasis on the course of republican ideology and its downfall, and on the importance of the papers of the founding fathers, it is surprising to find Alexander Hamilton virtually a missing person in the discussion. Two relevant works by Joyce Appleby—Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2000) and Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992)—do not appear in the lengthy bibliography. Some historians may quibble that Larson's view of laissez-faire is too narrow; others will carp at the lack of theoretical constructs to explain the behavior he depicts among groups competing on what became the dark and bloody ground of internal improvements.

Within the context of his assumptions and approach, however, Larson offers an intriguing, even persuasive, argument. He concludes that "Internal improvements almost inevitably became the issue that would complicate the promise of popular government in the United States" because their very nature and scale required concessions of one kind or another and "all advantages shown and favors bestowed looked like evidence of privilege and corruption" (p. 257). The dilemma of choosing between public and private development, or seeking a reasonable balance between their utility and flaws, seems to have been present at the creation. Although the flow of power between the government and the private sector has shifted radically during the past two centuries, the dilemma remains unresolved.

When government fell short or proved inept, Americans turned eagerly to the private sector and elevated its use into a national mantra. Over time, however, the weaknesses, imbalances, and abuses of the market led to growing cries for more governmental control. During the twentieth century such controls were extended steadily, until a reaction set...