- Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1821–1860
In the era of the shallow-draft steamboat, when fallen trees choked river commerce, the Mississippi’s deadliest hazard was its floating gauntlet of logs and sunken stumps. “Snags,” as the pilots called them, claimed 348 steamboats and 80,000 tons of cargo in the decade before the Civil War. In Troubled Waters, Paul Paskoff explains that the danger was grave enough to force a constitutional showdown. By 1861 Congress had emerged with broad new powers. Government had become the nation’s largest investor in measures to clear snags in the western rivers.
The story of “snagging” begins with the antebellum debate over the constitutionality of federal money for internal improvements. In 1824, as James Monroe completed his eighth year in the White House, he conceded that the Constitution did allow Congress and its engineers to address the danger of snags. Jacksonians expanded river improvement with a fleet of stump-pulling snag boats. But the Panic of 1837 suspended the program, and Congress thereafter voted aid to the western rivers along party and regional lines. Democratic presidents James Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan decisively struck down the snagging program by means of the veto. But Whigs John Tyler and Millard Fillmore endorsed enough funding to keep snag crews afloat. By 1861, Congress had appropriated $18,544,222 to facilitate navigation. About a third of the appropriation was for removing snags from the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers.
Commercially and politically, this snagging was a double success. By opening new stretches of river, the program spread settlement and perhaps even paid its way by boosting the value of federal lands. Snagging, moreover, defeated the Jeffersonian fear of Hamiltonian federalism. The victory, says Paskoff, was triumph enough to dispel the historian’s conventional wisdom about government inaction during the era of laissez-faire. Paskoff singles out the economist Erik F. Haites, the lead author of a 1975 econometric study that praised private investment and minimized the federal government’s role. Paskoff argues that federal aid was vital. He convincingly shows that the government’s snagging program was “a remarkable undertaking” and “the principal means by which the interest and resources of the public sector were projected in the national economy” (p. 187).
Even though historians of antebellum river improvement will mostly agree with Paskoff ’s emphasis on activist government, some may think the book understates. To imply that an orthodoxy of misunderstanding clouds the study of such improvement, and to cite the economist Haites as proof of that misunderstanding, is to sidestep an important literature about government [End Page 219] aid to the private sector via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That literature locates Congress as the free-spending source of many kinds of assistance—of money for snagging and dredging, of breakwater and port construction, of surveys that mapped the hazards, and of the scientific expertise that remade the Mississippi for shipping and revolutionized steamboat design.
Paskoff nevertheless gets credit for being the first to quantitatively measure the success of the snagging program with the rigor of shipping statistics. He finds that even small amounts of sporadic snagging were a boon for western commerce. He discovers, moreover, that the constitutional wrangle over powers of Congress influenced snagging less than more urgent concerns. Perhaps the most important influence on the course of federal spending was the fluctuating size of the U.S. Treasury surplus. Military issues also derailed peacetime public works. Still, in making the rivers safer, Congress mastered the political art of piecing together multimillion-dollar omnibus legislation. The politics of snagging became the school of practice that allowed the steamboat lobby to dominate federal spending during the Gilded Age.
Dr. Shallat is director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.