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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 549-554

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The Long, Winding Road to Laissez-faire

Carol Sheriff

John Lauritz Larson. Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xv + 324 pp. Figures, maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $55.00 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).

At first glance, John Larson's Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States might seem to retell a familiar story. Like George Rogers Taylor, whose classic The Transportation Revolution (1951) was first published a half century earlier, Larson offers a detailed synthesis of pre-Civil War efforts to improve the young nation's infrastructure. Like the authors of the commonwealth studies of the 1940s, Larson focuses on government initiatives in the hopes of discovering antecedents—and, in his case, alternatives—to present-day policies and practices. Yet Larson adds a refreshing and often eloquent twist to the old story. Debates over internal improvements, in Larson's hands, become a means for understanding how abstract discussions over republicanism evolved as the first two generations of national and state leaders faced the very tangible challenges of (literally) building the nation.

Internal Improvement's most significant contribution is its primary focus on federal, rather than state, support for roads, bridges, canals, and railroads. For nearly fifty years, virtually all the literature on internal improvements, which is quite substantial, has studied state-sponsored or mixed-enterprise projects, in large part because so few federal initiatives actually reached fruition. Yet Larson sees opportunity in failure. What makes Internal Improvement so compelling is that Larson reveals the importance of roads not taken—or, even, built. To understand the subtleties of how the "founders" (and subsequent generations of politicians) envisioned the federal government's role in economic development, Larson suggests, we need to look beyond the physical legacy that they left behind. Only by giving equal attention to projects they debated and then abandoned, often with a great deal of rancor, can we fully appreciate what the young nation might have accomplished had self-interest not trumped republican idealism, had voters not lost faith in elected officials' ability to dispense equitably the public largess. [End Page 549]

Larson's premise is that "the positive use of government power for popular constructive purposes, such as public works of internal improvement, never was proscribed by American republicanism but lay well within the presumed legitimate authority of revolutionary governments," and he seeks to explain why Americans ultimately cast aside republicanism for laissez-faire, which he defines as "the liberal 'free trade' promise that the end of interference in the marketplace guaranteed equality for all" (pp. 3, 150). To answer that question, Larson draws on a wealth of existing scholarship while also providing new evidence from legislative records, newspapers, and correspondence. Such sources allow him to discern not just disagreements over republican ideology but also its evolution, and so he organizes his book roughly chronologically, tracing a succession of legislative debates over improvement projects.

When it came to allocating resources to improve the physical landscape, the nation's first generation of leaders drew on the language of republicanism but, according to Larson, formed no consensus over how to pursue the common goodin actuality. Public works invariably pitted one local or regional interest against another, trying the ideological commitment of even the most principled among them. If men such as George Washington pleaded for "wisdom" to prevail over local bickering, they nonetheless presided over a time when partisan politics and self-interest often triumphed over the sanctity of the common good. Washington, for example, argued that politics should be a series of compromises; one could not expect that every road would spread its benefits uniformly, but one could aim for a conglomeration of projects that would serve the entire nation. Yet not even Washington was above pushing projects that promoted his own interests, as seen in his efforts to relocate the nation's capital to his backyard. Hamstrung by the language of republicanism...


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