Following the end of the War, Pres. Madison had cleverly decided to build upon the war-imposed sense of national unity and in his seventh Annual Message to Congress, dated December 5, 1815, he included an ambitious plan for “establishing throughout our country the roads and canals which can best be executed under the national authority.” It was the last five words of this sentence that revealed the subtle bone of contention of just what was the constitutional authority of the Federal government as it pertained to funding internal improvements? Following Jefferson’s precedent, Madison supported the Federal government’s involvement in funding internal improvements, if such authority could first be legally obtained by an amendment to the Constitution. In his push for internal improvements, Madison would be ably served by two Congressmen, John C. Calhoun from South Carolina and Henry Clay from Kentucky, who became the Speaker of the House on March 4, 1815, and who shared the President’s “nationalist” vision for the future on the young country.
In April 1816, Congress appropriated $100,000 for the resumed construction of the National Road that allowed it to be completed to Wheeling on August 1, 1818. Following the national election of 1816, the lame duck Congress during the winter of 1816-17, passed the Bonus Bill that called for the $1.5 million bonus that the Second Bank of the United States was to pay the Federal government for its initial charter, in addition to the annual dividends that the BUS was to pay the government, to be used to fund a national network of roads and canals. Calhoun, initially a staunch supporter of the Union, had proposed the bill: “We are under the most imperious obligations to counteract every tendency to disunion. Let us, then, bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space.” Even though some from the East resisted the bill as its representatives saw little to be gained by encouraging the migration of their citizens to the West, and a few Southern slaveowners feared that “if Congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate,” however, Calhoun and Clay, themselves slaveowners, saw the bill through to passage, only to have the President shock the bill’s supporters by vetoing it on March 3, 1817, the last day of his tenure, on the basis that the bill simply appropriated a large fund but did not specifically specify which projects it was to be used to fund, stating there was no constitutional authority for the Federal government to fund internal improvements. Madison had done so with the hope that an amendment would eventually be passed that would make such expenditures constitutionally legal in the future. As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Daniel Walker Howe stated, “Faced with a choice between theoretical consistency and practical politics, Madison chose theory… Madison [thereby] not only slowed the economic development of the country but, uncharacteristically, missed an opportunity to cement the Union together.”
Had Madison signed the bill into law, the National Road would, more than likely have been completed not only earlier, but also at least through to St. Louis, providing a route for commerce (and ideas) to flow back and forth along the geographic spine of the country between the three sections of the country, with St. Louis as its logical western terminal. (The Road’s construction would fitfully continue until the Panic of 1837 halted the Federal funding of its construction at Vandalia, IL, then the state capital, some 60 miles short of St. Louis.) Madison’s veto from a narrow, philosophic position not only had defeated Calhoun’s and Clay’s best efforts to more thoroughly unite the country along its middle, but also had set a legal precedent for those who wanted to further obstruct progress for any number of reasons. It would weigh heavily on the future of antebellum America, particularly that of the West, to the long-term detriment of St. Louis as no central highway from the Atlantic would crown it the capital of the West. Instead, Madison’s veto of 1817, some sixteen years before the chartering of the town of Chicago, would leave the door to the West sufficient ajar for the upstart city to eventually claim that crown.
Madison was succeeded by fellow Virginian James Monroe whose term was dubbed the “era of good feelings” as, for all practical purposes, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party had little, if any opposition as it had all but eliminated support for Hamilton’s Federalist party. Following the end of the War of 1812 that was perceived as a second American victory over Great Britain, Monroe had seized upon the nation’s sense of pride and began to propose a series of internal improvements that prior to the war would not have even been conceived by the party of Jefferson as it would have given too much power to the Federal government, thereby co-opting the Federalist’s agenda. In essence, Monroe’s proposals were verging on a “nationalist” agenda, not dissimilar to Hamilton’s original plans for the Federal government. Calhoun, whom Monroe had chosen as his Secretary of War and Speaker Clay would continue to support this nationalist agenda.
The Federal government wasted little time in sending Major Stephen H. Long on a survey expedition along the Chicago canal’s proposed route, reaching the mouth of the Chicago River in September, “where it discharged itself into the lake over a bar of sand and gravel, in a rippling stream, two to fifteen yards wide, and only a few inches deep.” The government had forced the Ottawa (that included the Potawatomis responsible for the Fort Dearborn massacre) and Chippewa tribes, who had sided with the British during the war, to sign the Treaty of St. Louis on August 24, 1816, in which they ceded a twenty-mile-wide strip of land from the mouth of the Chicago River southwest along the portage to Ottawa, within which was contained the proposed route of the canal. In his report, Long decried the danger to lake vessels due to the lack of any natural harbors along the southwestern portion of Lake Michigan and proposed the construction of two piers at the sandbar to facilitate the removal of the sand and to create a point of refuge for shipping by allowing deep draught vessels to enter the river. Those with foresight within the Federal government were, therefore, planning for the eventual construction of a canal from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, even before construction of the Erie Canal had finally started in New York on July 4, 1817.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
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