I wrote this review essay waaaaaaay back in grad school (actually before I was admitted, as I enrolled in a class to see if I was up for it) in 2011. It got an A, so I must have somewhat known what I was doing… Transportation history is an area that has always interested me, because understanding how or why people move around is necessary to interpret human history, especially urbanization. No wonder I wrote my graduate thesis on public transportation in Charlotte.

Canals for a Nation:  The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860.  By Ronald E. Shaw.  (Lexington, Ky.:  The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.  Preface, illustrations, notes, bibliographical essay, index.  Pp. x, 284.  $30.00.)

Internal Improvements:  National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States.  By John Lauritz Larson.  (Chapel Hill, N.C.:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.  Acknowledgements, introduction, epilogue, notes, bibliography, index.  Pp. xv, 324.  $29.95.)

Common Labour:  Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860.  By Peter Way.  (Cambridge, U.K.:  Cambridge University Press, 1993.  Tables, acknowledgements, chronology, abbreviations, introduction, conclusion, appendices, index.  Pp. xvii, 304.  $25.00.)

Infrastructure historically drove American expansion, be it physical or economic expansion.  The post-World War II era gave us the interstate highway system, and the early nineteenth century brought about the golden era of the railroads.  But before these and other major technological advances, there came the canals.  While an examination of the Canal Era will reveal a grand plan of transportation development indicative of the ambitious American spirit, political dissent, economic turmoil, and technological advances contributed to a diminished and seemingly incomplete system of canals.  Despite these tribulations, these “internal improvements,” a late eighteenth-century term described by Larson as “all kinds of programs to encourage security, prosperity, and enlightenment among the people of the new United States,” became the first incarnation of the American infrastructure juggernaut (pg. 3).  The Canal Era influenced American technological and economic expansion and labor institutions through the politics that shaped it and the people who, both figuratively and literally, built it.

In their three groundbreaking books, historians Ronald E. Shaw, John Lauritz Larson, and Peter Way approached their examinations of the Canal Era with the intent to shed light on an understudied aspect of the Early Republic.  Shaw and Larson engaged in discussions of the political and economic implications intertwined with the development of the canals, although Larson took a more pessimistic view of the political ramifications of public works involvement.   Way addressed the industrial labor structures directly created by the complexities of the canal construction process.  Though his approach is driven more by narrative and hard data in comparison to Shaw and Larson, Way smoothly wove the pertinent political and economic events corresponding with the plight of the canal laborer.

A comprehensive history of the Canal Era written by Ronald E. Shaw, Canals for a Nation:  The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860, provided an exceptional overview of the collective political and economic forces behind the development of the canal.  Shaw asserted that canals and other internal improvements “emerged out of the mercantilist tradition of government encouragement to economic development, stimulating agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and urban growth,” and thus pioneered the new nation’s first exercise in major technological and economic influence (pg. 198).  The approach to the implementation of major infrastructure was experimental, for the United States had no native engineers and no political precedent to determine which level of government was responsible for such an undertaking.

With the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States came grand designs for national infrastructure, intended to strengthen the new republic economically.  Washington envisioned improvements of the Potomac River, economically binding the western frontiers and eastern ports and therefore the fragile new republic.  However, treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton elected to concentrate his policy on fiscal and trade matters, for as Shaw explains, “he feared local jealousies in the adoption of any comprehensive plan for internal improvements” (pg. 19).  Internal improvement policy focused on roads, specifically postal routes, rather than canals, since a basic need of the republic is the dissemination of information.  Therefore, the early canal projects were little more than river improvements financed by private companies, for citizens were reluctant to approve public financing for these expensive projects that took too long to build.  Although municipalities and some states did fund canals and other public works, it became apparent that the financial burden inherent in the projects overwhelmed the private sector and that national government assistance would be vital.  Early in the Canal Era, sectional differences arose in both site selection and forms of labor.  Southern canals tended to use slave labor rather than free labor and focused on local development over time rather than long-distance projects, whereas in some areas of New England the canal was abandoned for pioneer railroads.[1]  

The major push for infrastructure expansion occurred beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.  He and his Republican counterparts “sought to preserve republican institutions by agrarian expansion to the West, and in the end they gave the greatest stimulus to internal improvements in the first decade of the new nation” (pg. 20).  Differences rose in between the conservation faction who found the idea “repugnant” and the moderate Jeffersonians who “approved of government expenditure of surplus funds if a constitutional amendment allowing such action was passed.”[2]  Albert Gallatin, treasury secretary under Jefferson and among a group of “canal enthusiasts,” submitted numerous state and federal proposals between 1802 and 1808, cumulating in his Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals, presented to the Senate in April 1808.[3] 

While the federal government could, at the time of report compilation, support the expansion of canal infrastructure, the impact of private capital upon the placement and control of infrastructure was decidedly minor.  Gallatin noted that “the lack of capital in the United States and the enormous size of the country compared to the population prevented a more rapid and expanded development of American internal improvements.”[4]  However, the late timing of the report prevented it from any action in spring of 1808 and the plan lost traction as the Embargo Act decimated the surpluses that the plan’s funding would target.  Benjamin Latrobe would later resurrect the plan, and regardless of its second failure to be pressed fully into legislation, the Gallatin plan became the “blueprint for future national schemes during the next twenty years.”[5]  However, even at the peak of the Canal Era, Goodrich concurred that “American private capital and business organizations were not yet strong enough to undertake the major enterprises, and they had no desire to shoulder the full cost and risk of developmental undertakings of which the gains would be slow to come and hard to capture.”[6]

Shaw organized his overview of the canals geographically, sweeping north-to-south through the original colonies before heading to the frontier of the Old Northwest.  The model for American canals, the Erie Canal, was considered “simultaneously a symbol of nationalism and a manifestation of republicanism” (pg. 30).  The canal boom, with decentralized control of projects, led to an economic bubble and the harsh reality of the panic of 1837.  Ohio became insolvent and Indiana’s “supreme folly,” the Wabash and Erie Canal, fell victim to fraudulent financing, unprofitable expansion, and minimal toll receipts (pg. 141), and publicly owned canals abandoned due to debt were sold to private enterprises.

In Internal Improvements:  National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States, Larson expanded upon Shaw’s dissection of the intertwined implications of public improvement policy and the political environment in the Canal Era.[7]  His objective, “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,” is demonstrated by the gradual evolution of national government from the republican vision of the Founding Fathers to a more democratic government increasingly influenced by popular politics to the triumph of laissez-faire economics (pg. 3) 

The contention between Federalists and Republicans over which entity, federal or state government, would hold sovereign control over the implementation of internal improvements was offset by the taxpayer’s concern of funding of the projects.  The Federalist administrations, chose not to challenge the fragility of the new republic through the proposal of a national infrastructure program that would incite cries of states rights, thus elected to fund small improvements such as lighthouses and piers.[8]  Inciting fears of the “monarchist” Federalists pushing the improvements for the benefit of the “monied gentry,” the Republicans swept into control as the country headed into the nineteenth century (pg. 10).  Ironically, the Jeffersonians similarly demanded a national program of internal improvements much like that of the Federalists and insisted that “the new nation—and therefore liberty itself—utterly depended on union for survival.”[9]  During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson gradually reversed his policy to include the placement of national roads and canals, a stunning change from five years before. 

Gallatin’s 1808 Report on Roads and Canals, described by Harrison as “that documentary monument of Jeffersonian nationalism,” proposed infrastructure projects in nearly every state and territory in the Union to pacify an electorate eager for internal improvements but reluctant to allow the federal government power to delegate projects inequitably.[10]  Despite its grand design and its status as “the first major effort by the federal government as national planning of internal improvements,” the Gallatin plan collapsed with the implementation of the Embargo Act and in the mounting panic of the War of 1812.[11] 

Following the war, a wave of nationalism swept the United States.  The Gallatin effort was resurrected with the Bonus Bill of 1817, and John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay hoped to “bind the republic together with public works, federal patronage, and political influence” couched in the name of politics rather than its past incarnation as corruption.[12]  Shaw noted the political deception, for “the application of republicanism to canals made them subject to the political ambition, partisan alliances, conflicts over means and ends.”[13]  Disgusted with the nationalistic fervor that led the legislature to what he considered corruption of federal power, James Madison vetoed the bill and thus “denied that Congress possess satisfactory powers or an adequate precedent to proceed with roads and canals” (pg. 67-68).  During this period, government officials seemingly entertained themselves trading political favors, and while canals and other internal improvements were debated and acted upon, a network was never created.[14]  Goodrich formulated that Americans preferred voluntary use of the powers and resources of government, in combination with private enterprise, when deemed necessary “to provide the transportation facilities demanded by an expanding economy.”[15]

Thus, states took the initiative in their economic destinies by funding their own internal improvements.  The competing states of New York and Pennsylvania, both attempting similar routes from major port cities to the western waters, found different results in their endeavors.  The Erie Canal was wildly successful, partly due to “nature’s gifts” of “a route through the mountains that rose little more than 600 feet” (pg. 71).  However, the rival Main Line Canal of Pennsylvania faced less forgiving terrain, forcing the use of railways at points along the canal and “most cruelly” foreshadowing the next technological revolution (pg. 86).  However, the decentralized approach favored by the Jacksonians crumbled in the panic of 1837, “[contributing] much to the failure of these competing state-centered programs” (pg. 196). 

As the end of the 1840s economic depression approached and many states sold canals and other internal improvements to pay the debts accumulated by their unchecked participation in the canal boom, the railroad began its rise as the next contentious debate over government control and precedent.  Unlike Shaw’s sole examination of the Canal Era, Larson extends his examination of internal improvements into the railroad age, and identifies the same political bickering that once again left an infrastructure power void.  However, private enterprise was willing and able to finance internal improvements and a new “monied gentry” emerged in control of the nation’s infrastructure.  Larson lamented that “the tragedy for Americans was not that they had failed to build a national system of roads and canals, or that they lost control of the railroads to the private business sector.  The tragedy lay in the subtle substitution, during the long struggle over internal improvements, of economic liberalism for political republicanism at the heart of the American experiment” (pg. 265).

Historian Peter Way presented a more human-centered view of the Canal Era in Common Labour:  Workers and the Digging of North American Canals, 1780-1860.  He refuted the empowerment and romanticism labor historians bestow on workers in the burgeoning industrial revolution while monitoring economic and political factors affecting the canals.  Workers had little power to influence the rise of industrial capitalism, but the reciprocal relationship initiated between the contractor and canaller shaped the American economic landscape throughout the Canal Era and beyond to the Industrial Revolution.  He posited that canal construction transformed the modern industrial class system by “opening up new markets, mobilizing an army of workers, creating new consumers, developing business strategies and initiating the state-capital ties so important in late years” (pg. 4).

Way, who chose to focus his research on North America due to similar political traditions of conservative British North America and the republican United States, began his timeline much earlier than either Shaw or Larson.  He describes the first locks constructed in Canada by the British in 1772 to facilitate the fur trade.  The economy of the United States focused on mercantilism, which was unable to produce the capital required to implement the canal projects, for the ‘internal market was underdeveloped, capital tied up in land and the overriding business ethos one of extending existing commercial relations, not undertaking wholly new, perhaps more profitable money-making ventures”  (pg. 18-19).  The early American projects, while fixed in the smaller, traditional, artisan-based organization, were a testing ground for later, large-scale, highly capitalized industries”  (pg. 19).  Initially, as also touched upon by Shaw, the differences in regional labor systems were reflected in the first decade of canal construction, with “slavery in the South, free labour predominately in the North, and indentured servitude spotted throughout but most evident in the mid-Atlantic region” (pg. 30).  For example, the Potomac Company utilized all three forms of labor but found the inherent inefficiency in a mixed structure unwanted and elected to continue with free laborers.   These early projects, small in scope, employed a small number of wage laborers but faced high turnover and competition from agriculture and other industries.   

Canal construction labor required little specialized skill and was “an attractive option to people set adrift from the land but still pulled by its republican promise,” especially for immigrants (pg. 81).  Irish immigrants filled a great portion of the canal labor needs at the peak of the era for the imposed society changes in Ireland had already begun the transition of the farmer to the worker.  Shaw noted that other ethnic groups such as “Germans and the Welsh worked in large numbers on the canals” and cited previous articles by Way in his chapter illustrating the conditions and circumstances of canal construction and usage.[16]

With the Republican escalation of internal improvements in the early nineteenth century, projects faced the enormous task of “mobilizing adequate capital, somehow getting thousands of canallers together, providing for them, and directing their labour in an efficient fashion” (pg. 50).  The system of contracting developed as a “strategy to contain industrial growth within a familiar framework” of the small work environments conducting the work and the large-scale organizations managing the project;” however, “the scale and cost of such projects required a large administrative structure and government involvement, but the nature of the labour market and contemporary business practices made the smallness of contracting attractive” (pg. 51).  With the influx of massive construction following the War of 1812, contracting became virtually the sole mode of carrying on construction” (Way 60). 

As the number of canal projects increased and labor shortages became more common, contractors took a paternalist approach to the workers, providing “good wages, the provision of food, shelter, clothing and certain services chief among them” in exchange for protection from unemployment (pg. 68).  For a time, “paternalism served its purpose,” for it “answered capital’s labour needs by drawing workers more securely within the production process,” but while it served the canallers well, the system bred dependence (pg. 129).  However, the panic of 1837, combined with the increasing immigrant population of unskilled workers, saw this paternalistic system dissolve along with the multitude of canal jobs, leaving thousands of laborers desperate for work.  When the industry rebounded in the 1840s, canallers found themselves treated as economic units rather than “individuals whose character was considered a component of their labour” (pg. 267).  Mounting tensions rose from “the demanding nature of the work, the rudimentary and often deleterious living environment, and the diverse workforce” frequently led to violence directed at both employers and fellow canallers (pg. 202).  Shaw and Way disagreed on the perception of railroads and canals, as Way referred to the Canal Era as a “temporary stage in the technology of transportation” but chose to “not belie the key role they played in sparking change” (pg. 4).  Government policy and labor only intersected when “from 1829 to 1849, soldiers were called upon thirty-two times put down a riot or break a potentially violent strike” (pg. 205). 

The bulk of Common Labour is dedicated to the society and culture of the canaller.  The young unmarried males of a shared ethnic background who comprised the camp populations developed a fraternal instinct due to “a mix of pride in their work and a strong masculine identity” (pg. 173).  The rough culture of the camps was exacerbated by the rampant abuse of alcohol by workers, who were at times paid in whiskey.  Initially, married men would come alone to live and work in the raucous camps, but declining economic fortunes after 1837 led to the increased presence of families.  Sickness was rampant, especially during the July to October “sickly season,” in the crowded camps with the spread of diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever (pg. 153).  The tumultuous conditions faced by the canal worker are revolting in the context of their seemingly silent contribution to American infrastructure.  Conclusively, Way compared the canal industry to the larger movement of society “from a small, unequal, personal, traditional world to a large, unequal, impersonal, modern one,” for “canallers, contractors and management played a big role in the rise of industrial capitalism” (pg. 266).

Political discourse, economic expansion, and labor institutions followed the ebb and flow of the Canal Era.  The republic envisioned by her Founding Fathers gave way to the popular politics of a more democratic institution and the gradual involvement of government in the economic development of the nation.  The agrarian economy manned by the artisan, evolved toward the Industrial Revolution with the advent of the mass construction of canals and other internal improvements, managed by large corporations and staffed by thousands of unskilled contract workers.  The evidence suggests that the Canal Era did indeed fit the contemporary definition of internal improvement, of projects that “encourage security, prosperity, and enlightenment among the people of the new United States.”[17]


[1].          Larson, Internal Improvements, 224-255.

[2].          Lee W. Formwalt, “Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the Revival of the Gallatin Plan of 1808,” Pennsylvania History 48, no. 2 (April 1981): 100.

[3].         Nicholas Dungan, Gallatin:  America’s Swiss Founding Father, (New York:  New York University Press, 2010).  Dungan makes little note of Gallatin’s involvement in the expansion of American internal improvement except for a brief mention on pp. 44-45 and a paragraph on pp. 77-78.

[4].          Formwalt, “Latrobe,” 107.

[5].          Ibid, 112.

[6].          Carter Goodrich, “The Gallatin Plan after 150 Years,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 102, no. 5 (Oct. 20, 1958): 440.

[7].          John Lauritz Larson, review of Canals for a Nation:  The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860, by Ronald E. Shaw, Indiana Magazine of History 88, no. 9 (March 1992): 72.  In his review of Shaw, Canals for a Nation, Larson notes that, “Scholars will find much here to build on.” 

[8].          John Lauritz Larson, “Bind the Republic Together”:  The National Union and the Struggle for a System of Internal Improvements,” The Journal of American History 74, no. 2 (Sept. 1987): 369.

[9].          John Lauritz Larson, “Bind the Republic Together,” 365.

[10].       Joseph H. Harrison, Jr.  “’Sic et Non’:  Thomas Jefferson and Internal Improvement.”  Journal of the Early Republic 7, no. 4 (Winter, 1987): 343.

[11].       Formwalt, 111; Goodrich, “The Gallatin Plan,” 436-441.

[12].        Larson, “Bind the Republic Together,” 385.

[13].        Shaw, Canals for a Nation, 203.

[14].        Ibid, 385.

[15].        Carter Goodrich, “Internal Improvements Reconsidered,” The Journal of Economic History 30, no. 2 (June 1970): 295-296.

[16].        Shaw, Canals for a Nation, 168.

[17].        Larson, Internal Improvements, 3.