--Governor Morris of New York, 1808
Land, in Alexis de Tocqueville's vision of Democracy in America, was one of the primary causes that allowed a democratic republic to flourish in the New World. The land, considered uninhabited by the encroaching Europeans, provided a safety valve for the cities, a never-ending abundance of open space for farming and free enterprise; it was a land where every son, not just the eldest, could expect a homestead. The holdings of the United States in de Tocqueville's time were rapidly expanding. Beginning with the Treaty of Paris of 1783 in which England ceded the land from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River to its victorious rival, Americans pushed west. A decade later, Thomas Jefferson brought about the Louisiana Purchase, an addition of nearly 830,000 square miles of unexplored plains and mountains. Merriweather Lewis and William Clark were sent by Jefferson to the Pacific coast and returned with tales of land and wilderness that fired the eastern imagination for a century to come. The 1840's saw the Mexican- American War and the annexation of Texas, as well as continued migration west as settlers, gold rushers, Mormons and adventurers followed the call of the open land.
Pragmatists recognized early on that American democracy and its bedfellow of free trade could not survive over such an immense area of land without channels of transportation. The dissemination of political authority was also at issue; who, for instance, could prevent the Mormons from establishing a Kingdom of Zion in the wilderness of the Utah desert if access to the area was so treacherous? In the early nineteenth century, inland transportation outside major cities was limited to jolting wagon and carriage rides, or daunting marches through uncleared wilderness. The movement of goods away from the coastal corridor was difficult and expensive; if one form of the equality de Tocqueville so admired was that of equal access to merchandise, those who moved west were at an extreme disadvantage.
This site explores what de Tocqueville did not discuss in his travels through the United States: the explosive interest in improvement of inland navigation. Roads, canals, rivers, bridges and the first railroads of the early nineteenth century were intended to tap resources that would yield untold economic treasures, promote intellectual development, morals, the arts and above all, a deep and abiding patriotism.
These early systems of transportation wove the new country together, creating a promise of cohesion that would last to the Civil War.