Wednesday, February 8, 2017

This Day in Southern History (Calhoun, Nationalism, and Early Infrastructure Politics)

Feb. 8, 1817—The U.S. House passed a $1.5 million public works bill proposed by rising young Congressman John C. Calhoun as a means of binding the nation together and was also quickly embraced by the Senate. But on March 3—his last full day in office—President James Madison vetoed the “Bonus Bill” as unconstitutional.

The fate of the legislation represented a kind of road not taken for Calhoun and the South. Within a few years, the Democratic-Republican Representative from South Carolina would abandon his broad nationalist perspective, becoming the voice of sectionalism and the architect of the secessionist movement that culminated in the Civil War. Without resort to federal funds, the South never embraced public-works projects with the same avid interest as the other regions, dooming it to a narrow dependence on the cotton crop and the apparatus (included slavery) needed to prop it up.

The shifting politics associated with public-works legislation in the early years of the republic tells something about our own time as well, however, another era when undercurrents beneath long-established political parties upend prior positions about the need for infrastructure.

In the current Congress, the GOP leadership is trying to square the circle posed by new President Donald Trump—who has not only wanted to allocate money for infrastructure, but actually boasted in his campaign about creating more such projects than Hillary Clinton—with their own adamant opposition to such plans under Barack Obama.

Calhoun would have understood this acute discomfort. Shortly after election to Congress in 1810 at age 28, he had become one of the principal “War Hawks” who dvocated challenging Britain’s infringement on American sovereignty on the high seas and in Western territories. In the process, “[f]or fifteen years he remained the most ardent worker for national unity and national power,” according to Richard Hofstadter’s classic chapter on him in The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It (1948).  “He was for more troops, more funds, for manufactures, federal roads, a higher tariff, and a new national bank. Impatient with ‘refined arguments on the Constitution,’ he waved all constitutional objections aside.”

The War of 1812 exposed deep geopolitical fissures in the nation, but not yet in Calhoun’s nationalist bent. New England Federalists had even held the Hartford Convention in 1814 as a means of exploring disunion. While such a radical notion had discredited the Federalists as a national party, it also set others—Calhoun among them—to wondering how to stitch the Union together in such a way that what was then a tear would not widen into an outright rip in the national fabric. 

Calhoun wanted to use the revenue "bonus" and future dividends from the just-established Second Bank of the United States for a fund that would "bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals." In a speech given Feb. 4, 1817, he foresaw terrible danger ahead if any other course were followed, but never dreamed that, for the next 30 years, he would be more responsible than anyone else in the nation for bringing it closer:

“Let it not be forgotten, let it be forever kept in mind, that the extent of the republic exposes us to the greatest of calamities—disunion. We are great, and rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing. This is our price and danger, our weakness and our strength. . . .We are under the most imperious obligations to counteract every tendency to disunion. . . . Whatever impedes the intercourse of the extremes with this, the center of the republic, weakens the union.”

Calhoun’s bill passed the House by only 86-84. Thirty-three of the negative votes were cast by New England Federalists. In the Senate the vote was a more comfortable 20-15. In both houses the most solid opposition came from New England Federalists, who objected more because of sectional self-interest rather than constitutional reasons, according to Henry Adams’ magisterial History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison.

But President Madison, like his mentor Thomas Jefferson, did object to it for those reasons, as did the third of the Virginia Jeffersonians in the White House, James Monroe. All three felt that the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution was far too thin a reed to hang such an important measure on. If paying for roads and canals had been contemplated by the Framers, they claimed, they should have been enumerated in that document.

But the time a President came along who agreed that the federal government had a role to play in internal improvements, John Quincy Adams, the proposal was being evaluated on the basis of the men who made it rather than its own merits. The most forceful advocate of the “American System” of roads and canals as an instrument of nationalism was Henry Clay, who got his job as Secretary of State—until that time, a steppingstone to the White House—after supporting Adams for President when the election of 1824 was thrown into the House of Representatives.

The possibility of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay so infuriated supporters of Andrew Jackson that they mobilized to ensure that no significant Adams legislation would pass. In particular, they stymied federal action related to internal improvements.

Additionally, the “American System” was associated with protective tariffs meant to protect fledgling industries. Calhoun, too, had supported these tariffs initially. But by the mid-1820s, South Carolina’s economy had come to depend far more exclusively on agriculture than other industries. Moreover, the higher tariffs increased the cost of imported goods that planter aristocrats had to pay. No politician could survive in the state by supporting this. 

By the mid-1820s, Calhoun had adjusted, aligning his stances with the slavocrats to abandon his former nationalist outlook, including increasingly vociferous opposition to the protective tariff. The talented, highly intelligent politician, who had gone on to win praise from colleagues like John Quincy Adams as Secretary of War under Monroe, was being seriously talked about as a possible Presidential candidate. But his hopes never advanced beyond serving as Vice-President under Adams and Andrew Jackson. When he resigned in the administration of the latter, he went to the Senate, where he opposed fellow members of the "Great Triumvirate," Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, as an increasingly stubborn proponent of states' right.

The salience of slavery as a national issue would very likely still have compelled Calhoun into his eventual role as the great theorist of secessionist. But the veto of his "Bonus Bill" meant that the South would not create the kind of widespread network of roads and canals that promoted the economic diversity of the other regions and, by the time of the Civil War, had knit them together through mutual interests. Starting in the 1820s, canals (and later railroads) such as the Erie Canal linked the Northeast and Midwest, siphoning off river traffic that might have come to New Orleans, for instance. Henry Adams is on point in noting the impact of Calhoun's failed project:

“Madison's veto,… although at first it seemed to affect most the interests of New York, was in reality injurious only to the Southern States. Had the government lent its aid to the Erie Canal, it must have assisted similar schemes elsewhere, and in the end could hardly have refused to carry out [former Treasury Secretary Albert] Gallatin's plan of constructing canals from the Chesapeake to the Ohio, and from the Santee to the Tennessee River. The veto disappointed New York only for the moment, but was fatal to Southern hopes." 

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