The Fourth of July: Winning the Freedom to Build a Nation
July 2—With the bold act of defiance against the British Crown that was the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America was born in July 1776. That Declaration concludes:
“We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Yet, as the ensuing decades would show, the actual forging of a “United States of America,” a true union, would be a constant battle. The next major step forward was the framing of the Constitution, whose key authors understood it to be the crucial institutional framework for defending the principles which the Declaration had put forth. But it would actually take decades more for the government of the United States to put these principles into action, in the broad program of action which comprises the American System today.
Nothing could be more appropriate to the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence than the launching of major infrastructure projects on that day: projects that epitomize Man’s role as the crown of Creation, using his God-given mental powers to improve the Earth for not only himself, but for generations to come.
Two such projects in American history were launched on July 4th. The first was the Erie Canal, which New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, in cooperation with individuals who included Alexander Hamilton’s close collaborator (and author of the final language of the Constitution) Gouverneur Morris, convinced the New York State legislature to fund in 1817. The digging of the Canal began with a Fourth of July ceremony in Rome, New York that year, and when it was completed in October of 1825, made a revolution in transportation, and a giant leap forward in unifying the Eastern states of the Union with the Midwest.
The second was the C&O Canal, long a project of our original American System President George Washington (although he wanted to make the Potomac River navigable—which proved impossible). President John Quincy Adams inaugurated the construction of that canal on July 4, 1828, where he delivered the following words to a gathering that included diplomats as well as cabinet officials:
“We are informed by the holy oracles of truth, that, at the creation of man, male and female, the Lord of the universe, their Maker, blessed them, and said unto them be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it. To subdue the earth was, therefore, one of the first duties assigned to man at his creation; and now, in his fallen condition, it remains among the most excellent of his occupations. To subdue the earth is preeminently the purpose of this undertaking. . . . I call upon you to join me in fervent supplication to Him from Whom this primitive injunction came, that He would follow with His blessing this joint effort of our great community, to perform His will in the subjugation of the earth for the improvement of the condition of man—that He would make it one of His chosen instruments for the preservation, prosperity, and perpetuity of our Union. . . .
“In praying for the blessing of heaven upon our task, we ask it with equal zeal and sincerity upon every similar work in this confederacy; and particularly upon that which, on this same day, and perhaps at this very hour, is commencing from a neighboring city. It is one of the happiest characteristics in the principle of internal improvement that the success of one great enterprise, instead of counteracting, gives assistance to the execution of another. May they increase and multiply, till, in the sublime language of inspiration, every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked straight, the rough places plain.”
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal operated from 1831 to 1924, and ultimately stretched all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. It played a major commercial role in bringing coal to the East Coast, as well as consumer goods to western Virginia and Maryland. This major infrastructure project was officially the work of the C & O Canal Company, which raised about $3.6 million from private and public investors. Providing the financial conditions suitable to such investment was the Second Bank of the United States, then run by American System advocate Nicholas Biddle.
However, Hamiltonian policies of government support for infrastructure played a major role in getting the Canal built. The American Survey Act, passed in 1824, permitted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the survey work for major infrastructure projects, and provided $30 million for this work. The Corps did so for the C&O. As reported by the C&O Canal Association website , “by April 1825, four U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineer survey teams were at work—one under Major John J. Abert working along the Potomac (known as the eastern section), two working on routes from the upper Potomac through the mountains to the Ohio (known as the mountain and western sections), and a fourth looking at routes from the Ohio to the Great Lakes (referred to as the Ohio and Erie section). The latter section would result in a circular navigable waterway from the Chesapeake Bay via the Potomac to the Ohio, the great lakes, and even New York City via the newly completed Erie Canal and Hudson River route.”
The final decision to pursue building the C&O required considerable political agitation, led by the Mathew Carey-inspired Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvements, which held Canal conventions to push for this project, among others. To quote candocanal.org, “It speaks to the success of the conventioneer’s strategy, that subscription books for canal company stock were opened on October 1, 1827 and in May, 1828, Congress subscribed $1 million to the stock of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. Combined with Maryland’s earlier subscription of $500,000, and $1.5 million from the three cities of the District of Columbia (Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria), the C&O Canal Company could then be organized during a meeting of stockholders in Washington, June 20–23, 1828.”