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Opening the West: Federal Internal Improvements Before 1860

Author(s):Malone, Laurence J.
Reviewer(s):Wallis, John Joseph

Published by EH.NET (October 1998)

Laurence J. Malone, Opening the West: Federal Internal Improvements Before

1860. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998, xvi + 155 pp.

$59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-313-30671-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Wallis, Department of Economics,

University of Maryland.

In principle, I’ve got to love this book. Malone finds a little known

Congressional report that details federal expenditures on roads, canals,

rivers, harbors, aids to navigation, and federal support for state

transportation projects. The “Statement of the Appropriations and Expenditures

f or Public buildings, Rivers and Harbors, Forts, Arsenals,

Armories, and other Public Works from 1789 to 1882, Serial Set 1992,”

47th Congress, 1st Session, 1882 is a treasure trove of information.

Malone mines it to examine the patterns of federal expenditures for internal

improvements. The results are illuminating.

Malone goes after big game: Carter Goodrich. In Government Promotion of

American Canals and Railroads, Goodrich argues that state governments

dominated investment in transportation improvements in the early nineteenth

century, investing over $300 million in railroads and canals.1 On the basis of

Charles Holt’s study of nineteenth-century state governments,

Malone concludes that state governments only spent $85 million from 1820 to


Carter Goodrich is the biggest fish in the pond when it comes to early

nineteenth century transportation investment,. An error of this magnitude on

his part would raise serious questions about our understanding of early

nineteenth century development.

Malone develops his theme and evidence in a series of chapters that present and

analyze the federal data; look specifically at federal policies in Iowa,

Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arkansas; and conclude with a detailed

study of three counties.

So much for principle, where does this leave us in practice? On page 42,

Malone compares federal and state expenditures in several regions of the

country. He draws his state data from Holt. The South Atlantic region, which

includes Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina in this table, has exactly

zero expenditures between 1820 and 1829, zero between 1830 and 1839, and less

than $50,000 between 1840 and 1849, and between 1850 and 1859. The state of

Maryland would be surprised to find that its investments in the Chesapeake and

Ohio canal and the Baltimore Ohio railroad, which totaled over $10 million

before 1840 did not make it into Malone’s calculations. The state of Virginia

would be surprised to learn that its very active Board of Public Works which

made substantial investments through this entire period were likewise ignored.

Malone’s hypothesis is based on the assumption that Holt’s data capture all

state government activity, when Holt doesn’t.

There is a good deal of corollary evidence to suggest that Goodrich’s

$300 million figure is in the right ballpark for state investment, with local

governments spending another $125 million. Malone shows that the federal

government spent $54 million on internal improvements, but about

$37 million of this

was for coastal and river navigation and harbors. No one has ever disputed

that the federal government played an important role in this area. In short,

the main thrust of Malone’s hypothesis is not supported by the data.

Malone does do a convincing job

of demonstrating that the federal government played an important role in

making basic road investments in the territorial period in each state. This is

an important contribution.

However, it tells us little or nothing about the relative importance of federal

and state investments, since territories are, by definition,

geographic areas without state governments under the direct administration of

the federal government. One might have found the argument more convincing if

there were some comparisons of federal road construction before statehood and

state construction after statehood.

I liked this book and will refer to it as a good source on federal internal

improvement spending. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend that we accept Malone’s

revisions of Carter Goodrich.

John Wallis Department of Economics University of Maryland

Malone is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Economics at Hartwick


Wallis is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, who

works on state a nd local public finance in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Recent publications include “Railroads and Property Taxes,” with Jac Heckelman,

in Explorations in Economic History, Jan.

1997, and “The Political Economy of New Deal Spending Revisited, Again:

With and Without Nevada,” also in Explorations, March 1998.

1. Carter Goodrich, Government Promotion of Canals and Railroads,

1860-1890 (New York: 1960).

2. Charles Holt, The Role of State Governments in the Nineteenth Century

American Economy, 1820-

1902 (New York, 1977).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century