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Joseph Kaminski

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November 23, 2017

The Transportation Revolution and an Evaluation of Civic Virtue in America


How did the market and transportation revolutions affect the perception of the common good and civic virtue?

The “republican” ideology of early American society has been lost in translation after centuries of political oscillation, but some of those who witnessed the birth of the country adopted such a political doctrine in order to set up a political economy from the ground up. According to McCoy’s approach to Benjamin Franklin’s republican-based vision for the new America, it is virtue that plays a common role throughout the writing that ‘secured’ the freedom of the nation. It is in this piece that defines virtue for us, as “industrious, frugal, independent, and public-spirited”[1] – the very patriotic overtone of American economic ingenuity; and as stated in the source, “only a “virtuous” people can be truly free.”[2]

It is said that “industry and constant employment”[3] are what set up and in turn protect the morals of a great nation that rests upon the shoulders of virtues that circulate through every aspect of society and said society’s economy. Franklin may have pushed for a virtuous society, but his early republicanism was rooted significantly within an agrarian society. It became clear, over time, that a modern economy based entirely on agriculture and self-sufficient, family-based systems would serve no purpose in a foreign environment. Antiquated forms of traditional government couldn’t have prepared the Americans when it came to establishing their ideology on the world market and within the pages of history as well.

Americans stepped into the pool of industrialization toe-first, as one of the major debates during the early days of American society was as to which, if any, of the primal economic systems would focus on productivity that would prove ourselves on a world market.  These people had to identify and solve problems that were “as old as the colonies themselves”.[4] In 1819, the American system seemingly stalled – crashed, even – under the weight of this question.  As read in Larson’s “Market Revolution in America”, unemployment spiked in 1819 and showed no signs of coming down due to the downfall of agricultural prices which led to farmers defaulting on their loans and going into foreclosure. With agriculture at a low, textile industries laid off thousands as well. What the country decided to go with would be a systematic approach at protecting home manufacturers from any foreign market tampering, and thus the “American system” found itself pushed into Congress.[5] Larson’s book is a great example of showing how a low point in American history can lead to advancements, and how said advancements could indeed bring back the low points.

With the market beginning to stabilize itself, in a sense, the initiatives to improve the functioning society rose into the viewpoints of republicanism and other forms of federal constructs. The idea of a “common good”, working for the benefits of all citizens, that keep the “civic virtue”, the relationship to individualistic involvement within a society, of the American states alive and well.

To develop this system, one that would go along with the “common good” established by precedent, the states found themselves tackling the subjects of communication and transportation, both valuable parts of a functioning economy that were left out to dry during most of the colonial days under England. With help from some foreign investors and start-up companies that were trying to make a quick buck, the government turned corporate profit into a textbook definition of civic virtue – coming together and ‘helplessly’ encouraging economic and social growth – through a common good – that the transportation movement would ultimately lead to a commonly beneficial good for all. Roads, canals, and eventually railroads were all integrated across the once-barren and agrarian landscape of the country.[6] This would benefit the national economy through quicker and more industrialized routes to bring goods into the market, and it would allow for a common good relationship between citizens and their republican government.

Perhaps the best example of the common good between the people and the government that benefited from the transportation revolution would be that relating to the communication problem between the states. One of the explicit powers given to the federal government within the United States Constitution is the ability to establish a post office and post roads throughout the jurisdiction of the nation.[7] This changed the perception on how people related to the government that they didn’t trust up until the benefits that they received from it. In a sense, the transportation revolution “enabled” the United States Post Office to grow throughout the entirety of the country, making it easier to bring modernized mail services and other forms of communications to areas of the continent that hadn’t seen it prior to such advancements. Thousands of post office stations sprouted up in less than a century, and when the advancements of transportation evolved, the common good managed to evolve as well.[8]

The American corporations made profit off these advancements, but the American people perceived it as civic virtues that made up the American way of life. One could consider this a primitive form of nationalism, but it is also a major turning point in the evolution of American economics and corporatist capitalism as well. These Americans helped create and maintain parts of our society that exist to this day through turning towards industrialized methods of showcasing their republican definition of virtues, those related directly (or indirectly, when considering profits) into the spirit of the public’s well-being.

Erie Canal - Civil Virtue

[1] Drew R. McCoy, “Benjamin Franklin’s vision of a Republican Political Economy for America,” William & Quarterly 35, no. 4 (October 1978): 605.

[2] Drew R. McCoy, “Benjamin Franklin’s vision of a Republican Political Economy for America,” William & Quarterly 35, no. 4 (October 1978): 605-606.

[3] Drew R. McCoy, “Benjamin Franklin’s vision of a Republican Political Economy for America,” William & Quarterly 35, no. 4 (October 1978): 620. “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America,” 1782, Smyth, ed., Writings of Franklin, VIII, 613.

[4] Larson, The Market Revolution in America 33.

[5] Larson, The Market Revolution in America 41-43.

[6] Weaver, An Economic History of the United States, 35.

[7] U.S. Constitution, Article I Section VIII, § 7

[8] Weaver, An Economic History of the United States, 35-36.

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