By 1800 most farmers were doing more than scratching out a meager existence on the land. In the east the threat of Indians had disappeared and the development of hundreds of small mills had begun to spread. Farmers no longer had to rely purely on their own resources and could start utilizing the bountiful resources that surrounded them. The small mill industries were characteristically isolated from potential markets. England by comparison, already industrialized, was compact and had a well-developed system of transportation which tied the country into a more or less unified market. With towns no more than seventy miles from the sea and with at least 20,000 miles of turnpike-highway, England was a working economic unit.
The United States, geographically huge and variegated, was fragmented by a lack of a good transportation system as well as an increasingly specialized economy based on geographic differences.
The War of 1812 further demonstrated to Americans the inadequacy of their internal transportation system. By disrupting coastal shipping, the War proved that interstate commerce and the national defense were jeopardized by inadequate internal transportation.
Four years before the war, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson, presented a grand plan for internal improvements in his “Report on Roads and Canals.” Under this scheme the nation was to be tied together by a web of federally sponsored turnpikes and canals. Gallatin suggested the use of federal funds for these projects; but even if private enterprise played a part, the federal government should “take the responsibility for the selection of routes so that they would conform to the great geographic features of the country rather than to the dictates of local interests.”
Public enterprise on the federal level did not find much support in 1815, however. Not only did the opponents of the plan question the constitutionality of using federal money for such projects, but the plan produced intense jealousies among the states, in fear that one state might get ahead of another.
Of Gallatin’s entire plan, only one road was actually undertaken, the National Road from Cumberland on the north bank of the Potomac to the Ohio River at Wheeling.