“Is Anything Free?: Debates Regarding Internal Improvements in Antebellum North Carolina”

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Some things never change.  The particulars may do so, yet the essence remains.  Modern-day political ideas in North Carolina, for example, are rooted in the state’s past.  One example is public-funded roads.

One prefatory note: the antebellum debate for public financing public roads and canals (called internal improvements) has been misunderstood.  Opponents of nationally funded internal improvements have been unfairly criticized as eccentric agrarians or backwoods provincials who wished to go back to a medieval, self-sufficient economy and therefore retarded progress in the Old North State.  Proponents of state-funded internal improvements have been considered benevolent and selfless politicians, concerned only about helping the public.

In the early 1800s, Archibald De Bow Murphey, planter, lawyer, State Senator, and Superior Court Judge, stressed the need for state-planned transportation improvements.  Some have called him a “prophet” and a “visionary, and he is the namesake of the town of Murphy (unfortunately his name was misspelled).  Murphey remarked that North Carolina was one of the poorest states and for that reason, many moved elsewhere to find opportunity. The lack of roads and canals, it was argued, contributed greatly to this emigration, so the General Assembly in 1817 created a Board of Internal Improvement, with Murphey as chairman.  

As chairman, Murphey hoped to open up the state’s major rivers for more navigation and to make a profit while doing so.  He invested in navigation companies and bought land along the Cape Fear, Haw, Deep, and Yadkin rivers.  Fortune was not kind to Murphey, however.  His internal improvement idea rang hollow in many North Carolinians’ ears.  Murphey’s stock suddenly fell, and he spent time in debtor’s prison.  But his idea did not die, for in the late 1830s William Graham and John Motley Morehead supported public-funded plank roads and railroads.  (Note that Murphey’s plan called for state-funded roads, not nationally-funded ones.)

On the other hand, Nathaniel Macon, asking reasonable and discerning questions, opposed the public funding of roads because he feared possible political corruption and regarded the national funding of transportation improvement as unconstitutional.  In 1814, Macon remarked, “[The] importance of inland navigation is not at this time questioned by anyone; But by what ways and means the navigation is to be improved, and the roads to be made, is not a question so easily answered. . . . “  He was well aware that many wanted the building of roads for individual interest.  It is no surprise that in the 1830s and 1840s, many turnpikes and railroads passed through the hometowns of sponsors of transportation bills, whose land increased in value with the improvement.

Macon also opposed federal subsidies.  He argued, writes historian Alan D. Watson, that such expenditures “added to the federal debt and taxes.” They also kept tariff rates high.  Therefore, Macon and his acolyte, Thomas H. Hall, a congressman from Edgecombe County, kept the national subsidies in their state at almost nil: out of almost $4.2 million in national internal improvement expenses, an 1828 report disclosed that North Carolina had received only $1,000.  Some remarked, however, that as long as the national government doled out money for transportation improvements, North Carolina should accept some subsidies and ensure that some of North Carolinians’ contribution to the coffers of the U.S. government were returned to improve their state.  

The debate raged between the Democratic Party and Whig Party until the Civil War: the typical, antebellum Democrat voted against internal improvement funding, while the Whig favored it.  In 1849, when debating whether to provide public funds for plank roads, Democrats articulated Macon’s ideas: “The great question now in North Carolina must be whether or not we are to approve a wild and profligate scheme of Internal Improvements, adopted by an abominable system of log-rolling and deception—the result of which is to impose taxation to the amount of five times what we now pay.”  A question that should remind us today that, in government planning, genuine humanitarians are as scarce as hen’s teeth and nothing is free.