Albert Gallatin and Canals
by Gayle Martinelli
“The present population of the United States, compared with the extent of territory over which it is spread, does not, except in the vicinity of the seaports, admit that extensive commercial intercourse within short distances, which, in England and some other countries, forms the principal support of artificial roads and canals. . . . . It is necessary, in order to be productive, that the canal should be a communication with a natural extensive navigation which will flow through that new channel. . .”
From Albert Gallatin’s Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors and Rivers 1808
The canals of the Pennsylvania Mainline and the canal era in the United States may not have occurred without the inspiring work of Albert Gallatin.
Gallatin, President Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, understood that transportation systems in the young country were, at best, dismal, rough and unreliable. Rutted mud roads and impassable waterways hindered the unification and prosperity of the young country and made it difficult, often impossible, for farmers and others to move their goods to market.
Fortunately, Jeffersonians Gallatin, James Madison, and even Thomas Jefferson himself were advocates of internal improvements, as they sought expansion to the West. Gallatin understood that for the United States to become a major nation, it needed to have efficient transportation arteries.
In 1807, the U. S. Senate passed a resolution calling upon the treasury department to compile a report proposing ways that the Federal Government could address these issues.
The result was Albert Gallatin’s landmark Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors and Rivers submitted in 1808. The report outlined, in detail, what we may today call an “infrastructure project.” It represented a great blueprint for a national system of internal improvements and has been called “one of the great planning documents in American history.” It rose above the competition for state projects, as it proposed the logic and authority of a cohesive national plan.
Gallatin’s familiarity with canal systems built in Europe rendered him an expert in exploring the use of canals in addition to road expansion and improvement. He, therefore, proposed plans for four great canals along the eastern coast to improve navigation inland: the Cape Cod Canal, the Delaware and Raritan Canal, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and the Dismal Swamp Canal.
He also recommended building canals across the Appalachians to improve river systems, including the Allegheny, Juniata, Susquehanna and Monongahela Rivers.
He proposed roads to be added as a part of this program; some of these were ultimately constructed as rail roads.
Gallatin’s report was criticized as folly and impractical. Some, even Jefferson, thought that the plan may be unconstitutional and he preferred to wait for a constitutional amendment before implementing Gallatin’s plan. The proposals were later included in a comprehensive bill in 1810; however, the War of 1812 delayed implementation.
The War of 1812 was followed by not only the beginning of state power but a great era of American canal building. Many of the Gallatin’s proposed projects were eventually constructed. Most projects were favorably endorsed by the public and they were completed with a combination of state, private and local government funding rather than federal aid. The projects took more than 50 years to complete.
Other accomplishments of Albert Gallatin include:
- Serving in the House of Representatives 1795-1801
- Responsible for the Law of 1801 requiring an annual report by the Secretary of Treasury
- Helped create the powerful House Ways and Means Committee
- Appointed Secretary of the Treasury 1801 by President Jefferson and continued under President James Madison until 1814, serving in that office nearly thirteen years – the longest term of any Secretary in the Department’s history.
- Pledged to reduce the national debt and eliminate the excise tax
- Devised a plan to pay off the debt by 1817
- Advocated promotion of manufacturing
- Represented the United States in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent in 1814; labeled by historian Henry Adams as “the special and peculiar triumph of Mr. Gallatin.”
- Appointed minister to Great Britain in 1826 by President John Quincy Adams
- President of the National Bank 1831-1839
Albert Gallatin found the site of his future home, Friendship Hill, in Western Pennsylvania while surveying and exploring land in the Ohio Valley. It is so named for his friendship with business partners. The initial structure was completed in 1789.
Learn more about the life and accomplishments of Albert Gallatin and Friendship Hill National Historic Site in Point Marion, Pennsylvania or go to https://www.nps.gov/frhi/index.htm.
- Shaw, Ronald E., Canals for a Nation The Canal Era in the United States 1790-1860, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990
- Walters, Raymond Jr., Albert Gallatin Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957
- Albert Gallatin (1801-1814), U. S. Department of the Treasury, retrieved August, 2015: http://www.treasury.gov/about/history/Pages/agallatin.aspx
- Swiss-born Albert Gallatin (1761-1849) was U. S. secretary of the Treasury, as well as a diplomat, banker and ethnographer, Encyclopedia of World Biography, retrieved August, 2015: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Albert_Gallatin.aspx
- Albert Gallatin’s Report on Roads, Canals, Harbors and Rivers, about.com, retrieved August, 2015, http://history1800s.about.com/od/canals/a/gallatinreport.htm