America’s transition from a nation of dispersed communities and local economies to a national market generated exciting opportunities. It also created new winners and losers and fundamentally altered the people’s relationships to their neighbors, families and government. When they argued about whether to dredge a river or build a canal, Americans of the antebellum period were really arguing about what kind of country they wanted to live in. And that’s exactly what politicians are still fighting about today.
Prior to the 1820s, America’s infrastructure was a rudimentary and scattershot affair. Roads were locally built and maintained. Riverways were mostly undredged. Canals and railroads were nonexistent. The downstream journey from Pittsburgh, an emerging western market hub, to the Southern port city of New Orleans took at least six weeks; the return trip, upstream, took 17 weeks—which is why most people transporting goods simply broke their boats up for timber upon arrival in New Orleans and walked or rode back home. When newly elected Senator Henry Clay first made the journey from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, to Washington, D.C., in 1806, it took three weeks of hard overland travel.
Many Americans, particularly those who lived inland from coastal towns—those pushing outward beyond the Alleghenies and Appalachian range, extending as far as the Old Northwest territories—were essentially cut off from a regional, let alone national, market. Like many of their neighbors in the new state of Indiana, Abraham Lincoln’s family cultivated only a small portion of its land to grow corn and vegetables and raise hogs and cattle, leaving the rest fallow and overgrown. As a neighbor later explained, “there wasn’t no market for nothing else unless you took it across two or three states.” Though Lincoln’s father, Thomas, attempted on several occasions to take pork and corn by flatboat to New Orleans, in the absence of roads and canals, and with large parts of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers largely unnavigable, the cost of transportation all but erased the profit margin.
Without a market for goods, and in the absence of a developed cash economy, most families did what was logical, producing enough for home consumption and little more, perhaps selling a small surplus to neighbors, bartering with others for goods and services, manufacturing clothing and other necessities at home, and purchasing what few items they could not produce themselves—sugar and other dry goods, glass for windows—from a nearby country store. Survival demanded a collective outlook. Like other families, the Lincolns relied on a growing kinship network of cousins and in-laws who established small, adjoining homesteads and built an informal system of cooperative farming, home production and bartering.
That soon changed. Following the War of 1812, which exposed the logistical dangers of a fragmentary transportation system, federal and state…
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