7 – America’s path to becoming spacefaring (Part 1): George Washington and 1784-1787


If Americans are to seriously consider the implications and demands of becoming a true spacefaring nation, it is important that we understand the path the United States has followed these last two plus centuries to bring us to this point.  At this early stage of human space activities, the early true spacefaring nations will be the great nations of the times.  They will become true spacefaring nations to preserve and extend this great nation status.

This first in a series of Spacefaring America blog entries looks at when and why America started on the path that has brought us to the threshold of a new and very exciting era of America’s history.  It is about America becoming a great nation and the precedent that building logistics infrastructure has had in achieving this status.  Building logistics infrastructure–or internal improvements, as it was called in the early 19th century–has been an American key to success in opening new frontiers and forging a nation.

European great power competition in North America. 

In Spacefaring America Blog 6, I discussed the concept of a great power.  Columbia University scholar Kenneth Waltz’s five great power criteria were: “population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, political stability and competence, and military strength.”  By the time of the start of the American Revolutionary War, most European great powers had been competing in the western hemisphere in all of these areas for more than two centuries.  Their interest in the western hemisphere started with fishing on the Grand Banks, off the coast of today’s Newfoundland, at the end of the 15th century and then expanded to trade, settlement, and conquest as European seafaring capabilities improved to enable settlers to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Given the logistics of the time, furs were one commodity that could be acquired, transported, and sold in Europe at a profit.  The fur trade started with European fisherman, fishing off the coast of North America, trading knives and similar European goods for Native American/First Nation pelts.  As realization grew that North America could become a source of fur for Europe, particularly beaver fur that was becoming hard to acquire within Europe, France established trading posts in today’s Canada (then, New France) at the beginning of the 17th century.  This was about the same time as the English colony of Jamestown was established.  English-French competition on the continent grew to warfare when the British captured Québec in 1629 and held it for three years.  The French fur trade prospered such that the English countered the monopoly with the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company in 1670.  France, not wanting to be boxed in by the new English trading operations to their north, responded in 1682 by moving south and claiming the entire Ohio and Mississippi river valleys to the Gulf of Mexico for France.  Louisiana was the name given to this territory.  Warfare resumed in 1689 with a joint British/Iroquois attack on New France and continued through 1713.  After thirty years of peace, war broke out again in 1744 when the governor of Massachusetts led an attack on a French fortress in today’s Nova Scotia.

Great powers competition for the Ohio Country. 

While France claimed the Ohio river valley in 1682, this did not prevent British fur traders and trappers from moving into the valley.  In 1748, wealthy Virginians, including George Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence, formed the Ohio Company to establish a British settlement west of the Alleghany Mountains near the head waters of the Ohio River in today’s western Pennsylvania.  The British government sold the company 200,000 acres of land with the provision that the company sell this land to 100 settler families and establish a fort for their protection.  After a general survey of the territory, lands in today’s western Pennsylvania and West Virginia were selected. 

The French opposed this move by setting up a series of forts on Lake Champlain and on the Wabash, Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers.  Attempts to negotiate a settlement to the territorial control dispute failed in 1750.  In 1752, the new governor-general of New France was given specific instructions to remove British presence from the Ohio Valley. 

In 1753, a 21-year old George Washington was commissioned as a major in the Virginia Regiment following the death of his brother Lawrence.  In part, this commission was obtained with the political connections to the prominent Fairfax family. Primarily, however, the commission was due to Washington’s surveyor and frontiersman skills earned while conducting surveys in Virginia.  (Washington, at age 17, was appointed the county surveyor of the newly formed Culpepper Country.  He conducted 199 surveys prior to 1753, spending much of his time in the newly formed western counties in Virginia.)  The newly commissioned young Washington was sent on a diplomatic mission to deliver a letter to the French, in today’s western Pennsylvania near Lake Erie, demanding they leave the area.  After a cordial reception and nice dinner, the French politely declined. 

Topographical map of the Eastern US in late 1700s
Topographical map of the Eastern United States in late 1700s

 

It was on the trip home that Washington has his first brush with the dangers of the frontier.  A Native American guide turned on Washington and his traveling companion and shot at Washington from close range.  He missed and then fled.  (Washington’s immunity to being struck by enemy fire remained with him throughout the Revolutionary War with, many times, bullets passing through his clothes.)  Washington and his companion, fearing more attacks, ran through the night.  On reaching the Alleghany River, east of today’s Pittsburgh, Washington built a raft to take the two men across the river.  While crossing the river, Washington fell from the raft.  The two men managed to make it to an island in the river where they waited, without a fire, for morning.  Being that this was winter, the temperatures were below freezing.  Having lost the raft, they did not know how they would be able to cross the cold water.  Fortunately, the river froze during the night and the two men were able to walk across the river and then make their return to Virginia.

While on this trip, Washington, looking down from the bluffs, noted that the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers to form the Ohio River was an excellent location for a fort.  The following year, Virginia sent a construction brigade to construct a fort at this location–today’s Pittsburgh.  Superior French forces soon arrived, forcing the British to leave. The French erected Fort Duquesne at this location.  Lieutenant Colonel Washington, who was originally to have arrived later to aid the builders of the British fort, was instead tasked to improve an existing trail, built years earlier by the Ohio Company, into a 110 mile long military road from Cumberland, Maryland, to the area to support  British military forces.  Completing the road, he set up camp at Great Meadows, 50 miles southeast of the French fort.

Native American scouts allied to the British accompanied Washington.  Their leader reported a French force camped nearby and insisted that the French were there to attack Washington’s force.  The 22-year old Washington led an attack on the French camp and captured the French forces.  Surprising everyone, the leader of the Native Americans suddenly attacked and killed the French commander. Several other captured French were also killed.  After several of the French had escaped, Washington returned to Great Meadows to construct defensive fortifications in preparation for the expected counterattack by French forces from Fort Duquesne.  This occurred several weeks later leading to Washington’s forced capitulation on July 4th and his return to Virginia. 

The following year, 1755, Washington returned to western Pennsylvania as aide-de-camp to the British Major General Braddock.  Braddock’s subsequent defeat, with substantial losses including his own death, by a smaller French force was viewed as a major French victory.  Washington’s actions in taking charge (63 of 86 British officers were killed or wounded) and commanding an orderly retreat made him a “hero” of the engagement. 

Washington’s two engagements with the French in 1754, as subsequent events unfolded, turned out to be the first of the French and Indian War in North America.  Following Braddock’s defeat, the warfare spread to Europe, where it was called the Seven Years’ War–referred to by some as the first world-wide war costing over 800,000 lives.  In 1763, the British were victorious, forcing the French to surrender all lands in North America–the Ohio Country among them.  (In 1762, the French had secretly ceded the lands of the western Mississippi River basin to Spain.)  During the war, British victories forced the French to withdraw from Fort Duquesne in 1758.  Colonel George Washington, as commander of Virginia colonial forces, led 900 colonials as a part of the overall British-American army that forced the French withdrawal.  Having burned the fort as they withdrew, the British rebuilt it as Fort Pitt.  Through Fort Pitt the British controlled access to the Ohio Country via the Ohio River.

1763-1783: Americans begin to move into the Ohio Country. 

Subsequent to the French and Indian War, the British government attempted to prevent general settlement in the Ohio Country north and west of the Ohio River to improve relationships with the local Native American tribes.  This, however, did not prevent growth.  Land was life and wealth in an agrarian society.  And the Ohio Country had a great deal of open land.  By 1775, one estimate is that approximately 30,000 white people lived in today’s western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, primarily along the Ohio River and its upper tributaries.  By 1780, Fort Pitt was expanding into Pittsburgh with about 100 cabins having been built near the fort.  A fort had been established at today’s Wheeling, West Virginia.  Cincinnati and Louisville had their first crude buildings.  Virginia opened a land office with the result that the white population of Kentucky grew from less than 200 people in 1778 to about 12,000 five years later.

George Washington’s personal fortunes were also improving during these years.  He had inherited Mount Vernon from his older brother Lawrence following his death in 1752.  Living now at Mount Vernon on the banks of the Potomac River, Washington became personally engaged in using this river to enhance commerce to the west .  For instance, during the 1758 campaign against the French, it is believed that the reason he strongly advocated for the use of the military road he had built in 1754, rather than building a new road across western Pennsylvania, was because his road led from the Potomac Valley.  His interest in fostering the commercial use of the Potomac River would remain a strong personal goal the remainder of his life.

In the 1760’s, after retiring to private life, Washington started to acquire land, especially land across the Alleghany Mountains.  He did not speculate, as many did, but generally bought and held land.  Washington viewed the royal decree against western settlement as being temporary.  However, by 1769 while a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Washington’s views shifted to one of being strongly anti-British.  In part, this may have been due to the fact that the royal decree made his western land holdings worthless.  He viewed this as unwarranted Crown interference in American affairs.  While Washington was certainly a man of honor, he was also one of strong personal ambitions. 

In the fall of 1770, Washington returned to the west.  From Fort Pitt, he traveled 266 miles, by his estimate, down the Ohio River by canoe to the Great Kanawha River where he marked land for future ownership.  (His distance estimate was in error was less than one quarter of a mile!) By the time of his death, he had amassed a personal estate through inheritance, marriage, and purchase totaling over 50,000 acres with property holdings in several states and major cities.  The value of the land at the time of his death was over three-quarters of a million dollars making him one of the richest men in America.  (It was, however, a wealth tied closely to the land.  When he traveled to New York City for his inauguration as president, he borrowed 600 pounds in cash from close friends to cover his expenses. Few people had hard cash other than pocket change for daily necessities–ale at the tavern, for example.  Wealth was accumulated through land owned and a positive balance of assets and liabilities.)

In 1783, as Washington became aware of the terms of the Treaty of Paris that would formally end the Revolutionary War, his interest in his western land holdings increased.  He wrote to friends, including Lafayette, of his desire to take a grand tour of the new “American” western territories.  This was his intent when on Christmas Eve, 1783, shortly after the last of the British forces had left the new United States, Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and returned to private life at Mount Vernon.  The U.S. Continental Congress ratified the treaty in January, 1784.  The British, more or less, accepted the terms of the treaty.

In terms of the future of the nation, the key provisions of the treaty were not just the recognition of the former colonies’ independence from Great Britain, but, rather, the British agreement that the new United States of America included all lands west to the Mississippi River, except for those held by Spain in Florida.  These were the lands, south of the Great Lakes, that France had ceded to England in the treaty of 1763, twenty years earlier, concluding the French and Indian War.  The new United States became a wealthy nation in terms of open land for settlement with much of this land, especially that of the Ohio Country and beyond, eventually being owned by the federal government.  In 1787 the famous Northwest Ordinance clarified state claims to the lands west of the Ohio River, established the western boundaries for Virginia and Pennsylvania, and established the political process that would be used to manage the new territories and incorporate them into the United States.

 

Peace of 1783 Map of the United States of America
Peace of 1783 Map of the United States of America

 

1784-1787: The start of national internal improvements. 

American history of the 1780’s and 1790’s tends to focus on the major military and political events: the creation of the Constitution, Washington’s presidency, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the Treaty of Greenville, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Jay Treaty, to name a few.  The history of the steps leading up to the new states west of the Alleghany Mountains is generally presented briefly as if the new territories were on a straight-forward path towards eventual admission to the United States.  However, in 1784 this was not a settled case and national leaders clearly understood this.  Great Britain still maintained an official presence in the territories and fostered opposition of Native American tribes against the westward expansion of the United States.  Spain controlled New Orleans, St. Louis, and the Mississippi River–the economic artery of the continent–in addition to Florida, Mexico, California, and much of the “American” southwest.  Most Native American tribes/nations in and west of the Ohio Country, having been allies of the British during the Revolutionary War, disputed the sovereignty of the United States over these lands.  While the population of the 13 new states numbered somewhere in the range of 2-3 million, the number of “American” settlers west of the Alleghany Mountains in the Ohio Country numbered less than roughly fifty thousand.  The United States claimed the land by treaty, but in reality the western territories were still quite open for the taking. 

– The divide of the Alleghenies. 

With modern technology, we tend to ignore the topography of the land; driving on well-prepared interstate highways or flying across terrain that at the end of the 18th century was quite difficult to cross.  Despite the new map of the United States showing the country extending to the Mississippi River, the topography did not favor the practical integration of these new lands into the new nation.  The key issue, of course, was the eastern continental divide created by the Alleghany Mountains stretching from Pennsylvania to Georgia. 

While we are all aware that the “gravity wells” of the Earth and Moon define spacecraft movement and satellite orbits within the Earth-Moon system, up until the 19th century the same was true of humanity’s ability to move on land.  Water provides an ease of movement, especially for large cargos, that is impossible to match.  While human’s long ago learned to build boats to use rivers for mobility, these rivers flowed in directions defined by the terrain.  In terms of gravity wells, the eastern states were in one gravity well or watershed, where the rivers all flowed to the Atlantic Ocean, while the Ohio country and lands west were in a separate gravity well where the waters emptied into the Gulf of Mexico via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. 

With a few exceptions–the Hudson River connecting New York City and Albany, New York, for example–rivers in North America do not lend themselves to upriver mobility under sail.  They are either too narrow or flowing too fast for a boat of any commercial size to sail upriver.  The consequence of this is that commercial river traffic–the primary means of land travel for bulk goods–almost always went downriver.  Land adjacent to navigable rivers was of most value not only because it was generally flat, fertile, and well watered, but also because the adjacent river was the commercial road to the market.  Land more than a few miles from a river was nearly worthless because there was no practical way to get most excess agricultural products to market.  (The exceptions were animals that could be herded and value-concentrated products such as butter, whiskey, and salt-preserved meats.)

As the population of the Ohio Country increased in the late 1770s and early 1780s with simple farming homesteads on the banks of the Ohio River and its tributaries, these farmers wanted to trade their surplus for manufactured products.  Trade routes that had been established for the Ohio Valley fur trade adapted to seek the commercial profit potential of the agricultural surplus.  Merchants invested in trade goods in Philadelphia or New York City–cloth, china, pewter, tin ware, agricultural implements, books, clothes, etc.  The goods were then transported by pack horse (1760-1790) and Conestoga wagon (1790 on) across Pennsylvania and Virginia to Pittsburgh and Wheeling.  Floated down river, the goods were traded for agricultural products.  Continuing downriver, the agricultural products were delivered to New Orleans for sale or placed on ships for transport to other markets–Caribbean, Cuba, and east coast cities.

US commercial transportation loop (late 1700s – early 1800s)
US commercial transportation loop (late 1700s – early 1800s)

 

With the transportation technologies of the 18th century, the Alleghany Mountains presented the major obstacle to the economic and political integration of the new territories into the new United States.  “Nationhood” was still a very new concept for people who had never known anything but subservience to a crown.  “America” was were they lived, it was not yet their nation, especially on the frontier.  The great powers of Britain, Spain, and France certainly recognized this.  Their agents were at work in the western territories attempting to increase British influence from the north, Spanish influence from the south, or reinsert French influence.  At the same time, the New England states, fearful of the consequences of the westward expansion on their prosperity and political influence, created their own political obstacles to western territory integration.

Despite America being guaranteed access to the Mississippi River by the Treaty of Paris, Spain had a different view.  In 1784 it closed the Mississippi River and New Orleans to foreigners.  The commercial transportation loop that was necessary to enable the growing population of the Ohio Country to realize profit from their enterprise was closed.  The new nation’s path to becoming a continental nation with the territory, population, and natural resources of an emerging great power was at risk. (See Spacefaring America Blog 6.)  This was the general situation when George Washington road west, for the fifth time, across the Alleghany Mountains in the fall of 1784.

– Using commerce to bind the west to the east. 

In 1784 George Washington was truly unique.  Perhaps more so than anyone else, he was familiar with the new nation.  He had traveled extensively through Virginia and across the mountains into the Ohio Valley.  During the war, he had traveled north to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and throughout much of the colonies between Virginia and Massachusetts.  He had a good sense of the logistics capabilities and needs of the nation from moving and equipping the Continental Army for the six years of the conflict.  He understood the difficulty in building roads in the new western territories from his experience in building the military road into western Pennsylvania in 1754.  He understood the economic value of land and what transportation capabilities were needed to make money from frontier farming.  He had an excellent understanding of the difficulty the United States would face should it be necessary to take control of the western territories by force of arms should the European great powers again control these lands.  Finally, he had the respect of the nation’s political leaders–they would, at least, listen to his opinions about the future course of the nation.

Washington arrived home at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve, 1783.  Inherited after the death of his half-brother and expanded after his marriage to Martha, Mount Vernon was comprised of five farms, totaling about 8,000 acres, located ten miles south of Annapolis on the banks of the Potomac River. With the exception of two brief visits during the 1781 battle at Yorktown, Washington had not been at Mount Vernon for eight years.  On his return he found the estate in disarray.  Being what today we label as a micromanager, Washington was soon fully engaged in bringing the farms back into productive operation.

Washington stayed at Mount Vernon continuously, with only one short trip, until the fall of 1784.  On the first of September, he and several friends left on a trip across the Alleghany Mountains.  He had originally planed a great excursion up through Canada, across the Great Lakes and down through the Ohio Valley.  However, the demands of Mount Vernon forced a change in plans.  Instead, he intended now to visit his properties in today’s western Pennsylvania, about 10 miles southwest of Fort Pitt and then, again, canoe down the Ohio River, as he had in 1770, to his properties on the Great Kanawha River in today’s West Virginia.  The primary purpose of the trip was to look for new property to purchase, to visit family and friends, to check up on land he already owned that was being looked after by local land agents, and to determine ways to economically link the new western territories to Virginia by way of the Potomac River.  This trip west by horse–Washington was a very accomplished rider, perhaps the best in the country according to Jefferson–was a grueling 34 days, covering nearly 680 miles (do the math) across some of the roughest terrain in the eastern United States on muddy cuts through the dense woods that passed for roads. 

Route of George Washington's trip west in 1784
Route of George Washington’s trip west in 1784

While Washington was not successful in resolving ownership of some contested land near Fort Pitt, and, it was later learned, avoided a waiting ambush by hostile Native Americans near his properties south on the Ohio River, his trip was noteworthy in three important ways.

On his ride west to the area of Fort Pitt he stopped in the village of Bath (today’s Berkley Springs), noted for its hot mineral waters.  There he met James Rumsey, a self-made man, home builder, and inventor.  Rumsey was working to solve the fundamental problem of river transportation–how to move cargo upriver without extreme effort.  Unless the river was wide and slow, as with the lower Potomac, trade canoes and keel boats had to be paddled or poled up river.  Poling used long steel-tipped pikes.  The pike was driven into the river bottom and then, anchoring the other end against one’s shoulder, one walked from bow to stern pushing the boat upriver.  This required the efforts of as many as 16 men on larger keel boats; creating an endless “drive mechanism” of men and poles shoving the boat upriver at one to two miles per hour, 12 or more hours a day.  (Lincoln and Grant were two future U.S. presidents who earned money this way in their youth.)

Rumsey’s invention was to apply water power to this propulsion method.  Instead of men-powered poles, Rumsey hung water wheels–similar to the water wheels driving flour mills–over the side of the boat.  Trough a mechanical interconnection, Rumsey’s design converted the rotating power of the wheels into mechanical leverage that pushed the boat forward with a series of insect-like poles extending under the boat. In sufficiently shallow waters, it worked by using mechanical leverage to convert the moving water into mechanical upriver propulsion.  Rumsey had built a small working model of his boat and he demonstrated this to Washington on a local stream.  Washington, a man interested in “new” things, was fascinated and wrote Rumsey a testimonial letter.  (Rumsey would later become a leading inventor in the rush to develop a practical steam-powered boat. He demonstrated a steam-powered, water-jet propelled, four-mile-per-hour boat in 1786, just two years later.)  Washington had seen a glimpse of the future of inland water transportation–practical, reusable upriver (up gravity well) transportation.  (While president, Washington also witnessed the first manned balloon ascent in the United States–again seeing a glimpse of the future.)

Washington was eager to find a means to connect the Potomac River to the Ohio River.  The standard approach was to find the shortest distance between two navigable portions of the rivers and then build a connecting wagon road.  Goods would be poled or paddled up river to the transfer point, placed on wagons, carried to the other river, and then loaded into waiting boats to float downriver to the port.  The heavily-ridged terrain of the Alleghany Mountains made finding a good portage location difficult.  At least, unlike Pennsylvania, Virginia had the benefit of the Potomac River that, over the course of several hundred million years, had cut part of the way west through these mountains.

On the 24th of September, Washington stopped at the point where the Cheat River flows into the Monongahela, itself on its way to the Ohio River at Fort Pitt.  This was near today’s Morgantown, West Virginia.  At every stop like this, Washington quizzed the locals on terrain, rivers, and possible routes for portage roads.  The diary that Washington kept of this trip is full of the information he collected.  In the small cabin of the local land agent, packed with men so that only Washington was able to sit at the small table, Washington listened patiently to the assembled men.  Among them was a young, recent immigrant to the United States from Switzerland–Albert Gallatin.  Gallatin had spent the last year surveying and speculating in land in southern Pennsylvania.  He knew the terrain, perhaps as well as anyone in the territory.  While everyone else paid Washington great homage, the young Gallatin was anxious to interject his answers to the questions Washington sought.  Interrupting Washington–something no one did–Gallatin said, as he would later recount, “Oh, it is plain enough,” as he went on to describe the route connecting the Ohio and Potomac River.  After several minutes of further discussion with others, Washington looked back at the impertinent young Gallatin.  “You are right, sir.”

Gallatin’s taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, was a quality that would server him well in later life.  Within years he would be elected to the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.  He would lead the founding of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and, obviously, interact with Washington’s presidential administration.  He would become the Secretary of the Treasury under President Jefferson.  He would negotiate the legislation for the acceptance of the state of Ohio into the United States that would include language for the first federal internal improvement (infrastructure building)–the great National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to the Mississippi River.  Finally, he would help negotiate the Treaty of Ghent that concluded the War of 1812 with Great Britain with the United States preserving all of its territory.  Along the way, in response to a request by the Senate, Gallatin had prepared the “Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Subject of Roads and Canals.” A noted historical document, this was the young country’s first comprehensive assessment of its needs and potential solutions for improved internal transportation.  It was the early blueprint for much of the nation’s infrastructure building in the 19th century.

On his return to Mount Vernon, Washington had great enthusiasm for his plans to improve commercial use of the Potomac River.  He had succeeded (with Gallatin’s important input) in defining a route to connect the Potomac with the Ohio.  Spain had closed the lower Mississippi to Americans in the Ohio Valley.  The growing productive capacity of the Ohio Valley was bottled up with no place to go.  He had the solution–bring this commerce east via the Potomac River and a Virginian port at Alexandria.  What Washington sought was an all-Virginia solution.  In these early days of the union, political and economic competition between the states was immense.  While the military road he built in 1754 from Cumberland, Maryland to near Fort Pitt still existed and was used, it crossed into Pennsylvania. It was not an all-Virginia solution. But, in the next few years, Washington’s views broadened.  He began to set the nation’s needs ahead of, or least equal to, Virginia’s needs while at the same time using Virginia’s needs as the foundation for a national solution.  However, the need to find a means of logistical communication across the Alleghenies was clear in Washington’s mind.  He wrote:

No well informed Mind need be told, that the flanks and rear of the United territory are possessed by other powers, and formidable ones too–nor how necessary it is to apply the cement of interest to bind all parts of it together, by one indissolvable band–particularly the Middle States with the Country immediately back of them.  For what ties let me ask, should we have upon these people; and how entirely unconnected [would] we be with them if the Spanish on their right, or Great Britain on their left, instead of throwing stumbling blocks in their way as they now do, should envite their trade and seek alliances with them?…

The Western Settlers–from my own observation–stand as it were on a pivot–the touch of a feather would almost incline them any way.

In 1795, Washington’s administration would take advantage of unfavorable events for the Spanish in Europe to negotiate an end to the closer of the Mississippi.  The same year, a treaty with Great Britain would help remove active British support for Native American tribes in the Northwest Territories, as the greater Ohio Country was then called.  In the intervening years up to 1795, settlers were, as may be expected, active in looking out for their interests.  One former Revolutionary War general became secret agent #13 for Spain.  He attempted to establish a monopoly on Ohio River traffic through New Orleans and lead Kentucky into Spanish control.  Other settlers actively spoke of war with Spain to force the opening of the river; while others spoke of succession. 

It was just this issue that forced Washington to take strong measures during the famed Whiskey rebellion of 1791.  Frontier farmers resisted the excise tax that Congress levied on distilled alcohol.  Whiskey was a popular means of converting excess grain into a valuable product that could be profitably hauled overland to eastern markets. (Salt and ginseng were two others.)  Whiskey was an economic response to the lack of commercial logistics.  The rebellion was an example of the negative impact that the lack of affordable commercial logistics to cross the Alleghany Mountains was having on settlers in the Ohio Country.

If one looks at a map of the nations of the world, it is clear that geographic obstacles to communication–seas, mountains, rivers, and deserts–have defined national boundaries.  The same was becoming evident in North America.  The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River already established such a boundary between the United States and British Canada in the late 1700’s.  The same could happen with the Alleghany Mountains.  If Spain and/or Great Britain were to take political and military control of the lands west of the mountains, then the United States would forever remain a small coastal nation, perhaps a vassal state to one of the European great powers, or would be forced to wage war to seize the lands.  After six years of war to win freedom, Washington understood this risk very well.  There was a better way–build infrastructure of roads and canals; do what Spain and Great Britain were not doing–provide for the settlers.

– Western commercial influence on the Constitution

On his return to Mount Vernon from the west in 1784, Washington immediately set to implement his plans.  His first effort was to advocate to Virginia’s governor to establish public-private partnerships to build canals to improve navigation on the Potomac River.  Two such companies were established with Washington as an enthusiastic investor and their president.  James Rumsey reentered Washington’s sphere when he was hired as the “principle superintendent” of the two companies when no one more qualified could be found.  This followed a broad search for a suitable engineer to do this job.  (America was short on engineers at that time–a shortage that would start to disappear within a generation at the nation started to build logistics infrastructure in great earnest.)

Washington’s second effort was for more important.  He opened a dialog with Virginia’s northern neighbor, Maryland, to seek a partnership in improving the lower Potomac River.  When the royal colony of Maryland was created in 1632, its southern boundary was put on the southern shore of the Potomac River.  Thus, for improvements to be made to the river, Maryland must be involved. 

Delegates of the two states met first in Alexandria in March, 1785, and then, after four days, moved to Mount Vernon where Washington was at his best on home ground.  While the delegates entered the discussions seeking to gain a bigger slice of the pie for their respective state, Washington’s vision showed them how cooperation could make the economic pie far larger.  Seeing much to be gained, they decided to bring in more states.  Over a year later, a meeting was called in Annapolis, Maryland, of representatives from all the states .  Only delegations from five states arrived on time, while two more were en route–travel being so difficult in a nation without infrastructure.  For some reason, Washington was not invited.  However, while the Annapolis Convention, as it is called, was disbanded because a quorum of the states was not present, the decision was made to try again the following year in Philadelphia and to focus on making changes to the Articles of Confederation.  At this “Constitutional Convention,” as it would later be known, Washington was present, as its president.  To James Madison, Washington once said, “We are either a United people, or we are not.  [If not,] let us no longer act a farce by pretending to it.”  Washington was leading the nation down the united path to, in substantial part, achieve the cooperation among the states needed to build logistics infrastructure.

Ultimately, the federal government’s constitutional power to build internal improvements would be derived from Article 1, Section, 8, Clause 3: The Congress shall have Power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”  This was an outgrowth of Washington’s initiative with the 1785 meeting at Mount Vernon and his desire to seek improvements to enable commerce to join the new west with the established states of the east.  Although few in words, it gave the federal government authority to act in the country’s greater good to promote commerce.

Conclusion. Washington was certainly not alone in understanding the threat posed by the active presence of European great powers to America’s north and west.  By good fortune, however, his 1784 journey west across the Alleghenies to refresh his memories of the Ohio Country, his meeting with Gallatin to identify a route that both thought would work for a commercial logistics route to the west, and, his resulting enthusiasm for building new infrastructure in 1784-1787 turned out to be an important catalyst for leading the unification of the thirteen colonies into an emerging great power that would actively expand westward over the next 100 years.

The challenge from the European great powers was not yet settled when the constitution was written.  Spain, Great Britain, and France were or would shortly engage to take control of the Ohio Country.  It finally took the War of 1812 with Great Britain to settle the issue when American forces won the critical battles on Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and New Orleans that secured these territories. (In fairness, it should be noted that some American elements had their sites set on seizing Canada from the British during the War of 1812.  At the same time some of the New England states continued trade with the British–immune from the British blockade of American ports.)

Further reading:

The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West, Joel Achenbach, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.

A History of Transportation in the Ohio Valley, Charles Henry Ambler, Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970

Note:  This is blog entry is not intended to provide an authoritative commentary appropriate for reference.

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