This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight...
-- Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The next time you're upset over how long the highway department is taking to complete that always-in-the-works intersection, you can at least be grateful that the project didn't take eighteen years. Of course, if that road construction was not just transportation, but stimulus package, engineering experiment, economic policy, and immigration plan all rolled into one, you might be a little more tolerant.
Construction on the Cumberland Road wasn't begun until 1811 and it would be 1838 before the pavement stretched to Columbus, Ohio, but the origin of the idea went back to an argument that took place in George Washington's office in 1790. In the face of a fiscal crisis, Alexander Hamilton was there with a plan for the American economy. Thomas Jefferson was there to stop him. When the details of Hamilton's plan were revealed, Jefferson called them both illegal and immoral. He quickly rattled off a half dozen legal principles that were imperiled by the plan. Hamilton rose to its defense. The two men had sparred on any number of occasions, and sometimes seem to look on their arguments as a sport. Washington was not amused. The president put a stop to Jefferson's protests and awarded the match to Hamilton. Of the two, Washington liked Hamilton better. It was hard to blame him. For all his good qualities, Jefferson could also be something of an ass.
The problems facing Washington's administration were legion. Nearly all of the young nation's manufactured goods were imported, and domestic competition was finding it hard to get started with cheap goods pouring in from overseas. Hundreds of state and local banks were operating under different rules, different rates, even different currencies. Increasing population was driving up demand for land and produce in the east, while goods and agricultural products in the new western settlements had no access to eastern markets. The country was awash in speculators taking advantage of differences in exchange rates and shipping costs to rack up fortunes while farmers and craftsmen suffered. Imagine a country with dozens of different currencies and no one regulating the exchange rates. Now imagine how many people learned to game the system.
The ideas that Hamilton introduced to address these issues were dramatic then, and would be more shocking if they were proposed today. First, Hamilton argued that the United States needed to impose high tariffs to make imports less attractive. Cloth, furniture, all the various manufactured goods coming into American ports from European makers, would be subject to as much as a 25% surcharge. These higher prices would provide a margin for American industry to expand. Later generations might associate such measures with an unproductive protectionism, and even finger tariffs as a trigger for economic depression. But the first American administration (and many that came after) did not agree. In addition to the tariffs, there would also be subsidies to American industry.
Another of Hamilton's proposals was that the country needed to focus on infrastructure, like the Cumberland Road, as a means of providing access for settlers and transport for goods. Roads and canals were planned across the country. These "shovel ready projects" (which at that time were often carried out by small armies of men actually packing shovels) vied for funding and priority just as high speed rail systems and interstate highways do today. At the same time, the Federal government prposed to provide a boost to the states by taking over the debt they had incurred during the Revolutionary War. However, there was a problem with the list of projects waiting their turn in Congress: funding. The new government had no way to pay for all the proposals that quickly came to cover Washington's desk.
Hamilton had an answer for that, as well; one that has its own echoes in modern times. What Hamilton proposed was that the US government become the largest stockholder in a bank. Not an existing bank, a new bank. Hamilton's idea was that the government would create this bank as a private company, but the government would own the first $2 million in stock. The government would also lay down the rules for the bank, including limits on who could buy stock, on what type of investments the bank could make, and how directors would be chosen. This bank would then lend the government the money it needed to handle its infrastructure projects. There was only one problem — the United States government didn't have anything close to $2 million available. That was where Hamilton got really clever. The bank itself would lend the government the dollars to buy the stock in the bank that the government was creating. Got that? The government would begin paying back that loan at the end of 1791, but even the payments were more than the government could afford. To solve that issue, Hamilton made a proposal popular with politicians in any age, a "sin tax." In this case, a tax on imported and domestic spirits (to see how well that went, just look up the Whiskey Rebellion).
Those who worry that we've wandered too far from the vision of the founding fathers might want to remember that in George Washington's first term, the government was involved in selectively restricting imports and paying out subsidies, bailing out debts of states, creating private companies, being the major stockholder in a bank, and executing a "stimulus plan" of infrastructure projects. All paid for by new taxes.
The Cumberland Road was one of the largest of the projects envisioned by the government. When it broke ground in 1811, it aimed to stretch from the Potomac to the Ohio, and this wouldn't be just a rutted track for horses and wagons. It was the first major road in the nation to employ the new system of "macadam" surface — a mixture of broken rock and tar. This was an expressway into America's interior.
By the summer of 1818, the road building crew had entered the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and were cutting their way into the forest. The woods they experienced were massive, dark, boundless... terrifying. Though centuries of settlement had pecked away at the woods to the east, and more and more Americans were now moving to the other side of the mountains, the deep woods were still feared. For the men who were chopping their way through that forest and laying a road with nothing but hand tools, they must have seemed endless. And a royal pain in the neck.
More than a century later, there were still some who felt that way...
Behind the house at Rancho del Cielo, Ronald Reagan was famous for swinging his ax to split piles of kindling. Chopping into logs may have kept Reagan fit, but when it came to the source of that wood, he was just as famously unconcerned. During the Calfornia governor's race in 1966, candidate Ronald Reagan made his position clear.
I think, too, that we've got to recognize that where the preservation of a natural resource like the redwoods is concerned, that there is a common sense limit. I mean, if you've looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees -- you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?
On another occasion, Reagan was asked about the beauty of a grove of 2,000 year old redwoods.
I saw them. There's nothing beautiful about them. They're just a little higher than the others.
In the end, Redwood National Park did not contain "hundreds of thousands of acres" of the ancient trees. The park totaled 58,000 acres -- including roads and parking lots. In exchange for giving up just 5,000 acres of trees that were marked for logging next to the park, the timber industry was given 13,000 acres of old trees elsewhere. Those trees are now gone. A single giant redwood -- three hundred feet tall and twenty-six feet in diameter -- can yield almost half a million board feet of lumber.
But at least those who live along the West Coast still have some places they can go to see an approximation of the forest as it once was. If you squint just right, if you pretend not to notice the foot paths and informational signs, you can see something of what must have confronted the settlers whose wagon trains came out of the plains and desert into the coastal forests of the West.
For those to the east, no such time capsule is available. The forest that those road crews saw in 1811, and that earlier settlers saw as they landed on the Atlantic Coast, is lost. Absolutely, and utterly gone. Even in the most remote stretches of Maine or the most pristine areas of the mountains, what we have today is a forest so different that it gives little sense of what conditions were like back then. In fact, when scientists in the early 20th century looked at sketches that had been made by the first explorers who sailed into Eastern American rivers and hiked into those forests, they routinely thought those early explorers had exaggerated. No one could believe that the environment had once been so rich, so diverse, so alien to how it looks today, and above all so blanketed in giants.
The biggest reason for the change is the simplest one: time. Trees live for a long, long time. And the largest trees tend to be the oldest. From the 15th century on, eastern white pines were harvested from America's east coast. Ranging up to 230' tall, these trees were perfect for making the masts of large sailing ships. Barges were sent up rivers, and well before there were lumber mills, Navy crews ranged across the countryside bringing out dozens of these giants at a time. These trees were over 500 years old. The tallest tree in New England today is also an eastern white pine. At nearly 170 feet, it's an imposing tree, but it will be centuries yet before it matches up to the trees that once existed in groves.
The same factor of time weighs against other trees of the east. When life spans are measured in centuries, even logging that happened in colonial times still stunts the forests today. But there's another factor that weighs even more heavily in the difference between what the forests were, and what they are. Starting in the first half of the 20th century, diseases have remodeled the forest beyond recognition. The elegant American elm, whose vase-shaped boughs lined streets throughout the nation, was ravaged by Dutch elm disease. It's not vanished, but most trees now die well before they reach their first century, and long before they reach the impressive height and girth that once endeared them to both city planners and poets.
But no tragedy has reshaped the forest like the disappearance of the most iconic of Eastern trees, the American chestnut. The chestnut did not reach the height of the great eastern pines, but no other tree had the colossal canopy, the massive limbs, the overwhelming presence of the chestnut. It was a fast-growing tree, good for fence posts and railroad in only a couple of decades — and for furniture, fiddles, homes, barns, and ships. Later on, it would be used for telephone polls. The wood resisted rot, the tree tolerated a range of soils and weather. Most of all, it was amazingly common. When the Bronx Zoo imported some related trees from Asia in 1904, they had no idea those trees carried a fungus that would spread out into the forest. Into the forest where one in four trees was an American chestnut. The tree's range stretched all along the path of that Cumberland Road — from the East Coast to the Ohio Valley, from Canada to the Gulf. Four billion huge trees spread over 200 million acres
Forty years later, perhaps a hundred large chestnut trees remained where those four billion had been. There might have been some resistant trees among those forests at the time, but as the giants began to die, loggers moved in and worked furiously to take what trees remained. If there were resistant trees, they were turned into someone's dining room table or roof shingles.
(Image from The Forest Historical Society)
Beneath the thick boughs of the chestnut, was the twilight world of Longfellow's poem. A rich world. Chestnut trees produced their namesake in vast quantities. The nuts were not only a major source of food for the forest creatures, but also provided both food and income for the people who lived in the shadow of the great trees. For many farmers working marginal land, chestnuts were the difference between profit and loss. Or even the difference between life or starvation.
When the chestnuts were gone American was a difference place.
To get some sense of what the forest looked like for those men cutting their way through in 1811, you'd need to travel not to a US national park, but to a park that straddles the border of Poland and Belarus. The Białowieża Forest was owned by the kings of Poland from the 15th century and made a hunting preserve from the 16th century on. A few small villages were built in the woods over the centuries, and German forces set up a lumber mill during World War I, but much of the forest remains essentially untouched. It is today as nearly all of Europe once was, and it's the closest thing we have to the forest that once blanketed the eastern half of the United States. In the Białowieża, oak trees grow to be over 20' in circumference. Wisent, the European bison, graze in dappled meadows much as American bison once did. The space between the great trees is damp, thick with centuries of leaves and discarded branches. Mushrooms and other fungus grow in riotous profusion. Few green plants exist below the canopy that is dense enough to keep the world below in permanent gloom. This is the old forest. The place where its equally easy to believe in monstrous beasts and sacred groves. This is the forest not just of our ancient ancestors, but of those who came only a few generations before us. This is what temperate land does when we don't get in the way.
If the Białowieża seems like a long way to travel to see what America's forests were like centuries ago, at least there is a Białowieża. You can still seek out the Cumberland Road, as well. US Highway 40 follows much of the orginal route between Illinois and points east. However, to see an example of the American School of economics, you'd have to travel to... well, nowhere really. Certainly not to America.
For more than a century, the American School of economics would be based on three ideas: supporting industry through tariffs and subsidies in opposition to free trade, government creation of improvements to help commerce and investment and control of private infrastructure, and a government controlled fiscal infrastructure that would encourage growth of the economy through regulation of credit and direct intervention in banking. During the administration of Abraham Lincoln, two more ideas were added to the canon: government support for public education and the advancement of science through a public school system and research grants, and avoiding "class struggle" by looking for policies that didn't benefit wealthy factory owners at a cost to workers.
Lincoln's economic advisor, Henry Carey, compared the American System to the British System of Lassiez-faire economics in his book, The Harmony of Interests.
Two systems are before the world;... One looks to increasing the necessity of commerce; the other to increasing the power to maintain it. One looks to underworking the Hindoo, and sinking the rest of the world to his level; the other to raising the standard of man throughout the world to our level. One looks to pauperism, ignorance, depopulation, and barbarism; the other to increasing wealth, comfort, intelligence, combination of action, and civilization. One looks towards universal war; the other towards universal peace. One is the English system; the other we may be proud to call the American system, for it is the only one ever devised the tendency of which was that of elevating while equalizing the condition of man throughout the world.
It wasn't until 1893 that Democrat Grover Cleveland began reducing the tariffs that had marked the American system. It was the start of a general disengagement between government and the economy — a surrender to the British System. And it would continue right up until start of the Great Depression.