Post Office as Road Builder

Washington, Jefferson, and other forward-thinking politicians had wanted to create a system of decent highways to promote settlement as well as postal service and weave the frontier into the fabric of the mother country. Their commonsensical desire was almost always thwarted by the states’ concerns over sovereignty. In 1806, President Jefferson and an obliging Congress authorized a rare exception to the rule: the construction of the tellingly named National Road. This trans-Appalachian highway, also known as the Cumberland Road and later as Route 40, eventually extended from Maryland through Pennsylvania to the Ohio River and nearly to St. Louis; it doubled as Main Street in many of the towns and villages it bisected. (The popularity of the celebrated “pike”—short for “turnpike,” a toll road-peaked twice: first with increased westward settlement in the mid-182os, then again in the 1840s, when Americans in covered wagons and stagecoaches began the great cross-country migration.) In 1817 John Calhoun, the prominent southern senator and later vice president, proposed that Congress could “counteract every tendency to disunion” by funding more such highways if it would simply reinterpret the postal “routes” as “roads,” but President James Madison, also a southerner, vetoed the bill.