Constructing the National Interest: The Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroads, and the Hoover Dam

Mary Shi, University of California, Berkeley

In their introduction to Many Hands of the State, Morgan and Orloff argue that what renders modern states as more than simply exceedingly complex “bundles of governing institutions” is the state’s “claim to embody the will of a collectivity” (2017: 17). If modern states derive their mandate to govern from their claim to embody the universal interest, how is this universal interest constructed? More specifically, in a federal system where national, state, and local jurisdictions represent nested scales of governance and nested publics with often contradictory interests, how are the boundaries between ‘local interests’ and ‘national interests’ constructed, negotiated over, and mobilized in the name of government action? This paper uses close, textual analysis of official discourse and public speech, as recorded in legislative records, executive addresses, administrative archives, periodicals, and pamphlets, to examine how Americans debated these questions in the case of three, large-scale territorial engineering projects: the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroads, and the Hoover Dam. Large-scale, territorial engineering projects force their advocates to address trade-offs between local, particularistic interests and the abstract ‘national interest.’ Each of these three cases, spanning from the Early Republic to the New Deal, represent different moments in Americans’ changing understandings of the proper role of government action as conceptions of American economy and society shifted and the ‘United States’ solidified as a national project. Provisionally, this paper argues that in the United States public and private interests have always been promiscuously mixed, although perceptions of the relationship between them has evolved over time from coterminous to codependent.

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 Presented in Session 220. Public Investment and Ownership: Right and Left