George Will

WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday, July 11, the United States will become more geographically stable than it has ever been. It will have been 17,126 days since the admission of Hawaii to statehood on Aug. 21, 1959. The longest previous span between expansions of the nation was the 17,125 days between the admission of Arizona on Feb. 14, 1912, and the admission of Alaska on Jan. 3, 1959. Since then the nation has become, in a sense, smaller through the annihilation of distance and, to some extent, of difference.

An important part of the groundwork -- literally, it covered a lot of ground -- for today's America was begun 50 years ago this summer. A conservative Republican president, who grew up in a Kansas town where hitching posts for horses lined unpaved streets, launched what was, and remains, the largest public works project in the nation's history -- the Interstate Highway System. Its ribbons of concrete represent a single thread of continuity through the nation's history.

With that program, Dwight Eisenhower, the 13th Republican president, helped heal the wounds of the war won by another general, U.S. Grant, the second Republican president. That war was related to ``internal improvements,'' as infrastructure projects such as roads and canals used to be called.

In 1816, South Carolina's Rep. John Calhoun -- then a nationalist; later, a disunionist -- introduced legislation for a federal program of internal improvements. The legislation passed but President James Madison vetoed it because he thought Congress was not constitutionally empowered to do such things. So, prosperous Northern states built their own improvements while the South sank into inferiority and increasing dependence on slavery.

The military handicap of an inferior transportation system was one reason the South lost the Civil War. Another reason was the industrialization of the North. Its transportation system (the Erie Canal, railroads) cut the price of shipping a ton of wheat from Buffalo to New York City from $100 to $10, and the difference between the wholesale price of pork in Cincinnati and New York plunged from $9.53 to $1.18. Suddenly, workers flooding into the North's cities had more disposable income to spend on the North's manufactured goods.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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