The Founders of this country wrote the Constitution and passed the Northwest Ordinance at almost the same time. It is fascinating to see the geopolitical implications of what they did, how Eisenhower changed it, the impact on New York State, and the implications for state politics.
The Founders struggled to get the Mississippi open and keep the loyalty of the people across the Mountains from the Coast. Several states worked on paths to that huge area. Southerners expected the west would grow south of the Ohio River and strengthen slave power. Everyone knew that New York had an almost sea level route to the Great Lakes and the interior of the country. New York waited. But when it moved, when it opened the Erie Canal, New York changed the face of America and American politics. Suddenly the vast majority of traffic moved through the port of New York. Central New York started hopping. Railroads followed the same route, building on the infrastructure and cities that had grown up in the interior. Central New York became a center of American manufacturing in cities like Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, as well as smaller towns along the canal and the rail lines. New York became the Empire State, the most populous state. The channel of immigration through New York harbor populated the states of the growing Northwest. That fateful act of building the Erie Canal not only built New York, it played a large part in the development of the North and therefore the Northern victory in the Civil War.
New York was still the nation’s dominant state in the 1950s. Although there had been talk and agreements before, the Eisenhower Administration committed the U.S. to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. It opened in 1959, allowing ocean going ships to travel into the interior of the country without unloading cargo. The effect on New York harbor was palpable and obvious. It had lost its advantage as a destination for shipping.
The Eisenhower Administration also built the Interstate Highway system. Access to existing rail lines, which gave the northeast important advantages, became less important. The manufacturing heart of the country became the rustbelt when transportation bypassed it. Thomas Edison’s GE factory was in Schenectady. There is little left but the shells of the old buildings. Major manufacturing plants have disappeared all through upper New York State.
First lesson – government built the Northeast and government tore it down. Second lesson – the opportunity for revitalization of the northeast depends on figuring out and supporting the comparative advantages of the states and the region and the nation.
Like many aging areas we are locked in to an aging infrastructure. Getting to and from the region isn’t nearly as easy as it should be. Our national aversion to regulation has blocked some of the economies of scale prevalent elsewhere – like the single cell phone standard and shared set of poles and transmitters that allow a wider, cheaper and stronger set of signals.
Each of those problems creates opportunities. America’s strength is not automatic. It’s not just the result of standing back and letting things happen randomly. That is a romantic and largely fictitious idea. From the 18th century, Americans have had the support of government in the major structural decisions that have given us an economic leg up. We need to readdress those issues and stop being afraid of ourselves.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 10, 2010.