The History of Federal Infrastructure Funding: As Determined by the Founding Fathers

The ability of the federal government to fund, and define, infrastructure, owes itself to a history of state and federal leadership at the dawn of the nation's existence.

August 31, 2021, 6:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


An image of Washington D.C. with highways and the streaks from car head and tail lights in the foreground, and the Washington Monument in the background.

Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Writing for The Washington Post, Susan Nagel tells the history of the intense rivalries between political leaders in New York (namely Philip Schuyler) and Virginia (namely George Washington) to control waterborne traffic from the Atlantic to the interior of North America.

The challenges of determining the scope of federal power to fund and build infrastructure, and what kinds of projects fell under that power, originates to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which "endowed Congress with the right to provide for national defense and regulate interstate commerce. But, explains, Nagel, "it did not grant Congress the explicit authority to fund what was then known as 'interior improvements' — or what today is called infrastructure."

Thus, the answers to questions of 1) what constituted infrastructure, 2) who was responsible for it, and 3) what role the federal government should play in developing fell politicians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and James Monroe.  

Hanging in the balance back then was the funding of the Erie Canal, the location of Washington, D.C., and the navigability of the Potomac River hung in the balance. In the contemporary United States, the role of the federal government in funding and building infrastructure—and the definition of infrastructure—is again up for debate.

Monday, August 30, 2021 in The Washington Post

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