Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 4: James Madison: Internal Improvements Balancing Act: Federal/State, Executive/Legislative

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


James Madison.

James Madison.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Even in its first 30 years of existence, the U.S. Constitution had to prove its durability and flexibility in a variety of disputes. More often than not, James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," took part in the discussion. Madison had been present at the document's birth as the mastermind behind the so-called Virginia Plan. He had worked tirelessly for its ratification including authoring 29 Federalist Papers, and he continued to be a concerned guardian of the Constitution as it matured. However, it should be noted that Madison chose not to allow his notes from the Constitutional Convention to be published until after his death,

In the early years of the Republic, Madison held a variety of offices, both appointed and elected. At other times, he was part of the loyal opposition. Both in office and out, he played an important role in the continuing debate [stet]. Virtually every important event was precedent-setting, raising crucial questions about how the constitution should be interpreted and implemented. How should the Constitution be applied to situations not specified in the text? How can balance be achieved between the power of the states and that of the federal government? How can a balance of power be achieved among the three branches of the federal government? In this lesson, Madison's words will help students understand the constitutional issues involved in some controversies that arose during Madison's presidency.

Guiding Questions

  • What events during Madison's presidency raised constitutional questions?
  • What were the constitutional issues?
  • Where did Madison stand on those issues?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Summarize at least one event during Madison's presidency that raised constitutional questions.
  • Explain the constitutional questions raised by the event.
  • Discuss Madison's opinions on the constitutional questions.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What Was the Problem?

Raising funds for national defense or for an army in time of war is much easier if a national bank exists. For example, a bank can facilitate the acquisition of loans. In 1811 Congress had allowed the charter of the First National Bank, which Madison considered unconstitutional, to elapse. The War of 1812 created a new need for the bank, but the question remained whether a national bank was constitutional.

Give your class background on the First and Second National Banks from the class text or another source, such as U.S. Presidents from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. See "James Madison: Domestic Affairs," which offers the following information about the political situation, with some background on the development of the two-party system and the policies of Alexander Hamilton:

  • Among the domestic issues that did stand somewhat apart from the war itself was the struggle over the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, whose charter was scheduled to terminate in 1812. The move to recharter the Bank met stiff opposition from three sources: "old" Republicans who viewed the Bank as unconstitutional and a stronghold of Hamiltonian power, anti-British Republicans who objected to the substantial holdings of Bank stock by Britons, and state banking interests opposed to the U.S. Bank's power to control the nation's financial business. When the anti-Bank forces killed the recharter drive, the U.S. confronted the British without the means to support war loans or to easily obtain government credit. In 1816, with Madison's support, the Second Bank was chartered with a twenty-year term. Madison's critics claimed that his support for the Bank revealed his pro-Federalist sympathies.
Activity 2. What the Constitution Says

Review with the class the relevant sections of the U.S. Constitution, available on the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project. These would include:

Teachers who would like more background before leading this discussion about the Constitution can consult a reference such as Understanding the Constitution (Peltason, Davis, Peltason, and Corwin. Wadsworth Publishing, 15th edition. May 22, 2000. ISBN: 0155071920)

What does the Constitution say about internal improvements? (Nothing specific!) Which body of which branch of the federal government would have to raise the funds were any internal improvements approved? (The House of Representatives.) How could a problem arise over Article 1, Section 9, #6, or Article 6, Section 2 with federal financing of a canal located only in New York, for example? (New York might benefit disproportionately from taxes paid by people throughout the nation. The federal government, having paid for an improvement, would have a strong interest in administering the improvement, but so would the state, since the improvement is completely within the state's geographical boundaries.) Does Article 1, Section 8, #7, give the federal government authority to finance and build roads to be used as postal routes? Is the power "to establish post-offices and post-roads" the same as the power to finance and build the roads? Is the power to finance and make improvements assigned to the federal government? (If not, doesn't that power belong to the states?)

Activity 3. A Brief Look at the Documentary Record

Share with students page 433 of the Annals of Congress, on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, the earliest mention of the Cumberland Road (1805) in the records of Congress. Ask students to scan the page to find the answers to the following:

  • What is the date? (FYI: Who was president at the time? Was James Madison part of his government?)
  • What routes were under consideration?
  • What reason did the committee give for the building of a national road?
  • What route did the committee recommend?

The report on the Cumberland Road 1808, written by Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury (also available on American Memory), describes in its first point how the project was being funded. How was the project being funded? (Federal lands in the states affected were being sold. Five percent of sales went to fund the road.) Did that make sense as a funding method? (Yes, the road complemented the land sale, allowing people to get to the land more easily and to send their goods back to the East Coast for sale and/or export.) Its fifth point describes the rationale Gallatin insisted made the road a federal project. What was his rationale?

What arguments in favor of the project could have been used to prove it was constitutional? What arguments would someone who believed the project was not constitutional have been likely to use? (NOTE: Students interested in following the progress of the road can read the report Cumberland Road 1812 or locate other documents by searching for "Cumberland Road" on the Search Page for "A Century of Lawmaking" on American Memory.)

Activity 4. What Madison Believed, Part 1

In a letter from Jefferson to Madison of March 6, 1796, Thomas Jefferson made the following comment about James Madison's proposition for improvements to roads used in a system of national mail delivery:

P.S. Have you considered all the consequences of your proposition respecting post roads? I view it as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress & their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money. You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a scene of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest. We have thought, hitherto, that the roads of a State could not be so well administered even by the State legislature as by the magistracy of the county, on the spot.

Where did Jefferson believe the responsibility for administering such roads belonged ? (With the state or even the local county.) Judging from Jefferson's remarks, were Madison and Jefferson in agreement about federal funding for internal improvements? Of the two, who was apparently interpreting the Constitution more strictly—that is, giving less implied power to the federal government and returning all unspecified powers back to the states?

Elliot's Debates, Volume 4, on the EDSITEment resource American Memory, contains remarks on Internal Improvement.--Extracted from President Madison's Message to Congress. December 5, 1815. Read them with the class:

Among the means of advancing the public interest, the occasion is a proper one for recalling the attention of Congress to the great importance of establishing throughout our country the roads and canals which can best be executed under the national authority. No objects within the circle of political economy so richly repay the expense bestowed on them; there are none the utility of which is more universally ascertained and acknowledged; none that do more honor to the government, whose wise and enlarged patriotism duly appreciates them. Nor is there any country which presents a field where Nature invites more the art of man to complete her own work for their accommodation and benefit. These considerations are strengthened, moreover, by the political effect of these facilities for intercommunication, in bringing and binding more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy.

Whilst the states, individually, with a laudable enterprise and emulation, avail themselves of their local advantages, by new roads, by navigable canals, and by improving the streams susceptible of navigation, the general government is the more urged to similar undertakings, requiring a national jurisdiction, and national means, by the prospect of thus systematically completing so inestimable a work. And it is a happy reflection, that any defect of constitutional authority which may be encountered, can be supplied in a mode which the Constitution itself has providently pointed out.

What did President Madison believe about the improvements themselves? (Many internal improvements were necessary "for intercommunication, in bringing and binding more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy" and were therefore in the public interest. Some projects would best be accomplished under the "jurisdiction" of the federal government and financed by "national means." Since "constitutional authority" may be unclear in some situations, it would be best for the country to avail itself of the process for amending the Constitution the Founders built into the document.) What changes in the country made such projects more necessary? (Its rapidly expanding size, largely due to the Louisiana Purchase and the admission of new states.)

Activity 5. What Madison Believed, Part 2

Congress received a Request for Federal Funding for a New York Canal, Dec. 23, 1811, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, from a committee of distinguished New Yorkers, including Governor DeWitt Clinton, Robert Fulton, and Robert Livingston. Share with the class the short paragraph at the bottom of the page and the top of the next. Where would the proposed canal be located? (From the Hudson River to the Great Lakes.) If possible, check the location on a map. In what way would the canal be a valuable transportation link for the nation? (The Hudson River connects to the Atlantic Ocean. Lake Erie connects—through the Great Lakes—to the Midwest.) Would the canal be located in any state but New York? (FYI: What is the popular name by which the canal eventually became known? The Erie Canal, which is still navigable today—used largely for pleasure boating—and which was important for commercial traffic well into the 20th century.)

NOTE: Interested students can peruse the complete Report on Canals, Feb. 1817 on American Memory, which includes, on page 932, a description of the financing plan for the project, which the authors believed would make the project constitutional. Students interested in learning more about DeWitt Clinton, Robert Fulton, and Robert Livingston and why they were particularly interested in the Erie Canal, can read the following excerpts:

DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828)

De Witt Clinton, mayor of New York City, believed that such a canal was crucial to the advancement of his state. Fighting for his city to be perceived as advanced and cosmopolitan as Boston and Philadelphia, Clinton threw all his political weight behind the project, beginning a Canal Fund and enlisting the support of former rival Martin Van Buren in the state senate. He used the rhetoric of nationalism and republicanism in a popularly supported memorandum to the legislature demanding that a canal be built; eventually, it bore over one hundred thousand signatures. Momentum for the project increased during the early teens; surveys continued, engineers were trained in England and Holland, and the federal government was expected to finance the canal partially. In 1816, the plans were stalled when the Bonus Bill, the key to national funding, was vetoed by President James Madison. Clinton, although he did not have adequate state funding at the time, decided to go ahead with his plans; as he was running for state governor at the time, he could not forestall the canal any further. Fortunately, the veto of the Bonus Bill strengthened the state's sense of resolution and independence, and by April of 1817, a canal bill was passed, guaranteeing funds for the completion of the project. On July 4, 1817, ground was broken at Utica, New York and construction began simultaneously to the east and west.

The building of the Erie Canal continued for eight years. As Clinton's political fortunes rose and fell, so did the popularity of the canal project. Often known as "Clinton's Ditch" and "Clinton's Folly", the canal and it supporters were lambasted by the New York press. Clinton, who had won the governorship, was voted out of office in 1822, and removed from the Canal Board by political enemies in 1824. Using his martyrdom and popular support, Clinton rode the excitement as the canal neared completion and was re-elected as governor in time to preside over the Erie Canal's opening ceremonies in October of 1825. The celebration lasted ten days as Governor Clinton traveled the length of the canal in a packet boat, Seneca Chief, receiving accolades at every town. Page Smith wrote that "the historian has difficulty in suggesting the degree to which the canal obsessed and enchanted Americans in the fall of 1825. It was taken to be a symbol of the boundless potentialities of the country, its resilience and its hopes."

… The canal provided impressive revenue for the state of New York. Turning a profit in its first year, the canal steadily made money until the tolls were abolished in 1883.—The Erie Canal and DeWitt Clinton on the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia

Robert Fulton (1765–1815)

Robert Fulton, American engineer and inventor, is known primarily for building the first commercially successful steamboat to sail America's waters. A mechanical genius with many talents, Fulton designed many other devices such as submarines and steam warships, and he also engineered canal systems.
History of Hydraulics, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Learner.org

Robert Livingston (1746–1813), chief negotiator for the Louisiana Purchase

The inventor John Stevens was Livingston's brother-in-law, and they were associates in experiments relating to the development of steam navigation. Livingston also supported Robert Fulton whose steamer Clermont, named for Livingston's estate in New York, became the first successful steam-propelled vessel. For many years Livingston and Fulton held a hotly contested monopoly in steam navigation in New York State, still unresolved at the time of Livingston's death at Clermont in 1813.
Today in History: November 27th on American Memory

Discuss with the class. What would most likely have been James Madison's position on federal financing for the New York canal? His remarks in Madison on New York Canals (December 23, 1811), available via American Memory, were very positive about the benefits of the canal and other comparable internal improvements. In 1817, a bill for federal financing of internal improvements arrived on President Madison's desk. Vetoing the bill was his final act as president. Ask students to write their predictions in answer to the following: What would cause Madison to veto the bill? What would he be likely to say in his veto message?

Share the "Excerpt from James Madison's Veto Message: March 3, 1817," or the complete text of James Madison Veto Message, March 3, 1817, available on American Memory. (Scroll down to the end of page 534. The message ends on page 537. It should be noted that a vote to override the veto failed.)

Actvity 6. Postscript: What Happened?

Culminate student learning with a brief look at what happened with the development of roads and canals after Madison's veto. President Monroe, like Madison, vetoed an internal improvements bill, the Cumberland Road Bill, in 1822. (President Andrew Jackson vetoed a similar bill, for similar reasons, in 1830.) In 1824, however, the General Survey Bill did give the president the power to have surveys done for roads as well as estimates of costs for roads and canals. All of the following excerpts are from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia:

"Who paid for all these canals? With a new government still testing its financial clout, and often unclear definition between the responsibilities of state and federal spending, many of the early canals were financed by private canal companies. Often these were headed by prominent statesmen of the day, assuring that some government funding would be given to the projects. The early canals did attract limited state aid, and while federal aid was slower in coming there was little opposition to the idea of internal improvements. Indeed, such improvements were widely acknowledged as crucial to maintaining and expanding the republican ideal.

… While it was acknowledged that a majority of the country's lawmakers favored nationally funded improvements, direct assistance remained hard to come by. The Erie Canal, begun in 1817, went forward with state and private support; canals that followed relied on their states for support. Responsibility, as one Delaware editor observed, had been thrown "back upon the people, and the respective states. If Uncle Sam cannot help us, we must help ourselves."
—From Canal Financing

"Often the responsibility for building a road was passed from the state and federal government to private turnpike companies. Hence, the 'turnpike' or toll road: once a company had bid for and built a road, it owned the rights of passage on it."
—From How to Build a Road: A 19th Century Primer

"A road owned and operated by a private turnpike company could also boost the economy of a region. Building and maintaining a road was usually done by local labor and contractors. The maintenance of a road could carry on through much of the year as it involved regrading, restoning and ditch digging. Tollkeepers, often posted every ten miles, also had to be paid, and were usually taken from a local labor pool.

Historical evidence suggests that the real value of a toll road to a community came during the winter months. During drier times of the year, many people used older, non-toll roads that were not as well maintained. Records show, however, that toll revenue went up during the times of inclement weather as travelers flocked to the safer and more comfortable roads. Thus, they seemed to have played a role early in the transportation revolution of improving the quality of economic and social life."
—From Roads and Early American Culture

Federal financing for internal improvements is more accepted today, though it remains controversial at times. Federal assistance for the construction of railroads came in the form of land grants. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 granted government aid to civil air transport and navigation and helped in the construction of airports. The Highway Act of 1956 led to the construction of our present-day interstate highway system, with 90 percent of the financing from the federal government. AMTRAK, a national passenger rail system established in 1970 as a semi-public corporation, has been the frequent subject of debate.


Students who have completed this lesson should be able to respond effectively to the following questions:

  • What kind of internal improvements did Albert Gallatin support?
  • Why was the nation particularly in need of internal improvements at the time?
  • What projects were being undertaken?
  • What conditions had to be in place for James Madison to agree that the federal government could make internal improvements?
  • How did this issue in Madison's presidency demonstrate the checks between the executive and legislative branches?
Curriculum Unit Assessment

When reviewing the unit in the whole-class setting, or having students work alone or in small groups, fill in the "Chart for Unit Assessment".

In a letter to George Washington, dated January 14, 1789, Madison said:

"I am dogmatically attached to the Constitution in every clause, syllable, and letter."
Founders Online at The National Archives

On February 2, 1791, in the debate over the constitutionality of the First National Bank-in which his objections were based on his strict construction of the Constitution-Madison said:

"…no power could be exercised by Congress, if the letter of the Constitution was strictly adhered to, and no latitude of construction allowed, and all the good that might be reasonably expected from an efficient government entirely frustrated."
James Madison Debates the Constitutionality of a National Bank at The James Madison Center

Did Madison's constitutional philosophy remain consistent over the years? Did his philosophy evolve? Or was he simply inconsistent? Ask each student to write a brief essay taking a stand supporting one of these three positions or some other position.

Extending The Lesson

The Louisiana Purchase forced Madison, then Secretary of State, to re-evaluate his constitutional principles. Students can investigate how Madison responded to this earlier political situation and how his response relates to the problems and decisions that he later faced during his presidency. The EDSITEment-reviewed website The Avalon Project offers The Louisiana Purchase Collection, featuring related archival documents.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)