Congressman Francis Rooney - Our Early Investments Defined Us: Initial United States Priorities

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Congressman Francis Rooney - Our Early Investments Defined Us: Initial United States Priorities, January 21, 2017 | comments
This month, a new government convenes in Washington with a mandate to dismantle the last eight years of unprecedented legal and regulatory expansion that has killed job opportunities for countless Americans. The Obama Administration has inserted the federal government into every corner of our professional and personal lives. Now is the time to peel back the 80,000+ pages of regulations, and billions of accompanying costs, which are stifling job markets and private enterprise and encroaching on our personal and professional freedom.

At this critical juncture, we might reflect on the priorities and investments our founders made on behalf of the budding, financially weak republic. These decisions demonstrate our early leaders’ vision for what the concerns and priorities of a limited federal government should be, as prescribed in the U.S. Constitution, and define the evolving “American” experience.


It is clear that our early leaders chose national infrastructure to bind the country together, both culturally and commercially, and a strong defense to protect it.

The first infrastructure investments were cultural rather than physical. They were directed at educating the people and preserving the free exercise of religion. The Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for the surveying and allotment of land for settlement in the western territories. It reserved one section out of the 36 sections in each township for a school and another one for churches.

Congress realized from the outset that education, understanding of a common language (English) and the freedom to practice religion would create stability and forge a national identity. These priorities would also institutionalize and safeguard democracy in the new republic.

They also realized that education of children is a local, parent-centric matter. Land was allotted for local schools, to be organized and administered by each community. The Land Ordinance replicated a system that was working well in New England whereby the local communities took the lead in providing education to their citizens.

Likewise, land was allotted to religious organizations to stimulate the “free exercise” called for in the First Amendment. Expansive arguments about the important role of religion in civic life and its contribution to nurturing strong families and communities were well documented in debates over the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and, thereafter, the First Amendment (1791).

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A few years later, a second measure was put in place to bind the new nation together – this time through its physical infrastructure. The first federally funded roadway, the National Pike, also known as the Cumberland Pike, was authorized to begin in Cumberland, Maryland, where the Baltimore Road (and future C&O Canal) left off, and to end at the Ohio River. The project began when President Thomas Jefferson signed the first major infrastructure law in the United States on March 29, 1806.

Both Thomas Jefferson and General George Washington believed the trans-Appalachian road was necessary to unify the country as it expanded westward. They were correct. The national road program continued across the United States as settlement expanded, ultimately becoming the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

Waterborne commerce was also recognized as an important infrastructure need in the new republic. The Erie Canal had been discussed since the late 18th century and was undertaken in 1817. It linked the Hudson river with Lake Erie.

Later came the construction of the C&O Canal, which began in 1828 and was completed in 1850, allowing for waterborne commerce between Cumberland, Maryland and Washington, DC.

These ambitious projects were undertaken by a young, impoverished nation that was confident of its future and ready and willing to invest in binding its citizens and their commerce together.

The founding fathers also realized that our citizenry and these investments needed to be protected — that it was necessary to safeguard American commercial and strategic interests abroad as well as at home.

Thomas Jefferson saw the threat of the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean as existential, arguing the point with John Adams while serving as our minister to France. In 1795, our country paid over 1 million dollars to ransom our sailors of the captured Maria and Dauphin, following the precedent of ransom established by our European allies. This was one-sixth of the entire United States’ budget at the time — a massive expense. Fortunately, President Jefferson had a keen understanding of humanity, and he knew appeasement would never work.

As president, it was left to Jefferson in 1801 to strike back with a new strategy. He utilized the Department of the Navy and commissioned the necessary ships to create an American presence in the Mediterranean and assure that our interests would be protected. Our investment in fighting these corrupt, piratical regimes instead of paying ransom ultimately brought peace, which came after the Battle of Derna off Tripoli in 1805. Our victory in the Barbary Coast War showed the world that the United States would stand up for itself, and our actions set the stage for peaceful commerce in the Mediterranean.

Taken together, the early investments in education, religion, commerce and security created an American national identity. They engendered international respect for our commerce and set the new nation on a course later to be known as “exceptional.” They defined how our country would develop and what our core values would be. In November, the American people voted to rekindle this vision and get the federal government back to the basics.

Instead of the Obama administration’s liberal vision of an all-encompassing government that solves all of our problems and regulates every aspect of American life, from the energy used by pool heaters and the snacks served by mothers at school to how an individual can deal with his backyard pond, our citizens have voted for us to establish an environment that fosters the creation of private sector jobs, to get the economy growing again and to assure our security at home and abroad.

We have an opportunity for bold moves to scale back the size and reach of the federal government, to free up the forces of entrepreneurship and investment and to redefine our role in the world. If we truly believe in the limited government the founders intended, the empowerment of individuals as opposed to collectivization and private enterprise solutions instead of government ones, now is our chance to prove it.
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