Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

Adams, John Quincy (1767-1848) to John McLean

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also request a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC01727 Author/Creator: Adams, John Quincy (1767-1848) Place Written: Washington, D.C. Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 6 May 1824 Pagination: 3 p. ; 24 x 20 cm.

Summary of Content: Secretary of State Adams writes to McLean, Commissioner of the General Land Office, about the government responsibility for internal improvements. In response to McLean's request, he encloses a copy of an 1807 resolution he put before the senate on the topic (written on p. 3 in a secretarial hand) and indicates it can be "found in the Octavo Edition of the Journals of the Senate recently published Vol. 4, p. 155." Describes it as "the first Resolution ever offered in Congress, contemplating a general system of internal improvement." Discusses the congressional vote on it and the constitutionality of internal improvements. Argues that "The first object of human association is the improvement of the condition of the associates. Roads and canals are among the most essential means of improving the condition of Nations." Notes that the resolution was "passed in the negative."

Background Information: John Quincy Adams was one of the most brilliant men to occupy the White House. A deeply religious man, he read the Bible at least three times a day--once in ...English, once in German, and once in French. He was fluent in seven languages, including Greek and Latin.
But Adams, like his father, lacked the political and personal skills necessary to win support for his programs. His adversaries mockingly described him as a "chip off the old iceberg." But his problems did not arise exclusively from his temperament. His misfortune was to serve as President at a time of growing partisan divisions. The Republican Party had split into two distinct camps. Adams and his supporters, known as the National Republicans, favored a vigorous role in promoting economic growth, while the Jacksonian Democrats demanded a limited government and strict adherence to laissez-faire principles.
In this letter, Adams observes that throughout his political career he believed that the central government was responsible for maintaining what has come to be called the nation's infrastructure.
See More

Full Transcript: John McLean, Esqr.
Washington 6 May 1824
Dear Sir
Conformably to your desires, I enclose herewith a copy of the Resolution moved by me in the Senate of the United States on ...the 23d. of February 1807. in relation to internal improvement. It will be found in the Octavo Edition of the Journals of the Senate recently published Vol. 4, p. 155.
This was I believe the first Resolution ever offered in Congress, contemplating a general system of internal improvement. The Journal of the Senate says it passed in the negative. I did not call for the yeas and nays, but by my private Journal I find that the vote upon it was 12 to 16. Mr. Worthington of Ohio, renewed it with some slight variation of words five days later, and the question upon his Resolution was taken 2. March 1807. by yeas and nays, and passed by a vote of 22 to 3. A copy of his Resolution is subjoined to that of mine.
The question of the Power of Congress to authorize the making of internal improvements, is in other words a question, whether the People of this Union, in forming their common social compact, avowedly for the purpose of promoting their general welfare, have performed their work in a manner so ineffably stupid, as to deny [2] themselves the means of bettering their own condition. I have too much respect for the intellect of my country to believe it.- The first object of human association is the improvement of the condition of the associates-- Roads and canals are among the most essential means of improving the condition of Nations, and a People which should deliberately by the organization of its authorized power, deprive itself of the faculty of multiplying its own blessings, would be as wise as a Creator, who should undertake to constitute a human being without a Heart.
I am with great Respect, Dear Sir, your very humble
and obedt. Servt.
John Quincy Adams

[enclosure in secretarial hand]
[3] Extract from journal of Senate 23 February 1807.
"On motion, to postpone the bill, for the purpose of considering the following Resolution. Resolved, That the Secretary of the Treasury be directed to prepare & report to the Senate, at their next session, a plan for the application of such means as are constitutionally within the power of Congress, to the purpose of opening roads, for removing obstructions in rivers, & making Canals; together with a statement of the undertakings of that nature now existing within the United States, which as objects of public improvement, may require & deserve the aid of Government -"
This resolve was offered by Mr. Adams & passed in the negative -
Extract from the Journal of the Senate 2 March 1807 -
"The Senate took into consideration the motion made on the 28 February that it be Resolved, That the Secretary of the Treasury be directed to prepare & repeat to the Senate at their next Session, a plan for the application of such means as are within the power of Congress, to the purpose of opening roads & making canals together with a statement of the undertakings of that nature, which, as objects of public improvement, may require & deserve the aid of governments, and also a statement of works, of the nature mentioned, which have been commenced, the progress which has been made in them, & the means & prospect of their being completed; & all such information as, in the opinion of the Secretary, shall be material in relation to the objects of this resolution -"
This Resolution was offered by Mr. Worthington & passed in the Affirmative
Yeas - 22 -
Nays - 3 -
See More

People: Adams, John, 1735-1826
McLean, John, 1785-1861
Adams, John Quincy, 1767-1848

Historical Era: National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860

Subjects: US ConstitutionPresidentGovernment and CivicsCongressLawInfrastructureTransportationCanals

Sub Era: The First Age of Reform

Order a Copy Citation Guidelines for Online Resources