A Brief Legislative History of the General Survey Act

  Drawing of a sinking steamboat with lifeboats nearby
  Illustration of the steamer Tennessee sinking on the night of February 8, 1823, after hitting a submerged tree trunk. The disaster spurred national attention to hazards on western waterways.
Lloyd's Steamboat Directory, 1856

On a blustery winter night in February 1823, the Steamer Tennessee plowed her way upstream through the twisting currents of the Mississippi River near Natchez. It was snowing, and visibility on the river was poor when it struck a snag and sunk in turbulent waters. More than sixty passengers—men, women, and children—died that night in one of the first great river disasters in U.S. history. News of the tragedy drew public attention nationwide and worked in concert with a variety of other factors to drive passage of two vital pieces of Congressional legislation in 1824—a General Survey Act authorizing Army Engineers to conduct surveys for roads and canals and the first Rivers and Harbors Act to fund navigational improvements on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Together, these laws ushered in a new era of civil works legislation that reshaped the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Tennessee disaster provided a powerful emotional catalyst for government action on “internal improvements,” as civil works projects were called at the time, but much of the groundwork was already in place. The War of 1812 brought increased recognition of the importance of Army Engineers to national security and to the development of both military and civil engineering works, especially surveying and road building. Early the following decade, two leading Army Engineers—Majors Simon Bernard and Joseph G. Totten—produced the first official U.S. survey of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It called for extensive improvements, including the removal of sand bars and other obstacles and obstructions on the Ohio River as well as the removal, particularly on the Mississippi River, of dangerous snags, including rafts, planters, and sawyers. The timing of this report proved fortuitous as Congress turned its attention once again to the issue of the federal government’s role in internal improvements.

Debate on the bill that would become the General Survey Act began in the House of Representatives in February 1824, a time of relative political upheaval in the United States. As the sun set on the “Era of Good Feelings,” the Democratic Republican Party established by Thomas Jefferson was losing its hold on national politics. Old fissures split the party into three major factions: the Crawford Republicans, a conservative faction led by William Crawford of Georgia; the Jackson Republicans, who rallied around the great military hero of the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, and who enjoyed national support but were particularly strong among rural and Western voters; and the Adams–Clay Republicans, loosely united under John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, who enjoyed a national following and shared more activist views on federal spending for internal improvements.

Painted portrait of Henry Clay sitting with a dog at his feet   Line drawing of Aaron Ogden in portrait   Painted portrait of Andrew Jackson
Henry Clay, printed from a painting by J. W. Dodge, 1843. As speaker of the House in 1824, Clay led a key coalition that supported the passage of the General Survey Act.
Library of Congress
  Aaron Ogden, 1756-1839, portrait by A. B. Durand. Ogden’s state-granted monopoly on a steamboat line between New Jersey and New York was successfully challenged before the Supreme Court in 1824, clarifying that the federal government had the exclusive right to regulate interstate commerce and build internal improvements across state lines.  Library of Congress   Andrew Jackson, head-and-shoulders portrait. Jackson Republicans from new states in the Midwest were another key part of the coalition that supported funding Army Engineers to survey public roads and canals.
Library of Congress

An important procedural vote on February 10 provided early evidence of the growing heft and weight of Western interests. Led mainly by Jacksonian Republicans, the new Midwestern states of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio favored the measure 28–0; and the Deep Southern states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi voted in favor 7–0. The much more populous seaboard states, North and South, saw Adams–Clay Republicans split along an east/west axis with the measure ultimately decided by the two most populous states pushing in opposite directions. New York, with its successful, state-run Erie Canal project already underway, voted against the bill, while Pennsylvania, with its access to the West through Pittsburgh to the Ohio River needing federal support, voted in favor. The Crawford Republicans voted overwhelmingly against, fearing greater federal involvement in the kinds of internal improvements that they thought should be the domain of states. This final procedural vote of 115 to 86 in favor evidenced sufficient support for passage of the bill through the House of Representatives, though obstacles remained in the Senate, and there were indications that President James Monroe harbored concerns about the constitutionality of these internal improvement bills. Speaker Clay held off for several weeks on a final vote, and, by the time he returned to it in late April, much had changed in his favor.

Drawing of men on horses in an open space with mesas in the background   Line drawing of a side view of a small bridge
View of the “insulated tablelands” or buttes during Maj. Stephen Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1820. After passage of the General Survey Act, Army Engineers had a more permanent role in surveying the West. Library of Congress   Drawing of Dunlap Creek Bridge made in 1992 for the Historic American Engineering Record. Capt. Richard Delafield designed this cast-iron bridge in the mid-1830s as part of the federal government’s efforts to repair the original bridges on the National Road. Library of Congress

During that interregnum, the Supreme Court took up the issue of internal improvements and promised a resolution as to its constitutionality. The case before the court was a dispute between two steamboat captains over a New York state monopoly that authorized Aaron Ogden, a former New Jersey governor, to run an interstate steamboat line between Elizabethtown and New York City. In 1818 he was joined on that route by Thomas Gibbons, who had been licensed separately by the U.S. Congress under a 1793 law regulating coastal trade. Once the case found its way to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall ultimately ruled on behalf of Gibbons in carrying out the clear intent of the Constitution to have Congress, rather than individual states, regulate interstate commerce. The landmark ruling of March 2, 1824, empowered the federal government, through the Commerce Clause only, to undertake internal improvements of a national character. Advocates for the legislation pending in Congress took the win and moved successfully to pass the General Survey Act on April 30. Fresh from victory on both legal and legislative fronts, Speaker Henry Clay sought and eventually won passage of another key piece of legislation—the first rivers and harbors act—on May 24, 1824. The act authorized $75,000 for work on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Crude map of river with islands   Color drawing of steamships on a winding river   Drawing of a steamboat pulling logs from a river
Map of Henderson Island sandbar in the Ohio River, 1825. Clearing hazards from the Ohio River was a primary goal of the first Rivers and Harbors Act. National Archives   Color print of steamboats at Maiden rock on the Mississippi River, 1850, printed by Currier & Ives.
Library of Congress
  Snagboat No. 2 in Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 2, 1889. Maintaining navigation on the nation’s waterways became a focus for the Corps after acquiring a civil works mission in 1824.

The significance of these two acts, each celebrating a bicentennial in 2024, can scarcely be overstated. The General Survey Act empowered the Army to chart transportation improvements vital to the nation’s military security and commercial growth by authorizing Army Engineers to design state and private roads, canals, and railroads. The initial appropriation of $30,000 grew to a total of $425,000 by 1837 and saw the Corps, with few restrictions, undertake surveys and plan civil works projects in virtually every corner of the growing nation. The first rivers and harbors act was an obvious concession to Western interests and an overdue recognition of the vital importance of maintaining navigable waterways for commerce and transportation. Congress followed it up two years later with a second rivers and harbors act that combined authorizations for both surveys and projects and established a pattern that pushed spending in the next 100 years to over $1 billion on thousands of rivers and harbors projects in every state. In the early application of those laws, a major portion of the field work fell to the Army Engineers who thereafter set themselves to developing the modern USACE civil works program.

Drawing of a group of men, horses, and wagons on a vast prairie with mountains in the background
Nineteenth-century survey party in the Sierra Nevada, painting by J. J. Young. The General Survey Act authorized use of Army engineers to survey road and canal routes.​ National Archives


April 2024. No. 165.