An American Knack

It’s Time America Makes Good Again on Its Belief in Public Works and Public Spirit

Historian Daniel J. Kevles celebrates New Deal bridges and 19th-century land-grant colleges for their odd-couple blend of idealism and practicality that was America at its best. We secure our future, he says, by embracing that part of our past.

09.01.12 11:46 AM ET

In late June my wife and I drove to Cape Cod, crossing one of the two highway bridges that arch over the canal separating the Cape from the mainland. A large metal sign permanently affixed to the superstructure reminded us that we were on the “Sagamore Bridge, 1933-1935.” Both spans—the other is the Bourne Bridge, a mile and a half to the west—were New Deal projects, bridges to somewhere that transformed the economy of the region. A few days before we had been at the Library of Congress in Washington, attending a celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act of 1862 (named for Congressman Justin S. Morrill of Vermont), which established the nation’s land-grant colleges and universities. Morrill’s measure was no less a bridge than the spans at Sagamore and Bourne–a bridge of opportunity to the somewhere of a better life.

Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, avowed enemies of big government, would likely have blocked both initiatives. In Norfolk, Va., on being introduced as Romney’s running mate, Ryan proclaimed to adoring cheers that “our rights come from nature and God, not from government," a point that Romney riffed on a few hours later in Manassas and in his acceptance speech in Tampa. Perhaps unknowingly, they were echoing one of the famous truths that Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence--that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Having first declared themselves a duo in Jefferson’s state, they might also have taken account of the Declaration’s immediately subsequent and no less self-evident truths—“that among these [rights] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In Jefferson’s day, the essential right at issue was freedom from autocratic rule, but as the nation developed and diversified, its conception of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness inexorably expanded, and so—in the North and Midwest, though not in the slavery-enchained South—did expectations of the federal government’s role in securing these aims. The Morrill Act, vetoed before the Civil War by President James Buchanan, a staunch defender of limited government, sailed through Congress after the South seceded and was enthusiastically approved by President Abraham Lincoln, the exemplar of the then-new Republican Party that in its enthusiasm for the federal government’s promotion of opportunity and growth was far different from today’s GOP.

Lincoln dubbed the land grants “the people’s colleges.” Higher education had hitherto been mainly a private preserve, providing the sons of the well-to-do with ornaments of liberal culture but with little preparation for practical pursuits. The Morrill Act eventually changed all that, as several land-grant speakers at the Library of Congress emphasized. The land-grant institutions explicitly expanded the curriculum to encompass “agriculture and the Mechanic arts” and democratized educational opportunity, opening colleges and universities to ordinary people of both sexes. The Morrill Act committed the federal government to serving the public good of national development by broadening the access of its citizens to the skills and knowledge essential to the emerging high-technology age.

BOURNE, MA - OCTOBER 20: Gov. Mitt Romney waves to the first motorists to use the new southbound segment of Rt. 3, eliminating the use of the old Sagamore Rotary.  Sagamore Bridge in background. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Bill Greene / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney waves to the first motorists to use the new southbound segment of Route 3, eliminating the use of the old Sagamore Rotary. The Sagamore Bridge in seen in the background.

In the Southern states, blacks were not permitted to attend the land grants, and only Mississippi established a separate land-grant institution for them—Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, now Alcorn State University. (In 1890, at the urging of Senator Morrill, Congress extended the scope of the act, telling the states that they had either to admit students to their land-grant institutions without regard to race or else establish separate colleges for African Americans, an instruction that gave rise to a number of what are now termed historically black colleges and universities.)

Alcorn’s impact was tangible and immediate in the family memory of Mary Sias, a Mississippi native and one of the university presidents who spoke at the Morrill celebration. When in the 1920s her mother-in-law finished eighth grade—the limit of public education then available for blacks in the state—she was able to attend the high school at Alcorn, which was an arm of its teacher-training program, earn a degree at the college, and with her husband, whom she met there, produce a family that now includes fourth-generation college graduates, among them Ph.D.s, doctors, and engineers. Sias noted that together the two Morrill acts gave people who looked like her “a chance to dream of a better life, and to have that better life.”

AP Photo

The Triborough Bridge, a New Deal bridge, which links Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens, formally opens as U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dignitaries, and state troopers cross the bridge for the first time in New York City on July 11, 1936.

The Sagamore and Bourne bridges, together with a new railroad bridge built at the same time under the New Deal, altered the Cape’s transportation dynamics. Each of the two previous bridges comprised only two lanes, and their central spans had to be raised to permit ships to pass, interrupting the flow of traffic. The old horizontal openings were narrow, which made navigating the canal’s swift currents treacherous. Mariners, reluctant to risk the canal, sailed instead around the tip of the Cape, adding as much as 165 miles to their trips. The three new bridges provided horizontal openings more than four times wider than those of the old bridges and were sufficiently high to allow large ships safe, direct passage through the entire canal. While the railway bridge has to be raised to achieve its height, the spans of the Bourne and Sagamore bridges were fixed in place and wide enough for four lanes instead of two, making for a doubled, uninterrupted flow of traffic. The three bridges were completed in 1935, at a total cost in 2012 dollars of $669 million, a small price in the seeming view of the tens of thousands of people who recognized their transforming promise and celebrated their openings to traffic with a parade, a ball, and a banquet. Today more than 35 million cars cross the two bridges each year.

The year after the bridges opened, in the course of accepting his party’s renomination for president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt emphasized government’s “inescapable obligations to its citizens” in a society by then so different from Jefferson’s, when for many “life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.” The federal government handsomely fulfilled those obligations with its construction of the Cape bridges and continuing support of the land-grant system of higher education and research that has afforded millions of Americans passage to better lives and contributed mightily to the nation’s economy of innovation.

Today, our physical and educational infrastructures are deteriorating, and so are our investments in skills and knowledge and the democratic access to both that the Morrill Acts initiated so long ago. Romney and Ryan to the contrary notwithstanding, the power and resources of government are essential to repair and widen our existing bridges to the better life, and to build new ones to our future.