Southern History Series: The Good Roads Movement

I feel like returning to the early 20th century this morning.

Traditionally speaking, “internal improvements” were controversial in the 19th century South due to arguments over their “constitutionality.” President Andrew Jackson’s veto of the Maysville Road project in 1830 ended federal support for building roads for nearly a century.

The following excerpt comes from Howard Preston and Robert L. Izlar’s section “Roads and Trails” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Environment:

“Aside from post roads, the federal government did not commit itself until 1921 to public road construction on a large scale within the United States. After the 1820s, southerners had adamantly opposed federal aid for internal improvements. Spokesmen for the South argued that Congress had no right of eminent domain or police powers necessary to build bridges, canals, or roads. They claimed that the Constitution only specifically authorized post road construction and that any attempt on the part of Washington to engage in road building would violate the rights of individual states. The states’ rights point of view prevailed throughout the 19th century, and except for post roads built after 1896 in conjunction with the Rural Free Delivery program, the only roads constructed in the United States before 1921 were built either privately or by state and local governments.”


In hindsight, we can look back on this attitude toward federal investment in infrastructure which was a product of the influence of classical liberal economics on our ancestors in the early 19th century. It is one of the major reasons why the Confederacy lost the War Between the States.

Sen. John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama at the 1912 Democratic National Convention

During the New South era, the development of the automobile led to a volte face in the traditional Southern attitude toward internal improvements. Southerners like Sen. John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama spearheaded the push for the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 which became the first federal highway funding law. It was the construction of the federal highway system which more than anything else liberated the Southern economy from the stranglehold of Yankee oligarchs like J.P. Morgan who had seized control of the entire privately owned railroad system.

“As automobile ownership increased in the United States, more and more Americans chose to vacation in the “Sunny South.” Southerners responded by developing a system of motor routes, which, like the ancient Indian trails, connected their region with the rest of the nation. By the early 1920s, 12 officially recognized automobile highways ran through the South to Florida from various parts of the country. They included the Dixie Highway, the (Robert E.) Lee Highway, the (Andrew) Jackson Highway, the Dixie Overland Highway, the Mississippi Scenic River Highway, and the Old Spanish Trail. When the federal government, as a result of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, assumed responsibility for the building and maintaining of a national network of highways, these roads lost much of their regional identity. The Dixie Highway, for example, which connected Sault Saine Marie, Michigan and Miami, Florida, became U.S. 41 and U.S. 441. The Bankhead Highway, named after the Alabama senator who had persistently advocated federalization of highways in the United States, became U.S. 29, and the old Capital Highway, the first north-south interstate route to be proposed that connected the national capital with the state capitals of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, received the distinction of becoming U.S. 1.”

Interestingly enough, it was Yankees who convinced us to change our attitude toward infrastructure during the Good Roads Movement. The following excerpt comes from Howard Preston’s section “Good Roads Movement” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Agriculture & Industry:

“The good roads movement in the South was at first primarily an attempt to convince farmers that road improvements would not be detrimental to their interests. Behind the campaign for better roads was the League of American Wheelmen, an organization of bicyclists that drew its membership almost exclusively from the Northeast. During the late 19th century, the league spent considerable time and money attempting to convince farmers in the South and elsewhere in the country that good roads would bring them greater economic and cultural rewards. The league also lobbied hard for a federal program aiding road building, and in 1893 Congress earmarked $10,000 as part of an agricultural appropriation bill establishing the Office of Roads Inquiry (ORI). …

Their efforts were so extensive and unrelenting that historian Francis Butler Simkins considered the good roads movement in the South “the third god,” along with industrial and educational projects, “in the Trinity of southern progress.”

Southern state legislators were slow, though, to appropriate money for road improvements. Prior to 1906, not one state in the South had started a state-aid-for-roads program or established a highway department. Road improvements in the South were made by local good roads organizations, by county bond issues, or occasionally by states like North Carolina, which sponsored “Good Road Days,” during which citizens actually labored to grade or resurface a stretch of road in their community. There was little understanding of the proper techniques necessary to ensure that improvements would last. …

By 1914, when 1,600 good roads delegates assembled in Atlanta at the fourth annual convention of the American Road Congress, it was evident that the question of good roads alone was no longer the single most important issue. Many southerners now envisioned good roads as a means of uniting North and South, bringing money and jobs into the South. The Capital Highway Association (1909), the Dixie Highway Association (1915), the Jackson Highway Association (1915), the Lee Highway Association (1918), the North and South Bee Line Highway Association (1917), and the Bankhead Highway Association (1920), among others, were all organized to promote the construction of new roads between the North and South.

In 1916 Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act, which for the first time made funds available to the southern states for road construction. Among its provisions, the new law required that all expenditures take place through state highway departments. By 1917 every southern state had a highway department, thus bringing state governments for the first time into the good roads picture. …”

Here’s an excerpt about the Good Roads Movement from George B. Tindall’s The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945:

“Numerous state and area groups testified to the universal interest: a North Carolina Good Roads Association as early as 1901, a Southern Good Roads Association, the Appalachian Good Roads Association, the Chattahoochee Good Roads Association, and others. Even the railroads were sympathetic at first. “I do not regard [good roads] as factors in long-distance transportation,” the president of the Southern Railway told a Congressional committee in 1913, “and I welcome them in connection with the development of the areas surrounding our system.” A favorite promotional device was the named highway association, which mapped out a specified route and gathered in the community boomers along the way. As early as 1909 the Atlanta Journal joined the New York Herald in sponsoring a “National Highway” between two two cities; the Atlanta Constitution joined in promoting Carl Fisher’s Dixie highway from Mackinaw to Miami. Before 1920 the map of the South was crosshatched by such schemes. In 1916 a Bankhead National Highway Association began to promote a road from Washington to El Paso (or more ambitiously, San Diego) via Atlanta and Memphis; the old Senator himself, after a rousing send-off in the Capitol rotunda, motored over the existing roads and ruts from Washington to Atlanta, giving more than a hundred speeches in route. …”

The existence of a federal and state highway system which is maintained by “the state” and is accessible for free to any citizen is something we take for granted in our times. Previously, there weren’t many good roads in the South and our regional railroad network was privately owned by three Yankee free-market capitalists – J.P. Morgan, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler – who made vast fortunes for themselves off the backs of poor Southern farmers by controlling the arteries of commerce.

Southerners were quick to exploit the economic opportunities created by the new roads which were built from the 1920s down to the present day. Stock car racing which evolved into NASCAR got its start by running illegal liquor from the mountains and hills down to cities like Atlanta during Prohibition. Ironically, it was the same generations who built our national road system and named them after men like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and Dixie who built our Confederate monuments.

In the early 20th century, Southerners didn’t buy into either political correctness which was still in the future or the idea that tradition and progress are somehow inherently opposed and that we have to chose between the two. They believed traditions are inherently progressive.

About Hunter Wallace 12366 Articles
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. America cannot even finish a 5 miles stretch of road construction without it being a multi-year project I think all road construction personnel ought to be flown to Germany so they can see what an interstate actually looks like. I have been on it twice. The road bed goes down six feet (next time you pass American road construction notice how far they go down) and the speed signs are digital and adjusted during the day depending on traffic flow. Smooth as glass and trucks have to remain in the tucking lane or get pulled over and ticketed. America considers itself an “Exceptional” nation but as regards infrastructure America is a third world nation with a first world military.

  2. The wife and I used to joke that there were only two seasons in Minnesota- Winter and ‘Road Repair.’
    Every Spring (it would seem) the most necessary highways would be under ‘construction.’ But at least the impending winter made MNDOT do their job, before Nov. 1.

    Contrast with the following:

    I have travelled down to Charlotte, NC on I-77 many times over the last three years for work and recreation. Near Lake Norman, they have been ‘doing construction’ for the damned LONGEST time, and y’all don’t even have ground freeze! There HAS to be some corruption involved in that mess. I swear…..

    • It wasn’t until last year that I had the misfortune of experiencing how a Missouri winter can affect a car that it used to the climate of the Deep South. It doesn’t get cold here in the winter so much as it gets dim and wet.

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