The term “political economy” refers to the study of trade and production and their relations with law, custom, and the government, as well as the distribution of national income. It is the role of public policy in influencing the economic and social welfare of a political unit, such as the United States. Since many individuals and groups had different interests in how an economy of a country should develop, there were many diverse ways by which they believed an appropriate government by their definition could lead to economic prosperity. One specific individual who had a certain view on how the United States’ political economy should develop, is Thomas Paine. Not only a political activist and revolutionary, Thomas Paine was also a creative problem solver and an architect of iron bridges, as author Edward Gray illustrates throughout his novel, Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge: Building a United States. Although Thomas Paine was not generally thought of as a nation-builder, his iron bridge demonstrates that that is precisely what he was, as he applied his bridge design to both preserving the union and physically connecting American land. By using efficient economic resources such as the small bars of iron to construct a bridge that allowed for vast movement and more political communication, the bridge thus allowed for further development of a political economy and ultimate economic prosperity for the public good.
There are several ways in which Paine’s iron bridge design contributed to economic aspects of the 18th century. As a way to unite the infant country, Paine applied his amateur design skills of building the iron bridge to the concept of physically connecting American land. Understanding that the nation’s many rivers were standing in the way of commerce and ways of transportation, Paine therefore saw the need to bridge them together. However, certain problems arose in the process of designing the bridge. Before iron came to be used to build bridges in the United States, bridges were mainly built with wood. Problems always hindered the maintenance of these bridges as wood caused decay due to factors such as moisture, wet weather, growing scarcity of long, hard timbers, and simply the difficulty to preserve the bridge. As a result, Paine realized the most effective way to construct the bridge is to build it with iron in the form of small hand-wrought iron bars, as it also influenced economic interests. By building bridges from these many small parts rather than few large ones, the construction of bridges became a more flexible enterprise. “Among the advantages of this construction,” Paine wrote, “is that of rendering the construction of bridges into a portable manufacture, as the bars and parts of which it is composed need not be longer or larger than is convenient to be stowed in a vessel, boat, or wagon” (105-106). Paine discusses how this new adjustable scheme allows for quicker and easier movement of parts that can be conveniently stored in spaces no larger than a wagon. Moreover, by designing a permanent single-arch bridge constructed of iron, Paine made architecture and engineering exportable commodities where they could be erected “wherever the need for such a structure arose” (105). Everything traveled more quickly and more cheaply by water, which made the process of commerce move more swiftly as people were now able to carry their heavyweight goods across a bridge efficiently.
Along with the economic features of the bridge, such as the use of small bars of iron that allow for better commercial efficiency, the bridge also provided other factors that connected with political aspects of the growing nation. As a man of the Enlightenment and American revolutionary, Thomas Paine believed that economic prosperity for the public good could be achieved through political change that was grounded on democracy and liberty. However, since free individuals of a large territory were naturally prone to governing themselves without the intervention of distant authorities, it would become very difficult to bind together America’s individual parts into a single political society (10). As history shows, the only way a nation’s separate parts could be unified is through tyranny, which has been proven to ultimately fail. Thus, without the bridge, there was no way of connecting such fragmented parts of land and people within the United States that would enduringly last. As a result of this dispute, “Free societies,” Paine asserts, “would work only insofar as their citizens could communicate with one another” (9). Alexis de Tocqueville, a French student of American democracy, agrees with Paine’s claim and states that “the most powerful, infallible way of increasing the prosperity of a country is to favor by all possible means a free intercourse among its inhabitants” (11). Through a physical establishment of infrastructure, such as Paine’s iron bridge, individuals are able to freely interact no matter the distance. The concept of the iron bridge encouraged the freedom of movement as the bridge freed individuals to better themselves and their communities. Farmers, merchants, and craftspeople for instance were able to move freely through the countryside, and as a result could prosper and become true citizens with a greater interest in the political nation. Paine responds to his political challenge and proves that the iron bridge was the only way of sustaining a republic as vast and geographically fragmented as the United States.
Through Thomas Paine’s design of the iron bridge, he was able to establish an architectural system that both preserved the union and connected the vast land of the United States, contributing to his development of a political economy by which aspects of political thought and economic policy were applied in building a United States. Although Paine’s schemes for the iron bridge ultimately failed, his visions persisted throughout the country as his political and economic ideas were vital assets to satisfying the public good and thus allowing for overall prosperity. By using more tactical materials such as the small bars of iron to construct a bridge that allowed for vast movement and more efficient communication, Paine succeeded in creating a form of infrastructure that generated political change that was also intended to affect the economy in a progressive manner.
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