Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




John Selby


The purpose of this study is to review the creation and progress of the four Virginia waterways improvement companies which had their origins in the 1780s: the Potowmack Company, the James River Company, the Upper Appomattox Company, and the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. Primary research focused on company journals and family papers, legislative petitions, the annual reports of the Virginia Board of Public Works, and contemporary periodicals.;This study reveals that Virginians' approach to waterways improvements was simultaneously classical and liberal. The improvement advocates clung to an Opposition belief that a healthy republican polity depended on the existence of a class of small land owners who embodied the civic virtue a republic required of its citizenry. However, they also demonstrated a liberal understanding that commerce was the most effective means for cultivating in each individual the industriousness, frugality, and community concern on which virtuous behavior rested. Waterways improvements held out the promise of making undeveloped western land a more inviting option for prospective farmers, while extending commerce and its benefits out along with them.;Actually clearing the rivers, or in the case of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, creating an entirely new waterway, proved far more difficult and expensive than the improvement advocates anticipated. The scale of waterways improvements prompted Virginia's leaders to provide an increasingly greater role for central authority, but only when situated in the state government, and to blur the distinction between public and private investment.;Once completed, the improved waterways dramatically increased traffic, as anticipated, but there were unanticipated consequences as well. The improvements inspired regional competition to capture the benefits of economic growth. White Virginians were deeply troubled by the increased number of black boatmen who were suspected of perpetrating crimes and abetting runaway slaves. and the companies appeared more interested in profits than well-maintained navigation.;If measured purely by profitability and corporate longevity, the companies were, by and large, failures. But such an evaluation is too simplistic. They were generally successful vehicles for advancing the state's internal improvement policy.



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