History Lessons

Having just returned from a visit with my civil engineer son (traffic and transportation … go figure) and his family in the Washington, D.C., area, here are some impressions of the historical sightseeing we did in the Virginia countryside.

Whenever I visit such places, my thoughts turn to the early days of America. President Jefferson charged Lewis and Clarke with exploring the new Louisiana Territory at the start of the 19th century to determine what America got for the lordly $15 million we’d just paid to Napoleon for the acreage. Dolly Madison, wife of James — who, as our fourth president succeeded, Jefferson — largely arranged the financing for the trip.

Without this new Louisiana territory and other lands later obtained from Spain, America as we know it would have ended at the Mississippi River. Imagine the impact of that on the enlarged Panama Canal, American railroads and trucking.

The story of the Louisiana Purchase and Dolly Madison’s role are well told as part of the displays and tours at Monticello and Montpelier, the family homes of Presidents Jefferson and Madison, respectively. Located about 30 miles apart outside Charlottesville, Va., the two homes offer many other examples of what life was like in the America of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The drive from Jefferson’s home to Madison’s took us less than 45 minutes, but it was a full day’s trip in their day. We got our tickets online the day before and arrived in plenty of time. Back then, without any electronic means of communication and only a rudimentary postal service, visitors routinely just showed up at the door and took their chances.

These two men and James Monroe, whose home, Ash-Lawn Highland, was less than an hour’s horseback ride from his friend and mentor Jefferson (just over the hill from Monticello), understood the difficulties of logistics, but lacked the tools available today to work out these difficulties. For example, Jefferson loved French wine, which was expensive and took months to get to Monticello from Europe. He continued to buy it, but he also started his own vineyards — which still exist — to maintain a ready supply. Is this an early example of re-shoring?

Jefferson’s head is the one on Mount Rushmore, but Madison was the author of the U.S. Constitution and Monroe framed the Monroe Doctrine, two documents that not only endure today but also continue to influence us in America and others around the world.

Now, perhaps only a transportation geek like me can find a way to connect these three presidents with international trade and transportation, but it’s hard to avoid the linkages when one hears about the British Blockades during the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812, as just two of the most obvious examples we heard about.

We also visited Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, who got us off to a pretty good start as our first president and who stepped down after two terms. There was no constitutional amendment limiting a president to two terms then, but he felt it was time to head home to the farm. Another great innovator, Washington realized the importance of concepts such as product storage and time to market. As I’ve often said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

So the homes of four of the first five presidents, located within a short drive of each other, encapsulate a dramatic time in our history and reflect some of today’s realities. Make sure this is on your travel agenda someday.

Summer is also a great time to catch up on your reading. I always seem to be catching up on mine, so it’s never a surprise when I come across some distracting, interesting tidbit. As a regular reader of The Economist, I often find these bits of interesting subjects.

The sub-headline, “Containers have been more important for globalization than freer trade” in the magazine’s May 18 Free Exchange column, caught my eye. I don’t have space here to get into for details, but if you’re interested, check out this column and at least one of the referenced papers: “Estimating the effects of the container revolution on world trade” by Daniel Bernhofen, Zouheir El-Sahli and Richard Kneller. The authors basically credit our industry for the lion’s share of the growth of world trade! Kudos to us all and have a great summer.

Barry Horowitz is principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232 or at barryh@cms-cs.com.

 

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