Settlers discovered too that Congress had forgotten to specify the location of public roads. The first trails wandered across the backlands just as colonial roads meandered, but settlers acquiring sections soon insisted that roads follow the section lines to forestall boundary quarrels and demarcate easily cultivated square and rectangular fields. But the dramatic popular decision condemned frontier families to laying out and maintaining seventy-two miles of perfectly straight roads per township and sacrificing privately owned land for rights of way. Diagonal travel, from section one to section thirty-six, for example, irritated settlers from the beginning because no roads directly linked township corners. (105)

Roads followed section lines and section lines followed the compass. (105)

The same fear of tyranny that forbade the keeping of a standing army retarded the building of "Federal Highways"; even the success of the National Road scarcely lessened citizen fears that a government powerful enough to build roads everywhere might use its power to erode local rights. Turnpikes, therefore, along with canals and later railroads, struck Americans as a useful compromise between the evils of all-powerful, centralized government and the irritation of poorly routed, locally controlled roads. (131)

"Whatever else we may think, or hope, or fear, it is quite certain that this is an age of Roads," asserted Horace Bushnell in The Day of Roads. His 1846 pamphlet marks the new awareness of high-speed travel made possible by the railroad invention. "The road is that physical sign, or symbol, by which you will best understand any age or people," he declared with enthusiasm. "If they have no roads, they are savages; for the road is a creation of man and a type of civilized society." (132)

Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 (1982)
John Stilgoe