Perhaps the most fortunate accident in the life of DeWitt Clinton was the assignation by his political opponents of the derogatorily intended title "Clinton's Ditch" to the Erie Canal prior to its completion. The success of the canal, also known as "Clinton's Folly," would deliver him to power, several times resurrect a thoroughly dead political career, and for the next half century be inextricably twined with the politics and government of the state of New York.
After realizing the futility of opposing the most popular and ambitiously triumphant public works project in the brief national history, countless individuals stepped forward to claim credit for its existence. But there are a few men, Clinton among them, who can justifiably claim paternity to the conception and construction of the Erie Canal.
The perceived value in improving inland waterways and constructing canals in the United States predates the country itself, and the notion of connection between the Great Lakes and the Hudson River was first discussed as early as 1724. While canals were on the minds of Revolutionary War heroes including Generals Washington and Schuyler, and statesmen like Governeur Morris of New York, it was not until the 1790s that a compelling canal movement took shape. Another New Yorker interested in canal development, Elkanah Watson, met several times with President Washington, who saw the merit in connecting major waterways, particularly the Ohio and Potomac Rivers, with short canals. Washington envisioned opening the west to trade and settlement while establishing a major port in northern Virginia. But while the burgeoning canal movement was extending arteries throughout the east, its heart remained in New York.
The state legislature passed an act in 1792 that incorporated two companies to explore the development of a statewide canal system that would, not only facilitate intrastate travel, but provide access to the fertile and unsettled west, and all its wealth.
The study confirmed that the transportation of goods by inland waterway had promise (reducing both shipping cost and time) but the shortage of labor and lack of funding and engineering experience led the companies to fail. Although nothing became of these early attempts to explore canal construction, important first steps had been taken and a foundation laid.
It was not until 1807, however, that the first tangible canal plan would be proposed. Western New York flour trader Jesse Hawley, serving twenty months in debtors prison, wrote a series of fourteen essays outlining a plan for an overland "canal from the foot of Lake Erie into the Mohawk" and suggesting other improvements for the continent. The essays, carried in the Genesee Messenger and signed Hercules, were reminiscent of the Federalist Papers, written by Madison, Hamilton and Jay, advocating ratification of the Constitution. Possessing limited formal education, and using a few books and simple maps, Hawley charted a route that was almost exactly the one selected by the canal commission and legislature after three field surveys and much debate.
The cause was then adopted (conservatively) by the New York State Assembly, which in 1808 passed Assemblyman Joshua Forman's resolution commissioning a survey to determine the feasibility of different routes and explore funding possibilities, appropriating the project $600. The notion of constructing a major canal was still considered a long shot, but gained footing as it seemed to fit with the contemporary national disposition. The first decade of the nineteenth century was devoted to territorial acquisition, expansion and land use. Thomas Jefferson, playing the shrewd land speculator even while having doubts about the constitutionality of the government's authority to buy land, purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, and in his 1807 message to Congress, maintained that since the United States had paid its national debt, the surplus should be used to improve the national interior. He had opened up new land in the west and now saw the opportunity for America to grow into it, using turnpikes and canals to facilitate communication, transportation of goods and expansion. But when the canal advocate Forman approached Jefferson with the proposed waterway connecting the Hudson with the Great Lakes, he was rebuffed. Jefferson saw merit in the idea, but maintained that it was ahead of its time and thought its execution impossible. "Why sir," Jefferson said, "here is a canal for a few miles, projected by George Washington, which if completed, would render this a fine commercial city, which has languished for many years because the small sum of 200,000 dollars neccessary to complete it, cannot be obtained from the general government, the state government, or from individuals--and you talk of making a canal 350 miles through the wilderness--it is a little short of madness to think of it at this day." (Hosack, 346) Congress thus refused to provide funds for the canal and as national attention turned to the projected war with Britain, the prospect of federal assistance for the canal vanished.
Grasping the potential of a Hudson-Erie connection and correctly gauging the political pitfalls presented by such a proposal, State Senator and Gubernatorial candidate Jonas Platt and Western Inland Lock Navigation Company treasurer Thomas Eddy approached
In 1811 the Board of Commissioners returned with its canal recommendations, having chosen the interior route over the Lake Ontario option and advocating public funding, rather than a proposed public/private partnership. The latter decision was a clear reflection of the common opinion that the federal government, upon recognizing the national interest in such a project, would agree to be the primary source of financial support. War, sectionalism and political maneuvering kept the canal a state project; but even though national funding would never emerge, the importance of the Erie Canal to the country's development was already apparent.
At the time, the link between the emerging west and the established east was tenuous at best. With one main path, the Cumberland Road, as the primary (albeit insufficient) route to the Northwest Territory, there was a disconnect between the people of the two regions, and the territory remained largely unsettled. A concerned George Washington "saw in the development of these natural waterways bonds of union which would keep the western settlers safe from a commercial dependence on the British and Spanish at 'the flanks and the rear of the United States.'" (Shaw, 11) The St. Lawrence provided access from the Great Lakes to Montreal, which could easily become the favored outlet for the coveted raw materials and agricultural goods of the fertile west. Additionally, the Mississippi River offered a ready port in New Orleans, which, while now under U.S. control, could sever the west from the east coast. Without commerce, the western territories would feel increasingly separate from the geographically and culturally different eastern states, and as those territories flourished, the eastern part of the country would perhaps decline.
Undeterred, New York proceeded without guarantee of federal backing, the legislature passed a canal law in April 1811, seeking loans, land grants and financial support from the federal government and individual states (whom, New York argued, would also benefit from the canal). While some went to Washington to argue for the federal government's involvement, others contended that the canal should be built for the sole benefit of New York. Arguments never got far, as the War of 1812 pocketed any chance of federal assistance, and national attention turned from domestic issues and towards a second war with Britain.
The War of 1812 made the canal project seem even more imperative. The Great Lakes demonstrated their significance and then-presidential-candidate Clinton asserted that the proposed canal, when joined with them would "perhaps convey more riches on its waters than any other canal in the world." (Shaw, 57) But politics continued to control the fate of the project; a bill introduced in the state assembly that proposed instituting a tax, sought a two million dollar loan and authorized the beginning of canal construction was blocked by the anti-Clintonian State Senator Martin Van Buren. The canal legislation approved in 1816 amounted to, simply, a third land survey and encouraged further exploration of funding options.
Behind the determination of Clinton and the canal's Board of Commissioners, plans for the Erie Canal moved forward. Legislation was introduced on March 18, 1817 that proposed an appropriation of $1.5 million dollars to begin construction on a short section of the Erie Canal that would connect the Seneca and Mohawk Rivers, as well as the smaller Champlain Canal.
Passing the Assembly (64-36), the bill now fell to the Senate, where the primary objections to it were based on state sectionalism and concerns over proposed financing.
"[T]he Council of Revision...held the veto power under the state constitution. The five-man council was split with Justices Platt and Yates for the bill and Acting Governor Taylor and Chief Justice Thompson opposed. The deciding vote was held by Chancellor James Kent who was unconvinced of the wisdom of the project under the conditions of the time. In the middle of the heated argument over the bill. [Former Governor] Tompkins, who had been elected to the vice presidency in March, entered the council chamber. Speaking informally, he advised against the bill. 'The late peace with Great Britain,' he said, 'was a mere truce, and the credit and resources of the State should be employed , not in great civil works like this, but in preparing for war. Chancellor Kent took immediate interest. Pressing Tompkins further, he brought from him the prediction that war would be resumed within two years. Instantly the Chancellor was on his feet. 'Then if we must have a war, or have a canal,' exclaimed Kent, "I am in favor of the canal. I vote for the bill!" (Shaw, 76)
The fight for the canal had been won and construction began in July 1817. The victory proved twofold for the embattled Clinton: his championing of the canal as commissioner won him the party's nomination for governor in 1817, and, running unopposed, he took the governorship that he would hold until 1823 and again from 1825 until his death in 1828. His political career had been and would continue to be linked to the canal, and he had over come criticism and opposition, countless times snatching success from defeat at the hands of his political foes. The canal had brought to New Yorkers the prospect of penetrating the frontier (which at that time was western New York), opening the west, the benefits of increased state commerce and the subsequent emergence of New York City as the dominant seaport on the Atlantic coast. To Governor DeWitt Clinton, it also brought the state's highest office and political redemption.
Construction of the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, its correlation to Independence Day obvious and intended. New York had emerged triumphant from a political battle, and as it was forty-one years before, previously unknown challenges lay ahead and would have to be conquered immediately and without the benefit of experience. The statesmen of the past built a government from the ground, up, themselves learning it along the way; the builders of the Erie Canal now had to address problems as they developed, making the canal a training ground that would educate American engineers of the future. This is not to say that the construction of the canal began from scratch in the summer of 1817. For years, individuals had studied the canals of Europe, applied research and public discourse on routes, techniques, economics and technology to their own canal plans, and would now benefit from the extensive on-the-job training that would occur in the forthcoming eight years of construction.
Construction began on a middle section around Rome, New York connecting the Seneca and the Mohawk Rivers, and on the smaller Champlain Canal. The ostensible rationale for starting on a small, intermediate segment was that, upon its completion, the state would have a usable canal, even if the remaining construction never proceeded. But advocates knew that it would realize success immediately and its demonstrated value would provide momentum to the project as a whole.
Just as there were political fathers to the canal, the history of canal construction reveals that there were individuals who could claim structural parenthood as well. As Ronald Shaw states in Erie Water West, "the canal became a school of engineering itself," (88) and its professors were men like chief engineer Benjamin Wright; James Geddes, an original canal commissioner of the 1810 survey, who designed the mechanical structures; mapmaker David Thomas; and Nathan S. Roberts, surveyor and designer of the famous "double combined locks" that gave Lockport its name and put it on the map. In addition to those few, there was an abundance of native New Yorkers who worked on various aspects of the canal. Contrary to the conventional history that asserts it was built by Irish immigrants, foreigners played only a small role in the original construction of the Erie Canal. An 1819 commission reported that three-quarters of canal workers were "born among us," farmers, laborers and locals who lived along the canal route. The state gave contracts for short canal segments so that small contractors could procure work, and many farmers were given the rights to do work on sections of the canal that passed through their land.
An ample pool of labor together with technological improvements that eased digging and clearing of trees quickened construction, and the midsection of the Erie Canal was opened in 1820.
After the middle section of the canal was complete, debate focused on the western part of the canal. By 1820 the canal was so popular that no one could oppose it politically, and it remained bound to New York State politics until the Civil War.
Even as construction progressed and the canal neared completion politics continued to influence the canal and vice versa. A competition in the western part of the state between the port towns of Black Rock and Buffalo to become the canal's point of terminus at Lake Erie became an ugly battle, with each employing publicity and legislation as weapons, and complete with covert political maneuvering in Albany. In the end a compromise was reached that sent the canal through both Buffalo and Black Rock, as well as the Niagara River. (Buffalo would grow exponentially and swallow the town of Black Rock.) Governor Clinton, despite enjoying Old Erie's success found himself in a losing intra-party battle and was removed as Canal Commissioner in 1824 by a "Bucktail" Republican faction called the "Albany Regency." (The Regency was the political machine of Van Buren and his supporters.) The combination of a shift in state and national politics, Clinton's alliance with state Federalists and other personal issues caused a decline in Clinton's popularity and he was deprived of his party's nomination for governor.
The canal made its way across New York and was completed in October of 1825, eight years after construction began. A statewide celebration ensued as the Seneca Chief departed Buffalo on October 26 And headed down the canal to New York harbor where, in what many criticized as "absurd pageantry," Governor Clinton presided over the Wedding of the Waters.
Spectacle and politics aside, by the time the canal connected the Hudson to Lake Erie its success was assured. Before its completion, over 2000 boats, 9000 horses and 8000 men employed on Old Erie, making its $7,143,789 price tag seem reasonable, as its toll collection went from $300,000 in 1824 to $600,000 in 1825. Clinton's Big Ditch was complete, its full impact on the state and the nation yet to be seen.