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The Artificial River The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862

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ISBN13:

9780809016051

ISBN10:
0809016052
Media:
Paperback
Pub. Date:
6/12/1997
Publisher(s):
Hill and Wang
List Price: $17.07

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Summary

Winner of Best Manuscript Award from the New York State Historical Association Artificial River reveals the human dimension of the story of the Erie Canal. Carol Sheriff's extensive, innovative archival research shows the varied responses of ordinary people-farmers, businessmen, government officials, tourists, workers-to this major environmental, social, and cultural transformation in the early life of the Republic. Carol Sheriff, a native of Bethesda, Maryland, received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She is assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. Winner of the New York State Historical Association Best Manuscript Award The story of the Erie Canalthe 363-mile "artificial river" built to connect the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakesoffers a rich perspective on the tumultuous era between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Completed in 1825 as part of the nation's larger transportation revolution, the Canal opened the Midwest to commerce and settlement, helped make New York City the nation's greatest port, and accelerated the pace of American industrial and economic change. The history of the Canal's impact on the nation's economy has been told skillfully by other historians, and Carol Sheriff considers instead the human dimension of the revolutionary changes that the Canal helped set off: widespread geographic mobility; rapid environmental change; government intervention in economic development; market expansion; the reorganization of work; and moral reform. Among the middle classes, these changes would be grouped together as signs of progress or improvement. With innovative archival research, Sheriff documents the social and cultural responses of men, women, and childrenfarmers, businessman, government officials, tourists, workersto the Erie Canal and the progress it represented. For them, progress meant taking an active role in realizing a divinely sanctioned movement toward the perfectibility of the natural and human worlds. This conception of progress would play a central role in defining Northern sectional identity in the decades leading to the Civil War. "The Artificial Riveris deeply researched, its arguments are both subtle and clear, and it is written with grace and an engagingly light touch. The book merits a wide readership."Paul E. Johnson,The Journal of American History "A beautifully written and unpretentious book that reveals how little historians have known about something they have written so much about: the Erie Canal . . . [The book] becomes a means to follow ordinary American men and womenbusiness people, workers, and farmersas they dramatically rearranged the American landscape and with it, in anticipated and unanticipated ways, American nature."Richard White, Stanford University "[Sheriff] renders the Erie Canal's history from a fresh point of view . . . the everyday lives of ordinary people who lived along the waterway."Paul Grondahl,The Albany Times Union "Broadly conceived, imaginatively researched, incisively argued, and gracefully written. It's a genuine pleasure to learn from Carol Sheriff's outstanding study of culture and class at the very center of early-nineteenth-century America's exploding commercial society."Robert H. Wiebe, Northwestern University "An excellent study of an important, all too often neglected period."Lee Milazzo,The Dallas Morning News "A richly textured, colorful tapestry of social history that weaves together the elements of technology and finance, politics and religious zeal, workers' lives and businessmen's schemes which made up the transforming corridor of the Erie Canal. A

Author Biography

Carol Sheriff ,a native of Bethesda, Maryland, received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She is assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Table of Contents

"The Artificial River is deeply researched, its arguments are both subtle and clear, and it is written with grace and an engagingly light touch. The book merits a wide readership."--Paul Johnson, The Journal of American History

"A beautifully written and unpretentious book that reveals how little historians have known about something they have written so much about: the Ere Canal."--Richard White, University of Washington

"[Sheriff] renders the Erie Canal's history from a fresh point of view . . . the everyday lives of ordinary people who lived along the waterway."--Paul Grondahl, Albany Times Union

"Broadly conceived, imaginatively researched, incisively argued, and gracefully written."--Robert H. Wiebe, Northwestern University

"An excellent study of an important, all too often neglected period."--Lee Milazzo, The Dallas Morning News

Excerpts

The Artificial River
1
Visions of Progress
ON JULY 4, 1817, at daybreak, cannons boomed as a crowd assembled near Rome, New York, to watch the digging of the first spadeful of Erie Canal dirt. The honor fell to Judge John Richardson, who had been awarded the first contract to build a section of the waterway. Richardson addressed the gathering, proclaiming, "By this great highway unborn millions will easily transport their surplus productions to the shores of the Atlantic, procure their supplies, and hold a useful and profitable intercourse with all the marine nations of the world." He then drove his spade into the ground, and--according to theUtica Gazette--"was followed by the citizens, and his own laborers, each vieing with the other in this demonstration of joy of which all partook on that interesting occasion."a Amid an enthusiastic and popular celebration of the nation's Revolutionary heritage, the state of New York had begun construction on what was to be one of the longest artificial waterways in the world.1
Events leading up to that sunrise ceremony began hundreds of millions of years earlier, with a series of continental collisions giving rise to the Adirondack and Appalachian mountains. Byproducing intimidating obstacles to human migration, those natural barriers--together covering an area between what are today southern Canada and northern Alabama--checked the westward expansion of the vast majority of Euro-American settlers in the original colonies, and in the newly formed states, of North America. Those who did venture beyond the Atlantic basin took advantage of several gaps left by the prehistoric collisions. In the northern colonies, the only such break was the one through which the Mohawk River flowed easterly from central New York to the Hudson River, which in turn ran southward into the Atlantic Ocean. While Dutch and British colonists took up farming along the Mohawk and other natural rivers and lakes of central New York, they, too, found their westward migration restrained once they reached Lake Oneida, near the head of the Mohawk. From that point, more than 150 miles east of Lake Erie, no major waterway permitted easy access through the western interior. Until shortly before Judge Richardson broke ground on the canal that would extend 363 miles between Lake Erie and the Hudson, residents of the region had no reason to believe that such a waterway would ever exist in their lifetimes.2
But some western New Yorkers dreamed it might. The desire for a canal running the width of upstate New York emerged in the early eighteenth century and reveals something about the aspirations and values of settlers in the region. If eighteenth-century inhabitants generally dismissed such an artificial waterway as mere fantasy, an undertaking beyond the realm of human accomplishment, they did project more realistic, shorter channels. For them, the topography of upstate New York was evidence not of the shifting crust of the earth but of the Hand of Providence. God, they reasoned, would not have created breaks in mountain chains or riverbeds unless Man (to use the contemporary term) was destined to finish the work. Yet canals of any length required great investments of labor and capital, and the Dutch and the English governments had not seriously considered devoting such resources to develop their New York colonies, even though they had both undertaken extensive transportationprojects in their own countries. Still, local interest in canals suggests that at least some settlers on the New York frontier shared an interest in commercial exchange and modernization. As early as the seventeenth century, Iroquois and Dutch traders had made use of the region's natural waterways to exchange furs and guns. In more recent times, European settlers had been attracted to the region's river valleys precisely because of the connection to markets they provided.3
Of course, as many historians would be quick to point out, trade alone does not make for a commercial society organized around the ideal of progress. They would agree that farmers sought ways to unload agricultural "surpluses," but the very term "surplus," these scholars argue, suggests that the average farmer did not intentionally produce for trade, and certainly not for a market beyond the local community. And when farmers did exchange goods and services with neighbors, these transactions rarely involved cash--not because cash was in short supply, but rather because they saw no use for assigning monetary values. Instead, they calculated value in terms of social worth, and simply kept accounts of what they owed and were owed. A farmer, for example, might work for two days in his neighbor's cornfield in exchange for five chickens, since that was what it would take to feed his family during the time he spent away from his own farm duties. Or he might simply hold the neighbor accountable for two days' labor at some later time. These farmers sought, not to accumulate wealth, but to secure a "competency" that would allow their families to live a comfortable and independent existence in a community limited in geographic reach. Historians have found ample evidence suggesting that such a moral economy endured in some parts of the country into the nineteenth century. Whether New Yorkers of the colonial period tended to see themselves as peasants seeking a competence, businessmen pursuing profits, or consumers yearning for luxuries, their interest in canals suggests that at least some had aspirations to engage in broader market exchange.4
Certainly by the turn of the nineteenth century, families emigratingto New York--whether from New England or from the Old World--saw access to markets as a prerequisite for settlement. To meet this demand, private land developers, such as the Dutch-owned Holland Land Company, invested heavily in roads connecting interior lands to commercial entrepôts. Access to markets made the land much more valuable, and by the time work began on the Erie Canal, upstate New York had a system of turnpikes and roads linking remote farming areas to natural waterways, over which settlers sent their produce to distant markets. Beginning in 1792, the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and the Northern Inland Lock Navigation Company tried to turn a profit by improving some of the waterways themselves. Drawing on the financial resources of stockholders, many of whom would become the strongest advocates of the Erie Canal, the Western Company built canals, dams, and locks along the Mohawk River. These efforts aimed to establish more reliable commercial links among inland New York and the entrepôt of Albany on the Hudson, from which goods could go on to the Atlantic port of New York City. Although the company failed to make a profit because of the scheme's technological limitations and financial miscalculations, its goal nonetheless suggests that, as early as the 1790s, investors believed that farmers wanted an improved means of transporting their goods to an international port.5
Settlers in upstate New York already took part in a system of economic relationships that revolved around the long-distance trade of goods and services for specie or credit. Some farmers hoped to use these market relationships to gain no more than economic independence and physical comfort--to sell the fruits of their labor in exchange for things they did not make or grow themselves. Mary Ann Archbald, who emigrated from Scotland in 1807 with her husband and children, held such aspirations. Three years after arriving in the United States, the Archbalds sold their initial tract of land and bought a farm directly along the banks of the Mohawk River to gain easier access to the New York market. The Archbalds had considered moving to Ohio,but worried that the new territory was "at a great distance from markets ..." If the Archbalds hoped only to trade goods and services within a local community, the distance to "markets" would not have been an issue; instead they might have worried about isolation from neighbors. The Archbalds sold their cloth and wheat in New York City while also growing rye, corn, barley, peas, oats, and potatoes. Mary Ann Archbald manufactured the cloth herself from the wool shorn from the family's seventy sheep. The size of the flock alone suggests that the Archbalds produced for the market and did not merely find themselves with an unplanned "surplus" of goods. Yet Mary Ann Archbald spoke of her quest for "independence"--that is, her dream of owning their farm outright, of being free from indebtedness, and thus free from the control and whims of a creditor. Indeed, in 1828 Archbald would be able to boast, "There was also a considerable debt on the farm which [her son Jamie] had been paying as he earned it & expect to have it all cleared off this fall ... now, as being out of debt is, in my estimation, being rich I trust that I will in my nixt [letter] be able to tell you positively that I am rich." For Archbald, wealth came in the form of independence.6
Personal motivations, though, often defy generalization. Other settlers had more entrepreneurial goals; they concentrated on reducing their production costs while selling their goods as dearly as the market allowed. In 1808, Mary Ann Archbald tried to offer a sweeping picture of her new home to the acquaintances she left behind. "We are a nation of traders in spite of all Mr. Jefferson can say or do," Archbald wrote. "[M]oney money is every thing ..." Coming in the midst of the Jeffersonian embargo on international goods, Archbald's comment makes clear that not only were upstate New Yorkers engaging in trade; they were engaging in long-distance trade. Moreover, many of these settlers aimed not just to secure independence but rather to earn money and to profit from their connections to a larger commercial world. By cutting off legal trade with European nations, the embargoes had the unintended effect of raising the prices of those American goods that nonetheless reached European ports. ThoseNew Yorkers who continued to trade abroad expected a large sum of "money" in return. While Jefferson hoped to keep the new country free from the entanglements of European war, some citizens apparently cared less about possible enmeshments and more about their personal profit.7
It is not clear what distinguished independence-minded settlers from their profit-oriented neighbors. In fact, Mary Ann Archbald did not even have to look beyond her own home to witness entrepreneurialism. Her two sons tried their luck at mercantile ventures, activities she criticized as "speculation." That the Archbald children and their mother held different ideas about economic gain suggests that settlers' generational or gender backgrounds played into their attitudes toward market exchange. Mary Ann immigrated to the United States with her husband to establish an independent livelihood. Her sons, though, grew up in a "nation of traders" and eagerly looked forward to earning a living through the buying and selling of other people's goods. They bought lumber and wheat from western farmers and tried to sell it at a profit to other merchants in the eastern cities of Albany and New York.8
Still, those sons did not exclusively concern themselves with their personal gain. Jamie, who helped build the section of the Erie Canal passing in front of his mother's farm, did not make money from the venture, contrary to his expectations. Obviously disappointed, he nonetheless appreciated how his efforts would help the "general utility." While engaging in individualistic, or liberal, pursuits of wealth, Jamie also retained belief in the founding principles of the Republic: that the goals of individuals should be subordinated to the common good, or the commonwealth. It was Jamie's mixture of liberal and republican impulses, not his mother's, that would represent the nation's future.9
American politicians began planning for that future before the ink had dried on the Constitution. Even as they debated the principles that should govern their unique political experiment, the new nation's leaders could not ignore the pressing problemsthat emerged in the years after the Revolution. The United States urgently needed to accommodate its swelling population, to pay its war debts, and to reduce its dependence on Europe. Under the first party system that emerged in the 1790s, the Founding Fathers divided into two main schools of thought about how to develop the country's economy. Federalists, with Alexander Hamilton at their helm, supported a strong central government that would help sponsor commercial expansion, industrial and urban development, and international trade. Democratic-Republicans, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, favored placing power in the hands of the states and limiting any role the federal government might play in commercial development. Unlike the Hamiltonians, who wanted to promote manufacturing, the Jeffersonian Republicans foresaw the nation remaining predominantly agrarian. Limited manufacturing, in their view, would provide a domestic outlet for agricultural surpluses, but it should not be the mainstay of the developing economy. Whereas Hamiltonians wanted to expand over "time," Jeffersonians envisioned expansion taking place over "space"--in the language of the day.10
Whichever method of economic growth they preferred, the first generation of national leaders recognized the importance of internal improvements. A system of roads and canals would allow settlers, raw materials, and finished goods to move affordably between the nation's thinly populated interior and its increasingly crowded coastal basin. Because the colonial powers had invested so little in commercial transportation routes, in 1800 shipping a ton of goods thirty miles into the interior of the United States cost as much as shipping the same goods all the way to England. Clearly, the situation needed improvement if the nation was to prosper.11
The notion of "improving" the physical world did not originate with the American Revolution, but it took on new meanings in its aftermath. Americans often ranked the founding of the American Republic as an event secondary in importance only to the creation of the earth. While the physical world had beenthe work of God alone, the Revolution had been a divinely sanctioned endeavor to perfect the human world. However limited the visions of the Founding Fathers seem to us today, particularly in regard to human equality, in their day the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offered adult white men unparalleled rights and responsibilities. Drawing on the fervor and ideology of their Revolution (and, in the North, borrowing from their Puritan heritage), Americans believed that they had been placed on earth to finish God's work in shaping the New World. Their destiny was to perfect the human and physical world. Where God left gaps in the Appalachian Mountains, in other words, He intended humans to create their own rivers.
Motivated by a combination of economic and ideological imperatives, politicians on both the national and state levels embraced initiatives to expand the young nation's transportation networks. The federal government concentrated on financing roads for pedestrians, stagecoaches, and livestock. Its greatest achievement came with the opening of the National Road in 1818, connecting points in Virginia and Maryland; ultimately, the road would extend to Illinois. More extensive national efforts to improve transportation routes suffered from the scruples and inclinations of some Republicans, who controlled the federal government from the so-called Revolution of 1800 (when Jefferson won the Presidency from the Federalist John Adams) until the evolution of the second party system in the 1820s (after Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams's bid for reelection). Jefferson and his successor, Madison, both subscribed to narrow constitutional interpretations of the scope of federal authority, which made them hesitate to approve any measures not specifically falling within the purview of the national government. Their critics argued that these first two presidents in the "Virginia Dynasty" became particularly scrupulous when it came to authorizing transportation improvements north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But in both the South and the North, most public works projects proceeded with the help of state rather than federal money.12
The states concentrated their efforts on constructing turnpikes, which helped to open the West to settlement but which also suffered from serious limitations. Difficult to maintain, these roads became clouded with suffocating dust in dry conditions and soaked with impenetrable mud in wet weather. Thickets of fallen trees blocked the passage of coaches and carts for days, or even weeks, at a time. Few governments, though, could afford to invest in the much more costly, but reliable, artificial waterways. While private companies like the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company undertook small canal projects, they often fell short of their investors' goals even with state subsidies, discouraging others from risking their capital in similar undertakings. Before work began on the Erie Canal, only three canals in the United States were more than two miles long. The longest extended a mere twenty-seven miles. Most Americans had no choice but to move their goods, and themselves, on unpredictable natural waterways and dependably bad roads.13
As a result, Long Island oysters, even the pickled variety, rarely reached a town like Batavia before the Erie Canal made possible the reliable and inexpensive transportation of goods between the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes. And Batavia was no isolated outpost. As home to the offices of the Holland Land Company, Batavia was a business center and transportation hub in the 1810s. But the bulk of trade into and out of Batavia followed natural waterways, which ran to the south and north. Had some merchants been determined, nonetheless, to move goods to Batavia from New York City, they would have sailed (or, increasingly after 1815, steamed) up the Hudson, loaded their freight on a wagon in Albany, and followed the turnpike westward. Unlike passage on waterways, turnpike travel was rugged even under the best of conditions. In 1816, a visitor to central New York complained that "the great part was a causeway formed of trunks of trees and so sparing had the inhabitants been of their soil, that we could by our feelings have counted every tree we jolted over ..."14
Because of the difficulty in transporting goods, East Coastmerchants limited their trade with settlers in the hinterlands. Yet those settlers, even those who went west in search of their simple "independence," did not want to give up the comforts of home--heavy furniture and fragile housewares, recent news, and frequent visitors. Without dependable and inexpensive ways to transport such amenities, relatively few Euro-Americans made claims on the vast and fertile lands west of the Appalachians. Since those settlers who did venture west had limited choices for marketing their produce, much of New York's commerce flowed out of the state, indeed sometimes out of the country. Some settlers in the western part of the state shunned completely the difficulties of hauling freight along the west-east route to the Hudson, especially since the Mohawk River remained largely unnavigable despite the early efforts to improve it. Instead they used natural waterways to reach Pittsburgh to the south and Montreal to the north.15
Eager to channel commerce through their own state, a number of business-minded New Yorkers began after the Revolution to devise ways to carve artificial waterways between the Great Lakes and the Hudson. The most prominent of these men was Jesse Hawley, a flour merchant in the Finger Lakes region. Beginning in 1807, during a twenty-four-month confinement in debtors' prison, Hawley wrote fourteen essays outlining a system of waterways that, by tapping the vast resources of Lake Erie, would transform New York's landscape, settlement, and commerce. Like Mary Ann Archbald, he realized that people wanted connections to international markets. The question was not whether an artificial waterway was desirable but whether it was practicable. 16
Hawley argued that an east-west canal through upstate New York was in fact viable, since it would follow a course laid out by "the Author of nature." While his essays suggested a quite specific route for the "artificial river," as some contemporaries would nickname the project, politicians around the state did not rush to accept his proposal. Rather, the New York State Legislature funded, in 1808, a survey to compare Hawley's "interiorroute" to the "lake route" that others preferred. The interior route would involve one long canal running from the Hudson to Lake Erie, while the "lake route" would run through Lake Ontario; from there, boats would travel west to the Niagara River, down which they would pass to Lake Erie after a substantial portage around Niagara Falls. Each route had its advantages and limitations. The lake route, while much shorter and thus less expensive, relied on Lake Ontario, which was insecurely positioned near British territory--an issue that seemed all the more important as hostilities between the two countries escalated in the aftermath of the Jeffersonian embargoes. The interior route would be harder to build but would fall well within the bounds of American soil.17
From the outset, the debate in New York over the potential canal routes revolved as much around politics as around engineering and international security. In 1810, a joint resolution of the New York State Legislature appointed the first group of seven commissioners to oversee the state's canal-building. These original commissioners--Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, DeWitt Clinton, Simeon DeWitt, William North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter B. Porter--were all prominent and wealthy New Yorkers. In an attempt to avert party bickering, the legislature had chosen the commissioners with an eye toward representing each of the era's main political factions, Federalists as well as Democratic-Republicans of all stripes. Yet this attempt to build a political consensus on the canal-building issue did not prevent upstate politicians from waging campaigns to have the survey run through their portions of the state. Meanwhile, politicians representing the eastern and southern sections of the state, and especially New York City, opposed the canal project altogether, worrying that their constituents would bear the financial burden of an artificial waterway without reaping any of its benefits. Throughout the canal period, politicians and private citizens often took stands on internal improvements based not on party affiliation but on local concerns about prosperity.18
Hawley's essays also left unresolved who would fund whatpromised to be a very expensive undertaking. When New York conducted its 1808 survey, many of its legislators believed that the federal government would back the project financially. They pointed to the report issued in that same year by Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, calling for appropriations for a national system of roads and canals. That report, which laid the groundwork for the funding of the National Road, also mentioned a canal between the Hudson and Lake Ontario. The ensuing debates in Congress centered on whether the proposed canal would benefit the country as a whole or whether it would favor a particular section, while Jefferson and like-minded men also worried that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to finance such projects. Before these questions were decided, the War of 1812 interrupted matters.
That conflict turned the nation's attention and resources elsewhere, while also highlighting for New Yorkers the advantages of an inland waterway. Because fighting took place mostly along the border between New York and Canada, the war accentuated the precarious nature of the Montreal market. A canal would provide access to a more stable market for the nation's western farmers. Moreover, the war and the embargoes leading up to it set off a boom in manufacturing in the northeastern states. Since Americans could no longer legally trade with Great Britain for manufactured goods, they had to spin and weave their own textiles and sew their own shoes. The loss of access to European trade made an inexpensive route for western agricultural products even more essential, as a means both to feed industrial workers and their families and to provide raw materials for factories.
New Yorkers still hoped that the federal government would pay for their proposed waterway once peace returned. In 1817, three years after the Treaty of Ghent brought hostilities to an official close, Congress passed an internal improvements bill that included funding for the New York canal, but Madison vetoed the act on his last day in office, citing qualms over its constitutionality. Without an amendment specifically authorizing Congress to fund transportation projects, he argued, the federalgovernment could not legally sponsor projects like the Erie Canal, as desirable as those projects might be. Some critics accused Madison of having sectional biases, of not wanting to boost New York, the arch economic rival of his native Virginia. Whatever his motivations, it became clear that any such future transportation projects would have to be undertaken by the states. This was to be an era of state, rather than national, power.19
DeWitt Clinton then took the lead in piecing together a bill in the state legislature that funded an interior canal from New York's coffers. His task was not easy, since the war had inflamed political divisions within the state. In 1812, Clinton had come forward as a peace candidate for President, competing against his fellow Republican James Madison and, in the process, splitting the New York Republicans into Clintonians and anti-Clintonians. Since Clinton's name would become the one most associated with the Canal project (which critics derided as "Clinton's big ditch"), strong anti-Clintonian sentiment impeded his efforts to negotiate compromises over funding. While most politicians voted, in the end, for what they perceived to be their local interests, those who still wavered often chose sides on the Canal Bill based on their more general sentiments about the controversial Clinton, rather than on the merits of the waterway. 20
In 1817, the bill passed by a comfortable, if not overwhelming, majority. It established the Canal Fund, administered by elected officials, which was to fill its treasury from a variety of sources: a loan from the state, to be repaid from toll revenue; the sale of land donated to the state by land speculators who hoped to profit from soaring property values if the canal succeeded; a levy on items sold at auctions; lotteries whose proceeds were designated for the Canal Fund; and taxes. The taxes, in particular, were designed to ensure that those who benefited most from the Canal would contribute the greatest amount to the expense of building and maintaining it. The state levied taxes on salt (abundant in the Canal region); steamboat travel (which would increase along the Hudson with the opening of the Canal);and land within twenty-five miles of the Canal (property whose values would certainly increase from easy access to the market). Finally, the bill authorized the beginning of construction on the "Western Canal," as the Erie was often called in the early years, as well as the "Northern Canal," running between Albany and Lake Champlain. Also known as the Champlain Canal, the sixty-six-mile northern waterway had been part of the compromise to win approval from that part of the state.21
The exact route of the Western Canal continued to be the subject of political wrangling even after 1817. The Canal Bill divided the Canal into three sections, but it provided for construction on the middle section only, the stretch of canal running between the Mohawk and Seneca rivers. The exact course of the other two sections would be left to later legislation, as would the funding for their construction. Since the middle section would improve navigation in the upstate region regardless of whether the other two sections ever came into being, politicians reasoned that it would serve as a good test of the state's ability to oversee such a mammoth public works project, much larger than any other in the modern world. The middle section also promised to be the easiest to build, so the Canal's promoters hoped to bolster public confidence in the larger project by showing early signs of success; future funding depended on that confidence. Decisions about building the other sections came gradually over the next few years. Meanwhile, communities distant from the original Canal petitioned for the building of lateral canals to feed into the main waterway. While the state ultimately constructed eight other canals, and scores of smaller tributary waterways, it undertook only two projects between 1817 and 1825: the Erie Canal and the much shorter Champlain Canal.22
 
 
The decision to begin the Erie Canal's construction on the Fourth of July was not, of course, mere coincidence. Then, as now, the Fourth was a day of national unity, when Americans put aside their differences and joined in celebrating all that was admirableand special about their country. But then, unlike now, the Republic was quite young, and people sensed that they were participating in an untried political system that might still fail. In 1817, veterans of the American Revolution and the constitutional debates still harvested apples in New York, planted wheat in Virginia, and visited merchant houses in Philadelphia. They were in the final years of life and had seen many of their contemporaries die before them; yet they remained national heroes and regaled their children and grandchildren with stories of the birth of the Republic and the idealism and courage that accompanied it. When work began on the Erie Canal, the nation had just emerged from another war with Britain, a conflict that had in a sense tested the nation's independence. While the treaty ending the war resolved few of the disputes between the two countries, it nonetheless had not weakened the United States, which remained subject to intense international scrutiny.
In the wake of the Treaty of Ghent, the younger generation of Americans--the children of the founders--hoped to prove to skeptical Europeans that their republic permitted unprecedented political freedoms and played a leading role in God's plan to improve the earthly world. This new generation of Americans was also determined to make its mark. Even with God's grace, though, the Erie Canal involved undeniable risks. At worst it would be a dismal failure, at best an expensive success. But if Americans could succeed in craftingthetechnological wonder of their day, they would demonstrate that the United States--and republicanism--was very special indeed.
The Fourth of July, a day of national unity, often brought together people who disagreed with one another the rest of the year. While Americans generally accepted that they were part of a political experiment, they often disagreed strongly about how that experiment should proceed. The debate over the ratification of the federal Constitution had divided them into Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and the disputes of the early national period had created Federalists and Republicans. But on that Independence Day in 1817, the nation as a whole was in the middle ofits short-lived "Era of Good Feelings" under President James Monroe, an era when it seemed as though the United States might actually realize George Washington's dream of a nation devoid of political parties. The Federalists were, for all practical purposes, no longer influential in national politics. Most Americans had come to support economic and geographic expansion, even if they held different notions of how that growth should take place. Moreover, the slavery issue had not yet resurfaced to haunt the nation's leaders. For the moment the country's leadership seemed unified, divided perhaps by personal differences but not by overarching political visions. It would be another year or two before these divisive issues would reemerge and reveal a major political realignment.23
DeWitt Clinton, the person most associated with the Erie Canal, in many ways personally embodied the political culture that helped give birth in the 1820s to the second party system, characterized by the rivalry between the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs. Clinton's outlook, like that of many of his contemporaries, exhibited both republican and liberal tendencies. He genuinely believed that the public good (the foundation of a republic) and private gain (the basis of a commercial economy) need not be at odds with each other. Clinton subscribed to "practical republicanism," which was the precursor to the Whig ideology that solidified in the 1830s and that, in turn, would evolve into the Republican ideology of Abraham Lincoln's sectional party.
Adherents to practical republicanism believed that the nation's common good depended on prosperity, individual opportunity, and an equal emphasis on rural and urban growth. These Northerners differed from Jeffersonian Republicans by adopting a mix of republican and liberal ideas and, in the end, had more in common with Northern Federalists than with Southern Republicans. Practical republicans thought the government should guide economic development by adopting protective tariffs and investing in internal improvements; they also rejected Adam Smith's ideas about a laissez-faire economy. To ensure a just andvirtuous commonwealth, they desired a government run by individuals who had proved their mettle in a market economy, achieved financial success, and demonstrated a commitment to good works. These successful men believed they had a moral obligation to help uplift those below them, and in turn they expected deference from those they helped. To practical republicans, morality and wealth sprang from the same source of virtue. And by improving the physical world around them, by building highways of "profitable intercourse," Americans could realize their special destiny of universal moral and material prosperity.24
DeWitt Clinton's political philosophy and New York's plans to build the Erie Canal both represented a growing commitment in the North to the culture of improvement. The very term "improvement," however, is loaded with seeming contradictions. According to the scholar Raymond Williams, the word "improve" originally meant (before the sixteenth century) to "invest," in the monetary sense. It later referred in particular to readying untamed land for agricultural purposes. Not until the eighteenth century did the term also take on the meanings we give it today: to make something better, generally in a moral or social sense. Like the related term "progress," though, improvement retained its dual meaning: it could refer at once to economic and material advancement and to a less tangible sense of human accomplishment. The sponsors of the Erie Canal claimed both meanings for their new internal improvement, and residents of the Canal corridor would struggle to find ways to make compatible the various meanings of improvement and progress. Their struggles would in the years to come promote a new political culture, one that DeWitt Clinton would not have recognized had he lived to see it.25
By invoking the memories of the American Revolution, the waterway's sponsors celebrated both the past and the future. They saw the Canal's ground-breaking ceremony as the consummation of efforts made possible by the political values of the Revolutionary era. Yet that dawn ceremony also marked, theyhoped, the beginning of a new era of progress that would improve upon the nation's economic and moral past. Throughout the canal era, New Yorkers would continue to link the past to the future, and those links would grow ever more paradoxical. They set out with an image of their Canal corridor as a "middle landscape" between nature (the past) and civilization (the future)--an image American politicians and intellectuals consciously cultivated. By linking the wilderness of the West to the port cities of the East, the Erie Canal could occupy a middle ground between savagery and urbanization. On that Independence Day in 1817, the Canal also represented the middle ground between the known values of the Revolutionary generation and the uncertainties about what sort of social order--or disorder--might accompany progress.26
Judge Richardson played the leading role in an event staged to focus Americans' attention on their nationalistic and republican past so as to quell fears about the uncertainty of the future. His supporting cast, the laborers who took over the digging, probably for that moment shared Richardson's excitement over taking part in an event of international significance. TheUtica Gazettetook special note of the way the ceremony unified employer and laborer in the "joy" it brought them. In doing so, though, theGazettemay have hoped to spark additional support for the still-controversial and risky project; newspapers during this period intended to shape opinions as well as report them. Like their contemporaries who had established textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, just a few years earlier, the Canal's supporters wanted to reassure the population at large that economic development need not result in the class divisions that plagued Europe. Judges, citizens, and laborers could all join in celebrating progress. The Canal's proponents believed that the social decay associated with rapid market growth (unemployment, poverty, crime, anonymity) could be avoided altogether in America's interior and reformed in its ports because--unlike Europe--the United States was destined to political, physical, and moral greatness. And as construction began on the artificial river, many residents of the Canal corridor held similarly optimistic views.27
Copyright © 1996 by Carol Sheriff


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