Before sunrise on July 4, 1817, a throng of citizens paraded to a patch of ground outside the village of Rome in central New York. They were armed, but not for war.
They were about to undertake “one of the grandest objects that ever has and perhaps ever will grace our nation,” Village president Joshua Hathaway proclaimed. “Unborn millions” would have access to the markets of the world once they completed the fabulous canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie.
Men impatiently gripped their shovels. The canal project, for years a subject of derision and flowery oratory, would that morning become a reality. After the first shovelful of dirt was turned over, everyone began to dig, caught up the pure joy of participating in history.
The Erie Canal, which celebrates its bicentennial this year, has become an icon of infrastructure. President Trump cited it in a June speech touting his plan for a significant rebuilding of much-needed roads, bridges, airports, rail corridors and harbors.
The Erie was indeed a paragon of public works. Tolls during its first year of operation exceeded the entire cost of construction. But although it exemplifies possibilities, the canal also reminds us of pitfalls.
The president hinted at one. DeWitt Clinton, the great champion of the canal, managed to wrest federal funding for the project. Trump suggested that Thomas Jefferson spurred the feisty New Yorker’s determination by opposing the idea. It was actually James Madison who vetoed the bill that would have bankrolled the canal. He cited Constitutional limits, but many thought favoritism toward Virginia was also on his mind.
Who would pay? Always the first question. Today it’s Congress that’s reluctant to make the big-ticket investment. The president has proposed public-private partnerships involving tax credits and more local spending to work around the issue.
Bold as they liked to think of themselves, many New Yorkers of 1817 were also cowed at the prospect of spending a third of the state’s financial capital on a long ditch. When first proposed, the idea was labeled “the effusions of a maniac.” The resulting taxation was likely to “make paupers of the state.”
They had reason to worry. The longest canal in the country at the time stretched only 27 miles. The Erie would be a complex hydraulic system reaching into 360 miles of virtual wilderness. Builders would lack the guidance of trained engineers–there were none in America at the time.
Who would benefit? Every public works project has uneven payoffs. A regional coalition to build the Erie fell apart because New York was seen as the big winner. Farmers from Long Island opposed the canal, fearing competition from western growers. Today, highways compete with mass transit, and fingers are pointed at bridges to nowhere.
Would it be worth the risk? No one knew for sure where the traffic would come from to fund the Erie’s enormous debt. Fortunately for New Yorkers, the canal generated its own business as farming and commerce exploded along its entire length. But calculating return on investment is always a guessing game and plenty of canals built later were dismal failures.
A good deal of political horse-trading was needed to win state funding for the Erie Canal. Proponents needed the gumption, statesman Gouverneur Morris said, to “brave the sneers and sarcasms of men, who, with too much pride to study, and too much wit to think, undervalue what they do not understand, and condemn what they cannot comprehend.”
The canal proved that Americans could do big things: connect the entire Great Lakes basin to the East Coast, stimulate agriculture and settlement through a vast area. But it wasn’t easy. It meant doing some of the same things we can’t seem to manage today: overcoming parochial rivalries, setting aside self-interest and ideology, seeing the common good in common action.
The real inspiration the Erie Canal offers is the secular faith of those who built it. The men and women who planned the canal, who swung picks and shovels, who invested meager savings in canal bonds, took a chance. No one was sure it would work. Yet they were willing to risk a portion of the present to benefit the future. Not their own future necessarily—Morris died before the project began, Clinton three years after it was completed. Their faith was directed toward another generation, a succession of generations, who reaped the harvest of their courage.
They argued, they compromised, and they went ahead—the groundbreaking occurred less than three months after legislation approving the project. They understood that the canal’s promise went beyond its commercial potential. Proponents insisted that the project would “bind the Republic together.” And it did. In a very real sense, the Erie Canal helped to unite the United States.
As we commemorate the canal’s the anniversary, we need to remind ourselves that we can still accomplish great works. We simply need to renew our faith in our future and start digging.
Copyright © 2017 by Jack Kelly
Jack Kelly is the author of Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal (St. Martin’s Press), a lively account of the canal and the many excitement generated along its banks. His another piece of work for Thought Matters, Joseph Smith: Genius, talks about one of the oddest of the characters who roamed through our early republic.