Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

De Witt Clinton,
the Father of the Erie Canal

In October, 1825, the close of the first quarter of the nineteenth century was made notable by a spectacular event. At Buffalo, on the western border of the State of New York, the sluice-way was opened that closed the mouth of the Erie Canal, and the waters of Lake Erie rushed into this vast excavation, much the greatest example of engineering work the country had then seen. This was before the days of the electric telegraph, and a novel system of telegraphing was adopted to convey the news to the eagerly awaiting people of New York City. A row of cannon, about five miles apart, was arranged along the canal, and these were fired in succession as fast as the sound traveled from one to the next in line, so that in a very short time the news was sent across the State and made its way from Buffalo to New York.

Then a triumphal barge was launched on the canal, carrying Governor Clinton, the great patron of the work, over the three hundred" and sixty-three miles from Buffalo to Albany and thence down the Hudson River to New York, the people of the State gathering in multitudes to cheer him as he passed. He brought with him a keg of water from Lake Eris, which was poured with pomp and ceremony into the waters of New York Bay, thus accomplishing the marriage of the lake with the ocean. It was the final test of a great success, that which linked the Great Lakes with the Atlantic at the Hudson's mouth.

The canal was a work of the noblest economic importance. Before its opening it cost ten dollars and took three weeks to transport a barrel of flour over-land from Buffalo to Albany. By way of the canal it could be sent through in a week, at a cost of thirty cents. To-day grain boats follow each other in one continuous line, day and night, along the canal, while a like procession of boats laden with merchandise traverses its waters in the opposite direction.

De Witt Clinton, to whose energy and enterprise our country owes this great achievement, was born at Little Britain, New York, March 2, 1769. He came from a distinguished colonial family, his grandfather being Colonel Charles Clinton and his father General James Clinton, a prominent officer in the French and Indian and the Revolutionary Wars. His uncle, George Clinton, was a member of the Continental Congress; voted for the Declaration of Independence, though military duties prevented him from being present to sign it; was the first governor of New York, and held that office for eighteen years; and was elected Vice-President of the United States under Jefferson in 1804, and again under Madison in 1808.

As may be seen from his ancestry, De Witt Clinton was born to a prominent position in New York, if he should prove capable of filling it. As it was, he showed himself an able statesman, and his whole life was spent in the public service. A boy patriot in the Revolution, he graduated at Columbia College in 1786, and studied law, though he afterwards had very little opportunity to practice it.

His public career began in or about 1790, as private secretary for his uncle, Governor George Clinton. Though then only twenty-one years of age, he quickly became active in public affairs. We are told that "the life of Clinton was from this moment one of political strife, into which he threw all the force of his ardent temperament and brilliant talents." In the course of some years he rose from one political position to another, entering the legislature in 1797, the State Senate in 1798, and being elected a Senator of the United States in 1801 or 1802. Politically, he was a member of the Anti-Federalist party, and shortly rose to be the leader of the Democratic party in New York.

As a member of the Senate Clinton showed himself an orator of commanding eloquence, his most notable speech being one on the navigation of the Mississippi River, the leading question of that day. In this he opposed a war with Spain, which country had closed that river against American shipping. Soon afterwards this question was settled amicably, President Jefferson purchasing the Mississippi and all the territory through which it ran, and making the whole of it a part of the United States.

In 1803 Mr. Clinton was elected Mayor of the city of New York, then a post of high importance, for the Mayor was President of the Council and Chief Judge of the Common Pleas and Criminal Courts. In the words of Professor Renfrew, "He was on all sides looked up to as the most rising man in the Union." He served as Mayor at successive intervals until 1814, the city growing prosperous under his administrations. Among the institutions fostered by him were the Historical Society, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the first orphan asylum of the city. He favored other institutions, and devoted much time and thought to the founding of free schools, public libraries, and other aids to the education of the people.

In the early years of the century he found his chief political rival in Aaron Burr, then one of the ablest and most unscrupulous politicians of the country. After the discredit of Burr, Daniel D. Tompkins, a man who excelled in gaining the favor of the people, became his competitor for control of the Democratic party. Clinton was deficient in the art of currying favor. A man of stately and often haughty bearing, with a hasty temper which at times got him into needless difficulties, he had only his fine powers as an orator and his many acts of kindness to depend upon. But these won him many friends, and in spite of all the harm his political enemies—the Tammany Party—could do him, there was not a poor man in New York but looked upon him as a friend, and he held the people's love till his death.

Clinton had the laudable ambition which has affected many worthy statesmen since his time, that of becoming President of the United States, and he had made himself so prominent that in 1812 he was a candidate against President Madison for the Presidency, gaining the electoral vote of nearly all the New England and Middle States. He was defeated by a vote of one hundred and twenty-eight to eighty-nine. He lost favor in a measure by his disagreement with the President about the War of 1812, though his opposition to it was solely on the basis that the country was ill prepared for such a war. The event proved that he was right in this.

For two of the years in which Clinton was Mayor, 1811-13, he was also Lieutenant-Governor of the State, and in 1817 he was elected Governor by an almost unanimous vote. The great question of the campaign was that of the projected Erie Canal, the need of which the State of New York was feeling more and more strongly as the years passed on and population increased. This was before the era of the railroads. Had they existed at that time, the canal would never have been made. But the growth of the lake trade, and the difficulty of carrying grain and merchandise in wagons over the whole length of the State, called for some cheaper and easier method, and the question of a canal grew prominent in the popular thought and talk.

The idea of excavating a canal from the lakes to the Hudson was not a new one. It had been, germinating since early in the century. Seven commissioners had been appointed in 1809 to examine and survey a route for such a canal, and Mayor Clinton was one of these. The need of it grew more urgent as time went on, but the magnitude and great cost of the work stood in its way. In 1817 the canal was the great State question of the day, and Clinton stood as its candidate. In the spring of that year, largely through his influence, the legislature passed a bill authorizing the canal, and on the 4th of July, 1817, the great work which was to become his chief title to fame was begun.

It called for heavy taxation, many did not believe it possible, and a powerful party, called "Bucktails," arose, who denounced the project as visionary and ridiculous. "Clinton's big ditch "it was called in derision, and this title became a standing joke in the opposing newspapers. It was utterly absurd, they said, to think of digging a canal across three hundred and sixty miles of territory, through unbroken forests, over hills, against difficulties innumerable. It was incredible that boats could make their way from the lakes to the sea across such a country. But in spite of all this Clinton went on with the work.

In 1820 Clinton's old rival, Daniel D. Tompkins, was on the opposition ticket, and though he was re-elected, his opponents gained majorities in both branches of legislature. The canal policy had been the great issue of the campaign, and the work became blocked by a refusal to vote money for its prosecution. In 1822 he declined to run for the office, and in 1824 his adversaries, who had come into power, removed him from the office of Canal Commissioner. This excited the indignation of the people, who regarded Clinton as the father of the canal, and in the election of that year he was made Governor again by a majority of 16,000, the largest that any candidate had ever received in the State.

Meanwhile the canal went on, slowly but surely, now halting, now pasting, in its career, its construction sustained throughout by the perseverance and energy of Governor Clinton. The task was an immense one, well calculated to frighten a sparse and poor population. For eight years it employed an army of laborers, who cut down forests, blasted a channel through rock, carried the bed up seemingly impassable hills by the aid of locks, conveyed it over rivers in aqueducts, keeping on indefatigably until 1825, when the last spadeful of earth was lifted, the sluices were opened, water was let into the "ditch," and Governor Clinton made his triumphal tour by water across the length of the State.

He could well be proud of it, for it was his. Without his far-seeing enterprise it might never have been possible to carry it to completion. Clinton was the hero of the day. Men who had called him a visionary idiot were now loud in his praises. Bonfires, fireworks, processions, and speeches were the order of the day, and when the victor appeared in New York with his keg of Lake Erie water, the whole city rose to do him honor and went wild with enthusiasm. In 1825 he was offered by President Adams the honorable post of Minister to England. This he declined, and the next year was re-elected Governor by a rousing majority. He was now the most popular man in the State. He lived to see the canal a great success, dying suddenly at Albany, in the Governor's chair, February 11, 1828.

Even to-day, with all the great engineering works of the age, the Erie Canal does not appear a small affair. It seemed stupendous in those days, when the country was young and poor, and when much of the state was an unbroken and largely unknown wilderness. It was a great credit to the foresight and indefatigable energy of De Witt Clinton, and has since been of immeasurable benefit to the State of New York as it stands to-day, its length is given as 365% miles; its width from 53 to 79 feet at the bottom and 70 to 98 at the top; its depth from 7 to 9 feet. Its total rise above sea-level is 656 feet, this height being overcome by the use of numerous locks. Despite the rivalry of the railroad, no thought has arisen of abandoning "Clinton's big ditch." On the contrary, it is proposed to increase it in size so that it may carry ships instead of barges, and the people of the coming future may see grain-bearing vessels or steamers making their way along a deep and wide artificial river from end to end of the State of New York.