The Most Magnificent Achievement of Humanity

Erie Canal in 1829. By: John Hill.

As nationalism was growing in the years following the War of 1812, achievements became more common and innovation was running rampant. In this environment, the Erie Canal was born.

As the Bonus Bill was rejected in the federal government, New York was developing its own plans for infrastructure. The New York legislature passed a bill funding the creation of the Erie Canal, realizing the dream of Governor DeWitt Clinton, who had previously served as Mayor of New York. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 117.

The Erie Canal was not without its critics, however. Thomas Jefferson would call it “madness.” Id. quoting Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River (New York, 1996), 21-22, 27. Joining that criticism initially was Martin Van Buren, then a Republican sitting in the New York legislature. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 117. He began opposed to the canal and once it was clear that it would pass through the legislature, he switched sides, which would become his trademark and give him the nickname “The Little Magician.” Id.

The canal would run for 363 miles, 40-feet wide, and four feet deep, and Governor DeWitt Clinton called it “a work more stupendous, more magnificent, and more beneficial than has hitherto been achieved by the human race.” Id. quoting Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise (Baltimore, 1995), 16. While perhaps this was hyperbole, it “represented the first step in the transportation revolution that would turn an aggregate of local economies into a nationwide market economy.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 118. It enjoyed rapid success, carrying $15 million worth of goods just a few years after its opening, which was twice as much that floated down to New Orleans. Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution (New York, 1991), 43.

New York enjoyed substantial growth in the following decades. In population alone, New York City jumped from 125,000 in 1820 to 500,000 in 1850. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York, 1999). New York had ensured its place as one of the fundamental economic hubs of the United States.

There are a couple of points to unpack from the development of the Erie Canal. First, it is a prime example of where states can compensate for the federal government’s inaction. States are not empowered to legislate on every subject matter, obviously, but to the extent that some infrastructure needs are not being fulfilled by the federal government, states can resolve those issues. Second, the Erie Canal’s creation was the first example of Martin Van Buren’s skillful political posturing, which would be on display for the next few decades and culminate in his presidency.

The Erie Canal provides an example for study of the ingenuity of Americans. It would also be foreshadowing the extraordinary success of America.


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