From the December 2009 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Historical Research: The Canal Builder

How DeWitt Clinton's Erie Canal changed the financial landscape.

DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) was an early American politician who transformed the country in far-reaching ways -- physically, economically and financially. He was the driving force in building the Erie Canal, a massive engineering achievement that helped make Wall Street into a major financial center and the United States into an economically dynamic nation where investors would want to put their money.

Clinton served at various times as governor of New York state, mayor of New York City, U.S. senator and member of the Erie Canal commission. He ran for president in 1812, losing a fairly close contest to James Madison. He was an intellectual with interests ranging from rattlesnake biology to the history of Native Americans. He also was imperious and abrasive. A couple of years before the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, Clinton went up against Burr supporter John Swartwout and irritably shot him in the leg.

Among Clinton's accomplishments were improvements in public education, sanitation and city planning, reforms of criminal laws and helping found and promote cultural institutions such as the New York Historical Society. But his lasting place in history comes primarily from his role in spearheading development of the Erie Canal, notwithstanding the skeptics who called it "Clinton's folly" or "Clinton's ditch."

Large-Scale Project
In 1810, Clinton, who had served intermittently as mayor, was picked by the State Legislature to be one of the first members of the Commission to Explore a Route for a Canal to Lake Erie and Report, which would go through various unwieldy names and become known as the Erie Canal commission.

The idea of opening America's interior through a canal linking upstate New York to the Great Lakes region had been floating around for decades. Early thoughts focused on a relatively short route to Lake Ontario, but this would go only so far in gaining access to the Midwest and would require a burdensome portage around Niagara Falls. A more ambitious plan would be to connect Lake Erie to the Hudson River.

That, however, would mean crossing hundreds of miles of often difficult terrain, passing through swamplands and cutting through rock ridges. Gouverneur Morris, an influential politician who served as commission chair, favored the idea but worried that "our minds are not yet enlarged to the size of so great an object."

The War of 1812 put canal considerations on the back burner, and prospects for federal funding were dim anyway. A few years earlier, Thomas Jefferson as president had called the whole idea "little short of madness," noting that a much more modest plan for a canal in the Washington, D.C. area had stalled for lack of resources.

Clinton spent the next few years campaigning for an Erie Canal, arguing that New York state should build the thing without federal help if necessary. In 1817, a veto by President Madison showed that this was indeed necessary. But that same year, the State Legislature passed a Canal Act, and Clinton, his career increasingly connected to the issue, became governor. Overturning some soil with a shovel, he promised that the huge undertaking would be done in 10 years. It ended up taking just eight.

Buy Canal Bonds
The canal's projected cost was $7 million, a stupendous sum. New York state issued bonds on an unprecedented scale, while also taxing land, salt and other items in the canal area so as to have ready cash to service the debt. Relatively small investors provided a substantial portion of the initial capital. An 1818 bond issue attracted 69 subscribers, with 51 investing less than $2,000 and 27 investing less than $1,000. The Bank for Savings, an institution set up with Clinton's encouragement to serve small depositors, became a major buyer of canal bonds as well.

With construction moving fast and the canal demonstrating itself to be a reliable generator of interest payments, wealthier individuals and institutions increasingly got in on the action. By the end of 1822, John Jacob Astor owned $213,000 of canal bonds. Foreign interest grew as well, as Barings and other British firms became big buyers of canal paper. The London Times opined that the canal would turn New York City into the "London of the New World."

That would prove accurate. Once the 363-mile-long canal was completed in 1825, New York was essentially guaranteed preeminence as the nation's top commercial and financial city. Goods from the Midwest could now flow readily to the base of the Hudson. Moreover, the city's banks and investors had gained sophistication in dealing with financial instruments such as canal bonds. This would serve them well in future decades, as railroad bonds and other securities came to the fore.

At the same time, the whole country stood to benefit. Shipping times and costs were slashed. People could move west with relative ease, and substantial cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee would grow along the Great Lakes. And the United States, barely a decade after the 1814 burning of public buildings in Washington, D.C. by occupying British troops, was now a magnet for British and other foreign investment. In the parlance of a later age, the U.S. had become a very promising "emerging market."

Political Twists
Clinton's political fortunes took a hit while the canal was still under construction. He was dumped from the governorship in 1822, after a state constitutional convention changed the term of office from three years to two and canceled his final months. Then he didn't win nomination for another term. Clinton was losing a political contest with a faction headed by Martin Van Buren, who would be president years later.

Then his opponents overreached, orchestrating a vote in the State Legislature to remove Clinton from his post as head of the Erie Canal commission. "There is such a thing in politics as killing a man too dead," Van Buren fretted, and he was right. A wave of popular indignation at Clinton's dismissal got him reelected as governor in 1825.

Thus, Clinton was in office in time for the canal's official opening ceremonies. On Oct. 26, 1825 he set off from Buffalo in the boat Seneca Chief, heading a flotilla of vessels that would go through the new canal and then down the Hudson. On Nov. 4, the celebrants passed lower Manhattan and moved onto Sandy Hook, N.J. There, Clinton poured a cask of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic.

Note: The author's interest in this subject is personal as well as professional. His wife C. Brooke Silber, n?e Carter, is DeWitt Clinton's great-great-great-great granddaughter.

----

DeWitt Clinton Facts

  • DeWitt Clinton was born in Little Britain, N.Y. to a family that was increasingly politically prominent. His father James Clinton was a Revolutionary War general, and his uncle George Clinton would become governor of New York and later vice president.
  • DeWitt graduated on April 11, 1786 from what is now Columbia University, giving a commencement speech in Latin with the U.S. Congress in attendance.
  • Clinton was married twice, first to Martha Franklin in 1796 and then to Catharine Jones in 1819. DeWitt and Martha had 10 children, seven of which were alive at the time of her death in 1818.
  • Worried about a buildup of federal power, Clinton opposed ratification of the Constitution and later argued for narrow interpretation of its provisions. He wrote his anti-ratification essays under the pen name "Countryman."
  • He served in the State Legislature during 1798-1802 and 1806-1811. Clinton won election to the U.S. Senate in 1802 but resigned the next year, complaining about living conditions in newly constructed Washington, D.C. He was mayor of New York during the three separate periods, and was governor of New York twice.
  • In July 1802, Clinton fought a duel with John Swartwout, a friend of Aaron Burr, over allegations that Clinton was trying to ruin Burr's political career through smears. Five shots were exchanged, one grazing Clinton's jacket. After shooting his opponent's leg, Clinton walked off in disgust, saying he did not wish to hurt Swartwout and that he wished "the principal" (Burr) were present as his opponent.
  • Clinton was initially a member of the Democratic-Republican Party that was led in the early 1800s by Thomas Jefferson. However, he ran for president in 1812 as a candidate of the rival Federalists, having broken with his party over the issue of war with Britain. In that election, he got 89 electoral votes to 128 for James Madison. Clinton won 47.6 percent of the popular vote, to Madison's 50.4 percent.
  • Clinton was contemplating another run for the presidency in the 1828 election.
    He died in Albany, N.Y. on February 11, 1828 at age 58, while serving as governor. Originally interred upstate, he is buried in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.
  • A DeWitt Clinton steam locomotive began operating in 1831. DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx is one of a number of educational institutions given his name. Various towns and counties in states across America are named Clinton or DeWitt in his honor. A portrait of DeWitt Clinton appeared on a $1,000 bill issued in 1880.
Reprints Discuss this story
This is where the comments go.