The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 5, Part 4

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


Indeed, it was at one time thought that he might hold both offices. At least, the resourceful Van Buren thought so. He had searched diligently, interestedly, and had failed to find that the State and national constitutions contained any clause which would prohibit such a dual status. But Tompkins scorned the suggestion. Maybe, he was not unaware that quite possibly DeWitt Clinton, with whom the Kinderhook genius had been at odds for some time, would be the next Governor, and that by turning a deaf ear to Van Buren's advice and severing his official connection with State affairs, he would be jeopardizing the career of the very capable attorney-general. Had not he, Van Buren, muddled National affairs, and stultified his fondest hope? It would be tit for tat. Of course, nobler reasons may have actuated the Governor. In any case he probably realized that he could not properly serve either State or Nation in the dual capacity. Such a divided status might have appeared to him to be foreign to the spirit of both constitutions, for he well knew that the interests of the State and Nation were not always one. Had not American indeed only recently passed through a trying period of opposition of State to Nation? Therefore, how could the two offices be honestly administered concurrently by the same man? Under the most favorable conditions the dual official would always be mistrusted. So finally Governor Tompkins made his state adieu, and entered upon his National duties with a clean records, and with confident hope of going higher. #32

The last address Tompkins, as Governor, delivered was perhaps his noblest. It opened the regular session of the State legislature on January 14, 1817m, and dealt with only one subject, being an earnest appeal for the abolition of slavery in New York State. This final humanitarian effort resulted in the enactment of a bill--though not until after the Tompkins administration had ended--providing that on and after July 4, 1827, human slavery should forever cease in the State of New York. One might, therefore, look upon the emancipation legislation as the crown of Governor Tompkins' public record. Thorns were to come into it only too soon, with pain and humiliation so excruciating--because admittedly undeserved--as to bow the head and take the spirit from the "farmer's boy" who had served the State so faithfully and the Nation do patriotically. After Governor Tomplins had passed to the Vice-Presidency his political enemies south to smear his excellent record with insinuation of dishonestly, in connection with the State funds he had irregularly raised to aid the Nation, when the unpatriotic State Legislature had refused to vote funds for war purposes. His enemies could not sustain their charges, and after the death of the persecuted Governor it was officially acknowledged that the State rightfully owed him $90,000 more than the sum his enemies had hounded him for. It was then too late. Blight kills the rose but had little effect on the weeds. An honest man collapses under suspicion, while the reprobate goes on his way unconcerned. The aspersion cast on the moral integrity of Vice-President Tompkins blighted the remainder of his life. "And at the age of fifty-one, soon after the completion of his second term as Vice-President, he died, leaving the memory of one of the most engaging and attractive figures that have ever adorned the public life of the State of New York, or indeed of the United States, untimely driven from the scene in circumstances reflecting discredit and reproach upon almost everybody concerned in then excepting himself." #33

Clinton's "Big Ditch"--For a year or more before Governor Tompkins became Vice-President of the United States, DeWitt Clinton had been recovering lost ground. Upon removal from the mayoralty in 1815, Clinton, bitterly mortified and for a nonce dejected, retired to a farm at Newtown on Long Island. Soon his spirit revived. Courage returned. He saw the way back to public favor. True, the odds were long, but his return would be all the more spectacular, in consequence. By his emergence from obscurity in this way, he might attract the popular fancy--might set it on fire, and in the swirl of the fire be carried to--who could say how far? So, with the instincts of the gambler and the desperation of the pauper, he staked what little political fortune he still possessed on the long chance. With the courage of a man who had nothing to lose and all to gain, he plunged into the depths of a project which was then in an almost submerged state itself, but which would ever hold alluring attraction to men of venturesome, imaginative mind.

His own personal plight may not have been the only reason why the deposed mayor entered so energetically into the plant to resuscitate a well-nigh lifeless project. Time favored him. The moment was opportune, for with the passing of wartime excitement, post-war extravagance generally begins. There was some reason then for thinking that the State of New York might be more venturesome with its funds than she had been during and before the war. The uncertainty that had hampered progress for a decade had passed with the war. It was realized positively now that the State would never again become a province. Her future was republican, and as a sovereign state--one of great wealth. Therefore, in anticipation of great future prosperity, there was justification now for giving serious though to plans for a substantial outlaying of public funds in great public works. Again, what could be more natural then that New Yorkers should think that the greatest progress would come in that part of New York State for the possession of which armies had fought with such tenacity for two years. The Niagara region had been the strategic frontier across which the military forced of the two Nations had see-sawed for two years, with Dame Fortune so entirely impartial that peace had found the contending armies in approximately their original positions. Of course, ever since 1812 the thoughts of New York people had been focused more or less sensationally on the frontier. The burning of Buffalo had certainly drawn the attention of all. It is just as certain that its loss by the torch of the enemy had distorted its importance enormously. Possession is never so highly valued as when it is lost. Instead of a straggling little frontier village of 500 people, popular fancy had perhaps pictured the burned Buffalo has a great city destroyed. So there was seductive charm and impelling, contagious optimism in the prophecy of DeWitt Clinton, in July, 1816, that the new Buffalo, which, like the Phoenix, was just then beginning to rise form the ashes of the old, would "in all human probability, before the passing away of the present generation . . . .be the second city in the State." #34

Its potentiality, of course, arose from its geographical position. Situated as it is, at the eastern end of the Great lakes over which, eventually, must pass the commerce of many great States, the importance of buffalo, and the advantage of New York State were obvious--if only the way to the sea, via the Hudson River, be cut. This possibility has been in the minds of empire-building white men long before the time of DeWitt Clinton. The interior waterways of New York had attracted the notice of white men two centuries before Clinton became a factor in New York affairs. The State records show that Robert Livingston, Secretary for Indian Affairs in 1700, had been impressed by the fact that the Mohawk River, Wood Creek, and Oneida lake route from Albany to Ontario was "far more easie" than that from Mont Royal along the St. Lawrence River, to Lake Ontario. Cadwallader Colden, who was surveyor-general of the province in 1724, reported favorably, and the Governor (Burnet) went to the "expense to mend and clear the carrying place" at Wood Creek, so as to facilitate trading with the Indians. In 1737-38, Colden traced the waterways through from New York to Oswego, and to "the lakes and rivers even to the branches of the Mississippi." General Philip Schuyler was another canal enthusiast. He went to England in 1761, and while there had been particularly interested in English canals. They suggested to him the advantages that might follow the canalization of the Mohawk River. General Schuyler's thoughts had soon to be given to provision of war, not peace. In 1777 Gouverneur Morris conversed with General Schuyler at Fort Edward on the subject of canals. "At no very distant day," said Morris, "the waters of the great inland seas will, by the aid of man, break through the barriers and mingle with those of the Hudson." Christopher Colles, in 1784, sought to get the legislature to remove the obstructions along the Mohawk River. In the next year they granted him the sum of $125 "to make an essay toward the removing of certain obstructions in the Mohawk River." General Washington, in 1783, toured along the natural waterways of New York on his way to the headwaters of the Susquehanna. He was much impressed "with the vast inland navigation of these United States" and "with the goodness of that providence which has dealt its favor to us with so profuse a hand." Turning to Governor George Clinton, he said: "Would to God we may have wisdom enough to improve them." Out of the Colles 'essay" developed, in 1786, "An Act for Improving the Navigation of the Mohawk River, Wood Creek, and the Onondaga River, with a view of Opening an Inland Navigation to Oswego, and for Extending the Same, if practicable, to Lake Erie." This measure was introduced in the Assembly by Mr. Jeffrey smith, but the legislature adjourned before final action could be taken. In the same year, General Schuyler and two others were appointed commissioners "to examine and report on making a canal from Wood Creek to the Mohawk River." in 1792 General Schuyler introduced a bill which incorporated the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company and the Northern Inland Navigation Company. This became chapter 40 of the Laws of 1792. One corporation was to open lock navigation from the Hudson to Lake Ontario and to Seneca Lake; the other company was to open a route between the Hudson and Lake Champlain. Work was begun in the next year, but by 1795 it was found that the western company had spent $480,000 in building only five locks at Little Falls and about six miles of canal. More money was spent before the State comptroller, in 1802, was authorized to accept shares in the company in payment of debts. Gouverneur Morris, at about this time, became possessed by the desire to see lake Erie "tapped." Several other "canal" men were dissatisfied with access to Lake Erie and westward by way of Lake Ontario. So the little hamlet of buffalo became the potential terminus of Great Lakes navigation.

Soon canal projects became the active pursuit of National administrators. President Thomas Jefferson's address to congress in 1806 recommended the application of National revenues to such purposes, which he deemed to be "most desirable national objects"; but congress did not concur in such use of public moneys, for it was pointed our $4,000,000 could be used in New York State along, to provide "sloop navigation" from the Hudson to Lake Ontario, thence to Lake Erie. New York, by the way, was not the only state that would call upon the central government for money for canalization projects if the President's recommendation should be adopted.

In 1808 the New York Assembly appointed a joint committee "to consider the propriety of exploring and surveying the most eligible route between the Hudson River and Lake Erie." commissioners were appointed in 1810, viz.: Gouvernor Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, William North, Thomas Eddy, and Peter Buell Porter. Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton were added in 1811. According to one good historian the first commissioners named in the resolutions of March, 1810, included DeWitt Clinton and Simeon DeWitt. #35 If so, then Clinton's objection tot he commission's report of 1811 must be looked upon as a minority report. Clinton thought that Mr. Morris, who drafted the report of the commission, was 'too much under the influence of a sublimated imagination, conceiving the sublime idea of creating an artificial river from the elevation of lake Erie to the Hudson." Mr. Morris's report "digressed' to show the advantages of "an inclined plane canal," which would pass "over rivers and lakes by acqueducts and valleys by mounds." Clinton, however, admitted that "with the exception of the plan of the canal" Mr. Morris's report 'established the practicability of an inland canal, and illustrated its advantage." The cost of the commissioners' plan was five millions of dollars. Mr. Ellicott, the founder of Buffalo, had opposed the Lake Ontario route to the Erie, and had recommended a plan which would provide a canal for only $700,000. But even this was by no means a trivial outlay, the dollar having a much greater purchasing value in those days. For a dollar, more food could be bought than an man could eat in a week.

However, New York State looked hopefully toward the central government. They would not object to spend the money of the United States to improve New York. So after Jefferson had advocated canals, the New York representatives in Congress were directed to encourage all canalization talk. Interest gradually grew. In 1810 Senator Pope, of Kentucky, introduced a bill in the Untied States Senate proposing "a union of the waters of the Hudson with Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain"; and at almost the same time, congressman Peter Buell porter, who represented part of Western New York, offered a resolution in the House, "Urging an appropriation of public lands in aid of the construction of roads and canals," and for "opening canals from the Hudson to Lake Ontario and around the Falls at Niagara." But the Nation was as careful of its funds as the State, and other States of the Union did not take kindly to the development of New York commerce with National funds.

So, as National appropriations could not be had, the State, in 1812, empowered the canal commissioners "to purchase all the rights, interest, and estate of the President, Directors and Stockholders of the Western Inland Lock Navigation company, in the State of New York, together with the locks, canals, lands, and other property" of the company. The commissioners were further authorized to procure what land would be needed for the proposed inland navigation "from Lake Erie to the Hudson River," also to borrow up to $5,000,000 at six per cent, "upon a loan for not less than fifteen years," the State becoming liable for payment of principal and interest. The act was passed on June 19, 1812--one day after signing of a declaration of war against Britain. The latter action by President Madison, of course, put an end to all projects save those of war purposes--or at least it ended all chance of interesting New Yorkers in canal bonds. So the commissioners--who were those originally appointed--had perforce to let the project enter a dormant stage.

This was the state of canal affairs at the time DeWitt Clinton retired to the long Island farm, shorn of almost all his political prestige. The commissionership was the only State office of which he had not been dispossessed. It was the only crutch upon which he could limp back to good political standing. He made good use of it, not only because if promised to carry him to a good political openings, There is no doubt that he had a genuine interest in bringing to consummation this inland navigation scheme, which would make use of what he looked upon as the most valuable natural asset of the State. So, after leaving the mayoralty, Clinton used his "involuntary leisure' to further canal interests. "He corresponded with men of influence, south the assistance of capitalists, held public meetings," and in many other effective ways strove to stir the public sentiment. He knew his subject, could present it authoritatively, and, with the audacity of the adventurer, could give his presentation attractive color. "It is doubtful if any statesman endowed with less genius than Clinton could have kept the project alive during this period of indifference and discouragement." #36. Although Jefferson advocated canalization as probably the best way of meeting transportation problems where waterways were linkable, he doubted the feasibility of the Hudson-Erie plan; indeed, he declared that it was "a century in advance of the age." Rufus King, the United States Senator from New York, also had very grave doubts as to "whether the unaided resources of the State would be competent to its execution." #37 But Clinton had no doubts, or at least none that a daring optimist could not set aside.

By "a stroke of happy audacity," he committed the State to the project. A meeting of New York merchants, in autumn, 1815, resulted in the forming of a committee "to memorialise the Legislature." DeWitt Clinton was the chosen chairman of this committee. And this memorial when drafted, echoed his own enthusiasm. Could any loyal New Yorker, by plain logical reasoning hold his sentiment down to fact, when faced by such a heroic flight of fancy as that with which Clinton concluded the memorial? ". . . . the overflowing blessings from this great fountain of public good and national abundance will be as extensive as our own country and as durable as time," he declared. The memorial continued: "It may be confidently asserted that this canal, as to the extent of its route as to the countries which it connects, and as tot he consequences which it will produce is without parallel in the history of mankind. It remains for a free State to create a new era in history, and to erect a work more stupendous, more magnificent, and more beneficial than has hitherto been achieved by the human race."

Those who perused this memorial did not calmly reflect that the man who so alluringly recommended the spending of millions of public dollars had not known how to successfully administer his own estate. A man who had had an annual income of tens of thousands, but who was now insolvent, was proposing to handle millions of dollars of the people's money. Strange as it may seem, the people were, figuratively, trampling over each other in their eagerness to place those millions in his care. "Acclamations of joy," featured monster mass-meetings held at Albany and at other points along the proposed waterway. The poor as well as the rich welcomed Clinton wherever he went during the ending months of 1815. Public clamor became so marked that the Legislature when it convened in January, 1816, had hardly any option but to appoint a commission, headed by Clinton, and authorize it to make surveys and do other preliminary work upon a project to which the public seemed eager to commit them. The commission was asked to report to the next Legislature.

In this spectacular way Clinton had come back. No longer a political outcast, he was now beginning a new career, more creditable than anyone who had known even a little of his past would ever have thought possible, more romantic than the most daring fictionist would have sketched for his reading public, and more disastrous, financially tot he State, than had been the career of any other of her great sons of the State period. When DeWitt Clinton opened the Grand Canal in 1825, he could hardly have imagined that a decade or so later wheels driven b y steam would be able to grip flat strips of iron laid upon roadways; that a mechanical; device, traveling over such a roadway, would be able to haul more than its own weight at a greater speed than the 'express" canal packets--which were achieving three miles an hour--could ever hope to reach. He would not have realized that no matter what canal improvements were thought of, the rapid development of the iron roadway would make the canal an obsolete and interior means of transportation long before the improvements could be completed. Clinton was ever imaginative and optimistic, but even the most miserable of pessimists of Clinton's time could hardly have penetrated the future so dolefully as to imagine that within ten years of the opening of the canal, which had cost $7,143,789.86, legislators would be seriously considering the expenditure of another $12,000,000 to enlarge the canal so as to make it practicable, or that in 1842 the Canal bonded Debt would have reached $19,056,466, with the first enlargement project still scarcely begun--indeed, not yet within twenty years of its completion--but that all the while the iron road had been reaching out farther and farther into the western region which canal proponents had thought would ever be the unchallenged monopoly of New York waterways. DeWitt Clinton could never have thought that the time would come, as it did in 1859, when delegates of the State would meet in convention for the declared purpose of "rescuing the canals from the ruin with which they were threatened" by the speedier legs of the iron steed. Again the canal optimists of the 'fifties, however, would hardly have thought that the State would go on pouring its money bags into the stagnant canal for another thirty years, and then, heedless of a freight-tonnage of less than in any year since 1859, take up plans for another enlargement which would cost $16,000,000, nine millions of which were destined to disappear before one-third of the work had been completed. In any case, DeWitt Clinton could never have brought himself to believe--unless in a madhouse--that within three-quarters of a century from the time when he was so gloriously picturing the permanent prosperity that the canals would bring to the State, publicists of that later more extravagant day would be urging the abandonment of part of the original Erie Canal, and proposing the construction of a wider, deeper barge-canal system which would pledge the credit of the State for a further $101,000,000, and which actually cost the State many millions more before the last barrier to traffic along the Barge Canal, from Lake Erie to the Hudson River, was removed in 1918. If the great "Father of the Erie Canal" could have lived through the century of canal construction and could have seen that, despite the investment of so very many millions of dollars, tonnage over the canals had actually shrunk, in 1918, "to the smallest volume in their history." #38 he would perhaps have wished that he had never been born.

Statistics point conclusively to one fact: that slow-moving canal transportation cannot, in most cases, compete with the speedier modes of transportation of today. The railways, and, for short hauls, the motor means, have revolutionized transportation. Herculean efforts have, from time to time, been made by the State of New York to protect its canals investment, but without avail. In 1872, three years before double locks were in operation along the whole length of the Erie Canal, the total tonnage carried along all New York canals was 6,673,370 tons. In 1894, the year in which the second enlargement of the Erie Canal was authorized, the Erie tonnage was 3,144,144 tons; nine years later, when the Barge Canal measure became law, the tonnage was 2,414,018; but in 1921, after all this expensive work had been competed, after the official tours of great canal proponents had passed into history, in frills of eulogy and laudation without which such great public projects would seem to lack color, we reach the discouraging statistic that the Erie tonnage of that year, 1921, was only 993,639. Governor Nathan L. Miller, when banqueted after the completion of his tour of the Barge Canal system in august, 1921, said; "I have arrived at the conclusion that this waterway was designed with wonderful foresight." One wonders what would have been the opinion of DeWitt Clinton had he been present and been shown the State ledger for the century of canal construction and operation. Would he have been quite pleased with the place of honor given him in history? Would he have been willing to be remembered best by posterity as "The Father of the Erie Canal"? Would he have honestly commended the poetic Buffalonian, who, amid the salvo of artillery which announced the sage arrival of Governor Clinton at the terminus of the Grand Canal in October, 1825, penned the ode which ran:

Strike the lyre! 'Tis envy's knell--
Pallid fear within her shell
Shrinks aghast--while truth and fame
On glory's scroll 'grave Clinton's name.
What boundless gratitude is due
To those whose purpose, ever true,
Pursued their course with daring pride
Till Erie's waves caressed the tide.

Clinton's so-called "big ditch" was a stupendous undertaking, but if the project had been confined tot he Erie Canal a different accounting would be given. The other canals were just as costly to make, but were somewhat superfluous--so much 'dead wood" that bore heavily upon the Erie Canal, which, considered alone, has always been an inviting proposition. Enormous sums of money were spent on the maze of canalways. Well-nigh incredible optimism was brought enthusiastic support to the "canal men: throughout almost all the stages of construction--even tot he most recent herculean achievement in the barge canal completion--yet there is hardly one canal enthusiast of today who would be so sanguine as to think that the artificial waterways of New York State will ever return monetary profit on the sums invested, during the last century in their construction.

In 1816, through the great effort of Clinton, the State became definitely committed tot he undertaking, transportation, was by only two modes. One was a land route which was sometimes a boggy natural roadway, sometimes a corduroy road of logs, sometimes a roughly slashed road through the standing timber with tree-stumps so awkwardly left that at time the axles of the wagons would have to be lifted over them. The other way was by water--a smooth, easy mode. That over the Great Lakes for instance, would be an almost unobstructed course for many hundreds of miles, with a smooth protected waterway of 363 miles from buffalo to the Hudson River at Albany. Not the least attractive feature of the scheme was the thought that the Erie Canal would benefit the Untied States at the expense of her late enemy, Britain. That the United States would, in this way, "steal a march" on Canada was a happy thought attractive to many. One is, therefore, not surprised that the scheme to give the Great lakes an outlet to the sea through New York State should fire the imagination of rich and poor in New York and bring its chief proponent very prominently into public notice. Therefore, disastrous as had been almost all canal projects in New York State, blame cannot be laid upon Clinton. His great courageous effort, sustained with unflagging vigor for a decade until he saw "Erie's waves with Ocean meet,' can only be commended. Although in this persistent endeavor he undoubtedly had his own political success also in mind, we can sincerely believe that his sustained enthusiasm came from the firm conviction that in pursuing the project he was nobly serving his State; that, as one writer wrote of the completion of the canal in 1825: "this, in the space of eight short years, was the work of which the oldest and richest Nations of Christendom might well be proud."

Before Clinton had forced the Legislature to take action in the canal matter in 1816, indication of his return to political power was seen in the return of Ambrose Spencer to his fold, or rather to association with him. Justice Spencer had become, indeed, the more powerful politically, and, had the estrangement between the two not ended, could perhaps have spragged the wheel of Clinton's returning car. Spencer was a mean enemy, but could be an enthusiastic friend. He possessed many of the outstanding--though not all commendable--qualities which a politician who would be leader must have. He could weigh the public voice with precision, and had the courage to act whenever a clamor, however audacious, seemed to be agitating the right side of the constituency scale. He was already attentive when, in the first months of 1816, the Legislature turned a receptive ear to Clinton's arguments. On the other hand, Governor Tompkins had not even been luke-warm. In his message in February, 1816, to the legislature, he had left the onus with the two houses. They must decide whether part of the revenue of the state could be used for canal purposes, '"without imposing too great a burden upon our constituents." This was somewhat chilly recognition by the Administration; and Tompkins perhaps would have preferred to freeze the scheme by ignoring it altogether, but this was hardly possible. The canal project was the most attractive then before the public, and Clinton was gaining political ground every day. in the summer Spencer boldly proclaimed Clinton as his candidate for the Governorship in place of Tompkins, who would step into the Vice-Presidency on March 4, 1817. Tompkins was, perhaps, as chagrined as Van Buren or Tammany; still, he would not for a moment consider his Kinderhook adviser's suggestion that he hold both offices; neither did he favor the other expedient of the resourceful Van Buren--the constitution might be interpreted as authorizing the Lieutenant-Governor to hold the Governship for the remainder of the Tompkins term. But the Vice-President-Elect would not willingly further the chances of Clinton. So, his last address to the Legislature (January 21, 1817) contained no mention at all of Clinton's project or aspirations. Still, his frigidity had no effect upon the Legislators, who were warmed by the fire that was in the report which the Clinton commission had lighted with such optimism for them. Bills for the construction of two canals, the Erie and the Champlain, were at once introduced in the Legislature, and the magnificent scheme became the chief topic discussed from one end of New York State to the other. It was but natural therefore that the people should which to give the great man of vision unobstructed way to bring this blessing to the State; and what better way than by making him Governor?


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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