To the editor:
It was with pain that I read Mr. Roberts’s article regarding the origins of the Erie Canal, because it repeats misinformation that has been accepted since the late 1820s regarding Dewitt Clinton’s importance in the project, and incredibly, omits mention of the man who was truly the originator of the concept and at the forefront of the start of its implementation, Gouverneur Morris.
As early as 1775, Morris had articulated a vision of the future greatness of New York and the contribution to be made by a canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson. He repeated this concept to Simeon Dewitt, the New York surveyor general, in 1803 (after many years in Europe, where Morris visited a number of canals); Dewitt, who gave Morris full credit as the visionary of the Canal, wrote later that “I very naturally opposed the intermediate hills and valleys, as insuperable obstacles. His answer was, in substance, labor improbus omnia vincit, and that the object would justify the labour and expense, whatever that might be.” In 1808, a canal commission was established, with Morris at its head –Simeon Dewitt and Dewitt Clinton were also commissioners-- and Morris wrote all of its reports until 1816, traveled with them to scout out routes, and proposed a feasible means of financing it through loans from Europe after the federal government refused to lend support (an effort he led in a trip to Congress). Morris also published anonymous essays in support of the canal. When the War of 1812 came, however, the project was rejected by the legislature, probably to some extent because of Morris’s known (and fierce) opposition to the War, though Morris continued to publish pieces supporting the canal. When the war ended, interest in it surged once more. By this time, Morris was frequently ill, and though he drafted a last commission report, it was apparently modified by fellow commissioners and his name omitted. In May 1816, six months before his death, Morris wrote to a friend about the project that he had had “a Presentiment that when it became popular I should no longer be trusted with the Management.” He saw “with Concern that it is now, like every Thing else, swallowed up in the Vortex of Party” but he had noted previously that he was happy to have the credit given to “any person you please” as long as the canal would come to pass.
The belief that Clinton was the father of the canal seems to be due to a sycophantic 1829 pamphlet compiled by a devoted friend of the governor, after Clinton’s death. The pamphlet quoted Simeon Dewitt’s comments about Morris, but also cited other contrary sources, who claimed, falsely, that Morris had been a hindrance to the project, that his proposals regarding financing had been rejected with horror, and that he had abandoned the project out of pique. It also included the highly suspect assertions made many years after the canal’s construction began by a man named Jesse Hawley, who claimed to have published early essays proposing the ultimate route and that Clinton had been inspired to pursue the canal as a result of those essays. We are still waiting to see evidence to support those claims: Clinton said nothing of him in his daily journal concerning the 1810 canal route trip, made with Morris, nor have we seen his name in any correspondence of those years. Nonetheless, many historians, including the author of the Wedding of the Waters, apparently rely on this questionable pamphlet to dismiss Morris with scorn.
Whether Hawley wrote letters or not, the verifiable truth of Morris’s work for the canal can be seen in Morris’s essays and in his diaries, both with respect to his visits to canals in Europe and his tireless efforts on behalf of the project during the 1800s. The diaries appear in a new transcription published by the University of Virginia Press. Of course others made major contributions as the engineering planning and construction began; but for the editors of his papers, there is no question that Morris has been shamefully ignored for his enlightened foresight and selfless dedication to what is one of America’s most extraordinary achievements.