This entry concerns a June 2017 article in the New York Times regarding the origins of the Erie Canal, which gave us pain 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 an 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 gave great credit to a man named Jesse Hawley, a merchant in Genesee, who had published a number of essays advocating a canal from Erie to the Hudson in the local newspaper, the Genesee Messenger, from late 1807-1808. The essays were detailed and were later considered prescient because of their predictions about the best route, and discussions of the benefits of an Erie to Hudson canal. I take this opportunity to point out that I originally attributed these essays to Morris, whose flights of rhetoric about the future of New York State, and personal information about European canals, recorded during his time in Europe, seemed the only likely source. I believe I am wrong about this, though I am looking forward to hearing more from someone who is currently working on Mr. Hawley. In any event, the 1829 pamphlet asserted that these essays had inspired Clinton had been inspired to pursue the canal, but we have seen no evidence of this as of yet, for Mr. Hawley's name and pseudonym of "Hercules" don't appear in the materials we reviewed about the Canal, including Morris's diaries and correspondence, which is surprising, or in Clinton's diary of the Canal survey trip. In any event, many historians, including the author of the Wedding of the Waters, apparently rely on this questionable pamphlet to dismiss Morris with scorn.
Whether Hawley's essays were a factor 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.