I’ve been reading a good book about the building of the Erie Canal, Wedding of the Waters, by Peter Bernstein. It’s an interesting book about our nation’s first big public works project. Here are a few good quotes from the book.
1. The Erie Canal did not just boost commerce, it also connected the East Coast of the country with the Western lands on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. This had long been a goal of the Founding Fathers. Jefferson and Washington tried to use the Potomac River for this purpose by improving on the existing river through the work of the Potowmack Canal Company. I loved one of the quotes from a letter to Washington in which Jefferson tries to lure Washington out of retirement to head the company. In speaking of the company’s mission, Jefferson wrote, “A most powerful objection always arises to propositions of this kind. It is, that public undertakings are carelessly managed, and much money spent to little purpose…” Still true today! Washington did take the job but the company did not achieve its goals and Washington left in 1789 because he got another job.
2. From Gouverneur Morris, the New Yorker who wrote the preamble to the Constitution and who worked to build the Erie Canal: “In the degenerate state to which democracy never fails to reduce a nation, it is almost impossible for a good man to govern, even could he get into power, or for a bad man to govern well.”
3. Morris again, in 1812. He foresaw the Civil War that was still nearly 50 years away: “Time…seems about to disclose the awful secret that commerce and domestic slavery are mortal foes; and, bound together, must destroy the other.” When Pennsylvania went for Madison instead of De Witt Clinton in the Presidential race of 1812, Morris said Pennsylvania “may be led to cover with her broad shield the slave-holding states: which so protected, may for a dozen or fifteen years exercise the privilege of strangling commerce, whipping Negroes, and bawling about the inborn inalienable rights of man.”
4. In 1829, then-Governor of New York Martin van Buren complained about railroads in a letter to President Andrew Jackson. He was concerned that the railroads would take jobs from the canal, from the “captains, cooks, drivers, hostlers, repairmen and lock tenders…not to mention farmers supplying hay for horses.” (Boats were pulled along the length of the canal by mules and horses at an average speed of four miles per hour.) He also complains that “‘railroad’ carriages are pulled along at the enormous speed of fifteen miles per hour by ‘engines’ which…[endanger] life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring livestock, and frightening our women and children.”