Great cities grow, like trees or coral reefs, organically; yet at certain points in their lives, they are also made. Some individual of will, foresight, and often less admirable qualities takes hold of an already bustling town and galvanizes it in a way that makes it a magnet for expansive energies. In the old cities of Europe those defining shocks came from emperors, kings, or popes. New York, North America’s greatest city, got its imperial impetus from an early-nineteenth-century intellectual, politician, and visionary, DeWitt Clinton—for he was the chief expediter of the Erie Canal.

Other New Yorkers besides Clinton helped dig the Erie Canal: one reason the canal made it from drawing board to reality was that a significant cross-section of the state’s elite supported the project. But DeWitt Clinton was the leader of the elite canal-pushers. He took up the canal as an issue at an unpropitious time; he generated so much popular support that the skeptics in the political class had to bow to it; he presided over both the groundbreaking and the completion. And the Erie Canal was the foundation of modern New York’s prosperity. If DeWitt Clinton had never lived, you probably wouldn’t be living here, because New York would not have attracted you or your ancestors.

DeWitt Clinton, born in what is now Orange County on the west bank of the Hudson in 1769, had the luckiest ancestry of any young man in late-eighteenth-century America, with the possible exception of John Quincy Adams. For the Clintons, who had immigrated from northern Ireland only a few decades earlier, were about to become the leading family in New York politics. The American Revolution was their stepping-stone, first to glory, then to power. DeWitt’s father, James, fought as a general; DeWitt’s uncle, George, was not only a general but the first governor elected under the first state constitution in 1777. “His family and connections do not entitle him to so distinguished a predominance,” wrote a puzzled Philip Schuyler, the heir of Dutch landowners, who had wanted the job himself. But George Clinton would hold it, with a brief interruption, for 22 years. Young DeWitt moved in a heady world of patriotism and privilege. When he graduated first in his class from Columbia College in 1786, the 17-year-old delivered, as part of the commencement exercises, an oration in Latin to the Congress of the United States, which then met in the nation’s capital, New York.

The political creed of the Clinton family changed its name during DeWitt’s formative years: in the late 1780s, their party was the Anti-Federalists; a decade later, it was the Republicans. But their principles remained the same. George Clinton opposed ratifying the Constitution as an accretion of federal power, and, once it took effect, he opposed broad construction of its provisions. DeWitt was a loyal apprentice of his uncle. Both uncle and nephew wrote pamphlets attacking the Constitution during the ratification struggle, which was especially sharp in New York: George signed his with the sturdy republican pseudonym “Cato”; DeWitt assumed the falsely modest name “Countryman.” (The pro-Constitution essays organized by Alexander Hamilton and signed “Publius” wiped the floor with both Clintons.)

Throughout the 1790s, DeWitt served his uncle as secretary, and—when George Clinton took a brief hiatus from politics—held office himself as a state legislator. At the turn of the century, the Clintons and their small-government principles triumphed. George returned to the governorship in 1801; the following year, DeWitt became a U.S. senator—a post he abandoned in 1803 to take the more lucrative and locally more powerful job of mayor of New York, an office he would occupy for 11 of the next 12 years.

DeWitt Clinton proved a creative politician in his own right. He was an early practitioner of the spoils system, filling offices with supporters and driving out enemies. A reputation for political hardball followed him even in death: his friend Jabez Hammond wrote that he “enjoy[ed] the flattery of office seekers,” while Henry Adams called him “selfish” and “unscrupulous.” These criticisms are too severe. DeWitt Clinton did what most politicians do; he was only unlucky in coming after the idealism, actual and professed, of the Founding Fathers. Like many people who do a thing early and do it well, he bore the brunt of blame.

Clinton was also one of the first American politicians to cultivate the Irish vote. The flood of Irish driven here by the potato famine was still decades away, but Irish, both Catholic and Protestant (like the Clintons themselves), had been trickling in for decades, and Clinton reached out to them. On Christmas Day in 1806, he personally quelled a nativist riot outside Saint Peter’s Catholic Church on Church and Barclay Streets, and offered a $250 reward to anyone who would identify the ringleaders. His enemies in turn accused him of favoring Irishmen “staggering about our streets, brutalized with liquor” over “respectable and industrious Americans.”

Politics in New York was as dangerous as it was exciting. In 1802, DeWitt Clinton fought a duel with John Swartwout, an ally of Aaron Burr. The dispute had nothing to do with party or principle—Clinton, Swartwout, and Burr were all Republicans. Rather it was an intra-party squabble over patronage. When, in the heat of the struggle, Clinton called Swartwout “a liar, a scoundrel and a villain,” Swartwout called him out, and the two men met at Weehawken, the favorite dueling spot for New York gentlemen. Clinton and Swartwout stood ten yards apart and exchanged fire five times. After each shot, Clinton’s second asked if the challenger was satisfied, but Swartwout was not. No one was hit the first three times, but Clinton’s fourth shot struck Swartwout’s left leg; his fifth shot hit Swartwout again. The wounded man wanted to keep going, but Clinton walked away, saying, “I don’t want to hurt him.” Two years later, Swartwout’s ally Burr and Alexander Hamilton would meet at Weehawken with more serious consequences.

Politics was DeWitt Clinton’s job but not his only interest. He thought of himself as what we would now call a public intellectual. He belonged to a public-spirited class of gentlemen who helped found the growing city’s learned societies—the American Academy of the Arts, the Literary and Philosophical Society, and the New-York Historical Society (which still exists). He gave a lecture, famous in its day, surveying American intellectual life: entitled “Introductory Discourse,” it proudly recounted our achievements (Benjamin Franklin’s inventions, Zebulon Pike’s discoveries) and anxiously fretted over our shortcomings (“we are far behind our European brethren in the pursuits of literature”). He kept his eyes and ears open to learn about natural phenomena; his diaries of occasional trips to the frontier, which then lay in upstate New York, carefully list birds, insects, and fish, and assess water quality (he found Lake Erie “green, transparent, and fit to drink”).

He also had a deep interest, part archaeological, part fanciful, in the origins of American Indians. He visited ancient mounds in Ohio and, in a common turn of thought for his day, sought to link the ancient history of the New and Old Worlds: perhaps, he wrote, the Indians were descended from the ancient Scythians. Such speculations would bear their gaudiest fruit when Joseph Smith learned, from the Angel Moroni, that the Indians were renegade Israelites.

The societies Clinton helped found did good work. Clinton’s own speculations did not quite rise to the same level of usefulness, and they drew mockery.

Of Clinton will I sing [wrote one satirist] . . .
His martial deeds uponHoboken’s shore [a reference to the duel]
His skill in conch-shells, andin Indian lore
His wondrous wisdom in ourstate affairs,
His curious knowledge of the tails of bears;
Tell, how the learned all his works review
In China, Lapland, Hayti and Peru. . . .

The only true savant among the statesmen of the founding and early republican periods was Benjamin Franklin. The rest were gentlemanly dabblers. DeWitt Clinton’s learning, though copious, was amateurish and pedantic, lacking the spark of genius.

Clinton’s highest ambition was to become president of the United States.

The national Republican Party (ancestor not of the modern GOP but of today’s Democrats) was founded on a geographical alliance of Virginia and New York. In the spring of 1791, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took a tour of the Northeast, ostensibly to collect botanical specimens for the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, actually to collect political allies in their struggle within President Washington’s administration against Treasury Secretary Hamilton. The most useful allies they found were New Yorkers—Governor George Clinton, Aaron Burr, Robert Livingston. Jefferson won his second race for president in 1800 with Burr as his running mate. Jefferson and Burr soon fell out, but Jefferson knew he still needed support from New York. His running mate in 1804 was none other than the aging George Clinton, who declared the vice presidency a “respectable retirement.” When James Madison, the next leader of the Virginia dynasty, was elected president in 1808, George Clinton also served as his vice president. Virginia and New York were the twin props of Republican victory.

But why should Virginia take the lead? True, in 1776 it was the largest state in the nation. But the census of 1810 showed that New York had passed it in population, thanks to New Englanders settling land formerly owned by the Iroquois Indians, alongside and west of the Mohawk River. DeWitt Clinton thought a New Yorker should fill the top spot, and with his uncle hors du combat, he thought that New Yorker should be he.

There were many obstacles in his path, however. Virginia had talent in depth, and it pulled together. Jefferson had been succeeded by his oldest and most loyal advisor, Madison. Revolutionary War veteran James Monroe, after briefly challenging Madison’s priority, loyally took his place in line behind him. New York was equally fertile ground for politicians, but they all pulled apart. Untangling the factions of the New York Republican Party would be as tedious as it would be difficult: suffice it to say that Aaron Burr was only the first and most flamboyant of the state’s free lances. Clinton’s nemesis in his middle years was the rising young lawyer from Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren, who fought him not on the dueling ground, but on the darker field of local politics.

But his worst enemy was himself. Jefferson, Burr, and Van Buren were all charming men. Madison was at least shy and quiet. Everyone who knew DeWitt Clinton testified that he was as arrogant as he was gifted. The brilliant portrait of him by Samuel F. B. Morse that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum glows with an alarming aura. The big head, bright eyes, and steely mouth suggest brains, pride, and choler. Evan Cornog, Clinton’s most recent biographer, provides a telling anecdote. A farmer besought Daniel Tompkins, another Republican rival of DeWitt Clinton’s who had been elected governor, for a pardon for his imprisoned son. Twice Tompkins turned him down. When Clinton won the governorship, he invited the farmer to breakfast and issued the pardon. Yet the farmer admitted, “I like Governor Tompkins better than I like or can like Governor Clinton. I cannot tell the reason why.”

Clinton’s one shot at the White House came with the War of 1812. British bullying on the high seas, plus American greed for Canada, led Congress to declare war in June 1812. But commercial interests in New England and New York dreaded the war, foreseeing that it would annihilate trade. DeWitt Clinton reached out to the historical enemies of the Republican Party, the Federalists, still locally strong in the Northeast and some of the middle states, and assured them that he would wind the war up. But he also let Republicans know that he would prosecute it more vigorously. In the presidential balloting in 1812, Clinton carried New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and all of New England except Vermont. His both-ends-against-the-middle strategy came up short, however, for Madison carried Pennsylvania, which, with the South and West, gave him reelection. In normal, peaceful times, no strategy could ever have secured DeWitt Clinton a nomination; outside his own mind, he was never again a candidate for president.

Though Clinton’s political and intellectual ambitions never completely achieved fulfillment, the great stroke of his life, the Erie Canal, which fused politics and technology together, allowed his imperious and energetic qualities to secure him an honored place in history.

Americans dreamed of opening the interior of their continent with canals as early as the eighteenth century. New York seemed like a favored spot, since the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers bisected the mountain chain that ran from Canada to Georgia. In 1792, the state chartered the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, a private venture with some state backing. Gouverneur Morris, an eccentric Federalist who owned land in western New York, spent the first decade of the nineteenth century exploring possible routes and writing rapturous letters to his friends about New York’s potential.

But no private American company, it turned out, could raise enough capital for such a project. Perhaps the federal government might pick up the tab? Jefferson, pleased with his progress in paying off the national debt, hinted as much in his second term; he included canals in a list of “objects of public improvement” that might properly be added “to the constitutional enumeration of federal powers.” The New York Legislature, encouraged, picked a bipartisan commission in 1810 of seven members, including Morris and DeWitt Clinton, to study possible routes. The moment was ideologically fluid. The Clintons, and the Republican Party nationally, had come to power as foes of big government. But now DeWitt Clinton was helping to plan a canal that would seek federal assistance.

The commissioners began by inspecting the terrain. Most of them set off from Albany in midsummer for a boat trip up the Mohawk. Clinton’s journal of the trip describes the wretched accommodations and abundant vermin they encountered. (Morris, who knew the territory, went ahead by carriage, taking his new wife and a French cook.) When the commissioners rendezvoused at Lewiston, New York, at the western end of the state, the major decision they had to make was whether to choose a short route, following the Mohawk, then hooking northwest through Oneida Lake and the Oswego River to Lake Ontario, or to push overland all the way to Lake Erie. The second route, though longer and harder, would be more attractive to vessels coming from Ohio and points west, since it avoided an irksome portage around Niagara Falls. The commissioners wisely made the tougher choice.

In December 1811, Clinton and Morris went to Washington to lobby for their project. The administration seemed favorable; Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin thought of a way to avoid a direct federal appropriation by earmarking money from western land sales for the scheme. But Congress let the matter drop. One reason was jealousy of New York. The state had just become the nation’s biggest; should Congress help it grow bigger still? The more urgent reason was the impending war with Britain. Everyone expected it to be short, but why take on an extra expense?

When it came, the War of 1812 in fact lasted two and a half years and was marked by as many humiliations as victories. Peace finally came early in 1815, but the canal was as far off as ever, and DeWitt Clinton was out of a job, Republicans loyal to Madison having ousted him from City Hall.

Clinton seized this low moment for action—and seized greatness. On December 30, 1815, “one hundred gentlemen” met at the City Hotel at Broadway and Cedar Street. Among the gentlemen was John Swartwout; he and Clinton managed not to shoot each other. The meeting’s purpose was to mold public opinion. Clinton presented a draft of a memo to the State Legislature, urging New York to begin work on the canal: “If it be important that the inhabitants of the same country should be bound together by a community of interests, and a reciprocation of benefits; that agriculture should find a sale for its commodities; manufacturers a vent for their fabrics; and commerce a market for its commodities: it is your incumbent duty to open, facilitate and improve internal navigation.”

He argued, more pointedly—and prophetically—that a canal would be good for New York City: “If we were to suppose all the rivers and canals in England and Wales, combined into one, and discharging into the ocean at a great city, after passing through the heart of that country, then we can form a distinct idea of the importance of the projected canal.”

The meeting voted to print 1,000 copies of Clinton’s memo and to organize petitions asking the legislature to endorse its recommendations. It was an elite effort to rally the public and to inspire and pressure the political establishment.

The campaign worked, despite a last-minute setback in Washington. In March 1817, on the eve of his retirement, President Madison vetoed a federal canal bill on the grounds that the national government lacked the power to spend money directly on canals. By then, however, New York decided, in Morris’s words, to make “a manly and dignified appeal to her own power.” The state sold bonds to wealthy investors, and to savings banks, which bought them with the deposits of ordinary working people.

The first shovel of earth was turned in Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. Rome was the sort of highfalutin American town name that made European visitors smile. But if the canal could be completed, New York, if not Rome, might live up to its potential. The governor who presided over the groundbreaking was none other than DeWitt Clinton, who had used the issue of the canal to restore his political fortunes. He had done well by doing good. But since the state stood to benefit far more than any individual politician, no one took his ambition amiss.

The canal progressed rapidly. Laborers worked ten- to 12-hour days, for 80 cents a day—then a princely wage. Many of them belonged to Clinton’s favorite ethnic group, the Irish. The channel, four feet deep, was 40 feet wide at the surface, 28 feet wide at the bottom; a canal boat drawing three and a half feet of water could carry a 75-ton load. The first work was done in the flat center of the state. By October 1819, the first short segment, from Rome to Utica, was open for business, and Governor Clinton made a ceremonial trip down the waterway. The builders then began tackling those portions of the route that required locks and aqueducts; the aqueduct that carried the canal over the Genesee River in downtown Rochester was 802 feet long.

The canal’s rolling opening proved its viability; tolls generated by the sections as they opened made a head start on paying off the $6 million price tag. By 1822, the canal was attracting English investors; the Times of London predicted that the canal would make New York City the “London of the New World.” Until then, European investors had made money in the New World chiefly from natural resources—pelts or sugar—or they had blown money in pie-in-the-sky land speculation. Here was a way of making money through economic development. Foreign capital flooded in.

Clinton’s political fortunes were less bullish. The Van Buren faction managed to force him out of the governorship in 1822, then added insult to injury by driving him off the canal commission. Even Van Buren himself concluded that this was too much— “There is such a thing in politics as killing a man too dead,” he averred—and a sympathetic backlash elected Clinton governor once again, just in time for the canal’s completion in 1825.

The formal opening ceremonies, which began at the end of October, were an apotheosis for Clinton and a celebration of New York’s great achievement—and even greater prospects. Clinton and other dignitaries set off on October 26 from Buffalo in a canal boat, the Seneca Chief, to lead an “aquatic procession” to New York. In the cabin hung a portrait of Clinton in a Roman toga. Following the Seneca Chief was a string of other boats, including Noah’s Ark, which carried “birds, fish, insects, two young bears and two Seneca boys.” The trip down the Erie Canal and the Hudson was one long string of parties and speeches.

The climax came in New York City on November 4, a glorious fall day. When the Seneca Chief approached the Battery, a city official hailed it: “Whence come you and where are you bound?” “From Lake Erie,” came the answer, “bound for Sandy Hook!” Clinton gave a prophetic speech: “The valley of the Mississippi will soon pour its treasures into this great emporium . . . and wherever wealth is to be acquired, or enterprise can be attempted, the power and capacity of your City will be felt, and its propitious influence on human happiness, will be acknowledged.” At Sandy Hook, two casks of Lake Erie water were poured into the Atlantic, along with water from the Elbe, the Seine, the Thames, and the Tagus. Everyone then went back to the city for a parade of 7,000 marchers and 100,000 spectators. That night, 1,542 wax candles and 764 oil lamps blazed in City Hall.

What did the Erie Canal accomplish? Toll money poured into the canal’s coffers. By 1825, receipts were already running $100,000 over the yearly sum needed for debt service. The surplus revenue, held in a canal fund, helped New York City rebuild after a devastating fire in 1835 and helped New York merchants ride out the Panic of 1837.

The canal cut shipping time and costs from Lake Erie to Manhattan dramatically. Before the canal, a ton of flour worth $40 took three weeks to go from Buffalo to New York, at a cost of $120. After the canal, the same trip took eight days, at a cost of $6. As Clinton predicted, the produce of the Midwest began to flow into New York, not south down the Mississippi or overland to other East Coast cities. In 1835, the Northeast was receiving 23.7 percent of the Midwest’s commodities. By 1853, it had collared 62.2 percent. By then, New York City was handling more tonnage than Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans combined. New York City and the Midwest grew in tandem—as did the fortunes of New Yorkers like Isaac Bronson, Robert Lenox, and John Jacob Astor, who invested in real estate both in and out of town.

New York also cemented its primacy as a financial hub. When new great capital-intensive projects came along later in the century—supplying the Union army during the Civil War, building the transcontinental railroad—New York money men were well positioned to take the lead. The long era of “Wall Street” being a synonym for “finance” began with the Erie Canal.

Upstate New York blossomed, too. Cash flowed into the area, along with an innovating spirit. Inventions, as measured by patents, proliferated along the route of the Erie Canal; so did strange religions and strange political movements, from Mormonism to table-rapping to anti-Masonry. Upstate New York was the California of the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

So great was the Erie Canal’s success that every state wanted to repeat it. Many came to grief. Pennsylvania embarked on its own canal in 1826 but had not factored in its mountainous terrain. The Pennsylvania canal system cost $12 million, twice as much as the Erie Canal, but tolls did not come in at the expected rate, and Pennsylvania defaulted in the early 1840s. Burned European investors now turned on the United States as a bad risk. As in real estate, location and timing were everything.

As for DeWitt Clinton, he went back to his presidential dreams. He fancied a run for the White House in 1828, not seeing that that year was predestined for a rematch between John Quincy Adams and Old Hickory. Death spared him from disappointment: he died early in the year, a month shy of his 59th birthday. The first president from New York would be not he, but Andrew Jackson’s second vice president—Martin Van Buren.

So Clinton failed to win the highest office in the land. No matter. Instead, he turned out to be one of the greatest benefactors of the greatest city in the world.

Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images


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