Monday, September 18, 2017

The Chancellor and the Ditch

The First Lord of Livingston Manor
2017 marks the bicentennial of the beginning of construction of the Erie Canal. It was the canal that turned New York into the Empire State. Of course, it took a long time to arrive at the first shovel of dirt. In fact, Robert Livingston, First Lord of Livingston Manor had traveled into what was then Indian territory in what would be western New York. He reported to several successive royal governors that improvements to the natural waterways of the colony would allow access to the abundant resources of the western lands. He was ignored.

The first commission on the Erie Canal was formed in March of 1810. It was carefully assembled to include federalist and democratic-republicans. The committee included Gouverneur Morris, Stephan Van Rensselaer, William North, Thomas Eddy,
DeWitt Clinton
DeWitt Clinton, Simeon DeWitt and Peter Buell Porter. Gouverneur Morris was the titular head of the committee but it was widely known
that DeWitt Clinton was the driving force behind what would become known as “Clinton’s Ditch.”
Gouverneur Morris
The major accomplishment of the committee was to convince the New York State Legislature that the canal was in face a feasible project. In June of 1810 the entire committee, except for Morris, traveled by water as far as they could on the Mohawk River then, joined by Morris, traveled to Lake Erie by carriage. They then produced a report that spurred the Legislature to act.

On April 8, 1811, the legislature approved $15,000 for the commission to begin their work. They also added two new members to the commission, Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton. Livingston and Fulton. Livingston and Fulton had a monopoly for steamboat travel on the Hudson River and were in the process of building a steamboat to ply the Mississippi River which would give them a monopoly on that river as well. Having them on board would provide an even greater economic incentive for farmers and merchants to use the canal.
Robert Fulton

The Chancellor
Fulton and Livingston quickly found important roles on the commission. Fulton was to help find designers who could build the canal while Livingston would work with DeWitt Clinton to try to find national sources of funding for the project. In October, 1811 they sent a letter to the governments of all American states and territories pointing out that the canal would benefit the entire country and that they should either pay New York to help build it or pressure the federal government to give New York funds to offset the cost of construction.

It didn’t go well.

The states that bothered to respond at all sent resounding no’s.


Shortly thereafter the War of 1812 put the canal on hold although the commission retained its power and in 1812 was legally allowed to create a fund to pay for the canal. (This was repealed in 1814).

Livingston had one more role to play in the commission’s history, which he did by dying in February of 1813. Opponents of the canal in the New York legislature took the Chancellor’s death as an opportunity to challenge the authority of the entire commission, claiming that it ended when one member died and the committee would have to be reformed. Eventually Attorney General of New York, Abraham Van Vechten ruled that the power of the commissioners did not end with any particular member’s end.


It would be another four years before construction on the canal would begin. The canal was not finished until 1825.

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