The Erie Canal and the Gush of Redrawn Lines

The common purpose of government is protection. But can it not be made to do more?… To the cultivation of the arts of peace, we have to ask our government to adopt another principle: that of a nation’s wealth … is best promoted by applying the surplus revenue of the state to internal improvements, roads, canals, &c.


Jesse Hawley contributed to the location of more state lines than any other individual except Stephen A. Douglas. But Hawley did it from jail. In 1807 he published a book-length series of fourteen newspaper essays while cooling his financially overextended heels in debtors’ prison in Canandaigua, New York. The essays detailed the means by which the Great Lakes could be connected to the Hudson River and, via the Hudson, to the Atlantic. Doing so would have an incredible result, according to Hawley, who predicted with astonishing accuracy that “the trade of almost all the lakes in North America … would center at New York.… In a century its island would be covered with the buildings and population of its city.”2

Hawley was not the first to speculate on a waterway connecting the hinterland to the Hudson. As early as 1724, surveyor Cadwallader Colden wrote of the potential for waterways connecting New York’s Mohawk River, which flows into the Hudson, to the Great Lakes:

Many of the branches of the river Mississippi come so near to the branches of several of the rivers which empty themselves into the Great Lakes, that in several places there is but a short land-carriage from one to the other.… If one considers the [Mohawk] river and its numerous branches, he must say that, by means of this river and the lakes, there is opened to view such a scene of inland navigation as cannot be paralleled in any other part of the world.3

In addition to the extraordinary commercial advantages of connecting the Hudson to the Great Lakes, Colden also emphasized its national security value—from the point of view of England before the Revolutionary War. He argued that the French, who had come to control the vast swath surrounding the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the St. Lawrence River, “plainly showed their intention of enclosing the British settlements.”

National security remained an important element when Hawley published his 1807 essays, but from a substantially changed perspective. The St. Lawrence still belonged to another nation, but now that nation was England, which had conquered French Canada in 1763. And while the Mississippi River was now entirely within the United States, owing to the Louisiana Purchase, that same purchase triggered a growing fear that someday the lower half of the Mississippi might also be part of another nation composed of the American slave states.

Between Colden’s report to the colonial governor of New York and Hawley’s newspaper series, numerous others had discussed aspects of what was to become the Erie Canal. Hawley’s essays revealed that his passion for the topic had recently been augmented when Thomas Jefferson, in his second inaugural address, urged “an amendment to the Constitution [enabling surplus funds to] be applied in time of peace to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each state.” Amendment to the Constitution? Indeed, the Constitution limits Congress to funding internal improvements only if they are roadways that convey mail or provide access to forts; it specifically prohibits Congress from acts that favor commerce in one state over any other. Apparently, Jefferson’s vision differed from that of the other Founding Fathers.

Jefferson’s views on the role of the federal government inspired not only Hawley but also others who contemplated a canal connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson.4 New York State Assemblyman Joshua Forman met with President Jefferson in 1809, seeking federal funds for the New York canal. But even Jefferson’s jaw dropped. “You talk of making a canal of 350 miles through the wilderness!” he told Forman. “It is little short of madness to think of it at this day.”5

Jesse Hawley (1773-1842) (photo credit 12.1)

Erie Canal: significant rivers

Jefferson’s insights into madness proved to be limited. Hawley’s essays provided so much detail regarding the project’s geography, hydrology, and cost that they became the introductory textbook for those joining with Forman to undertake the building of the Erie Canal. Hawley himself was not an engineer. Nor was he a surveyor, wealthy patrician, military man, or even a college graduate. He was just a middle-class flour merchant. His passion regarding the canal was so intense because the absence of such a waterway had landed him in debtors’ prison.

Jesse Hawley had been born and raised in Connecticut, a sixth-generation American whose father was a carpenter. As an adult he migrated westward for the economic opportunities that beckoned to those in New England’s coastal regions, where the growing population limited one’s options. In western New York, Hawley became a flour merchant, milling wheat and shipping it east via waterways being made navigable by the Western Inland Company. Though the shipping costs devoured his profits, the Western Inland Company had declared its commitment to further improvements along the rivers that would reduce the cost of shipping. But the company changed its policy on waterways, causing Hawley’s business to sink. Unable to pay his debts, Hawley was arrested in 1806. A friend posted bail. Hawley then jumped bail and went where he felt he would never be found: Pittsburgh.

While on the lam, Hawley published his initial essay using a pseudonym. To his credit, guilt over having jumped bail brought him back to New York, where he was sentenced to twenty months in debtors’ prison. There, expanding his initial writing, Hawley continued to publish under his pseudonym, now fearing that readers would dismiss his ideas if they knew the author was in debtors’ prison.6 The projected canal was, after all, so grand that many Americans dismissed the idea even when proposed by worthies such as State Assemblyman Forman, former U.S. senator (and Constitution coauthor) Gouverneur Morris, and future New York governor DeWitt Clinton. Clinton relied heavily on Hawley’s essays when, as governor, he got the state legislature to appropriate $7 million to create what opponents called “Clinton’s Ditch.” The governor committed his subsequent career to the Erie Canal and, after its completion and enormous success, continued to credit Hawley as the foremost progenitor of the project.

While commercial benefit was the primary reason for building the Erie Canal, there were two related factors that were also of great importance. One involved national security; the other, internal security.

Prominent New Yorker William Cooper (founder of Cooperstown and father of James Fenimore Cooper) connected the canal’s economic benefits to national security when he wrote of the Great Lakes region: “The trade of this vast country must be divided between Montreal and New York, and the half of it lost to the United States unless an inland communication can be formed from Lake Erie to the Hudson.”7 Trade would be lost to the United States because it had to rely on the St. Lawrence River in Canada. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, guaranteed England free navigation of the Mississippi River but made no mention of American rights to navigate the St. Lawrence. Indeed, Americans did not enjoy smooth sailing on that river. Prior to Hawley’s essays, the Senate considered legislation authorizing the president to acquire “by negotiation, or otherwise, as he may deem most expedient,” free navigation along the St. Lawrence.

But the British were not the only impediment to navigation on the St. Lawrence. Boulders, rapids, and, in the winter, ice also hindered that waterway connecting Lake Ontario to the Atlantic. Canadians, equally aware of the vast market to be tapped by connecting the Great Lakes to the sea began to create their own series of canals.8

The Erie Canal also represented a means of further uniting the states. Despite the failure of the Articles of Confederation, which loosely linked the states, many Americans continued to cling to that document’s distrust of a national government. An 1822 article in the influential North American Review said of the idea of an Erie Canal:

It connects the east with the west by a reciprocal and advantageous commerce … and thus a strong but mutual interest will ultimately unite them with a chain which neither the fervors of party nor the mutual jealousy of state will ever be able to destroy.… The union of the states is our only safety.… Remove it, give an absolute independence to every state, and the promise of our youth is blasted, and with it the world’s best hope laid low.

The Great Lakes, if given access to the sea, would become more than lakes; they would become major avenues of commerce. Illustrating this fact on the American map, five states today have boundaries that were adjusted to provide access to the Great Lakes.

The boundary adjustment that most clearly reveals a state reaching for the Great Lakes was the tab at the western end of Pennsylvania’s northern border. But this adjustment cannot be ascribed to Jesse Hawley’s influence, since it occurred in a 1785 agreement between Pennsylvania and New York, more than twenty years before Hawley’s essays appeared. It was, however, after Cadwallader Colden’s report regarding connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson, and the numerous editions of his report published in the mid-eighteenth century indicate the high level of interest in the prospect of such a waterway.

That interest also contributed to Ohio’s boundary adjustment in 1805, though in this case Ohio’s primary goal was to possess the entirety of its western river, the Maumee. That goal could only have been augmented by the fact that the segment of the Maumee originally located in Michigan was its outlet on Lake Erie at Toledo. Congress allowed Ohio to adjust its border with Michigan to include this port. If this irked Michigan, the territory was too sparsely populated for its irk to be heard. But after the Erie Canal was built, its irk grew into fury. The land that had been transferred to Ohio was now so valuable it sparked the Toledo War (see “Stevens T. Mason” in this book).

Border adjustments for Great Lakes access

After the publication of Hawley’s essays, Indiana’s boundary with Michigan was moved north to give it access to the Great Lakes at Gary. Illinois’s boundary with Wisconsin was moved north to give it access at Chicago. And Minnesota’s boundary with Wisconsin was moved east from the Mississippi to the St. Croix River to give Minnesota access to the Great Lakes at Duluth.

While the impact of Hawley’s writing was thus surfacing on the map, Hawley himself went back to being the businessman he used to be. “Notice is hereby given that … the subscribers have been duly appointed as assignees of Jesse Hawley, an insolvent debtor,” a legal notice in a Canandaigua, New York, newspaper stated in 1812. “Creditors of the said insolvent [are] to appear at Freeman Atwater’s inn … on Tuesday the 19th of May at ten o’clock A.M. … to receive a dividend (if there be any) of the said insolvent’s estate.” Hawley managed this bankruptcy in a way that avoided debtors’ prison, though his financial difficulties may have contributed to disputes he had with his sisters, his in-laws, and his wife, from whom he eventually was divorced—an unusual recourse in that era.

But he kept bouncing back. In 1817 DeWitt Clinton’s election as governor resulted in Hawley being appointed collector of revenue for the port of Genesee, New York. Three years later, he was elected to the New York State Assembly on the coattails of Governor Clinton. Two years after that, when Clinton was not renominated, neither was Hawley.

Though Hawley’s prominence had been confined primarily to New York—and, within New York, to those involved in the legislation enabling the creation of the canal—he did have one brief moment in the national spotlight. It occurred on October 26, 1825: “The columns of the New York papers are filled to overflowing with the particulars of the grand celebration of the event of finishing the Erie Canal,” the New Hampshire Statesman reported. “Jesse Hawley, of Rochester, in behalf of the visitors, made a congratulatory address, which was replied to by Judge [Joshua] Forman, in behalf of the citizens of Buffalo. On a discharge of cannon, the boat started in fine style, drawn by four horses.”

Jesse Hawley died in January 1842. In his one-time hometown of Rochester, New York, his obituary consisted of three sentences. In Albany, the terminus of the Erie Canal, four sentences were devoted to his passing. But in Milwaukee, of all places, two full-page columns were devoted to his memory.9 The length and location of these obits reflect Hawley’s impact on the nation. Rochester, a port on Lake Ontario, and Albany, a port on the Hudson River, were prosperous before the canal was created. But Milwaukee, a port on Lake Michigan, would likely not have existed without the Erie Canal. Not until several months after ground was broken for the canal did the American Fur Company form a settlement in what is now Milwaukee.

The Erie Canal remains in use to this day despite the subsequent development of railroads and interstate highways. While it transports far less cargo than during its heyday, it has remained a shipping channel even after the United States and Canada created the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Jointly operated by both nations, the seaway annually transports more than 200 million tons of cargo between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.

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