--Barack Obama, Christopher Dodd, and Felix Rohatyn, among many other people, have proposed the creation of a national infrastructure bank as a mechanism for building and rebuilding American bridges, highways, tunnels, railroads, and other major works. The president in his budget, the senator in a pending bill, and the financier in a recently published book all invoke the iconic Erie Canal: It was the first great thing we built and the sort of thing we need to start doing again.
Two hundred Januaries ago President Jefferson called New York's proposal to lay a slender waterway across its upstate wilderness "madness," but against long odds the 363-mile canal was completed 16 years later (after nine construction seasons), joining the eastern seaboard to the unsettled interior and helping make possible our sea-to-shining-sea continental nation.
The Erie Canal is praised now by the infrastructure chorus, but is the legendary canal relevant?
Certainly there is no relevance in financial terms. The mission of President Obama's infrastructure bank "will be to not only provide direct federal investment but also to help foster coordination through state, municipal, and private co-investment in our nation's most challenging infrastructure needs." On his last day in office in 1817, President Madison stunningly vetoed an innovative bill that would have provided federal money to start New York's great canal and lesser projects in other states.
Madison, who had built the Constitution with strictly limited federal power as a protection against tyranny, decided that the Treasury had no power to fund such things as roads and canals. New York, complaining bitterly that Madison really had no interest in supporting state projects that might harm the interests of his own Virginia, went ahead on its own with risky but ultimately secure state-issued bonds.
The Erie certainly can't be a model for infrastructure projects in the 21st century. It was dug, blasted, and mucked out through mostly unbroken territory. It was designed by country surveyors impersonating trained engineers. It was contracted in small sections by unprosperous pioneer farmers. It was built with crude tools by farmhands and gangs of Irish immigrant laborers, of whom thousands were horribly disabled by sickness and injury. Death on the job was misfortune, not a cause of action.
Yet there are some parallels between then and now. The Erie was built during a depression brought on by a credit collapse and destructive banking policies. Rather than halt construction that had begun two years earlier, the Panic of 1819 and the ensuing first prolonged national economic crisis lowered Erie contract prices, gave work to the otherwise unemployed, and drove discounts into the 5 percent construction bonds that made them attractive to wealthy merchants like John Jacob Astor who still had money to invest. We appear to have entered another time when government could build things cheaply and employ the suddenly jobless.
Still, we must be wary of blind invocations of the past. In a speech earlier this year, Connecticut Sen. Dodd said, "When the Erie Canal opened on Oct. 26th, 1825, it had been in the works for nearly a century--long before America declared its independence." Wrong! The idea of merely improving the tangle of upstate New York's natural waterways to create a measure of internal navigation traces back to a brief mention in a 1724 report on fur trading by a young and ill-informed Colonial administrator (who 50 years later was chased from Manhattan by a patriotic mob). If the senator is going to lead on the issue of infrastructure he should have his essential facts straight, to indicate to those who would support his efforts that he understands what it really takes to build a great thing: an individual or two with vision and perseverance.
In fact, the proposal and winning argument for a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie was launched in 1807 from debtors' prison, in newspaper essays by Jesse Hawley, the first grain merchant of western New York, who, because there was no good water route to the eastern market, was also the first failed grain merchant of western New York.
Here is the truest reason to invoke the old Erie Canal in the name of 21st-century American infrastructure: Nothing gets done--or gets done right--unless someone stakes his name and reputation on it.
STAKING A REPUTATION
DeWitt Clinton took the Erie idea and ran with it. A longtime New York mayor, lawmaker, governor, civic benefactor, social reformer, and close runner-up to Madison in the 1812 election, he saw the wisdom of the Erie, attached himself early to the effort, and became its chief promoter. Clinton was a very popular leader, scrupulously honest, but a careless and often reviled politician. In 1816, the anti-Clintonian press (as noxious as the blogosphere can be) circulated this handbill:
Oh a ditch he would dig from the lakes to the sea,
The Eighth of the World's Matchless wonders to be,
Good Land! how absurd! But why should you grin?
It will do to bury its mad author in.
Clinton let this and much more roll off his back, as he guided the Erie's legislative approval, financing, and popular support. If Clinton had taken to heart any of the outrageous assaults or succumbed to self-doubt, we might be living in a nation that peters out somewhere east of the Mississippi: Without the Erie and before railroads, what became the western United States might have been claimed by Spanish, English, French, Russian, native, or discontented American interests. Without strength of will now, the crumbling of American infrastructure augurs ill for the continental nation.
Launching his political career, Abraham Lincoln wanted to be "the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois." Is there a DeWitt Clinton for this American century?