IF MORE Dutchmen had moved to the upper Mohawk Valley and beyond, perhaps New York would have had canals sooner and with less political trouble. The Dutch knew canals but did not need them in the Hudson Valley. When Van der Kemp made his way over bad roads and across shallow streams to Lake Ontario in 1792, he naturally thought of canals; he pictured them in his enthusiastic letters to Adam Mappa. At one time De Witt Clinton thought Van der Kemp was the first to write of the through route. Probably Elkanah Watson deserved the credit because he wrote articles about it. Van der Kemp’s letters to Mappa (originally in Dutch) may have been passed around, but were not translated and published until many years later. Van der Kemp’s influence on consideration of the canals was more likely through his enthusiastic conversations in Oldenbarneveld and Utica and contacts with important friends, De Witt Clinton in particular.
Early in 1810 Jonas Platt, one of Van der Kemp’s closest friends, began an active interest in a canal. Through his efforts and for political reasons Clinton’s aid was enlisted. Clinton was a member of the legislative committee set up to examine the possibilities for a canal. The committeemen traveled through the probable areas of location and made a favorable report in 1811. Platt presented a resolution, which was passed by the Senate, to print five thousand copies. Congress considered the canal in 1812 but let it die in committee. The political situation in New York State, with Clinton running for the presidency, and the onset of the war, caused the canal commissioners to withhold a report in 1812. With so little accomplished Van der Kemp still praised Clinton for “so boldly” planning “to enrich New-York State with a Magnificent canal-navigation.”1
During the war nothing was done except that the legislature repealed the commission’s powers. After the war Platt and others organized a mass meeting in New York City for December 30, 1815, with William Bayard in the chair. Platt was the main speaker and called for action. A committee of four, including Clinton, was set up to draft a memorial to the legislature and a persuasive document resulted. Newspapers noted the meeting and the memorial.
When Van der Kemp sent his manuscript of the tour to Lake Ontario to Clinton on January 8, 1816, he wrote:
Well shall I have been rewarded … if it could spur a de Witt Clinton, to use his powerful influence with his friends next Legislature—to have an act passed—to open a canal between Lac Erie and the Mohawk—or to incorporate a company for the purpose. New-York can do it—Amsterdam built its Magnificent State bourse under less favorable circumstances.
In a postscript Van der Kemp added,
I can scarce express the pleasure I felt in seeing a notice of the New York meeting so my wishes have been anticipated—God prosper it—be it thro your influence and unrelenting activity! and posterity will bless the name of de Witt Clinton—No New-Yorker ought to wish to obtain it from the fed. government—it would claim the benefit—and exact the profits—2
The next day Van der Kemp wrote to John Adams, “I am stirring again every man’s soul with whom I have some connection to rise in their strength in behalf of our Western Canals.”3 Whether the word again meant he had supported the action of 1810 and 1811 or perhaps only that he was in general favor dating back to 1792 is in doubt. The rest of the statement shows that he took an active part in the local movement and perhaps, by correspondence, with other parts of the state.
The Federalist newspaper of Utica, Patriot and Patrol, reported the New York meeting favorably on January 12. Beginning in the January 19 issue the paper printed the complete memorial in three instalments. On February 1 a group of interested citizens met in Bagg’s Hotel, Utica, and approved the canal project through a petition to the legislature. Other communities in the state did likewise.4
The state legislature received a flood of petitions and memorials for the canal and found it impossible to ignore the sentiment. However, some of the leaders were dubious of the scheme and fearful of political developments that would favor Clinton. After much wrangling a new commission was approved on April 17 with a $20,000 operating account but with little power. De Witt Clinton was one of the five commissioners. Van der Kemp assured the commissioner that the canal was certain of success. Clinton sent to his admirer a copy of the New York memorial.
The commissioners were busy the rest of the year directing surveys, making estimates, determining locations, and considering financing. They traveled along the route, inspected, conferred and made speeches. Clinton came through Utica from the west in August and discussed the project with the editor of the Patriot. Clinton’s optimism inspired the editor to write an enthusiastic report that the construction was practical and without undue difficulty. The story was repeated in other papers.5
Van der Kemp was pleased with the article. Yet he realized the financing might be difficult and politics might interfere. He wrote to Clinton in October that the practicality was “above doubt” and he hoped the project would meet no further “pusillanimous obstructions.” Van der Kemp opposed putting a special tax on the areas adjacent to the canal and thought it was bad politics. He believed a loan could easily be obtained in London or Amsterdam if the state guaranteed it. A small general tax could pay the interest and tolls would pay the principal.6
Van der Kemp was even more uneasy in December. In addition to favoring the alliance between Clinton and Ambrose Spencer, he went so far as to recommend political plums to ease the opposition.
Your great project stands in my opinion on an unmoveable basis—but I know what powerful engines can be set at work by malice and self-interest—It might answer a good purpose—if in the detailed report was proposed the appointment of a committee of four—one from each district—with a competent salary—to superintend the construction of the canal—till it was finished—This might be the means to stop the mouth cerberus—never minding to what party he belonged—provided he was an influential dog and I need not tell you—that few can withstand this magic spell—and I would not scruple to make use of this enchantment—when a grand praiseworthy object might have failed without it.
This was probably the lowest that Van der Kemp ever stooped in his moral principles. The question of expediency for a great undertaking seems to have been uppermost in his mind. He urged again a loan as the basis of financing and emphasized the great destiny of New York State through the canal.7
The commissioners were not neglectful of the financial aspects. Clinton had procured a promise of support from the state of Ohio, and applied to Congress for assistance. Paul Busti for the Holland Land Company promised a thousand acres plus the right-of-way through their lands. The report to the legislature was impressive. Van der Kemp read about it and asked Clinton for a copy. He added to his request the hope that the legislature would not only accept the report, but also lay plans for another canal from Oneida Lake to Lake Ontario through Little Salmon River.8 Clinton sent by Jonas Platt “the Reports Maps & Documents relative to the Western & Northern Canals also a book on Canals.”9
Clinton became a candidate for the governorship in the midst of the consideration of the canal by the legislature. Support for Clinton and the canal grew, even for the financing. The project was passed and was accepted by the Council of Revision on April 15. On April 25, Van der Kemp reported to Clinton his comments on the report:
All what I did see thus far effected no change in my opinion—I confess—many sacrifices must have been made—to obtain—so far as it is granted—and when Clinton shall be at the head of our state—many obstacles shall be gradually removed—and new energies created—This at least I prognosticate—and God forbid—that I should be disappointed. Had I possessed power equal to desire—I should have ambitioned to execute it alone—at least I would not place my state in a condition of dependency to the general government—I would not allow it a entrant in our domestic concerns. This should appear of no less deleterious influence—as if our Executive was chosen by—or became actually an officer of the General Government. The canal is practicable—it can be executed—and money is obtainable on the credit and guarantee of this State—in England—in Holland—David Parish will procure it in the first—Paul Busti in the later place—You must effect it—and compell us to say—“muneris id tui etc—”
Van der Kemp thought a short canal to Salina a very good idea because a shaft some forty to fifty feet would reach the real salt bed, “an inexhaustible treasure.” He was sorry about the extra taxation on the lands within twenty-five miles of the canal. He thought it should be twelve and a half miles with more of a burden on Troy, Albany, Water-ford and Lansingburg.10 Oldenbarneveld was about fifteen miles from the canal line!
Clinton became governor on July 1, 1817, work on the canal was officially inaugurated on July 4, and progressed smoothly. In December, 1817, Van der Kemp commended the governor for re-establishing Thanksgiving, wrote of sun-spots, the creation, serpents, and The Achaian Republic.11 Early in January Van der Kemp sent some of his Dutch publications to Clinton to be given to the New-York Historical Society, sent the “Outlines on Christ,” asked if Clinton had written the proposed essay on the peopling of America and further asked if the “Symposium” (“Dutch Conviviality”) had a chance of publication in the American Monthly Magazine.12 Clinton said he was so busy he had little chance to write. He had received the Protogoea of Leibnitz sent by Van der Kemp, and promised to read it carefully. He sent the first volume of De la Plaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans and said he had delivered Van der Kemp’s publications to the historical society “with respectful notice of the author.” He had also sent some “transactions” for his friend.13
At this time the business of the translation of the Records came up to share their attention with the canal. Digging was going on between Utica and Rome and politicians were maneuvering constantly to support or to block Clinton and his “ditch.” The elections for the legislature in 1818 continued a favorable majority for the governor, insuring one or two more years of support.
Early in 1819 Van der Kemp thanked Clinton for sending the canal commissioners’ report and commended him for the proposal to set up a Board of Agriculture. Then he asked assistance from the governor for an aged couple of his acquaintance, saying, “the humble cottager deserves as well the attention of a governor—if he can be made happy—as arts and sciences—agriculture and commerce [deserve] his all powerful protection.”14
Late in October the section of the canal from Rome to Utica was completed and filled with water. After a small breach was repaired, the section was deemed ready for trial. Clinton and other commissioners, engineers and prominent citizens boarded the Chief Engineer and one horse towed the boat easily and gaily to Rome and back in only eight hours and twenty minutes traveling time. The trip was a huge success and was witnessed by “almost the whole neighboring population.” Morris Miller and Benjamin Walker were on board. If Van der Kemp was not on shore watching he received full reports from friends and neighbors who were present. The reporter of the Utica Observer, who was on board, was oratorical in his description and his praise of the project. If anyone missed the event, he could have had the spirit and the color from the paper.15
Van der Kemp was so impressed with the progress that he made arrangements to have the official reports sent to Gerrit Boon at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He was especially anxious for these to reach Holland soon because three new canals were being undertaken and he wished the Dutch to “see that their Brethren in N. York State do not sit idle—in contemplating their unrelenting exertions—but have actually undertaken, and for a great part accomplished—a far more gigantic enterprise.”16
The canal was opened as far as Montezuma on May 20, 1820, and two packet boats left Utica to make the ninety-mile trip west. Officials boarded the boats at Utica and this section was successfully inaugurated. Freight from the west moved into Utica to be sent on down the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. But all was not well politically. The forces against Clinton led by the Tammany organization were making gains under the guise of being more interested in the canal as an economic project than Clinton was. The governor was re-elected to another three-year term in 1820 but by a very small majority and with the opposition in control of the legislature. The Council of Appointment removed from office many of Clinton’s friends. Yet, work on the canal continued.
Cognizant of Clinton’s mounting troubles, Van der Kemp wrote: “Your Exc. has raised three gigantic monuments—which party-spirit can not shake, and on which envy’s gnashing teeth shall be broken.” He referred to Thanksgiving, the Records and the canal, assuring Clinton that, “The Canal shall remain when obloquy is buried in oblivion.” Then reiterating his interest in lateral canals—an interest on the increase at the time—he asked, “Is a lateral canal from Lake Ontario between Salmon River and Bruce’s Creek at Oneyda Lake … entirely obliterated?” He considered it worthwhile, probably thinking of the maze of canals in Holland. He let his enthusiasm and his imagination run free when he added, “Did I possess as much wealth as good will, I would make a canal—easily achieved—from this village [Oldenbarneveld]—along the West Canada Creek to the Mohawk—”17 The maze of canals that he and many others envisioned was not absurd in a time before railroads and a time when turnpikes were often in disrepair, including the Utica Turnpike to Oldenbarneveld.
In this period Clinton made his visits to Van der Kemp and wrote the Hibernicus Letters. Van der Kemp now considered Clinton deserving of the presidency or perhaps vice-presidency with John Quincy Adams. He believed the best people of the state would be “cheered” if Adams or Clinton became president. However, he recognized the Tammanies as dominant and thanked God that he could refrain from action and “not longer be drawn in this dreadful Political vortex” (this to John Adams).18 Clinton philosophically wrote that when the “opus basilicum” was finished the state could be as prosperous as she pleased but “wealth and prosperity, my friend, are too often the parents of folly—and the more opulent the state the greater the temptation to the enterprises of faction.”19 The attacks on Clinton continued. Colonel Robert Troup published a pamphlet in vindication of the claims of Elkanah Watson to the original idea of the canal. Clinton published in 1821 Public Documents Relating to the New York Canals and at the close of the year The Canal Policy of the State of New York, the latter being an attack on Watson’s claims and signed “Tacitus.” Van der Kemp read these with interest, probably with approval. When he asked the bookdealers, Charles and George Webster of Albany, to send the latest Canal Commission Report to Gerrit Boon, he asked them to send “any other interesting Publications—as Tacitus Letters in answer to the Surmises of Col. Troup.”20
The growth of political opposition was more than Clinton could overcome and he was not renominated for the governorship. Joseph C. Yates was named and elected along with an overwhelming majority of anti-Clintonites in the legislature. By the new constitution, now in effect, Clinton’s term came to an end on January 1, 1823. In the last weeks Van der Kemp wrote him a letter of praise and consolation, particularly stressing the canal and its present and future contributions to the economy.21 Six weeks later when Clinton was no longer governor, but still head of the canal commission, Van der Kemp wrote to John Adams that the Yankees could “never press the odious steps of the New-Yorkers—in paying eminent public services with the foulest ingratitude.”22 He feared that Clinton would be removed from the commission.
In April, 1823, Van der Kemp wrote, “I remain yet full of anxiety about the canal board—they who would stoop to humble themselves to cast away our Judges—might be inconsiderate enough to change the canal board.”23 The change in the high court by the Tammanyites in the constitutional convention was a sore point with Van der Kemp and he had told Nathan Williams that he opposed the elimination of the old judges who had been chosen in good faith for life terms.24 He feared that the same political forces might upset Clinton and interrupt progress on the canal.
Van der Kemp had a friend, Henry Seymour of Utica, on the commission, and to some degree he served as Van der Kemp’s connection with the new administration. He told Seymour with glee that the Tammanyites had threatened the officers in Trenton, who had reacted by eliminating every last one of them, down through fence viewers. However, the appointment of justices of the peace put the nearest one three miles away from Oldenbarneveld, a great inconvenience. Personal matters were discussed (in the one letter available), including a visit by Mrs. Seymour to the Van der Kemp cottage. As a friend to Seymour, Van der Kemp concluded, “I feel for you if Clinton, [Stephen] Van Rensselaer and [Myron] Holley should be removed, but shall not be surprised.”25
However, the three men retained their posts on the commission during 1823. But Holley’s accounts were irregular, causing political controversy. Newspapers on each side made attacks, counterattacks and appropriate defenses for Holley’s accounts. When Clinton’s enemies were unable to damage him in this manner, they became determined to remove Clinton, but were unable to do so until 1824. In the midst of this wrangling Clinton told Van der Kemp, “The Canal Commissioners have escaped the sword of destruction. I made no advance or effort to retain my place … but as it now stands, I shall endeavour to close the great operation as soon as possible.”26 Van der Kemp replied:
I thank my God, that no unhallowed hand was stretched out over the canal-commissioners, … I fostered no doubt … that the canal would have been accomplished—but now I rejoice—and—perhaps—I may yet see the day—when at the junction of it with the North-river, a splendid monument shall be erected with the names of the men, so much deserving the thanks of Posterity.27
Early in October there was a gala celebration for the laying of the first stone in the last lock near Albany. Van der Kemp called it a glorious day and said if he had wealth he would join in the “orgies.”28 After the celebration Clinton told his friend, “The laudari a laudato viro is more pleasing to me than the huzzas of thousands or the pageantry of public celebrations.”29 No doubt the huzzas of thousands convinced the Tammany party to end Clinton’s office. He was removed by vote of the legislature in the middle of April, 1824.
The indignant Van der Kemp wrote to his friend at once. He called Clinton’s departure, “A glorious exit—equal in renown to that of Aristides.” He declared, “Those fellows cannot beat the lustre of your deeds—it humbles them in the dust—I should prefer the most outrageous removal above a vote of thanks of a similar gang.”30 In the correspondence Clinton said little about his removal but much about friends, books, ideas and family. Even when he was renominated for the governorship, he merely wrote, “You see that I am again before the public for an elective office—I feel no other anxiety on this occasion than as it may affect the prosperity of our beloved country.”31
Clinton was elected with a comfortable majority and the canal work went forward to completion. In October occurred the grand opening with the trip from Buffalo to New York. On October 30, the governor’s flotilla reached Utica where public speakers welcomed and praised Clinton. There was great celebrating all over the county, including Oldenbarneveld, though the village had its main celebration on October 26, the same as at Buffalo.
Immediately after the firing of a national salute at twelve o’clock, a procession was formed in front of the house of Elisha Burchard, under the direction of Major E. Backus as Marshall, and Lieut. Joshua Storrs, as deputy Marshall of the day; and moving from thence to the Church, in the following order, viz.:
- Band and martial music
- The Military Companies in their uniforms
- The Musicians of the Choir
- Committee of Arrangements
- Clergy and Orator of the day
- Revolutionary Patriots
- Officers of the militia in their uniforms
- Citizens in general
The whole procession consisting of a large concourse of citizens from the neighboring towns, was altogether more numerous than anything of the kind ever before witnessed in the town of Trenton. On arriving at the Church, an eloquent and highly impressive oration was delivered, by Doctor Frederick [Francis] Adrian Vanderkemp; and other exercises adapted to the occasion were performed—after which the procession returned, … marching up the road by the house of Judge Vanderkemp, … [and on to the two official banqueting places]. After the cloth was removed, the following toasts were drank interspersed with appropriate music from an excellent Band.
- The day we celebrate—It commemorates one of the proudest events in the annals of our history; its recollection will be as durable as the waters which are this day united.
- Our beloved Country—…
- The President and Vice President of the United States—…
- The State of New York—Abundant in resources and powerful in strength—May she ever be as conspicuous for her magnanimity and patriotism, as she is celebrated for her public spirit and her enterprise.
- Internal improvements of every description—…
- The Grand Erie Canal—A splendid triumph of human integrity and art over the obstacles of nature, and an adamantine chain of union among the members of our great confederated republic.
- The Canal Commissioners—Their perseverance, industry and economy, are above praise.
- The Governor, Lieut. Governor and heads of department of the State of New-York.
- General LaFayette—…
- The memory of Washington, and the departed heroes and patriots of the Revolution—…
- The three surviving patriots …
- The Orator of the day—An ornament to science, venerable in years, and irreproachable in life.
- The American Fair—… [the ladies] 32
In the oration Van der Kemp proudly addressed his “Fellow Citizens.” He said the celebration was a “dutiful act of Thanking a bountiful God for a blessing” and that their posterity would regret missing it. He spoke of his selection as orator “at the decline of my days—at the brink of the grave—my eyes dimmed with age—in the possession only of an incorrect idiom and a harsh pronunciation.” Van der Kemp had acceded to the request of his townsmen for an oration as he had done twenty-five years before for a eulogy of Washington.
He said it would have been wonderful if all of them could have been at Lake Erie to enjoy the pageantry of the great opening. However, in their own village their tribute could only be construed as the language of their hearts.
He spoke at length on the lack of freedom and economic opportunity in Europe while “in this happy land, every mechanic, every labourer who is industrious, active and frugal, may, with God’s blessing, be independent if he will.” He reminded the people how they had acquired freedom and prosperity—through the battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Monmouth, where some members of the audience had been engaged. The great Washington had been commander-in-chief, but had needed La Fayette, Von Steuben and De Kalb to train the men. The Americans had been without arms until John Adams secured a liberal supply from the Dutch. After we had won our independence, the two nations had been friendly and since had been “the refuge of the persecuted sons of liberty in every part of Europe.” Religious liberty was hailed by the speaker and the clergy was called successful, beloved and respected “without the support of civil authority, without the inquisition or the rack.”
“Our astonishing population, our wealth and industry” increased day by day. “We levelled the mountains, and destroyed the woods, smoothed the waves [of rapids and falls], and grasped, now and then, successfully at the skies,” all for the improvement of the country.
When I visited the western wilderness in 1792, and examined its waters, their Union with those of the Hudson appeared to be practicable by this State—by the city of New-York alone, guided by Philip Schuyler, Stephen Van Rensselear and Jonas Platt. This was called a dream and yet De Witt Clinton contemplated the great scheme and it was executed. Clinton—and I am not over partial to this great man—Clinton was the father of that great and stupendous undertaking, the Erie Canal, although many worthy individuals, as he often avowed, had considered such a project would be beneficial to the state if practicable. Clinton manly and fearlessly struggled against the obstacles opposed by prejudice, and which were countenanced by many of his zealous friends. Clinton could not be shaken by antagonists, nor daunted by the scurrilities which they called to their aid. He was neither discouraged nor intimidated by refusal of assistance from the general administration at Washington, but marched successfully on, combatting every impediment, and triumphing over every obstacle, to the execution of this gigantic plan. Unbiased in his heroic course, he hesitated not to stake upon the result of the undertaking his fortunes, his great future prospects, and his so gloriously acquired fame….
He mentioned the work of the other canal commissioners and the plaudits to New York and to Clinton from many of the other states. He said the “name of the illustrious Clinton was re-echoed in Europe from shore to shore.”
The benefits of this great Canal to the state of New-York are already immense, and cannot be sufficiently appraised, and shall increase from day to day for many years to come. Albany, New York [City], nay, the vast population of our state are already gathering incalculable advantages from the Grand Erie Canal. Agriculture, commerce, manufactures, are now striving together for the highest prize. Unrelaxing activity, honest persevering industry and economy, must regulate the steps of each individual, and comfort, and affluence, and wealth, shall be his final reward. Our state will become the glory of the Union, a bright example to her sister states, and an irresistible lure to the oppressed, wise and good of every country.
… Your silence, your eyes, your throbbing breasts—my own feelings, all these united, make me confident that this day shall not have been celebrated in vain.
The God of our fathers, Our God, pour out upon us and our children the choicest of his blessings, and mercifully avert the dangers incurred by our wanderings: Farewell! Be happy!33
The venerable orator’s vision of 1792 had been fulfilled. The obstacles and delays could be forgotten. Rejoicing and thanksgiving were in order.