DeWitt Clinton was born
in 1769 in New York, Orange County. His parents were James Clinton and Mary DeWitt
who was a descendant of settlers from Dutch. He was a lawyer by profession but
later joined politics courtesy of his uncle George Clinton who was a governor
of New York.2 He became the mayor of New York in 1810 and was
appointed to head a commission that was to construct a canal between Hudson
River and Erie Lake.2 He became the leader of the canal movement
that legislated laws that authorized the creation of the Erie Canal.2
His efforts earned him an election to the governor’s office in 1817.2
Apart from writing, Clinton will be remembered for initiating the canal
engineering projects that were taken up throughout America which reduced the
cost of shipping from $100 to $5 a ton leading to an economic boom that led to
the development of Genesee country making it easier to transport the bulky
wheat potash and lumber. Within no time the initial loan of $7 million used to
construct the 363-mile long canal connecting Hudson River to great lakes was
paid off, and the surplus was used to develop the national wide transportation
network. During this time when the canal was being constructed, he kept a diary
which was published by William Campbell in 1849.

“Internal
improvements” was a term was coined by America
in late 1700 to refer to educational, economic, and engineering projects that
were undertaken by either state or federal government in the 1780s.2  In early 1800, this term was narrowed to
include innovations such as water transportation network, building canals and
constructing railroads.2 These projects were crucial in jumpstarting
the nation’s economic stimulus, but they consumed the colossal amount of
taxpayers’ money and the people mandated with oversight started complaining.2
Some were genuine while others were outright pessimistic about the whole
project. People started referring to the Erie Canal as Clinton Ditch but
Clinton’s strong belief in the “internal improvements” made him even more
resolute.3 He lobbied for states to take over public transportation,
which they did briefly. When they withdrew, he initiated legislation to
facilitate the private transportation networks to receive funding from public assets.

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Although De Witt is
writing about very serious political memoirs with great political
repercussions, his tone does not match with the register and the jargon that
the reader expects. He introduces his narration in a very relaxed manner. He
gives a geographical description of Dr. Jonas C. Baldwin’s home using features
that outright comical. The way the dam and the canal are providing a lockdown
to his home is funny. He claims that they were detained at the canal, but he
does not literary mean that.  This can be portrayed as being sarcastic in
the way they entered the host’s home. They had sent an emissary, Geddes who had
left them in the day to announce their arrival.1 He is ridiculing
the government bureaucracy where security is sent in advance to prepare the
arrival of a VIP, but in this case, it was a social call, and in this case, at
night. The fact that that they were welcomed by Miss Baldwin shows how
unofficial the visit was. It should not be lost to the reader that the visit
was not necessarily a social call. It was a benchmark tour on how the
government can implement the doctor’s idea of creating canals, but the relaxed
manner Clinton is explaining the whole experience shows how down to earth of a man
he really is. He lets the corrupt nature of Morris pass with a light touch.

This shows how the ordinary folk expects handouts from politicians regardless
of how selfless they are on matters that touch their daily lives. A politician
worth his mettle is supposed to part with a few coins and dollars here and
there in case he is not reelected.1

Clinton adopts an
official tone when he is writing serious official matters. When he documents
about the work of the surveyor and breaking down the financial statements, he
gives his writing the seriousness it deserves. The reader shifts from the
social politician to a committed capitalist and an elitist who can mix easily
with the ordinary folk and the bourgeoisie without offending either. He returns
to his relaxed tone when he explains about their encounter with some lusty
women in a bath tub, but they played a hoax to the Commodore that they had
found an old woman who was almost 100 years old with gray hair and very good
faculties.1 This made him leave the boat in a hurry to go and
enquire about this woman only to be met with mid-aged women who were giggling
and laughing that he had been tricked. He is trying to show the reader that
despite the leaders being held in high esteem and being treated like demigods,
they are human after all and share human jokes here and there just like normal
humans do. Clinton is oscillating from serious and official tone to humorous,
relaxed and friendly tone and most of the time he is very sarcastic of the
bureaucracy of the government and its officials who would rather stay in the
corner office than dirty their hands with murky work meant for ordinary folks.

He is trying to be funny in his writing but what he is communicating is not a
laughing matter.

Clinton uses the first-person
perspective in his entire memoir to capture the activities that were going on
around him. When he says, “We dined in the woods, ten miles from Columbia, on
the north side, and at the head of Cross Lake,” he wants the reader to know
that he was a part of the group and was not treated with any specialty or favor
since he was a senior officer.1 First person perspective shows the
reader the character he was, a virtuous leader with humility yet he had the
entrapment of power. He could as well send a commission or a taskforce and wait
for their report in his office, but he opted to go on the ground in not very
friendly circumstances to serve the people who elected him. That is something outstanding
and inspiring. Something that is still rare to find in politicians during today’s
times.

Clinton is very good in
using vivid description to express his feelings, especially on the environment.

His approach to describing landscapes makes the reader be filled with
admiration and awe. We note that his drive was mentored by his ambition of combining
commercial and political ambition of building a great canal between New York
and the great lakes. His writing makes him a legend who would explore the
geographical landscape in his canal that he created. This canal became so
famous that his distractors insulted him that he was creating Clinton’s ditch,
but this insult became a complement later when the canal became the greatest
success economic story in the early 19th century.3 His description
of Cross Lake comes complete with mental images that a reader can see the
actual lake. He says how it is five miles in length and its breadth is one
mile.1 He comments about its great depth in some places. The aquatic
life around the lake makes the whole ecosystem look real. There are ducks and
other species of birds, and the Seneca River’s estuary makes a large swamp
creating a large area of neighboring wetlands1.

Clinton personifies
inanimate objects to make his narration interesting. He gives the fog and “the
insalubrious appearance of the country,” human attributes which makes us know
how personal he was when it came to observation.1 When he says that
“sleep was not expected in the house”, this personifies sleep. The reader knows
that sleep is one of the most important aspects of human life, therefore the
reader would end up sympathizing with Clinton’s situation.1

Clinton would never have
mentioned that he could foresee his pet project as a total failure after it was
overtaken by other modern modes of transport. It is obvious that transport and,
to a large extent, communication networks are seasonal and more complex systems
that keep coming up with ever-changing innovations. Transportation began as horse
and carriages, then turned into automobiles. Ships may be a way of
transportation now, but eventually trains would become more popular and then
airplanes would be invented. The establishment of the Erie Canal cost the tax
payers more than 6 million dollars, a colossal amount during those times.(FIND CITATION)  Whether the initial cost was recovered is not
the bone of contention. The elephant in the room is whether the project could
withstand the test of time. The journal completely avoided to discuss the
engineering challenges and in his inaugural speech as a governor, Clinton seems
to be warning his listeners not to judge the engineers as they were
inexperienced, but it is not inexperience as we know it. They had no idea what
exactly was expected of them, and most probably they were doing some guesswork
which eventually worked. This is gambling with public finances, but the gamble
paid off.1 The question is, what if it did not work? What if the
whole project was a total failure? America would probably not be as we know it
now, at least economically. Clinton failed to mention the disadvantage his $4
billion (by today’s standards) could have done about railroad transportation which
is much cheaper to build and maintain. The 363-mile canal took seven years to
build but how long would it have taken to build a railway by then? The extra
costs of building bridges like the forty-foot wide bridge connecting Lake Erie
with Hudson River could have been avoided altogether.

It should be noted that
the Erie Canal project started in 1784 when George Washington wrote to the
Congress and outlined designs for the mega infrastructure that could create a
canal that could navigate the waters of the eastern New York and connect them
as close as possible to the western waters of Ohio and hence open Lake Erie and
therefore open the trade routes to the external world. According to George
Washington, this could increase America’s export capacity and bind the people
of inland America with binding chains that could not be broken by race when
everybody was economically empowered. This took the courage of one De Witt
Clinton to fulfill the dreams of the founding fathers in the midst of strong opposition
from west wing politicians that were anti-establishment. The history will judge
Clinton as one of the few politicians who walked their talk and took the
initiative of creating the great Erie Canal in a record of seven years with
limited resources, limited expertise and uncooperative legislative council.

 

 

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