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Historical Context: The Politics of Enlargement

Ronald E. Shaw, Miami University of Ohio

Built and operated by the state of New York, the Erie Canal was subject to all the strains of the democratic political processes, particularly since New York’s citizens were passionately interested in their canal. 

The original canal had been adequate for the limited commerce existing in western New York in the early 1820s. Yet it was so successful that a scant 10 years later it could no longer handle the volume of trade it had produced. It was clear that New York needed a larger canal. In 1835 the New York legislature passed a law authorizing the widening and deepening of the canal by roughly 75 percent. Construction began in 1836. 

In 1837, however, the economy went from boom to bust. The financial stresses caused by the Depression of 1837 created political conflicts over how to finance the costs of the enlargement. The Whigs, led by Governor William Henry Seward, wanted to move ahead rapidly, borrowing money to be repaid from anticipated tolls. The democrats charged that the Whigs were saddling the people with a huge “Forty Million Debt '' ($10 million a year over four years), which also involved the construction of new, lateral canals, including the Genesee Valley and the Black River canals. In 1842, the Democrats pushed through the “stop and tax” law. Work on the canal was halted, and a tax was imposed to begin payment on the debt. The “stop and tax” law was written into the state constitution in 1846, requiring that every debt for the canals carry a tax. The 1846 constitution also directed that the enlargement of the Erie Canal, as well as the construction of two laterals, the Genesee Valley and the Black River canals, must be completed on a pay-as-you-go basis from canal revenues. As a consequence of the Depression of 1837, other states passed similar stop laws on their public works. Some states defaulted on (refused to pay) their canal debts. 

The Democrats were divided. The conservative “Hunkers” faction (those who wanted to continue funding the canal enlargement and the lateral canals) supported a slower enlargement of the canal (and supposedly favored remaining in office). The “Barnburners” opposed any further debt for the enlargement and wanted a complete halt to canal work until all debt created by the Whigs under Seward had been paid off. (They were so radical that they would supposedly burn down a barn to get rid of its rats.)

By the 1850s, both the Whigs and Hunker Democrats wanted to speed the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Western trade had grown even more rapidly than predicted. Both candidates for governor in 1850, Democrat Horatio Seymour of Utica and Whig Washington Hunt of Lockport, sought ways for the enlargement to move ahead. The short-lived “Nine Million Bill” was devised to surmount the constitutional prohibition of debt without taxation. Barnburner Democrats believed that it violated the constitutional provision of 1846.

After the “Nine Million Bill '' passed in the assembly, 12 Barnburner Democratic senators resigned their seats to prevent Senate action, denying a three-fifths quorum for voting on the bill. This provoked a firestorm of protest. Typical was a mass meeting at Canastota on May 7, 1851, at which citizens of the Second Assembly District of Madison County gathered to protest the action of the 12 senators. Hundreds of ordinary citizens signed a broadside, which also mentions an additional “one thousand others.” George W. Clinton, one of the speakers, was the son of De Witt Clinton. With more than 4,000 boats on the Erie Canal in the year 1851, the stakes and the emotions ran high.

George Washington Hunt called a special session of the legislature, which then passed the “Nine Million BIll.” A Democratic canal board began canal work. The law never went into full effect, because within a year, the Court of Appeals in New York found the “Nine Million Bill” unconstitutional. 

Finally in 1853, after a prolonged conflict in the legislature, Democratic governor Horatio Seymour approved a compromise constitutional amendment allowing a debt of $10,500,000 over four years to be spent on the enlargement of the Erie Canal and completion of the lateral canals. A large majority ratified this amendment in 1854, and enlargement of the Erie was completed in 1862.