The Democratic-Republican Mayor of New York City DeWitt Clinton had played a leading role in the Erie Canal Commission from its inception in 1810 to the actual start of its construction.  Clinton was the nephew of George Clinton, longtime Democratic-Republican Governor of New York who had succeeded Aaron Burr as Jefferson’s Vice President in 1800, following Jefferson’s dropping Burr from his reelection ticket due to his disgust over Burr’s refusal to defer to Jefferson in the 1800 election that had ended in a tie in the Electoral College, and was resolved in Jefferson’s favor only after 36 votes in the House of Representatives.  In 1800, in order to assist his own election as President, Burr had reorganized Tammany Hall, a Democratic-Republican Party political machine in New York City.  Two years later, DeWitt Clinton had instigated a split within the state’s Democratic-Republican Party by publicly accusing Burr of being a traitor to the party. The following year the younger Clinton had been nominated to be New York City’s Mayor in 1803, a position from which he would not only fight to cleanse the city’s patronage positions of Tammany’s people by replacing them with his own supporters, but also promote the idea of building the canal. (Burr’s dual with Hamilton occurred in 1804.)

Meanwhile, Clinton’s uncle, then Jefferson’s Vice-President, had attempted to run as the party’s Presidential nominee in 1808, but had been outmaneuvered by James Madison and was reelected as Madison’s Vice-President in 1808.  George Clinton had not foregone his presidential aspirations, however, and was positioning for a direct challenge to his party’s incumbent President in 1812 when he died from a heart attack in April 1812, only weeks before Madison would sign Congress’ Declaration of War.   The supporters of the elder Clinton then shifted their support to DeWitt Clinton, who, in the meantime, had won a special election as New York’s Lieutenant Governor in 1811.  DeWitt Clinton lost a hard-fought presidential campaign to Madison in 1812 by a tally in the Electoral College of 128 to 89.  Clinton returned to the Mayor’s office until he succeeded in being elected the Governor of New York, a position he assumed on July 1, 1817, only three days before construction on the canal began.  

Route of the Erie Canal, 1825. (Online)

It would take eight years (and no Federal funding) to complete the 363 mile-long, all-water route between the Atlantic and Lake Erie through American-controlled land that started at the mouth of the Mohawk River at the Hudson River, just north of Albany, straight west to Buffalo at the eastern tip of Lake Erie just upriver from Niagara Falls.  From Albany water traffic could continue down the Hudson to New York City and then to the Atlantic; hence, New York City, as well as Albany, could reap the benefits of being connected to the expanding western hinterland by a continuous all-water route, that would also eventually prove beneficial to such future Great Lake ports as Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, and, eventually, Chicago.  Ultimately, this system would alter the pattern of western migration and allow New York City (and, more importantly, the North) to compete with the Mississippi River system and New Orleans (and the South) as the major ocean port-of-entry for the growing trade and political allegiance of the new inland states of the NorthWest.


With the potential of an all-water direct route from New York City into the Great Lakes system to become a reality, the Chicago River canal’s importance in antebellum geopolitics truly began to be appreciated by leaders from both the North and the South.  When the Illinois territorial legislature first petitioned Congress in January 1818 for statehood and admission into the Union, the proposed northern border, although originally set to be tangent to the southern tip of Lake Michigan in the fifth article of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, was located some ten miles further north, parallel to Indiana’s northern border that had been so moved when it was granted statehood in 1816 so that the state would have a shoreline with the lake.  This posed a potential stumbling block for those who were backing the canal project, however, for it meant that the proposed route of the canal would still be under the jurisdiction of two states.  While the bulk of the canal would be located in Illinois, the mouth of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan would still be under the jurisdiction of Wisconsin.  During the bill’s debate, however, Illinois’ representative Nathaniel Pope, proposed an amendment that pushed the northern boundary of the new state almost fifty miles farther north.  Using the rationale that the proposed canal, when built, should be solely under the jurisdiction of one state, he argued that the mouth of the Chicago River should be included within Illinois’ borders. Shrewdly, the move of the state’s northern border much farther north than the mouth of the Chicago River also would gather into the new state much of the lead ore (and its revenues) that had been recently found to be centered around the town of Galena that otherwise would have remained solely within the control of Wisconsin.

Map Showing Location of Fort Armstrong, Saukenuk, and Galena. Note the original Illinois border was to be south of Fort Dearborn. (Online)

The real concern of Pope, an anti-slavery proponent, however, ran much deeper than the eventual commercial success of the canal or the state’s potential revenues.  Indicative of America’s delicate balancing act at the time of maintaining the same number of slave states as free states in the Union, Mississippi was being paired in 1817 with Illinois for statehood.  Pope worried that the proposed state of Illinois as originally laid out, that up to this time had developed a Southern, pro-slavery orientation with the initial river settlements in the southern half of the state that were dependent upon St. Louis, would actually tip the balance in favor of the South.  Therefore, the extension of the state’s northern boundary to include the Chicago River would give Illinois an offsetting connection with the Northern Great Lakes, and a fighting chance to remain free of slavery.  Hence, the Union’s status quo might be preserved.  Congress was swayed by Pope’s one-state canal argument and ratified the petition on April 13, 1818, with Illinois formally becoming a state (in which was located the mouth of the Chicago River as well as the lead mines of Galena) with its more northern border at 42° 30’ on December 3, 1818.

John Melish (?), Map of Illinois, 1818. Note that the process of surveying the state has not yet made its way to the remote northeastern corner of the state. (Virga, Illinois: Mapping the Prairie State)


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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