The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862

The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 – Review

Kim M. Gruenwald

The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862. By Carol Sheriff. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1996. Pp. xvii, 251. $21.00.)

The author of this book explores how the Erie Canal changed lives at all levels of society. The introduction is aptly titled “Fresh Oysters and Sour Deals,” contrasting wonder over the convenience and material wealth that the canal brought with dismay over the impersonal, commercial world that followed.

Carol Sheriff argues that a culture of progress defined Northern sectionalism. God had divinely sanctioned the new nation; it was up to citizens to make the land perfect. The children of revolutionaries felt the need to make their mark upon the nation that their parents had founded. Ideological and economic goals went hand in hand. Sheriff defines practical republicanism as the sense that for the common good to flourish, the economy must grow so that citizens would prosper.

Sheriff describes the lives and working conditions of the laborers who constructed the canal, many of them recent immigrants. As it neared completion, sponsors and artisans held triumphant celebrations with toasts and speeches that praised one another but ignored the actual builders. A permanent class of wage-workers was not part of their republican vision; “they tried to convince themselves, and others, that the class of degraded workers they had come to scorn was a necessary–but temporary–evil” (50).

Farmers quickly grew ambivalent. The state took chunks of their property to construct an artificial river for the public good, often without compensating landowners; the state argued that canal access for their remaining property increased its value. But the new valuations were based on commercial possibilities rather than farm prices. The necessity of time-wasting travel to bridges to manage their split property also angered farmers. When they spoke of damage to the public good, they pointed to fellow farmers, for their notion of the common good was an egalitarian one. But Whig businessmen defined progress as upward mobility. Their notion of the public good was a paternalistic one in which elites had the responsibility of making decisions for those on lower social rungs. Entrepreneurs formed a partnership with the state to manage the economy–an alliance that farmers resented.

New Yorkers could not ignore the presence of a new working class for long. Reformers blamed the emerging industrial world for the conditions that fostered working-class vice and moral degeneration. The commercial classes supported the reformers to prove that they were upstanding citizens. By the 1850s, Northerners of all classes united behind the free-labor ideology.

To compare the little-known views of ordinary citizens with the better known views of politicians, Sheriff makes extensive use of the Canal Board Papers. Created by the legislature in 1826, the board oversaw the building, funding, and managing of the canal. The papers hold the petitions and letters of thousands of New Yorkers. In addition, the board held public hearings throughout the state, thus the testimonies of men and women who could not travel to the capital survive in the records of investigative hearings.

The Artificial River is a study of how people dealt with the contradictions that change and progress can bring. As such, it makes engaging and illuminating reading.

Kim M. Gruenwald

Kent State University

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group