- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Hill and Wang (June 12, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0809016052
- ISBN-13: 978-0809016051
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 25 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #188,207 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862
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The United States was a new republic in 1817. The generation of its original revolutionaries was fast dying; a second war with Great Britain had recently been settled; and expansionism was the mood of the day. The "children of the founders," as Carol Sheriff calls this first 19th-century American generation, sought to make its mark with engineering projects that would further national growth and prove to Europe that the new nation "played a leading role in God's plan to improve the earthly world." It did so in grand style with the Erie Canal, a huge waterway that linked Atlantic seaports with the Great Lakes. Sheriff's vigorous account of the canal's conception and building makes for an epic story and fascinating reading.
“The Artificial River is deeply researched, its arguments are both subtle and clear, and it is written with grace and an engagingly light touch. The book merits a wide readership.” ―Paul Johnson, The Journal of American History
“A beautifully written and unpretentious book that reveals how little historians have known about something they have written so much about: the Ere Canal.” ―Richard White, University of Washington
“[Sheriff] renders the Erie Canal's history from a fresh point of view . . . the everyday lives of ordinary people who lived along the waterway.” ―Paul Grondahl, Albany Times Union
“Broadly conceived, imaginatively researched, incisively argued, and gracefully written.” ―Robert H. Wiebe, Northwestern University
“An excellent study of an important, all too often neglected period.” ―Lee Milazzo, The Dallas Morning News
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Sheriff argues that canal promoters linked the waterway’s construction and success to notions of republicanism in the early republic. She counters this notion, writing, “Very few of the thousands of men who worked on the deep cut or the combined locks would have qualified as republican citizens – in either their own or other minds” (pg. 45). She continues, “New Yorkers did not agree on what made that artificial river materialize in the first place. While the Canal sponsors praised politicians and government officials, artisans paid honor to themselves and their workmanship. Laborers, meanwhile, gave a quick hurrah before moving on to another public works project” (pg. 51).
Sheriff writes, “For reasons they did not anticipate, though, their artificial river would evoke feelings of ambivalence among many of the same people who celebrated the efficiency with which the Canal moved people and goods” (pg. 55). In this way, New Yorkers “viewed economic progress with at least a touch of ambivalence: although they looked forward to loading their wheat and apples on the eastbound boats that docked in front of their doors, they feared that the state’s attempts to encourage the building of commercial mills and warehouses would jeopardize yeoman’s economic investments and legal standing. This tension posed vexing problems for progress-minded landowners throughout the United States” (pg. 80). On the other hand, “Perhaps remembering that the Canal corridor had been touted as a sort of middle landscape between the extremes of civilization and savagery, New Yorkers sometimes argued that the state should use its regulatory powers to shield the public from some of the potentially harmful forces of the expanding commercial world” (pg. 91).
Plans to enlarge the canal “brought a rash of petitions appealing to the state’s moral obligation to protect as well as promote its citizens’ commercial investments” (pg. 121). Sheriff writes, “Because the Erie Canal was the literal conduit of commercial exchange, New York State’s businessmen argued that the state should use the Canal to enhance market growth while limiting the potential for busts” (pg. 127). Later, “From a middle-class perspective, the Canal had become a haven for vice and immorality, the towpaths attracted workers who drank, swore, whored, and gambled. And unlike canal diggers, who moved on, boat workers remained” (pg. 138). Invoking the mindset of the Second Great Awakening, Sheriff writes, “Canal workers, simply by their daily presence, threatened both Jacksonian and Whig visions of progress. Reformers warned that the consequences of neglecting the spiritual welfare of boatmen would be far-reaching” (pg. 150).
Looking forward in time, Sheriff concludes, “By helping to make possible this busy commercial setting, the Erie Canal had guaranteed its own obsolescence. Railroads, not canals, would ultimately meet the middle classes’ raised expectations” (pg. 173). She continues, “If the Erie Canal compressed distance and time, the railroads annihilated them, or so it appeared to the amazed observer in the mid-nineteenth century” (pg. 173).
I purchased three copies of this book- two for presents (one for my history professor, the other for my neighbor who was recreating a packet boat) and one for myself :)