Making the Case

Possibly the most influential arguments for constructing the Canal were contained in the essays of businessman Jesse Hawley. Hawley, a flour merchant, had gone bankrupt after failing to find a timely way to get his flour to market. Written from debtor’s prison in Ontario County and published in the Genesee Messenger under the pseudonym “Hercules” in 1807 and 1808, Hawley’s essays provided detailed information on the route, costs, and benefits of a man-made canal transporting people and goods across the country. He wrote from his cell in October 1807:

With due deference to the president of the United States, and the committees appointed by the national legislature, who now have the subject under consideration, I will presume to suggest to them, that improvement which would afford the most immediate, and consequently the most extensive advantages which any other in the United States can possibly do. It is the connecting the waters of Lake Erie and those of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers by means of a canal.

Hawley’s writings stand as the earliest well-developed plan for what would become the Erie Canal.

This excerpt is from Jesse Hawley’s “An Essay on the Enlargement of the Erie Canal,” 1840. Hawley died suddenly in Cambria, New York in 1842, having lived to see most of his canal predictions come to pass, including the enlargement. Courtesy of University of Chicago via HathiTrust.

This 1922 drawing depicts early advocates for the Erie Canal. Jesse Hawley (pictured third row from top on right side) apparently never met DeWitt Clinton, the man he motivated to pursue the construction of the Erie Canal. Courtesy of New York State Archives via Empire State Digital Network.