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Steamboat Inventor Robert Fulton and Six Other Commissioners Ask the Governor of Georgia to Support Federal Funding of the Erie Canal
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“this Canal … will encourage agriculture, promote commerce and manufactures, facilitate a free and general intercourse between different parts of the United States, tend to the aggrandizement and prosperity of the country, and consolidate and strengthen the Union.

ROBERT FULTON. Printed Document Signed, October 8, 1811, New York. Letter to the Governor of Georgia David Brydie Mitchell announcing the formation of what would become the Erie Canal Commission. Also signed by GOUVERNEUR MORRIS, DEWITT CLINTON, SIMEON DE WITT, WILLIAM NORTH, THOMAS EDDY and ROBERT R. LIVINGSTON. 2 pp., 10 x 15½ in. Together with: ELISHA JENKINS Document Signed as New York Secretary of State. “An Act to provide for the Improvement of the Internal Navigation of the State,” April 8, 1811, Albany, NY; certified, sealed, and signed, July 10, 1811. 1 p. with docketing, ordered to be filed, Nov. 4, 1811, 8 x 10 in.

Inventory #26559       Price: $17,500

Excerpts from Letter

The good sense of the state over which you, Sir, preside, will readily perceive the benefit which must result from such navigation. But whatever may be the peculiar advantages which locality may give to particular parts of the United States, we feel a conviction that the general advantage to the whole nation is of such preponderating influence, as to render the present object of principal, if not exclusive concern to the National Legislature.

There are two modes, Sir, by which your state may contributed to this great work; by pecuniary appropriations, and by that influence in the councils of the union to which she is entitled. The former mode will certainly not be unacceptable.

Historical Background
The easiest route from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and thus to Europe was through the St. Lawrence River, which ran through Canada and was controlled by the French in Quebec. Americans sought a passageway that would not be subject to a foreign power. After examining the Mohawk River, Thomas Eddy, the treasurer of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company, wrote to New York state senator Jonas Platt, who proposed establishing a bipartisan Canal Commission. On March 15, 1810, the legislature appointed Federalists Gouverneur Morris, Stephen Van Rensselaer, William North, and Thomas Eddy, and Democratic-Republicans DeWitt Clinton, Simeon DeWitt, and Peter B. Porter as a “Commission to Explore a Route for a Canal” from the Hudson River to Lake Erie or Lake Ontario.

In June 1810, the commissioners began their survey. Van Rensselaer and Morris traveled across the entire state by carriage. The others went up the Mohawk River and as far west as they could go by water, before going the final one hundred miles from Lake Seneca to Lake Erie by carriage. They submitted a report in March 1811 recommending a canal, financed with public funds and controlled by the State, running straight westward to Lake Erie.

On April 8, 1811, New York’s legislature passed the first of many laws related to the Erie Canal, adding Democratic-Republicans Robert Fulton, who had developed the first steamboat on the Hudson River, and Robert R. Livingston, his business and engineering partner, to the commission. The act allocated $15,000 and authorized the commission to take all necessary steps to finance the project.

On the same date as this letter, October 8, 1811, the Erie Canal Commissioners also wrote to President James Madison: “An object of such general concern seems to be within the scope of that information which is to be communicated to the National Legislature by the President of the United States, and therefore… We do not assign reasons in it’s support because they will not escape your penetration; neither do we solicit your patronage because we rely on your patriotism. It is submitted to your consideration in the most simple form....”[1]

In December, DeWitt Clinton and Gouverneur Morris traveled to Washington to lobby Madison and Congress. Though the President was “embarrassed by scruples derived from his interpretation of the Constitution,” he forwarded New York’s Act to Congress.[2] The House of Representatives appointed a committee to consider the petition.  Clinton and Morris drafted a bill providing federal land grants for states when canal projects were completed, including one of four million acres for the Erie Canal. However, the growing conflict with Great Britain prevented Congress from aiding the project and soon halted all progress. After the War of 1812 ended in 1815, New York re-launched the project, but without Fulton, who died after rescuing a friend who fell through the ice on the frozen Hudson River.

Construction began in 1817. Stretching 363 miles from Lake Erie at Buffalo to the Hudson River at Albany, the Erie Canal opened in October 1825. It gave New York City a strong advantage over all other U.S. port cities. It was enlarged and reconfigured in 1918 with the creation of the New York State Barge Canal, operating successfully well into the twentieth century.

Robert Fulton (1765-1815) was born in Pennsylvania. As a teenager in Philadelphia, he painted portraits and landscapes, and drew houses and machinery. After purchasing a farm near Pittsburgh for his family, and settling them on it, he traveled to Europe in 1786 and lived there for the next twenty years. In England, he studied painting and experimented with mechanical inventions. In the 1790s he began working on steam power for boats and other aspects of canal engineering. In 1797, he went to Paris, where he studied French and German, and mathematics and chemistry. While there, he designed the first working muscle-powered submarine, Nautilus, and experimented with torpedoes. He also met U.S. Ambassador to France Robert R. Livingston, and the two collaborated on building a steamboat. Initial tests were positive, but the boat sank in August 1803. In 1804, Fulton returned to Great Britain and worked on naval weapons to defend against a French invasion. Two years later, he returned to the United States. In 1807, Fulton and Livingston built the first commercially successful steamboat, North River Steamboat (later known as Clermont) to operate on the Hudson between New York City and Albany. In 1808, Fulton married Harriet Livingston (1786-1824); they had four children. In 1812, a steamboat he designed, New Orleans, traveled from Pittsburgh down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to its namesake city, changing the trade and transportation network for the middle of the continent.

The recipient, David Brydie Mitchell (1766-1837) was born in Scotland and emigrated to Georgia, in 1782. He served as mayor of Savannah (1801-1802), state attorney general (1796-1806), member of the state’s House of Representatives and Senate, and Governor (1809-1813 and 1815-1817). In 1817 he was appointed by President James Monroe as agent to the Creek Nation. Mitchell was prosecuted in 1820 for smuggling slaves into the United States from Spanish Florida; Monroe replaced him in 1821.

Condition: small dampstain along vertical fold with minor areas of loss; lightly soiled with some offsetting and minute foxing; toning from signatures visible on recto; pencil notation; fold with some loss crosses Eddy’s signature. Act has some edgewear, including chipping, on right edge.

[2]James Madison to Congress, December 23, 1811, RG 46, Legislative Proceedings, 12A-E2, National Archives, Washington, DC; Ronald E. Shaw, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1966), 46-47.

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