July 1 is an important date in American history.
And no, not because, barring a miracle, that date will mark the beginning of the third year Illinois has gone without a budget.
As if that grim anniversary were not bad enough, this July 1 history taps us on the shoulder and reminds us who we used to be.
Two hundred years ago Saturday, DeWitt Clinton was inaugurated as governor of New York.
Who was DeWitt Clinton? He was a politician who wanted to dig a canal across New York State. That way, Atlantic Ocean commerce could pass through the port of New York, move 150 miles down the Hudson River, meet the proposed canal at Albany, float west 350 miles, then enter Lake Erie at Buffalo.
A project of this magnitude seemed to demand national effort. Clinton first tried to get the budding federal government to foot the bill. Thomas Jefferson dismissed the canal as “little short of madness.”
But just as states now are picking up balls dropped by our paralyzed federal government, so Clinton brought the battle home. He ran for governor vowing to build the canal if elected.
Clinton won, and was inaugurated on July 1, 1817. Construction of the canal began . . . wait for it . . . three days later, on July 4, just outside Rome, New York. The heart breaks.
The canal — 40 feet wide, 4 feet deep and 363 miles long — was dug by hand, with shovels and picks, with the occasional black powder explosion. It required 83 locks to surmount 675 feet of elevation, and aqueducts to cross streams. Before the canal, it cost $100 to move a ton of freight from New York City to Buffalo. After the canal opened in 1825, the same shipment cost $10 and got there in a third of the time. Tolls repaid the cost to dig the canal within a decade.
I don’t want to suggest that our forebears didn’t argue. They did. Historian Peter Bernstein describes the struggle to fund the canal in the New York legislature like this:
“On more than one occasion, victory seemed within grasp only to be dashed by the resiliency of the opposition and the incredulity of the timid. In many ways, it was a lot easier for the engineers to improvise this stupendous technological achievement than it was for DeWitt Clinton and his allies to subdue their political opponents.”
Yet he did it. We can develop the most advanced medical treatment, CAT scans and exotic drugs. But we can’t muster the political will to pay for it. We’ve moved so far beyond shovels and mules. Yet we can’t pass a budget to keep those projects going. The current Illinois budget impasse will soon close 900 construction projects, worth $5 billion, throwing 25,000 workers out of work.
The Erie Canal didn’t just supercharge the rise of New York City and shift power from the South to the North. It also is directly responsible for the explosive growth of a certain marshy nowhere on the banks of Lake Michigan, 500 miles west. Chicago owes its existence to the Erie Canal. Canal fever spread to Ohio, then Indiana. Illinois got the bug and platted the wilderness around Chicago, then sold the land to pay for a canal connecting the Chicago River to the Illinois River and eventually the Mississippi and points south.
History is still with us in more ways than you imagine. I didn’t realize until I began my gentle float down canal history, but the Erie Canal is still in use. Mostly for pleasure boats, but the past decades have seen an uptick in barge traffic. Nor is it endangered — the New York State constitution stipulates that the canal will be preserved under state “management and control forever.”
In Illinois, the word “forever” only evokes the feeling of how long this budget fight has been going on and how long it is likely to continue.
If you are thinking that Chicago really should honor DeWitt Clinton for showing the tenacity that directly led to the creation of our fair city, don’t bother. Clinton Street is already named for him. Who did you think it honored?