Thomas Jefferson is frequently quoted as saying that the proposed plan for the Erie Canal was "little short of madness." Jefferson's comment is essentially hearsay reported by another party; however, rather unusually, Jefferson himself later confirmed that he had "no doubt" that his comments as related secondhand were correct, even though he did not remember uttering them.
In January 1809, George Forman and William Kirkpatrick visited Jefferson in Washington to discuss the Erie Canal with him. It was on this occasion that Jefferson reportedly pronounced the plan to be "little short of madness." Sometime between then and 1822, DeWitt Clinton learned of this encounter and Jefferson’s reported comments.
In November 1822, DeWitt Clinton wrote to Jefferson, sending him a copy of his Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources of the State of New York. In this work, Clinton related a version of the story told by Forman about his meeting with Jefferson more than thirteen years earlier: “When this work [the canal] was first proposed to President Jefferson, in 1809, he pronounced it impracticable at the present time, and declared that it was a century too soon to make the attempt.” Clinton commented in his letter to Jefferson accompanying the book, “The information in Page 131 was derived from George Forman then a Member of Congress from this state. you can presume on its correctness.”
In his reply to Clinton several weeks later, Jefferson wrote: “Altho’ I do not recollect the conversation with Judge Firman referred to in page 131. I have no doubt it is correct; for that I know was my early opinion, and many, I dare say still think with me that N. York has anticipated by a full century the ordinary progress of improvement.”
David Hosack, in preparing his Memoir of DeWitt Clinton (1829), wrote to Forman and asked him for information on his role in the establishment of the canal. Forman responded with a letter, dated October 13, 1828, which is printed in full in one of the many appendices to the book, “Claims of Joshua Forman.” Regarding Jefferson’s comments, Forman wrote:
“I made a trip to Washington, almost entirely to converse with Mr. Jefferson on the subject. Sometime in January, 1809, I called on him in company with Wm. Kirkpatrick, Esq. of Salina, then Member of Congress, who introduced me, and informed him, that in view of his proposal to expend the surplus revenues of the nation in making roads and canals, the state of New-York had explored the route of a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie, and had found it practicable beyond their most sanguine expectations; after recapitulating in as laconic a manner as I could, some of the most important advantages it offered to the nation as inducements to undertake it - enhancing the value of their lands - settling the frontier - opening a channel of commerce for the western country to our own sea-ports - a military way in time of war, and a bond of union to the states. He replied, it was a very fine project, and might be executed a century hence. "Why sir," said he, "here is a canal of a few miles, projected by General Washington, which, if completed, would render this a fine commercial city, which has languished for many years because the small sum of 200,000 dollars necessary to complete it, cannot be obtained from the general government, the state government, or from individuals - and you talk of making a canal of 350 miles through the wilderness - it is little short of madness to think of it at this day." I replied, that having conceived the idea, ascertained its practicability, and in some measure appreciated its importance, I thought the state of New-York would never rest until it was accomplished. Having frequently mentioned this anecdote, it came to the ears of Governor Clinton, who, when the canal was nearly accomplished, wrote to Mr. Jefferson, as I have understood from him, inquiring if he recollected the conversation, to which he replied, that he did not recollect the name of the person who first informed him of the project, but recollected that on first hearing of it, he had remarked that it was a century too soon, but was then convinced he was a century behind a just estimate of the march of improvement in this country. The story has found its way into the newspapers without mention of my name; but as the whole proceeding had been without any newspaper remarks, and the discoveries of Judge Geddes so recent, there cannot remain a doubt that the communication made by me was the first he had heard on the subject, and I think he was not a little surprised so soon to have such a claim made on his proposed fund for internal improvement. Although I have not conversed with Mr. Kirkpatrick on the subject, I have no doubt of his recollecting the conversation, and I confidently appeal to him for the correctness of the statement.”
The appendix includes a complete trancription of Jefferson’s December 1822 letter, which most likely came from Clinton's papers.
- Anna Berkes, August 17, 2011
- 1. Clinton [aka Hibernicus], Letters on the Natural History... (NY.: Bliss & White, 1822), 131.
- 2. Clinton to Jefferson, Albany, November 23, 1822. Draft in DeWitt Clinton Papers, Columbia University.
- 3. Jefferson to Clinton, Monticello, December 12, 1822. Polygraph copy available online from the Library of Congress.
- 4. Hosack, Memoir of Dewitt Clinton (), 343.