So many things happened before we were born that continue to shape the world we live in today that it is astounding to think of them all. When people talk about the history of our communities they often talk about wars, because wars are great disrupters of people’s lives and cause many people to move about and meet each other, people who otherwise probably would never have met. Wars also cause a great deal of pain and suffering, disease and death. This morning, however, I want to talk about how peace also, causes things to happen. This morning I want to talk about the 1817 meeting of the New York Council of Revision. You may already have been told about this story by your parents and teachers, I mean, without this meeting, none of us would be here today.
The state of New York, no longer has a Council of Revision, but in the 19th century, at the end of each session of the New York legislature, a group of five people called the Council of Revision, reviewed each action the legislature had taken, and if they thought the Legislature had done anything foolish, they could undo it. I sometimes wish I had my own council of revision that met each day and thought, hmmm, did John Marsh do anything especially foolish today? Let’s just undo that. Usually the Council of Revision just approved everything the legislature did, but in 1817, the New York Legislature voted to build the Erie Canal. This was the biggest project, the most expensive thing that anyone in the United States had ever talked about doing.
It turned out to be a great investment. Some later called it: “the mother of all cities” because not only did it make New York City the biggest city in the United States, but also because the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Schenectady, and yes, Syracuse, all went from being very small towns to big and important cities after the canal was built. They were built along the canal because there was so much business to be done there. And that is why I say that if it were not for that committee meeting of 1817, none of us would be here today, because the city of Syracuse would not be here.
However, no one knew that at the time. One person on the Council of Revision thought the canal was a terrible idea. He agreed the guy who said that the Canal, if built, would be a “big ditch” in which would “be buried the treasure of the State, to be watered by the tears of posterity.” He thought that we would all be crying tears because our grandparents spent all their money building this canal, and would not have any left over for our food, clothes, and education, and instead, the canal helped bring all these things.
There was a second member of the committee who mostly agreed with this, man. There were two on the committee who thought the canal was a super great idea. And then there was James Kent. James Kent was 54 years old in 1817. As a young man he graduated from Yale College. He became a judge and then chancellor of the State of New York. Later, the law school at the University of Chicago was named after him.
At the start of the meeting he said that he thought the canal was a good idea, but he was not sure that there was enough money, and that enough people were fully committed to it. He thought he would probably vote “no”. And the people counting the votes thought, Oh, no, with two against and two for, if James Kent votes “no”, then the canal will not be built. Other people spoke their views and the committee meeting went on and on, as committee meetings sometimes do. Then there was a knock at the door, and people were surprised to see the Vice President of the United States, claiming that he just happened to be in the neighborhood, and wanted to drop by, and if it was OK, could he say a few things. So they poured him a cup of tea and said they would listen to whatever the Vice President of the United States wanted to tell them.
What he wanted to tell them was DON’T BUILD THE CANAL!” and the reason not to build was because there was going to be another war with Great Britain and Canada, and they were going to need all the money they could get to fight the war. Most people thought the war of 1812, was over and done with. The British and the Canadians had burned the White House down, but then they became distracted with other things and everyone had signed a peace treaty and things were quiet. The five members of the Council of Revision were astonished: They asked, “Are we really going to have another war with Great Britain and Canada?”
“My word for it,” the Vice President said, “we shall have another war…within two years.”
And then, James Kent, astonished everyone further, by rising from his seat, and declaring with great animation: “If we must have war, or have a canal, I am in favor of the canal, and I vote for this bill.” I guess he figured if you buy a war, you just get a lot of dead people. But if you build a canal, you can go for a boat ride. And so it was that the canal bill of 1817 became law, and the United States did not go to war with Canada or Great Britain and remains friends with those countries to this day, and the Canal was built, and Syracuse became a city, and we are here. And it is good to be here.
This story is recounted in Wedding of the Waters, The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter L. Bernstein. (Norton Press, 2005) pp. 197-199.