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This Day in History: The Erie Canal, built without federal aid

On this day in 1825, the Erie Canal opens. Did you know that the project was not funded by the federal government? It could have been but for one thing: the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, was President at a critical moment. He vetoed a funding bill because of concerns about its constitutionality.

Yes, you heard that right. Madison vetoed an important transportation bill because he thought it was inconsistent with the Constitution.

Obviously, the project flourished, even without federal intervention. The State of New York assumed responsibility for the canal—and reaped the benefits once it was completed.

Perhaps a little background helps to explain why Madison’s veto was so important.

A mural that hangs in DeWitt Clinton High School in New York: “Marriage of the Waters,” by C.Y. Turner.

Modern Americans live in a world in which trains, planes, and freight trucks can move things quickly from place to place. By contrast, our Founders lived in a world in which water transportation was much more critical. For New York in the late 1700s, a water route toward the west was much needed. Overland transportation through the state’s mountains could be difficult. No river moved westward into the country.

The idea of a man-made waterway stretching more than 300 miles from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes seemed crazy and grandiose, and the idea was not immediately accepted as feasible. But such a route was also badly needed. Some New Yorkers worked long and hard to obtain funding. They seemed to succeed in 1817 when Congress finally appropriated funds.

That bill was quickly smacked down by none other than James Madison. On his last full day in office, President Madison vetoed the bill. Madison, you may remember, is known as the Father of the Constitution because of his great influence before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention.

Shouldn’t his statements on this simple transportation bill give modern Americans pause, particularly when considering the vast array of federally funded projects that have become normal in our lifetime?

Madison vetoed the Erie Canal funding, as he explained, because he was “constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States.” The power of funding internal improvements is “not expressly given by the Constitution,” and he refused to engage in an “inadmissible latitude of construction.”

Madison specifically rejected the notion that the General Welfare Clause allowed Congress to act. “Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them,” he wrote. The “permanent success of the Constitution,” he concluded, “depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments.”

Where has that “definite partition of powers” gone in recent years?

Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson was in full agreement with Madison’s veto. A few months later, he wrote: “I think the passage and rejection of this bill a fortunate incident. . . . [It] will settle forever the meaning of this phrase, which, by a mere grammatical quibble, has countenanced the General Government in a claim of universal power.”

It was “settle[d] forever”? Hmmm.

After Madison’s veto, the New York State Assembly quickly approved funding for the canal. Construction broke ground within a matter of months. Once completed, the canal was soon turning a profit, and its costs were easily recouped within 9 years. Business boomed! Economically, positive effects were felt for decades.

Maybe today is more than just a canal’s birthday. It is a celebration of what the state governments can do when they rely on themselves and their own citizens instead of the federal government.

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