Program Overview

In the chamber of the U.S. Senate in February of 1832, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky rose to deliver a speech in defense of the American System, his three-part vision for the American economy. In that speech, he spoke of the incredible economic growth that America witnessed throughout the previous decade:

On a general survey, we behold cultivation extended, the arts flourishing, the face of the country improved, our people fully and profitably employed…a People out of debt; land rising slowly in value, but in a secure and salutary degree; a ready, though not extravagant market for all the surplus productions of our industry; innumerable flocks and herds browsing and gamboling on ten thousand hills and plains, covered with rich and verdant grasses; our cities expanded, and whole villages springing up, as it were, by enchantment; our exports and imports increased and increasing; our tonnage [shipping], foreign and coastwise, swelling and fully occupied; the rivers of our interior animated by the perpetual thunder and lightning of countless steam boats; the currency sound and abundant; the public debt of two wars nearly redeemed; and, to crown all, the public treasury overflowing….
(Henry Clay, In Defense of the American System, 1832)

While no one factor can account for the prosperity that America enjoyed in the aftermath of the War of 1812, much credit must be given to the transportation revolution that reshaped the American landscape and the American marketplace. One pioneering project stands out as the source of much of this prosperity: the Erie Canal. While the Erie Canal preceded Henry Clay’s American System, the monumental undertaking no doubt served as motivation for Clay’s call for federal investment in internal improvements and helped to bind a nation at a time when distance raised the possibility of disunion.

The story of the Erie Canal is found in elementary social studies curricula throughout the nation, and, at the high school level, knowledge of the Erie Canal is imperative to understanding the wide-ranging impacts of the Market Revolution that swept America in the years following the War of 1812. Our week-long examination of the Erie Canal will harvest the necessary context to study the larger themes of how advancements in transportation, communication, and engineering change not only the economy but the political climate, social interactions, and the culture of a people.

Participants can expect to study the Erie Canal through a variety of disciplines and visits to a number of historical sites. The themes that this workshop will focus on include:

The historical context in which the Erie Canal was conceived and the political debates surrounding the project

  • Dr. Tamara Plakins Thornton of the University at Buffalo will lecture and facilitate discussion on these topics at N.C.C.C.

The construction and engineering challenges of building the Canal

  • Mr. Gerard Koeppel, author of the most recent narrative on the building of the Erie Canal, will lecture and facilitate discussion on these topics at N.C.C.C.
  • Summer Scholars will cruise along the Canal, traveling through the only set of double-locks on the Canal in Lockport, NY
  • Summer Scholars will visit two sites in Syracuse, NY:
    the Erie Canal Museum, home to the only existing weighlock building in the United States
    the Erie Canal Park in nearby Camillus, home to a restored aqueduct running over Nine-Mile Creek.

The social and cultural impact of the Canal on the residents of upstate New York and the nation as a whole

  • Dr. Tamara Plakins Thornton will lead participants through a discussion (at N.C.C.C.) of Carol Sheriff’s The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1824 and offer a lecture on her own research into emerging capitalist culture in the 19th century
  • Dr. Roger Hecht of SUNY Oneonta will lead participants through a discussion of his book Erie Canal Reader, 1790-1850 at N.C.C.C. Dr. Hecht’s work features a diverse array of literary reflections from 19th and early 20th century authors on the Canal
  • Summer Scholars will visit the University at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery where the curatorial staff will uncover how the Erie Canal was depicted in the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. In particular, scholars will study George Harvey’s “Pittsford on the Erie Canal” (the painting featured as the header of this website)
  • Dr. Daniel Ward of the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse will help address labor history by leading participants through an exhibit on role of Irish immigrants in constructing and operating the Erie Canal

The economic impact of the Canal (with particular emphasis on Buffalo)

  • Dr. F. Daniel Larkin of SUNY Oneonta will lecture and facilitate discussion on the economic impact and subsequent decline of the Erie Canal at N.C.C.C.
  • Summer Scholars will travel to downtown Buffalo to take a tour, led by Preservation Buffalo Niagara, of the canal harbor, Buffalo’s famous grain elevators, and the iconic architecture of downtown that was a product of the economic boom Buffalo experienced thanks to the Erie Canal.

How best to integrate the Erie Canal in the elementary or secondary classroom

  • Dr. F. Daniel Larkin of SUNY Oneonta will lead scholars through his book Erie Canal, New York’s Gift to the Nation, a Document-based Teacher Resource. The book contains a diverse array of sources (including maps, drawings, blueprints, paintings, photographs) and will be a valuable resource as participants design a document project that can be used in their classroom.
  • Dr. Lorrei DiCamillo, Professor of Education at Canisius College will facilitate discussion of primary source best practices and be on hand to assist summer scholars as they develop a classroom resource aligned to the Common Core Standards.