Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation

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"The history of the Erie Canal is a story of American ingenuity. A great project that Thomas Jefferson judged to be "little short of madness," and that others compared with going to the moon, soon turned into one of the most successful and influential public investments in American history." "In Wedding of the Waters, best-selling author Peter L. Bernstein recounts the canal's creation within the larger tableau of a youthful America in the first quarter-century of the 1800s. Leaders of the fledgling nation had quickly recognized that the
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Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation

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Overview

"The history of the Erie Canal is a story of American ingenuity. A great project that Thomas Jefferson judged to be "little short of madness," and that others compared with going to the moon, soon turned into one of the most successful and influential public investments in American history." "In Wedding of the Waters, best-selling author Peter L. Bernstein recounts the canal's creation within the larger tableau of a youthful America in the first quarter-century of the 1800s. Leaders of the fledgling nation had quickly recognized that the Appalachian mountain range was a formidable obstacle to uniting the Atlantic states with the vast lands of the west. A pathway for commerce as well as travel was critical to the security and expansion of the Revolution's unprecedented achievement." Bernstein examines the social ramifications, political squabbles, and economic risks and returns of this mammoth project. He goes on to demonstrate how the canal's creation helped bind the western settlers in the new lands to their fellow Americans in the original colonies, knitted the sinews of the American industrial revolution, and even influenced profound economic change in Europe.

"The account of how the Erie Canal forever changed the course of American history"--Provided by publisher.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Jonathan Yardley
A great deal has been written about the canal but relatively little in recent years, so Wedding of the Waters is a valuable history lesson for people -- i.e., most of us -- who have forgotten about the canal or never knew about it in the first place. Bernstein, an economist who has written a number of books that attempt with considerable success to address complex subjects for a general readership, gives the story of the canal's conception and construction all the drama it deserves, and -- as is suggested by the quotation above -- puts it into larger perspective. Almost certainly it is no exaggeration to say that the United States wouldn't be what it is today had it not been for the Erie Canal; it was the Interstate Highway System of the 19th century, and its impact was comparable if not even greater.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
First proposed in 1808 and completed 17 years later, the Erie Canal was the first great feat of macroengineering undertaken by the infant American republic. As economic consultant Bernstein (Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk) shows in his eloquent account, the canal-stretching 363 miles from the Hudson River to Lake Erie-reshaped not only the economic landscape of the eastern seaboard but the political and social landscape as well. Bernstein vividly relates the political battles fought over the high-priced project and the work of surveyors, engineers and laborers. The canal was in particular an economic engine for New York, bringing down the cost of shipping goods between Buffalo and Manhattan by a whopping 90%. This in turn inspired the development of farms throughout the Great Lakes area and the Upper Midwest. At the same time, prices for farm commodities in Manhattan and other eastern cities dropped steadily, facilitating the growth of industrial workforces and a dramatic shift in the urban-to-rural ratio toward the cities. Bernstein does a first-rate job of examining the social, political and economic impact of the canal both as a construction project and as a viable path linking the Atlantic seaboard with the American interior. 20 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
The Erie Canal stretches for 363 miles, from Albany to Buffalo. Its construction was a major event in American history: by creating a water link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River, the Erie Canal dramatically accelerated the development of the American interior, linked the Midwest and the East together in an economic and political unit that would dominate American political life for 150 years, and made New York the greatest city in the hemisphere (and, some would say, the world). It also vastly accelerated the development of American capital markets and for the first time attracted substantial foreign capital to infrastructure projects, which would play a vital role in future industrial development. Meanwhile, all this was carried out by a New York State government in the midst of a chaotic series of changes, as rapid immigration and the arrival of universal (white) manhood suffrage made early nineteenth-century New York City the laboratory of American democracy. Bernstein is at his best when describing the engineering and technological innovations that made the canal possible, and his treatment of the financial engineering necessary to fund this enormous project is also very sound. If he is less successful at recreating the political context of the times, that is at least partly because the politics were so tumultuous. In any case, Wedding of the Waters is an important window into a vital and too often neglected period in the American past.
Library Journal
Bernstein, an economist notable for his popular writing (e.g., the best-selling Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk), links technological feats and bodies of water in the spirit of storytellers David McCullough (on the Panama Canal) and Ken Burns (on the Brooklyn Bridge). With all the enthusiasm of a young scholar, Bernstein traces the story of the Erie Canal by focusing on the impact of personalities such as Scottish surveyor Cadwallader Colden, Irish mechanic Christopher Colles, and popular politician and promoter De Witt Clinton. Bernstein's theme is that the waterway was pivotal in constructing an east-west axis for the movement of goods, people, ideas, and, ultimately, economic growth and globalization. The influx of New Englanders and New Yorkers into such cities as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Chicago led to urbanization and industrialization, which put the North squarely ahead of the South by the time of the Civil War. This predominantly descriptive text is supplemented by annotations and a bibliography, while eyewitness accounts of what canal travel was actually like add considerably to this handsome book's appeal. Recommended for general audiences. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/04.]-Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Crisp, insightful history of the canal that transformed New York into the Empire State and the US into an economic powerhouse. Stretching 363 miles from Buffalo on Lake Erie to Albany on the Hudson River, the Erie Canal was the technological marvel of its age. Its celebrated opening in 1825 culminated a century of effort by dreamers, tinkerers, merchants, and politicians who sought to build an artificial waterway linking the trans-Appalachian region to the Atlantic seaboard. Bernstein (The Power of Gold, 2000, etc.) deftly lays out those efforts. In the young republic, canal-building often failed. George Washington's attempt to create one along the Potomac River, for instance, was a financial disaster, later prompting Thomas Jefferson to dismiss the idea of a canal to the west as "little short of madness." It took brilliant, hard-nosed New York governor DeWitt Clinton to push the Erie Canal through a thicket of obstacles, including lack of financial assistance by the federal government or any sister state, the War of 1812, and nine years of stalemate in the state legislature. Bernstein also pays full tribute to lesser-known managers and often-anonymous workers who improvised methods of hacking the canal's path through the wilderness. Two project engineers, Benjamin Wright and James Geddes, had been judges and surveyors before assuming their posts, but went on to eminent careers in their new field. Financing the canal proved equally novel, with New York State selling bonds to the public at large and even to foreign financial markets. Along with the canal's well-known effects on the state and national economy (e.g., reducing the trip from Albany to Buffalo from 32 days to 5), Bernstein alsohighlights its social impact and larger national implications as the Midwest became tied to the free North rather than the slaveholding South in a vast commercial network. One corner of the great American panorama enlarged to highlight its starry-eyed visionaries, political machinations, indefatigable ingenuity, and cockeyed optimism. (20 line drawings, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393052336
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/2005
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter L. Bernstein, the financial historian, wrote nine books, including the worldwide bestseller Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2005

    Packed with Knowledge!

    From a modern perspective, a ditch allowing barges to travel between Rust Belt cities in upstate New York hardly seems the stuff of high drama. But well-regarded economist and historian Peter L. Bernstein accomplishes the tough task of making readers care about the Erie Canal, the massive public works project that he believes changed the course of U.S. and world politics and trade. This compelling study portrays the waterway as a project involving enough risk and adventure to make a dot-com entrepreneur pale. Bernstein girds its history with ample modern-day perspectives to keep you interested. He does bog down at times in the arcane convolutions of early nineteenth century political disputes, but still spins a mostly fascinating yarn. We recommend this book to anyone looking for insight into this pivotal point in America¿s - and, perhaps, the world¿s - economic development.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2005

    How Infrastructure Changed History

    This book fully delivered on its promise of, 'The epic account of how one narrow robbon of water forever changed the course of American history.' As we stand at the real beginning of the Information Revolution, this book gives thought-provoking insight to how the execution of 'big' ideas can and does change history.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2005

    Superb Work!!

    I live in an area that the Erie Canal runs through and have all my life. I will never look at the Canal the same again. This book was complete and insightful. I could hardly put the book down it was so well written. The book really does a great job of weaving together the whole picture of the wide influence of the Canal.

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