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Leibniz and the Erie Canal
by Glenn Mesaros

In September, 1820, DeWitt Clinton, Erie Canal Commissioner, stopped off in a little Dutch settlement named Olden Barneveld, on his sixth trip to supervise canal construction in upstate New York. Later he wrote in his famous Hibernicus Letters:

"Thus, my friend, I have made a great discovery. In a secluded, unassuming village, I have discovered the most learned man in America, cultivating, like our first parent, his beautiful and spacious garden with his own hands - cultivating literature and sciences - cultivating the virtues which adorn the fireside and the altar - cultivating the esteem of the wise and the good - and blessing with the radiations of his illumined and highly gifted mind, all who enjoy his conversation, and are honored by his correspondence."

Clinton called his meeting with Francis Adrian Van Der Kamp, and his associate, Adam Gerard Mappa, similar to "Plato's Symposium".

Francis Adrian Van der Kamp was the most genuine Leibnizian scholar in America, who had emigrated from his native Holland in 1787, after opposing the Orange Party and their Prussian allies. While he only served briefly in the Dutch army, the Orange Party banished Van der Kamp because they feared his pen and voice, since he was a Mennonite (Unitarian) preacher at Leyden.

He had studied at Groningen University under such scholars as de Rhoer, Schroeder, Le Sage, Ten Broeck, and Widder. He had mastered Botony, Ecclesiastical History, theology, and Greek. He had even been "tried" as a heretic while a student at Groningen.

Van der Kamp entered America in 1788 with letters of introduction from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and immediately visited Governor William Livingstone in Elizabethtown, N.J. ; Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia; Adriaan Valck, the United Provinces consul in Baltimore; and George Washington in Mount Veron.

In 1782, he had already published a "Sketch of the Life of Servetus", which exposed Calvin's early leaning towards Servetus' Arian heresy, and Calvin's later cruel persecution of Servetus. When exchanging voluminous correspondence with Dewitt Clinton, he had sent him a "sketch" of the life of Christ, in which he compared Christ's teachings with Jewish and Classical philosophy. "All, what is necessary to believe, and to be, must be so clearly revealed, as to be understood without difficulty by anyone of a sound judgement and a sincere heart."

Clinton, in return, provided his philospher friend, with the latest scientific, political, and literary phamphlets, and acted as a book agent to add to Van der Kamp's library of nearly 1400 books, which featured works by Leibniz that he shared with Clinton.

They had started corresponding in September, 1812, even before the historic 1815 meeting in New York City, which initiated the Erie Canal project. In his second letter to Clinton in 1812, he included a 270 page manuscript begun in 1800, entitled, "Researches on Various Parts of Buffon's and Jefferson's Theories in Natural History", which composition Chancellor Livingston had suggested.

In this essay, Van der Kamp exonerates Leibniz of Buffon's criticisms, and features extensive footnotes and quotes. He agrees with Leibniz's all wise consistent Deity. While this work remains unpublished in the Buffalo Historical Society, the Boston General Repository and Review did publish his " Moral and Physical Causes of of the Revolutionary Troubles during the 18th Century, and its probable consequences in both hemispheres".

Van der Kamp and Clinton were writing in a period in which scientific evidence seemingly contradicted Old Testament revelations. They spoke of sunspots and the chaotic history of geology and evolution, Van der Kamp praised the "all powerful wisdom of the Father of the Universe" and " if ... other scientific men were eminient orientalists - they would from the Mosaic accounts and the sublime outlines in Fabritius .. have brought light forward from darkness."

Directly inspired by Leibniz, Van der Kamp wrote of unifying the disparate theories of Vulcanists (volcanoes) and Neptunists (oceans), "It requires only an unprejudiced bold mind to bring both schemes in a perfect unison - worthy the exertions of one daring to aim at the first station of scientific eminence."

Clinton was practically concerned with geology, as his canal must cut through the ancient granite terrain traversing 300 miles between Albany and Buffalo, New York, between 1816 and 1825. Van der Kamp asked for information on granite petrifactions, hypothesizing, "Should there not exist, in the manner of our solar system, upon a more magnificent plan a general solar system - comprehending all the fixed stars in the universe? If we are immortal - destined once for higher action - may not the same Almighty, wise and good Being preside in a similar manner over the whole animal creation for a continual progress?"

Dewitt Clinton, a Republican like Jefferson, faced a political minefield in New York State in the opposition of the Federalists, since Hamilton's death, a traitorous force in America, plus the Tammany Hall cabal, and their misnamed "People's Party". Clinton himself had dueled with a Burr associate in 1802.

While Van der Kamp urged an international loan from Holland to finance construction, Clinton used auction duties, a salt tax, and the sale of lands extending on both sides of the canal to finance construction. Total costs were about $5 million dollars. British experts like their famous engineer Weston forecast three years alone to cut small sections, such as Little Falls, which only took three months in reality.

When Clinton surveyed the middle section completed, and thick with barge traffic in 1822, Van der Kamp reminded him of a letter he had written back in 1792, urging his new countrymen to "Go on then and dig canals through the western district, and be not afraid that a single hair be hurt on the head of its inhabitants by the waves of Lake Erie."

As the Canal neared completion, Tammany Hall and the Federalists combined forces to vote 64 - 34 in the New York legislature to oust Clinton as Canal commissioner. They did not account for a popular NATIONAL uprising in defense of Clinton, featuring mass meetings in Rochester, Geneva, and Buffalo, and editorials from Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Van der Kamp encouraged his friend, "A glorious exit, equal in renown to that of Aristides."

In November, 1824, New Yorkers elected De Witt Clinton governor, and defeated both the Federalists and the People's Party candidates. In 1825, Van der Kamp issued a ten page address of congratulations to Clinton to his fellow citizens, and compared the canal to the historic European canal of Lanquedoc, constructed by Colbert under Louis XIV.

In some last, prescient correspondence, Van der Kamp railed against slavery, " I always abhorred slavery, ... but suspected never that free enlightened
Englishmen could be guilty of such a heinous crime. Would to God that such a foul blot could be wiped from the American name - It must cause finally the ruin of the Southern states - if not soon some heroic medicine is applied."

Essay © 2008 Glenn Mesaros

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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