by Anton Chaitkin

Printed in the American Almanac, December, 1989

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Engineer Robert Fulton, anxious to guard America's newly won independence, told his countrymen to use the method of ancient China: build a system of artificial waterways for internal commerce.

In his 1796 "Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation", Fulton said that China's status as a great nation was due largely to the grand canal, commissioned centuries before by the central Chinese government. Farmers received supplies, and sent food to city dwellers, on the canal. Like a healthy main blood-artery, the 800 mile canal unified China by promoting prosperous trade throughout the kingdom.

Since China could feed and clothe its workers without imports, it could keep free of foreign control.

Encouraged by Benjamin Franklin and President George Washington, Fulton learned canal-building in England from Franklin's old friends, creative engineers whose careers had been stifled by the British police. Fulton then campaigned for rapid American national growth through a canal system of both state and private enterprise. The republic needed beneficial private companies, Fulton said, which must differ from the British East "India [opium sellers] or Guinea [slave traders] Company...who blindly extirpate one half of the human race to enrich the other."

In those days the British Navy policed all the oceans, preventing other nations' commercial development. With American secret service money provided by Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton went to France and designed submarines intended to sink the British Imperial fleet.

Back in America, Fulton crusaded for industrial and military strength through waterway development. The world remembers him chiefly for building the first commercially successful steamboat, in 1807. He then campaigned for the building of a canal to open the American interior. This great project was postponed as America entered its second war against imperial Britain in 1812, and Fulton built crude steam frigates for the tiny U.S. navy.

Robert Fulton died in 1815, just as the state government of New York began construction of the Erie Canal. Fulton had accurately predicted the wonderful effect of the China-model project on America's national power. Completed 10 years later, the Erie Canal instantly created new cities and farming regions in New York State, opened the west to settlement, and made New York City rich with the products of the whole country.

More canals were then built by the national and state governments. New settlers moved immediately into the regions of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin along the lines of the new canals. They were now in cheap and fast communication with suppliers in the East and with markets around the world. The canal-born pioneer settlements soon became the agricultural and industrial center of the American economy.

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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.

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