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How the U.S. Constitution Flowed from a Long-Forgotten Canal

Photo of C & O canal south of Seneca.JPG

It was a balmy spring evening when I launched my kayak into Seneca Creek, about 15 minutes northwest of Potomac, Maryland.

The water was smooth. I glided under the red, sandstone arches of the nearly two-century old Seneca Creek Aqueduct. It’s a remnant of the old Chesapeake & Ohio canal that looks like a Roman ruin.

Then I paddled out into the wide Potomac River.

On the far side of the river, in Virginia, I found a mysterious-looking tunnel-like opening into the forested banks. I let my boat be drawn by the strong currents into a narrow and swiftly-flowing stream beneath a cathedral of tree branches.

Although it is hard to tell because it’s so overgrown, I was passing down a man-made waterway – a canal -- a generation older than the much better-known C & O Canal.

It’s sometimes called the Virginia Canal, or the George Washington canal. Just after the Revolutionary War, but before becoming President, George Washington was a businessman. And he founded the Potomac Company (also spelled as the “Potowmack” Company) in 1785 to develop a massive canal project what he dreamed would be the superhighway and economic engine of its time.

Washington convinced investors to pour money into his grand vision of linking the plantations and cities in the East – including his own Mount Vernon on the Potomac -- to the vast, newly-conquered Indian lands in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes. And he wanted to use cutting-edge technology – which, at the time, was men and mules digging a ditch -- to bypass the waterfalls and rapids that make much of the Potomac River non-navigable.

Some of Washington’s motivation may have been patriotic. He believed that his young nation could persuade settlers in the Ohio Valley to side with America, instead of the British in Canada or the Spanish in New Orleans, if they could ship their goods to Virginia, down his Potomac Canal.

But some of Washington’s motivation was also financial. He was a real-estate speculator, and he owned tracts of land in the Ohio Valley, stolen from the Native Americans at gunpoint, that he wanted to flip to other white investors. He knew his land would be more profitable if a canal connected it to the markets in the East.

So his Potomac Company used slaves and hired laborers to build a series of five locks and canals – including this one, around the Seneca Rapids – along several miles of the Potomac west of Georgetown.

Although his company eventually went bankrupt, Washington’s energetic lobbying for the canal project brought us our modern American form of government. This is according to Duke University Professor Martin Doyle’s book, “The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers.”

The decentralized governing agreement that George Washington was trying to work under as a businessman in the 1780’s, called the Articles of Confederation, made interstate development projects like his canal almost impossible, according to Doyle’s book.

So Washington called together leaders from Virginia and Maryland to meet at his home in Mount Vernon to try to hammer out an agreement over commercial traffic on the Potomac River. Then, during a frustrating follow up meeting in Annapolis, the delegates concluded that it was the Articles of Confederation themselves that were damming up the works.

They called in more delegates from other states for a third meeting – this one, in Philadelphia in 1787, which produced the U.S. Constitution.

So that’s how our Constitution flowed from our rivers – and, more specifically, from a shady, long-forgotten canal beside the Potomac.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.