The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 3, Part 2

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

There were many great New Yorkers among the Clinton faction. Samuel Jones, known "by common consent as the Father of the New York Bar," and as well versed in the principles of government as of law, supported the Governor. John Lansing was faithful; Melanchton Smith took leading place as of yore; and Gilbert Livingston, who had driven the last nails into the Clinton coffin at the Poughkeepsie convention was now determined to d o his utmost, by ready eloquence, to draw them out again, seeing that the Governor was still politically alive. James Clinton, brother of the Governor, and father of DeWitt Clinton, was helpful, having many friends. Indeed, there were many who would have [preferred to see James Clinton, instead of George, in the Governorship.

All previous gubernatorial campaigns were apathetic, by comparison with that between Clinton and Yates. The fight was short, sharp, bitter. "Veteran observers declared that their generation had seen nothing like it." For six weeks, political passions raged. Jay, who had not exerted himself in his own interests in 1777, now worked indefatigably for Yates. Many other worked as hard, but all efforts were futile. The arguments of Duer, the prestige of Livingston, the renown of Hamilton, and the subtleties of Burr were likewise unavailing. Many votes were won from Clinton, but not sufficient. The attitude of the Clinton leaders: "men, not principle," held many staunch Federalists to their former support of the Governor. To many voters, there was no National issue. The Constitutional matter had been disposed of in convention, so why should they now desert the man who had cared for the affairs of their State since its first days? Moreover, Clinton had proved himself to be a good executive, whereas Yates had had no administrative experience.

So, in April, 1789, Clinton was elected Governor, for the fifth consecutive time. The election figures did not especially elate him. Indeed, as he soon afterwards showed, he viewed the situation with some apprehension. As a matter of act, Yates had almost unseated him, and would have been Governor, had not Clinton received four-fifths of the votes cast in his home county. Ulster Count's vote for Clinton was 1.093 our of 1,245 cast, giving him a State majority of 429 in a total vote of 12,353. So Clinton had some cause to look three years ahead. He did so without delay. Master politician that he was, he lost no time after election in strengthening his bridges, to withstand the deluge of Federalism that he thought might come in 1792. Clinton as a master-craftsman, fallen bridges he would rebuild. He would not manifest vindictive thoughts against those of his former leaders who had supported Yates; he would win them back. He had no reason for gloom as to his ability to draw then back, her, for in his possession was the powerful magnet, State patronage. The power of appointment to State offices was not altogether his, of course, but his recommendations were generally followed by the Council of Appointment. Had Clinton wished to avenge himself upon Yates, he might easily have done so; yet he raised no objection to the promotion of the latter to the Chief Justiceship in September, 1790. He was glad to see John Lansing, Jr., step into the Associate Justiceship vacated by Yates, notwithstanding that Lansing, of late, had been showing independent spirit. Clinton showed even greater diplomacy when he made Aaron Burr his Attorney-General.

Burr, who had never been drawn to Hamilton during their young soldiering days, had in some respects paralleled the career of the Federalist leader. He was a year or so older than Hamilton. Like the latter, he had studied law in Albany and had later removed to New York City. He had served in the Legislature, and had succeeded at the bar. The instinctive dislike of Burr that as felt by Hamilton at their first meeting, during the retreat of Washington's army from Manhattan, in September 1776, had never been eradicated. Hamilton, who as then beginning to come closer to Washington and to see his nobleness of character as well as his soldierly qualities, had resented and never forgotten the disparaging words uttered against his commander-in-chief by Major Burr, who was then aide of General Putnam. There was never anything in common between them, and there was not the remotest chance that acquaintanceship could ever ripen into friendship. They saw al things from different angles. Hamilton was frank, with clean thoughts and noble purposes; Burr was secretive, with envious thoughts and craft purposes. Washington's aide, with the; blessed kindliness that comes to unselfish minds, could find genuine happiness in seeing noble qualities in others; Putnam's aide, with the blight that comes of selfishness, could recognize no good in anyone, friend or foe. Hamilton's heart could go out to others; burr's seemed to shrink even from himself. Hamilton gloried in the light of day; burr instinctively sought the shades of night. Such characters could not possibly blend. The great Federalist's political principles had never been ambiguously stated, but Burr had always been a political enigma. Especially during the months of the Constitutional fight in New York were Burr's methods secretive. "In the political parlance of today, burr's methods savored of the 'still-hunt,' and in their exercise he exhibited divisions among his rivals. His methods, whether practiced in law or in politics, were neither modern, nor moral. He marshaled forced with equal celerity under either flag." #10

Plastic Politics-- Clinton, who had few equals among master-politicians, had not failed to observe Burr's almost uncanny influence over a certain type of political follower during the campaign just ended. He stood in need of such a man, one who customarily "lived in an air of mystery, writing letters in cipher, using messengers instead of the mails, and maintaining espionage upon the movements of others.' Burr had, indeed, come more into the open in supporting Yates than he had ever done before; and it was seen that he had behind him a party of young men who would follow him anywhere. Clinton imagined, too, that Burr would always place ambition before honor; that he was of elastic political scruple, although at that time he may not have seen what he later openly avowed--that Burr was always "for sale." The Governor can hardly have placed implicit confidence in him at any time. Still, the distrust was mutual, it seems, for Burr later declared that Clinton had always been his rival. However, the alliance was made; and, as Attorney-General, the talented, ambitious Burr passed into the Clinton camp.

During his fifth term as governor, Clinton planned with consummate skill, regaining much lost ground. Yet, to slips made by his principal opponent, Hamilton, must be attributed much of the success of the Anti-Federalist leader. Hamilton was not a good political manger. For clear vision he needed the light of day. He could not even grope his way along the tortuous subterranean passages to office followed with sure step by the politician. Like Clinton, Hamilton held in his land a magnet to which most publicists of ulterior motives were sensitive. True, it had not been the strength of Clinton's, for Federal patronage was not nearly so extensive as that which Clinton's dispensed for the State. However, such as it was, it was in Hamilton's keeping--apolitical weapon which he might have used to selfish advantage, had he been a political rather than a statesman. Following the inauguration of General Washington, as President of the United States, on April 30, 1789, Hamilton was given control of Federal offices in New York.

It can hardly be suggested that Hamilton was unaware that in the filling of these offices he might strengthen the bonds of the Federalists party; and it must be supposed that, so far as he was able, Hamilton ever kept this factor in mind, when dispensing patronage. Considerations of party would undoubtedly have some weight, yet a man of his type would hardly follow the thought to the extent of recommending for appointment any unfit candidate. Ability to administer the National office well was the prime qualification that Hamilton looked for. He made several excellent selections; yet in one or two other cases the decisions made developed discord instead of harmony in Federalist circles. One appointment in particular--that of John Jay to the Chief Justiceship of the United States Supreme Court--offended a very powerful faction in New York. Of course, the filling of this high office was hardly one of those placed in Hamilton's keeping. He had always been very close to Jay, respecting and esteeming him more perhaps than he did any other New York publicist, yet it is doubtful whether Hamilton could have prevented the appointment of the great jurist had he wished to, for Washington himself seems to have early marked out Jay for the Federal judiciary. Nevertheless, his appointment shook the party in New York, and sent one great Federalist eventually into the enemy's camp, filled with resentment against Hamilton, the "young adventurer," the "merchant's clerk from the West Indies."

The schism was not at once evident, the break coming when another affront--this time unquestionably by Hamilton--brought the Livingston clan into indignant conclave; but the seat of the animosity seems to have been in the preferment of Jay. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who had had the honor of administering the Presidential oath of office to General Washington, was keenly disappointed that he, himself, had not been promoted to the Federal judiciary. The Livingston family felt that, if the honor came to New York at all, it would have come to a Livingston. Had not Robert R. Livingston, as chancellor of the New York State Court of Chancery, always been senior to John Jay, Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court? Again, was not the Livingston family the leading one of New York--in wealth positively, and in political influence probably? Had any other family, in past or present generations, done more for the people of New York? Had any other clan aided Federalism more in New York?

It certainly does seem unexplainable that no Federal office at all fell to any of the Livingstons, all of whom were of superior education and some of whom were of distinct capability in public affairs. Prudence should have suggested to Federalist leaders that the family be not over-looked in the dispensing of Federal honors. As the chief Justiceship had been bespoken by Washington for Jay, a Livingston might have been thought of for United States Senator. But the Schuyler family was recognized. Philip Schuyler was father-in-law of Hamilton, and the latter might, therefore, be charged with partiality in the choice. Of course, Schuyler was only given the short term and would have to stand for election in 1791. The Livingstons showed further umbrage at the selection of Rufus King as the other United States Senator. King was almost a stranger. He had barely been resident within the State for a year, coming from Massachusetts and marrying the daughter of a wealthy New York City merchant. Rufus King had represented another State, served as boundary commissioners for Massachusetts against New York. It seemed preposterous to the Livingstons that he should have been given the Senatorship, for the long term. Again, the Livingstons were not thought of for the diplomatic service of the Nation. Thomas Pinckney went to England, as minister, Gouverneur Morris to France, William Short to Spain, and David Humphrey to Portugal.

Maybe, the Livingston would have drifted away from Federalism in any event. Being the wealthiest family in New York, the wealthiest of States, the Livingstons were vitally interested in Federal and State finance. They did not take enthusiastically to Hamilton's funding system, especially the proposed assumption of State debts. Indeed, they openly opposed Federalist policy, showing such positive resentment against Hamilton that it required very little more to turn the whole family permanently Anti-Federalist. It was not until it seemed that the Federalist would lose altogether, and permanently, the support of the Livingston faction, that Washington sought to mend matters by offering Chancellor Livingston the mission to France. But it was then too late. The honor was "almost indignantly declined."

Clinton and Burr had noticed, probably with much satisfaction, the increasing defection in the ranks of the Federalists, especially the estrangement of the Livingstons and Hamilton, and the rupture between the Livingston and Schuyler families. When it became evident that Senator Schuyler had been promised another full term, Robert R. Livingston declared that thereafter the Livingston family should show no favors to Hamilton, or to the Federalist party, so long as he dominated it. Clinton and burr were quick to seize the opportunity. They were at once with Livingston in determining to defeat Schuyler, though Clinton could not get full cooperation from Chancellor Livingston until he promised that Morgan Lewis, the chancellor's brother-in-law, should have the Attorney-Generalship, soon, it was hoped, to be vacated by Aaron Burr. The latter was to oppose Schuyler for the United States Senatorship.

The compact was made, and the proud old general, Schuyler, was defeated. To Hamilton it was a staggering blow. He had already conceived it possible that, in a Legislature which had a clear Federalists majority, an Anti-Federalist could be chosen. But of all the Livingstons faction--the most powerful Federalist group--only Philip Livingston had remained faithful to Hamilton. In the State Senate, the vote was twelve for burr and four for Schuyler. In the Assembly, Burr had a majority of five. A motion to reconsider, and substitute the name of Egbert Benson for that of Burr, failed.

So Clifton's star, as he neared the end of his firth term as Governor, was still bright. Perhaps, it would be more correct to state that the star of his party was still in the ascendancy, for there were moments when an ominous haze dimmed his own. Strange to say, the cause lay in the bedimming efforts of a brilliant new orb which he had himself done so much to set in the political firmament. Aaron Burr was again concentrating his talents on destruction. Ever ambitious, he planned to obliterate Governor Clinton and shine in his place. To gain the Governorship, Burr, indeed, would not hesitate to rally again with the Federalists, and there were many of both parties who seemed willing to support Burr against Clinton. As Ledyard wrote to Hamilton, "a tide was likely to make strongly for Mr. Burr." Another argued that the chance of Burr was "strong," if supported by Federalists.

Unfortunately, the fortunes of the Federalist Party in New York stood at a cheerless mark at the time. Still, the great Federalist would not for a moment be drawn to the Burr way of strengthening its resources. If ever Hamilton permitted personal animosity to smother party advantage, it would be, it seems, in cases where Burr was the subject of consideration. The federalists were in sore straits for a candidate, but burr could not be considered. "Hamilton deliberately snuffed him out," and on February 13, 1792, persuaded John Jay to become the Federalist candidate.

The Abuse of Power--Antipathy to Burr was not Hamilton's only reason,, for undoubtedly Jay was generally esteemed. Burr would always be distrusted, and Jay always respected. Jay's long course in political and public life had always been straight, but the short career of Burr had been tortuous and unreliable. Some, however, may have uneasily remembered that Jay had already been defeated for the governorship. True, he had not exerted himself. Indeed, in 1786 and 1789, he seemed to prefer the office he held under the Confederation, that of Secretary for Foreign Affairs; and the federal status he held in 1792, that of Chief-Justice of the United States, was even more to his liking. Moreover, he cared little for the emoluments of office. As Jay once remarked: "A servant should not leave a good old master for the sale of more pay or a prettier livery." #11 At last, Hamilton's arguments prevailed, and jay agreed to vacate the federal judiciary, if elected Governor of his own State. It is inferred that, although money could not draw Jay from the chief-justiceship, the thought that he might step from the governorship of the State to that of the Nation was alluring, even to a man who, up to now, had seemed to have no ambition but to help, as best he could, in making law and order, peace and prosperity, prevail in State and Nation.

New York City was Jay's stronghold. It is said that "there had never been a time since John Jay entered public life that he was not the most popular man in the city." #12 His record was without blemish, was indeed as meritorious as that of any other publicist in State or Nation. As a diplomat, he had been shrewd, convincing, effective, had shown that he had, as Adams remarked, "an old head on young shoulders." As a jurist, he had organized the first judicial system of both State and Nation. He had helped, appreciably, to lay the constitutional bases of both. Hamilton possessed a more magnetic personality, was more eloquent and so came more into public notice, but Jay was sounder in theory. On more than one occasion he curbed Hamilton's impetuosity, which would have led the party into actions somewhat imprudent and ineffective. Those who knew Jay well were willing, in fact delighted, that he should be the gubernatorial candidate in 1792, notwithstanding that he would take no personal part in the campaign.

Jay continued to devote his whole time to his judicial responsibilities, which, indeed, were so arduous as to demand almost he whole of his time. At that time, the Supreme court justices--even the chief-justice--had to hold circuit court. John Jay's was a wide circuit, and the greater part of his time was spent in the saddle. Without neglecting his office, therefore, he could not enter actively into the political campaign. But there were very many who took up cudgels for him. "Seldom has an election been contested with such prodigality of partisan fury. The rhetoric of abuse was vigorous and unrestrained; the campaign lie active and ingenious; the arraignment of class against class sedulous and adroit; and the excitement most violent and memorable. If a weapon of political warfare failed to be handled with craft and with courage, its skillful use was unknown."

There was good reason for the partisan heat. Epochal issues were being threshed out in those formative days. The American republic, the first in the world, at least of modern times, had had to fight against prejudices and customs as strenuously as the colonists had fought for heir constitutions liberty." "Federalists and anti-federalists were alike convulsed by a movement which was the offspring of a genuine and irresistible enthusiasm of that strong far-reaching kind that makes epochs in the history of politics. The people, having cut loose from royalty, now proposed cutting loose form silk stockings, knee breeches, powered hair, pigtails, shoe buckles and ruffled shorts--the emblems of nobility. Perhaps they did not then care for the red plush waistcoats, the yarn stockings, and the slippers down at the heel, which Jefferson was to carry into the White House; but in their effort to overthrow the tyranny of the past, they were beginning to demand broader suffrage and less ceremony, a large freer man, and less caste. To them, therefore, Jay and Clinton represented the aristocrat and the democrat. Jay, some pointed out, had been nurtured in the lap of ease, Clinton had worked his way from the most humble rank; Jay luxuriated in splendid courts, Clinton dwelt in the home of the lowly son of toil; Jay was the choice of the rich, Clinton the man of the people; Jay relied upon the support of the President and Secretary of the Treasury; Clinton upon the poor villager and the toiling farmer. #13 Of course, these comparisons were untrue, or grotesquely distorted; they were merely the exaggerations of the Clinton campaigners.

Undoubtedly, Jay was more aristocratic than Clinton; and he may have said, as newspapers of that time charged him with saying, that "there ought to be in America only two sorts of people, one very rich, the other very poor." It followed his theory of manorial life. Moreover, the State Constitution, which was almost wholly Jay's work, clearly demonstrated that he wish to establish for his State a restriction of popular suffrage, in keeping with his oft-quoted maxim that "those who own the country out to govern it." Clinton should hardly have been looked upon as a man of the people. Except that Jay's connections were wealthier and more exclusive, both candidates were of the same class.

However, at such times, political utterances are not closely analyzed. Comparison must be made between candidates. Logic and truth are not demanded, so long as the differences in characteristics and policy is so pronounced as to be pleasing to the ear. The Clintonians had not to altogether depend upon personalities. The assumption of State debts and the unproved financial system proposed by Hamilton came under the lash of the anti-Federalists. The demagogue would go into paroxysms of frenzied condemnation of financiers, good or bad; indeed, in their estimation, all were bad. The time was certainly an unhappy one for the Federalists. To Hamilton's financial policy was traced the "reign of speculators" that prevailed in the year 1791. The anti-Federalist newspaper, the "New York Journal," painted an appalling word-picture. "Bank bubbles, tontines, lotteries, monopolies, usury, gambling and swindling abound; poverty in the country, luxury in the capitals, corruption and usurpation in the national councils." All were attributable to Hamilton's financial follies, which seemed especially aimed at submerging the State, so as to bring the Nation above water. Hamilton's plans were "dangerous to liberty,' the assumption of State debts was "a clever devise for enslaving the people"; the whole fiscal system was a "dishonest scheme." William Duer, Hamilton's assistant at the treasury, had become to seriously implicated in speculative failures that riots had occurred in New York City. Duer went down to discredit, insolvency and imprisonment, and, although Hamilton had not the remotest connection with Duer, in the latter's speculative endeavors, the anti-Federalist in 1791 did not hesitate to make political capital out of the association of the two in the treasury office. The shade of Duer for the moment shrouded Hamilton, bringing doubt into people's minds and suspicion of all the acts of both.

Of course, the anti-Federalists were not the only politicians to stoop top misrepresentation; Federalists could be just as untruthfully partisan. They could bring Clinton also into the shades of doubt, by references to and inferences of his use of State patronage. Moreover, they charged the Governor with fraud, asserting that he had secretly profited by the sale of public lands. For instance, 3,635,200 acres of land had been sold to a friend of Clinton, for speculation, at eight pence an acre, which was only one-fourth as much as had been obtained for other public lands. Legislative investigations had sent this fiend, McComb, to jail, and had seriously implicated Clinton., Federalists made the utmost of the exposure., "It mattered not that the Governor denied it; that McComb contradicted it; that no proof supported it; or that the Assembly acquitted him by a party vote of thirty-five to twenty; the story did effective campaign service, and lived to torture Aaron Burr, one of the (land) commissioners, ten year afterwards."

The Livingstons were in the hottest of the political affrays against Jay. DeWitt Clinton also had part in the campaign. He was not yet in office, but destined soon to become a greater political force than any other man of his time in New York, save Hamilton. Several other young publicists, who later were to rise to high places in the service of the State or Nation, began their political activities in this campaign, or were in their first years in pubic life. James Kent, the Great Commentator, had just entered the Assembly; Ambrose Spencer, who became Chief-justice, was just at the threshold of his public career; Smith Thompson, who was to advance in public life until he reached cabinet office and eventually the United States Supreme Court judiciary, was being tutored in politics by Clinton. Other young men who were active in this campaign included Cadwallader A. Colden, grandson of Cadwallader Colden, the botanist-physician-statesman who, for the last fifteen years of the Crown period had seemed to be always in office as acting-governor, was just beginning at the bar; Erastus Root was a junior at Dartmouth; Daniel E. Tompkins had just entered Columbia College; and the brilliant cousins of Van Ness were beginning to follow political affiliations that led one to the support of Hamilton eventually and the other to act as second to Aaron Burr in the duel which robbed America of the Great Federalist, in 1804.

Every political strategy seemed to have been resorted to; yet, in the election, Jay triumphed. At least, he received a majority of the votes cast. But, surprising as it may now seem, this did not bring him the governorship. The first vicious practice that came to besmirch party record, and to establish unenviable precedent in the State of New York was now seen. No subsequent electioneering irregularity "was ruder or more outrageously wrong" then the first, 1792. It appears that the law required inspectors of election to seal the ballots and deliver them to the sheriff or his deputy, who was required to carry them to the Secretary of State. Unquestionably the sheriffs of Otsego, Tioga and Clinton counties acted somewhat irregularly in the delivery, but not with dishonest intent. Notwithstanding this, and that no ballots were musing, that no seals were broken, and that delivery had not been delayed for a moment, advantage of the opportunity to reject these ballots was taken, as won as it became known that they gave Jay a majority sufficient to make him Governor. The canvassing committee of the legislature, whose duty it was to count all the votes, ruled out the returns of these counties. The discussion had, however, became so bitter that the committee finally resolved to refer the matter to United States Senators Burr and King for decision. Aaron burr would have preferred to shirk this duty; he would have like someone else to decide the matter, for he held no firm political opinions other than a determination to gain advancement for himself through the aid of either party. King, however, was of more commendable scruples, and did not hesitate to give his opinion. As there had been no pretense of wrong-doing, he thought it preposterous to disfranchise a whole county. On the other hand, Burr considered that statutory law should be construed literally, and as Smith's term as sheriff of Otsego County had expired, Smith could not lawfully depute any man to deliver the ballots notwithstanding that the county then had no other sheriff.

With the Senators thus deadlocked, only Clinton, as Governor, could prevent judgment being rendered by an obviously partisan board, but he remained silent. The canvassing committee therefore acted upon their former vote, and ejected the returns of the three counties. Hence it happened that the official count of the votes cast throughout the State gave Clinton a majority of 108 (Clinton 8,440 votes; Jay, 8,332). Then, as though "to destroy all evidence of their shame," the rejected ballots were burned. Burr later in a latter to a Federalist friend, explained that "the conduct of Mr. King" had left him no alternative but to give an opinion; and much as he regretted that he had had to favor Clinton, from whom he did not "expect friendship," and who had "too many reasons to believe" regarded him "with jealousy and malevolence," he could not have acted otherwise.

It soon became known throughout the State, and elsewhere, that Jay had been "counted out." The reaction was prompt and ominous. The "people of the State were aroused to the wildest passion of rage." The will of the people had been overturned by seven men--a partisan body. An outraged party was beside itself. Otsego County threatened to appeal to arms. "People are running in continually," wrote Mrs. Jay to her husband, "to vent their vexation." Senator King though Clinton was "as lawfully Governor of Connecticut as of New York." Yet he know of no redress, and, with Hamilton, counselled peaceful submission. Meanwhile Chief-Justice Jay was returning from Vermont. At Lansingburgh he was met, and from that point to New York City his progress was marked by such demonstrations of popularity as left no room for doubt as to the attitude of the populace, and of their intentions. "Though abuse of power may for a time deprive you and the citizens o their rights," said one welcoming committee, "we trust the sacred flame of liberty is not so far extinguished in the bosoms of Americans as tamely to submit to the shackles of slavery, without at least a struggle to shake them off."

With a dignity and forbearance that were characteristic of him, Jay maintained admirable poise during this period of excitement. "The reflection that the majority of electors were for me is a pleasing one," he wrote to his wife; "that injustice has taken place does not surprise me, and I hope it will not affect you very sensibly. The intelligence found me perfectly prepared for it. A few more years will put in all in the dust, and it will then be of more importance to me to have governed myself than to have governed the State." He would countenance no armed resistance, and was opposed to partisan feeling. "Every consideration of propriety forbids that difference of opinion respecting candidates should suspend or interrupt that natural good humour which harmonizes society and softens the asperities incident to human life and human affairs." John Jay was a great American, fit to stand alongside Washington, fit to succeed him and, with seemly dignity, and unselfish purpose, hold the Nation to the true principles of liberty, for which Washington and his compatriots had risked all.

The Spoils System--When Clinton entered upon his sixth terms as Governor, his political winter had definitely set in. Roads along which he had earlier traveled in the warmth of appreciative welcome were not bleak, base, uninviting. The frosts of vituperation covered him. The chill of obloquy thinned his followers, sending many to other environments in search of warmth that they could not find near him. Clinton was discredited everywhere. The people condemned him and the aristocrats would extend no sympathy. He was known as the "Usurper," and his enemies resolved to make the office of Governor an empty shell. They would take away from the Governor the power of appointment.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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