The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 4, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER IV
POLITICS IN NEW YORK STATE

First Years of Nineteenth Century

 

Jefferson versus Burr--Still, this result was no more positive a victory for the Republican party than had been anticipated in May, 1800, after the New York elections. Hence it seems that all the restless activities of Hamilton, all Federal disclosures, from May to December, had not changed the republican vote at all. Burr had rested easily since May, confident of the future. He had permitted others to exhaust themselves while he reserved all his strength for the great effort. It is true that he helped to enmesh Clinton and Gates, who were to be considered for the presidency. He knew, or at least felt confident, that the Empire State would ultimately have the combination, Jefferson-Burr, in their minds. It happened so in November. Maybe, Burr had hoped that by this time the order would be Burr-Jefferson.

However, Burr's attitude in December, when it was rumored that their vote was a tie, could hardly be criticized. Burr then rose to heroic stature, if one could judge him by the sentiments penned then to a friend, Samuel Smith. Burr wrote: "If such (the rumored tie) should be the result, every man who knows me ought to know that I would utterly disclaim all competition, be assured that the Federalist party can entertain no wish for such an exchange." Continuing, Burr gave expression to some noble sentiments: "As to my friends, they would dishonor my views and insult my feelings by a suspicion that I would submit to be instrumental in counteracting the wishes and the expectations of the people of the United States. And I now constitute you my proxy to declare these sentiments if the occasion should require." #1 The constituted proxy carried out the commission with alacrity and emphasis; the letter was published and republished far and wide, and Burr's noble unselfishness was universally commended. All these commendations Burr would gladly have given back a little later. Oh, how fervently he wished he could recall that fatal letter. How he blamed himself for his haste, when it began to dawn upon him that he actually possessed more than a remote chance of becoming President. Very soon, but alas! too late, he realized that Federalists were beginning to look upon him as a candidate they could support, or at least as their only chance of making the fall of Federalism less painful.

Otis, a Federalist of Massachusetts, let it be quietly known in Federalist circles that "to elect Burr would be to cover the opposition with chagrin, and to sow among them the seeds of a morbid division." Soon it became the prevailing opinion of the Federalists. "Some, indeed most of our eastern friends are warn in support of Burr," wrote Senator Gouverneur Morris, who however was cold. "The current has already acquired considerable force and is manifestly increasing," wrote another. Governor Rutledge of South Carolina was happy in the thought that the election of Burr, though a Republican, "must disjoint that party." Burr would be opposed by Virginians, he thought, and it would be to Burr's interest then "to conciliate the Federalists." The Jacobins, according to Speaker Sedgwick, dreaded the appointment of Burr more than that of Pinckney.

Those among the Federalists who inclined toward Burr were soon rudely tugged back by Hamilton, who dreaded to think that his party should become responsible for such a man. Federalists should "remain free united and without a stain, in a situation to resist with effect pernicious measures," he wrote. He felt that under Burr's influence, the Federalist party would become "disorganized and contemptible." He would not elevate an "objectionable man," and, by adopting him, became "answerable for a man who, on all hands, is acknowledged to be a complete Catiline." But Hamilton's counsel did not carry its old weight with some Federalists. "Professional and personal feuds," they thought, prejudiced their former leader's mind against Burr who, despite his unreliable character and somewhat questionable political record, would, if elevated to the presidency, administer a "mortal stab to the Jacobins," and sow among Republicans "the seed of morbid division."

Hamilton retorted that Burr was a man of extreme and irregular ambition, far more artful than wise, far more dexterous than able. He possessed no stability, no scruples; moreover, Hamilton suspected him of being "as warm a partisan of France" as Jefferson, and more dangerous, for Jefferson was at least an honest man, and would spurn corrupt approaches by any foreign agent. The election of Burr "would disgrace the country abroad," insisted Hamilton. No agreement made with him would hold. "As well think to blind a giant by a cobweb as his ambition by promises." #2

Hamilton would not countenance Burr under any consideration whatsoever; and he had at his side at least one who thought as he did. Gouverneur Morris, now Untied States Senator, abhorred Burr, and although he dreaded democracy, and the Great Democrat, Jefferson, he preferred the latter to Burr. In their mutual distrust of the candidate from their own State, these two New Yorkers, Hamilton and Morris, stood together, as of yore, #3 and made some headway, but not enough to prevent a Federalist caucus, in January, from deciding to support Burr in the House of Representatives when, on February 11, 1801, the election of the President would be a matter of business thrown into Congress because of the failure of the presidential electors to break the tie between Jefferson and Burr.

Hamilton and his small following still hoped to defeat the New York lawyer, the struggle not yet being a forlorn hope. Perhaps Hamilton was not surprised when advised that "the Jacobins are determined to resist the election of Burr at every hazard." They professed their determination to even destroy the government rather than yield. Madison was equally stubborn. He thought that if the present House of Representatives did not decide upon Jefferson, the next one would. He did not conceive it possible that the people would for long submit to the "degradation of America by attempts to make Burr the President."

Burr Outwitted--There are some who think that Burr has been maligned unjustly. They contend that had not the first reviews of his career condemned him, later writers would not see only the shady side of his character. That Burr was a great man is quite generally conceded. Yet the very fact that his contemporaries so bitterly stigmatized his political actions, and that the great leaders so generally shrank from political association with him, seems to point to fundamental flaws in his character. Generally, a man gets what he gives. Hamilton knew Burr only too well. He knew Jefferson quite as well, probably. He was quite positive that the great Democrat would hand him no favors, but he was just as certain that nothing Burr might promise him would be worth having. Reputation is the scale upon which a man's words are weighed. It seems that the artful Burr thought of trying to win Hamilton's support by promising him leading cabinet’s place. From such a man as Burr such an offer would not come as a surprise. To him, matters of party fealty were the merest trifles; his convenient opportunism refused to be trammeled by scruples. Indeed, in an unguarded moment, Burr once candidly admitted that "great souls care little for small morals." So he would have been glad to welcome Hamilton, his bitterest opponent, into this government fold, out again soon, somewhat scabby and sorely in need of a dip; there were other sheep, clean of body and just as gullible to be had, and with then the herder could contrive to still keep in good standing. Burr was ever ready to reflect onto his own escutcheon the gleam that appeared on another's; he ever longed for association with men of good repute, so that his own evil nature might not be so evident. He would no doubt have gone to meet Hamilton with open arms, and next day have turned as lovingly to a useful Republican, for such is the way of the Guild of Political Opportunists. Their philosophies embrace all the ways of personal gain.

During January, while all men were discussing presidential possibilities, Burr preserved almost a dead silence. Hardly any other attitude was then possible; the unfortunate publication of the Smith letter had clamped his tongue. The few words that did come directly from his showed how keenly he regretted that his hastily-drawn letter had been publicly exhibited. Such highmindedness, such unselfishness, such faithfulness to principle, such patriotism indeed, as the letter showed that its writer possessed, might well have made Burr proud; yet, in the light of the developments of the pat month, eulogy of his noble self-sacrificing impulse brought him no especial pleasure. While the tie with Jefferson was still only a rumor and there did not seem to be a remote chance for Butt to ultimately win the presidential office, heroic disinterestedness had seemed to be the most effective theatrical gesture--the most graceful way out. Words that cost little are sometimes unstintingly given. But now that Dame Fortune still lingered with him and there seemed a chance that he might even yet win her, Burr could have cut off his hand that had been cold to her, that had been raised to shield his eyes from the sight of her bewitching glances. But, having spurned her, he could not now be frankly gallant. Direct advances could no longer be made. To win her, he must proceed by proxy. So, while the subtle New York Presidential nominee remained in Albany, "mysteriously aloof," and even wrote to his brother-in-law, on January 15, expressing a belief that "Jefferson will be our President," there is not he least doubt that his proxies, his lobbyists, were very actively at work in his interest in the National Capital. On February 14, Senator Morris asked his colleague John Armstrong, "how is happened that Burr, who is found hundred miles away, has agents here at work with great activity, while Mr. Jefferson, who is on the spot, does nothing." #9

These agents had been angling very enthusiastically, and had seemed especially fond of poaching in federalist waters. It had reached Hamilton's ears that "persons friendly to Mr. Burr" had stated distinctly that he was willing "to consider the Federalists as his friends, and to accept the office of President as their gift." #10 there were other Burr proxies angling just as persistently in Republican streams. Both parties were needed, if Burr would win the election. Hence it happened that one of his most brilliant young henchmen, William P. Van Ness, thought it opportune to write from Albany to Edward Livingston, Republican Congressman from New York City, that "it is the sense of the Republicans of this State that, after some trials in the House, Mr. Jefferson should be given up for Mr. Burr." #11 Van Ness did not think it necessary to explain the process by which the had ascertained "the sense of the Republicans" of New York. He knew that Burr had a "perfect understanding" with the Congressman from New York, and that what some shrewd politicians might look upon as a conjectural statement would be accepted at face value by Livingston.

Alas! Burr and Van Ness had soon to change their opinion of Edward Livingston. As a matter of fact, the young Congressman from New York was at that very moment "filling Jefferson's diary with the doings and sayings of those who were interested in Burr's election." #12 Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Edward's eldest brother, had long since gone into Jefferson's camp, having been offered the secretary of the navy; #13 and probably the Chancellor's influence over Edward was the reason for the defection of the latter from Burr. So, in this instance, Burr's Bureau for the Dissemination of Political Information was wasting its time. Still, on the whole, its work was very effective. The unseen hand, operating with occult force at Albany, had drawn into line many promising units before the great tussle opened in Congress on February 11. It had even reached Hamilton's ears, almost as a hopeful command, "that the Federalists might proceed in the certainty that upon a second ballot New York and Tennessee would join" Burr. Again conjecture was extravagant.

However, the historic event has to run its course. The first vote showed that eight States were for Jefferson and six for Burr. Two states, Maryland and Vermont, were equally divided. No change came after a couple of ballots, as had been predicted; indeed at the end of six days the position was the same. Finally, on the thirty-sixth ballot, the Vermont Federalist withdrew, and Federalists of Maryland and Delaware change their voting, or rather put in blanks, the ballot therefore giving Jefferson ten States and Burr five.

The event then passed into history with at least some expression of Aaron Burr's outstanding political ability. Notwithstanding the frantic efforts made by Burr's agents in all camps, notwithstanding their overtures to the "enemy"--in which class a conscientious Republican would at all times put al Federalists--President-elect Jefferson had to confess that he had been much and favorably impressed by the honorable manner in which Burr had conducted his campaign. Jefferson pronounced Burr's conduct "honorable and decisive and greatly embarrassing" to those--presumably Federalists--who had tried to "debauch him from his good faith." At the inaugural reception, Burr, as Vice-president, shared with President Jefferson, "the congratulations of their countrymen." Aaron Burr was certainly at the zenith of his career when Republican banqueting at Albany, drank to "Aaron Burr, Vice president of the Untied States; his uniform and patriotic exertions in favor of Republicanism eclipsed only by his late disinterested conduct."

Hamilton, if not contented with the situation, was at least nor restless. Federalism had fallen, but the rise of Republicanism has been less harmful than it would have been had he not worked so strenuously to prevent the election of Burr. Of course, the general public in time came to realize that the "disinterested conduct" of their vice-president had not been quite so nobly disinterested as they had supposed. It began to dawn upon them that had Burr been genuinely unselfish, he would have spurned Federalist support in the Congress, inasmuch as the tied vote in the electoral college had only happened because the Constitution required each elector to cast a duel vote, one for President, and one for Vice-President. Thus, by an accident, Burr was found, at the first counting of the votes, for President, to have as many votes as Jefferson, and both to have more votes than Adams, the next highest. So by the Constitutional prescription for such an emergency, the election passed from the College to the Congress. Federalists preponderated in the latter, but could not vote for one of the two Republican nominees, Jefferson or Burr. Jefferson stood before the House legitimately--as the true choice of Republican electors; Burr came before them, with no other merit to sustain his position then "the mathematical fact of the tie." Burr knew that the wish of the Republicans of his own State had been that Jefferson should be President, and that he should be Vice-president; he knew that this had been the will of the Republican Congressional Caucus; that it was the wish of Republicans throughout the country; he also knew that a frankly-spoken word from his own lips to the Federalists in Congress pointing out that that party could expect no favors from him, a Republican, would at once have ended the balloting in Jefferson's favor. Yet Burr, by proxy, flirted with the Federalists. In other words, for a consideration, he was quite willing to sell the party by whose efforts he had advanced so far. This became quite obvious to Republican leaders in the reaction that followed the rejoicing over the great victory, which gave them everything-- President, Government, Senate and House of Representatives as well as dominant status inmost of the States. When fortune is good, man looks generously upon his fellows; when down again to "hard pan," man looks more critically at those who come near him. Eventually, Burr was cast out by the Jeffersonians.

Rise of DeWitt Clinton--The last year of jay's second term as Governor was quite eventful in other respects than those which brought the two great New Yorkers, Hamilton and Burr, into the centre of the political picture. The spring election of 1800 had given the Republicans the control of the Assembly. Republicans were consequently eager to assemble. They did not like important business to stand in abeyance until the following January. So, they contrived to get the Legislature convened in November. This was contrary to custom, but a particular reason for the haste was soon apparent, the first business brought before the House having to do with the all-important distribution of State patronage.

The developments were not especially pleasing to the Governor. Several years before, he had objected to the control of this by the Council of Appointment. He did not like Schuyler's machine, but so long as it remained in Federalist hands, the situation did not seem to be so fraught with grave disaster to State institutions--particularly those administered by Federalists--as now impended. When the Republican Assembly demanded the reconstitution of the Council, there was consternation in governmental departments. Amazement was added when it was suggested that the old Federalist Council should be ousted at once--before the normal term had come to an end.

The governor, and Federalists in general, thought that Republicans were most unreasonable. As matter of fact, the dominant party had good precedent before them. Had not the Federalists ousted the Republican council in 1794, long before the end of its term? Of course two wrongs will not make a right, but the second wrong, as republicans saw it, would at least prevent some officials from continuing to benefit by the first. In any case, "what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.' So the Federalist Council had to give way to another in which the Republicans had three-fourths of the representation. DeWitt Clinton, Ambrose Spencer, Robert Roseboom, and John Sanders composed the new Council, the three first named being Republicans.

DeWitt Clinton was now noticeably climbing the political ladder. Up to now he had been handicapped by being the nephew of a great man. His own abilities were not seen so clearly because people, almost subconsciously, fell into the habit of discounting all that he did, thinking that in any case the influence of his uncle, the venerable Governor Clinton, could carry him far. Of course, DeWitt had not had to hide his own light under a bushel, but people who had long been dazzled by the brilliance that had sown from the uncle's light had found it hard to see the much dimmer light of the nephew beyond. However, closer analysis of your Clifton's record shows that he was not merely a great man's protégé. Intellectually alert, he had dome well in school. DeWitt was only fifteen years old when, in 1784, he entered Columbia College. He was apparently well prepared, and, notwithstanding his youth, he graduated from Columbia at the head of his class. Soon afterwards he began to study law practice. Soon he was take under the wing of his uncle, George; and, as the private secretary of the Governor for six years from 1789, the young man had hardly been able to rise above nonentity. In 1795, with the coming of John Jay to the Governorship, DeWitt Clinton, after an unsuccessful attempt to secure a seat in the Senate, resumed the practice of law, but his heart was in politics, and in 1797 he took the first step on the ladder of political entity. He took place alongside Aaron Burr in the Assembly, as a representative from New York City. The association was not especially fitting, for although DeWitt Clinton proved to be as deep a politician as Aaron Burr and at times aroused just as much animosity, his ways stand scrutiny better. In the spring election of 1798, Clinton passed from Assembly to Senate. In the next year he was defeated, but in the Republican landslide of 1800, DeWitt was one of the great boulders that found lodgment in the State Senate.

Clinton was now definitely a political power. He should have been so before, for he had shown distinct independence of through and a level head. Moreover, his political judgment was as broad as his knowledge was extensive. Hamilton had noticed the promise in the young man and had hoped that he might be won to Federalism; he saw in him "the breadth and liberality of enlightened opinions, the prophetic instinct, and the force of character to make things go his way, without drifting into success by a fortunate turn in tide or wind." #14 DeWitt Clinton was always quick to see a political advantage. He possessed imagination, but was able to hold theory down to earth where it must be practiced. He could see the effect of sentiment upon a public question, but had the ability to weigh accurately the effect of hard fact upon the selfish voter. Clinton was indeed already a graduate of political science. The young Senator had learned politics in a good school; as secretary to his uncle, he had been able to follow the course of several of the great movements by which George Clinton had been able to hold the Governorship for eighteen years. He had been tutored in the ways of the master; he had seen that the surest way to succeed is to determine to be at the top, and once there to stay there. He knew that the measure of success depends mainly upon the degree of determination shown. DeWitt Clinton, however, was fortunate in heredity; his family had for generations been masterful; and his uncle had shown him how to be all or nothing. DeWitt was a true Clinton. The nephew, when grown to full stature, was a self-reliant as the uncle and just as capable of letting friendship depend upon dependence. Those who showed independence could not expect favors from either.

Now that, in 1800, he came to the place where he could be able to dispense favors--as one of the triumvirate of Republican Senators of the Council of Appointment---DeWitt Clinton began to realize that the opportunity of making political capital was before him. To do him justice, it must be admitted that his political records showed nothing that made him unworthy of such responsibility. True, he had followed his uncle's trend of localism at the time of the great struggle over the United States Constitution, but when it had become the law of the land, he was one of the first to acknowledge its supremacy. When the nullification resolution of Kentucky was before the House, DeWitt Clinton had not been able to being himself to put Republicanism before Nationalism. Again, in 1798, when war seemed imminent, he had not put partisanship before patriotism; he voted with Federalists in the State Assembly, to provide arms to sustain the President and the Flag against France. Clinton was not an orator, nor a polished writer; but his words gave evidence of a strong personality. He was aggressive, emphatic, frank; thought intensely and acted promptly, without fear or favor.

His indomitable will came first into particular notice in 1801, in clashing with equally unflinching will of Governor Jay. Maybe the latter thought that Clinton and his fellow-Republicans on the Council of Appointment would misuse or abuse the great power of patronage which had just come into their hands. The newly-rich are apt to spend recklessly. Moreover, there were many Federalists officials who were worthy, and whose dismissal might harm the State as well as bring personal hardship. So, notwithstanding that seven years earlier Governor Clinton had been dispossessed of the exclusive right to nominate, and that later Federalist Council had been equally determined to deny their own Governor such a privilege, Jay now made the request to the new Republican Council. DeWitt Clinton opposed him, and finally the Council refused to vote on a matter put by the Governor. The dispute was referred to the Chancellor and to the Supreme Court justices, the latter replying that the matter was extra-judicial and that, therefore, they could not express an opinion. The Assembly was approached, but referred the matter back to the Governor, as a constitutional question which he, himself, with the Council, must decide. The Council cited good precedent for their action, or attitude, but found the Governor adamant. He would not reconvene the Council. Jay ever held to what he considered to the be right course. He would not be a party to the disruption of the civil service for partisan reasons.

Clinton, it seems, was gratified by this action. He and his associates on the Council could not expect the Governor to look kindly upon their plan of reorganizing the civil service, but the could at least make it hard for Jay to get more Federalists, however worthy, into office before the end of his term. Jay was in the last months of service; another Governor would soon take up the reins; and then--provided the new Governor be of their political color, which they thought most probably--the plan of sharing the spoils among the victors would be easier. Meanwhile, by ousting the Federalist Council, Clinton and Spencer had made it impossible for Jay to reward, by appointment to office, any more Federalists, however worthy and needed. That the Governor would have done so without honest reason and assured fitness, few could have had the least doubt, for Jay, throughout his political career, had never south favors by promising favors. "It was never said of him," wrote John Quincy Adams, "that he had a language office and a language confidential," but all men are not so scrupulous. DeWitt Clinton, especially, seems to have realized that through the Council of Appointment he could build for himself a political house with the strongest of pillars.

The fight between John Jay and DeWitt Clinton was most bitter. At every turn the Governor was checkmated by the determined young Senator, who held tenaciously to his purpose despite an unfriendly Senate. Still, strife was all that he stirred up, for whatever the Assembly, at his instigation, approved, the Senate rejected. Governor Jay positively refused to reconvene the Council. To permit them to again function in the irregular manner of the last session-- when the Council refused to vote on nominations he had made, but voted immediately afterwards on a nominating motion made by Clinton---would be, so Jay thought and said, to "violate his oath to administer the government to the best of his knowledge in conformity with the powers delegated to him by the Constitution." Of course, the Council contended that the power to nominate did not rest with the Governor, exclusively; and they were not willing to take the word of even the Constitution-maker, who happened to be Jay himself, that such was the spirit of the Constitution, even though the words of the article might be differently construed.

It does not seem that the blame for all this strife in the last days of Governor Jay's term should rest wholly upon Senator Clinton. True, it would have lost all its force had he not been so contentious; on the other hand, it could not have continued had the Governor adopted a less provocative attitude. Inasmuch as Governor Jay had, in earlier years, acquiesced--or at least had not protested tot he stage of deadlock--when a Federal Council took upon itself the right to nominate as well as appoint, it does seem that partisan spirit may have, to some extent, influenced him in protesting now so vehemently against like action by a Republican Council. Of course, partisanship in John Jay never went to dishonorable length; the cross-road at which partisanship refused to journey longer with State interest was where Jay bade partisanship adieu.

However, the quarrel between Governor and Council could not be permitted to drift farther. Since 1794, when Governor George Clinton had been dispossessed, the executive department and this all-powerful body had never been harmonious in its relations; but now the climax had been reached, the differences developed such intensity that even impeachment was in the air. It was DeWitt Clinton who, in an endeavor to stop the Assembly from acting favorably on a Senate resolution, suggested that Governor Jay might be impeached because of his alleged attempt to "play politics" by "filling offices with his own partisans regardless of fitness." The Assembly finally resolved not to prejudice its own position by interfering, for it might eventually have to resort to impeachment proceedings against the Council as well as the Governor, or, in the words of the resolution, "against the delinquent or delinquents." However, so as to make the future responsibility of Governor and Council clearer, the Assembly was disposed to follow Governor Jay's suggestion and recommend to the people the holding of a constitutional convention, to consider a revision of Article XXIII, as to the Council of Appointment, at the same time as matters of legislative apportionment were to be taken up.

 

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

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