The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 12, Part 2

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

The session ended two days later, with Governor and Council still deadlocked., although it was to all intents a victory for Clinton, or at least brought the young Senator very noticeably forward, Jay to the end held to what he deemed to be the straight course. After his unavailing appeal to the Assembly and courts, the Governor deviated neither to the right nor the left, but went quietly on with his duty, holding the reins of government with calm dignity and determined purpose, not visibly affected by the continued efforts of his chief opponent to cast aspersions on his acts. DeWitt Clinton, however, was not to be silenced by example or threat. He knew hat the louder he spoke the more surely would the people hear, that the more acrimony he injected into his words the more bitter would be the people against Federalism. The difference in tactics was to some extent explained by the difference in character, but no altogether. It should be borne in mine that Jay was at the end of the political road, and Clinton at the beginning. The old Governor expected nothing more from the people, but the young Senator expected his utterances to echo and re-echo in polling booths. Conditions alter cases.

So John Jay faded out of the picture as the boisterous young Clinton splashed onto it, in bright red. As though to thoroughly blot out the Federalist Governor, as well as to sponsor the rising scion of the Clinton clan, another bulkier member of that family consented to come again in the State picture. The old veteran Governor, George Clinton--now somewhat gouty, but still as imperious and commanding as of yore, still as familiar with the ways and byways of politics--was ready to take the vacant chair. Maybe he hoped that it would prove to be a chair as absolutely his as that which he had enjoyed in his first years of State authority, not the rickety one he had been left with during his sixth term. Maybe he as willing that the Governorship should be an empty office, so long as it gave him opportunity, in the role of schoolmaster, to tutor his nephew a little more in the ways that an alert, provident and politically-wise Governor should take for the perpetuation of his kin and kind in office. Subsequent happenings, however, seem to indicate that, in thought, George Clinton in 1801 was just like the George of early State days, though a little less tenacious.

The ease with which George Clinton defeated Stephen van Rensselaer for the Governorship in April 1801, would indicate that the veteran Governor had quite regained his popularity. His majority was almost 4,000 (24,808 against 20,843). It must not be overlooked that Federalism had by that time become "old-fashioned" having gone our with knee-breeches when Jefferson entered the White House.

Republicans Divide the Spoils--Federalism having gone out of fashion, it was perhaps but the logical sequence for Republicans to reason that Federalists in office should go out too. Jefferson himself had followed his train of thought, but he was a man of honorable life and honest intention, and would not go all the way through governmental preserves, searching for game that were better left undisturbed. However, there were many other political hunters who, if unobserved or unchecked, would carry the gun anywhere. Conservation, or State interest, troubled them little; to leave what might be taken grieved them sorely. Jefferson recognized the "spoils system" but only so far as to believe "that the minor offices, should be filled by men of the majority party." The minor offices, he thought, should be divided between the two parties in proportion to their strength at the polls." DeWitt Clinton agreed with Jefferson as to the principle offices, but felt that the minor offices also should all go to the victorious party. As he was now the Democratic "boss" of New York--even though Aaron Burr disputed his right to be--his word went a long way in State patronage.

Governor Jay handed his responsibilities over to his old adversary, George Clinton, on July 1. In the next month the dormant Council of Appointment sprang into vigorous life. Governor Clinton convened the Council on August 8, and at once the two officials nominate at the former session, by Dewitt Clinton over the protests of Governor Jay, were reconsidered and re-appointed. Sylvanus Miller, one of DeWitt Clinton's henchmen, was appointed surrogate of New York County, notwithstanding that he was of Ulster County. Next, David Hale was removed and his place as Secretary of State given to Thomas Tillotson, brother-in-law of Robert R. Livingston. Elisha Jenkins, who had served Ambrose Spencer usefully, was given the State Comptrollership, displacing a very able and much respected man, John V, Henry. The minor offices of the Superior Courts were next disturbed, and the benches of the interior courts were swept of all but the presiding judges.

Injustice to Governor Clinton, it must be stated here that he protested against such a drastic enforcement of the new system. Indeed, his protest against the removal of the country judges reached such definiteness that he insisted upon his protest being entered upon the minutes of the Council. "In at least one case he refused to sign the minutes because they did not sufficiently set forth his opposition to some changes in office." #15

Indeed, the old Governor was beginning to realize that age does not come alone; the Clinton power over men had passed from the war-weary uncle to the fearless nephew, who was hardly out of fencing school but was eager to cross swords with the best. The protests of the old master could not overrule the will of the ambitious confident pupil, now enjoying the exhilaration that followed victory in the first test of his strength.

Triumphant over Jay, young Clinton next matched wits with two very experienced political strategists, Robert R. Livingston and Aaron Burr, neither of whom could be dismissed lightly. By the way, young Clinton hardly looked upon the Governor as an opponent, though he did not hesitate to oppose his venerable uncle, whenever their wills clashed. DeWitt Clinton would not give way to anyone, not even to the lord of the Livingston manor. Chancellor Livingston may have felt that to himself should have fallen the Republican leadership in New York. It probably did not dawn on this head of a great family that it was somewhat incongruous for an aristocrat to head the Democrats; nevertheless he considered the office of Minister Plenipotentiary to France more in harmony with his social eminence. Possibly Clinton had no important part in procuring this honor from President Jefferson for Chancellor Livingston, though it undoubtedly raised his own chance in New York quite appreciably. It seems that he was quite willing to ingratiate himself still more with the Livingston clan. Matter-of-fact Clinton recognized that the Livingstons were politically powerful, so it was quite proper that he should resolve to pay them careful respect. He wanted their good will, and knew how to get it without bowing to them. In the end, the Chancellor would have been an ingrate had he not felt kindly toward the Council of Appointment and especially toward its dominating member, DeWitt Clinton. Had not his young brother, Edward Livingston, been made mayor of New York City? Had not his cousin, Brockholst , become a justice of the Supreme Court? Had not his brother-in-law, Morgan Lewis, been elevated to the chief justiceship, and another brother-in-law, Thomas Tillotson, "a contemptible shuffling apothecary," #16 displaced a very able man as Secretary of State, and yet another brother-in-law, John Armstrong, been elected United States Senator? So remembered, how could the proud Chancellor, now departing for greater National responsibility in foreign fields, refuse to rally the Livingston clan to the support of young Clinton, in the latter's most engrossing political struggle with the craftiest of all strategists, Aaron Burr.

Burr, of course, felt that he should be paramount among Republicans in New York. DeWitt Clinton, however, thought that the Vice-President should be quite satisfied with the national dignity he had gained by the aid of New York. In any event, he could not and would not tolerate Burr any more then Hamilton could. He came into reason in the same way as the Great Federalist, but the result was the same. The instinctive aversion Hamilton had of Burr, was based on graver reasons, a conviction that Burr was without honor, and that his ambition knew neither patriotism not principle. Clinton's animosity, however, was based only upon the realization that Burr wished to head Republicanism in New York, and that there was not room for two "bosses."

Clinton, always self-reliant and optimistic, might well have been exhilarated in the knowledge of his own strength. Burr had need to summon all his courage and conjure up all his devout subterraneous helps if he would succeed, for it must have been clear to him that he was very gravely handicapped. His was indeed a losing fight. His influence at the White House was somewhat uncertain, but he thought that the might expect a few national favors for his own followers. However, the latter were, so it seemed, to be starved by their own party in their own State, for the patronage was to all intents in the hands of his masterful rival, DeWitt Clinton, which fact, according to Burr's reading of the rules of the political game, meant that Clinton would have few favors to pass out to other than his own followers.

The outlook soon began to darken. Still Burr did not agree that the exhibition of strength shown by Clinton in August, at the meetings of the Council of appointment decided the supremacy conclusively. There was still a ray of hope for the Vice-President in the thought that a constitutional convention, soon to sit, might put shackles on the irrepressible young giant. It is possible that Clinton also thought so, for he made haste to complete the distribution of the State patronage. At the second meeting of the council--within three days of the first meeting--Richard Riker, #17 one of Clinton's most capable lieutenants, displace Cadwallader D. Colden, as district attorney of New York City; John B. Prevost ousted Richard Harrison from the recordership of the city, and Robert Benson, the city clerk, "was sacrificed for the sake of Teunis Wortman, a man of ability but o doubtful character." #18 These were rank instances of the "spoils system," for not one of the three was the equal of the civil servant he displaced. But the changes were necessary if DeWitt Clinton would finish building his house while material was still readily available. Ambrose Spencer was also ambitious, though his aspirations did not clash with those of Clinton; indeed, these two brilliant young men associated very effectively as members of the Council of Appointment. They worked long and thoughtfully, and in only one instance, perhaps, did they have cause to regret having disturbed an office-holder. Had they known that William Coleman, under the patronage of Hamilton and Jay, would establish a newspaper, the "New York Evening Post,' in which some very pungent caustic truths regarding Republicanism, and particularly Republican leaders, would soon be circulated, they may not have decided that Mr. Spencer's protégé John McKisson, was well fitted to take Coleman's place as clerk of the Circuit Court. However, the future is not within mortal vision, and after all, the Coleman removal was only one unfortunate slip, whereas the useful disturbances in the civil service were so many that Clinton's and Spencer's political mansions were soon complete--built to the last stone, and moreover, furnished from cellar to attic. The new Republican broom had been so vigorously wielded that the dust beclouded the whole State. Sheriff's, county judges, surrogates, County clerks, justices of the peace, mayors of cities, the most dignified officials, the least officious functionaries, the big, the little--all who were Federalists were swept out of office with scant ceremony, and brand-new never-used Clintonians or Spencerians were swept in, uninstructed, save perhaps in the duty they owed to their patrons. Maybe, the latter also silently prayed that the State might not suffer serious pecuniary loss while these novices delved in the somewhat intricate science of public administration. The office-seekers were legion and of all grades. There were some who cast covetous eyes upon even the office of public auctioneer. Maybe these easily-satisfied followers, knowing their own volubility in political speech, were inclined to believe that they could, with equal sincerity and loquacity, enhance the value of State property, while the candle burned at Dutch auctions.

With industrious pertinacity, the council held to its self-appointed task, taking no heed of protests. These came usually from Federalists. One rather capable lawyer, Ebenezer Foote, who was removed from the clerkship of Delaware County, took his dismissal so much to heart that he charged Spencer with political infidelity. Spencer replied with equal feeling, his words indicating that he was actuated by a high-minded heroic purpose in this unpleasant task of reorganizing the civil service. Spencer's answer, in part, reads: "Your removal was an act of justice to the public, inasmuch as the veriest hypocrite and the most malignant villain in the State was deprived of the power of perpetuating mischief. If, as you insinuate, your interests have by your removal been materially affected, then, sir, like many men more honest than yourself, earn your bread by the sweat of your brow." #19 Politicians did not ordinarily veil their political opinion in gentle words in those intensely partisan days. Emphatic language was, indeed, soon to become so common that, for greater emphasis, the leaders had to turn to missives of lead instead of ink, to compose their personal differences. Dueling was to decide what words could not.

Perhaps we ought not to take Spencer's reply to Lawyer Foote at its face value. Foote was a capable man. So also was Spencer. Unfortunately partisanship blighted the opinions of both. Although he replied as heatedly in this instance, it seems quite likely that Spencer took very lightly all partisanship aspersions cast upon him by Federalists. In all States at that time the trait was becoming more and more evident in public men of undoubted integrity and patriotism. Jefferson was the most striking example. #20 To give gratuitously to his enemies the opportunity of charging him with purloining State patronage for himself was an indiscretion Spencer would not commit. When he and Clinton came to the end of their labors, as dispensers of the State patronage, it was found that only one Federalist of any note remained in office. This was Josiah Ogden Hoffman, the Attorney-general. The department had not been overlooked, it is true. Indeed, Spencer was himself personally interested in the office, but he would not go so far as to appoint himself. So Hoffman remained in office. It is said, seemingly with authority, that for only a short time. He probably knew that this period would end soon after a new Council of Appointment came in with the new Legislature in the following January. He probably know also that Spencer would then no longer be a member of the Council, and that then it would be quite proper for the new Council to put Spencer in his place. It happened so, for in fact Ambrose Spencer became attorney-general in February, 1802, and went from that legal office to a justiceship of the Supreme Court two years later, much to the consternation of Federalists lawyers.

So, the fortunes of war were distributed. For better or worse, the spoils were apportioned to Republicans. If, in some instances, the appointments made were somewhat unfortunate, Spencer's transference to legal responsibilities at least was fitting. Federalists in general agreed with Van Ness--who echoed Burr--in thinking of Spencer as a politician "governed by no principles or feelings except those which avarice and unprincipled ambition inspired" #21; but none could fairly think that Spencer did not possess marked aptitude for judicial office. On the bench, Justice Spencer was a paragon of judicial probity, but even the most enthusiastic admirer of this worthy jurist must admit that his record would make ever so much more pleasing reading if his political association with Clinton and others could be expunged. Spencer was partisan of partisans.

Clinton Matches Wits with Burr--Still, Spencer's efforts with Clinton in 1801 did the State at least one good turn, in saving its affairs from passing into the political control of a less scrupulous administrator. DeWitt Clinton, it is asserted, always tried to place only good Republicans in office, but Aaron Burr, it seems, would always prefer a "dishonest Federalist to an honest Democrat." #22 The two council associates, however, took more than usually good care to leave Burr no field in which he could exercise his predilection. When they arose from their council sittings in August, 1801, they had spent all the State wealth (of patronage). Burr, with empty pockets, was thus in a sad predicament. He had pledged his credit considerably, during the strenuous campaign for the Presidency in the previous winter. He had lost that; he had lost; or rather had never obtained, grip of the State purse, and soon Clinton was to attack his use of National patronage. Burr was to all intents politically bankrupt. To his political creditors, his assets appeared appallingly valueless, or at least not realizable for many years. In the dim distance was the bare possibility that Burr might advance to the Presidency but his immediate condition was discouraging. For the present, chilly poverty was Burr's lot; and only the unselfish are willing to stand by the destitute. Political friendship is apt to wane. Burr, of course, was not quite destitute. The vice-presidential mantle upon his shoulders was still well-nigh new, and it was his to wear for yet a few years. So at least he was presentable. Indeed, New Yorkers though so well of his appearance that, in October, 1801, they elected him to the presiding chair of the State constitutional Convention then assembled.

It was an honor of which any New York lawyer might well be proud. Strange to say, Burr's rival, DeWitt Clinton, did not envy him this distinction; indeed, the record seems to show that Clinton did his best to bring Burr into that responsibility. There was good and selfish reason why he should. As president of the convention, Burr's tongue would be somewhat effectively tied, but as merely an ordinary delegate he would have been free to slash Clinton verbally to his heart's content. Devious are the ways of the politically ambitious. To the shrewdest goes the victory, with Burr officially muzzled, Clinton could lead in the barking. He did so, and gained the point so vital to his future.

Election for convention delegates had been held in August, 1801, and the members gathered in October, authorized to consider matters of legislative apportionment and Council of Appointment. The first question involved no partisan matter, and so became more a process of committee routine. The convention finally fixed the membership of the State Senate permanently at thirty-two. By this provision, twelve Senators would have to vacate office; on the other hand, the lower house was to be gradually increased until the Assembly should reach a maximum strength of 150 members. While this was not a party question, the result might perhaps be looked upon as a Republican victory, inasmuch as the Assembly was more truly Democratic than the Senate.

Next came before the convention the all-important question:

"Does the constitution clothe the Governor with the sole right of nomination, or is that prerogative vested concurrently in all members of the Council of Appointment?"

It is not strange that this question, which involved a practice so palpably partisan, so useful and potential to political parties, should have around so little discord among the delegates, who were all to some degree political leaders. The practice as not condemned; the only grievance that could develop would be against the party which held the power, the feelings of either party dispossessed being expressible in the same words. The convention had drawn from both parties, and many of the delegates were Federalists. It was but natural that they should be disgusted at the ruthlessness of the existing Council. Still they fully recognized that the power of nomination was a political treasure chest far too valuable to place in the care of one man. They were aware that the sun would not shine forever on Republicans. A Federalist Council, at some time in the future would again be able to handle the chest. Then, with the Clinton-Spencer example well before them, they could more thoroughly return evil for evil if the political leaders, not the governor, were legally in control of the patronage. It was not impossible that Federalists would at some time control the Legislature and council, but be under a Republican Governor; the nominating authority then in the hands of a Federalist Council would be a most timely party possession. So, although DeWitt Clinton, who led the convention, was most puglistically inclined, Determined to fight to the death for the right of Council to concurrently nominate, very little opposition showed itself when he made a motion to that effect. There was only one important opposing speech, that by John V. Henry. He, however, was himself a recent victim of the spoils system, so his arguments lost some of their force. William P. Van Ness cast a negative vote, probably reflecting Burr's wishes, the Vice-president's chief grievance being that the patronage had not been his to distribute, or rather that the Council had no heeded his hints as to the most deserving objects of State charity. Daniel D. Tompkins voted against the measure. He spoke also, but it was his political debut, so that his words carried less weight than perhaps they deserved. He was then only twenty-six years old, and in public gatherings could hardly be expected to carry himself with the assurance he later manifested. Nevertheless, in later years he was always pleased to think that he had voiced disapproval of the pernicious "spoils system." In all, only fourteen negative votes were cast, the majority of the delegates, Federalists and Republicans alike, being fully agreed that in future the governor of New York State should, in matters of State patronage, be a mere figurehead, or at least have no more power than his one vote in a council of five give him.

Thus the matter was decided. The important changes in the organic law were made with the passage of the resolution in convention, for a that time the tantalizing uncertainty of having to await ratification by the people, of changes deemed necessary and good a well qualified convention, was not a constitutional requirement.

DeWitt Clinton was now the most powerful Democrat in the State. But he could not take greatness quietly. He could not rest on his laurels. There was still much to be done. Burr had been discomfited, but was not yet politically dead. It would not be wise to let such a wily wiry dog lie, to lick his wounds and quietly recover. Although defeated in State patronage, Vice-president Burr was very close to the White House, and some of his most loyal henchmen might still be rewarded. Clinton had unseated Burr from his only remaining seat of local prestige and pecuniary advantage, #23 so the Vice-President had no alternative but to appeal to President Jefferson for especial consideration of his friends. There were several United States offices for the New York district still to be filled, and inasmuch as not one of the six or seven hundred thousand State appointments could be expected for loyal Republicans who cases Burr had made his especial study, it was perhaps not too much to ask that the few Untied States officers in New York--to wit, a marshal, a collector of the port, a supervisor, and a naval officer--be recruited from this forgotten class of New York Republicans of worthy service. Burr named John Swartout, Daniel Gelston, Matthew L. Davis, and Theodorus Bailey for the respective offices, and he succeeded in getting Swartout appointed before Clinton was informed. The latter protested at once, and with such effect that no other Burr nominee was appointed. Jefferson decided the matter without even consulting Secretary Gallatin of the Treasury, who had earlier sided with Burr. Gallatin, indeed, was of the opinion that Burr was less selfish than either the Clintons or the Livingstons. Certainly, the latter were more successful in finding officers for offices. Help was of course readily at hand, in their numerously spread families, whereas Burr's was only a single important line, and that short.

The Livingstons were legion' Burr had few relatives. Still, he was very angry when a rumor reached him of Jefferson's action. He wrote to Gallatin, pressing Davis' appointment, "on the ground of good faith." Gallatin, however, could do nothing; knew nothing in fact, for the President was silent. Soon Burr knew that DeWitt Clinton had even once more triumphed. Then the Vice-President cast himself out of the Republican party, or at least made no further pretense of loyalty to Jefferson. The Clinton newspaper in New York scoffed at the credulity of Davis--in journeying to Monticello to see Jefferson, as though that would being him the supervisorship which indeed was already in Clinton's pocket. However, laughter is not the monopoly of any one class. Burr felt that he himself might soon have good reason to jeer at Republicanism, or at Jefferson--and through him of course at the Clintons. His would be sardonic laughter, but it would nevertheless bring him a grim kind of enjoyment.

Burr was by this time coming into a desperately unhealthy state of mind. Defeated at every turn by a man of much shorter political record, won who just a year or two ago had been a nonentity, brought thoughts which were to bitter to express. That the Vice-presidency of the United States should have brought him little added dignity at home exasperated Burr even more. He was fast reaching the dangerous state of mind in which gloom and malevolence conspire together. He was beginning to think that all men's hands were against him. It did not occur to him, perhaps, that his had always been against all men's--at least all hands that were not lowered when he raised his. He could clearly see that some men's hands would never be lowered to let him pass to the Presidency. As Van Ness was astonished to observe, the determination to annihilate Burr was so strong in New York that "no man, however, virtuous, however unspotted his life or his fame, could be advanced to the most unimportant appointment, unless he would submit to abandon all intercourse with Mr. Burr, vow opposition to his elevation, and, like a feudal vassal, pledge his personal services to traduce his character and circulate slander." #24

Burr cane into the open after he returned to Washington in January, 1802. His first definite obvious break away from the Administration occurred two weeks later. Then in a tied vote in the Senate, he gave his casting vote against a Jefferson measure. Soon after, on Washington's birthday, Burr was present at a Federalist banquet, and proposed a toast, "The union of all honest men." To Republican leaders this signified that Burr south to build a party from both. Resentment was bitter, and as the Vice-president was now pursuing more open tactics--and indeed gaining ground--the Clintonians changed theirs; at least, the gave unrestrained public expression to their opinion of the aspirant. The "American Citizen and Watchtower," owned by DeWitt Clinton's cousin and edited by James Cheetham, "an English refugee,' took up the challenge, and in a torrent of vituperation so mercilessly bared Burr's political past that a more sensitive nature than his would have been crushed with shame, or have taken immediate steps to refute the calumny. In Cheetham's "View of Aaron Burr's Political Conduct," the intrigues of the New Yorker to cheat Jefferson out of the Presidency were exposed; it was such an artful blending of inference and fact that it would have been most convincing had not antipathy been so evident in bitter sarcasm. Nevertheless, Republican papers throughout the country eagerly repeated the news from New York. Other excoriating disclosures were in Cheetham's volume "A Narrative," and "Letters on the Subject of Burr's Defection."

Burr seemingly showed such utter disregard or unconcern that, as he wrote to Theodosia: "They are so utterly lost on me that I should never have seen even this, had it not been enclosed to me in a letter from New York." There is little reason to doubt that the attack lost much of its force by its extreme vehemence. "All the world knew that not Cheetham, but DeWitt Clinton, thus dragged the Vice-President from his chair, and that not Burr's vices, but his influence, made his crimes heinous," write Henry Adams, #25 "that behind DeWitt Clinton stood the Virginia dynasty, dangling Burr's office in the eyes of the Clinton Family, and lavishing honors and money on the Livingstons. All this was as clear to Burr and his friends as though it was embodied in an Act of Congress.'

 

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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