The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 5, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER V
POLITICS IN NEW YORK STATE
Tompkins, DeWitt Clinton, and Van Buren

The Farmer's Boy Becomes Governor--Clinton would, no doubt, have liked to be the candidate himself, but the moment was inopportune. To condemn the acts of Lewis was effective on the platform only when a remedy could be offered; and there were very few who did not know that Clinton was of the same stripe as Lewis. It was no doubt humiliating to Clinton to admit his own ineligibility, but if he would defeat the Livingstons he must do so. It was especially unfortunate that State politics should have taken this turn, for there is no doubt your Clinton had been hoping that election tot he Governorship in 1807 would make it possible for him to step from that office to the Presidency. However, if he lost grip of the State, he could not hope to grip the nation. So, for the present, he had to be unselfish and hold up another, as torch-bearer of Republicanism.

In Daniel D. Tompkins, the ambitious Republican leader saw an inoffensive young man, colorless, and easily bent to his own will. So the young and amiable Supreme Court Justice became the Clinton nominee for Governor. Tompkins' rise had been remarkable. Reared on a farm, he had reached college at seventeen, and a law office at twenty-one. At twenty-seven years of age he was a delegate to a constitutional convention, soon afterwards going to Congress. At thirty he was on the bench of the highest court of the State. At thirty-three he was put forward for election to the highest office in the State. Undoubtedly, this was phenomenal advancement for a man in whom Clinton saw no striking or commanding quality. Had he looked a little closer, he might have seen that courage was not entirely lacking in the young delegate who, in his public debut,. Had not only rallied to the few who had formed the minority, but had actually spoken against the overwhelming majority. But Clinton, in his eagerness for victory, did not see this. A glutton is never fastidious; he has no time table. So Clinton was happy in striving to elect a Governor "with no convictions, no desires, no ambitions, and no purposes save to lease him." Having elected him,. He was for the moment satisfied. It was only when he reached out hungrily that he had to regret having so sadly misread Tompkins; character. Clinton had wished for a man who would go into his machine as an easily fitted cog; he lived to realize that Tompkins was not a cog in his wheel; that,. In fact, he did not fit into it at all.

Even at first glance, it could be seen that there was little in common between Clinton and Tompkins. Indeed, "two men could hardly be more sharply contrasted. The on appeared cold and reserved, the other most gracious and gentle; Clinton's self-confidence destroyed the fidelity of those who differed in opinion, Tompkins' urbanity disarmed their disloyalty; Clinton was unrelenting, dogged in his tenacity, quick to speak harshly, moving within lines of purpose regardless of those of least resistance. Although he often changed his association, like Lord Shaftesbury, he never changed his purposes. Tompkins', always firm and dignified, was affable in manner, sympathetic in speech, overflowing with good nature and unpretending to all who approached him. It used to be said that Tompkins made more friends in refusing favors than Clinton did in granting them. The two, men also differed as much in personal appearance as in manner, Tompkins, shapely and above the ordinary height, had large full eyes, twinkling with kindness, a high forehead wreathed with dark curly hair, and an oval face, easily and usually illuminated with a smile; Clinton had a big frame, square shoulders, a broad full forehead, short pompadour hair, dark penetrating eyes, and a large mouth with lips firmly set. It was a strong face. A dullard could read his character at a glance. To his intimate friends Clinton was undoubtedly a social, agreeable companion; but the dignified imperiousness of his manner and the severity of his countenance usually overcame the ordinary visitor before the barriers of his reserve were broken. Tompkins, on the contrary, carried the tenderness of a wide humanity in his face." #1

Clinton and Tompkins were so different in every way that, in his desire to defeat Lewis for the governorship, Clinton apparently was blind to every other consideration. The fact that Tompkins was then the son-in-law of Mangle Minthorne, leader of the Martling Men in New York City, ought to have suggested to Clinton that it might be difficult to make Tompkins his manikin. Perhaps Clinton preferred to examine not more than one bridge that was immediately before him. Structural doubts as to other bridges might be left to the future, confident of his ability to strongly bridge most spans, however awkward. So Clinton crossed the one bridge, securing the election of Tompkins, as governor, on April 30, 1807, by a majority of 4,085. (Daniel D. Tompkins, 35,074; Morgan Lewis, 30,989).

The "revolt against bossism," which the Lewis candidacy was declared to be, had failed. The "boss" had won another victory. Another reformer who had dared to challenge his authority had been given "walking orders." Would the new executive be willing to use the old well-worn broom that had done so much sweeping? Some discerning readers of human nature were inclined to believe he would not, for Governor Tompkins seemed to be a fastidious young gentleman.

Governor Tompkins was not asked to decide the question immediately. Other matters of pressing National importance had arisen to divert attention from State to National channels. The perplexing clashes between British and American authority on the high seas had become so ominous that war seemed in the offing, if not a present state. The latest indignity, the attack of the British frigate "Leopard," of fifty guns, upon the Untied States frigate, "Chesapeake," of thirty-eight guns, so aroused the nation that party lines were forgotten. Most Americans demanded reparation of war. "This country," wrote Jefferson, "has never been in such a state of excitement since the battle of Lexington." There was an immediately stiffening of moral fibre. Thoughts were of war and of preparation for war. The States were asked to organize and equip 100,000 militia ready to march, and all United States ports were closed to British ships of war.

On the very day that the "Chesapeake" limped back into Norfolk, the people of New York were inaugurating their new Governor. Throughout that year one National perplexity followed another, the international situation growing more ominous all the while. England forbade trading of neutral Nations with France; France forbade neutral trading with England, and the United States put an embargo on all foreign-bound American ships. This paralyzing of American maritime trade second in volume only to that of England was a calamity that was bound to engross the attention of all State governments, as well as of the central administration. While the latter strove desperately to hold the nation free from actual declared war, but sill was determined not to permit England to continue to flout American rights, the new England States--more seriously involved commercially--were anxious to avoid all possible incidents or accidents likely to rouse the hostility to England. As the international problem became more intricate, the people gradually found their thoughts drifting again into party channels. The Democrats, or Republicans, in general, were more hostile to England than to France, and the Federalists of the northern States and in mercantile circles all along the Atlantic Coast veered to the English side, even to the extent of criticizing the Jefferson government. Because of their heavy investments in foreign trade and shipping, the northern States urged the government to insist less but negotiate more. Whatever aspect loomed up, the subject was sufficiently grave to make all local subjects of secondary importance.

When the embargo was first suggested, DeWitt Clinton had publicly opposed it, and Cheetham. In the Clinton papers, had sustained him. They thought that American shipowners might be left to solve their own difficulties, army their ships, and risk the perils of foreign trade at their own discretion. Such a state of uncertainty would be preferable to that which would tie up our clippers in home waters "to rot,' and condemn an immense force of seafaring Americans to unemployment.

Governor Tompkins did not echo the Clinton thought. "It was not a question of avoiding sacrifices," said Governor Tompkins, in his message to the New York Legislature in January, 1808, "but whether one sacrifice might not better be borne than another." "What patriotic citizens," he concluded, "will murmur at the temporary privations and inconvenience resulting from this measure, when he reflects upon the vast expenditure of national treasure, the sacrifice of the lives of our countrymen, the total and permanent suspension of commerce, the corruption of morals, and the distress and misery consequent upon our being involved in the war between the nations of Europe? The evils which threaten us call for a magnanimous confidence in the efforts of our National councils to avert them, and for a firm unanimous determination to devote everything that is dear to us to maintain our right and national honor."

The Legislature, both Assembly and Senate, approved the governor's attitude; and, strange to say, Clinton hastened to change his course to one of accord with Governor and party, leaving his uncle, the Vice-President, in the lurch. #2

However, DeWitt Clinton was soon holding the leading reins again, driving the Council of Appointment four with strong hand. It was the same ruthless hand, and Governor Tompkins was shrewd enough to let it have sway, knowing that violence is apt to react upon itself. Marinus Willett surrendered the mayoralty to DeWitt Clinton, Maturin Livingston and Thomas Tillotson bowed to the guillotine. Abraham G. Lansing, brother of the Chancellor, had been Treasurer of the State since the defalcation of McClanan in 1803; and he had been an excellent official; nevertheless his office was not demanded. It was given to David Thomas, who also was to prove a defaulter. Of course, in the selection of hundreds of officials, Clinton made some mistakes. And there were , of course, many dissatisfied office-seekers. To this class, Tompkins was able to point to DeWitt Clinton as the cause of their misfortune. To the appointed class, Tompkins could at least infer that he had had a part in inducting them. The governor has w wise head, even though he was looked upon as a guileless "farmer's boy."

Soon another opportunity came to him of profiting at the expense of Clinton. DeWitt Clinton had been hoping that this uncle, George Clinton, might now be thought of for President, seeing that Virginia had held the chief office for so long. A Congressional caucus thought otherwise, and nominated James Madison for President and George Clinton for Vice-President. Seeing that only 89 out of 139 Republican Congressmen and Senators had attended the caucus, the Clintonians said that the nomination was irregular. However, there was great distrust of the Clintons, especially of DeWitt Clinton. It was recalled that a Virginia newspaper a year or so earlier had warned National leaders against the younger Clinton, drawing attention to the growing power and apparently boundless ambition of the New Yorker. Furthermore, both uncle and nephew had condemned Jefferson's embargo policy. These, therefore, were weighty reasons why the Republicans should depart from the precedent of nominating the Vice-President to succeed the retiring President.

Federalists marked time for awhile, not disinclined to consider some proposition from DeWitt Clinton which would bring their party some advantage, if not he Presidency. The Republican bolt came t naught because the Clintonians would not accept Monroe, a Virginian. On the other hand, the friends of Monroe would not think of George Clinton because of his age. So the Federalists, without hope of success, nominated Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina, for president and Rufus King of New York for Vice-President.

DeWitt Clinton was not satisfied. His headstrong nature would not accept the ruling of his party. While it was not too late to get the nomination for his uncle, he could at least show what the Republicans of his own State thought. So, when the Legislature met in November to appoint presidential electors, he insisted that the vote of New York be given to his uncle. Again his will was countered by Tompkins, who gave wise political counsel. He showed that the vote of New York for Clinton could do no more then divide the party, impair the influence of New York Republicans with the national government, and invite ridicule in other States at their expense. This argument convinced thirteen of New York's nineteen electors to vote for Madison. The voting in the electoral college, therefore, was as follows: Madison, 122; Pinckney, 48; Clinton, 6; for President. Clinton received 113 votes fro Vice-President the next highest being Rufus King, with 48 votes. The stubborn sextette from New York cast the six votes Clinton received for president; they also cast three each for Madison and Monroe for Vice-President.

Such an exhibition of pique did DeWitt Clinton no good. Twice in one year he had made serious political mistakes, and each time Tompkins had carried the New York Republicans away from him. The younger leader by less assertiveness but greater political wisdom was undermining the Clinton structure. In addition, the Lewisites, the Burrites and the Martling Men now openly charged Clinton with hostility and insincerity toward both national and State administrations. To bring about the fall of DeWitt Clinton, al that was needed now seemed to be a leader who was strong enough to unite these three factions. The name of Tompkins was mentioned in whispers, but it never became loud open talk. The shrewd Governor saw greater opportunity in drawing closer to Madison as the Clintons retreated farther.

DeWitt Clinton was ostensibly on good terms with Tompkins. He also seemed determined to regain his former status with the Republican Party. In the State Senate, April, 1809, he introduced resolutions approving the Madison administration, and also pledging support to Governor Tompkins. To show that he was now a true friend of embargo, he bitterly assailed the Federalists, who, he declared, thought it "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." These utterances had no significance to those who knew Clinton, for they knew his ulterior purpose. So while many Republicans continued cool toward him, Federalists "exposed the imperious and domineering trimmer to ridicule and jest."

Abraham van Vechten and Daniel Cady, both renowned as lawyers, led in these attacks on Clinton. The former was especially effective in sarcasm and satire. Led by these two masters of debate, the Federalists tormented Dewitt Clinton, and shot the embargo policy into shreds. "What would happen if our ships were suffered to go to Europe and the Indies"? exclaimed Cady. "Some would reach Europe and find a market; others would go to England, obtain a license to sail to the Baltic port and then sell at great profit. Out of a hundred ships, two would probably be seized by the French. Better to lose two by seizure than a destruction of all by embargo." #3

DeWitt Clinton was not the only defender of the embargo; there were many others more sincere, and not at that time at all enthusiastic toward Clinton. Nathan Sanford, for instance, was "the pet of the Martling Men," now known as Tammany; and this organization, headed by Minthorne, was determined to destroy Clinton. Sanford was then United States attorney in New York, having succeeded Edward Livingston in 1803. He eventually became Chancellor, succeeding Janes Kent, in 1823. As to the wisdom of the embargo, Sanford argued that "since England had blockaded one-half of Europe and France the other half" it was "time for dignified retirement, until England felt the need of additional supplies and France awoke to the loss of its luxuries."

Arguments in favor of the embargo, however, were futile. The decline from two dollars to seventy cents a bushel for American wheat was a depressing factor no words could remove. The voters took part in the debate, with a result that in April, 1809, Federalists swept the State. For the first time in ten years, the Federalists had a substantial majority in the State Assembly. The Senate was about evenly divided. This situation brought at least one ray of hope though the Republican gloom, for it was supposed that the Federalist Assembly would not consider that their party should take more than one-half of the seats in the Council of Appointment. This would leave patronage in the hands of the Republican Governor, and so prevent ruthless assault upon State offices.

Federalists seemed to concur in this reasoning. At least, the four men elected by the Assembly to the new Council were so aligned. Unfortunately one of the two Republicans elected seems to have resolved upon apostasy. At all events, when the Council began its session Robert Williams found a reason why he should support every Federalist nominee. Hence, his casting vote "turned our of office every Republican in the State." #4 He decided that the great DeWitt Clinton should deliver the mayoral dignity of New York to Jacob Radcliff, the chancery lawyer. Abraham van Vechten, who had twitted Clinton so blithely, became Attorney-General, and Abraham G. Lansing became State Treasurer.

Clinton was still a State Senator. He was still the dictator of Republicanism in the State though Tammany controlled the city; but his hold was not strong--not strong enough to permit a thought that he might take the place of Tompkins, as Governor, in 1810. Federalists,. Encouraged by their success in the 1809 elections, hoped confidently for a Federalist Governor. They nominated Senator Jonas Platt, a stalwart frontier lawyer. He had vigorously attacked the embargo upon the public platform, and his forceful facts had had their effect in the election. In the Legislative session of 1810, however, he did not show in so favorable a light.

Governor Tompkins, in his message to the Legislature in January, 1810, made reference to the failure of England to avow the treaty negotiated with the United States by William Erskine, the British minister, in the previous April. "Lively satisfaction," had spread through the Nation at the thought that the British orders in Council would end in June, making it possible for idle American shipping to again sail the seas. The message of the Governor hardly "overleaped the truth," but Jonas Platt himself to Tompkins, justified him in taking the British view against that of his own country. He declared that there was more cause for war against France than against Britain. While Platt condemned both for casting aside "the settled principle of public law, which constituted the barriers between the caprice, the avarice, or the tyranny of a belligerent, and the rights and independence of a neutral," yet he betrayed a venomous prejudice against Jefferson and France. DeWitt Clinton did not lose the opportunity Platt's words gave of charging Federalists with taking sides with the British against their own country.

This, of course, was a distorted interpretation, as Federalists were as thoroughly American as Republicans could be. If they subconsciously leaned toward England, it was because Republicans subconsciously inclined toward France. National patriotism is superior to party politics, but the latter is apt to provide a bias until indignation over national affronts cancels it. In the final political extremity, country comes first. When suspicion enters the mind, many hitherto insignificant and forgotten incidents come to mind to strengthen the suspicion. It was now remembered that the Loyalists of Revolutionary days almost wholly adhered to the Federalist party when granted amnesty. Again, in 1805, Federalists who controlled the Common Council of the City of Albany foolishly refused to allow the Declaration of Independence to be read in their Fourth of July exercise. Therefore, the charge made by the Republicans in the heat of campaigning, in 1810 was not incredulously received. Many voters were prepared to believe that Jonas Platt loved England more then America, or at least that he would support England against the blundering republican government. Moreover, before the time of the gubernatorial elections came around, the embargo had been listed, and the spectre of hunger no longer haunted Republicans into voting for Federalists. Furthermore, the craft means by which the Federalists had possessed themselves of the State offices was not forgotten, nor condoned. Governor Tompkins, therefore, was re-elected by more than 6,00 majority, (Daniel D. Tompkins, 43,094; Jonas Platt, 36,484).

For the next Legislative year, the Republicans were in control of both houses. Of course, the unseemly scramble for office was again the order of the day. Like hungry wolves who had suddenly found food in plenty, all courtesies were cast aside. DeWitt Clinton pushed past Jacob Radcliff and again seated himself in the New York City mayoralty chair. Van Vechten had to pass the attorney-generalship to Hildreth; Elisha Jenkins was again Secretary of State; and so on. The Clintonian broom swept the State clean of Federalist, Lewisites, Burrites--of all and every political stripe that DeWitt Clinton could not adopt or had any grudge against.

It seems strange that Clinton should still control. Tompkins was undoubtedly the man of the hour, for the republican banner could not have been carried to success by Clinton. Maybe, Tompkins was more than willing that Clinton should have the odium that naturally came to those who did the cleaning. Undoubtedly the odor clung to Clinton. The mayoralty of New York City was the richest office in the State, but this made the snatching of it by himself all the more offensive to New York citizens. Tammany was so much incensed that it resolved to get the whole of its political machinery in operation to make it impossible for Clinton also to hold an Albany office. They closed all chance by nominating Nathan Sanford, Speaker of the Assembly, for the Senatorship then held by Clinton.

This is disconcerting to Clinton who had certain most important political plans which he must bring to consummation before the Presidential year, 1812. To bring these plans to success he must have official status at Albany, the only place where he could properly observe the moves of his enemies. One way of accomplishing this was within his reach, but it was not the one he would have willingly chosen, had there been an alternative. At the next election a successor of Lieutenant-Governor John Broome must be chosen. It did not ideally fit in with his ambitious plans, but he must keep his finger in touch with political movements at the seat of government. So, although the office would be beneath his notice in normal times, Clinton, in this emergency--in his desire to be in Albany to watch the moves of his enemies--was disposed to take Broome's place. Maybe, he did not look upon the Lieutenant-governorship as a political backwater, which it certainly seemed to be. #5 Or, if he think do, there is no doubt he also thought himself strong enough to breakthrough precedent, and dash back into the swirling current of State and National politics at will. There was not trace of pessimism in Clinton's nature; there was also no limit to his ambition--until he reached the Presidency. So, having sufficient influence in the Thirty-fourth Legislature, the indomitable, irrepressible Clinton secured nomination as Lieutenant-Governor.

Tammany was now thoroughly aroused. The leaders had made a fervid appeal against the reappointment of Clinton, as mayor; but had been ignored. Now Tammany entered the political arena with a single purpose; to rid New York politics of Clinton and Clintonians. The Martling Men in the Legislature nominated Marinus Willett for the lieutenant-governorship, and determined to spread the influence of Tammany to all parts of the State. Had they been able to grip the State as they did the city, DeWitt Clinton may have, at this time, passed out of political history. At least he would have been very severely checked.

The Society of St. Tammany--The Society of St. Tammany had, in earlier years, followed social and charitable purposes much more closely than political aims. Organized in 1789 for charitable purposes, its membership consisted mostly of Native Americans who fraternized harmoniously. Their meetings, with charitable intent and brotherly feeling, became social events of warm conviviality. Clintonian and Hamiltonian rubbed shoulders in appreciative brotherhood at these social gatherings. Politics had no welcome around the Tammany Council Fire in early days; the bucktail badge, symbol of liberty, which distinguished its members, handing from the hat of Federalist and anti-Federalist alike, until the second administration of President Washington neared its end. National and State politics were then so thoroughly permeating the thoughts of all responsible men, that the members unconsciously found themselves dividing. Soon, with the removal of the wigwam to the "Long Room" of the tavern of Abraham Martling, the society membership became definitely anti-Federalist. It would have naturally veered to this class eventually, for its basic purpose was democratic. The Federalists now termed the meeting-place of Tammany "The Pig Pen." This was at the time when Aaron Burr was scheming to outwit Jefferson. Federalists soon found a reason for linking Tammany with Burr, although the latter, as matter of act, never was a member of Tammany--at least his name is not to be found on the membership rolls, which are complete and accessible from the very first year. It is certain, however, that Tammany's first Grand Sachem, William Mooney, the Nassau Street upholsterer, was an admirer of the Great Schemer, and perhaps used his influence in the society to further Burr's plottings. Still, it is said that Tammany "was among the first, and among the most bitter, who turned against Burr when he tried to nose Jefferson out of the presidency," #6 Later, however, the society seems to have returned to the aid of Burr, against the onslaught of the vindictive DeWitt Clinton. Tammany, indeed, seems to have very early realized that the imperious Clinton was its worst enemy. Its hand was against him during Burr's time--from the year 1802, and relentlessly after February, 1806.

Clinton, for a while, looked with contempt upon the society, but in 1809 sought reconciliation. He did not succeed, for Tammany leaders continued to execrate him. They went further. They expelled from membership the most loyal henchman Clinton ever had--Editor Cheetham. As a result, the Clinton press soon gave full publicity to the alleged weaknesses of Tammany--with such provoking effect that the resentment of the Martling Men took the violent form of a shower of stones, which broke many windows in Cheetham's house and threatened to wreck the printing plant of the "American Citizen." The fearless editor however died in 1810, mourned perhaps as much by Tammany as by Clinton--indeed Cheetham had cause for grievance against Clinton before the end. The death of Cheetham made little difference to Tammany; its fight was against the master, not the scribe. The Clinton influence was ever before then, a constant irritant. Mayor Clinton held court, or "open house" with regal sway almost like that of the royal Governors of provincial days. He was the plutocrat if not the aristocrat of New York. As mayor of New York, he was receiving, in salary and fees, about $20,000 a year--at a time when $800 could comfortably meet the year's expenses of an average family. Moreover, his wife was one of the wealthiest heiresses of the city. So DeWitt Clinton, while mayor, was able to live in princely style, and, consequently, had many acquaintances, though few friends. Also, he had the satisfaction of knowing that among the less fortunate grade of Democrats he had many followers. The Irish emigrants--the emigrants of ninety-eight and later--thought gratefully of him as the means of modifying the stupidly rigorous naturalization laws. #7 But if Clinton made many acquaintances, he also made a host of enemies. Wherever he went, he never failed to ruffle the feelings of many that an adept of the "politician's art" would never have offended. Tact was foreign to his nature. If he did not have his way, there was unpleasantness. This was not frankness, but impatience--intolerance, perhaps contempt of the opinions of others. Clinton would not brook opposition and was often rude and overbearing to those who differed from him. In some respects he was more of an aristocrat than many of the great landowners--the Van Rensselaers, Livingstons, Schuylers, all of whom were lords of the manor by birth or environment, and strove most of all to be thought of as gentlemen. DeWitt Clinton would have liked to be lord of the manor, but could not get allegiance by gentlemanliness. He did not indeed try, for he preferred to reign by the force of State patronage.

 

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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