The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 5, Part 2

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


His eagerness to build a political aristocracy, or at least a Clinton supremacy supported by office-holding retainers, bred in him a sinister arrogance which was often interpreted as contempt. He was looked upon as a menace by many Democrats. When he contrived to get himself nominated for the Lieutenant-Governorship, Tammany accused him of attempting "to establish in his person a pernicious family aristocracy," with making complete devotion "the exclusive test of merit and the only passport to promotion." This was political propaganda, of course, but was nevertheless true. No man dated reach for what Clinton coveted. The inevitable ending, therefore, of all acquaintanceships he made with strong men of independent temperaments was that, by his acts, he drove them among his enemies. Clinton never sought friends he could not stimulate or simulate friendship in fact. Every human association he made had an obvious ulterior motive, and generally he soon manifested a contempt for his associates. At least, he seemed to have an inherent appreciation of his own superiority of intellect or will. When he lacked intellectual superiority, he called forth strength of will to keep his head a little above those of his fellows. He was destined for great things, but not as great as he supposed. The enmity of Tammany did not cause him much uneasiness. At least he did not show it. to all appearances, he was quite convinced that his political house was built of sounder materials than brotherhood, and held together by something more tangible than social bonds. He did not have much faith in the efficacy of the motives "charity and brotherly love," for which, according to the New York Directory and Register for 1789, the Society of St. Tammany, or "the Independent Order of Liberty," was founded. He could not subscribe sincerely to the second paragraph of Tammany's constitution: "It shall connect in the dissolute bonds of patriotic friendship, American Brethren, of known attachment to the political rights of human nature and the liberties of this Country." The only bond Clinton recognized was self-interest. As this quality was so strong in himself, he felt that it must equally govern the thoughts and actions of others. The only difference he saw between himself and others was that he was, and would continue to be, stronger in purpose. If he satisfied the selfish desires of his underlings, he would hold their allegiance. So Tammany, based on patriotism and brotherly love, might continue in their foolish ways without giving him cause for very grace political apprehensions.

While Clinton did not shut his eyes to the strength of Tammany in the wards and districts of the great city, he was easy in his mind that the vast army of office-holders throughout the State could meet all the onslaughts of the Martling Men. The ward and District leaders might marshal Tammany's city forces efficiently, but hitherto it had not exercised, or tried to exercise, any influence outside.

As though to test the strength of Tammany in its stronghold, Clinton tried to get his nomination, as Lieutenant-Governor by Legislative caucus, confirmed by a citizen's meeting in New York. The meeting was rudely interrupted and overrun by Tammany retainers, who made much of the Revolutionary record of their candidate, Colonel Willett. Tammany might have fused with the Federalists had the latter been willing, for many recognized in the Federalist nominee, Nicholas Fish, a stronger candidate than Marinus Willett.

The storm centre of the election was New York City. Outside, there was no excitement. Mayor Clinton in the city was at the bottom of the poll, Nicholas Fish receiving 2,044, Willett having 678, and Clinton only 590 votes; but throughout the State Clinton was supreme, and received more than sufficient to counterbalance the city vote. So, he became Lieutenant-Governor. Incidentally, the city vote registered disapproval of Tammany as well as of Clinton, for the society had indeed by this time drifted far from the purposes for which it had been founded. Politics had tarnished its worthy basic qualities.

Banking Legislation--The Thirty-fifth Legislature was strongly Republican. With Clinton had been swept in seventy-three Republican Assemblymen, the Federalist strength in the new Assembly being only thirty-nine. DeWitt Clinton, in his prerogative as Lieutenant-Governor, took his seat as president of the Senate on January 20, 1812. Maybe he was of the opinion that this official responsibility condemned him to observe in impartial silence at least one of the vital legislative matters that angrily consumed the patience and exhausted the arguments of members. The storm of protest against the proposal that another bank be chartered had uncovered such a state of corruption, and implicated so many legislators, that Governor Tompkins had been moved to address a message of stern warning to the Legislature. He warned members "to beware of the methods of bank managers." Such institutions, he declared, "facilitate forgeries, drain the country of specie, discourage agriculture, swallow up the property of insolvents to the injury of other creditors, tend to the subversion of government by vesting in the hands of the wealthy and aristocrats classes powerful engines to corrupt and subdue republican notions, relieve the wealthy stockholder from an equal share of contribution to the public service, and proportionally enhance the tax on the hard earnings of the farmer, mechanic, and laborer." The Government referred to the "intrigue and hollow pretenses" of applicants, insisting that the gratification of politicians ought not to govern legislators nor the "selfish and demoralizing distribution of stock." (It had been disclosed that most of the legislators had been offered stock at a price which should assure them substantial profit). "Nor ought we to be unmindful," continued the governor, "that the prominent men who seek the incorporation of new banks, are the very same men who have deeply participated in the original stock of most of the previously established banks. Having disposed of that stock at a lucrative advance, and their avidity being sharpened by repeated gratification, they become more importunate and vehement in every fresh attempt to obtain an opportunity of renewing their speculations." He exhorted the legislators not to be deluded by the lobbying opinions, and the apparent unanimity of sentiment in the capital, for it did not convey a "real indication of the sentiments of the community at large." Rather, he urged them so to legislate as "to retain and confirm public confidence, not only in the wisdom but also in the unbending independence and unsullied integrity of the Legislature." #8

These banking promotions had indeed taken such political significance in State and nation as to be looked upon almost as party departments, not financial corporations, or at least as financial power which the controlling political party could and would use to harm the other. The Clintons, uncle and nephew, came conspicuously into early banking history of both State and Nation. The storm that had ruffled politicians ever since Hamilton and Federalists had chartered the Bank of the United States, in 1792, was soon passed away. Vice-President George Clinton cast the vote in the United States Senate which ended the life of the national Bank which, for twenty years, had held the financial status of the nation steady, despite the frantic efforts of Republicans to show that the institution was a political monster which ever strove to reach and tear out the vitals of Democracy. Feeling against State banks was milder perhaps, but there was probably no question upon which party feeling was keener. DeWitt Clinton had ousted Burr from a bank directorship because of the political power he might have wielded as such; but Clinton himself held tenaciously to directorship, for the same reason. In later years, he found his interest in the Manhattan Company more lucrative--in dividends and political influence. "He spent with a lavish hand, he loaned liberally to friends, and he borrowed as if the day of payment was never to come." #19 He had very positively opposed the chartering of the Merchants' Bank, a Federalists institution, in 1805; yet he did not raise a hand, now in 1812, against this movement to charter the Bank of America, notwithstanding that his friend of other days, Justice Ambrose Spencer, went to the extent of founding a newspaper, the Albany, "Republican," in his efforts to oppose it. "A bank controlling three times as much capital as any other," argued Spencer, "must be a constant menace to minor institutions, which were established under the confidence of governmental protection and upon the legislative faith that no further act should impair or destroy their security." #20 "A power thus unlimited," he declared, " may be exercised not only to prejudice the interests but to control the operations, destroy the independence, and impair the security of every bank north of the city of New York. A bill thus improvisory and alarming, giving undefined the unnecessary powers, and leaving the execution of these powers to a few individuals, would materially weaken the confidence of the community in the justice, wisdom and foresight of the Legislature." #21

DeWitt Clinton, however, could not be moved. A threat from Spencer brought no more positive opinion from him than that he would vote against the bill; he would not be drawn into the contest. Why? Spencer knew. So did Tompkins. But the latter did not feel disposed to aid Clinton in the ulterior motive he had. Clinton aspired to the Presidency. Tompkins also had aspirations, but they were more remote. He did not hope to loom as a Presidential possibility for some years yet, whereas DeWitt Clinton was angling very actively for the nomination in that very year, 1812. The Lieutenant-Governor had made up his mind to get the presidential recognition from his own State Legislature before a congressional caucus could re-nominate Madison. In his own estimation, this was more important and urgent business than the banking measure, but he was powerless to change the order on the calendar. He found that so many of the legislators were financially interested in the banking measure that they would consider no other business until that was out of the way. It was most annoying, but for once Clinton had to sir quietly, though he inwardly fumed with impatience. If he should take part in the debate even more time would be lost. Moreover, if the measure should fail, his opportunities would be remembered, and his hope of legislative endorsements would be faint. He was quite aware that the banking promoters dominated the legislature and that his presidential hopes depended upon their success. So he kept silent.

The colorless young man whom he had put into the gubernatorial chair now took a decisive step. The debate on the banking bill was drawing to a close, and soon the legislators would dispose of it, and take up the next matter of business--that which DeWitt Clinton had nearest his heart. Governor Tompkins clearly saw that indorsement by New York State might draw many other states to Dewitt Clinton, and jeopardize Madison's chance of re-nomination by the National Congress. The Governor saw that he must help Madison now--or give up all hope of being himself aided by Madison four years hence. There was only one way, and that a despotic one; nevertheless, the Governor took it. Tompkins, to outwit Clinton, used a prerogative which had been only once exercised by any State Governor--he prorogued the Legislature. At his command, the Legislature postponed its wrangling for sixty days, from March 27. Before they assembled again, a congressional caucus had re-nominated Madison. The end had justified the means.

Death of George Clinton--Of course the Governor was for a while under a cloud. Such a despotic use of the power generously given him by the people was an unpardonable crime, said some. "It recalled the days of the provincial governors, when England's hand rested heavily upon the liberties of the people." But it served the prime purpose, and did not harm the bank act, for as soon as the legislators reassembled, they hastened to grant the charter to the Bank of America. The only disgruntled one was DeWitt Clinton.

There was not good reason for his disgruntled state of mind, if he valued public esteem more than office. Had the Legislature not been prorogued, Clinton would probably have been endorsed before the month of March has ended. That would have been particularly unfortunate for him. It would show the ambitious young man to the Nation in an unfavorable light--as striving to trample upon his venerable uncle, who had done so much for him. He would seem to be yearning to snatch from the older Clinton the prize which, by a decade of self-effacement in the Vice-presidency, and a score of years of worry in the Governorship. George Clinton was justified, perhaps, in thinking that he had richly earned. The action of Governor Tompkins was no doubt arbitrary; yet, it saved young Clinton from a stigma which might have seriously prejudiced his chance in the Presidential race. Fortune favored the young aspirant against within a month, death coming to his uncle, Vice-President George Clinton, on April 20, at Washington. The threatened stigma could not now brand the would-be President; and DeWitt Clinton now came before the nation as the chief mourner and logical successor of his venerable uncle, whose public service had spanned the life of the young Republic and had been notable by earlier valiant service to the people in the days of the royal governors. The public record of the mourned Vice-President had begun in fearless opposition to a Tory Legislature in 1768-1769; it had run worthily through the exciting days of the first Provincial Congresses of the Revolution, had continued strong for democracy during the first decades of the State, and had been crowned by eleven years of service in the Vice-Presidency. George Clinton, during his long political life, made many friends, but many enemies; and the latter, as might be expected, emphasized his worst qualities, especially condemning his localism. Still, it should not be forgotten that he was elected by the State of New York as the supreme guardian of that State by a majority of its citizens in whose minds the interests of the State came before those of the Nation. Therefore he was bound to look with suspicion upon all that threatened its sovereign power. Clinton's opposition to the central government brings him less favorably than Jay and Hamilton into national records; his localism seems to show that he was by nature narrow, bit it would perhaps be well to bear in mind his responsibility when measuring him by his governmental actions. As Governor, he probably felt that he should first hold firmly to the concrete things of the present, and not give prime attention to the possibilities of the mystical future. Strong, prudent, and cautious, Governor Clinton would not drop the substantial state bone to snatch at the longer national shadow. It can at least be said of George Clinton that no New Yorker had more influential part in the governmental affairs of that State during its precarious early years of statehood. No man, indeed, comes into the history of New York State at any point during its 150 years of statehood with a record of service to it as creditable as that of Governor George Clinton in point of time in responsible office. For a score of years, Clinton held the governing reins. And, along state lines, he skillfully led the people from the chaos and poverty of war to the boon of good government and prosperity.

Especially should it be remembered that the free school movement in New York State was conceived by Governor Clinton. AS early as 1782, he thought that it was "the peculiar duty of the government of a free State. . . . . . .to endeavor by the establishment of schools and seminaries to diffuse that degree of literature which is necessary to the due discharge of public trusts." In 1784 a Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York was organized to supervise and promote education--chiefly collegiate and secondary--throughout the State. Five years later, land in each township was set apart for school purposes, the legislature also making appropriation for the support of district schools. In 1795 the State appropriation was directed chiefly to the aid of common school, Governor Clinton having observed that "the liberal endowment of academies" benefited the "children of the opulent" rather than the children of poor families who most needed to State aid. He persisted in his endeavor to encourage state-aided common schools, and although the continuity of state appropriations for such a worthy purpose was broken in 1800, under governor Jay, it was not forgotten by Clinton. In 1802, when he was again Governor, the subject comes again into his messages to the Legislature, and his successor, Governor Morgan Lewis, concludes an address to the legislature, in 1804, thus: "I cannot conclude, gentlemen, without calling your attention to a subject which my worthy and highly esteemed predecessor in office had so much at heart. . . . .Common schools under the guidance of respectable teachers should be established in every village and the indigent educated at public expense."

There are many other reasons why New York's first State governor, George Clinton, should be gratefully remembered, but it for no other than this persistent endeavor to establish free schools for the masses, his place in New York history must ever be an enviable one. To be recognized as the pioneer of such a great system of free education as that which had been developed in New York State, is honor indeed--perpetual honor, for the education expansion of each year must bring fresh sprays tot he laurel wreath of the pioneer.

An Unpopular War (1812)--The passing of the venerable Governor was, undoubtedly, opportune for the younger Clinton. It seems probably that many of the legislators would have hesitated to think of the nephew as a Presidential candidate if the uncle, who had done so much more for New York State were still living. In all probability, sentiment would have carried them beyond self-interest. Respect for the old Governor would have kept them loyal to him, despite the obvious fact that he was old and feeble, and that the Nation was fast nearing the time when its affairs should be in the hands of a strong determined vigorous and fearless leader--one who could, with squared shoulders, face the clamorous south and protect the northern States from war which would be so calamitous to them. The profitless embargo was again the talk in national circles. On April 24, 1812, the somewhat timid Madison wrote to Jefferson: "I look upon a short embargo as a step to immediate war, and I wait only for the Senate to make the declaration." The northern states, which wished for continued peace with England, had little confidence in Madison, and the southern States, which demanded war, could not tolerate his indecisive temporizing attitude. They, of the south, would gladly have changed Madison for a more resolute leader; yet, he was of the South and they would not willingly aid a Northerner into his place. Indecisive though Madison was, they could lead him into war, whereas a man of stronger northern type--DeWitt Clinton for instance--would snap his fingers at hubbub from the passionate Southlands, and go to the bare hills of New England for cold commercial reasons against war. To those who had not, to their sorrow, come too close to DeWitt Clinton, his personality was no doubt attractive, in this National emergency. They did not see his arrogant intolerance as petulant selfishness. They saw him rather as a "rugged, inflexible, determined, self-willed" leader--just the man who could keep noisy irresponsibles from intimidating him into unwise actions.

However, fate had had its way. Governor Tompkins had checked the growth of the feeling for DeWitt Clinton, and before the New York legislature again assembled, a Congressional caucus of seventeen Senators and sixty-six representatives had re-nominated Madison. Two weeks thereafter, however, the republican members of the New York legislature met, and of ninety-five members in caucus ninety voted to support Clinton for the Presidency. This was perhaps not only indicative of their opinion of him. New York was at that time becoming increasingly jealous of Virginia, a jealousy which "threatened to end in revival of the old alliance between New York and New England." #21 Apart from the question of Madison's ability to handle the question of war, New York State undoubtedly felt that its turn to have a President had come. With the exception of Adams' term, Virginia had monopolized the Presidential office. In any other time than this of impending war, it is more than probably that DeWitt Clinton would not have been thought of. All the political powers were against his nomination. "Governor Tompkins opposed it; the Livingstons assailed it; the Martling men, led by Sanford and Lewis, refused to attend; Ambrose Spencer and John Taylor went into it because they ere driven. . . . . . . In short, the most prominent men in the State opposed the nomination." #22 But, at the opportune moment, some members of Congress came, with letters from Gideon Granger, the postmaster-general, recommending Clinton. These Congressmen told of Madison's unpopularity. Granger pointed out that not a dozen northern members of Congress favored war, but that the south was determined to force the issue. The northern States ought to have in the presidency a man who, when conflict came, could shorten it by a vigorous administration. Hence, the Clinton movement began to assume a National significance.

On the day of his endorsement by New York, DeWitt Clinton felt that his chance in the electoral college was as good as Madison's. Great changes had come within a month. The declaration of war had popularized Madison in the south and West, and to some extent, of course, among republicans of the North; but, from the fact that of ninety-eight Senators and Representatives who voted, on June 18, 1812, for a declaration of war against England, seventy-six resided south of the Delaware River, Clinton knew that his chances in the North were good. He was informed that three Republicans in Massachusetts would unite with the Federalists in choosing Clinton electors; and that he might expect support in Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey, and possibly, in Virginia. "If Pennsylvania should be combined," Clinton said to Gouvernor Morris, who had latterly been drawn to Clinton because of their mutual interest in the Erie Canal project, "I would come out all right." Unfortunately for Clinton, Pennsylvania continued to be "Democratic and Madisonian."

Had Clinton been more secretive in his nature. Had he gone about with the air of intrigue that had ever surrounded Burr, one would have seen as much to condemn in the tactics of the one as in those of the other. Henry Adams writes: "No canvas for the Presidency was ever less creditable than that of DeWitt Clinton in 1812. Seeking war votes for the reason that he favored more vigorous prosecution of the war; asking support from peace Republicans because Madison had plunged the country into war without preparation; bargaining for Federalist votes as the price of bringing about a peace; or coquetting with all parties in the atmosphere of bribery in bank charters--Clinton strove to make up a majority which had no element of union but himself and money." It is somewhat surprising that John Jay should have been persuaded to aid in bringing Federalism into coalition with Republicanism under such a leader, but the record shows that he did attend one such secret conference at Morrisiana in August. Those present, besides himself, were Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris, Federalists, and DeWitt Clinton, Republican. The Federalist wanted peace, and Clinton declared that he entirely approved of resolutions drawn up for a peace meeting, though he wished such a meeting postponed for a month or so--until he had had time "to bring his Republican friends to a common opinion."

Federalists grew suspicious as August passed into September. From the outset of the negotiations, Jay had been reluctant to treat with Clinton at all, and Rufus King had always been distrustful. By the middle of September, King had come to the end of his patience. On September 15 he attended a convention of the Federalist party. He then earnestly urged the convention "to nominate a respectable Federalist," one in whom they could have confidence, for in his opinion Clinton was too equivocal in character. "If we succeed in promoting his election," he declared, "I fear we shall place in the chair a Caesar Borgia instead of a James Madison." #23 Senator King was carried beyond truth in this simile, for, although reckless and intolerant, DeWitt Clinton had always been true to well-known basic principles. His career in politics had not been inconsistent. He had always been a Republican, though never a true Democrat. The old Senator from New York could not, without exasperation, think of Federal hands being tied to a Republican. The thought that Clinton should be the republican to whom they were seriously suggesting to intrust Federalism was even worse. It was suicidal. However, King could not sway the convention. One delegate pointed out that Clinton had favorably impressed Federal leaders. Others were confident "of the excellence of his moral character and the purity of his present political views." To all arguments favoring Clinton, Senator King demurred. He could not be shaken in his conviction. "Time, which reveals all, must decide between us," #24 were his last words.


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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