The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 5, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


Clinton's cause was being checked in other quarters also. The state and National administrations of course opposed him. The new Legislature also was not as strongly Clintonian as that which had indorsed him. There was a republican majority, but on joint ballot it was divided between Clinton and Madison; and twenty Republican Assemblymen positively refused to vote unless Madison received a fair share of the electors. Had not a new figure come into New York politics at this perplexing time, it is doubtful whether Clinton could have carried the Presidential movement farther, with any hope of success. Martin Van Buren, son of a Kinderhook innkeeper, had just entered the State Senate. This young lawyer, the youngest Senator of those who convened in November, 1812, and perhaps the smallest in stature, "slipped into leadership as easily as Bonaparte stepped in the history of Europe." Van Buren was the temperamental opposite of Clinton. He was thirteen years younger, and altogether lacked the commanding personality of Clinton. His calm demeanor and quiet confidence were direct contrasts to the other's intolerant aggressiveness. "As you saw him once," wrote William Allen Butler of Ban Buren, "you saw him always--always punctilious, always polite, always cheerful, always self-possessed. It seemed to anyone who studied this phase of his character as if, in some early moment of destiny, his whole nature had been bathed in a cool clear and unruffled depth, from which it drew this lifelong serenity and self-control." #25 On the other hand, Clinton seemed as though he were continually fighting off gnats--little political midges of no consequence, but always irritating. Van Buren, as yet, was young in politics, but as he got deeper into its intricacies it was seen that, when he intrigued, "he preferred to intrigue upon the strongest side," #26 whereas Clinton, by comparison, seems to merit being classed among the most reckless of political gamblers. He was happy when fighting, no matter what the odds against him were.

However, at this moment, when Clinton's recklessness and restlessness seemed to be shaking the republican platform to pieces, the serenely calm and confident Van Buren at his side was the reassuring factor that Clinton most needed, and could not himself supply. This young lawyer from Columbia County had hitherto given his time mostly to law; but in his own county he was known as a consistent Republican. He was positive on every point on which Clinton had been doubtful or negative. Van Buren had approved the embargo, non-intercourse, and even the war. He was sincere, and by the confidence he himself had that Clinton was the logical, legitimate Republican nominee, regularly and almost unanimously chosen by the preceding legislature, and therefore the candidate to whom they should all rally, he drew other to think likewise. Upon joint ballot, therefore, the Clintonian electors received seventy-four votes to the Federalists' forty-five. The twenty-eight Madisonians deposited blanks, but many Federalists had voted for Clinton.

So it happened that Clinton secured the solid New York vote in electoral college. Had someone of Van Buren's type, of his quiet assurance and obvious sincerity, appeared in Pennsylvania at that time, the Quaker State might have been won for Clinton. His election to the Presidency would then have been almost certain, but it was not to be. When the electoral votes were counted it was found that Clinton had been given eighty-nine, #27 but that the remainder of the votes--128--had reelected President Madison.

The war had brought Clinton into the presidential race. It had also thrown him aside. The psychological effect of the military disasters of 1812 was natural, if illogical; the sorely beset American government must not be defeated, was the thought that brought the Republican strength in ever-increasing volume to Madison's side.

With the defeat of Clinton for the presidency went much of his prestige among Republicans within the State. Certain significant happenings, especially the election of Rufus King to the Untied States Senate, in 1831, and the retention of DeWitt Clinton as mayor of New York City, seemed to convince Republicans that Clinton had been false to Republicanism, had connived with Federalists and bargained with a corrupt group of financiers. Ambrose Spencer had bitterly denounced him, and the Republicans in general were prepared to believe him quilty of almost anything. Even Martin Van Buren now shrank away from the man he had so recently championed. Or at least, he did not rally so definitely to DeWitt Clinton in State politics as he had when national politics were the consideration of the moment. It seemed that Clinton's sun had definitely set when, on February 4, a legislative caucus by acclamation re-nominated Daniel D. Tompkins for Governor, but only gave Clinton sixteen votes for re-nomination as Lieutenant-Governor. Certainly, Clinton was not, in 1813, the "man of the hour," even though it could not be declared with any logical assurance that so young, so capable, so strong, and so optimistic a man would, with this rebuff, pass out of politics. The future of a gambler is always uncertain. It may be roseate with affluence or miserable with poverty. It may hold both conditions within an incredibly short space of time. Men of Clinton's type are never dead until they are buried. However, for the moment, Clinton was politically "out at elbows."

The Federalists nominated Stephen van Rensselaer for Governor. It was not a very wise choice, for Van Rensselaer was then under a cloud, owing to disasters that came to his military command on the Niagara Frontier. Jefferson had been of the opinion that Major-General Van Rensselaer should be "broke for incapacity." Jefferson was inclined to be demagogic. Certainly, he can not have known the handicaps under which General Van Rensselaer had struggled to guard the Niagara Frontier for the first few months of the war, with an "army" of 690 undisciplined militia. He can hardly have known that the commander of the only regular troops on that front dallied near buffalo with his command, instead of marching to Lewiston to cooperate with the militia in the attack Van Rensselaer had planned to make on Queenston. This failure to cooperate was the direct cause of the defeat of Van Rensselaer. Eventually the truth became known and this amazingly conceited and inefficient regular officer, Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth, was requested to resign his commission. Van Rensselaer was already in disgrace, and so was hardly a good candidate to put against the popular Tompkins for the Governorship. Federalists of New York knew the truth, and no doubt felt that in nominating Van Rensselaer they were doing their best to vindicate him. In his military misfortunes, however, republican orators had too powerful a political trumpet; so it is not surprising that Tompkins, the "farmer's boy,' who had done well as Governor, should be re-elected. (Tompkins, 43,324; Van Rensselaer, 39,718.)

Governor Tompkins was now at the zenith of his political career; DeWitt Clinton was almost at the base of the ladder. Clinton had passed out of presidential possibilities. Tompkins was entering the class of probably candidates, but at about the same time another New Yorker was coming rapidly into the same class. John Armstrong, once a Senator, later, since July, 1812, a military general, and for the last few months Secretary of War, was forging ahead. He was advancing too rapidly to please either Governor Tompkins or the benighted Clinton. Tompkins saw with much concern that Ambrose Spencer was coming into friendly alliance with Armstrong. Strange alliances were made in those uncertain days--and stranger breaks. The council of appointment had so contrived nominations that Clinton had to choose between the loss of the mayoral office or of one of his oldest henchmen, Richard Riker. The Federalists on the Council of Appointments had made it clear that unless the Republican members supported the nomination of Jonas Platt for associate-justice of the Supreme Court, which office Richard Riker, Clinton's "own familiar friend," had hoped to get, they would retaliate by ousting Clinton from the mayoralty. The dilemma was put to Clinton, and he decided--against Riker. He could not put friendship before an income of $20,000 a year.

So Clinton continued as mayor--became the great War Mayor, just as Tompkins became a great War Governor. Had Tompkins been a little less jealous, and placed the interest of the State and nation before his own, his somewhat shrouded rival might have won renown, or death, on the battlefield. When defeat after defeat had come to American forces and New York State seemed to the mercy of the invader, DeWitt Clinton begged Tompkins to assign him to a military command. Tompkins would not do so. His patriotism "scarcely rose to that sublime height which suffers its possessor unselfishly to advance a rival even for the public welfare." #28 Clinton already held the rank of Major-General, and could hardly contain himself in patience, while the generals in the northern part of the State were bungling so deplorably. Had he been privileged to get into action, he might have emerged as one of the nation's great generals, for his was the fighting spirit. His commanding personality would have carried him to victory--or to death, but it was not to be. Tompkins had no desire to resuscitate Clinton, nationally. So the latter had to contain himself, and do the best he could for State and Nation in his mayoral responsibility. In that he did well--courageously, in fact. When the New England States refused to lend the Central government money for war purposes, DeWitt Clinton induced the Common Council of New York City to pledge the credit of the city and lend the proceeds to the United States. Again, when the National treasury was empty and no Federal aid could be had for defenses to meet the supposed impending raiding of the coast by British warships, Clinton roused the people of New York to subscribe one million dollars for the city's defense. Clinton was indeed himself--his better side was uppermost during this trying national emergency. His inspiring presence was needed at the front; his infectious enthusiasm was sorely needed among the flagging militia on the frontier, who were as much perplexed by the insidious pacifist propaganda, spread by Federalist agents who came among them, as they were bewildered and disheartened by the inefficiency of their generals. A commander of Clinton's fearless optimism might have achieved great things for his country long before Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott began to show that American militia could hold up well before even British regulars who were veterans of the continental wars.

This denial of a war command to Clinton was the only reproachable action that comes into Governor Tompkins' war record. He id wonderfully well inmost other respects. His course was always difficult, rendered so because of the fact that for the greater part of the years of war, the Federalists controlled the Legislature. They were opposed to war--most actively so. During the first two years of the war, almost all war measures that the Governor recommended were blocked by the Federalist Legislators. The national situation was appalling. New England Federalists would not make loans to the Nation; and New York Federalists, to whom Governor Tompkins appealed, would not vote a dollar to equip a man. "Why should we continue a war from the prosecution of which we have nothing to gain?" they asked. Federalists agitators were active among the soldiers at the front, and if such disgraceful evidences of lack of patriotism--or distorted patriotism, in putting State before Nation--could not quite undermine the morale of the citizen soldiers, the fact that they were poorly fed, miserably clad, and without pay could hardly infuse them with fighting zeal. The sump of patriotism is the stomach. If the State were not loyal to then, could the State expect loyalty from them? In this grave National predicament, governor Tompkins well earned the right to be classed among great ware Governors. Courage, patriotism, and strength of will are indicated in his decision to borrow money even without authority of law. So, in this irregular but laudable way, the governor of New York met the just liabilities of the State, and carried on, though the military campaign of 1813 was as dismal a series of failures as that of 1812. A great naval victory--that of Perry on Lake Erie--had come to break the gloom a little. Its significance was not, however, fully appreciated and in 1814 it seemed that the nation was doomed to defeat--perhaps to subjection again to the British Crown. Certainly the Union seemed to be doomed to speedy end. The British were planning a new Orleans campaign, and Canada was being filled with veteran regular regiments--released from the Spanish Peninsular. It seemed that the better-equipped and more experienced British forces would close in from all directions upon the sadly-divided young Nation, and finish dismemberment which had long been threatened in the northern States. In this critical time, the New England Federalists were actively planning to secede.

While the movement found response in New York State, Federalists of New England must have been dismayed at the surprising change that came into New York politics in the spring of 1814. To the amazement of even republican leaders, the people rallied to the war party in such numbers that the new Legislature was overwhelmingly Republican. It appears that the people now fully realized that New York State itself was in danger, that Americans might have to bow to the English again, that the burning of Buffalo and the other disasters of the frontier way might being even worse disasters to their State. So, they cast political perplexities and partisan strife behind them and rallied to the government and the Flag, determined to fight on to a settlement that would be worthy of a courageous, independent people.

Governor Tompkins lost no time in assembling this war legislature in special session. Soon war measures came from the legislature "like cloth from a loom." War funds were voted, privateering encouraged, a conscription bill passed--whatever measures Governor Tompkins deemed to be vital to the interests of the State and nation in the prosecution of the war were promptly attended to. The Central government was thus encouraged at the time when the sky was darkest. New York State, at least, would squarely face the military dangers of the future. New York State forces indeed had, during that summer, demonstrated that, when properly led and possessed of the will to fight, they were not so much inferior in battle to British regulars. This demonstration on the Niagara Frontier, indeed, may have impressed the British ministers more than it cheered the American people. After fighting for a generation on European fields England could hardly hope for victory in a struggle 3,000 miles from home, against a Nation which could put into the field hundreds of thousands of determined men. This, perhaps, was the thought uppermost in the minds of the British ministers when, on the day before Christmas of 1814 they singed the Treaty of Ghent. Even though the fortunes of war had seemed to favor England, the treaty brought honorable peace, with "not an inch ceded or lost." On the very same day that the peace treaty was signed, a report was made of the proceedings of the infamous Hartford Convention. Delegates of New England States had met and had favored the establishment of a New England Confederacy. That some New York Federalists approved of the movement is clear. Gouverneur Morris, for instance, wrote, on December 22, to Thomas Pickering, the stormy petrel of secession, stating that his eyes were fixed "on a star in the east" which he believed to be "the dayspring of freedom and glory." Continuing in more direct strain, Morris wrote: "the traitors and madmen assembled at Hartford will, I believe if not too tame and timid, be hailed hereafter as the patriots and sages of their day and generation." #29 Some of the delegates, indeed, saw no hope of avoiding the fatal issue unless the Southerners coerced Madison into retirement and placed Rufus king of New York in the Presidency. #30

Soon came news of the great victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, and a week later news of the signing of the treaty of peace. The secessionists were thus robbed of their thunder, and the logical New Englanders were willing to continue in the Union. What would have been the outcome of the war had a Federalist Governor ruled in New York during the critical years when the fighting was mainly on its frontiers can only be conjectured. Possibly the New York Governor would have followed New England governors in withdrawing State militia from the service of the United States. Maybe the New England confederacy which had almost become a fact would have actually become so--with the addition of New York State. In any case, it may with assurance be stated that the republican Governor of New York, Daniel D. Tompkins, was one of the stalwart pillars of the nation during the War of 1812-15.

The Wise Little Man from Kinderhook--Another of the strong pillars in New York State was martin Van Buren. He had always been prominent in the Senate, and when the Republicans regained control in 1814 became the acknowledged leader in the that house. He became "the chief spokesman of the national Administration in New York," and championed most of the State legislation of war purposes. His "classification bill," which divided the State into 12,000 classes for military purposes, was later declared to be 'the most energetic war measure ever adopted in the country." #31 Each class was required to furnish one able-bodied soldier by voluntary enlistment, by bounty, or by draft; defaulting or delinquent classes were to be proceeded against by property assessment.

By his valuable service to the State and the Nation, Senator Van Buren well earned the reward that Governor Tompkins sought to procure for him. But there were several influential New Yorkers who were opposed to his preferment for the attorney-generalship in 1815. Justice Ambrose Spencer was most bitter. He saw that the young Senator was out-stripping him in political influence, and he did not like it. John Woodworth, a former attorney-general, would be more acceptable to him. He argued that Woodworth deserved it, having been ousted from the office when the Federalists gained control of the Council of Appointment three years earlier. But Spencer could not get more than two of the four members of the Council to see as he did, and the Governor's casting vote made Van Buren the attorney-general in February, 1815.

With the return of the Republicans to power in 1814, after three years of barren sport for Republican office-hunters, there had been the usual unseemly scramble for office. Governor Tompkins offended Spencer again by appointing General Peter Buell porter, to the secretaryship of State. Porter, a hero of the relief of Fort Eire, was now a national figure, and moreover was a quite capable lawyer. In any case, the governor was of the opinion that Spencer's friend, Elisha Jenkins, had already been sufficiently recompensed by three terms as secretary of State. But the meddlesome Judge, Spencer, must have realized that his influence in administration circles, and in Tompkins' friendship, must be fast waning when he heard that Nathan Sanford had been appointed United States Senator. Spencer had at first recommended ex-Secretary of War John Armstrong (who by the way had passed out of the Presidential possibilities by his mismanagement of the War Department in 1813 and 1814), to succeed Obadiah German as United States Senator, but when he was told that Armstrong was "utterly undesirable," he had announced his own candidacy. Finally, the opposition of Van Buren caused Justice Spencer to withdraw, or to "decline to compete" with "so young a man as Mr. Sanford." This, however, did not express the true state of his feelings.

A greater suggested change was troubling Spencer. He wished to get DeWitt Clinton out of the mayoralty, which had been his since 1803--save for two years given to Marinus Willett and Jacob Radcliff. Tammany also demanded the removal of Clinton, charging that he had "opposed the war, and was an enemy of his party." Tompkins might have been willing to meet both Spencer and Tammany in this, but he was shrewd enough to see that Clinton, still young and vigorous, would be a dangerous enemy in any capacity--perhaps more dangerous out of office than in. Two of the council were for the removal of Clinton, and the Governor's casting vote would have accomplished it; but Tompkins dreaded to cast it. Van Buren 'controlled' one of the council members who still held loyally to Clinton; but the suave young lawyer from Kinderhook could see farther into the future than most men, and he had no wish to be known as the means of accomplishing the removal of the great mayor. Tammany persisted, and threatened those who caused delay. The end came when one of the two members who had held loyally to Clinton found he could no longer resist what was dangling before him--the shrievalty of New York., an office of large stipend and fat fees.

So DeWitt Clinton, the "master-spirit of his age," went down to complete defeat; to bankruptcy also. He who had lived like a prince now found himself almost a pauper, discredited politically and without credit financially. Still, none could rob him of his most valuable natural asset--his indomitable courage. In defeat DeWitt Clinton was as strong and as optimistic as in victory. "Genuine greatness," he said in a memorial address delivered about this time, "never appears in a more resplendent light, or in a more sublime attitude, than in that buoyancy of character which rises superior to danger and difficulty." DeWitt Clinton refused to g out when he was down. Such men use defeat as the spur to greater effort. The greatest part of Clinton's career was still, indeed, before him.

With the complete downfall of Clinton, Governor Tompkins was 'riding on the crest of the political waves." On February 14, 1816, he was brought one step nearer to the presidency, a legislative caucus unanimously instructed the members of Congress from New York to support him for President. One week later he was re-nominated for Governor--against his own wish it seems. But there was no other candidate strong enough to oppose Rufus King, the Federalist nominee. It was fortunate for the Republican party that Tompkins was the standard bearer, for, although he secured re-election b y a majority of more than 6,000 (45,412 against 38,647 cast for King), the Federalists were so vigorous that the Republicans were on the defensive almost everywhere. Only the personal popularity of Governor Tompkins saved the day for them.

It was gratifying to the Governor to think that he was so popular. To be elected four times to the Governorship, each time by substantial majorities and by the most honourable means, was a public records of which he might well be proud. However, he hoped that her would not have to remain long in the State office. His records had been uniformly good. Even the Federalists ceased to criticize. So he hoped that the time had nearly come when he would step into the higher office which for years had been his political goal.

But he had grievously offended one who was now to raise a hindering hand. Ambrose Spencer was not yet chief-justice, but he was a political factor second in power only to Tompkins at this time in New York State. Van Buren might have challenged this power, and, in his quieter, more effective way, have emerged triumphant, but Van Buren was a newcomer, whereas Spencer was a man of past greatness. To the latter, therefore, political affronts were more poignant. Tompkins had wounded him sorely in the recent matter of State appointments, and the wound refused to heal. Dislike developed into distrust, and this into contempt. Soon Spencer became convinced that Tompkins was presumptuous in seeking Presidential office. He felt sure that William H. Crawford, the Georgia statesman, was a much more eligible candidate. It was not long before Spencer boldly announced his preference for Crawford. He carried several halting State leaders with him.

Tompkins' case was weakest, but had he been a little shrewder, he might have easily come out successful. Madison was very well disposed toward Tompkins; so much so indeed that he had invited the Governor to become his Secretary of State in the early autumn of 1814. Had Tompkins done so, it is quite possible that his gentle, courteous nature and proved executive ability would have impressed other national leaders long before the coming of the time when the Legislative caucus would be taking action as to the successor of Madison. Governor Tompkins could see no political advantage in the office, his eyes being on the Presidency. So he declined the cabinet office. Fifteen years later, Martin Van Buren, similarly placed, may have profited from the experience of Governor Tompkins. Van Buren did not hesitate to resign the Governorship to become Jackson's Secretary of State, and from that office he went to the Vice-Presidency, and in 1836 tot he Presidency. Tompkins clung to the Governorship, and the National leaders, with the exception of Madison, therefore, had little chance of warming to him. Madison himself grew cooler, and eventually gave his influence top Monroe. Friends of Monroe carried the campaign into New York, Editor Southwick's "Albany Register," being the most active Monroe journal. The greatest stumbling block before Tompkins, however, was his own lieutenant, Van Buren.

Van Buren, it seems, quite early realized that Tompkins had little chance against Monroe or Crawford, both of whom were national figures; and he had no wish to commit himself to the losing candidate as he had in 1812. Van Buren played a double hand, with marked success. He declared for Tompkins, and carried the State Legislature wit him; and, as he well knew that three-fourths of the congressmen from New York were in favor of Crawford, he prevented them from expressing any preference. By the time the congressional caucus was due to meet, the Kinderhook master-political had so confused the situation that few knew how the New York members would vote. They had been instructed to vote for Tompkins; Spencer demanded that they vote for Crawford; Van Buren was willing that they should vote for neither--that they should indeed fritter away New York's vote, in which case Monroe would be nominated. This is exactly what happened. Monroe received sixty-five votes and Crawford fifty-four. Tompkins received none. What Governor Tompkins thought of Van Buren's efforts in his behalf are nor recorded. It is, however, known that Monroe was not unmindful of the service rendered him by the wise little man from Kinderhook. Indeed, he attributed his election to Van Buren's genius in putting one opposing force to cripple another. Tompkins later was named for Vice-President and agreed to accept the office, more it seems to stifle the thought that he was piqued at the loss of the Presidency than because he looked upon the Vice-Presidency as of more importance than the Governorship.


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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