Clinton, DeWitt - Erie County

DE WITT CLINTON, third son of Gen. James Clinton and grandfather of Spencer and George Clinton of Buffalo, was born March 2d, 1769, at the family home in Little Britain, Orange County. His early education was gained at the grammar-school in Little Britain and at the Kingston Academy. His studies were rudely interrupted by the Revolutionary War, but in the spring of 1784 he entered the junior class of Columbia College. An address delivered by him in later years to the Columbia alumni contains a vivid description of the college building as it was at the close of the war. Young Clinton was one of the most systematic and careful of students. His custom was to read pen in hand, and he continued the practice to the end of his life. In 1786 he was graduated at the head of his class. Shortly after his graduation he began reading law with Samuel Jones, a noted lawyer of New York City. At this time an event occurred which marked an epoch in the life of De Witt Clinton, and had much to do with determining his career. This was the assembling of the convention which formulated the Constitution of the United States. The youthful law student assiduously read the publications relative to the proposed Constitution, and his attention to Constitutional subjects was intensified by his attendance, in 1788, at the New York convention which met at Poughkeepsie to ratify the United States Constitution.

About 1789, on the death of his brother Alexander, De Witt Clinton succeeded him as private secretary to Governor George Clinton, his uncle, and he held this situation till 1795. In 1797 he was elected Member of Assembly, and in 1798 became State Senator, becoming very prominent in the political controversies and legislative measures of the day.

In 1802 Mr. Clinton was elected to the United States Senate. At this time he was only thirty-three years of age. In February, 1803, Mr. Clinton took a leading part in the Senate debate on Mr. Ross's resolutions authorizing the President to take possession of New Orleans. The summer of the same year Mr. Clinton succeeded Edward Livingston as Mayor of New York, and with the exception of a year or two, continued in that office till 1815. By his acceptance of the mayoralty, Mr. Clinton was obliged to resign his place in the United States Senate, but he was elected to the State Senate and served as State Senator for several years of his mayorality, his name becomingidentified with a large amount of State legislation.

In 1810 Mr. Clinton took the first step in the enterprise which was destined to link his fame with the greatest artificial waterway of the continent and to give him for all time the popular appellation of "Father of the Erie Canal." In the summer of that year he and the first Canal Commissioners, his associates, made a journey through the Mohawk Valley and Western New York in order to ascertain the practicability of constructing a canal from the Hudson to the Lakes. The following year Mr. Clinton was elected Lieutenant-Governor of New York. In 1811 he received the nomination for President of the United States. His opponent was Mr. Madison, who was elected, obtaining 128 electoral votes, the number received by Mr. Clinton being 89. In December, 1811, Mr. Clinton read before the New York Historical Society his discourse on the Iroquois Indians. This dissertation is a notable example of deep research and eloquent style.

The period immediately after the War of 1812 was marked by a revival of public interest in the project of a canal from the Hudson Eiver to the Great Lakes. Mr. Clinton was insistent in bringing the subject before the people and the Legislature. He prepared on behalf of canal construction a most able memorial, which was adopted at a meeting held by representative citizens of New York, in 1816. April 15th, 1817, the Canal Bill was passed, the work of construction being begun on the 4th of July. In the fall of the same year Mr. Clinton was elected Governor of New York by a nearly unanimous vote. This triumph was all the more signal because of the fact that two years before, Mr. Clinton's political adversaries had succeeded in depriving him of the Mayorality of New York City. In 1820 he was re-elected Governor. During both of these terms the canal enterprise was pushed with energy.

In 1822, the year of the new Constitutional Convention, Joseph C. Yates was elected Governor, but in 1824 Mr. Clinton was again elected to that office, in which he was continued, by successive re-elections, to the day of his death. In October 1825, the Erie Canal was completed. Mr. Clinton made a triumphal journey from Lake Erie to the Hudson, and in his message of January, 1826, he referred in characteristic and appropriate terms to the consummation of the canal enterprise. Governor Clinton's last message to the Legislature was delivered Jan. 1st, 1828. Its opening sentences were strikingly expressive of gratitude to the Providence which had guarded the destinies of the young State and nation, and it may be observed in this connection that Mr. Clinton was the first Governor who -recommended the observance of days of public thanksgiving by the people of the State.

De Witt Clinton died February 11th, 1828.

Maria Franklin, the wife of De Witt Clinton, was a daughter of Walter Franklin, of New York. Through her mother, Mary Bowne of Flushing, she was a direct descendant of Adam Winthrop, founder of the Winthrop family.

SOURCE:  Memorial and Family History of Erie County New York; Volume I