History of Ontario Co. & Its People
Vol. 1, Pub. 1911 Pg. 62 - 70
Thanks to Deborah Spencer for transcription of these pages.
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ONTARIO’S FIRST HALF CENTURY
Her Politics and Politicians--Early
Elections--Snap Methods--Ontario Firm in the Federalist Faith--The County’s
Representation in Congress and the Legislature--Succession of County
Officers--Oliver Phelps a Candidate for Lieutenant-Governor.
The first settlement of Canandaigua was
cotemporaneous with the adoption of the Federal constitution, in 1788.
Ontario county was erected January 27, 1789.
So that the county’s first half century was practically the first half
of the 19th century.
In times of political quiet, when the
affairs of government move on in the even tenor of their way, and turn upon
questions of personal or party interest, the words and acts of men in each
center of population are but the reflex of those prominent in the public eye as
leaders. This was especially true
of the political history of the earlier part of the period under consideration. Parties
had names, it is true, in those days, but they had no organization, and they
represented persons rather than principles.
The politicians were Clintonians, Lewisites, Burrites, of Jeffersonians,
more than they were Federalists or Republicans.
The restrictions on suffrage gave only a
part of the people the right to vote, and but few of those having the right
cared to exercise it. Only one
voter in five reported at the polls at the first elections in the State, as
compared with over 90%, at our recent elections. The simple but efficient system of caucuses and conventions
which now enables every voter to exercise an influence, however distant it may
sometimes seem, upon the naming of candidates and the enunciating of party
principles, had no counterpart in those days.
Nominations to Congress or the State Assembly were made by the candidates
themselves, or by open conventions or “respectable meetings” of such
electors as cared to attend. Nominations
to the Governorship were left to members of the Legislature to make, or to
coteries of politicians at the State capital, like the famous “Albany
Regency.” It could not well be
otherwise. Means of communication
were few. Travel was slow,
difficult, and expensive. It took longer to go from Canandaigua to Albany than it does
now to cross the continent.
Moreover, there were no contests over county
officers in the earlier part of the period.
Beyond the election of town officers, members of Assembly, and members of
Congress, even the select few who had the right to vote had no voice.
All the rest was managed at Albany--even to the vote of the State for
candidates for President. The
voters generally did not have the privilege to vote for presidential electors
From the time of the adoption of the State
constitution until the first general revision of that instrument in 1821, the
appointment of all State officers except Governor, and for a part of the time
Lieutenant-Governor, and of all city and county officers, was in the hands of a
Council of Appointment named by the Assembly from the members of the State
Senate. Even auctioneers received
their authority to do business from the Council.
This powerful body was often at variance with the Governor, and it used
its power unblushingly to reward friends or punish enemies of the dominant
faction in the Legislature.
As often as the Assembly changed its
political complexion, from Clintonian to Federalist, or from Burrite to
Lewisite, or vice versa, so often was every important public office in the
State, and some that were not so important, changed.
So it came about, for instance, that Peter B. PORTER was summarily
removed from the office of clerk of Ontario county in 1804, on account of his
friendship for Colonel BURR, then just defeated of election for Governor.
Mr. PORTER’s successor was Sylvester TIFFANY, a good Morgan LEWIS
Republican, but evidently a poor speller. At
least the Ontario Repository of that date records the fact that protests had
been signed and forwarded to Albany against his appointment as one which
disgraced the county, and in a published address to the appointee, the BURR
organ advised him to learn how to spell his own name before entering upon the
duties of office. It added:
“Know then, Clerk of Ontario, that the way
to spell your Christian name is S-y-l-v-e-s-t-e-r, and not S-i-l-v-e-s-t-e-r, as
you like a blockhead, write it.”
But it must not be hastily concluded that
because political control was confined so exclusively to the savants at Albany,
Ontario county had no politicians in the days when it embraced all of Western
New York from Geneva to the Niagara river.
The founders of the settlement and the
organizers of the county were doubtless Federalists.
All patriots recognized in those days the leadership of President
WASHINGTON in national affairs, but the party in power at Albany was often in
opposition to those who carried the same name at Washington, and when the State
was rent in twain, as it was early in the century by the contentions of
Alexander HAMILTON and John JAY, on one side, and Governor George CLINTON, who
had up to that time retained the office of chief magistrate unopposed, on the
other side, the echoes at least must have reached the “folks in the woods”
of Ontario county. But pictures of
early politics must do without much local color.
We cannot tell even to which party or faction some of the first office
The first political incident of note of
which we have record as occurring in Ontario county, grew out of the fact that
although not entitled by its population to representation in the State
legislature at so early a period, the county by a special act was given this
right in 1791. The fact was not
known in Canandaigua or Geneva, but the politicians of a small settlement in
what is now Steuben county, obtained possession of the secret, and, with an
appreciation of the possibilities of snap methods not surpassed by their
descendants, gathered a few backwoodsmen, went through the form of an election,
and cast their votes for Col. Eleasor LINDSLEY, of that settlement, for the
office of Member of Assembly.
The proceeding may have been somewhat
irregular, but no one contested, and Mr. LINDSLEY took his seat.
The year following, the people of the county, being awake to their
rights, elected General Israel CHAPIN of Canandaigua to represent them at
Their chief political interest of those days
naturally centered about the election of Members of Assembly, for as we have
seen, it was the office through which alone the voters could express their will,
though ever so indirectly, as to State politics or as to appointments to office,
but the incident related is about the only knowledge we have of the recurring
contests, except that contained in the list of incumbents of office.
Even the local papers, so far as can be judged from the defective files
remaining, throw little light on the subject.
General CHAPIN was succeeded in the Assembly
by Thomas MORRIS, of Canandaigua, he by Lemuel CHIPMAN, of Pittstown (now
Honeoye), and Charles WILLIAMSON, of Bath; and among those elected in the
following years were Amos HALL, of Canandaigua; Nathaniel NORTON, of Bloomfield;
Peter B. PORTER, Augustus PORTER, and Thaddeus CHAPIN, of Canandaigua; Polydore
B. WISNER, of Seneca; Daniel W. LEWIS, of Seneca; Philetus SWIFT, of Phelps;
William RUMSEY, of Bath; Gideon PITTS, of Honeoye; Israel CHAPIN, Jr., and
Reuben HART, of Canandaigua; Myron HOLLEY, Phineas P. BATES, and John C.
SPENCER, of Canandaigua; Bowen WHITING, of Geneva; Francis GRANGER and Walter
HUBBELL, of Canandaigua; John DICKSON, of West Bloomfield; Oliver PHELPS and
Mark H. SIBLEY, of Canandaigua;
Henry PARDEE, of Victor; Henry W. TAYLOR, of
Canandaigua; Jonathan BUELL, Timothy BUELL, and Josiah PORTER, of East
Bloomfield; Alvah WORDEN, of Canandaigua; Lorenzo CLARK and Emory B. POTTLE, of
In the office of clerk, Nathaniel GORHAM was
succeeded by John WICKHAM, Peter B. PORTER, Sylvester TIFFANY, James B. MOWER,
Myron HOLLEY, Hugh McNAIR, John VanFOSSEN, Gavin L. NICHOLAS, Ralph LESTER,
Charles CRANE, John L. DOX, Thomas HALL, Alexander H. HOWELL and Reuben MURRAY,
Judah COLT, the first sheriff, was succeeded
by Nathaniel NORTON, Roger SPRAGUE, Benjamin BARTON, Stephen BATES, James R.
GURNSEY, James REES, Wm. SHEPARD, Nathaniel ALLEN, Phineas P. BATES, Samuel
LAWRENCE, Joseph GARLINGHOUSE, Jonathan BUELL, Jonas M. WHEELER, Myron H. CLARK,
John LAMPORT, Eri DENSMORE, Phineas KENT, and William H. LAMPORT.
Oliver PHELPS, the first county judge, was
succeeded by Timothy HOSMER, John NICHOLAS, Nathaniel W. HOWELL, Bowen WHITING,
Charles J. FOLGER, E. Fitch SMITH and Mark H. SIBLEY.
The surrogates were John COOPER, Samuel
MELLISH, Israel CHAPIN, Jr., Amos HALL, Dudley SALTONSTALL, Reuben HART,
Eliphalet TAYLOR, Stephen PHELPS, Ira SELBY, Jared WILSON, Orson BENJAMIN, and
George R. PARBURT.
The first district attorney was John C.
SPENCER. He was followed by Abraham
P. VOSBURG, Bowen WHITING, Henry F. PENFIELD,
George W. CLINTON, Nathan PARKE, Thomas M.
HOWELL, Barzillai SLOSSON, James C. BROWN, and Stephen R. MALLORY.
In the Senate, the district of which Ontario
was a part, was represented by Thomas MOREY, Lemuel CHIPMAN, Philetus SWIFT,
Amos HALL, Stephen BATES, Gideon GRANGER, John C. SPENCER, William H. SEWARD,
Mark H. SIBLEY, and Albert LESTER.
In Congress, during the 50 years under
examination, the Ontario district had among its representatives Thomas MORRIS,
Oliver PHELPS, Peter B. PORTER, Nathaniel W. HOWELL, John C. SPENCER, John
DICKSON, Francis MAYER and John GREIG.
Through succeeding campaigns in which George
CLINTON was retired from the governorship in favor of JAY, and again elected to
that office, John ADAMS was succeeded by JEFFERSON as President, and the
Republicans of the time, of which our present day Democratic party is the direct
descendant, controlled the State legislature, Ontario remained firm in the
Federalist faith; and this continued true down to the exciting campaign of 1804,
when there was pretty general
shifting of party lines in preparation for the gubernatorial election of the
next April. Ontario rose to new
prominence in this campaign, through the nomination of her distinguished
citizen, Oliver PHELPS, for the office of Lieutenant-Governor, on the ticket
headed by the fatally ambitious Aaron BURR.
BURR and PHELPS had the support of a large section of the Federalists and
of many influential Republicans. But
the Republican Legislative caucus, after much casting about, induced Morgan
LEWIS to accept its nomination for Governor, and almost to its own surprise
carried the succeeding election. The
same party elected also a majority of the Legislature, even including its
candidates for the Senate in the Western district, Jedediah PECK
and Henry HUNTINGTON, and at least one of its candidates for the Assembly
in Genesee and Ontario, then voting together in one Assembly district.
That questionable methods were sometimes
adopted to attain political ends in those days, is indicated by an address that
was published in the Ontario Repository of March 20, 1804:
To the Electors of Ontario County:
A meeting of a few electors of the town of
Phelps being called and held at the home of Samuel OAKS, inn keeper in said
town, on Thursday evening, the 15th inst., in a very private and
clandestine manner with a view to make nomination of a character to represent
this part of the county in the Legislature at the ensuing election, and the
business conducted with so many secrecy as to preclude the attendance of the
greatest part of the electors of the said town, we, the subscribers, being by
accident present at the said meeting and witnessing the irregularity with which
it was conducted, think it a duty incumbent on us, in order that the general
wish of the people should be known, to request that a general meeting of the
electors of the town of Phelps and adjoining towns be held at the home of said
Oaks on Thursday, the 29th instant, at 12 o’clock noon, for the
purpose of nominating proper characters to be supported at the ensuing election
to represent this Co. in the Legislature. Deputations from all the towns of the Co. are requested to
attend with a view to determining on the county ticket.
This address was signed by Thaddeus OAKS,
John BIGELOW, Sam’l SHEKELL, David COOK, and Elias COST.
A spectator of the Phelps meeting wrote that
it “was opened, conducted and finished in a manner peculiarly appropriate to
that foul spirit of Democracy, which seems destined to prostrate at the feet of
faction the glory, the happiness, and independence of our country.”
Out of this and the preceding campaign,
which had resulted in the defeat of Col. BURR’s ambition to achieve
distinction in State or National politics, grew bitter animosity between him and
HAMILTON, the Federal leader. The
latter had not hesitated to denounce BURR for his alleged treachery to President
JEFFERSON, and the quarrel ended in the fatal duel at Hoboken.
Deep grief at the death of the brilliant HAMILTON was expressed
throughout the country. Myron
HOLLEY, on invitation of a committee of citizens, delivered an oration in eulogy
of the great man in the court house at Canandaigua.
The spirit of P. T. BARNUM must have been
abroad even in those days. At least
no time was lost by one showman in availing himself of the opportunity for
profit afforded by public interest in the Hoboken tragedy.
As early as June 4, 1805, he had penetrated
the woods as far as Canandaigua, and in the Ontario Messenger “the ladies and
gentlemen” of the village were notified that there was that day opened at the
house of Mrs. GOODING, near the court house, “a new and elegant collection of
wax figures, as large as life;” among which it was advertised that there was
“a striking representation of the unfortunate duel between Gen. Alexander
HAMILTON and Col. Aaron BURR;” also BONAPARTE, NELSON, a Pius Mother
Instructing Her Children, and Samson Asleep in the Lap of Delilah, etc.
The Republicans maintained their supremacy
in the State until 1809, when the bad effects of the Embargo law furnished the
Federalists an opportunity to regain control, and for the first time since 1799
they elected a majority of the legislators.
The representatives of the Western district were Federalists, nominated
in each case “at a respectable meeting of electors from various towns of the
county.” The Federalists, of
course, made sweeping changes in county offices, but the next year the
Republicans carried the election and reinstated their friends.
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