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De Witt Clinton - A Klos Family Project

De Witt Clinton
Governor of New York


Clinton,  De Witt , statesman, born in Little Britain, New Windsor, Orange County, New York, 2 March, 1769 ; died in Albany, New York, 11 February, 1828, was graduated at Columbia in 1786, studied law under Samuel Jones in New York, and was admitted to the bar in 1788, but practiced very little, preferring to take part in politics as an active republican. While the Federal constitution was still a subject for discussion, he wrote, under the signature of "A Countryman," a series of letters in reply to the "Federalist," and, when the constitution came up before the state convention for ratification, he reported for the press the debates of that body. 

In 1790 he became private secretary to his uncle, George Clinton, then governor of New York, and was a leading champion, through the press, of his administration. He was also made one of the secretaries of the newly organized Board of re- gents of the state University, and secretary of the Board of commissioners of state fortifications. He left these offices when his uncle retired from the governorship in 1795, but continued to uphold the republican cause, opposing the administration of Governor Jay and President John Adams. While assailing the federalists for their hostility to France, he nevertheless raised, equipped, and commanded a company of artillery for service in the event of war with that country. He also studied the natural sciences at this time. He was chosen to the lower branch of the legislature in 1797, and from 1798 till 1802 was a member of the state senate. 

In 1801 he became a member of the governor's council, and revived an old claim of that body to a right of nomination coordinate with that of the governor. Governor Jay adjourned the council, denying this right, but Clinton defended his position in the legislature, and the matter was referred to the people, who supported his views by amending the state constitution. While in the state senate, Clinton worked to secure the public defense, for the passage of sanitary laws, the encouragement of agriculture, manufactures, and the arts, the relief of prisoners for debt, and the abolition of slavery in the state. He also used his influence to promote the use of steam in navigation. He was chosen to the United States senate in 1802, and while there distinguished himself by a powerful speech opposing war with Spain. He resigned in 1802, to take the office of mayor of New York, to which his uncle, now governor for the second time, had appointed him. This office was then very important, the mayor of the City being also president of the council and chief judge of the court of common pleas. He continued mayor until 1815, with the exception of the years from 1807-9 and 1810-. During this time he was also state senator from 1805 till 1811, lieutenant governor from 1811 till 1813, and was also a member of the council of appointment. 

After his uncle, George Clinton, ceased to be prominent, on account of his advanced age, De Witt Clinton came to be regarded as a promising republican candidate for the presidency. Aaron Burr's disgrace removed one of his rivals; but Clinton soon began to be looked on with distrust by his party, on account of his want of sympathy with some of President Jefferson's acts and with Madison's course previous to the war of 1812. He was suspected of a leaning toward the federalists, and was bitterly assailed by his enemies, toward whom his own course had never been mild. The republican caucus at Washington in 1812 re- nominated Madison; but Clinton, retaining his hold on the party in his own state, and relying, on the support of the federalists, secured a nomination from the republican members of the New York legislature. The result of the election was the choice of Madison by a majority of thirty-nine electoral votes. Clinton, having alienated his party by his course, without gaining the full sympathy of the federalists, was in 1813 displaced from the office of lieutenant governor. He was still mayor of New York, however, and bid all in his power to advance the interests of that city. By aiding in the establishment of schools, the amelioration of criminal laws, the relief of suffering, the encouragement of agriculture, and the correction of vice, he showed himself one of the foremost friends of the people, and his popularity increased accordingly. 

His efforts in founding institutions of science, literature, and art, helped to give the City the metropolitan character it had hitherto lacked, and his liberality in securing the public defense, and in voting money and men to the government, served to arrest the popular suspicions of his loyalty. Above all, he was the friend of internal improvements. As early as 1809 he had been appointed one of seven commissioners to examine and survey a route for a canal from the Hudson to the lakes. He was sent by the legislature in 1812 to urge the adoption of the project, by congress, but his efforts were unsuccessful. In January, 1815, a republican council of appointment removed him from the mayoralty, and in the autumn of that year he prepared an elaborate petition to the legislature, asking for the immediate construction of the Erie and Champlain canals. This was adopted by popular meetings, and ably advocated by Clinton himself before the legislature, and in 1817 a bill authorizing the construction of the Erie canal passed that body. Clinton's memorial had brought him prominently forward as the promoter of the enterprise, and, in spite of the opposition of those who denounced the scheme as visionary, he was elected governor of the state in 1817 by a nonpartisan vote. 

The canal was begun on 4 July, 1817, Governor Clinton breaking the ground with his own hand. But, notwithstanding this happy beginning of his administration, it was filled with violent political controversies, and though he was re-elected in 1819, it was by a reduced majority. In 1822, a popular convention having adopted constitutional amendments that he did not entirely approve, he refused to be again a candidate. His opponents secured his removal from the office of canal commissioner in 1824, and popular indignation at the injustice of this act resulted in his election as governor by a majority of 16,000, larger than had before been given to any candidate, and he was re-elected in 1826. In October, 1825, the Erie canal was opened with great ceremony, and Governor Clinton was carried on a barge in a triumphal progress from Lake Erie to New York. 

In this same year he declined the English mission offered to him by President John Quincy Adams. Governor Clinton's death, which was sudden, took place while he was still in office; but he had lived to inaugurate several branches of the Erie canal, and by his influence had done much toward developing the canal system in other states. He was tall and well formed, of majestic presence and dignified manners. He published "Discourse before the New York Historical Society" (1812); " Memoir on the Antiquities of Western New York" (1818)" "Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources of New York "(New York, 1822); "Speeches to the Legislature" (1823), and several literary and historical addresses. See Hosack's " Memoir of De Witt Clinton" (1829); Renwick's " Life of De Witt Clinton" (1840); Campbell's "Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton" (1849); and "National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans." 

Some of Clinton's letters to his friend, Col. Henry Post, of New York, giving interesting glimpses of his character, were published by John Bigelow in "Harper's Magazine "for February and March, 1875.

James Clinton's grandson, Alexander Clinton, born in Little Britain, Orange County, New York, 7 April, 1793; died in New York City, 16 February, 1878, was graduated at the College of physicians and surgeons in 1819, and, after practicing some years in his native county, returned to New York in 1832, where he continued in practice until advanced age obliged him to retire. During the war of 1812 he was an officer in the army, and at the time of his death was the oldest member of the Society of the Cincinnati.


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