De Witt Clinton.

DE WITT CLINTON, the third son of Gen. James Clinton, was born on the 2d of March, 1769, at the family residence, in Little Britain, in the county of Orange. His early education was conducted at the grammar-school of his native town, and he was afterwards sent to the academy at Kingston. Education was almost lost sight of during the revolutionary war, and at that period the academy at Kingston was the only seminary in the State; here, all the young men desirous of a classical education resorted. In the spring of 1784, he entered the junior class of Columbia College; his address to the alumni of that institution, which will be found in this volume, and which was his last literary effort, contains a graphic description of the college edifice as it appeared at the close of the war, with sketches of its early professors, and an account of his own introduction as the first student after its revival -– when the name of King’s College was discarded, and that of Columbia substituted. While in college, he commenced that practice of reading with pen in his hand, which he continued down to the close of his life. During his first collegiate year, his common-place book shows that he read and made extracts from nearly one hundred different works. He was graduated in 1786, at the head of his class, and soon after commenced the study of the law with Samuel Jones, then an eminent lawyer in the city of New York. He was pursuing his legal studies when the Convention assembled, which gave to us as a rule, and to the world as a model, the Constitution of the United States.

The publications of the members of that Convention, in favor of the Constitution, did not escape the attention of the young student.

The first Constitution of the State of New York emanated from a Convention which sat a portion of the time with their arms in their hands; and, driven from place to place during a dark and stormy period of the revolution, closed its labors in the spring of 1777, at Kingston, in the county of Ulster. On the 17th day of June, 1788, another Convention assembled at Poughkeepsie, in the county of Duchess, for the purpose of considering and ratifying the Constitution of the United States. This Convention embraced almost all the distinguished men of the State, and the mention of whose names can hardly fail to awaken emotions of pride in the bosom of every New Yorker. From the city of New York, the delegates were John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Robert R. Livingston, Richard Morris, and James Duane; and they were all in favor of the adoption of the Constitution. From Albany, Col. Peter Gansevoort, John Lansing, Jr., Robert Yates, and others, with Melancthon Smith from the county of Duchess, Gen. James Clinton from Orange, and Gov. George Clinton from Ulster, were opposed to an unconditional adoption; and a majority of the members, when elected, entertained similar views with the latter gentlemen. From the commencement of the session of this Convention to its close, during a period of six weeks, the debates were able, earnest, and instructive. Gov. Clinton was chosen to preside over its deliberations.

Hamilton, Livingston, and Jay advocated the adoption of the Constitution with ardor and eloquence, and they enriched their discourses with the learning of ancient and modern times.

Though a considerable majority of the Convention was elected in opposition, and though Gov. Clinton was numbered with that majority, and to the last refused to yield his assent, yet, when the vote was finally taken, a majority of the Convention voted for the adoption of the Constitution; and New York, on the 26th day of July, 1788, entered into the Union of the States. Among the numerous citizens assembled at this most interesting and important Convention, and who watched from day to day the changing phases of thought and opinion, was De Witt Clinton. He was nineteen years of age, and even then, was commanding in person and dignified in manners. The late Chancellor Kent once stated to the writer that he met De Witt Clinton at that time; and he described his appearance as he recollected it, on that first meeting of two young men, both of whom were destined to fill such large spaces in the history of their native State. The future Chancellor had just commenced the practice of the law in the village of Poughkeepsie, in partnership with Gilbert Livingston, who was a member of the Convention, and whose political sympathies were with the Clintons. Mr. Kent was in favor of the Constitution, and was a Federalist. In such times of political excitement there was not that close and confidential intercourse which might otherwise have existed between two young and highly gifted men. The visit paid by Mr. Clinton to Mr. Kent was formal, but courteous, and the venerable Chancellor at the age of four score spoke with animation of the fine personal appearance of the youthful statesman; he remarked that Mr. Clinton even then had a hauteur in his manner, which whether arising from pride or from diffidence he did not pretend to decide, and which in after life was contrasted strongly with the character and bearing of some of his political competitors.

De Witt Clinton was an active and observing attendant upon the debates of the Convention, and he communicated the substance of the speeches, and his own impressions and opinions, to his political friends in the city of New York, through the columns of a journal of that day. He entered zealously into the views of his uncle and his father, and to the last opposed with them the unconditional adoption of the Federal Constitution. With them he gave the Constitution his unqualified support when it was ratified and became the supreme law of the land.

On the death of his brother Alexander, De Witt Clinton about the year 1789 was appointed to succeed him as private secretary to his uncle, Gov. George Clinton; he held this situation down to 1795, and during that period was actively engaged in the political controversies of the times. In 1797 he was elected to the Assembly, and in 1798 to the Senate of the State; of both bodies he was an active and efficient member, and he took a leading part in the political and legislative movements of New York. He was a member of the Council of Appointment, and differing with the chief magistrate upon the question whether the sole power of nomination to office was vested by the Constitution in the Governor, or whether it was shared also by the members of the Council, a convention was called, and the construction contended for by Mr. Clinton was adopted. Of the wisdom of that decision, it is said, Mr. Clinton himself afterwards doubted; and in the subsequent Constitution of 1822, the exclusive power of nomination was restored to the Governor.

In 1802, De Witt Clinton, then only thirty-three years of age, was elected to the Senate of the United States. In the month of February, 1803, a debate arose in the Senate on certain resolutions introduced by Mr. Ross, of Pennsylvania, which elicited the talent and the learning of that body. These resolutions authorized the President to take immediate possession of New Orleans, and empowered him to call out thirty thousand militia to effect that object. It was alleged that Spain had given, by treaty, to the citizens of the United States the right to deposit their goods at that place, and that she then interdicted it. In this debate, Mr. Clinton took a prominent part, and he deprecated the passage of the resolutions as leading to war, and recommended that peaceable negotiations should be substituted. His speech on that occasion will be found in this volume. It was during that debate that Gouverneur Morris, also in the Senate, from the State of New York, thus spoke of Mr. Clinton: "I will not pretend, like my honorable colleague, to describe to you the waste, the ravages, and the horrors of war; I have not the same harmonious periods, nor the same musical tones; neither shall I boast of Christian charity, nor attempt to display that ingenuous glow of benevolence so decorous to the cheek of youth, which gave a vivid tint to every sentence he uttered, and was, if possible, as impressive even as his eloquence."

In the summer of 1803, Edward Livingston, then Mayor of the city of New York, was appointed United States District Attorney for the district of New York; and he was succeeded in the Mayoralty by Mr. Clinton. The office of Mayor, with the exception of one or two years, Mr. Clinton continued to hold until 1815. The judicial powers at that period belonging to the office, and the large emoluments which it brought to the incumbent, rendered its possession desirable to the leading men of the State. While holding this office, and especially during the war, the charges of Mr. Clinton to the Grand Juries were able, eloquent, and patriotic. Though on his appointment he was obliged to resign his seat in the Senate of the United States, yet he was elected to the Senate of New York, and occupied a seat in that body for several years of his Mayoralty, and during that period was the author and advocate of laws covering almost the entire range of State legislation. During the sessions of 1809, 1810, and 1811, "he introduced laws to prevent kidnapping or the further introduction of slaves, and to punish those who should treat them inhumanly; for the support of the quarantine establishment; for the encouragement of missionary societies; for the improvement of the public police; for the prevention and punishment of crime; for perfecting the militia system; for promoting medical science, and for endowing seminaries of education." It was in the summer of 1810 that he and his associates, the first Canal Commissioners, examined the valley of the Mohawk and the western part of the State for the purpose of learning the practicability of constructing a canal from the Hudson to the lakes. The valuable and interesting journal kept by Mr. Clinton during that tour will be found in this volume, and is now first given to the public. It contains a picture of a large and most important portion of the Empire State as presented to the eye of a keen and minute observer forty years ago.

In 1811 Mr. Clinton was elected lieutenant-governor of New York, and in the following year was nominated in opposition to Mr. Madison to the station of President of the United States. He was unsuccessful, receiving eighty-nine electoral votes, while Mr. Madison received on hundred and twenty-eight.

This event is said by his friends to have produced an unhappy influence both upon his political and private fortunes. However this may be, he devoted himself with zeal and success to literary pursuits; and he continued also to press the subject of internal improvements with renewed animation.

In December, 1811, he read before the New York Historical Society his celebrated discourse on the Iroquois or Six Nations of Indians, which is republished in this volume. It may be remarked in this connection that De Witt Clinton was one of the earliest and most efficient friends of that Society which now stands so prominent among kindred institutions in our country. In 1814, he was requested by the Society to prepare a memorial to the Legislature of New York for assistance, and which was answered by the State in a liberal grant of twelve thousand dollars. This memorial concludes as follows: "We have done much and we are willing to do more in order to preserve the history of the State from oblivion; we are influenced by no other motive than that of elevating the character and promoting the prosperity of a community to which we are bound by every tie that is deemed precious and sacred among men; and let it not be said that the exigencies of the times and the pressure of a foreign war render it inexpedient to apply the public bounty to this object. The State is rich in funds, rich in credit, and rich in resources, and she ought to be rich in liberality and public spirit. Genuine greatness 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; in that magnanimity of soul which cultivates the arts and sciences amidst the horrors of war, and in that comprehension of mind which cherishes all the cardinal interest of a country without being distracted or diverted by the most appalling considerations."

After the termination of the war the subject of a canal from the Hudson to the lakes was pressed upon the attention of the people and upon the consideration of the Legislature by Mr. Clinton. In 1816 a large meeting of many of the most influential citizens of the city of New York was held in that city, and a memorial in favor of the construction of the canal, drawn up by Mr. Clinton with great ability, was submitted and adopted. Indeed, his mind directed and his hand guided all its proceedings. On the 15th, of April, 1817, the Bill was passed, committing the State to the construction of the canals; and on the 4th of July following the work was commenced.

The star of Mr. Clinton’s fortunes was again in the ascendant, and in the fall of 1817 he was elected Governor of New York. In 1815 he had been removed by his political opponents from the office of Mayor of the city of New York, and after the lapse of two years he was selected by the Republicans as their first man, and almost unanimously elected Governor of the Empire State. In 1820 Mr. Clinton was re-elected Governor, and during this and his previous term the prosecution of the works upon the canals was pressed with vigor and success.

In 1822 a Convention was called to form a new Constitution, and in that year Joseph C. Yates was elected Governor for the following two years. In 1824 Mr. Clinton was again elected Governor, and was retained in that high office to the period of his death. In his message of January, 1826, he refers to his message of 1818 when he congratulated the Legislature on the auspicious commencement of the canals, and he now announces their completion. In October, 1825, the work was completed, and Mr. Clinton passed in triumph from Lake Erie to the Hudson, and in alluding to it he says: "The auspicious consummation of the canals naturally called forth universal expressions of joy, not from a spirit of ostentation or vanity, but from a conviction that the moral impression would have a most felicitous effect in keeping alive a noble spirit of improvement, in promoting other undertakings, and in elevating the character of the State."

On the 1st day of January, 1828, Gov. Clinton delivered his last message to the Legislature. He observes, in its commencement: "Peace, plenty, and health have presided over our land; war is a stranger; and famine and the pestilence that walketh in darkness are never experienced; instead of a scarcity, there is generally a superabundance of subsistence, an excess of production. The cordial anxiety of Henry IV, of France, that every peasant in his kingdom might have a fowl in his pot; and the benevolent prayer of a sovereign of Great Britain, that his poorest subject might have education sufficient to read the Bible, were, at the times they were uttered, considered chimeras of the imagination. In this fortunate land they are realized, so far as they apply, in the fullest latitude, and to the utmost extent; these distinguished dispensations of Divine Providence ought, indeed, to fill our hearts with gratitude, and our lives with devotion to the Author of every good and perfect gift."

In this connection, it may be remarked that Gov. Clinton was the first Governor who recommended to the people of this State days of public thanksgiving, a custom which has been happily continued.

And he concluded that message with the following beautiful and impressive exhortation: "We are inhabitants of the same land, children of the same country, heirs of the same inheritance, connected by identity of interest, similarity of language and community of descent, by the sympathies of religion, and by all the ligaments which now bind man in the closest of bonds of friendship and alliance. Let us then enter on the discharge of our exalted and solemn duties by a course of conduct worthy of ourselves and our country; which will deserve the applause of our constituents, insure the approbation of our own consciences, and call down the benediction of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe."

On the 11th day of February, 1828, De Witt Clinton died suddenly. He had been in attendance during the day in the Executive chamber, had returned home and written several letters, and while in his study conversing with two of his sons he complained of a stricture across his breast, and almost immediately expired.

His death called forth the warmest feelings of regret from all parts of the State, and of the United States; and political friends and opponents united in expressions of admiration of his talents and great public services. The people of New York might certainly, with great cause, lament the death of him who had identified himself so closely with all the great interests of the State. Apart from the system of internal improvements, there is scarcely an institution of learning or benevolence in the State that he did not advocate, as a private citizen or a ruler; scarcely a movement or an enterprise for meliorating the condition of the unfortunate, or advancing the prosperity of the State during his active life, that he did not support with his utmost personal and official character.

Few men had, however, more bitter political enemies than Mr. Clinton; and it would be worse than idle to assert, that there was no cause for their animosity. He had his faults of character, and he gave cause for opposition. That opposition and that animosity were, in some cases, carried to extremes, and recoiled upon the heads of their authors and abettors. Such was that hostility which removed Mr. Clinton from the office of Canal Commissioner -– when the people rose in their majesty, and marked their displeasure by placing him in the chair of the state, by an overwhelming majority. When the resolution of the Senate directing the removal of Mr. Clinton came into the Assembly, Mr. Cunningham, a member of the latter body, in the course of a speech replete with eloquence, observed "When the contemptible party strifes of the present day shall have passed by, and the political bargainers and jugglers who how hang round this capital for subsistence shall be overwhelmed and forgotten in their own insignificance -– when the gentle breeze shall pass over the tomb of that great man, carrying with it the just tribute of honor and praise, which is now withheld, the pen of the future historian, in better days and in better times, will do him justice, and erect to his memory a proud monument of fame, as imperishable as the splendid works which owe their origin to his genius and perseverance."

That better day has not yet arrived, though it is a consolation to know that the materials for the pen of the historian are abundant. The mellowing hand of time has even now softened and removed most of the party and political asperities of the times of De Witt Clinton. It was his good fortune that his fame rested not upon the basis of party success or political triumph. His success was in the efforts of talent, and genius, and perseverance in the promotion of education, the diffusion of benevolence, and the increase of wealth and prosperity. His triumph was that of art over nature -– in the creation of new channels of trade, and in opening new fields of enterprise. Neither his successes nor his triumphs were the results of party ascendancy. In reference to the cause of internal improvements, Mr. Clinton was, doubtless, much favored by an early acquaintance with the condition and prospects of the central and western parts of the State. His grandfather, his father, and his uncle had all been officers in the Provincial army, and the two latter in the Continental army, and from their position and employment, had extensive opportunities of becoming familiar with the natural advantages possessed by the State for the construction of canals, and with the probable effect of such improvements upon her trade and population. De Witt Clinton did not claim to be the originator of these State works. But it was mainly owing to his energy and perseverance that the State entered upon that great career of prosperity. In the language of one of his friends: – "In the great work of internal improvement he persevered through good report and through evil report, with a steadiness of purpose that no obstacle could divert; and when all the elements were in commotion around him, and even his chosen associates were appalled, he alone, like Columbus on the wide waste of waters, in his frail bark, with a disheartened and unbelieving crew, remained firm, self-poised and unshaken."

PREVIOUS Chapter   |   CONTENTS Page   |   NEXT Chapter
Return to the Historical Documents page   |   Go to the Erie Canal home page