Clinton, I)e Witt, an American statesman, grandson of the preceding, and son of James Clinton and Mary De Witt, born at Little Britain, New Windsor, Orange co., N. Y., March 2, 1769, died in Albany, Feb. 11, 1828. His descent on the father's side was from English ancestors long domiciled in Ireland, and on the mothers side he was of Dutch and French extraction. His education was begun in a grammar school near his home, continued at the academy in Kingston, and completed at Columbia college, where he bore away the college honors in 1786. He immediately engaged in the study of the law under the instruction of Samuel Jones in the city of New York, and was admitted to the bar in 1788. His ardent temper and earnest ambition carried him at once into the political field, and his sentiments, sympathies, and affections determined his position under the banner of his kinsman George Clinton, the chief within the state of the republican party. While the question of the adoption of the federal constitution was yet a subject of popular discussion, he proved his zeal and controversial power by writing a series of letters signed "A Countryman," in reply to the "Federalist." He attended the state convention which adopted the constitution, and reported its interesting debates for the press; and forsaking his profession, lie became the private secretary of George Clinton, then governor of New York. In this position he maintained the cause of his kinsman and that of the republicans by such a vigorous use of the press, that he immediately came to be regarded as its leading and most prominent champion.
About this time he was appointed one of the secretaries of the newly organized board of regents of the university, and secretary of the board of commissioners of fortifications of the state. On the retirement of George Clinton in 1795, and the accession of Mr. Jay to the chair of state, De Witt Clinton relinquished his offices, but did not relax his championship of the republican cause in opposition to the administration of Mr. Jay in the state and to that of John Adams at Washington. With all his vehemence of partisan feeling, he nevertheless adhered to the line of patriotic conduct he had early marked out for himself. Thus, while assailing the administration of Mr. Adams and the federalists for their alleged hostility toward France, he raised, equipped, commanded, and disciplined an artillery company which was held in readiness for the defence of the country in the event of the occurrence of war with France, then so generally anticipated. Besides these occupations, he applied himself diligently to the studies of natural philosophy, natural history, and other sciences. In 1797 he was sent to the assembly, the lower house of the legislature of New York, by the city of New York, and in the next year was elected to the senate of the state for a term of four years.
The republican party, triumphing in the Union in 1800, carried also a majority in the state of New York, although John Jay still remained in office. Official patronage in the state was committed by its first constitution to the governor, together with a council consisting of one senator from each district, chosen by a vote of the house of assembly. The governor presided in the council, and habitually exercised exclusively the right of nomination, leaving only to the council the power to confirm or reject. During the administration of George Clinton his opponents, when in a majority in the council, had claimed for each member a right of nomination coordinate with that of the governor; but the pretension was disallowed by Gov. Clinton, and the original practice remained. De Witt Clinton in 1801 became a member of the council, backed by a republican majority. He now challenged the right of nomination for himself and his associates. The governor denied it, and adjourned the council, and never afterward reconvened it. He submitted the subject to the legislature, and appealed to that body for a declaratory law. Clinton vigorously defended the position assumed by him in the council. The legislature referred the matter to a convention of the people.
The republican party predominated in that body, and the constitution was amended so as to effect the object at which Clinton had aimed. It was a season of apprehended invasion; Clinton was active and efficient in securing the means of public defence. The public health was continually threatened by the approach of contagious pestilence; he was unremitting and judicious in providing the necessary sanitary laws and institutions. He urged improvement of the laws in favor of agriculture, manufactures, and the arts, labored to stimulate the great and finally successful effort of the time to bring steam into use as an agent of navigation, and employed all his talents and influence in meliorating the evils of imprisonment for debt, and in abolishing slavery. At the early age of 33 his term of brilliant service in the senate of the state was crowned by his appointment to a seat in the senate of the United States. He remained in that body through two of its annual sessions. The period, though short, sufficed to enable him to impress upon the country a conviction of his great ability, and to enlarge the sphere of his already eminent reputation.
His principal achievement there was an elaborate, exhaustive, and impressive speech in favor of moderation on the occasion of a high popular excitement against Spain, resulting from her violation of treaty stipulations for commercial privileges to the citizens of the United States on the banks of the Mississippi, the territory of Louisiana not yet having been acquired by the United States. Clinton resigned his place in the senate to assume the office of mayor of the city of New York, under an appointment made by George Clinton (again governor) and a republican council of appointment in 1803. He remained undisturbed in the mayoralty from 1803 to 1807, when he was removed. He was reappointed in 1809, displaced in 1810, restored in 1811, and thenceforward continued therein till 1815. Within this period of nearly 12 years he was also a member of the senate of the state from 1805 to 1811, and lieutenant governor from 1811 to 1813; and during a portion of the time he also held a seat in the council of appointment. In 1804 George Clinton, who had been known as an aspirant to the presidency for many years, was elected vice president of the United States, and soon after, by reason of his advanced years, ceased to be conspicuous.
De Witt Clinton, by an easy transition, rose to the same eminent consideration, and came to be regarded as the foremost candidate of the republican party within the state of New York for the presidency. Not at all abating either his personal activity or his proscriptive severity toward others, he encountered at their hands hostility and retaliation, fierce, violent, and apparently relentless. A dangerous rival disappeared when Aaron Burr sank under the odium of intrigues against Jefferson in the election of 1800, and the still greater odium of the fatal duel with Hamilton in 1804; but Clinton was successively brought into an attitude of distrust toward Lewis and Tompkins, the successors of George Clinton in the office of governor, He hesitated to approve the system of commercial restrictions adopted by President Jefferson, and questioned the wisdom of the course of Madison immediately previous to the declaration of war against Great Britain. It is beyond all doubt now that Clinton was eminently brave, and that he loved his country with a devotion that knew no hesitation when her safety or welfare required sacrifice at his hands.
But there was at that time a portion of the federal party which condemned the measures of the government so severely that their own loyalty to the country was not unnaturally questioned, and their conduct, whatever were their motives, had a tendency to encourage the public enemy, and so to embarrass the administration. This brought suspicion on the whole federal party, although as a mass it was loyal and patriotic, and it suited the purposes of Clinton's opponents to impute his hesitation and reserve to the influence of sympathies with the federalists. Day by day, therefore, old republican associates and followers separated from him, and in their places federalists, who saw that there was no longer any hope of effectually serving their country under their own dilapidated organization, and who believed him as patriotic as the statesmen who were in power, and much wiser than they, lent him indirectly their sympathy and cautious support. It was in this unlucky conjuncture that Clinton, whose aspirations to the presidency had long been known, concluded that the time had arrived when they ought to be and could be realized.
Madison's first term was to expire in 1813, and his successor was to be elected in 1812. The republican caucus at "Washington disallowed Clinton's pretensions, and renominated Madison. Clinton still retained the confidence of the republican party in his own state as an organized political force, though it was sadly demoralized. He received a nomination at the hands of the republican members of the legislature. The federalists made no nomination, and indirectly gave him their support. He received 89 electoral votes, while Madison received 128, and thus was reelected. This defeat was disastrous to Clinton. The republican party of the state of New York shrank from his side, and at the first opportunity in 1813 displaced him from his office of lieutenant governor, leaving him only the mayoralty of the city of New York. But in fact he had changed not his principles, policies, or sympathies, but only his personal relations. He had attempted to gain the presidency, not to overthrow the republican party, but to reestablish it, as he thought, on a better foundation; not to favor the public enemy, but to prosecute the war against him, as he thought, with greater vigor and effect. The result was a complexity of relations that seemed to render all further ambition hopeless.
He was a republican disowned by his party; and though not a federalist, was held responsible for the offences imputed to that party, without having their confidence, or even enjoying their sympathy. His fall seemed irretrievable. Nevertheless, he had been fortunate during the period which we have been reviewing in laying broad and deep the foundations of a popularity that at no distant day might be made to maintain a personal party, which would long perplex and often confound the adversaries who now exulted over what was thought his final ruin. The city of New York had now begun to feel the beneficial influence of the centralization of commerce under the operation of the federal constitution, and public spirit was profoundly awakened. The deficiencies of its municipal laws, of its defences, of its scientific and literary institutions, of its institutions of art, and the absence of most of the elements of a metropolitan character, were generally felt and confessed. Enlightened, liberal, and active men were moving in a hundred ways to make the city worthy of its high but newly discovered destiny. Only some lofty, genial, and comprehensive mind was wanted to give steadiness and direction to these movements. De Witt Clinton supplied this want.
He associated himself with citizens who engaged in the establishment of schools designed to afford the advantages of universal primary education; with others who founded institutions for the study of history, for improvement in art, for melioration of criminal laws, for the encouragement of agriculture, for the establishment of manufactures, for the relief of all forms of suffering, for the correction of vice, for the improvement of morals, and for the advancement of religion. In all these associations he subjugated his ambition, and seemed not a leader but a follower of those who by their exclusive devotion were entitled to precedence. They derived from him, however, not only liberal contributions by his pen, by his speech, and from his purse, but also the aid of his already wide and potent influence, and the sanctions of his official station and character. He carried the same liberal and humane spirit into his administration as chief magistrate of the city. By virtue of that office, he was not only the head of the police, charged with the responsibilities of preserving order and guarding the city from external dangers, but he was at once a member and president of the municipal council, of the board of health, of the court of common pleas, and of the criminal court.
He appeared in all these various characters always firm, dignified, intelligent, and prepared for every exigency; the friend of the poor, the defender of the exile, the guardian of the public health, the scourge of disorder, the avenger of crime, the advocate of civil and religious liberty, and the patron of knowledge and virtue. As a member of the senate of the state and lieutenant governor, he exercised the functions not only of a legislator, but also of a judge of the court of last resort; and amid all the intrigues and distractions of party he bore himself in those high places with the dignity, and exercised the spirit, of a sagacious, far-seeing, and benevolent statesman. Especially he arrested the popular prejudice against himself in regard to his loyalty, by the utmost liberality and efficiency both as mayor and legislator in securing adequate means for public defence, by providing loans to the government, by voting supplies of materials and men, and by soliciting the military command to which his admitted courage, talent, and influence seemed to entitle him.
But beyond all this, he adopted early and supported ably and efficiently the policy of the construction of canals from Lake Erie and Lake Champlain to the tide water of the Hudson, and showed to his fellow citizens, with what seemed a spirit of prophecy, the benefits which would result from those works to the city, the state, and the whole country, in regard to defence, to commerce, to increase of wealth and population, and to the stability of the Union. He was so successful in this that he was deputed, with others, in the year 1812, by the legislature of the state, to submit that great project to the federal government at Washington, and solicit its adoption, or patronage of the policy as a national measure. That government, happily for the state, and fortunately for him, declined, and the occurrence of the war of 1812 put the subject to rest, to be revived at a more propitious season. The intellectual vigor, the impartial spirit, and the energetic resolution which Clinton displayed in these various duties, awakened profound and general admiration; while the manifest beneficence of his system excited enthusiastic desires for material and moral progress.
He had thus become identified even in the darkest hour of his political day with the hopes and ambition of his native state, and with the hopes and ambitions of all the other states which waited to be benefited directly by her movement, or to emulate her example. By a system chosen and perfected by himself, and exclusively his own, he had gained a moral position similar and equal to that which Hamilton had won before him when, the tide of popular favor having deserted him, and left him destitute of power and influence, he still stood forth an isolated figure, attracting an admiration and exciting an interest which his successful rivals feared to contemplate. But it was not for Clinton to reascend the political ladder until he had released his hold on the lowest step, and had once more touched the ground. His opponents made haste to dislodge him from that last foothold. In January, 1815, he was removed from the mayoralty by a council of appointment in the interest of the republican party. Fortune had gone with greatness, and he sunk into private life without even the means of respectable subsistence.
The severity of this proscription, coupled with the greatness of his fall, as well as of his character, awakened regrets and sympathies among large classes who did not stop to consider how rashly he had tempted fortune, or how ruthlessly he had wielded the axe against those who had now precipitated him to the ground. In the autumn of that year, and in the obscurity of a retreat to the country, he prepared an argument in favor of the immediate construction of the Erie and Champlain canals. Never has there appeared, in this or perhaps in any other country, a state paper at once so vigorous, so genial, so comprehensive, and so conclusive. It was couched in the form of a memorial from the citizens of New York to the legislature of the state, and was deferentially submitted to a public meeting for their adoption. The city adopted the memorial, and appealed to the citizens of the interior portions of the state. They responded with enthusiasm; other states and territories lent their approving voices. The policy was from that moment certain of success. It was hindered only by the political prejudices which hung around its advocate. His opponents called these prejudices into new activity.
With short-sighted malice, they affected to consider the attractive scheme as not merely a new resort of a ruined politician, but as one original with and devised by himself, impracticable, absurd, and visionary, although for more than a hundred years sagacious and enlightened statesmen connected with the affairs of the colony and of the state of New York had, with various degrees of distinctness, indicated and commended the obnoxious policy, and the state itself had at an early day made demonstrations toward its adoption, and had recommended the whole enterprise before the war to the adoption of the federal government. Clinton, if left to designate for his adversaries their mode of opposition, could have preferred no other. It presented him as not merely the advocate, but even the inventor of the system whose prospective benefits were already triumphantly demonstrated. He appeared at Albany, at the assembling of the legislature, to commend it. The governor, the organ of the republican party, was silent on the subject. The republican legislature rendered it just enough of favor to encourage and strengthen Clinton, and too little to make it their own and separate him as a necessary agent from it.
It appointed him with others a commissioner to make the necessary surveys and estimates, solicit grants and donations, and report at the next session. A vacancy in the office of governor was now to occur by the transfer of the esteemed and popular Tompkins, the chief republican character in the state, to the post of vice president of the United States at Washington. Spontaneous demonstrations presented Clinton before the public as a candidate; the party machinery refused to work in the hands of his adversaries, and he was elected in the summer of 1816 to the office of governor, practically by the unanimous voice of the people. It seemed for a short time as if all partisan organization had been permanently broken up, and as if party spirit had been extinguished for ever. Notwithstanding all these pleasing auguries, the period of his administration was filled up, like former ones, with violent and embittered political controversies. He triumphed in 1819, being reelected, though by a very small majority, over Daniel D. Tompkins, who, while yet vice president, became the opposing candidate, and brought into the canvass a popularity never before overbalanced.
His adversaries availed themselves of just complaints against the constitution to move the call of a convention for its amendment, and the measure was eminently popular. Clinton hesitated so long as to become identified with the opposition to it. The convention made reforms which diminished the power of the executive and judiciary, and conceded an enlargement of the right of suffrage, with other popular rights, while it adopted his canal policy. Clinton wisely declined to be a candidate under such circumstances for a reelection as governor, and Joseph C. Yates was called to the office with a unanimity equal to that which had attended Clinton's elevation to the same place. Faction, however, disorganized the triumphant party in 1824. At the same time the legislature in its interest abused its triumph over Clinton by removing him without notice and without cause from the now obscure office of canal commissioner, in which he was serving, as he had served from the first, only as an adviser and without any compensation.
Indignation awakened by this injustice, and combined with popular discontents resulting from other causes, bore him at the end of the same year back into the office of governor by a very decided vote; but the new combination which had secured this result was committed to the support of John Quincy Adams in the federal government, while Clinton's sympathies or his views of duty or of interest determined his inclination toward, first, William II. Crawford, and then Andrew Jackson, as candidates for the presidency. He was thus once more in his old position, sustained by a party from whom he withheld his confidence and sympathy, and opposed by the one to which he looked for ultimate support. He was barely reelected in 1826, while the legislature was opposed to him. His administration of ihe state government, however, which continued throughout a period of 12 years, with the exception of an intervening period of two years, was one of unequalled dignity and energy. He had the good fortune to mature the system of finance which enabled the state, unconscious of expense or care, to begin and carry out his policy of internal improvement, and to break with his own hand the ground in the beginning of the enterprise, on July 4, 1817; and overcoming constant, unremitting, and factious resistance, he had the felicity of being borne, in October, 1825, in a barge on the artificial river which he seemed to all to have constructed, connecting Lake Erie with the bay of New York, while bells were rung and cannons saluted him at every stage of that imposing progress.
No sooner had that great work been undertaken in 1817, than the population of the state began to swell with augmentation from other states and from abroad; prosperity became universal; old towns and cities expanded, new ones rose and multiplied; agriculture, manufactures, and commerce were quickened in their movements, and wealth flowed in upon the state from all directions. He inaugurated the construction of branches of the Erie canal, by which it was ultimately connected with the internal lakes, with Lake Ontario, and with the Susquehanna, the Alleghany, and the St. Lawrence rivers; and by his counsel and advice, now sought in all directions, he hastened the opening of those canals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, which, in connection with those of New York and with natural channels, now constitute a system adequate to the internal commerce of an empire. De Witt Clinton, witnessing the enjoyment of the continually enlarging realization by the public of the benefits of his labors, died at Albany, the seat of his authority and the chief theatre of his active life. it scarcely needs to be added that party spirit was hushed into profound silence; that a grateful people mourned his death with all the pomp of national sorrow; and that posterity cherishes his memory with the homage deserved by a benefactor of mankind.
While yet young Mr. Clinton married Maria Franklin, who brought him a liberal fortune, and who died in 1818. In the succeeding year he was married to Catharine Jones, who survived him. He had a commanding stature, highly intellectual features, and a graceful form, set off with severe and dignified manners. He combined in a rare degree vigor, versatility, and comprehensiveness of mind, with untiring perseverance in the exercise of a lofty and unconcealed ambition. - 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" (1822), "Speeches to the Legislature" (1823), and several literary and historical addresses. See Hosack, "Memoir of De Witt Clinton" (1829); Renvvick, "Life of De Witt Clinton" (1840); Campbell, "Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton" (1849); and "National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans," vol. ii.