The American patriot and statesman George Clinton (1739-1812) was the governor of New York for 21 years and vice president of the United States for two terms.
George Clinton's father, Charles, was an Ulster County, N.Y., farmer who had emigrated from Ireland in 1729. Charles Clinton achieved modest prominence through military and political office, but it was the marriage of his sons, James to Mary DeWitt in 1765 and George to Cornelia Tappen in 1769, that gave the Clintons status in New York society and future political allies among influential Dutch families.
Born in Ulster County, on July 26, 1739, George Clinton was educated at home and under a tutor, with the advantage of his father's better-than-average library. After studying law in New York City under William Smith, Jr., one of the famous Whig "triumvirate," he began practice in 1764. His political career was launched in 1768 with his election to the Assembly from Ulster County. There he allied himself with the minority "popular party" of the Livingstons against the DeLancey "court party" which controlled the legislature. For the next 7 years Clinton consistently opposed grants for supporting the king's troops, and he was one of a mere five assemblymen who in 1770 voted against jailing Alexander McDougall, a Whig "firebrand" who had publicly criticized the House for betraying its trust by its military appropriations. In the broader quarrel with Britain, Clinton sided with the radicals, denouncing parliamentary taxation and the Coercive Acts and urging support for the resolves of the First Continental Congress. A delegate to the Second Continental Congress, he was absent when independence was approved, having military obligations in New York, where he had been appointed brigadier general of the Ulster and Orange County militia in December 1775. Despite military shortcomings, the Continental Congress placed him in command of the forts in the Hudson Highlands. However, his energetic efforts did not prevent capture of the forts by the British in late 1777.
The new state constitution of 1777 provided for a popularly elected governor. New York's aristocrats, led by Philip Schuyler, John Jay, John Morin Scott, and the Livingstons, expected Schuyler to be chosen. To their consternation the elections brought victory to Clinton—a tribute to his appeal to middle-class and small farmers and his popularity with the soldiers. Schuyler's postelection judgment that neither Clinton's family nor connections entitled him "to so distinguished a predominance" but that he was "virtuous and loves his country, has abilities and is brave" is an apt commentary on Clinton's entire political career. He attracted the majority of New Yorkers by his loyalty to the Revolutionary cause, his honesty, and his devotion to his state. His reputation was enhanced by his able service as war governor, a post which was more often military than political. He organized the defenses of the frontier, procured supplies, suppressed loyalists, quieted the Native Americans, and organized campaigns against Tory and British raiders. His universal popularity was attested to by his successive elections to the governorship, often without opposition, until his voluntary retirement in 1795.
Antifederalist and Republican
Conservative in his administration during the Confederation period, committed to the protection of property and a stable financial system, Clinton was equally sensitive to popular liberties and republican government. It was the latter that made him suspicious of the movement for the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Willing to strengthen congressional powers under the Articles of Confederation, he feared the substitution of a "consolidated" for a "federal" government. The acknowledged leader of New York's Antifederalists, he was not so virulent an opponent of the Constitution as Alexander Hamilton made him out to be. He presided over the state's ratifying convention at Poughkeepsie with impartiality and spoke seldom, and then with moderation. There is some doubt that he wrote the Antifederalist essays attributed to him which appeared in the New York Journal (September 1787 to January 1788) as "Cato's Letters." Preferring ratification conditional upon amendments, he nevertheless promised to support the new Constitution when New York ratified it 30 to 27, on July 26, 1788, without such conditions.
While Clinton continued to be popular personally, his political followers hereafter faced stiff opposition from the Federalists, who in 1789 secured control of the legislature and in 1792 just missed placing John Jay in the governor's chair. Pleading ill health and perhaps sensing defeat, Clinton declined to stand in 1795, and his party was beaten. For the next 6 years his nephew DeWitt Clinton led the newly formed Democratic-Republican party in New York, an alliance of Clintonites, Livingstons, and the followers of Aaron Burr. George Clinton returned as governor for a term in 1801, but his political mantle remained with his nephew. Clinton played out the remainder of his political career on the national scene. In 1792 he was the unsuccessful candidate of Republicans in New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia for the vice presidency in place of John Adams. In 1804 he replaced Burr for the second place on the Republican ticket and served as vice president during Jefferson's second term. Four years later his followers promoted his candidacy for president on a ticket with James Monroe. When this failed, he settled for another term as vice president under James Madison. His 7 years in Washington (1805-1812) did not enhance his reputation. He had little influence with either administration, presided over the Senate without much skill, and disliked Washington society. Perhaps his most important action was his tiebreaking vote in 1811 to prevent the recharter of the Bank of the United States. He died in office on April 20, 1812.
A moderate reformer who during his governorship promoted road and canal building, lent support for manufactures and reform of the criminal code, and gave aid to libraries and public funds for common schools, Clinton appealed to the middle-class democracy of New York State. He lacked the felicity of language and the talented pen of a Jefferson to extend his influence much beyond his state.
Further Reading on George Clinton
The standard biography of Clinton is E. Wilder Spaulding, His Excellency George Clinton: Critic of the Constitution (1938; 2d ed. 1964). It has been revised in many details by more recent works on early New York political history, most notably Linda Grant De Pauw, The Eleventh Pillar: New York State and the Federal Constitution (1966), and Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763-1797 (1967). Public Papers of George Clinton (10 vols., 1899-1914) is an essential source, although the introductory sketch of Clinton's life by the editor, Hugh Hastings, is inaccurate. The Clinton era in New York politics may be traced in Jabez D. Hammond, History of Political Parties in the State of New York (2 vols., 1842; 4th ed., 3 vols., 1852), and in De Alva Stanwood Alexander, A Political History of the State of New York (4 vols., 1906-1923). Clinton's war governorship is ably analyzed and evaluated in Margaret Burnham Macmillan, The War Governors in the American Revolution (1943).
Additional Biography Sources
Kaminski, John P., George Clinton: yeoman politician of the new republic, Madison: Madison House, 1993.