George Clinton
1st Governor
1777-1795 and 1801-1804
The "Father of New York State," George Clinton (1739–1812) served as governor for 21 years, longer than any chief executive in the state's history. Clinton was an ardent patriot who signed the Declaration of Independence and defended New York as a Brigadier General during the Revolutionary War. In 1804, Governor Clinton became the first elected vice president of the United States and served under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Portrait: Ezra Ames, Oil on canvas, 90 x 34, 1802.

Artist—Ezra Ames (1768–1836) settled in Albany in 1793 and became the leading portraitist in the region. Throughout his life he completed nearly 400 portraits, mostly of New York State legislators. His Clinton portrait is in the grand style of European painting featuring interior and exterior views, Greco-Roman columns, and rich drapery.

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Clinton, George (b Little Britain [now in Orange Co], 26 July 1739; d Washington, DC, 20 Apr 1812). US vice president, governor, and military officer.

EARLY MILITARY AND POLITICAL CAREER

After schooling from a private tutor as a young boy, Clinton left home in 1757 to serve on a privateer and then served as a subaltern in the militia in Canada during the French and Indian War. After the war he studied law with William Smith Jr in New York City. He returned to Ulster Co (the area is now in Orange Co), where he farmed and developed a successful law practice. Elected to the Colonial Assembly in 1768, he became associated with the anti-British Livingston faction. His marriage to Cornelia Tappen on 7 Feb 1770 strengthened his political position in heavily Dutch Ulster Co. Clinton was elected to the Second Continental Congress, but he left for military duty before signing the Declaration of Independence. In December 1775 the New York Provincial Congress commissioned him brigadier general in the militia and called on him to defend the Highlands of the Hudson River from British attack. He built two forts and stretched a giant chain across the river to keep the British forces in New York City from sailing northward. In March 1777 Congress commissioned him a brigadier general in the Continental army.

Under the new state constitution adopted in April 1777, Clinton ran for lieutenant governor and surprised everyone by not only winning that race but by being elected governor as well. Clinton resigned the lieutenant governor’s position and his militia commission and was inaugurated governor in Kingston (Ulster Co) on 30 July 1777. Asked by George Washington to come back into the army to defend the forts at the Highlands, Clinton assumed command of 600 defenders while maintaining his role as governor. He defended the Highlands against an overwhelmingly large force in October 1777. The forts were lost but at a tremendous cost in enemy casualties. In 1780 Clinton led two militia raids on New York State’s frontier, protecting settlers from bands of British regulars, loyalists, and Iroquois tribes who had raided western settlements for more than two years. On both occasions the raiders escaped with Clinton’s troops in hot pursuit. Clinton’s lobbying efforts with Congress and Gen Washington, as well as his own efforts to defend the frontier, did not go unnoticed by settlers and helped solidify trust and support for his administration.

GOVERNOR AND ANTIFEDERALIST LEADER

Clinton served seven terms as governor (1777–95, 1801–4). Throughout the Revolution he advocated strengthening Congress, but after the war, when he and many other New Yorkers felt that Congress and their neighboring states endangered New York’s interests, Clinton opposed most increases in congressional power. Many New Yorkers felt threatened by congressional demands calling for the annexation of western New York State to the national public domain, although that territory had been taken from Indians by Continental troops. Congress refused to allow New York’s legislature to raise troops to occupy the British forts there, and in the spring of 1784 Massachusetts delegates to Congress further troubled New Yorkers when they announced that most of the disputed territory belonged to Massachusetts under the provisions of their colonial charter. In April 1784 New York Congressman Ephraim Paine wrote to the governor “that there is not the least Prospect of any Protection or assistance from Congress and that it is high time for our State to tak[e] the Same measures as though it was Surrounded with open and avowed Enemies.”

Clinton pursued policies defending New York State from the increasing demands of outsiders. Called Clintonianism by his opponents, the governor’s policies transformed New York and earned the state the nickname the Great Empire State. In 1784 the legislature enacted a state tariff that would serve as the foundation of state programs during the Confederation period. To combat the severe economic depression that ravaged the country, the legislature passed bounties on agricultural and manufactured goods and issued state paper money that was loaned to private individuals with real estate as collateral. The money, which could be used to pay taxes and private debt, would tide farmers over until the economy recovered. A large portion of the currency was also used to fund the interest and principal of the state’s wartime debt and to purchase federal securities owned byNew Yorkers. Through this program, New York became a net creditor of the United States by the end of the Confederation period. Clinton worked to keep the price per acre of state land low, thus encouraging sales. He also encouraged public education and internal improvements, especially the construction of roads and canals. Clinton did favor giving Congress more authority over commerce, which would increase commerce with all countries, but opposed the unconditional grant of an impost power to Congress and refused to compensate loyalists for their confiscated property. These policies stimulated the economy, and New York State recovered rapidly from the depression while most other states still suffered.

In 1787–88 Clinton led New York State’s Antifederalists during the debate over the ratification of the US Constitution. His steadfast opposition to the unamended Constitution catapulted him onto the national scene as the most prominent Antifederal candidate for vice president in 1788–89. Alexander Hamilton strenuously opposed Clinton’s postwar policies in New York State and lobbied against Clinton’s candidacy. Clinton’s antifederal conviction hurt his popularity within New York State after the Constitution was ratified in July 1788. After he ran unopposed for reelection as governor in 1786, his party lost control of both houses of the legislature in 1789, and Clinton barely defeated the Federalist candidate, Robert Yates, of Albany. In 1792 Clinton again won the governorship, defeating John Jay in a close, disputed election.

VICE PRESIDENT

Even with the narrow victories in New York State, in 1792 Clinton was chosen to oppose John Adams for the vice presidency.Overcoming a strong challenge from Aaron Burr, Clinton received the unanimous electoral votes of New York State but lost the election to Adams. He remained governor and later retired from public service, in 1795. He refused an offer to stand for vice president in 1796, but in spring 1800 Clinton was coaxed out of retirement to run for the state assembly from New York City. It was generally believed that the party that won the New York City assembly seats would control the New York State Assembly and that whoever controlled the assembly would determine the victor in the 1800 presidential election. Reluctantly, Clinton ran for the assembly and was elected.He halfheartedly sought the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1800; Burr tenaciously sought the nomination and won it. Clinton distrusted Burr and opposed his election, although Burr did win the vice presidency.When Burr prepared to run for governor of New York State in 1801, Clinton thwarted him by agreeing to run for governor. After winning the election he served as a figurehead for his nephew De Witt Clinton and then retired at the end of his term.

In 1804 Pres Thomas Jefferson asked Clinton to serve as his new vice president, preserving the important Virginia–New York State coalition that was crafted in the early 1790s. In February 1804 the Republican congressional caucus nominated Clinton for vice president. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in June 1804, and Clinton became the first candidate officially to run for the position of vice president. In 1808 Clinton wanted to run for president, but the Republican congressional caucus nominated James Madison for president and Clinton for vice president. Clinton was reelected as vice president, this time serving under Madison. As vice president Clinton opposed the foreign and defense policies of both Jefferson and Madison. He favored strengthening coastal fortifications and enlarging the navy while opposing the implemented economic diplomacy that seemed to have no impact on France and Great Britain. Opposition clustered around Clinton, but he was too old and ill to provide effective leadership. On several occasions as president of the Senate, he cast a tie-breaking vote, most significantly on 20 Feb 1811 against rechartering the Bank of the United States. The first US vice president to die in office, Clinton was buried in the Congressional Cemetery, but his remains were moved to the Old Dutch Church in Kingston in 1908.

Kaminski, John P. George Clinton: Yeoman Politician of the Young Republic (Madison,Wisc:Madison House, 1993)

Spaulding, E. Wilder. His Excellency George Clinton: Critic of the Constitution (New York: Macmillan, 1938)

Young, Alfred F. The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763–1797 (Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 1967)

John P. Kaminski

Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 349-50].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.

Timeline of NY Governors

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