Best Clinton Ever? Why New York’s First Governor, George Clinton, Totally Rocks
It’s not Hillary or DeWitt, but George Clinton who belongs in the pantheon of Founding Fathers
Painting by Ezra Ames
One of these men is not like the others: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Clinton. Can you name which one?
Right — but for the wrong reason.
They are all Founding Fathers of the United States of America. They all have cities and counties and roads and schools and bridges named after them. The only real difference is that you know lots about the first three, but the fourth typically elicits a collective “George who?”
Raised in the Hudson Valley, Clinton — first and longest-serving governor of New York, fourth vice president of the U.S., and a political linchpin in the earliest days of the republic — should be well-known and celebrated. He was all that in his day, but history has tended to treat him as a footnote. If the Founding Fathers are the Beatles, George Clinton is Pete Best.
But make no mistake, there would be no U.S.A. and New York would not be the Empire State — at least not as we know them — without Clinton’s military, political, and business savvy. “He was a dominant figure throughout the 1770s and 1780s,” says his biographer, John Kaminski, director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. So why doesn’t his face grace our currency?
New York State of mind
George Clinton was born in Little Britain, Orange County, in 1739 to an English family that actually emigrated from Ireland. Little is known of his early years, but at the outbreak of the last French and Indian War in 1754, he joined the British army and was commissioned a sub-lieutenant. As a civilian, he read the law and served in a number of capacities in Ulster County — including as county clerk, a position he obtained by royal commission and held for 53 years. He was also elected to the provincial assembly and joined the restive leaders who were beginning to oppose British rule.
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, he was brigadier general of the militia and a member of the New York Provincial Congress, where he was a mid-Hudson Valley leader of the revolution. Once independence was declared, he was elected first governor of New York State in 1777. He was also assigned by General Washington to command the defense of Fort Montgomery, one of the first and most important forts built to fend off the British. “This was a critical time in the battle for control of New York State,” Kaminski says. “He took over command there, though in essence both he and Washington thought it was a suicidal mission. Washington never forgot his assistance, and though [Washington] became estranged from many friends who were anti-Federalists [as Clinton was], that was not the case with Clinton.” And vice versa; Clinton even named two of his children George and Martha.
Clinton was governor from 1777 to 1795, then left politics for a few years. Anti-Federalist Aaron Burr convinced the 61-year-old Clinton to return to the state Assembly in 1800. This was a tactical move on Burr’s part, Kaminski says. New York carried substantial weight in the presidential election that year: Whichever party controlled the Assembly essentially determined the election. Burr wanted to ensure that the Jeffersonian Republicans held the majority; the move paid off, as Jefferson emerged victorious.
Clinton was re-elected governor, serving from 1801 to 1804. According to the New York State Museum, “He led what became a government on the run that first began meeting in Albany in 1781.” After the war, the legislature met in many locations; in 1797, Albany became the de facto state capital. During that time, Clinton secured New York’s strength with his business acumen.
“Clinton created the Empire State in the mid-1780s,” Kaminski says. It became prosperous in large part because of tariffs levied at the Port of New York (which supplied half to three-fourths of the state’s revenue), which the legislature imposed under his governance. The legislature also subsidized farming and other industries, furthering growth and development. “Almost all the economic policies advocated by Hamilton on a national level were already being implemented at the state level by Clinton,” says Kaminski.
That state-level success led Clinton to fear the federalist bent of other Founding Fathers. “Clinton, like many others, had many misgivings about the Constitution,” Kaminski says. “New York felt put-upon by its neighbors and Congress. He felt threatened.” Threats included losing the western part of the state to Massachusetts (which had put in a claim for the land under the Articles of Confederation based on their original colonial charter) and the northeastern part to the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont. New York was doing well, and didn’t want a strong federal government interfering.
Clinton was so against the Constitution that he advocated convening a second constitutional convention to start the process all over again. Kaminski says a second convention “would have been like opening Pandora’s box. Who knows what would have happened?” The state’s position was also critical for geographic reasons. Both New York and Virginia had misgivings about the Constitution; if they failed to ratify it, the nation would have been split into thirds — New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and the southern states all cut off from one another. “That is just what the British wanted,” Kaminski says.
Clinton’s call for a second convention essentially died, but the threat of it and other anti-Federalist agitation led to the compromise that saved the day: the Bill of Rights. “Clinton was the spur that egged James Madison on to get the Bill of Rights passed,” he says. After that, “Clinton raises the green flag in June 1788 and says it is all right to vote for this.”
Clinton and Washington were so close that Clinton “stood” for president in 1789 (the term used for running back then, as running for office was considered gauche), hoping to come in second and become the vice president. “Washington would have loved him as his vice president,” Kaminski says. But the Federalists had the power, and Clinton lost. He returned to Albany, but in 1805 he was elected vice president, serving under both Jefferson and Madison, until his death, while in office, on April 20, 1812. The position of vice president had even less power then than it does today; “the VP was not considered an executive, he was the president of the Senate, where he presided every day,” says Kaminski. That’s an important role, but it had little sway on governance. His most important action, Kaminski says, was casting the deciding vote against rechartering the Bank of the U.S. in 1810. By then an old man, Clinton’s hope of moving into the presidency — a hope that all previous and many subsequent veeps harbored — never came to be.
The fact that he never became president is one reason why Clinton fails to appear on our money or in our middle school American history quizzes. Another reason, says Kaminski, is fire. “Historians write about people they know about, so having documents helps. Many of the Founding Fathers kept their papers, which were published in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that is not so with Clinton.” When the British burned Kingston, all his papers about his early life were destroyed. And in 1911, a fire at the New York State Library incinerated 50 boxes of his records. “Without those other papers, that cuts off access for historians,” he says.
Despite that, Kaminski learned enough to write the life story of this enigmatic but important New Yorker. “His command of Fort Montgomery shows the patriotism and courage he had,” he says. “Even though he may have been on the opposite political side, he was still admired for what he did. It’s impossible not to consider him a Founding Father.”