Biography of Dewitt Clinton

DeWitt Clinton was born at Little Britain, Orange County, N. Y., in. 1769. He died suddenly while engaged in official duty at Albany, February 11, 1828. His paternal ancestors, although long resident in Ireland, were of English origin, and his mother was of Dutch-French blood. He was educated at Columbia College, graduating with high honors. Choosing the law for his avocation, he studied law under Samuel Jones, afterwards Chief Justice of the United States Superior Court. He was admitted to the Bar in 1788 and entered immediately into political life, being an ardent supporter of his uncle, George Clinton. He took an active interest in the adoption of the Federal

Constitution, and reported for the press the proceedings of the convention held for that purpose, also acting as private secretary for his uncle. His first office was Secretary of the Board of Regents of the University, and the next, Secretary of the Board of Commissioners of state fortifications. In 1797 he was elected to the State Assembly as a representative from New York City, where he made his residence, and the next year was chosen State Senator for four years. In 1802, when but 33 years of age, he was appointed a Senator of the United States. He labored for the abolition of slavery and its kindred barbarism, imprisonment for debt. Before his term as Senator expired he resigned to accept the office of Mayor of New York, which he held for four years, when he was removed; he was again appointed in 1809; again removed in 1810; finally appointed in 1811, again holding the office for four years, through the period of the war with England. He was a member of the State Senate from 1805 to 1811; Lieutenant Governor for the, next two years, and for part of this time again made a member of the council of appointment. In 1804, his uncle, the Governor, was elected, Vice-President of the United States, and soon afterwards by reason of age, retired from active political life. His retirement left the political scepter of the Clintons in the hands of DeWitt, who speedily became the leader of the Republican party in the State of New York, and their candidate for President, ,at the close of Madison’s first term. The result of the election was a disastrous defeat for Clinton, he having but 89 electoral votes to 128 for Madison. His partisan opponents considered his political career at an end, but they were mistaken. He took a leading part on many public questions, notably, that of establishing the public school system of New York City, the establishment and promotion of various institutions of science; in the improvement and modification of criminal laws, the extension of agriculture and manufactures, the relief of the poor, the improvement of morals, and many other worthy objects, in which he was in many instances the moving spirit.

All these, however, were small in comparison with the great work upon which his fame as a public man rests, viz., the building of the Erie Canal. The history of this enterprise and the part he played in it would fill volumes. He labored with indefatigable energy, patience and hope until the great work was an accomplished fact. Through all these weary years “Clinton’s folly” was the by word of scoffers, but he never despaired, and toiled on, often against the most discouraging opposition, never giving an inch, until after a dozen years, a line of cannon stationed at intervals along the much ridiculed “ditch,” awakened the people of the Empire State to the fact that the waters of lake Erie were pouring through the canal bearing on their waves the message that the great lakes were on that day wedded to the Atlantic ocean. In 1816 Governor Daniel D. Tompkins was chosen Vice-President and resigned the Governorship. Clinton was brought forth for the place, bearing not only the odium of advocating the “big ditch,” and of the crushing defeat as a Presidential candidate four years before, but the additional ignominy of having been but one year before removed from the office of Mayor of New York by a council of appointment controlled by his own party. To run for Governor seemed madness, yet the marvelous power and political genius of the man gave him an easy victory, and he was elected by a heavy majority. He was reelected in. 1820, in 1824, and in 1826. In 1822 he was out of the field, and his enemies once more celebrated his political demise, adding in the course of their two years’ rule, the indignity of removing him from the office of Commissioner of the canal, then under construction. This outrage was more than the people could bear and he was once more brought forward for Governor, running against Samuel Young. The disgraced Canal Commissioner was elected by 17,000. majority. While engaged in official duties at Albany he died suddenly on February 11, 1828. Among his works are: Discourses before the New York Historical Society; Memoir on the Antiquities of Western New York; Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources of New York; Speeches to the Legislature, and many historic and scientific addresses.



Headley, Russel. The history of Orange County, New York. Middletown, N.Y.: Van Deusen and Elms. 1908.

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