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bility for the loss of the forts. It is not easy for us to compre-
hend the difficulty of maintaining a force of the militia in the
expectation of the long-delayed attack of an enemy. General
James Clinton wrote that they, the militia, had a penchant of
" strolling " away to their homes.

The fault of losing the Highlands forts has been put in impar-
tial history where it belongs. Bancroft, speaking of the loss of
these forts, says of General Putnam : " In his easy manner he
let part of the New York Militia go home so that he had but
2000 men. Sir Henry Clinton with 4000 troops feigned an attack
on Fishkill by landing troops at Verplanck's Point. Putnam was
duped ; and just as the British wished, retired out of the way to
the hills in the rear of Peekskill. George Clinton. Governor of
New York, knew the point of danger and with such forces as he
could collect he hastened to Fort Clinton while his brother took
command of Fort Montgomery. Putnam should have reinforced
their garrisons. Instead he ordered troops away from them and
left the passes unguarded." It may be added that in the spring
of 1778 Putnam was relieved of his command of the passes. But
the passes had been held as long as necessary. St. Leger had
been stopped at Oriskany by Herkimer. Baum had been over-
whelmed at Bennington by Stark and the 22000 Continental and
militia troops at Saratoga had strangled Burgoyne with his 10000


regulars ; and, the decisive battle of the American Revolution had
been fought.

The world will never know how great were the services of
George Clinton to the accomplishment of that result. He with-
drew troops from his own command that those of General Gates
might be the certain of the victory. It is sufficient for us New
Yorkers to know that when George Otto Trevelyan, Englishman,
wrote the history of the Revolutionary War, he wrote it impar-
tially with marvelous detail and exquisite literary grace, and in
writing of the great war governors of the revolution, he wrote
first of George Clinton, and it is without disparagement to those
other great governors, Trumbull of Connecticut and Livingston
of New Jersey. Well might he put Clinton first, for upon him
Washington leaned most strongly for support and he did not
lean in vain. Under George Clinton's government as so devot-
edly demonstrated in the roster of New York's soldiers in the
Revolution compiled by one of our society's most accomplished
ex-presidents. James A. Roberts, the state of New York con-
tributed upwards of 40000 soldiers to the cause of the Revolu-

When Washington was starving with his troops at Valley
Forge George Clinton suffered with him and wrought so that no
state excelled New York in efforts to ameliorate that desperate
situation. Indeed in an off hand way Clinton said in the conven-
tion at Poughkeepsie which ratified the Constitution, " I have
been sent for to attend councils of war when the state of the
army was laid before me and it was melancholy indeed. I
believe that at one period the exertions of the State impressing
flour from the people saved the army from dissolution." He
kept New York, the seventh state in point of population, in the
first rank in producing the things on which men fight — if the
test be that exacting one described by Napoleon that " an army
fights on its belly."

George Clinton too knew how to fight and did fight in a most
efficient manner to protect the frontiers in his state against hos-
tile enemy, Tory and Indian depredations. Courageous soul that
he was in any dire state extremity, he was always ready to lead
his men himself. He did not shrink from ; he coveted the post


of danger. A later instance of his intrepidity may be seen in his
energetic gathering and leading of his troops to Lebanon in this
state and stamping out the part of the Shay's rebellion there
growing. The revolution found its glorious termination in that
state, our state, wherein so many battles had been fought and
which was never free from its enemies and which during seven
long years saw the havoc and alarm of war.

The evacuation of New York City by the British soldier has
been the source of memorial celebrations covering over a hundred
years. Joseph H. Choate has most beautifully spoken of it in
these words : " And Washington came not alone. By his side
there marched another hero whose name no native or adopted
citizen of New York can fail to recall wherever her part in the
revolution is remembered." Speaking of their portraits he con-
tinued: " Could these dignified and majestic lips but speak how
fervently would they thank God for permitting them to labor and
to sufifer for such results and how urgently would they exhort us
to hand down untarnished and unbroken to posterity the liberty
and union which they so stoutly fought for and maintained."
The military career of George Clinton like that of Washington,
though in a narrower field, furnishes no wonderful exploit of
burning radiance to fire the war spirit of generations yet unborn
but in solid accomplishment it remains at once the pride and glory
of this great state.

Clinton besides being an able soldier was even a better admin-
istrator of the state's civic affairs. He was six terms consecu-
tively governor. The administration of his office in the forma-
tive period under a new federal constitution was enough to tax
the resources of the ablest of men. Perhaps one of the most
important functions of his life was to participate in the adoption
of that Constitution. The Articles of Confederation of the states
had failed. The country could not pay its war debts. It could
not produce enough to pay its running expenses. It was without
a stable system of money. Its currency and that of the states
was not a help but a calamity. Washington is reported as say-
ing, " A wagon full of currency would not purchase a wagon
full of army provisions." The private debts of the citizens to
foreigners, particularly the English, could not be recovered in the


courts. Both the maintenance of our army and of our credit
were seriously jeopardized. To meet such conditions a conven-
tion was held and a new Constitution i)rci)ared and submitted to
the states for ratification. The state convention to determine
whether New York State would join the union by ratifying the
Constitution, was held at Poughkeepsie, June 17, 1788. The very
ablest men of the State were members of this body. They
included the Chancellor, Robert R. Livingston, John Jay, James
Duane, mayor of New York, Gouvenieur Morris, Alexander
Hamilton, Melancton Smith, Isaac Lansing and Governor Clin-
ton. In the memoirs and letters of Chancellor Kent we are per-
mitted to see these men. Of Livingston he writes: "The tall
graceful person of Chancellor Livingston, and his polished wit
and classical taste contributed not a little to deepen the impres-
sion resulting from the ingenuity of his argument, the vivacity of
his imagination and the dignity of his station." Of Hamilton:
" Thfe selfish principle that infirmity too often of great as little
minds seemed never to have reached him. It was entirely incom-
patible with the purity of his taste and the grandeur of his ambi-
tion." Of Clinton: "Though I felt strong political prejudices
against Governor Clinton as the leader of the Anti-Federal party,
yet during the course of that convention I became very favor-
ably struck with the dignity with which he presided and his
unassuming and modest pretentions as a speaker. It was impos-
sible not to feel respect for such a man . . . when it was
apparent in all his actions and deportment that he possessed great
decision of character and a stem inflexibility of purpose."

The character of Governor Clinton has an infallible key. He
lived to create a new country whose every comer stone was lib-
erty. When the new instrument was laid before the convention,
it was laid before one man whose eyes saw nothing, whose ears
responded to nothing but liberty. Hamilton taunted him:
" Why has he not given us his ideas of the nature of the govern-
ment which is the object of his wishes?" "Why does he not
describe it . . . the gentleman objects to it without pointing
out the grounds." This was badinage. For Governor Clinton
had clearly described the kind of government he wanted. " I
declare solemnly I am a friend to a strong and efficient govern-


ment ... \ve may erect a system that will destroy the liber-
ties of the people." Again he said: "The gentleman (Hamil-
ton) may wish for a consolidated — I wish for a Federal Repub-
lic." This was the crux — whether all power should rest in the
general government or whether there should be reservations of
power in the states. No fault should be found by posterity in
Governor Clinton for his opposition to the Constitution. He saw
in it jeopardy to liberty. What Clinton saw, Patrick Henry saw.
Would any one dare to question the patriotism of Henry?
Speaking of the delegates to the Federal Convention Henry said :
" But, sir, give me leave to demand what right had they to say
* we the people.' States are the characteristics and soul of the
confederation. If the states be not the agents of this compact
it is one great consolidated national government of the people of
the states. ... I am not well versed in history but I will
submit to your recollection whether liberty has been destroyed
more by licentiousness of the people or the tyranny of rulers.
My great objection to this government is that it does not leave us
the means of defending our rights and liberties against tyrants.
Whither is the spirit of America gone ... to that illustri-
ous spirit I address my most fervent prayer to prevent our adopt-
ing a system so destructive to liberty."

The spirit of Henrj^'s opposition was the spirit of Clinton's.
These twain were the great opponents. These twain had the con-
fidence of the whole country for patriotism and loyalty. The
great Washington himself was not more devoted than these to the
masterful and binding principle of liberty sought to be incorpo-
rated in the instrument. It was the concentration of all the power
in the national government, it was the minimizing of the power
of the states that provoked temerity in the breasts of fhese
patriots. Hamilton knew without asking what kind of Govern-
ment Clinton wanted and it was due to the opposition of Governor
Clinton and Patrick Henry that the ten declaratory and restric-
tive articles of the Federal Constitution were adopted in 1791.
By Article I, we were guaranteed freedom of speech ; by Article
II, right to bear arms ; by Articles IV and V, freedom against
unreasonable search and seizure, freedom against being put twice
in jeopardy for the same offence, freedom against deprivation


of life, liberty or property without due process of law, by Article

VI, the freedom of an impartial trial by jury in the district and
state where the crime was committed, freedom to confront the
witnesses, freedom to have the assistance of counsel ; by Article

VII, freedom against excessive bail and cruel and unusual pun-
ishment. But why enlarge the catalogue of the dangers the Gov-
ernor in his opposition sought to eliminate?

It is true he was a firm opponent, but not an unreasonable one.
" If the gentleman can show me that the Constitution is a safe
one," said he, " I will drop all opposition." The situation was
in his hands. No matter how persuasively Hamilton argued and
ratiocinated there were but 19 Federalists in the convention
against 41 antis and they were Clinton's loyal supporters. But
Governor Clinton was not there to embarrass his country ; he was
there to perform the great function of the hour. It is said by
Hammond in his history' of New York that he suffered enough
defection among his friends to allow the Constitution to be rati-
fied. It came about in this manner. Mr. Jay moved July 11,
" resolved as the opinion of this committee that the Constitution
under consideration ought to be ratified by the convention." Mr,
Melancton Smith after a debate of four days moved an amend-
ment that it should be adopted : " Upon condition nevertheless,"
the condition being the adoption by the states of certain amend-
ments. After further debate on July 23, and here is seen the
master hand of Hamilton, Samuel Jones, one of the four anti-
federalists from Queens County, moved to obliterate the words
" upon condition," and to substitute the words " in full confi-
dence " that certain amendments would be adopted. This motion
was carried by a vote of 31 to 29. Gilbert Livingston and
Melancton Smith and 12 other antis voting with the Federalists.

The men in this convention were the founders of our state.
Nay, they were the founders too of our glorious country. What
Clinton did with arms and great executive capacity, Hamilton and
Jay did in constructive statesmanship : Jay wrote the Constitu-
tion of the State of New York and was the first chief justice of
the United States, the worthy predecessor of John Marshall in
giving to the Constitution of the United States such construction
of its powers as to make it equal to the great function of bringing


happiness, safety and contentment to its millions of votaries then

In 1787 when the Federal Convention was held to supersede
the Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution, Yates and
Lansing and Hamilton were selected to represent our state. But
parties had developed and it was George Clinton, head of the
Anti-Federal party, who virtually dictated the selection, and in
allowing the choice of Hamilton, his political adversary, he put
himself on a great plane of liberality and toleration. " What
made Caesar great," said Cicero, " was moderation in the midst
of unlimited power." Caesar forgave Cicero for warring against
him and fighting for Pompey, and restored and raised him to his
former dignities. In his oration for M. Marcellus, Cicero repaid
the debt nobly. He said of Caesar's conduct : " haec qui facit non
eum cum summis viris comparo sed simiUissimum Deo judico."

Clinton's broadmindedness in making Hamilton a delegate was
of the utmost importance to the state. For it was Hamilton who
continued to put in the Constitution that element of concentrated
power that made it equal to the demands of nationality. There
can be no doubt that Hamilton was a divine agency. He was
but twenty-nine at the time of the convention and the work of
that convention was the greatest document ever " struck off at a
single time by the brain and purpose of man." Such was th^
comment of Gladstone, England's great Commoner. Hamilton has
many admirers to-day and has had many critics. He was criti-
cized for pleading for too monarchical a form of Government by
the historian, John Fiske. But Hamilton knew as a politician
and statesman that great results are ordinarily great compromises.
Fiske has written inimitably on the compromises of the Constitu-
tion and knows that they were accords of the views of the prin-
ciples of Jefferson and Hamilton, but failed to appreciate the
means by which Hamilton triumphed. To obtain the desidera-
tum Hamilton urged the ultimate. The truth of this inference
is easily found in the exalted devotion he gave to securing ratifi-
cation not only by New York but by Virginia and all the hesi-
tant states. Even his adversary, Judge Ambrose Spencer, gen-
erously admits that it was his mind that thought out that great


We cannot in justice do otherwise than believe that Clinton's
opposition to the ratification of the Constitution was based on a
rational fear that its operation would invade the liberties of the
people. We cannot but admire the courage and the firmness with
which he maintained his position and the generosity with which
he met his opponents and the enthusiasm with which he entered
upon the support of the national compact. Do not understand
me to be claiming that Clinton was without faults ; to be so would
be superhuman and Clinton was very human. Bold as he was,
sound as he was, fighter as he was, he was more like Andrew
Jackson than like Washington.

One cannot understand Clinton unless one is familiar with the
times in which he lived. One must know the bitterness of the
contest when it was attempted to elect one of his own partisans,
Yates, over him as governor. One must read the contempora-
neous literature to understand the contest between Clinton and
Jay for the governorship. In that election Clinton was accused
by Hamilton of being parsimonious with his own friends, neglect-
ing to entertain as a Governor should, and of speculating in the
purchase of lands of the state with one McComb, the grantee of
the McComb patent. Indeed owing to these accusations his
character was assailed to such an extent that so mild and placid
a man as Chancellor Kent wrote of Clinton as being corrupt. It
is sufficient to say in answer to such charge that McComb denied
absolutely under oath any complicity of the Governor in any such
nefarious transaction. But the sting remained and when in 1792
Jay ran against Clinton for Governor the contest was carried on
with the utmost rancor and bitterness. It was a close run and of
the votes Jay had a clear majority over Clinton. But the Board
of Canvassers consisted of six senators and six members of the
Assembly. Of the senators three were partisans of Jay and three
of Clinton. Of the assembly six were partisans of Clinton.
These canvassers threw out the votes of Otsego County on the
ground that R. R. Smith, the sheriff of Otsego County, whose
duty it was to carry the ballots from the inspectors of the election
to the office of the Secretary of State, was no longer sheriff.
His term had expired and he had come into the office of Super-
visor, which was incompatible with that of sheriff. Aaron Burr


wrote an opinion holding the invalidity of the ballots. Rufus
King wrote holding their validity and contending for the legality
of the de facto officer's act based on a construction of the law
which favors the public right. It may be said in extenuation of
the determination of the canvassers that the law has come to
regard the opportunity to tamper with ballots as a reason for
their rejection. But the title of Clinton to the office was not
clear, and the decision of the canvassers according to Chancellor
Kent was final except against a writ of quo warranto which could
only issue by the act of the Attorney General and he, as we have
seen, was Burr. The character of John Jay was such that it was
beyond the suspicion that he would conspire in any way to defeat
the pubHc will. The government of the people was new, and
Clinton's ability to fight was so great that he was wanting in the
psychology to determine when to cease. The motto " all is fair
in love and war " had always too close an application to political
contests. Governor Clinton accepted the office.

Like Folger, whose nomination for Governor came by virtue
of a forged telegram ; like Maynard, whose action as deputy
attorney general in conspiring to have the State Board of Can-
vassers act on a false return in order to secure a senator from
Dutchess County and make David B. Hill United States Senator
— Clinton was riding to disaster. Clinton's days as Governor
were numbered. His great patriotic labors, his enormous per-
sonal influence, his undoubted personal probity could not with-
stand the voice of the public conscience outraged by the action of
the Board of Canvassers. Upon this contest rested the eyes of
the new nation. Thomas JeiTerson figured over the returns as
though he were chairman of the state committee in charge of the
campaign, and James Monroe stated the general opinion of the
country in writing, "the terms upon which he (Clinton) has
accepted his re-election are not flattering to him and cast an air
on the whole proceeding which how fair soever it may have
been will give the adversary party an advantage they will not fail
to avail themselves of."

With the termination of that term Clinton chose not to allow
the public to pass judgment upon his conduct in accepting the


election but chose rather with fine political acumen to leave the
court of public opinion unprovoked to a decision. Great as was
the mistake that he had made he greatly survived it. He lived
in retirement from 1795 until 1800. In the election of that year,
for the Republican party to succeed in the Presidential contest,
New York had to be carried. Hamilton had quarrelled with
President Adams and was plotting for his elimination. And
Aaron Burr, master of political craft of that day, was seeking
the overthrow of the Federalists in the nation. Though Clinton
hated Jefferson, the Republican candidate, Clinton was persuaded
to head the ticket for the assembly in New York City. The
assembly, when elected, possessed the power to select the electors.
Clinton came back. He was elected to the assembly. He had
that pure gold of character which is undimmed by misfortune or
honest mistake. His standing for Jefferson resulted in electing
him president.

The next year Clinton was chosen the standard bearer of his
party for the governorship the seventh time and Stephen Van
Rensselaer was his opponent. This contest brings to light what
Clinton was at bottom. The state had been largely governed by
its great families, the Livingstons and the Schuylers, who repre-
sented the wealth and tone of society, and by the Clintons who
were like the Roman Gracchi. Clinton had seen in colonial days
the rivalry of the great families, the Livingstons and the Delan-
ceys, and that their opposition had protected the public from
exploitation. But with the success of the Revolution and the
elimination from public life of the Delanceys, the other great
families of the confederacy were likely, to his mind, to become
united. In a conversation with Rufus King, first senator from
New York State, Clinton said : " My politics were to keep a
constant eye to the measures of this combination and I think the
people should be on their guard against their active efforts."
Clinton was not narrow enough to hate " the soft voices of the
rich," but was broad enough and sound enough to know that the
strength of the state was not found in them but in the still small
voice of conscientious citizenship reflected in hard working sim-
ple lives.


The Governor had not only enemies without his party to fight
but in it he had Aaron Burr. The latter having been elected
United States Senator to succeed General Schuyler came into
national prominence and was in 1800 chosen vice-president over
Governor Clinton. This was not a source of delight to the Clin-
ton family, whose influence was now widened by the aid of
George's strong nephew, DeWitt. When the Governor came into
office in 1801, the Clintons took over the control of the Council
of Appointment, which possessed all of the patronage of the state
and thenceforth no recommendation of Burr had weight. Burr,
bereft of State patronage, was quite eliminated. Burr's political
activities were not supported by high principles. Consequently,
without patronage his star was in the decline and he was left so,
desperate that he courted the duel with and compassed the death
of Alexander Hamilton.

From the Governorship George Clinton was elevated to the
vice presidency in 1804. George Clinton did not like Thomas
Jefferson, the then President. He suspected his principles and
thought personally he was a trimmer. Jefferson in writing Dr.
Rush in 1811 said of Clinton: "Our old, revolutionary friend
Clinton . . . was a hero but never a man of mind." The
general judgment of mankind is at variance with Jefferson's flip-
pant opinion. Clinton, instead of not being a man of mind, was
in the possession of one of the best heads devoted to the cause
of the Revolution and the development of a great state. He had
so much will that people thought him obdurate ; he had so much
mind that for fifteen years none other was sought to administer
the government of a great state. It was the liberality of that
mind, as we have shown, that allowed Thomas Jefferson to sit in
the seat of the mightiest.

It was the suggestion of our Association's President that this
paper should be on Governor George Clinton, so I am leaving him
on the threshold of a wider sphere of activity. To contemplate
the mass of legislation which he recommended and which passed
during his twenty-one years of tenure of the office of Governor

Online LibraryNew York State Historical AssociationThe Quarterly journal of the New York State Historical Association (Volume 9) → online text (page 21 of 35)