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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 481

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This is the grave of Daniel Tompkins.

Born in 1774 in Scarsdale, New York, Tompkins graduated from Columbia in 1795. He studied law with John Jay, among others, and was admitted to the bar in 1797. He opened a practice in New York City. Although he was surrounded and mentored by Federalists, Tompkins became an important leader in the state’s Democratic-Republican Party. He was elected to the New York legislature in 1804 and then to Congress almost immediately after that, but then resigned quickly to become a judge on the New York Supreme Court, where he remained until 1807.

In 1807, Tompkins ran for governor and won, even though he was only 33 years old. He stayed in the office for 10 years, an eternity in early American politics, especially in northern states, where ideas of republicanism led to a lot of turnover. The state had three year terms at this time and he was reelected in 1810 and 1813. He mobilized the state for the War of 1812 more effectively than most governors in that half-baked war effort, creating a strong state militia and instituting a limited draft. James Madison–who Tompkins had supported for the presidency in 1808 over his old mentor DeWitt Clinton–offered him the position of Secretary of State in 1814, but he chose to stay in New York. In 1817, Tompkins, just before leaving Albany, declared that all of New York’s remaining slaves would be freed in 1827. The state had passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799, but had never actually set a final date where all living slaves would be freed. To say the least, New Yorkers didn’t want to give up their slaves any more than they did in Virginia or Alabama. So Tompkins finally started the end of that process.

Tompkins was a serious contender for the 1816 Democratic-Republican nomination and with the Federalist Party in tatters over nearly committing treason at the end of the War of 1812 through the Hartford Convention, that would have meant an easy walk into the White House. But the Virginia Dynasty held on and James Monroe received the nomination. Tompkins was given the VP slot. He served in that role in both of Monroe’s terms, but not real happily. It was a pretty worthless position. Tompkins actually ran for New York’s governor again in 1820, hoping for a way out, but lost a tight race to DeWitt Clinton. That 1820 date doesn’t match up to the 3-year terms, but this is the available information. He was also a total mess during these years. First, he was a significant alcoholic that was not getting better as he aged. Second, he had some pretty big health problems, in part because he fell off a horse just as he started as VP. Third, he had no money. He had given a bunch of his own money to help fight the War of 1812 but never bothered to really document any of this and being very cheap, neither the state nor the federal government paid him back. The federal government finally gave him a little money in 1823, but he remained pretty overextended for the rest of his life. All of this combined to mean that he was ineffective even at what a VP did, especially when presiding over the Senate during the debates leading up to the Missouri Compromise.

When Monroe left office in 1825, Tompkins returned to New York and died just a few months later, at the age of 50, making him the youngest vice-president to die.

Daniel Tompkins is buried at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, Manhattan, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other vice-presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John C. Calhoun, who was VP under both Adams and Jackson, is in Charleston, South Carolina, while Richard Mentor Johnson, VP under Van Buren, is in Frankfort, Kentucky. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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