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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 502


This is the grave of Morgan Lewis.

Born in 1754 in New Jersey, Lewis decided to become a minister as a young man. But his father believed that was not a wise decision for his son and encouraged him instead to attend the College of New Jersey (today, Princeton). Lewis graduated in 1773 and started to study the law. He fought in the American Revolution. Lewis was interested in the Patriot cause from the beginning and volunteered in 1775 for the Continental Army and was made a captain of the New York Militia. He soon was promoted to major in the 2nd New York Militia. He served as a colonel by 1776 as Horatio Gates’ chief of staff on the failed Canadian invasion. Then, Congress appointed him Quartermaster General for the Northern Department of the military. He still fought though, commanding troops at the Battle of Crown Point and playing a leading role at Saratoga.

All of this of course delayed his legal career and he did not gain admittance to the bar until 1783. But he was looking after his interests, buying a bunch of property in Albany during the Revolution. He was elected to the New York Assembly in 1789 and then he became the state’s attorney general in 1791 and served there until 1801, when he became the state’s chief justice on its Supreme Court. Lewis only stayed there briefly, as the governor’s job was calling. In 1804, Lewis defeated Aaron Burr for that job. It’s kind of amazing that Burr thought he could win that election after killing Hamilton, but then that was Burr. Anyway, it was highly divided Democratic-Republican Party. Lewis was the head of one faction and the ultimately more powerful DeWitt Clinton headed the other. As governor, he secured the opening of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, restructured the state militia, and worked toward a state education system. But he was not able to win reelection in 1807, as Clinton’s ally Daniel Tompkins defeated him.

Oh yeah, Lewis was also a slaveholder. People forget that New York was the center of northern slaveholding, both in New York City and in the Hudson Valley. Although Lewis wasn’t a member of the Dutch patroon elite in the Hudson Valley who held onto their slaves as long as they could, he happily borrowed from their lifestyle. At the very least, in 1790, he owned eight slaves. I’m not sure how long he held onto them. It was Tompkins who as governor finally moved toward ending slavery in New York and that was one significant difference between he and Lewis.

In the aftermath, Lewis went to a farm he had bought near Staatsburg, New York. He built himself a small cloth mill there, but the mercantile house in which it was attached to failed so he gave that up. James Madison offered him the position of Secretary of War, but he turned that down to stay in New York. And who would really want the job during the War of 1812 anyway. But when the war started, Lewis, one of the last American Revolution officers still young enough to be militarily useful, reentered the army. He again became Quartermaster General, this time for western New York. He was commission as brigadier general in 1812 and promoted to major general in 1813. He led American forces at the Battle of Fort George. That was one of the few American victories in the Canadian campaign, but Lewis really screwed up by ordering Winfield Scott to end his pursuit of British troops, which could have led to the capture of Major General John Vincent’s division and seriously weaken the British defense of Canada. He wasn’t punished for this incredible error though. Instead, he used his own fortune to front the money to buy American prisoners of war in Canada from the British, figuring he would be paid back, which I think he was, not a guarantee from a parsimonious Congress.

After he was discharged from the military in 1815, Lewis pretty much lived the life of a senior statesman and rich guy. He was an elector in the 1828 presidential election, was a big time leader of the Masons in New York, was President General of New York’s Society of the Cincinnati between 1839 and 1844, and helped establish New York University. Lewis died in 1844, at the age of 89.

Morgan Lewis is buried in Saint James Episcopal Churchyard, Hyde Park, New York.

If you would like this post to visit more politicians of the Early Republic, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lewis turned down Madison’s offer for his Cabinet, but other people who served as Secretary of War for him include William Eustis, buried in Lexington, Massachusetts, and John Armstrong is in Rhinebeck, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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