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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 628

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This is the grave of DeWitt Clinton.

Born in 1769 in Little Britain, New York, Clinton grew up in the New York elite of the American Revolutionary period. His father was General James Clinton, who played a key role in the Saratoga Campaign in 1777. Clinton went to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and then transferred to King’s College (now Columbia). His entire family were high-ranking New York politicos and after graduating, Clinton became secretary to his uncle, George Clinton, the state’s governor. Like the rest of the family (George would soon be VP for Jefferson and Madison), DeWitt became a Democratic-Republican.

Clinton’s first elected office came in 1798 when he was sent to the New York State Assembly. Very shortly after, in the same year, he moved up to the State Senate. He was very briefly a U.S. Senator, in 1802 and 1803 after the previous senator died, but he hated living in the swamps of Washington, D.C. so much that he resigned and came home. He became mayor of New York City in 1803 and was in that job until 1807, then again from 1808-10 and 1811-15. He also became lieutenant governor in 1811 and held both jobs for the next two years.

By 1812, tensions in the Jeffersonian coalition were growing, mostly over the critical issue of what to do about the British. Lots of Americans were clamoring for war, especially in the Democratic-Republican Party. Federalists, much closer to the British, were aghast. So were growing numbers of northern Jeffersonians, especially in the critical trade-oriented state of New York. That included Clinton. George Clinton had challenged James Madison‘s rise to the presidency in 1808, but lost out. He had died in early 1812, just as he was preparing to run as a Federalist against his old enemy and the Virginian dynasty in general. So the Federalists and anti-war Jeffersonians arrived at a deal to nominate DeWitt Clinton for president, which he happily agreed with. But the campaign was fairly disastrous. Lots of the state Federalist parties were really unhappy with this. Virginia refused to consider him the nominee and ran their own candidate, splitting the anti-Madison vote and ensuring he’d win the state. Even New York Federalists were uncomfortable with it and wanted Rufus King instead. So this was not a united opposition in any way. Clinton himself basically told anyone who asked him what they wanted to hear about the potential for war with the British, saying he was against it when he was in the Northeast and for it when speaking to representatives of the South and West. To win in 1812, you basically needed to win 2 of the 3 giant states: New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The population was so unbalanced in the U.S. at this time that all the other states were almost irrelevant, though Massachusetts was also fairly important and some of the southern states did have over 10 electoral votes. But these were the giant swing states. Anyway, Clinton did win New York, but Madison won both Virginia and Pennsylvania and thus the election, with a 50-48 popular vote advantage and 128-89 in the Electoral College.

Clinton was still New York’s mayor, but of course he wanted higher office. When James Monroe was elected president in 1816, his VP was New York’s governor, Daniel Tompkins. That opened the position and Clinton was the only serious candidate, despite his Tammany enemies trying to gin up opposition. Now, Clinton had one great passion as governor, and it really predated that. He wanted to build the Erie Canal. This was his prime goal. He had served on the Erie Canal Commission back to 1810. This project was seen as lunacy by a lot of people and while initial work had been done, it was very far from completion when he wen to Albany in 1817. Clinton changed that rapidly. He convinced the state legislature to outlay $7 million for the project, a huge amount for the time and in an atmosphere where many Americans felt that government support for transportation projects was not appropriate or even constitutional. Many newspapers mocked Clinton. He had real enemies too. In 1820, he won a very tight re-election race against Tompkins, who wanted his old job back. Then the state had a constitutional convention in 1821 that shortened the governor’s term from three to two years and cut off the last six months of his term by moving the date it started from July 1 to January 1. In 1822, in fact, he was not renominated for a third term. He was still the head of the Erie Canal Commission though. But then his enemies got greedy. They tried to have him evicted from that and the legislature agreed. This infuriated his supporters and he ran a third party campaign against the current governor in 1824, defeating him and getting his ultimate revenge. And then, the Erie Canal was completed shortly after he returned to office in 1825.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Erie Canal to American life. In truth, the transportation revolution started by this project quickly turned to railroads and left lots of states basically bankrupt after they heavily invested to catch up to New York. But if you lived in, say, Pittsburgh in 1824, it was cheaper for you to send your products down the Ohio River, to the Mississippi, all the way to New Orleans, then put them on a ship to get them to New York than it was to go the few hundred miles by land to New York. This was a real problem for American development as the nation expanded to the west. The Erie Canal slashed all these costs. For consumers, prices of coffee and other key goods plummeted by well over half. The cost of freight from Buffalo to Albany fell by more than 90 percent. The state quickly remade the money it had spent on the project through the tolls that shippers and producers found it well-worth paying. The Erie Canal was also revolutionary to the rural farming people of the region, so changing their conceptions of life that the area turned to radical religious revivals along the Canal, becoming known as the Burned-Over District. Not only did this area produce the revivals of Methodists and Presbyterians of the Second Great Awakening, but weird offshoot cults such as the Shakers (they didn’t originate here but did take off in America there) and Mormons. Anyway, Clinton received the credit for this unparalleled success in American governance and leadership, even if over 1,000 people died building the thing.

Clinton always had New York’s historical legacy in mind. He started the New York Historical Society in 1804 and was the organization’s first president, even though he was also mayor. He helped reorganize the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1808 and was a regent for the precursor to the State University of New York. He was elected to the American Antiquarian Society in 1814 and was heavily involved in that organization until his death, including serving as its VP from 1821-28.

The irony of Clinton’s life is that while he was a brilliant governor, including on financial issues, he was horrible with his own finances. In 1828, he died suddenly. The family had….nothing. Literally. Creditors took it all and Clinton was nearly buried in a potter’s field because the family couldn’t even afford a plot of ground. A friend finally agreed to place him in the family vault in Albany. It was not until 1844 that the family, now more prosperous, were able to bury him where he exists today.

DeWitt Clinton is buried in Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other figures of the American transportation revolution, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ross Winans is in Baltimore and Gridley Bryant is in Scituate, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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