Clinton by T. Romeyn Beck, M.D.
The Academy of Sciences at Dijon recently asked of their
municipality, that all houses in the commune which deserved to be
historical, might be marked by commemorative inscriptions. The Council,
we are told, readily acceded to the request, and among the birth-places
and residences thus designated are those of Buffon, Crebillon, Guyton
De Morveau, and the Marshal Tavennes.
We in this country, whether fortunately or unfortunately, live
in too progressive an age to allow us to ask for similar remembrances.
Unless a statesman happens to be reared in a rural district,
of his birth seldom survives his youth, possibly his manhood. New
structures arise, and the succeeding generation know little or nothing
of what preceded.
In the instance of DeWitt
Clinton, the difficulty is increased by the diversity of
statements that are made relative to his birth-place. He was the son of
James Clinton, a gallant soldier in both of the now classic wars of
this country. Commissioned as an ensign in the war of 1756, Mr. Clinton
served during most of its campaigns. The Continental Congress, in 1775,
appointed him colonel of one of the New-York regiments; and after
particularly distinguishing himself at Fort Montgomery and Yorktown, he
retired from the army of the Revolution with the rank of major-general.
It was after the close of the French War that Mr. Clinton was
married to Mary DeWitt. She is represented as having been beautiful in
her youth—an only sister, with nine brothers. To them four sons were
born, of whom DeWitt was the second. The date of his birth is well
settled—being the year 1769;—not so the place. Many of his biographers
unite in stating that this was Little Britain, in Orange County, where
his father resided. Some assert that he was born at New Windsor, in the
same county, in a house still standing, and which can be seen from the
river; while others relate the tradition that his parents were on a
visit to the fort at Minisink, then under the command of Colonel
DeWitt, a brother of Mrs. Clinton; that a severe and long-continued
snow-storm occurred, and that the mother was there confined.
On his education it is scarcely necessary to dwell, farther
than to trace its influence on his subsequent career. His parents
bestowed on him that inestimable gift—the best education that the State
could afford—first at Kingston Academy, and subsequently at Columbia
College. The professors' chairs were filled by eminent men, who appear
to have appreciated the talents of their pupil. He was the first
graduate after the Revolution.
At the age of seventeen he commenced the study of the law with
the elder Samuel Jones, whose eminence as an advocate, and honesty as a
high state officer, still linger amongst our earliest reminiscences.
Thus prepared, as well by preliminary instruction as by
earnest self-improvement, he was about entering on the profession of
the law, with elders and contemporaries equal to any bar in the Union,
when his destiny was at once and permanently changed. He was the nephew
of George Clinton, the governor of the young State of New-York;
distinguished by his civil and military talents; admirably qualified to
guide the rising republic through its forming stages, although possibly
too tenacious of his peculiar opinions, and, unfortunately, too long
opposed to the adoption of the Constitution.
The parties that from time to time controlled the destinies of
the country were now in active collision. In the State of New-York, Jay
and Hamilton were the leaders and guides of the Federalists, and
Governor Clinton needed all the intellectual aid that could be brought
to bear on the contest. He selected his nephew as his private
secretary, and the sagacity, at least, of the choice has never been
disputed. Several papers on subjects of public and permanent interest,
known to have emanated from the pen of DeWitt Clinton, are still
We are told that he remained in this station until 795—the
close of the long administration (continued by re-elections) of his
In 1797, he was elected a member of the Assembly from the city
of New-York, and the next year, of the Senate. The tenure of the first
of these was annual, and of the last for four years. From the above
date to the hour of his death, with short intervals, he continued to be
chosen in succession to the Senate, and as lieutenant-governor and
governor. He was for the space of two years a member of the United
States Senate. From 1803 to 1807, and from 1808 to 1815, he served as
mayor of the city of New-York. This is a brief outline of the
situations he held, and it is only necessary to fill up the sketch with
notices of what he proposed and accomplished, to complete the picture.
His "homes," with the brief exception of two winters at
Washington, were, of course, mainly in New-York and Albany.
In the former, his town residence was at the lower end of
Broadway—then the fashionable part of the city, and where wealthy
bankers, and merchants, and distinguished professional men loved to fix
their dwellings. At a short distance from the Bowling-green and the
Battery, the breezes from the ocean occasionally found their way and
shed their influences. Commerce has commanded the removal of most of
these private residences, and she has been rigidly obeyed. The
merchandise of the Old and of the New World needs still increasing
While remaining in New-York, he owned a country-seat at
Maspeth, on Long Island, to which he frequently resorted, and
indulged in his favorite pursuits of angling and hunting. He was
greatly attached to these, until in after life an unfortunate accident
rendered active exercise too laborious.
Of Albany, the place in which a large portion of his mature
life was spent, we feel some constraint in giving, what we consider, a
just account. By many, even intelligent travellers, it is only known as
a place of transfer from steamboats and railroads—as excessively hot in
summer, and as the capital of the State, where the Legislature holds
its sessions during the winter.
But its antiquities—if antiquities are to be spoken of in this
country—are of some interest. Here an American Congress once assembled,
of which Franklin was a member. Whenever England and France contended
for mastery on this continent, many of the officers and troops of the
former halted here for a while, or passed on for the finally
accomplished object of the conquest of Canada. Here for a time were
Howe and Abercrombie, Amherst and Sir William Johnson; while, to the
French, it seems to have been the limit, which, though they burnt
Schenectady and ravaged the western part of the State, they seemed
scarcely able to reach.
Passing over intermediate occurrences, during the war of 1812
there was here concentrated a large portion of the military force of
the United States, which went forth in all the pomp and circumstance of
war to its mingled career of defeat and success.
Two dwellings still remain in Albany dear to Revolutionary
memory—the residences of General Philip Schuyler and General Abraham
Ten Broeck. The latter was distinguished as
a brave and capable militia
officer. The services and talents of the former are not as yet
sufficiently appreciated. The wise man—the trusted of Washington—the
able statesman—who early pointed out the way to internal improvement in
the State of New-York, only needs an impartial and well-instructed
biographer to be duly known.
It is a matter of satisfaction that both of these
residences—crowning heights north and south of the city—are in
excellent preservation, owned by wealthy persons, and destined, we may
hope, to a long existence.
Governor Clinton occupied during his residence in Albany (part
of the time he was out of office) two different houses, which possess
an interest only inferior to those we have just mentioned. One of them,
formerly almost a country residence,—built by Peter W. Yates, an
eminent counsellor at law, and now owned by another of the same
name,—was, for a series of years, the dwelling-place of governors of
the State of New-York. Here Tompkins dispensed his hospitality, while
he wielded, in a manner but partially understood, the destinies of the
nation during the war of 1812; and from this beautiful seat he
departed, in an evil hour to himself, to be Vice-President of the
United States. Clinton succeeded. In this house he met with a severe
accident,—a fracture of the knee-pan from a fall; after a slow recovery
he was enabled to use the limb with but slight indication of the
injury. Still it prevented him from taking exercise on horseback, to
which he had been much accustomed, and it probably led to an increased
fulness of habit, in the later years of his life.
Subsequently to this he occupied a house (it was that in which
he died) in Pearl-street, built by Goldsboro Banyer, one
of the last
deputy Secretaries of State of the Colony of New-York. It was
bequeathed to his son's widow, a daughter of Governor Jay, and on her
removal to New-York, was taken as a governor's residence.
It would scarcely be proper to conclude these sketches,
without briefly enumerating the services of DeWitt Clinton to his State
and country. Most of these were thought of, developed and produced
ready for adoption, within the sacred precincts of his "home."
As mayor of New-York, he was at that time head of the judicial
department of the city. Subsequently that officer has been relieved of
these duties, and several local courts have been found necessary, to
dispose of the cases which the tangled relations of commerce are
constantly bringing forth. Some records of his ability both as a civil
and a criminal judge still remain. A Catholic priest had been called
upon to disclose what had been communicated to him at the confessional.
In his opinion, Mr. Clinton sustained the sacred nature of the secret
thus imparted, and subsequent legislation, doubtless founded on this
case, extended the exemption not only to the clergyman, but also to the
physician. He also aided with great energy in putting down and
punishing riots, caused by excited political feelings. Nor should we
omit to say, that before him was tried the peculiar case of Whistelo,
in which the wit of Counsellor Sampson, and the peculiarities of Dr.
Samuel Latham Mitchill were equally conspicuous.
As a member of the Senate of New-York, he became ex
officio also a member of the highest court in the State—the
court for the trial of impeachments, and the correction of errors in
the inferior courts. Several of his decisions are to be found
volumes of New-York State Reports. He grappled with the subjects of
insurance law, of libel, the power of committing for contempt, the
construction of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the effect of foreign
admiralty decisions. "Some of these," says Chancellor Kent, "are models
of judicial and parliamentary eloquence, and they all relate to
important questions, affecting constitutional rights and personal
liberty. They partake more of the character of a statesman's
discussions, than that of a dry technical lawyer, and are therefore
more interesting to the general scholar."
As a legislator, it is quite sufficient to refer to the long
list of laws drawn up and supported by him, as it is given in the
eighth chapter of Professor Renwick's life, to appreciate the high
class of subjects to which he applied his best efforts. We select only
a portion. An act respecting a digest of the public laws of the State.
An act to enlarge the powers of and to endow the Orphan Asylum
society,—to amend the insolvent laws, to prevent the inhuman treatment
of slaves, for the support of the quarantine establishment, to revise
and amend the militia law, to incorporate the society for the relief of
poor widows with small children, for promoting medical science, for the
further encouragement of free schools, for securing
to mechanics and others, payment for their labor and materials in the
city of New-York. It has been urged that others by their efforts, or
their votes, have been as useful as was Mr. Clinton, in procuring the
passage of these and similar laws. Be it so. It is not even attempted
to deny this. It would be treason to the great interests of humanity to
claim exclusive honor for a single man. But he knows little of
practical legislation, who is not perfectly aware how efficient and
important it is to have one individual, eminent in talents, high in
power, who is willing to initiate useful measures—propose their
adoption, and support them with his best abilities.
In the matter of the Canals of New-York, this is his high
honor; this his crowning glory. Even during life, he gave due credit to
all who suggested or supported the work; but his pre-eminent merit is,
that he adopted the canal policy as his own party policy. It has been
said, in words which cannot be bettered, that "in the great work of
internal improvement, he persevered through good report and through
evil report, with a steadiness of purpose that no obstacle could
divert; and when all the elements were in commotion around him, and
even his chosen associates were appalled, he alone, like Columbus, on
the wide waste of waters, in his frail bark with a dis-heartened and
unbelieving crew, remained firm, self-poised and unshaken."
Heaven in its goodness allowed life till the great work was
Of Governor Clinton's devotion to science and to literature,
of his patronage and support of societies and institutions, for their
diffusion, all are knowing; but it is not sufficiently understood, that
these were amateur pursuits, followed during hours that he could
scarcely spare from his legitimate duties. Whatever of imperfection or
of crudeness may therefore be found in them, should be charitably
His domestic habits were simple and unobtrusive. He was
industrious through life—the earliest riser in the house—frequently, if
not generally, making his office fire in the winter, and dispatching
most of his voluminous correspondence before the breakfast hour.
In his family, he was every thing that became a man—a kind and
faithful husband; an affectionate, indeed indulgent father; a warm,
devoted, and often self-sacrificing friend. What wonder is it, that his
memory should continue to be cherished with sincere love and ever