George Clinton: A Bridge to the Future?
When public works in our region have been named for private figures the result has seldom been a happy one. Who thinks of Joe DiMaggio when they are driving along New York City’s West Side Highway? Did you know that the Holland Tunnel does not reference the nation that founded New Amsterdam but instead Clifford Milburn Holland, the tunnel’s chief engineer? Does anyone speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike experience a frisson of dread at how close the Alexander Hamilton Rest Area is to where he met his earthly rest in a duel with Aaron Burr?
Our neighborhood, however, is blessed, as the bridge connecting Kingston and Rhinecliff is actually an apt memorial for its honoree, George Clinton. Not exactly a Founding Father — he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, as he was occupied in battle to achieve what it propounded; nor did he sign the Constitution, as he and Patrick Henry, among others, withheld their assent until they were assured that a Bill of Rights would be added — Clinton was nonetheless a great figure of his day, a patriot and, well, a bridge to the Republic that improbably survived its fledgling period. With his July 26 birthday celebration upon us this week, let’s pause at his burial monument in the graveyard of Kingston’s Old Dutch Church and reflect upon who he was, what he did, and why he still matters.
It is a measure of the man’s humility and unassuming way, not any paucity of accomplishment, that his personality was little known to the public, then as now. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and many more may be cited without credentialing — even without first names — in confidence that they are recalled at least through grade-school lessons. But George Clinton was a Gary Cooper type of hero —disinclined to trumpet himself and putting himself forward for public service reluctantly. Extraordinary times can make heroes of ordinary men, and that may well explain Clinton’s enduring place at the center of power. Though he left behind public papers that were published in ten volumes, he was neither an incisive writer like Hamilton nor a silver-tongued orator like Henry. It is left largely to others to testify to his stature ... and there is the undeniable record of dedication.
The bare bones are these: born in Little Britain, New York in 1739 (then in Ulster County, now in Orange), Clinton was a British soldier in the French and Indian and War, and later a Brigadier General against the British with the onerous and, as it proved, futile duty of defending Kingston against the incendiaries of General Vaughan on October 16, 1777. Undermanned and, it has been alleged, unprepared, the patriot forces mustered no meaningful opposition. No one claims for General Clinton martial genius, only a solid, reliable ability to get things done.
As a politician he served in the Continental Congress, voted for the Declaration of Independence and, in 1777, while still on active duty in the military, became first Governor of the State of New York. This post he held for 21 years (six consecutive terms from 1777 to 1795 and a seventh from 1801-1804), which is still the longest tenure of any U.S. Governor. Aging and tired, he nonetheless accepted his party’s nomination for Vice President in 1805. Following the acrimonious Aaron Burr as Jefferson’s sidekick, like Burr he balanced the ticket geographically and was chosen again in 1809 as running mate to Madison, another Virginian.
For a while as Jefferson’s second term neared an end, Clinton had thoughts of becoming president, though at his age and coming off an uninspired performance as vice president that left Senators shaking their heads and reminiscing about the brilliance of Burr, he had no realistic chance of nomination; even his old ally Jefferson turned against his effort. All the same, he remained the best choice to run alongside Madison, whose victory he assured by assuaging the worry of the Northern states that agrarian interests were beginning to monopolize the Presidency.
Clinton died in 1812, the third year of his second term, and was buried with honors in Washington. In 1908, largely at the instigation of historian Benjamin Myer Brink and Chaplain Roswell Randall Hoes, Clinton’s remains and funerary monument were transported to Kingston amid pomp and circumstance all along the way, particularly in New York City. On May 30 Kingston, amid celebration of the 250th year since its founding, welcomed the return of New York’s first governor to New York’s first capital.
George Clinton was especially admired, even revered, for his efforts to keep New Yorkers’ taxes low: he confiscated Tory lands and he used New York City port fees to buttress real-property collections. During the war, he was concerned that New York taxes would have to make up for a shortfall in funds from other states, laggardly in their obligated deliveries, and accordingly he backed Hamilton’s move for a strong Federal government that had the power to raise revenues. But when the Federal government moved to expropriate New York City’s port revenues for itself via a national tariff, Clinton reversed course, becoming vigorously anti-Federalist. In truth he was neither doctrinaire in his political beliefs nor idealistic in his political machinations; he was simply a pragmatist, and above all a New Yorker.
Concerned that a Federal government that could strip his state of its revenues might also trample individual liberties, Clinton became a prime backer of what became the Bill of Rights. He may have placed himself on the wrong side of national renown by preferring the loose Articles of Confederation to the centralizing force of the Constitution, and by casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate that in 1811 abolished the National Bank. However, he is inextricably lodged in the hearts of his countrymen and in the pantheon of those dedicated to the rights of man.
In 2006, George Clinton may offer a further bridge, this time to New York’s future. At the turn of the last century, New York opened the golden door to millions of European immigrants, who swelled the population and increased the demand for support services and state revenues. After World War II, as Southern states held welfare payments beneath subsistence level, the indigent and unemployed migrated to the North, where more humane benefits were available. Today New York and other “blue” states seem to represent not only an old manufacturing economy and a discredited welfare state, but also an antiquated attitude toward the common weal. Conservative and liberal New Yorkers alike are, or ought to feel, as alienated from the national course as the South felt in the 1850s. We have seen a drift of talent and treasure to the rest of the country, as frightening to us as the draining of the Port of New York coffers was to George Clinton. Maybe New York, and no longer Alabama or Georgia, is the future home of state’s rights.