De Witt Clinton

6th Governor, 1817 - 1822, 1825 - February 11, 1828
De Witt Clinton

De Witt Clinton (1769–1828) is known as the “Father of the Erie Canal” for his leadership in building one of the world’s engineering marvels of the time. Initially mocked as “Clinton’s Ditch,” the Canal proved to be a monumental success, connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River and creating a profitable maritime route from New York Harbor to the country’s interior. Clinton began his career as private secretary to his uncle, Governor George Clinton. He served in numerous political offices and was an enlightened advocate for educational, social and economic reform. De Witt Clinton died in office.
Painted portrait of De Witt Clinton.
About the Artist


Asa Twitchell (1820–1904) was born in Lansingburgh, New York. A self-taught portraitist, he worked primarily in the Albany region.


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From The Encyclopedia of New York State

Clinton, De Witt (b ?New Windsor, Orange Co, 2 Mar 1769; d Albany, 11 Feb 1828). Governor, and mayor of New York City.


Early Years

Son of James Clinton, a farmer, surveyor, and Revolutionary War general, and Mary De Witt, member of a New York Dutch family, Clinton attended Kingston Academy before enrolling in Columbia College in 1784. At Columbia he acquired an Enlightenment belief in progress through science and learning, which eschewed radical cleansing and emphasized dutiful and benevolent magistracy. To Clinton, to be liberal meant to foster human possibilities for development through knowledge; ignorance and the oppressive use of power denied those possibilities. After graduating in 1786, he studied law in Samuel Jones’s office. Wanting to provide the young lawyer with firsthand political experience, Gov George Clinton, De Witt Clinton’s uncle, appointed him his private secretary in 1787. Like his uncle, Clinton was an Antifederalist: he opposed the strong national government outlined in the new US Constitution, arguing that it would enable an aristocracy to debase independent yeomen, whom he characterized as the bulwark of liberty. Yet he later worked to ease the Livingstons, one of New York State’s great landed families, toward the Clintonian faction of the emerging Jeffersonian Republican Party. He shared George Clinton’s caution toward revolutionary France but shared Livingston hostility to pro-British Federalists as a dangerous elite fostered by banking and commercial power.

Admitted to the bar in 1790, Clinton briefly continued to practice law after his uncle declined to stand for office in 1795. By then he had also begun to speculate in land and was managing over 600,000 acres (240,000 ha) in four states for his associates. In 1796 he married heiress Maria Franklin, a member of a Quaker family, who bore 10 children, 5 of whom survived their father.

She brought significant wealth and landholdings to the marriage. Clinton became locked in ongoing litigation with Franklin executors, and the need for money contributed to his later eagerness to become New York City’s mayor. A year after Maria’s death in 1818, Clinton married Catherine Jones.


Clinton as Legislator and Mayor

After two unsuccessful runs for the New York State Assembly from New York City, he won a seat in 1797 and advanced to the New York State Senate the following year. He served as state senator until 1802, when he was elected to the US Senate. He resigned this senate seat the following autumn, though, when the Council of Appointment named him mayor of New York City, a post he held for almost ten years (1803–7, 1808–10, 1811–15). While mayor, Clinton sat in the state senate (1806–11) and served as lieutenant governor (1811–13). He would later be elected governor four times (1817, 1820, 1824, 1826).

Clinton first jostled with Aaron Burr for leadership of the state’s Jeffersonian Republicans after 1800. Clinton joined Pres Thomas Jefferson in limiting the offices given to Burr’s supporters in the state while serving on the Council of Appointment in 1801 and 1802. As a US senator, he took the lead in promoting what would become the 12th Amendment to the US Constitution, closing a loophole in the presidential election process exploited by Burr in the 1800 campaign.

When Clinton and his supporters escalated their press attacks on Burr, his supporter John Swartwout challenged Clinton to a duel. In their 1802 meeting, Clinton left his opponent with nonfatal wounds when he put two bullets into Swartwout’s leg before refusing to fire further. Although the Clinton-Livingston alliance had begun to fray, it held together long enough for Clinton and his partisans to defeat Burr’s attempt to win the New York State governorship in 1804. Jefferson’s denial of federal patronage and Clinton’s control over the Bank of the Manhattan Co. drove Burr to join with Federalists to develop the Merchants’ Bank of New York City.

Burr fell before Clinton’s candidate, Morgan Lewis, the brother-in-law of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813). Meanwhile Clinton had blocked the incorporation of the Merchants’ Bank and secured a New York City charter that enfranchised more Republican voters. Burr, perhaps aware that Clinton had practiced regularly with pistols, took out his wrath on Hamilton.

After 1804 Clinton battled the Livingston-backed faction led by Gov Morgan Lewis. Clinton had fostered Chancellor Livingston’s steamboat monopoly and stood behind the chancellor’s 1798 gubernatorial candidacy, but that did not stop the Livingstons from cutting into Clintonian patronage, and Clinton had no choice but to respond when Lewis successfully threw his weight behind the chartering of the Merchants’ Bank, now favored by a coalition of Federalists, Burrites, and Lewisites. In spring 1805 Clinton won a seat in the New York State Senate, but his battle over the Merchants’Bank led him to lose the mayoralty in 1807. He backed Daniel D.Tompkins for governor that year, and Clinton regained the mayoralty in 1808 while maintaining his state senate seat. Concerned for the commercial health of New York City, he first opposed Jefferson’s 1807 Embargo Act, but Tompkins differed and Clinton changed tack knowing that the governor’s strong support for Jefferson’s policies gave assurance that federal patronage would remain with the Tompkins-Clinton wing of New York State’s Republican Party. Though supportive of this Jeffersonian policy, Clinton opposed Virginia’s leadership again by supporting the futile effort to have Vice Pres George Clinton, and not Virginian James Madison, succeed Jefferson in the 1808 presidential election.

When the Federalists took over the 1810 state legislature, Clinton lost the mayor’s office from February 1810 to February 1811. Still, Clinton won the lieutenant governorship in 1811. At a mid-September 1812 meeting in New York City, Federalist delegates from 11 states decided not to run a Federalist candidate and left an impression that Federalists could back Clinton for president.

Gathering and proceeding secretively to mask their divisions and the overall weakness of their elite-centered party, they supported Clinton as the candidate who would restore peace with Great Britain and bring northern leadership sensitive to commercial interests to the White House. Failing to carry the key state of Pennsylvania, where he was often presented as the candidate who could best win the war, Clinton lost with 89 electoral votes to Madison’s 128 in a contest in which the nation was largely divided along sectional lines. Although a New York State Republican caucus had initially nominated Clinton for the presidency, the following year the caucus declined to renominate him for lieutenant governor. Though some Republicans charged Clinton with a number of political sins—including courting Federalist leaders, muting his opposition to the incorporation of the Bank of America, and opposing a patriotic war—Federalist and Clintonian support kept him in the New York City mayor’s office from February 1811 until March 1815.

As a state legislator, Clinton had cautiously supported the gradual emancipation act of 1799 and challenged Federalist governor John Jay’s claim to the sole right to nominate appointees before the Council of Appointment. He insisted that senators, elected to the council by assemblymen, had the right to nominate. An 1801 constitutional convention agreed with Clinton.

Supporting initiatives that favored merchants and immigrants while he was mayor, he pushed for the abolition of the test oath for Catholics and badgered the federal government for increased protection of the Port of New York. He led the attack on yellow fever as the presiding officer of New York City’s Board of Health. Attempting to enhance the cultural and educational opportunities of New York City’s residents, Clinton actively supported the Free School Society, the New York Academy of the Fine Arts (later American Academy of Fine Arts), and the New-York Historical Society.


Restorations to Power: Canals, Democracy, Businessmen, Taxes

Clinton’s later success as New York State’s governor turned on his forceful advocacy of a canal to run between Lake Erie and the Hudson River. Substantial state involvement in a canal had begun in 1808, when the legislature authorized Simeon DeWitt, the state’s surveyor general and Clinton’s cousin, to direct exploration of the two possible canal routes to the west: first, a line running from the Mohawk Valley to Oneida Lake then into Lake Ontario, supplemented perhaps by a canal around Niagara Falls; second, an excavated canal following an entirely inland route from the Hudson River near Albany to Lake Erie.

Clinton helped to create the 1810 and 1811 commissions to explore the routes. Exploration convinced him that the inland route was feasible, but he failed to win national backing for the project, and in 1814 the state legislature repealed the commission’s operative powers.

On 30 Dec 1815 supporters of the Erie Canal held a meeting in New York City, and Clinton prepared their memorial to the 1816 legislature. He argued that the Erie Canal would stimulate commerce throughout a state that “is both Atlantic and western,” promising prosperity and subtly offering a united and more powerful North. The well-publicized memorial, along with Clinton’s addresses as governor to the legislature and his appearances along the canal line, stamped the canal as his project. Though opponents ridiculed the project as “Clinton’s Ditch” or “Clinton’s Folly,” the public support that it elicited brought about the 1816 act authorizing surveys for an Erie Canal and a canal routed northward to Lake Champlain. The second waterway ensured political support along the Vermont border. Under this law and the 1817 law authorizing the beginning of construction, the commission reemerged as an effective body, with Clinton as its leader.

When Gov Tompkins was elected vice president in 1816, the way to the governor’s office lay open for Clinton. Nominated by a Republican caucus-convention in March 1817 and buoyed up politically by the popularity of the “Grand Canal,” he won the governorship with little opposition and took office in July. The canal continued to be a central element of his political strength. Clinton, however, did little to allay growing opposition in eastern New York State, which feared that the canal would strengthen the economy and political weight of western New York at the expense of the city. While demanding state support of agricultural improvement, including a state board of agriculture, as well as demanding aid to manufacturing initiatives, he consistently emphasized the importance of internal markets and of the roads and canals that would develop those markets.

Clinton’s commitment to internal improvements and his building of broad coalitions to advance his objectives increasingly placed him at odds with a faction of the Republicans known as the Bucktails. Their leader, Martin Van Buren, soon challenged Clinton’s hold on the party. Seeking reelection in 1820, he faced his old ally, Tompkins, who was backed by the Bucktails. Clinton won a narrow victory, though the Bucktails now controlled both legislative houses. In 1821 a hostile Council of Appointment swept Clinton’s appointees from office.He ran afoul of the legislature’s call for a convention to revise New York’s 1777 Constitution. The 1821 convention hammered out a new constitution that, along with other reforms, shortened the governor’s term. Clinton’s allies were squeezed off the supreme court; after a plebiscite approved the constitution, he declined to run in 1822. Out of office, Clinton continued on the Canal Commission and fought back by raising doubts about Bucktail determination to support a harbor for the Erie Canal at Black Rock (Erie Co) rather than Buffalo Creek. Clinton, who in 1820 advocated the popular election of presidential electors on a general ticket, was able to align his cause with reform critics of the new constitution who lamented its failure to provide for the popular election of presidential electors and justices of the peace and who also wanted a still broader suffrage. He also built on the discontent of business interests threatened by a recent tax law and that wanted expansion of credit.

Missteps by the Albany Regency–led Bucktails greatly assisted him as well: to dash hopes that Clinton might have had of leaping from political retirement to the presidency, they blocked a bill providing for the popular election of presidential electors, and then, in April, at the end of the 1824 session, they sought to unify their ranks and divide their opponents by throwing Clinton off the Canal Commission. Clinton won nomination for governor of the pro-reform People’s Party and carried the office with a margin equal to almost 9% of the total vote. The People’s men, a broadly based if loose fusion resting on support of John Quincy Adams for the presidency, Clintonians, and drawing strength from upstate banking and commercial interests, gained control of the assembly.

As governor, Clinton marked the official opening of the Erie Canal by pouring the waters of Lake Erie into New York Harbor while standing aboard the Seneca Chief on 4 Nov 1825. Inspired by his success Clinton advocated a more extensive canal system, professional training for teachers, and a state road built through the Southern Tier. These proposals did not get very far, but the political reforms advocated by the People’s movement and embraced by Clinton succeeded. In his 1825 message to the legislature, Clinton repeated his recommendation that presidential electors be chosen on a general ticket, which favored his presidential aspirations. The legislature responded with a law that provided for election in congressional districts. Two other recommendations for political change led to amendments that were in place by 1826. One provided for the popular election of justices of the peace, and the other made age, residence, and citizenship the only qualifications for white male voters. In 1824, once his own slender presidential hopes had been dashed, Clinton openly threw his weight behind Andrew Jackson, who, like Clinton, drew on Irish Presbyterian heritage and opposed a meddlesome, misguided, and regionally dominated central government. Martin Van Buren, obliged to abandon his own candidate of 1824, William H. Crawford, switched to Jackson and engineered a rapprochement with Clinton. The truce was short-lived, for Van Buren ran a candidate against Clinton in the 1826 gubernatorial race, which Clinton narrowly won. The furor surrounding the September 1826 murder of William Morgan, ostensibly at the hands of Freemasons, consumed much time in Clinton’s last term. He condemned the outrage, though as a state and national leader of Freemasonry since 1806, he was also a target of the incipient Antimasonic movement. Though his strength in New York State had eroded, he continued to consider himself a viable presidential candidate for the 1828 election. Overweight and in poor health, he died suddenly from heart failure in 1828.



Clinton’s legacy was manifold. Running for president as a Republican, he contested regional domination of the federal government, pitting most of the states north of Virginia against those south of it. Yet he also gave emphatic meaning to the unifying as well as the economic effects of transportation by overseeing the building of the longest inland lock canal. Clinton’s persistent advocacy of cultural, social, and economic improvement under wise executive leadership suggested future uses of state power. It also triggered a creative response from Clinton’s political opponents, who, in the early 1820s, carved out a philosophy of party that condemned personal ambition and emphasized loyalty to party and the collective formulation of party policy on the state and national level, all of which should serve to hold the nation together.


Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769–1828 (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 1998)

Hanyan, Craig, with Mary Hanyan.De Witt Clinton and the Rise of the People’s Men (Montreal: McGill- Queen’s Univ Press, 1996)

Siry, Steven E. De Witt Clinton and the American Political Economy: Sectionalism, Politics, and Republican Ideology, 1787–1828 (New York: Peter Lang, 1990)

Craig and Mary L. Hanyan


Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), [p. 348-49].
© Syracuse University Press. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.