Published by Tom Hoffay
George Clinton of Ulster County was elected first Governor of New York State in Kingston, while serving as Revolutionary War General in the Continental Army in July of 1777. His first address to the state legislature elected under the new constitution was on September 10, 1777 also in Kingston.
His victory in the election came as a surprise to many and is attributed to the expansion of the franchise to include those serving in the military, secret ballots affording manor tenants privacy from their over lord and the strong support found in congregations of the Dutch Reform Church, which welcomed his victory.
Those constituencies which helped his initial victory over the aristocratic coalition of large landowners, were to become the core of his support throughout his terms as Governor and his eventual election as Vice President of the United States. They also supported his policies including his opposition to Hamilton’s Federalist Party and the proposal for a Federal Constitution.
Ulster County was one of the original counties formed under English rule and encompassed much of the land on the western shore of the Hudson extending down past Newburgh to Little Britain where Clinton was born. It’s traditions however had been formed by Dutch settlements and continued to be nurtured in the Dutch Churches. Unlike the patroons of the eastern shore with large manor holdings, the population in Ulster was primarily composed of small farm holdings and merchants. This was the culture of the Clinton family, even though they were not Dutch and in fact were related to members of the British administration in New York.
George Clinton, his brother James and his wife’s brother Christopher Tappen together forged a powerful political alliance of family and freeholders that from 1768 on, with the election of Clinton to represent Ulster County in the English Colonial Assembly would largely control New York politics until Clinton’s death in Washington in 1812. The fulcrum of this political alliance was the office of ” Clerk of the Ulster County Court of Common Pleas” (today’s County Clerk’s Office), appointed in 1759 he would hold that title for 52 years. His brother in law Christopher Tappan would serve as his deputy while Clinton was largely absent from the county. It was a visible, tangible reminder of the organization they formed and a powerful base for their political endeavors.
Originally elected as Whigs, Charles DeWitt and George Clinton represented Ulster County in the Colonial Assembly in an increasingly radicalized atmosphere leading up to the Revolution. Clinton became a very popular figure among the Sons of Liberty and his strength in his home base only increased with his opposition to each British retaliatory measure imposed on the colonies.
These formative years as a young lawyer, then military leader during a time of historic change gave Clinton a perspective that proved valuable indeed during the time after the war when political opposition developed and he was called upon to lead state government.
But it was his popularity with the yeoman farmers and soldiers, first in Ulster County then statewide which proved to be the foundation of his political success. He identified with this group and his policies were supported by this group – first as a Whig, then as a Patriot, a Clintonian, an Anti Federalist and finally as a member of Jefferson’s Republican-Democratic Pary.
Ulster County and the ratification of the United States Constitution. Excerpts cited are from “George Clinton – Yeoman Politician of the New Republic” by John Kaminski.