By Tom Hoffay
General, Governor, Vice President. George Clinton dominated the political scene in Ulster County and New York State until his death in Washington in 1812. His tenure as Clerk of Ulster County began under the British Administration of the Colony of New York and he remained in that office for as long as he lived. Most of the administration was conducted by his trusted and loyal brother-in-law Christopher Tappen who succeeded him as clerk. This was the base of his political organization in the county and it never let him down.
Even when local party leader Peter Van Gaasbeck, switched sides and became a Federalist, taking some Ulster supporters with him, a not uncommon occurrence in the early years, Ulster County yeoman remained loyal to Clinton. He carried the county in every election he contested, only losing occasional legislative battles.
He served Ulster County not only as appointed Clerk but also as elected Governor for seven terms, as Presiding Officer of the Poughkeepsie Constitutional Convention (elected to lead the Ulster delegation) and as Vice President of the United States serving under both Jefferson and Madison. He was the giant of the post Revolutionary War New York political scene.
Although strongly opposed to the landed gentry which was the basis of the Federalist Party he willingly made alliances to promote his anti-Federalist, then Republican and finally Democratic Republican Party. He allied with the Livingston family and for a short period with Aaron Burr and his supporters. On the national level he made allies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, although they also sharply disagreed at times, culminating in the 1792 convention viewed as the foundation of today’s Democratic Party. The New York – Virgina Alliance would prove crucial to the election of Presidents after John Adams.
But through all his successful campaigns and some prominent defeats in Presidential and Vice Presidential elections, Clinton found his support strongest among his family and friends where his career began as a young attorney married to a daughter of a prominent Dutch family in the Hudson Valley. His brother James was not only his constant companion and trusted advisor in those early years, but also the father of DeWitt Clinton, the Governor’s secretary and party leader – and a graduate of Kingston Academy! DeWitt Clinton would continue his uncle’s legacy serving as Mayor of New York City, Governor of New York State, Presidential contender and perhaps most famously construction of the Erie Canal.
Democratic Republican candidates would be elected consistently for the first 51 years of the New York State Constitution with the sole exception of John Jay, the Federalist who served for two terms. In 1828, Martin Van Buren dropped the hyphenated name and ran and won as the Democratic candidate completing the evolution of the organization. It was Van Buren, a Dutch speaker from the Hudson Valley who would form alliances between his Albany Regency organization and Tammany Hall in New York City that envisioned the Democratic Party not as one built on personalities or regions such as had dominated during the Clinton, Hamilton, Burr years but on national platforms built on ideas and ideology that would offer contests for the future of the nation.
In conclusion, the work that George Clinton began as a member of the Colonial Assembly of New York and the organization he built to support that work, finds its state wide expression in Van Buren’s national approach as President and in the political party which dominated American politics up until the Civil War.
Excerpts from John Kaminski: “George Clinton – Yeoman Politician of the New Republic” and the biographies of DeWitt Clinton and Martin Van Buren.