By Tom Hoffay
1788. The road to passage of the new Federal Constitution approved in September of the previous year led through each of the original thirteen states of which nine had to approve the document in order for it to take effect. In New York that approval was far from certain as Governor Clinton’s political organization assumed an Anti Federalist stance worried that Alexander Hamilton’s original proposal would strip New York of executive and legislative authority.
A convention to consider the Constitution was called for by the Assembly to take place in Poughkeepsie on June 17, 1788. This would be the battleground between the Governor’s organization and Hamilton’s Federalists. Of particular importance to Clinton was his home county of Ulster where he had the strongest organization. State -wide Anti Federalists “consulted with Peter Van Gaasbeck, a wealthy, thirty-four old merchant and public-securities speculator who recently had assumed the leadership of the Ulster County Anti Federalists.” (Kaminski, p.140, based on the Van Gaasbeck papers in the NYS Senate House museum library.) This is an invaluable source document as the Van Gaasbeck papers include letters and documents pertinent to the controversies surrounding the adoption of the Constitution in neighboring Dutchess County.
The reference to Van Gaasbeck is also the first indication that the party organization, now called Anti Federalist, had a formal recognized leader. As demonstrated in the ensuing battle to elect Ulster’s delegates to the convention, whether titled Chairman, Sachem or Leader, Peter Van Gaasbeck exercised the authority of Party Chair. Through meetings, letters and manipulations Van Gaasbeck shaped the delegation and held off the attempts of other contenders to either promote themselves or to weaken the Ulster delegates. The names chronicled in this battle bear repeating as so many are still familiar names today: John Addison, Johannis Snyder, Dirck Wynkoop, Ebenezer Clark, John Cantine, Johannis Bruyn, Lucas Elmendorph, Assemblyman Cornelius Schoonmaker, Christopher Tappen, James Clinton. Six delegates were eventually nominated to represent Ulster County, led by the Governor himself who received the largest number of votes.
Even though the convention had a lopsided majority of Anti-Federalists and was presided over by George Clinton who remained steadfast in his opposition to the new Constitution, events outside the state would prove the opposition pointless as the required number of states ratified the document and New York would be isolated in its resistance. Instead, adopting a series of proposed amendments that would eventually become the Bill of Rights the new Constitution was narrowly approved by a vote of 30 – 27.
The leadership of the party originating as the Whig faction in Colonial New York had evolved over a twenty year period first to Patriots during the Revolution and then to Anti Federalist in the period leading up to and beyond the adoption of the Constitution. For as long as he lived George Clinton would be recognized as leading the party in New York, but the county party leaders were always active as well, his brother Gen. James Clinton, County Clerk Christopher Tappan, Party Chair Peter Van Gaasbeck and Assemblyman Cornelius Schoomaker. One other name should be added to the list due to the uninterrupted service the family provided to Ulster County – Major Severyn Bruyn a close confidante of the Chair.
Ulster County and the Federal Constitution. Excerpts from John Kaminski: “George Clinton – Yeoman Politician of the New Republic.”