Considered to be one of America’s Founding Fathers, George Clinton was born on July 15, 1739 in Little Britain, Ulster County, New York. His parents were Charles Clinton and Elizabeth Denniston, both Presbyterian-Irish immigrants who moved to the American colonies in an effort to escape an intolerant Anglican regime.
Working as a farmer and surveyor of the New York frontier, Charles’s work so impressed the colonial governor, in 1748 he offered Charles the position of sheriff of New York City and the surrounding county; however, Charles, for whatever reason, declined the offer. He also served as a member of the New York colonial assembly. George was the brother of General James Clinton and the uncle of De Witt Clinton who would also serve as governor of New York. (There is no connection between George Clinton and former President Bill Clinton due to the fact the former president assumed the name ‘Clinton’ from his stepfather rather than receiving it from his biological father.)
George went to sea at age 16 and soon discovered life as a salty sailor was not his cup of tea. When he returned to dry land at age 18, Clinton joined his father’s regiment of provincial troops as a second lieutenant during the French and Indian War. He served under John Bradstreet during the expedition against Fort Frontenac from August 26–28, 1758.
When the war ended, George studied law under the tutorage of acclaimed attorney William Smith. At first, he held a number of minor civil offices for Ulster County. Beginning in 1759, Clinton was appointed to the position of County Clerk for New York’s Ulster County of Common Pleas, a title he held for the rest of his life. His legal practice began in 1764 and the following year, he became the district attorney. In time, Clinton became one of Ulster County’s wealthier residents. A man of coarse features and large skeletal structure, scholars referred to Clinton as “A man of powerful physique, whose mere presence commanded respect.”
Beginning in 1768, 29-year-old Clinton was part of the New York Provincial Assembly. During a number of disputes with Great Britain, he fervently defended the colonial cause. He strongly supported the “Livingston” faction and cemented this alliance two years later when he joined the family on February 7, 1770 by marrying Sarah Cornelia Tappan, a Livingston relative. The Livingstons were part of the wealthy Presbyterian landowners who inhabited the Hudson Valley and retained implied anti-British attitudes regarding relations between England and the North American colonies. Four daughters and one son were born to the couple. Daughter Martha died at the age of 12 and son George Washington Clinton later married Anna Floyd, daughter of Declaration of Independence signer William Floyd. In 1770, Clinton served as their leader when he defended one of the Sons of Liberty who had been imprisoned for “seditious libel” by the royal majority who still held control of New York’s assembly.
During the Revolutionary time period, the political and social changes which evolved in New York allowed a number of opportunities to fall into place for Clinton and he made the most of them. “Old New York” was shattered with the state’s new constitution which greatly expanded the size of the state’s legislature. “Yeoman” farmers who previously deferred to the Livingstons now became a political entity in their own right with George Clinton finding himself in the role of their spokesman and champion.
In 1774, Clinton sat on the Committee of Correspondence and was chosen in 1775 to be one of New York’s delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. December of that same year, New York’s provincial congress appointed him to be a brigadier-general over the state’s militia. The efforts he exerted to thwart British efforts at gaining control of the Hudson Valley made him a hero among western county farmers and later earned Clinton a commission in the Continental Army.
Clinton was in Philadelphia when the vote was taken for the Declaration of Independence, which he favored; however, he was called away by George Washington to assist in defending New York before he could add his signature to the document. Clinton was also selected as a deputy to the state convention for 1776-1777, but unable to attend as a result of other duties already assigned to him. Though he was not a signer of the document, Clinton’s image was added to John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence painting, along with four other non-signing patriots.
On October 28, 1776 Clinton saw action during the Battle of White Plains and later attempted to defend the Highlands of the Hudson. Though courageous in his defense efforts, George experienced defeat as both Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery fell to the troops led by British General Sir Henry Clinton, a distant cousin.
1777 was a busy year for Clinton as he was given two new hats to wear. On March 25th, General George Washington commissioned him as a brigadier general in the Continental Army. He remained an active-duty Army officer until November 3, 1783 when the organization was disbanded.
Less than a month after his commissioning, on April 20, Clinton was elected to be Governor of New York. During the gubernatorial election of 1777, support from the “Yeomen” helped Livingston to achieve a stunning upset over Edward Livingston. The defeat then signaled the end of the old Livingston party. He served New York as governor until 1795.
On October 6, 1777, General Clinton commanded the Continental Army’s forces during the attacks on Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery. Following that, troops under his command played an active role in preventing Sir Henry Clinton from relieving British forces under General John Burgoyne, which precipitated Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga on October 17, 1777.
Known for his hatred of Tories, Clinton used the seizure and sale of Tory estates to help keep New York taxes down. As a friend and supporter of George Washington, Clinton helped supply food for the troops at Valley Forge and later rode with Washington to his first Inauguration on Edward Livingston. He then hosted a festive dinner to celebrate the occasion.
When the Society of the Cincinnati was founded in 1783, George Clinton was a charter member of New York’s chapter. America’s oldest patriotic organization, the Society of the Cincinnati was founded by officers from both the Continental Army and their French counterparts who served together in the American Revolution. That same year, Clinton accompanied Washington to Dobbs Ferry where they met with General Sir Guy Carleton regarding the evacuation of all remaining British troops from their various locations within the United States.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787-88, Clinton expressed strong public opposition to the newly adopted Constitution. He maintained this attitude until the Bill of Rights was later added to the document. 20th century historian Herbert Storing is said to have identified Clinton as “Cato”, a pseudonym used by the author of a number of anti-Federalist essays which were printed in various New York newspapers during the ratification debates for the Constitution. The validity of Storing’s remarks, however, has yet to be proven.
In 1792, Clinton narrowly retained the office of governor, winning by 108 votes in that year’s election. He laid out in 1795 and held no political office for the next five years. In 1800, he became a member of the New York State Assembly and returned to the office of governor in 1801, serving until 1804. He had now accumulated 21 years of service and ranked as the longest serving governor of any US state.
Thomas Jefferson selected Clinton as his vice-presidential running mate to replace Aaron Burr for his re-election bid in the 1804 Presidential election. Burr’s unyieldingness in 1800 had nearly cost Jefferson the presidency. Prior to doing so, Jefferson harbored hopes of passing the presidential mantle on to James Madison, his Secretary of State. In the meantime, however, he needed a “plain” Republican to fill in as his running mate. Given the fact Clinton would be 69 in 1808, his age and infirmity actually enhanced his value to Jefferson.
Though he had retired from public office once already in 1795 due to failing health, Clinton was still a force to be reckoned with, which made him the perfect choice. Thought of as an enigma by one biographer, historian Alan Taylor’s assessment of Jefferson’s running mate was stated to be: “Clinton crafted a masterful, compelling public persona [that] . . . masked and permitted an array of contradictions that would have ruined a lesser, more transparent politician.” In Taylor’s view, Clinton was, “The astutest politician in Revolutionary New York. A man who understood the power of symbolism and the new popularity of a plain style especially when practiced by a man with the means and accomplishments to set himself above the common people.”
Clinton’s selection also served to preserve the Virginia – New York coalition which had previously composed the backbone of the Jeffersonian Republican alliance. Clinton became the nation’s fourth Vice-President, serving from 1805 – 1809. In 1808, he was named a candidate for President despite his personal objection. When the primary votes were tallied, Clinton came in third behind James Madison and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
James Madison followed in Jefferson’s footsteps by also choosing Clinton as his running mate for the next election. With Madison’s victory, Clinton became the first of two Vice-Presidents to serve with two different Chief Executives; John C. Calhoun being the other. (Clinton also became the first Vice-President to die in office).
When Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oaths of office to President Jefferson and Vice-President Clinton in the Senate chamber, an unmistakable difference was easily seen between Clinton and his predecessor, Burr. Two days earlier, Burr had offered a “correct and elegant” farewell speech, thickly laden with emotion. When his turn came however, Clinton declined to address the congressional members. Two weeks into the first session of the Ninth Congress, Clinton was in the presiding officer’s chair on December 16, 1805. As he spoke, it was said of him by Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire, “Clinton’s voice was so ‘weak and feeble’, the senators were unable to hear the one half of what he says.”
On February 20, 1811, Clinton formally addressed the Senate for his first and last time. He notified the Senate two days later he would be absent for the remainder of the session, then returned on November 4, 1811 to open the 12th Congress. He faithfully presided over the Senate throughout the course of the winter; however by the end of March, his health was spent and he was too ill to continue. On April 20, 1812, President pro tempore William Crawford, who had presided over the Senate since the first of that month, had the sad duty of announcing to the Senate, “the death of our venerable fellow-citizen, George Clinton, Vice-President of the United States.”
The next day, Clinton’s body was taken to the Senate chamber for a brief two-hour period – the first person in America’s history to lie in state in the Capitol. Following this, his funeral procession carried Clinton’s casket to the Congressional Cemetery, located nearby. Throughout the remained of the Congressional session, black crepe adorned the presiding officer’s chair in the Senate’s chamber. In addition, each senator wore a black armband for a period of 30 days “from an unfeigned respect” for their departed president.
Though originally buried in Washington, D.C., Clinton’s body was later-interred in Kingston, New York during 1908. In 2000, the State of New York ceremonially renamed the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge in honor of Clinton.
Having helped to frame New York’s state constitution, then elected her first governor in June, 1777, George Clinton’s energy and leadership throughout his six successive terms (1777–95) as the state’s chief executive led to his being called the father of New York State.