Page images

aggression. It is beyond all doubt now, that Mr. Clinton was eminently brave, and that he loved his country with a devotion that knew no hesitation when her safety or welfare required sacrifice at his hands. Indeed, in every period of anxiety, and at every stage of the long controversy between the United States and the great powers of western Europe, he was vigorous, untiring and bold, and having due regard to the opportunities for efficiency which his position afforded, he was as effective as any other patriot in the public service. But there was at that time a portion of the federal party which condemned the measures of the government so severely that their own loyalty to the country was not unnaturally questioned, and their conduct, whatever was their motive, had a tendency to encou rage the public enemy, and so to embarrass the administration in a crisis when it had a right to demand the energetic support of all parties. This misconduct brought suspicion on the whole federal party, although, as a mass, it was loyal and patriotic, and it suited the purposes of Mr. Clinton's opponents to impute his hesitation and reserve manifested on the occasions which have been mentioned, to the influence of sympathies with the misguided federalists, which were forbidden equally by his relations to the republican party and a just sense of the real danger of the country. Day by day, therefore, old republican associates and followers separated from him, and in their places federalists, who saw that there was no longer any hope of effectually serving their country under their own dilapidated organization, and who believed him as patriotic as the statesmen who were in power, and much wiser than they, lent him indirectly their sympathy and cautious support. It was in this unlucky conjuncture that Mr. Clinton, whose aspirations to the presidency of the United States had long been known, concluded that the time had arrived when they ought to be and could be realized. Mr. Madison's first term was to expire in 1813, and his successor was to be elected in 1812. The republican caucus at Washington, which then was the recognized nominating body, disallowed Mr. Clinton's pretensions, and renominated Mr. Madison. Mr. Clinton still retained the confidence of the republican party in his own state as an organized political force, though it was sadly demoralized. He received a nomination at the hands of the republican members of the legislature. The federalists made no nomination, and indirectly gave him their support. He received eighty-nine electoral votes, while Mr. Madison took one

hundred and twenty-eight votes, and thus was reelected. This defeat was disastrous to Mr. Clinton. The war which, pending the canvass, had been declared against Great Britain, was deemed a republican measure, and its successful issue was of vital importance to the country. Mr. Clinton's attitude was regarded as that of an opponent of the war policy, and of course as a sympathizer with the public enemy. The republican party of the state of New York shrunk from his side, and at the first opportunity, in 1813, displaced him from his office of lieutenant-governor, leaving him only the mayoralty of the city of New York, and even this relatively inferior position was soon afterward to be taken away. He seemed not only to have been convicted of betraying his own party when holding a high command in it, to its adversary, in a crisis when its safety was identified with that of the country for his own advantage, but also of being unsuccessful in the treason. But in fact Mr. Clinton had changed not his principles, policies or sympathies, but only his personal relations. He had attempted to gain the presidency, not to overthrow the republican party, but to reëstablish it as he thought on a better foundation; not to favor the public enemy, but to prosecute the war against him, as he thought, with greater vigor and effect; not to betray his country, but to make assurance of her safety doubly sure. He had erred in judgment, and the result was a complexity of relations that seemed to render all further ambition hopeless. was a republican disowned by his party; and though not a federalist, he was held responsible for all the offenses imputed to them, without having their confidence, or even enjoying their sympathy. His fall seemed irretrievable. Nevertheless, Mr. Clinton had been fortunate during the period which we have been reviewing, in laying broad and deep the foundations of a popularity that, at no distant day, might be made to maintain a personal party, which would long perplex and often confound the adversaries who now exulted over what was thought his final ruin.


The city of New York had now begun to feel the beneficial influence of the centralization of commerce at its wharves, under the operation of the federal constitution, and public spirit was profoundly awakened. The deficiencies of its municipal laws, of its defenses, of its scientific and literary institutions, of its institutions. of arts, and the absence of most of the elements of a metropolitan character, were generally felt and confessed. Enlightened, liberal

and active men were moving in a hundred ways to make the city worthy of its high, but newly discovered destiny. Only some high, genial and comprehensive mind was wanted to give steadiness and direction to these noble movements. De Witt Clinton supplied this

He associated himself on equal terms with other citizens who engaged in the establishment of schools, designed to afford the advantages of universal primary education; with others who founded institutions for the study of history, for improvement in art, for melioration of criminal laws, for the encouragement of agriculture, for the establishment of manufactures, for the relief of all the forms of suffering so fearfully developed in a state of high civilization, for the correction of vice, for the improvement of morals, and for the advancement of religion. In all these associations he subjugated his ambition, and seemed not a leader but a follower of those who by their exclusive devotion were entitled to precedence. They derived from him, however, not only liberal contributions by his pen, by his speech and from his purse; but also the aids of his already wide and potential influence, and the sanctions of his official station and character. He carried the same liberal and humane spirit into his administration as chief magistrate of the city. By virtue of that office, he was not only the head of the police, charged with the responsibilities of preserving order and guarding the city from external dangers, but he was at once a member and president of the municipal council, a member and president of the board of health, a member and president of the court of common pleas, and a member and president of the criminal court. He appeared in all these various characters always firm, dignified, intelligent and prepared in every exigency, the friend of the poor, the defender of the exile, the guardian of the public health, the scourge of disorder, the avenger of crime, the advocate of civil and religious liberty, and the patron of knowledge and virtue. As a member of the senate of the state and lieutenant-governor he exercised the functions not only of a legislator, but also of a judge of the court of dernier resort, and amid all the intrigues and distractions of party he bore himself in those high places with the dignity and exercised the spirit of a sagacious, far-seeing, and benevolent statesman.

He not only favored,. but led in correcting abuses, reforming errors, simplifying and meliorating laws, laying the foundation of universal education, and of enduring systems of public charity, and

removing as fast as possible the yet lingering remains of slavery. Especially, he corrected the popular prejudice against himself in re gard to his loyalty, by the utmost liberality and efficiency both as mayor and legislator, in securing adequate means for public defense, by procuring loans to the government, by voting supplies of materials and men, and by soliciting the military command to which his admitted courage, talent and influence seemed to entitle him. But beyond all this he adopted early and supported ably and efficiently the policy of the construction of canals from lake Erie and lake Champlain to the tide water of the Hudson, and showed to his fellow citizens, with what seemed a spirit of prophecy, the benefits which would result from those works to the city, the state and the whole country in regard to defence, to commerce, to increase of wealth and population and to the stability of the Union. He was so successful in this that he was deputed, with others, in the year 1812, by the legislature of the state, to submit that great project to the federal government at Washington, and solicit its adoption or patronage of the policy as a national measure. That government, happily for the state, and fortunately for him, declined, and the occurrence of the war of 1812, with its dangers and exactions, put the subject to rest to be revived at a more propitious season. The intellectual vigor, the impartial spirit, and the energetic resolution which Mr. Clinton displayed in these various duties awakened profound and general admiration, while the manifest beneficence of his system excited enthusiastic desires for material and moral progress throughout the state. He had thus become identified, even in the darkest hour of his political day, with the hopes and ambition of his native state, and with the hopes and ambitions of all the other states which waited to be benefited directly by her movement, or to emulate her example. He had thus won a fame which extended beyond this state, throughout other states, and even reached foreign lands. While sinking out of view as a political character, not only in the Union, but even in the state of New York, De Witt Clinton, the private citizen, was more honored than the chief magistrate of the city; De Witt Clinton, the mayor of New York, eclipsed the chief magistrate of the state; and De Witt Clinton, the state senator, filled a space in the public respect which the chief magistrate of the United States might well envy. By a system chosen and perfected by himself and exclusively his own, he had gained a moral position similar to and equal to that

which Hamilton had won before him when the tide of popular favor having deserted him and left him destitute of power and influence he still stood forth an isolated figure on the canvass, attracting an admiration and exciting an interest which his successful rivals feared to contemplate. But it was not for Mr. Clinton to reäscend the political ladder until he had released his hold on the lowest step and had once more touched the ground. His opponents made haste to dislodge him from that last foothold. In January, 1815, he was removed from the mayoralty by a council of appointment in the interest of the republican party.

Fortune had gone with greatness, and he sunk into private life without even the means of respectable subsistence. The severity of this proscription, coupled with the greatness of his fall and the majesty of his character, awakened regrets and sympathies among large classes, who did not stop to consider how rashly he had tempted fortune, or how ruthlessly he had wielded the ax against those who had now precipitated him to the ground. Peace had now returned, and, with it, the aspirations for civil progress which war had for a short time suppressed. In the autumn of that year, and in the obscurity of a retreat to the country, he prepared an argument in favor of the immediate construction of the Erie and Champlain canalsdemonstrating their feasibility, the ability of the state to construct them, their certain reimbursement of the cost, their utility and indispensableness as means of natural defense, and their efficiency in opening the western portions of the state to civilization and culture, and containing a glowing but just exposition of the impulse they would give to the growth of the city of New York and to the aggrandizement of the state, as well as the advantages which that immense extension of the internal navigation of the country would confer on the whole nation, by leading to a development of its yet unproductive resources, and by cementing the bonds of the American Union. Never has there appeared, in this or perhaps any other country, a state paper, at once so vigorous, so genial, so comprehensive, and so conclusive. It was couched in the form of a memorial from the citizens of New York to the legislature of the state, and was deferentially submitted to a public meeting for their adoption. As yet, nations and communities, by the action of the people, had only sought aggrandizement by wars and conquests. The people of this country had had some experience of this system of aggrandizement, and were heartily tired of it. But VOL. IV.


« PreviousContinue »