Who was George Clinton, anyway?

Ezra Ames’ 1814 portrait of George Clinton

If you’ve ever taken a history ramble through Uptown Kingston, the name George Clinton (1739-1812) is sure to have come up a lot – and not just because a hotel-turned-apartment complex was named after him. It was in the Ulster County Courthouse, after all, on Wall Street in the Stockade District, that Clinton was sworn in at the age of 38 as New York’s first freely elected governor. That happened on July 30, 1777 – only three months after New York became a state, upon adoption of its Constitution in that same building. And it’s in the burial ground of the Old Dutch Church, half a block away, where he and his wife, Sarah Cornelia Tappen, had long been parishioners, that Vice President Clinton found his final resting place.

Even for a Founding Father, George Clinton was a restless multitasker, and no aspect of his life story is simple and straightforward. He was originally interred in Washington, DC, for one thing, and his remains not relocated to his home county until 1908. He didn’t actually seek to be governor, for another, and was far away at the time that the election took place, doing his bit as a brigadier general in the Continental Army to fortify the Hudson Highlands against an expected flotilla of Redcoats.

His efforts in the Revolutionary War – which included building Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton and stringing the famous chain across the Hudson River near West Point – fell short of their goals, but those battles did help buy time for the subsequent victory at Saratoga. An ally and close associate of George Washington, Clinton responded to his commanding officer’s plea for help during the brutal winter at Valley Forge by sending a herd of cattle and wagonloads of salt pork 200 miles to the starving troops. But he parted ways philosophically with Washington and the other Federalists when it came time to adopt the US Constitution: Clinton opposed it until the Bill of Rights was added, and some historians have identified him as “Cato,” the pseudonymous author of anti-Federalist essays published in New York during the ratification debates.

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Had he not made some enemies due to these activities and his fervent anti-Tory, populist and New-York-first stances (as governor he fought long and hard to deny statehood to Vermont), Clinton might have become president long before another of that surname moved into the White House. He ran against John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and came in third. After Aaron Burr was dropped from the ticket in the 1804 election, Jefferson tapped Clinton to be his new running mate. He served one term as vice president under Jefferson and most of a second under James Madison before dying of a heart attack. Not until 2015 did another person exceed the length of Clinton’s 21-year tenure as governor of a state in the US.

A vivid character as well as a committed and energetic patriot, Clinton’s life story is worthy of a deeper dive. A good place to begin your research is the mini-documentary about George Clinton created by the Friends of Historic Kingston and posted on their website at www.fohk.org/gallery/videos.

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