Saturday, March 9, 2024

"The Founder of Gotham’s Fortunes"

From City-Journal, Winter 2004:

If DeWitt Clinton had never lived, New York probably would not have attracted you or your ancestors.

Great cities grow, like trees or coral reefs, organically; yet at certain points in their lives, they are also made. Some individual of will, foresight, and often less admirable qualities takes hold of an already bustling town and galvanizes it in a way that makes it a magnet for expansive energies. In the old cities of Europe those defining shocks came from emperors, kings, or popes. New York, North America’s greatest city, got its imperial impetus from an early-nineteenth-century intellectual, politician, and visionary, DeWitt Clinton—for he was the chief expediter of the Erie Canal.

Other New Yorkers besides Clinton helped dig the Erie Canal: one reason the canal made it from drawing board to reality was that a significant cross-section of the state’s elite supported the project. But DeWitt Clinton was the leader of the elite canal-pushers. He took up the canal as an issue at an unpropitious time; he generated so much popular support that the skeptics in the political class had to bow to it; he presided over both the groundbreaking and the completion. And the Erie Canal was the foundation of modern New York’s prosperity. If DeWitt Clinton had never lived, you probably wouldn’t be living here, because New York would not have attracted you or your ancestors.

DeWitt Clinton, born in what is now Orange County on the west bank of the Hudson in 1769, had the luckiest ancestry of any young man in late-eighteenth-century America, with the possible exception of John Quincy Adams. For the Clintons, who had immigrated from northern Ireland only a few decades earlier, were about to become the leading family in New York politics. The American Revolution was their stepping-stone, first to glory, then to power. DeWitt’s father, James, fought as a general; DeWitt’s uncle, George, was not only a general but the first governor elected under the first state constitution in 1777. “His family and connections do not entitle him to so distinguished a predominance,” wrote a puzzled Philip Schuyler, the heir of Dutch landowners, who had wanted the job himself. But George Clinton would hold it, with a brief interruption, for 22 years. Young DeWitt moved in a heady world of patriotism and privilege. When he graduated first in his class from Columbia College in 1786, the 17-year-old delivered, as part of the commencement exercises, an oration in Latin to the Congress of the United States, which then met in the nation’s capital, New York.

The political creed of the Clinton family changed its name during DeWitt’s formative years: in the late 1780s, their party was the Anti-Federalists; a decade later, it was the Republicans. But their principles remained the same. George Clinton opposed ratifying the Constitution as an accretion of federal power, and, once it took effect, he opposed broad construction of its provisions. DeWitt was a loyal apprentice of his uncle. Both uncle and nephew wrote pamphlets attacking the Constitution during the ratification struggle, which was especially sharp in New York: George signed his with the sturdy republican pseudonym “Cato”; DeWitt assumed the falsely modest name “Countryman.” (The pro-Constitution essays organized by Alexander Hamilton and signed “Publius” wiped the floor with both Clintons.)

Throughout the 1790s, DeWitt served his uncle as secretary, and—when George Clinton took a brief hiatus from politics—held office himself as a state legislator. At the turn of the century, the Clintons and their small-government principles triumphed. George returned to the governorship in 1801; the following year, DeWitt became a U.S. senator—a post he abandoned in 1803 to take the more lucrative and locally more powerful job of mayor of New York, an office he would occupy for 11 of the next 12 years.

DeWitt Clinton proved a creative politician in his own right. He was an early practitioner of the spoils system, filling offices with supporters and driving out enemies. A reputation for political hardball followed him even in death: his friend Jabez Hammond wrote that he “enjoy[ed] the flattery of office seekers,” while Henry Adams called him “selfish” and “unscrupulous.” These criticisms are too severe. DeWitt Clinton did what most politicians do; he was only unlucky in coming after the idealism, actual and professed, of the Founding Fathers. Like many people who do a thing early and do it well, he bore the brunt of blame....


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Infrastructure and energy, States and Cities, Economy, finance, and budgets

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