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Clinton, George (1739-1812): American soldier, statesman, and Vice President of the United States
George Clinton was a prominent figure in the American War for Independence and is seen by many as a Founding Father of the United States. Born to Charles Clinton, a wealthy Presbyterian landowner who fled Ireland in 1729 to escape the Anglican-controlled government, George Clinton was privately tutored throughout his childhood education. Once he turned 18, Clinton left home and joined the crew of the Defiance, a sloop that sailed in the south Atlantic and Caribbean.
After three years at sea, Clinton returned to New York and joined a militia force led by his older brother, James, who fought alongside the British during the French and Indian War. Clinton took part in many of the skirmishes along the New York frontier, as well as in the capture of the French city of Montreal in 1760. After completing his military service, George Clinton returned to New York and began studying law under the tutoring of William Smith, one of the leading attorneys in New York. Following his time studying under Smith, Clinton was admitted to the New York bar in 1764 and began his own law practice in his hometown of Little Britain.
While George Clinton showed potential for a promising law career, he chose in 1768 to give up his law practice and enter into political life. From 1768 until 1776, Clinton was a member of the New York Provincial Assembly. During his tenure in the Assembly, Clinton became an outspoken opponent of the British colonial rule, especially the taxes levied against the American colonies, such as the Sugar Act and Stamp Act. Clinton emerged as a leader in the anti-British movement and became involved with the Committee of Correspondence, a secret group that communicated across the colonies with other resistance groups. In 1774, George Clinton became part of the New York delegation to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, Clinton soon became disinterested in the legislative aspects of the Congress and resigned his position in order to join the New York militia. Given his experience fighting in the French and Indian War, Clinton was commissioned a general, and he was assigned to protect the New York frontier.
During his time as general, Clinton distinguished himself as a strong combat leader and became well respected among many New Yorkers. However, politics intervened again for Clinton. In May of 1777, the New York Council of Safety ordered the election of New York’s first governor. In a surprise to the New York ruling class, George Clinton was elected as the first governor of the State of New York. He served from 1777 to 1795, and helped draft the first state constitution and oversaw New York’s emergence as one of the leading states in the new nation. Clinton also served as the president of the New York convention to ratify the US constitution. An outspoken advocate for states rights, Clinton initially opposed the ratification of the Constitution. In letters written to multiple newspapers under the pseudonym “Cato,” Clinton expressed his concerns with the Constitution, and his beliefs that it would lead to a similar system that the colonies were subject to under Great Britain. Clinton served as Governor of New York until 1795, when he chose not to run for reelection. However, Clinton eventually became dissatisfied with his successor, John Jay, and chose to run for governor again in 1801. Elected by a large majority of voters, Clinton served as governor for an additional three years. In 1804, President Jefferson, Thomas chose George Clinton as his running mate. Jefferson easily won reelection, making Clinton the 4th Vice President of the United States. Though Clinton had plans to run for president in 1808, Madison, James’s supporters in the Democratic-Republican Party outflanked Clinton by nominating him as vice president in 1808. Clinton is only one of two men to serve as Vice President under two presidents, with John C. Calhoun serving under Presidents Adams, John Quincy and the first term of Jackson, Andrew. However, Clinton did not live to see the end of Madison’s first term, dying in April 1812 from a heart attack at the age of 72. Clinton was the first vice president to die in office, which left the office vacant until March 1813. Serving for 21 years as governor of New York, George Clinton held the record for being the longest serving governor in U.S. history until Iowa Governor Terry Branstad surpassed that record of longevity in 2015. Despite his opposition to the Constitution’s ratification, Clinton accepted the document once the Bill of Rights was proposed in 1789. Clinton’s long service to his native state helped to pave its way as one of the leading states of the early United States.
J. P. Kaminski, George Clinton: Yeoman Politician of the New Republic, 1993.
J. K. Lee, George Clinton: Master Builder of the Empire State, 2010.
Joshua C. Bowman/ Scott Buchanan