The Birth of Empire: Dewitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828

The Birth of Empire: Dewitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828

The Birth of Empire: Dewitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828

The Birth of Empire: Dewitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828


DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) was one of the nation's strongest political leaders in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, serving as mayor of New York City, governor of the state, and narrowly losing the Presidential race of 1812 to James Madison. Patrician in his sentiments, Clinton nevertheless invented new forms of party politics. His greatest achievement, the Erie Canal, hastened the economic expansion of the country, altered the political geography of the nation, set an example for activist government, and decisively secured New York City's position as America's first and foremost metropolis. This new book relates the full biography of one of the most important political figures in US history.


Gentlemen of New York

BY THE TIME OF DeWitt Clinton's birth, on March 2, 1769, the Clinton family had been in New York for nearly four decades. By DeWitt's tenth birthday, his father had become a major general in the Continental Army, and his uncle George was governor of the new state of New York. At twenty-one, he had graduated from Columbia College, was completing his study of the law, had published well-received political articles in a New York City newspaper, and had started learning his duties as secretary to the governor. By his thirty-fifth birthday, he had served as a state assemblyman, state senator, and United States senator, and had become New York City's mayor.

The success of DeWitt's father and uncle had paved the way for this charmed ascent. His upbringing instilled in him a set of qualities that help account for both his triumphs as an architect of innovative government policies and his failures as a politician. Raised in comfort, educated at the best schools, welcome in the most exclusive homes in New York, the young politician had many advantages. Growing up amid the ferment of revolution and nation-building, he had a sense of fitness to command that was wedded to a seriousness of purpose, a cognizance of the high stakes involved in the nation's early politics. But along with these good qualities he possessed a self- importance, haughty bearing, and hostility to criticism that eventually alienated many of his closest allies. As his friend James Renwick put it, "There was hardly any distinguished individual of our state who has not at one time been opposed to Clinton, and at another united with him in pursuit of the same political object."

For Clinton, as for Renwick, the politics that mattered was that conducted by "distinguished individuals," and he achieved his greatest successes when he managed to work amicably with other leaders in the state of New York. At no other time in his career did he succeed as fully as he did in promoting the construction of the Erie Canal, the great state project that transformed New York and the nation in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

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