What’s in a Namesake: DeWitt Clinton - September 2021
Hello! This is the first in what I aim to be a series of monthly history blogs focused on local DeWitt county history. It will occasionally venture further afield (as this one does), but always be grounded in something related to this local area. The end of each blog will also feature suggestions for further reading which are available at the library or through the SHARE library system, so if you find a blog interesting and want to know more, stop by the library and see what we've got, or call and ask for one of the suggested books to be put on hold for you! Today's blog focuses on the namesake of DeWitt County and the city of Clinton, DeWitt Clinton.
–Logan Janicki, Assistant Business Manager
What’s in a Namesake: DeWitt Clinton
DeWitt Clinton, named after his mother Mary’s maiden name, was born March 2, 1769, and grew up just as the Clinton family reached the most elite social circles in New York thanks to his father James’ and uncle George’s service in the Revolutionary War. Growing up accustomed to such fame seems to have had an adverse effect on DeWitt’s personality though, as he was notoriously haughty and arrogant for his entire life. Additionally, since the Clinton family reached its social status through their prestige as prominent Patriots during the Revolutionary War, rather than through wealth, DeWitt had a hard time spending in the same way his elite peers did, and frequently found himself deep in debt from trying to do so. Still, he had plenty of virtue too- he was a relentlessly hard worker, graduating at the top of Columbia University’s first class in 1786 (worrying his mother in the process, as he frequently forgot to write her back while busy with his studies). He was also a committed republican and reformer in politics, which, along with his name recognition, got him his first elected office in 1796 when he was elected to New York’s state assembly.
DeWitt’s family were committed Jeffersonians, and when Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, the Clintons followed on his coattails-DeWitt’s uncle George won New York’s governorship and appointed his nephew to a powerful position on the New York Council of Appointments, from which the Clintons could favor allies with lucrative and prestigious appointments to government jobs. At this point, he was already arguably the most powerful person in New York politics, rivalled only by Aaron Burr, who DeWitt feuded with until Burr self-destructed by killing Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel.
In 1803, DeWitt briefly filled a vacancy in the US Senate after one of New York’s senators died in office, but quickly decided to return to New York, arranging his appointment as New York City’s mayor (it was not an elected office at that time), which he would hold until 1815. There he came into his own as a politician. He supported many cultural and artistic endeavors across the city, helping to found the New-York Historical Society, the American Academy of Arts, and the Literary and Philosophical Society, among other groups he patronized. He also supported the rights of Irish immigrants in the city, who were often victims of anti-Catholic violence, even once personally leading a contingent of the city watch to break up an anti-Catholic riot. Following his republican virtues, he believed free public education was necessary to a healthy republic and was president of the New York Free School Society from its start in 1805 until his death. The Society opened and operated private but free-to-attend schools and pressured the state to establish a public school system, which it ultimately succeeded in doing in 1826, when the Free Schools were incorporated into New York City’s public school system.
However, DeWitt’s ambition was not limited to New York, and in 1812, he made a risky bid for the presidency. The moment seemed ripe for it, as the Madison administration had just started the War of 1812 with Britain, which was highly unpopular in Northern states, and became
only more so as the US suffered a series of embarrassing defeats at the outset. However, DeWitt’s path to the presidency had serious problems- he was a member of the Democratic-Republican party, Madison’s own party, and so needed support from the increasingly weak Federalist party if he was going to win, alongside support from Democratic-Republicans dissatisfied with the current handling of the war. Unfortunately, he was never able to convince enough Federalists he would represent their interests, and offended too many Democratic-Republicans by running against a sitting president from his own party, leading to his defeat in the election. His betrayal of Madison also led to the Democratic-Republicans seeing him as an unreliable ally, and within too long, he was stripped of all political offices and appointments, save one- a seemingly irrelevant seat on the New York state canal commission.
With little else to focus on as he was driven out of New York politics following the 1812 election, DeWitt focused on his work as a canal commissioner. He had always been a strong supporter of infrastructure improvements, and had been on the New York state canal commission since the state had taken over the project of linking the Hudson River and Great Lakes from an ineffective private company in 1810. He quickly became the project’s staunchest advocate and made sure that the public always associated himself with the canal. Of course, this had drawbacks too, as DeWitt’s many enemies intentionally stalled and belittled the project he so closely associated with, branding it “DeWitt’s Ditch” as it was slowly dug.
But public support for the canal only grew with time, driving it forward despite opposition. Support for the canal was so strong that it revived DeWitt’s political career not once but twice: in 1817 it kept him in the public eye enough that his remaining allies were able to engineer him becoming New York’s governor, and, after he was seemingly driven from politics yet again in 1822, he was able to win the governorship again in 1824 after his removal as canal commissioner caused a massive public backlash. Unfortunately, in both cases, while DeWitt was
popular with the people, he was still personally unpopular with the dominant political faction in New York at the time. So while he laid out ambitious agendas for further infrastructure improvements, a public school system, and electoral reforms, he was stalled and undermined at every turn.
Despite all the other political failures he had to endure, DeWitt arrived to the governorship just in time to enjoy the festivities that accompanied the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. The completion of the canal had tremendous consequences for New York (city and state) and the nation as a whole. At the time the canal opened, travel by water was by far the quickest and cheapest way to move long distances. The canal therefore dramatically reduced the cost of shipping goods between upstate New York and New York City, helping the city take its place as the most populous city in the US, and its most important financial center. It even made shipping goods from further west easier, as one could now sail from anywhere on the Great Lakes to the canal, from the canal to the Hudson, and from the Hudson out into the Atlantic. It also drove westward migration, as the same routes goods took could also be used to move people as well. The connection the Erie Canal forged between the North and West had enormous political consequences too, though they became apparent a fair bit later- as the West found itself bound to the North more and more tightly economically and culturally, it also came to align itself with Northern abolitionists, providing the Union with a clear advantage in manpower and economic strength when the Civil War began.
DeWitt however, would not live to see the effects of that last consequence of his project, as he suffered a fatal heart attack on February 11, 1828. His health had been declining since a horse-riding accident a decade prior, and he left his second wife and seven children deep in debt when he died (his first wife had died the same year he suffered the horse-riding accident). While it certainly would have been cold-comfort to his family, the fact he died deep in debt speaks to
his honesty as a public servant. Whatever his other flaws, he was committed to the ideals of republicanism and public service, never skimming a public dollar for himself and even doing all of his work as canal commissioner without pay.
When he died, he was immensely popular not just in New York, but across the United States, especially among those who wanted to see more large infrastructure projects similar to the Erie Canal undertaken. That popularity persisted into the 1830’s, and in 1835, Jesse Fell and James Allen, both of Bloomington, arrived in this part of central Illinois to survey the land. They found what they thought a promising area and founded a town, naming it Clinton, after DeWitt Clinton, a figure they both admired. When the various towns in the area were organized into their own county two years later, Clinton was chosen as the county seat. It was decided the county’s name would complete the tribute, and was named “DeWitt.”
Suggestions for Further Reading
What Hath God Wrought, by Daniel Walker Howe is an excellent general history of the period DeWitt was most politically active in, from the end of the War of 1812 to the start of the Mexican-American War in 1848. It can be found in the library’s nonfiction section under History->US->1800-1850.
A Treasury of Forgotten Americans, by Michael Farquhar briefly covers the lives and exploits of many other not-too-famous Americans like DeWitt. It can be found in the library’s non-fiction section under History->US->General.
American Lion, by Jon Meacham and The Presidency of Martin Van Buren, by Major L. Wilson cover the lives of two contemporaries of DeWitt who made it to the presidency and turned the Democratic-Republicans from a faction organized around Thomas Jefferson into a true political party- Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Martin Van Buren was even a political rival of
DeWitt’s in New York state politics. Both books can be found in the non-fiction section under History->US->1800-1850.
Cornog, Evan. The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Clinton 1835-1985, DeWitt County 1839-1985, Illinois. Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Kes-Print, Inc., 1985.