So How About Clinton?

In the past, we’ve dug up the history of the famous namesakes of some Clinton Hill streets – but what about Clinton Hill itself? Clinton Hill -- and Clinton Avenue – are named for DeWitt Clinton, a former New York City mayor, New York state governor and United States Senator. Born in 1769, DeWitt was part of a budding political dynasty – his uncle George Clinton was New York’s first governor, and later was Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President. George gave his nephew his entry into politics, offering him clerkship. Within ten years, DeWitt Clinton was a member of the New York State Senate, and a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention; a year after that, in 1802, he was elected to the United States Senate.

However, Clinton didn’t take to national politics. He served just under two years in the Senate before he resigned, stating that he wanted to return to New York and run for mayor because he was unhappy with the living conditions in Washington, D.C. (to be fair, the city had just been newly built and was going through growing pains). Clinton served three separate terms as mayor, spanning the years 1803 to 1815.

Clinton’s real claim to fame, though, started during his final term. In 1810, the New York State legislature began considering a canal connecting the Hudson River and Lake Erie. At the time, the United States was starting to settle the present-day Midwest; merchants in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as western New York State, relied on the Great Lakes for their shipping. However, the only way to get to the Great Lakes was through the St. Lawrence River – which was controlled by France. But there was a tributary of the Hudson River, the Mohawk River, which lay only 360 miles from Lake Erie. Clinton was one of several men the New York State Legislature appointed to investigate the possibility of building a canal bridging that gap.

Clinton joined the surveying party in 1810, traveling with most of the others in the boat following the Hudson upstream and then the Mohawk River west. Another man, Governour Morris, was ostensibly the commission’s head, but the other members noticed Clinton’s obvious passion for the project and started regarding Clinton as their unofficial leader instead. Clinton also seemed to be having a grand time personally – in addition to his geographical notes, he kept a travel journal documenting the group’s travel adventures.

After the group prepared its report for the New York State legislature, Clinton took over securing funding for the project. He and Morris went to Washington to ask for federal assistance, but then-president James Madison turned them down. The commission was set to try again in 1812 until war interrupted their plans. The committee waited a until few months after the war had ended, then held a public meeting in New York City in December of 1815, designed to drum up support for the canal. Clinton returned to Washington to once again appeal for support. This time, Congress agreed, but Madison knocked a quarter of the federal funding out of the project. But there was so much popular support for the canal that New York State started breaking ground on the project anyway.

A year later, Clinton was elected governor when New York’s acting governor, Daniel D. Tompkins, was elected vice president under James Monroe, and thus got to have even more of a front-row seat on the Erie Canal project. Curiously, Tompkins tried to unseat Clinton in the 1820 gubernatorial election – even though Tompkins had been re-elected Vice President. Clinton won, but by a rather narrow margin.

But Clinton’s luck changed two years later, when his party didn’t even nominate him for re-election in 1822. Clinton returned to his post as president of the Erie Canal Commission – where he faced greater political challenges. During the Canal’s construction, Clinton often squabbled with members of the “Buckthorn” party, a faction of the Tammany Hall organization opposed to Clinton’s politics; both sides often clashed on details of the canal’s construction, as well as on who deserved more credit for negotiating its funding. In 1824, the Buckthorn Party managed to get enough support in the New York State Legislature to vote Clinton out of the Erie Canal Commission altogether.

But this struck many New Yorkers as deeply unfair – and they assembled their own grass-roots party, named Clinton as their gubernatorial candidate, and sent him back to Albany. The Erie Canal officially opened that year, and Governor Clinton thus proudly rode the first boat to travel the length of the canal from Lake Erie down to New York harbor. Clinton went on to serve two more terms as governor before dying in office; he is currently buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.