This forgotten hero of American democracy responsible for the Erie Canal was born today in 1769. Now WE know em


DeWitt Clinton was born March 2, 1769 in New York.

DeWitt was educated at King’s College, what is now Columbia University.

After school, he became the secretary to his uncle, George Clinton, the first Governor of New York. Then he joined his uncle’s Democratic-Republican party.

On February 13, 1796, he married Maria Franklin, daughter of prominent New York Quaker merchant, Walter Franklin. Together they would raise ten children, with only seven (four sons and three daughters)surviving to adulthood.

In 1798, DeWitt served in the New York State Assembly of the New York State Senate.

In 1801, he was a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention.

Then he served as a U.S. Senator from New York after the resignation of John Armstrong, Jr. from February 23, 1802 until he resigned November 4, 1803. DeWitt was unhappy with living conditions in the newly built Washington, D.C. and left the Senate to accept the appointment as Mayor of New York City.

While serving as Mayor, DeWitt organized the Historical Society of New York in 1804 and was appointed its president.

In 1806, he returned to the New York State Assembly as State Senator.

DeWitt was a Freemason, and also in 1806, he was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York.

DeWitt then reorganized the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1808, and became a Regent of the University of New York.

In 1810, DeWitt became one of the first members of the Erie Canal Commission. This commission helped project and survey the route the canal would take.

Erie Canal map - 1840

Erie Canal map – 1840

DeWitt  left the New York State Senate in 1811 to serve as Lieutenant Governor of New York under Governor Daniel Tompkins after the death of John Broome.

Then In 1812, DeWitt Clinton ran for President of the United States as candidate for both the Federalist Party and a small group of anti-war Democratic-Republicans.

In the close Election of 1812, DeWitt was defeated by President James Madison; Clinton received 89 electoral votes to James Madison’s 128.

It was the strongest showing of any Federalist candidate for the Presidency since 1800, and the change of the votes of one or two states would have given DeWitt the victory.

He finished out his term as Lieutenant Governor and then became president of the American Academy of the Fine Arts late in 1813.

DeWitt was also essential in establishing the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar in the United States, serving as it’s first president in 1816.

On July 1, 1817, DeWitt was sworn in as the sixth Governor of the state of New York.

As governor, DeWitt became the driving force during the construction of Erie Canal.

Many thought the project was impracticable, and opponents mocked it as “DeWitt’s Ditch”.

In 1818, DeWitt’s wife Maria died. Then on May 8, 1819, DeWitt married Catharine Jones, daughter of a New York physician.

DeWitt was re-elected Governor of New York in 1820, defeating the sitting Vice President Tompkins in a narrow race.

During his second term, the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1821 shortened the gubernatorial term to two years, and moved the beginning of the term from July 1 to January 1, actually cutting off the last 6 months of the 3-year-term he had been elected to.

Also the gubernatorial election was moved from April to November, but DeWitt was not renominated by his party to run for re-election in November 1822. DeWitt left office as Governor of New York December 31, 1822.

Even so, DeWitt remained President of the Erie Canal Commission.

In April 1824, a majority of his political enemies, the Bucktails, voted in the New York State Legislature for his removal from the Canal Commission. This caused such a wave of indignation among the electorate, that he was nominated for Governor by the “People’s Party”, and was re-elected governor, against the official candidate of the Democratic-Republican Party, fellow canal commissioner Samuel Young.

The Erie Canal officially opened October 26, 1825.

Print showing DeWitt Clinton mingling the waters of Lake Erie and the Atlantic. 1826

Print showing DeWitt Clinton mingling the waters of Lake Erie and the Atlantic. 1826

DeWitt served another two terms until his sudden death February 11, 1828.

He was originally buried at the Clinton Cemetery in Little Britain, New York, later he was re-interred at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Clinton was able to accomplish many things as a leader in civic and state affairs, such as improving the New York public school system, encouraging steam navigation, and modifying the laws governing criminals and debtors.

The 1831 DeWitt Clinton locomotive was named in his honor.

The 1831 DeWitt Clinton locomotive was named in his honor.

The community of Whitestone, New York, was for several decades after his death known as Clintonville, but reverted to its traditional name; however, the governor is memorialized to this day by Clintonville street, a major local road.

According to Daniel Walker Howe (2007), DeWitt Clinton is an authentic but largely forgotten hero of American democracy.

Howe explained,

“The infrastructure he worked to create would transform American life, enhancing economic opportunity, political participation, and intellectual awareness.”


Now WE know em


Clinton Memorial by Henry Kirke Brown, 1855, at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

Clinton Memorial by Henry Kirke Brown, 1855, at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.




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