DeWitt Clinton was born in Orange County, N.Y., the son of Gen. James Clinton and Mary DeWitt Clinton. Educated at Kingston Academy and Columbia College, from which he graduated in 1786, he studied law for 3 years. At the age of 18 the precocious youth became an Antifederalist propagandist for his uncle, New York governor George Clinton, writing newspaper articles in 1787 and 1788 opposing the ratification of the Federal Constitution. Entering politics in 1789, at the age of 20, he was appointed private secretary to Governor Clinton. He served as a transitional leader between the factional politics of the postrevolutionary period and the party politics of the new professionals which coalesced around New York's U.S. senator Martin Van Buren, who controlled the state political machine.
When John Jay was elected governor in 1795, Clinton aligned himself with the Democratic-Republican party, entering the New York Assembly in 1797, moving to the state Senate in 1798, and joining the Council of Appointment in 1801. In 1802 Clinton was chosen to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. His chief contribution as senator was the initiation of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution.
In 1803 Clinton resigned his Senate seat to become mayor of New York City, serving until 1815 with the exception of two annual terms. He also served as state senator from 1806 to 1811, lieutenant governor from 1811 to 1813, and political boss of the Democratic-Republicans in New York. But his break with the faction of Robert R. Livingston in 1807 and his opposition to the Embargo Act in 1808 led to strained relations with presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In 1812 New York Republicans nominated him for the presidency instead of Madison. After Madison's reelection, Clinton failed to be renominated as lieutenant governor and in 1815 was ousted from his position as mayor.
Clinton promptly turned to his favorite project, the promotion of a state canal between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. Since 1810 he had served as one of the canal commissioners; he now organized a campaign advocating state support of the project. In April 1816 the legislature adopted Clinton's plan, which carefully outlined the engineering problems and procedures, the financial necessities, and the commercial potential. In 1817 a Republican caucus nominated Clinton, and he was elected governor by an overwhelming majority. Reelected in 1820, he lost support because of internal dissension in his party. He refused to run again in 1822.
When the group headed by U.S. senator Martin Van Buren overplayed its hand in 1824 and removed Clinton as canal commissioner, the Anti-Regency party nominated Clinton as their gubernatorial candidate. He won easily. Thus Governor Clinton in 1825 presided over the celebration of the opening of both the Champlain Canal and the Erie Canal, the greatest engineering project of its day. Reelected in 1826, he died in office on Feb. 11, 1828.
Clinton had been an active participant in literary, educational, and cultural affairs in New York. He organized the Public School Society in 1805, became the chief patron of the New York City Hospital and the New York Orphan Society, and secured the charter of the New York Historical Society, serving as its president in 1817. Clinton was a founder of the New York Literary and Philosophical Society, also serving as president of the American Academy of Art and vice president of the American Bible Society.
By his first wife, Maria Franklin, Clinton had 10 children. In 1819 he married Catherine Jones, who survived him.
The standard account of Clinton is by Dorthie De Bear Bobbé, DeWitt Clinton (1933; rev. ed. 1962). For Clinton's role in the organization of the New York State canal system see Ronald E. Shaw, Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1792-1854 (1966). Specialized studies include Howard L. McBain, DeWitt Clinton and the Origin of the Spoils System in New York (1907), and Edward A. Fitzpatrick, The Educational Views and Influence of DeWitt Clinton (1911).
Hanyan, Craig, De Witt Clinton: years of molding, 1769-1807, New York: Garland, 1988. □