The Early Political Microcosm

DeWitt Clinton.

New York politics after the War of 1812 had ended “became a microcosm of the future of national politics.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 237.

Governor of New York DeWitt Clinton was a veteran of New York politics as well as a prominent personality. Id. He had a long agenda, including the Erie Canal, “aid to education, libraries, and manufacturing, prison reform, scientific agriculture, and the abolition of both chattel slavery and imprisonment for debt.” Id. citing Evan Cornog, The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience (New York, 1998), 135.

Martin Van Buren wanted to block the ambitious agenda and success of Governor Clinton, deploying his own brand of Republicans called “Bucktails” to change the “dominant electoral issue in the state from economic prosperity to political democracy.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 238. This began with doing away with property qualifications for voting, which Van Buren successfully outmaneuvered Governor Clinton in organizing a constitutional convention to effectuate that goal. Id.

The result of the convention was that the property qualification for voting for white men was abolished while for black men, they must have had a net worth of $250 or more. Id. at 239. The property qualification for black men came as a result of Van Buren and his Bucktails, not Governor Clinton. Id.

Ultimately, in 1826, Governor Clinton was re-elected as governor, with the support of the Bucktails. Id. at 240. Both Governor Clinton and Van Buren, at that time, were backing Andrew Jackson for president, and both were hoping to become Jackson’s designated heir. Id. Governor Clinton had become the epitomization of advocating for economic development and transportation. Id. Van Buren had been using economic issues to his advantage, as necessary. Id.

Before there was a chance for a showdown between the two for Andrew Jackson’s approval, Governor Clinton died on February 11, 1828. While Van Buren would soon rise to be a valuable partner for President Jackson, DeWitt Clinton would become a “largely forgotten hero of American democracy.” Id. at 241.

New York politics had illustrated the difficulty between choosing between equality and economic efficiency. Van Buren, always keen to exploit the issues of the day to his advantage, best embodied the Republican thinking at the time that equality was truly secondary to economic progress. This would be an argument that was analogously used, especially in the Jackson administration, as the removal of Native Americans and other injustices were rampant.

While it is impossible to predict what may have happened had DeWitt Clinton lived and risen to be a key part of President Jackson’s administration, it is safe to assume that Van Buren and his Bucktails would not have enjoyed the prominence that came shortly after Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1826. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that even Clinton could have helped set America on a path away from the Civil War.

Leave a Reply