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THE NATIONAL ECONOMIST.
DE WITT ÜLINTON.
The leaders of opinion and men of executive genius, in all nations and eras, sustain an inevitable relation to their age; and it is a curious study to investigate how circumstances of time and place modify their activity. The memories of Westminster have enshrined the oratorical triumphs of Fox, Pitt, and Burke, and their agency on public sentiment is woven into the
very texture of England's political annals; while the monuments and galleries of Florence bear witness to the dominant taste for art which was fostered by Lorenzo de Medici. In a young republic whose material progress is without example, the evidence of patriotic selfdevotion is continually obliterated by the advancing tide of civilization, radical improvements are superseded by new inventions, and it is often a difficult task to recall to grateful recognition the labors and triumphs of national benefactors. The insatiable present renders men oblivious of the past; the inviting future precludes retrospection. Yet, to those alive to local history and the origin of great practical ideas, daily observation keeps fresh the memory of Clinton in his native state. As a stranger enters her unrivalled bay, he sees in the fortified Narrows a proof of his patriotic forethought; in an afternoon excursion the Bloomingdale Asylum and Sailor's Snug Harbor, whose endowment he secured, bear witness to his benevolent enterprise ; while the grand systems of public instruction, of mutual insurance, of internal navigation, of savings-banks, reform of the criminal law, and agricultural
improvement, however modified by the progress of science, constantly attest the liberal and wise polity which under his guidance gave them birth.
Born on the second of March, 1769, and dying on the eleventh of February, 1828, De Witt Clinton entered upon life when the contest between the two original parties under the Federal government was at its height, and closed his existence at the epoch of their virtual dissolution. By inheritance and sympathy he ardently espoused one class of opinions, and experienced the modifications of political sentiment incident to the course of events and the development of the nation. He became one of the gladiators in the civic arena, when state rights, foreign influence, and a thousand exciting questions, agitated the land. It is not our purpose to review his political career, to recall the misrepresentation, ingratitude, and insult, of which he was the victim, or to trace the tortuous current of alternate proscription and idolatry that bore him over the changeful sea of party strife. The same battle, in divers forms, is continually fought, and its chief incidents belong to the history of contemporary opinion. Like all aspirants, he was baffled ; like all chiefs, envied; like all loyal men, persecuted. In an impartial estimate of his character, it is sufficient proof of his integrity that it was never successfully assailed; of his patriotism, that it was ultimately recognized; of his republicanism, that his faith in the people never faltered; of his magnanimity, that he forgave injury; and of his statesmanship, that it was victorious. Doubtless, a want of flexibility, a temper too dictatorial, a power of invective sometimes unchastened, and an extreme tenacity of personal conviction, led him into errors. But now that the storm has passed away, his traits are reflected in noble relief upon the calm horizon, visible to the eyes.of posterity. The test of time has proved the sterling qualities of the man, and we impatiently scatter the web of intrigue and the mist of prejudice, to contemplate only those characteristic services that planted his star forever in the galaxy of our country's firmament.
The domestic antecedents of De Witt Clinton were favorable to the inheritance both of energetic character and of public spirit. His name is of Norman origin, and is often cited by the old
French chroniclers of knightly achievements. Among his immediate ancestors was a Royalist cadet, one of the Continental refugees after the civil war, who, on the restoration of the house of Stuart, experienced its faithless ingratitude. The son of this progenitor vainly sought to regain the estates forfeited by the loyalty of his exiled father, who died in Ireland; nor were the family misfortunes retrieved by the next generation, for Charles Clinton, in the prime of his life, resolved to emigrate to America. With a view to pastoral advantages, he made choice of that fertile district of Orange County, in the State of New York, whose grassy acres still supply the best products of the dairy. Here his superior intelligence gave him the lead in social life among the isolated band that formed the infant colony; and on the frontier and fortified farm, sixty miles from the city, the father of De Witt Clinton was born. Thus, by a sad experience of kingcraft and the discipline of primitive colonial life, was our young statesman nurtured in patriotic self-reliance, while his ancestral qualities were enriched by the old Dutch blood of his mother's race. Sprung from educated and loyal, adventurous and brave progenitors, he entered upon life early enough to witness the sacrifices which acquired freedom for his country; and first beheld the city whose glory he was destined to promote, when the inhabitants were giving expression to their joy on the departure of the British troops. Already the name of Clinton was honorably identified with military and civic life in America, officers of his family having served in the French and Revolutionary wars, and associated their names with the capture of Fort Frontenac, with the Indian battles in the valley of the Mohawk, with the surrender of Cornwallis, and subsequently with the government of
Public duty, courage, and self-sacrifice, were household words in the settlement where his childhood was passed; historical events were his nursery tales; and when, having exhausted the educational privileges of his native county and passed some months at the College of New Jersey, he sought for academic culture in the metropolis of his own state, the application was the signal for recombining the apparatus of learning dispersed by war, and baptizing anew the University of New York with the title of an emancipated country. With the advent of
De Witt Clinton as a pupil, the fortunes of King's, now Columbia, College revived ; and it might seem prophetic of his future relation to the cause of learning and civil advancement, that he was the first graduate of that institution after it became American both in name and in principles.
It has been suggested that the germs of political science were planted in Clinton's mind by the lectures of Dr. Kemp, his college preceptor; but they were developed by the exigencies and opportunities of his subsequent career. He had scarcely completed his law studies, when the accidental death of his brother, who was private secretary to Governor Clinton, led to his acceptance of the office. Thus early was he initiated as a political student. To promote his uncle's reëlection, he became a writer for the journals of the day, and soon acquired rare power and readi-' ness in that capacity. He reported the debates of the convention that discussed the new constitution; and while a mere youth, by the demands upon his recognized ability and the promise of his character, he became the chief of a volunteer military corps, and a harbor commissioner. When his kinsman was defeated at the polls, and the Federal party triumphed, there was a pause in his official life, during which his love of the natural sciences found scope; but no sooner did his own party predominate, than he was elected successively ·state representative and senator, United States senator, mayor of the city and governor of the state of New York — posts whose functions were then more important and responsible than at present. The mere outline of his official honors gives no idea of what he made the career of a public servant. In each station he exhibited a vigor of action, a wise polity, and a social influence, quite original and of rare efficiency; in each he illustrated the prerogatives of statesmanship, — in congressional debate winning from his noble rival, Gouverneur Morris, an honest admiration that rose above the virulence of partisan dislike; in municipal rule, by memorable judicial decisions and the courageous exercise of his magistracy, eliciting the ardent praise of the most eminent jurists, and the spontaneous trust of his fellow-citizens. Diplomatic skill, philosophical insight, heroic purpose, generous aims, and legal acumen, were so manifest in his administration of every office, however limited
or temporary its character, as to demonstrate that, under free institutions, it is not the rank but the use of office which makes it illustrious. In support of this view we might cite his new inspection of wheat, that soon raised its market value, his speech against war with Spain, his negotiations with the French and English men-of-war in the waters of New York to preserve neutrality, his condemnation of the turbulent and highly connected students tried before him, his repeal of the acts intolerant to Catholics, the charters he secured for the Fur Company, the Academy of Arts, and the Manumission Society, his moral courage in repudiating an act intended to mar the freedom of debate, his personal devotion to the establishment of the first free school, and his exertions in rescuing from unhallowed neglect the bones of the prison-ship martyrs.
It is one of the penalties exacted by official life that its votary is obliged to expend the highest gifts of his nature upon objects which, however important as parts of a series, leave few permanent memorials. The artist or the author bequeaths a picture, statue, or book, in which are embodied his aspirations and the spirit he was of; but the active intelligence of the statesman is usually so exclusively devoted to administrative duties, as to leave no time for the finished record of his genius. The life that occupied so large a space in the public eye, the name that was on every lip, seems to pass away with the funeral pageant and the tearful eulogy. In the archives of an historical society the curious explorer finds in a fragmentary shape the writings which a few years before, were the charts of opinion over which fiery partisans wrangled and ardent champions exulted. The documentary history of De Witt Clinton's life bears ample evidence of his varied learning, his large discourse of reason, his broad views, and his unwearied activity. It comprises orations before philosophical and benevolent societies, speeches, reports, letters, journals, and messages to the legislature. It attests facility as a writer, versatile knowledge, and earnestness of purpose, embracing discussions of questions of policy, data for the naturalist and historian, and systematic digests of studies in almost every department of scientific, literary, and political inquiry. Much of the significance of these papers is, however, lost, through the progress