ARTICLE

Branstad breaks a record, but first, consider George Clinton

George Clinton by Ezra Ames (full portrait).
George Clinton by Ezra Ames (full portrait).

On Monday, Gov. Terry Branstad becomes the longest-serving governor in American history, at 7,462 days in office, and counting.

As University of Minnesota Political Scientist Eric Ostermeier points out on his Smart Politics website, that’s 12.4 percent Iowa’s history since statehood in December 1846. One out of every eight days we’ve been a state. By the time he leaves office, his tenure will have covered 14 percent.

Let that sink in.

Much has been written about Branstad. Too much, according to some of my readers. But precious little has been said around these parts about the man whose record will be broken, George Clinton. And no, not the king of funk.

Clinton was the colonial-era governor of New York, winning the post 7 times. A founding father, no less. He deserves some ink.

So before Branstad blows through the record like a speeding SUV passing a shuttered mental health facility on its way to a fertilizer plant ribbon cutting, let’s ponder Clinton.

“He was in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement,” said John Kaminski, Clinton’s biographer and director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin. He wrote “George Clinton Yeoman Politician of the New Republic.”

Clinton’s English parents emigrated from Ireland. His father was a farmer and surveyor who did some work for New York’s then-British colonial governor. Kaminski said the elder Clinton’s reward was a royal commission for his son, George, as chief clerk of Ulster County, once he came of age.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Eventually, Clinton took the post, studied law and became politically prominent. He was a general in the state militia and then became a general in the Continental Army. Clinton was a member of the Continental Congress and voted for the Declaration of Independence. But he was called away for military duty before getting a chance to sign it. Left more room for John Hancock, perhaps.

With the ratification of New York’s constitution in 1777, Clinton ran for both governor and lieutenant governor. Thanks to his support among militia members, he won both offices. He smartly picked governor and resigned as his own second fiddle.

In fall 1777, Washington urgently sent Clinton and his troops to man a pair of forts along the Hudson River in the Highlands roughly 50 miles north of New York City. Continental commanders feared British troops from New York would move up the Hudson to join up with British forces invading from Canada, thus cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies.

Clinton had just 600 men, which he split between the two forts, one under his command and the other under the command of his brother, James. Only 300 men had firearms, Kaminski said. They faced a British force numbering between 3,000 and 6,000, including German troops, local loyalists and regular army pros.

“Can you imagine? Sending someone on a death mission? This was. Washington was asking him to commit suicide there. Fight to the end. He agreed to do that,” Kaminski said.

As the British arrive at the forts, an officer approaches to seek their surrender. Clinton sends an officer to reply.

“I’m only authorized to accept your surrender,” Kaminski said the officer told the redcoats.

So they had pluck, but the numbers were daunting. On Oct, 6, 1777, the British tried and failed three times to break through. Eventually, late in the day, the British overran the forts, with the help of local loyalists who helped them navigate the terrain. Two-thirds of the Americans were killed or captured. But Clinton and his brother, with a bayonet wound, were among those who escaped. Fortunately, the the British army to the north was forced to surrendered at Saratoga 11 days later.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“He’s a hero. Everybody understands his great courage,” Kaminski said. “Washington never forgot that, and they became very, very close friends.”

Not surprisingly, Clinton’s political career takes off. He’s re-elected as governor while the Revolution rages in 1780 and after it’s won in 1783 and 1786. New York is prospering, with the help of tariffs on goods flowing into the port of New York and other economic policies enacted by the Clinton government. New York was actually a creditor to the federal government.

In fact, things are so good in New York, Clinton and many other New York politicians are opposed to the new federal Constitution. New York eventually ratified the Constitution, but Kaminski said Clinton’s role as a staunch Antifederalist hurt his career and legacy.

Still, Clinton turned out to be a historically fateful bur under the constitutional saddle. His vocal advocacy for allowing the new Constitution to be amended, and for a second constitutional convention over the strong objections of James Madison and other Federalists, proved to be pivotal in the birth of the Bill of Rights, Kaminski contends.

“All this together is encouraging James Madison to work on a Bill of Rights in Congress. And he does, and gets the Bill of Rights proposed and adopted two years later,” Kaminski said. “Clinton is instrumental in encouraging a Bill of Rights to be adopted, and he sticks to his guns throughout.”

But it makes his road to re-election rocky in 1789. In 1792, he actually loses the popular vote to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay before sketchy returns in four counties are tossed out. In 1795, he declines to run for re-election.

But in 1800, some guy named Aaron Burr pulls him back in to help gain control of the New York Assembly and assure Thomas Jefferson enough electoral votes to win the presidency, with Burr as veep. Clinton wins a seat in the assembly, but Burr and Jefferson tie in the Electoral College, and Burr starts thinking maybe he can be president. It takes 36 ballots in the U.S. House for Jefferson to wrestle the presidency away from Burr.

Clinton runs again for governor in 1801 and wins. By this time, his nephew, future governor and Erie Canal striver DeWitt Clinton, Kaminksi said, has become the force behind the throne. Fun fact, Clinton and DeWitt, Iowa, are named after DeWitt Clinton.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

In 1804, Jefferson is more than done with Burr, something about a duel may have figured in, and Clinton is asked to run for vice president, a post he wins. By 1808, Clinton is thinking maybe he should be president. But James Madison gets the nod, and Clinton is again second fiddle. In 1812, Vice President Clinton dies in office at age 72.

Fascinating, consequential guy, to be sure. Interesting far beyond the 20 years, 11 months and 2 days he served as governor. And two moments of misfortune help explain why we haven’t heard more about him.

First, in 1777, the same British forces he fought on the Hudson burned the town of Kingston, destroying papers Clinton saved from his early career. Then, in 1911, a fire at the New York State Library burned 50 boxes of Clinton’s documents. All that remains is a 10-volume sampling. Too bad.

But until the end of today, he’s still America’s longest serving governor. So raise a toast to George Clinton, patriot, revolutionary hero and public servant. The ribbon-cutting will resume shortly.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.