CLINTON, DE WITT (1769-1828), American political leader, was born on the 2nd of March 1769 at Little Britain, Orange county, New York. His father, James Clinton (1736-1812), served as a captain of provincial troops in the French and Indian War, and as a brigadier-general in the American army in the War of Independence, taking part in Montgomery's attack upon Quebec in 1775, unsuccessfully resisting at Fort Montgomery, along the Hudson, in 1777 the advance of Sir Henry Clinton, accompanying General John Sullivan in 1779 in his expedition against the Iroquois in western New York, and in 1781 taking part in the siege of Yorktown, Virginia. De Witt Clinton graduated at Columbia College in 1786, and in 1790 was admitted to the bar. From 1790 to 1795 he was the private secretary of his uncle, George Clinton, governor of New York and a leader of the Republican party. He was a member of the New York assembly from January to April 1798, and in August of that year entered the state senate, serving until April 1802. He at once became a dominant factor in New York politics, and for the next quarter of a century he played a leading rôle in the history of the commonwealth. From 1801 to 1802 and from 1806 to 1807 he was a member of the Council of Appointment, and realizing the power this body possessed through its influence over the selection of a vast number of state, county and municipal officers, he secured in 1801, while his uncle was governor, the removal of a number of Federalist office-holders, in order to strengthen the Republican organization by new appointments. On this account Clinton has generally been regarded as the originator of the "spoils system" in New York; but he was really opposed to the wholesale proscription of opponents that became such a feature of American politics in later years. It was his plan to fill the more important offices with Republicans, as they had been excluded from appointive office during the Federalist ascendancy, and to divide the smaller places between the parties somewhat in accordance with their relative strength. In counties where the Federalists had a majority very few removals were made.
In 1802 Clinton became a member of the United States Senate, but resigned in the following year to become mayor of New York city, an office he held from 1803 to 1807, from 1808 to 1810, and from 1811 to 1815. During his mayoralty he also held other offices, being a member of the state senate from 1806 to 1811 and lieutenant-governor from 1811 to 1813. In 1812, after a congressional caucus at Washington had nominated Madison for a second term, the Republicans of New York, desiring to break up the so-called Virginia dynasty as well as the system of congressional nominations, nominated Clinton for the presidency by a legislative caucus. Opponents of a second war with Great Britain had revived the Federalist organization, and Federalists from eleven states met in New York and agreed to support Clinton, not on account of his war views, which were not in accord with their own, but as a protest against the policy of Madison. In the election Clinton received 89 electoral votes and Madison 128.
As a member of the legislature Clinton was active in securing the abolition of slavery and of imprisonment for debt, and in perfecting a system of free public schools. In 1810 he was a member of a commission to explore a route for a canal between Lake Erie and the Hudson river, and in 1811 he and Gouverneur Morris were sent to Washington to secure Federal aid for the undertaking, but were unsuccessful. The second war with Great Britain prevented any immediate action by the state, but in 1816 Clinton was active in reviving the project, and a new commission was appointed, of which he became president. His connexion with this work so enhanced his popularity that he was chosen governor by an overwhelming majority and served for two triennial terms (1817-1823). As governor he devoted his energies to the construction of the canal, but the opposition to his administration, led by Martin Van Buren and Tammany Hall, became so formidable by 1822 that he declined to seek a third term. His successful opponents, however, overreached themselves when in 1824 they removed him from the office of canal commissioner. This partisan action aroused such indignation that at the next election he was again chosen governor, by a large majority, and served from 1825 until his death. As governor he took part in the formal ceremony of admitting the waters of Lake Erie into the canal in October 1825, and thus witnessed the completion of a work which owed more to him than to any other man. Clinton died at Albany, N.Y., on the 11th of February 1828. In addition to his interest in politics and public improvements, he devoted much study to the natural sciences; among his published works are a Memoir on the Antiquities of Western New York (1818), and Letters on the Natural History and Internal Resources of New York (1822).
See J. Renwick's Life of De Witt Clinton (New York, 1845); D. Hosack's Memoir of De Witt Clinton (New York, 1829); W. W. Campbell's Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton (New York, 1849); and H. L. McBain's De Witt Clinton and the Origin of the Spoils System in New York (New York, 1907).