George Clinton — The Founding Father and 4th Vice President from New York

1739–1812

George Clinton was a Founding Father of the United States and New York State. Clinton was the first Governor of New York and the 4th Vice President of the United States.

George Clinton, General, USA, American Revolution, NYPL

George Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

George Clinton Quick Facts

  • Born — George Clinton was born on July 26, 1739, in Ulster County, New York.
  • Parents — His parents were Colonel Charles Clinton and Elizabeth Dennison.
  • Died — Clinton died on April 20, 1812, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 72.
  • Buried —  He is buried at the Old Dutch Churchyard in Kingston, New York.
  • Spouse — Clinton married Cornelia Tappan in 1770.
  • Political PartyDemocratic-Republican.
  • Famous For — Clinton is most famous for supporting the Declaration of Independence and being elected as the 1st Governor of New York.

George Clinton Overview and History

George Clinton was a politician and soldier from New York who rose to prominence during the American Revolution. Clinton represented New York at the Second Continental Congress and voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence. He was also elected as the first Governor of New York and served as a General in the Continental Army. An Anti-Federalist, he served as Vice President under two Democratic-Republican Presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Early Life and Education

George Clinton was born on July 26, 1739, in New Britain, New York, and was the son of a farmer. He grew up in Ulster County, New York, and received his education at home.

French and Indian War

Clinton initially participated in the French and Indian War (1755–1763), serving as a privateer on a ship called the Defiance. Later, he joined the New York Militia. He was part of Major General John Bradstreet’s expedition that laid siege to Fort Frontenac in 1758 and then served with his brother, James, during the Battle of Montreal (1760).

American Revolution and the Patriot Cause

After the war, Clinton returned home, studied to be a lawyer, and was admitted to the bar in 1764. In 1786, he was elected to a seat in the New York Assembly. During this time, he became associated with the Livingston Faction, which opposed British taxation policies and developed a rivalry with Philip Schuyler.

As tensions with Great Britain increased, Clinton emerged as a prominent figure in the radical, anti-British faction. In 1770, Clinton was one of the few politicians who voted against the imprisonment of Alexander McDougall. McDougall was accused of writing a pamphlet that helped cause the Battle of Golden Hill.

Alexander McDougall, Major General, USA, American Revolutionary War
Alexander McDougall. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In 1770, he married Cornelia Tappan. By marrying into the Tappan Family, Clinton increased his social, economic, and political status. They had five children together.

Second Continental Congress

In 1774, Clinton chaired the Committee of Correspondence and continued to support the Patriot Cause. In 1775, he was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and was commissioned as a Brigadier General of the New York Militia in December.

Because of his military responsibilities, Clinton was often absent from many sessions of Congress. However, he was there when Congress debated the Lee Resolution and the Declaration of Independence. Although he voted in favor of both, he was recalled to New York and was never able to sign the Declaration.

New York’s First Governor and Defense of the Hudson Highlands

In March 1777, he was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the Continental Army, and tasked with defending the Hudson Highlands. At the time, the British were preparing to carry out General John Burgoyne’s plan to invade New York, take control of the Hudson Valley, and isolate the New England Colonies. 

In June 1777, Clinton was elected as the first Governor of New York under the newly adopted state constitution.

As Burgoyne’s Campaign stalled near Saratoga, General Henry Clinton led British forces out of New York and threatened the Hudson Highlands and two important American posts — Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery. Both forts were located on the west bank of the Hudson River, south of West Point.

General Henry Clinton, American Revolution
General Henry Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

On October 6, Clinton and his brother, General James Clinton, were defeated in the Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery. This defeat, at the hands of General Henry Clinton, is referred to as the “Battle of the Three Clintons.”

During the battle, George led the defense of Fort Montgomery and James led the defense of Fort Clinton. Unfortunately, most of the American troops were untrained militia who were easily overwhelmed by the British regulars.

Both Clintons were able to escape the battle, along with Israel Putnam. Afterward, a contingent of British troops was sent to Kingston and they burned the town. Despite the victory, Burgoyne was defeated at the Battle of Bemis Heights (October 7, 1777) and forced to surrender his army to General Horatio Gates on October 13.

James Clinton, Illustration
James Clinton. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Governor of New York

As Governor, Clinton worked to maintain New York’s defenses, even though the British controlled New York City. He treated Loyalists harshly, often seizing their property.

During his time as Governor, he worked to keep the territory known as Vermont as part of New York. This put him at odds with the leader of the Vermont movement, Ethan Allen. Despite Clinton’s opposition, Vermont was accepted into the Union as the 14th state on March 4, 1791.

Clinton was a popular Governor and served in the office until 1795.

Anti-Federalist Stance

In 1787, the Philadelphia Convention produced the United States Constitution. When it came time for New York to discuss ratification, Clinton opposed it, siding with the Anti-Federalists. 

He wrote a series of letters under the pseudonym, “Cato,” that outlined his arguments against a strong Federal Government. Alexander Hamilton responded to Clinton’s letters with his own, under the pseudonym, “Caesar.” 

Despite Clinton’s efforts, New York ratified the Constitution.

Although Clinton supported the administration of his friend, President George Washington, he was critical of Federalist leaders like John Jay and Hamilton.

Return to Politics and Vice President of the United States

In 1800, Aaron Burr convinced Clinton to run for Governor. He won, and served until 1804. That year, he was elected as Vice President under President Thomas Jefferson. Clinton continued in this role in 1808, under President James Madison, although he disliked Madison.

As Vice President, he cast the deciding vote against extending the charter for the First Bank of the United States, which was a key piece of Alexander Hamilton’s Financial Plan.

George Clinton, Vice President, Portrait, Ames
Vice President George Clinton. Image Source: New-York Historical Society.

Death of George Clinton

As the War of 1812 loomed, Clinton passed away in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 1812, marking the first time a Vice President died while in office. 

The Life of George Clinton, Soldier, and Statesman of the American Revolution

This account of the life of George Clinton was published in 1830 as part of American Military Biography, a collection of biographies about American military leaders from the American Revolutionary War. This account was written by Amos Blanchard.

Please note that minor text corrections have been made and section headings have been added to improve the readability.

Who was George Clinton?

Among the many distinguished patriots of the revolution, who have become tenants of the tomb, the services of none will be more readily acknowledged, than those of the late venerable George Clinton. He is descended from a respectable and worthy family, and was born on the 26th July, 1739, in the county of Ulster, in the colony of New York. His father, Colonel Charles Clinton was an emigrant from Ireland.

Clinton’s Heroics During the French and Indian War

In early youth, he was put to the study of law, but long before he became a man, he rallied under the standard of his country and assisted Amherst in the reduction of Montreal. In this campaign he nobly distinguished himself in a conflict on the northern waters, when, with four gun-boats, after a severe engagement, he captured a French brig of 18 guns.

Legal Studies and Connection to Morris

This war being ended, he returned again to his favorite pursuit, the science of the law, and placed himself under the tuition of Chief Justice Smith, where he became a student with Gouverneur Morris, between whom and himself, a difference of political opinion, in after life, wrought a separation.

Clinton Joins the Patriot Cause

He had scarcely commenced as a practitioner, when, in 1765, the storm appeared to gather around his native land, and the tyrannic disposition of the mother country was manifested. Foreseeing the evil at hand, with a mind glowing with patriot-ism, correct and quick in its perceptions; and like time, steady and fixed to the achievement of its objects, he abandoned the advantages of the profession to which he had been educated, and became a member of the colonial legislature; where he ever displayed a love of liberty, an inflexible attachment to the rights of his country, and that undaunted firmness and integrity, without which this nation never would have been free; and which has ever formed the most brilliant, though by no means the most useful trait of his character. He was chief of the Whig party.

George Clinton and the Second Continental Congress

In this situation he remained, contending against the doctrine of British supremacy; and with great strength of argument, and force of popularity, supporting the rights of America, till the crisis arrived when, in 1775, he was returned a member of that patriotic congress, who laid the foundation of our independence. While in this venerable body, it may be said of him with truth, that “he strengthened the feeble knees, and the hands that hang down.” 

George Clinton and the Declaration of Independence

On the 4th of July, 1776, he was present at the glorious declaration of independence, and assented with his usual energy and decision, to that measure, but having been appointed a brigadier-general in the militia, and also in the continental army, the exigencies of his country at that trying hour, rendered it necessary for him to take the field in person, and he, therefore, retired from congress immediately after his vote was given, and before the instrument was transcribed for the signature of the members; for which reason his name does not appear among the signers.

George Clinton, First Governor of New York State

A constitution having been adopted for the state of New York, in April 1777, he was chosen at the first election under it, both governor and lieutenant-governor, and was continued in the former office for eighteen years. In this year he was also appointed by Congress to command the post of the Highlands, a most important and arduous duty. 

Clinton Defends the Hudson Highlands

The design of the enemy was to separate New England from the rest of the nation, and by preventing succor from the east, to lay waste to the middle and southern country. Had this plan been carried into effect, American liberty would probably have expired in its cradle. It was then that his vast and comprehensive genius viewed in its true light the magnitude of the evil contemplated, and he roused to a degree of energy unknown and unexpected. It was then that Burgoyne was, with the best appointed army ever seen in America, attempting to force his way to Albany, and Howe, attempting to effect a junction with him at that important place.

The crisis was all important, and Clinton did not hesitate — he determined at all hazards to save his country. With this view, when Howe attempted to ascend the river, Clinton from every height and angle assailed him. His gallant defense of Fort Montgomery, with a handful of men, against a powerful force commanded by Sir Henry Clinton, was equally honorable to his intrepidity and his skill. The following are the particulars of his gallant conduct at the storming of forts Montgomery and Clinton, in October 1777.

Account of the Battle of the Three Clintons

“When the British reinforcements under General Robertson, amounting to nearly two thousand men, arrived from Europe, Sir Henry Clinton used the greatest exertion, and availed himself of every favorable circumstance, to put these troops into immediate operation. Many were sent to suitable vessels, and united in the expedition, which consisted of about 4000 men, against the forts in the Highlands. 

Having made the necessary arrangements, he moved up the North River, and lauded on the 4th of October at Tarry-town, purposely to impress General Putnam, under whose command a thousand continental troops had been left, with a belief, that his post at Peekskill was the object of attack. 

Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, 1777, HMDB
Fort Montgomery Historical Marker. Image Source: Historical Marker Database.

At eight o’clock at night, the general communicated the intelligence to Governor Clinton, of the arrival of the British, and at the same time expressed his opinion respecting their destination. The designs of Sir Henry were immediately perceived by the governor, who prorogued the assembly on the following day, and arrived that night at Fort Montgomery. 

The British troops in the meantime, were secretly conveyed across the river, and assaults upon our forts were meditated to be made on the 6th, which were accordingly put in execution, by attacking the American advanced party at Doodletown, about two miles and a half from Fort Montgomery. The Americans received the fire of the British, and retreated to Fort Clinton. The enemy then advanced to the west side of the mountain, in order to attack our troops in the rear. 

Governor Clinton immediately ordered out a detachment of one hundred men towards Doodletown, and another of sixty, with a brass field piece, to an eligible spot on another road. They were both soon attacked by the whole force of the enemy, and compelled to fall back. 

It has been remarked, that the talents, as well as the temper of a commander, are put to as severe a test in conducting a retreat, as in achieving a victory. The truth of this Governor Clinton experienced, when, with great bravery, and the most perfect order, he retired till he reached the fort. He lost no time in placing his men in the best manner that circumstances would admit. His post however, as well as Fort Clinton, in a few minutes were invaded on every side. 

In the midst of this disheartening and appalling disaster, he was summoned, when the sun was only an hour high, to surrender in five minutes; but his gallant spirit sternly refused to obey the call. 

In a short time after, the British made a general and most desperate attack on both posts, which was received by the Americans with undismayed courage and resistance. Officers and men, militia and continentals, all behaved alike brave. 

An incessant fire was kept up till dusk, when our troops were overpowered by numbers, who forced the lines and redoubts at both posts. Many of the Americans fought their way out, others accidentally mixed with the enemy, and thus made their escape effectually; for, besides being favored by the night, they knew the various avenues in the mountains. The governor, as well as his brother Gen. James Clinton, who was wounded, were not taken.”

The Burning of Kingston

Howe, driven to madness by the manly resistance of his foes, inconsiderately landed and marched into the country, and immortalized his name by burning Kingston and other villages. But the great object of the expedition, the forming a conjunction with Burgoyne, was happily defeated by the capture of that general, and America was free.

18 Years as Governor of New York

From this moment, for eighteen years in succession, he remained the governor of New York, re-elected to that important station by a generous and wise people, who knew how to appreciate his wisdom and virtue, and their own blessings. During this period, he was president of the convention of that state, which ratified the national constitution: when, as in all other situations, he undeviatingly manifested an ardent attachment to civil liberty.

New York Constitutional Convention

After the life of labor and usefulness, here faintly portrayed; worn with the fatigues of duty, and with a disease which then afflicted him, but which had been removed for the last eight years of his life; having led his native state to eminent, if not unrivaled importance and prosperity, he retired from public life, with a mind resolved not to mingle again with governmental concerts, and to taste those sweets which result from reflecting on a life well spent.

George Clinton, 4th Vice President of the United States

In 1805 he was chosen Vice-President of the United States, by the same number of votes that elevated Mr. Jefferson to the presidency; in which station he discharged his duties with unremitted attention 5 presiding with great dignity in the Senate, and evincing, by his votes and his opinions, his decided hostility to constructive authority, and to innovations on the established principles of republican government.

Death and Legacy of George Clinton, Founding Father of the United States and New York

He died at Washington, when attending to his duties as Vice President, and was interred in that city, where a monument was erected by the filial piety of his children, with this inscription, written by his nephew: — 

“To the memory of George Clinton. He was born in the state of New York, on the 26th July, 1739, and died in the city of Washington, on the 20th April, 1812, in the 73d year of his age.”

“He was a soldier and statesman of the revolution. Eminent in council, and distinguished in war, he filled with unexampled usefulness, purity, and ability, among many other offices, those of Governor of his native state, and of Vice-President of the U. States. While he lived, his virtue, wisdom, and valor were the pride, the ornament, and security of his country, and when he died, he left an illustrious example of a well spent life, worthy of all imitation.”

George Clinton APUSH Review

George Clinton is associated with APUSH Unit 3: 1754–1800, which is part of our Guide to AP US History (APUSH).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title George Clinton — The Founding Father and 4th Vice President from New York
  • Date 1739–1812
  • Author
  • Keywords George Clinton, New York, Founding Father, Vice President, Democratic-Republican Party, Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 29, 2024

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