Our History: Early governors trace roots to New York City

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While browsing through some of my collection of “antique” books, I became intrigued with the history of the governors of our state in its early years.

What interested me most was that many of our early governors were born and educated in New York City.

Some became prominent figures in the national government later on, including our second governor, John Jay, who served from 1795 to 1801 and who was appointed by President George Washington to serve as the first chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1789.

He served as president of the Continental Congress, and as a strong Federalist he contributed several famous papers to “The Federalist.”

In our very earliest history we were a Dutch colony known as New Netherland and were governed by a director-general appointed by the Dutch West India Co., a private corporation. The director-general, so far distanced from the Netherlands, was able to exercise sweeping powers. All laws needed his approval and he served as commander of the military forces and acted as judge.

When the British recaptured the colony in 1664, it was named New York, after James, the Duke of York. And the same situation arose, sole power of one man continued and all officials including the governor were appointed by him.

Under the state’s first constitution, the governor served as the chief executive officer of the state. Initially his powers were limited. The original gubernatorial term was to be three years, but by 1821 it was limited to two years. By 1874 it again increased to three years, and again was reduced in 1894. A four-year term was established in 1938.

Our first governor who served from 1777 to 1795 was George Clinton, and he did so again from 1801 to 1804. He was the uncle of another famous governor, De Witt Clinton, who had a home in Queens. Known as the “Father of the Erie Canal” for his persistence in pursuing the completion of the project, De Witt Clinton governed the state from 1817 to 1822 and again from 1825 to 1828. Clinton started his career as an assistant to our first governor, George Clinton, his relative.

In 1798, De Witt Clinton was elected to the State Senate and became a dominant figure in state politics. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1802, but he resigned the following year to become mayor of New York City, a post he held intermittently until 1815. Strangely enough, while mayor he also served as a member of the State Senate and as lieutenant governor from 1811 to 1813 and was narrowly defeated for the presidency by James Madison in 1812.

Our third governor, Morgan Lewis, who served from 1804 to 1807, was born in New York City and was a military officer who raised and trained a regiment of New York Militia and had joined the Continental Army. He became chief of staff to Gen. Horatio Gates at Ticonderoga and Saratoga and was present at the surrender of Gen. Burgoyne in the Battle of Saratoga in 1777.

In 1791, he succeeded Aaron Burr as attorney general and became chief judge of the State Supreme Court. During the War of 1812, he declined the offer to become the secretary of war in order to serve as a major general on our Northern frontier. New York City recognizes him as a founder of New York University and as an early president of the New York Historical Society.

John Alsop King, son of Rufus King, whose Jamaica home is now a landmark, was New York’s governor from 1857 to 1859, the state’s 20th executive leader. As a young man he served in the War of 1812. He accompanied his father to England as secretary to the legation when his father was appointed by the Senate as minister to Britain in 1796 and later became the Charge’ d’Affaires.

When he returned to New York City he served several additional terms in the Assembly and was elected to Congress in 1849, where he opposed compromise legislation in the debate on slavery.

The family home and property, which was purchased by Rufus King in 1805, remained in the family until 1896. Deeded to the city at the end of the century, it was restored to its period style and reopened to the public in 1994. It is located in King’s Park, at 153rd Street and Jamaica Avenue.

It is only possible to give capsule biographies of some of our early governors. Other very famous governors played a role in our destiny in the 19th century, but time and space permit only an acknowledgment of these men.

Among them are Martin Van Buren, who later became president; William Marcy, who served as secretary of war under President Polk; William Seward, who served with distinction as secretary of state under Lincoln and Andrew Johnson; Hamilton Fish, who was secretary of state under Grant, and during the Civil War was chairman of the Union Defense Committee of New York City, which recruited troops; Samuel Tilden, who exposed the notorious Tweed Ring; and Grover Cleveland, who became president after serving as New York’s governor.

In closing, it is interesting to note that there is one governor of our state for which no portrait is extant, and that is our eighth governor, Nathaniel Pitcher, who became acting governor on the untimely death of De Witt Clinton.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer.

Posted 7:08 pm, October 10, 2011
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