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Our History: Early governors had connections to Queens

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Prior to 1777 New York was governed by the Dutch and the British. Under the Netherlands, New Netherlands was governed by a director-general appointed by the Dutch West India Company, subject to review by the home government and the company, but distance gave the director-general great independence and power. He acted also as chief judge, commander of the military and was the chief administrative official.In 1664 the English captured and renamed the colony, New York, after James, Duke of York, King Charles II's brother. This government followed the same pattern as that of the Dutch - all were appointed by the Duke of York, who had almost sole power.Under our state's first constitution, the position of governor was known as the chief executive of the state. Because of the earlier experiences of the colony, the power of the governor was limited to avoid too much authority given to one person. The original gubernatorial term was to be three years.. In 1821 it was set at two years, and in 1874 was changed back to three years. In 1894 it was reduced again to two years, and in 1938 the four-year term was put into effect. With the coming of the 20th century, the Governor's power was increased. The object was to make him a stronger chief executive.George Clinton, known as "the father of New York State," was elected our first governor and was re-elected for an additional six terms, the longest period any governor has served. Indeed, he was elected both governor and lieutenant governor but accepted the higher position and took the oath of office on July 30, 1777.Clinton had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Though he had voted for the Declaration of Independence, he was not available to sign the Declaration because he was called to serve in the military and participated in several battles defending New York.Though his first duties were military, he promoted scientific agriculture and worked to develop a public school system. He was also involved with the development of the Erie Canal. His "Clintonian" faction, as it was called, was long dominant in New York State politics. Elected vice president of the United States in 1804, he served two terms under Presidents Jefferson and Madison. His nephew, DeWitt Clinton, worked for him during his term as governor, and he was also to become governor of New York and is known to have had a home in Queens.Another governor whose family had ties to Queens was Morgan Lewis, son of Francis Lewis. Morgan Lewis was our third governor from 1804-1807. Lewis had interrupted his study of the law to join the Continental Army and had raised a regiment of militia. He was appointed deputy quartermaster general of the New York Department as chief of staff to Gen. Horatio Gates at Ticonderoga and Saratoga and was present at the surrender of British General Burgoyne after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. After the war he completed his study of the law. He was later to succeed Aaron Burr as attorney general of New York and was to become chief judge of our State Supreme Court.While governor, Lewis recommended that state schools be supported from the sale of state lands, a practice that was to become the foundation of the common school fund.During the War of 1812, he turned down an offer to become secretary of war in order to serve as a major general on our northern frontier. As well as serving our country in the military, he did so in civilian capacities, and as a prominent New Yorker he was president of the New York Historical Society and a founder of New York University.The roster of governors of New York reveals much of interest in our history and we hope to continue the story in the future.Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

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