Theodore Roosevelt > New York > XII. The beginning of Democratic Rule. 1801-1821.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.
XII. The beginning of Democratic Rule. 1801-1821.
IN the electoral college, Jefferson and Burr, the Democratic-Republican candidates for President and Vice-President, had a tie vote under the curious system then prevailing, and this left the House of Representatives to decide which should be given the Presidency. The Federalists, as a whole, from hatred to Jefferson, supported Burr; but Hamilton, to his honor, opposed this move with all his might, and from thenceforth was regarded by Burr with peculiar and sinister hostility. Jefferson was finally chosen.   1
  In the spring of 1801 the Democrats also elected the veteran George Clinton as governor, De Witt Clinton being at the same time made one of the Council of Appointment. They then for the first time had complete and unchecked control of the entire governmental system of the nation and State, and therefore of the city.   2
  From that day to this the Democratic party has been the dominant party in New York City. Occasionally, in some period of violent political upheaval, or at a moment when the ever-existing faction-fight in its own ranks has been more than usually bitter and exhausting, its opponents for the time being, whether Federalists, Whigs, Republicans, or members of ephemeral organizations, like that of the Native Americans, have succeeded in carrying a given election. But their triumph has never been more than momentary; after a very short time the Democracy has invariably returned to power.   3
  The complete Democratic victory in both State and nation, under Clinton and Jefferson, was followed by the definite enthronement of the system of so-called “spoils” politics in New York; that is, the system according to which public offices are used to reward partisan activity became established as the theory on which politics were conducted, not only by the Democrats, but by Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans, down to the present time,—though of late years there has been a determined and partially successful effort to overthrow it. As a matter of fact, politics had had much to do with appointments, even before 1800; but the theory of making purely political appointments had not been openly avowed, and there had been a very real feeling against political removals. Moreover, there had been comparatively little pressure to make these removals. In national affairs the Federalists had been supreme since the constitution was adopted, and so had nobody to remove. When Washington took the Presidency, the citizens were divided on party lines accordingly as they did or did not favor the constitution; and he made his appointments in much the greatest number of cases from among the former, although allowing his political opponents a certain share of the offices. During his second term, and during Adams’s presidency, very few non-Federalists indeed were appointed. In New York State Clinton was governor from the organization of the State government until 1795. He was therefore not tempted to make any removals for political reasons. Moreover, the whole question of removals and appointments was in the hands of the Council of Appointment, which was sometimes hostile to the governor. During the first ten years of Clinton’s governorship there was practically but one party in the State; after the rise of the Federalists very few of them were appointed to office, Clinton dexterously managing the patronage in the interest of his party and personal friends, but always with an eye to the benefit of the public at large. When Jay succeeded as governor, he appointed mainly Federalists; but he rejected with indignation any proposition to make removals merely for political reasons.   4
  After 1800 all this was changed. Jefferson, as has been well said, enunciated the doctrine that “to the victors belong half the spoils;” nor did he stop when by removals and resignations half of the Federalists had left office. In fact it is impossible to act on any such theory; if half of the offices are taken as spoils, the other half must follow suit. Most of the national appointees in New York were speedily changed; and the remainder were temporarily saved only because Jefferson had in his cabinet one man, Albert Gallatin, who abhorred a general partisan proscription. The wielders of power in the State government were not so moderate. Stout old Governor Clinton protested against the meanness of making purely political removals; but he was overruled by the Council of Appointment, which was led by his nephew, De Witt Clinton. The latter had adapted Jefferson’s theory to New York conditions, and declared that all heads of cities, of counties, of big offices and the like, ought to be political adherents of the administration, while all minor office-holders should be apportioned between the parties according to their numbers. Of course this meant in practice that all Federalists were to be removed and Democrats appointed in their places. In other words, the victors promptly proceeded to make a clean sweep of all the State, and therefore all the local, offices.   5
  The city had been the stronghold of Federalism, and its officers were among the first to feel the axe. Richard Varick had made a most admirable mayor for twelve years. He was now summarily removed and Edward Livingston appointed in his place. Livingston at the same time was also given, by the national government, the position of United States District Attorney. The mayoralty was a much coveted prize, as the incumbent not only presided over the common council and wielded much patronage, but was also presiding judge of a court of record with peculiar and extensive powers. His emoluments came in the shape of fees and perquisites, arranged on such a liberal scale as to form a very large salary. When Livingston left the office it was given to De Witt Clinton, then United States senator; and he actually resigned from the Senate to take it. However, the Senate was not then held in as high regard as now. About this time another New York senator resigned for the purpose of accepting the city postmastership.   6
  A dozen members and connections of the Livingston family were appointed to important offices, the entire patronage of the State being divided between them and the Clintonians. They had formed an alliance to crush Burr,—receiving the hearty support of Jefferson, who always strove to break down any possible rival in his party. From this time on every faction of the Democratic party in turn, when it was in power, used the patronage mercilessly against its antagonists within and without the party, making a clean sweep of the offices; and so did the Federalists, when for a brief moment, just before the War of 1812, they again took the reins of government in the State. It was of course but a short step from making removals for political reasons, without regard to the fitness of the incumbent, to making appointments in which considerations of political expediency outweighed considerations of propriety. The step was soon taken. The Council of Appointment even occasionally gave lucrative local offices in the city of New York to influential partisans of loose character from remote sections of the State.   7
  The Clintonians and Livingstons, backed by all the weight of the national administration, reduced Burr’s influence in the Democratic party to a nullity, and finally drove him out. He was not renominated for Vice-President, George Clinton being put in his place. In the State election, about the same time, Chancellor Livingston’s brother-in-law, Morgan Lewis, was nominated for governor. Burr ran for the office as an Independent, hoping to carry not only his own faction of the Democracy, but also the entire Federalist vote. The majority of the Federalists did support him; but a large number, under Hamilton’s lead, refused to do so, and though he just carried the city, he was beaten overwhelmingly in the State at large.   8
  Burr was now a ruined man, hated by all factions and parties. Nevertheless, he played out the losing game to the last with unmoved force and unflinching resolution; and he took cool and ferocious vengeance on his greatest and most formidable foe, Hamilton. The duel was then a recognized feature of society and politics, and had become a characteristic adjunct of the savage party contests in New YorkOne of Burr’s followers had killed Hamilton’s eldest son in a duel; and another had been severely wounded by De Witt Clinton in a similar encounter. In 1804, after his defeat for the governorship, Burr forced a duel on Hamilton, and mortally wounded him in a meeting with pistols at Weehawken, then a favorite resort for duelists. Hamilton’s death caused the utmost horror and anger. The whole city mourned him, even his political opponents forgetting all save his generous and noble qualities, and the renown of his brilliant statesmanship. Burr was thenceforth an ostracized man; and dueling in New York received its death-blow.   9
  In 1807, when Governor Lewis’s successor in the governorship was to be nominated, the Clintonian or popular wing of the Democracy turned on him, defeated him for the nomination, and drove the Livingston family from power, serving them precisely as the two factions together had already served the Burrites. For a few years longer the Livingstons continued to have a certain influence in the State; and while the Federal party was still of some weight, one or two of the great Federalist families—notably the Van Rensselaers—counted for a good deal in the political world. After the close of the War of 1812, however, the Federalists became of no moment, and the Livingstons, the aristocratic wing of the Democratic party, sank out of sight. The reign of the great families who for over a century had played so prominent a part in New York political life, was then at an end. They lost every shred of political power, and the commonwealth became what it had long been becoming, in fact as well as name, absolutely democratic. The aristocratic leaven in the loaf disappeared completely. The sway of the people was absolute from that time on.   10
  After Washington, the greatest and best of the Federalist leaders, died, and after the Jeffersonian Democrats came into power, the two parties in New York, as elsewhere throughout the country, began to divide on a very humiliating line. They fought each other largely on questions of foreign politics. The Federalists supported the British in the European struggle then raging, and the Democrats the French. One side became known as the British, the other as the French faction. Each man with abject servility apologized for and defended the numerous outrages committed against us by the nation whose cause his party championed. It was a thoroughly unwholesome and discreditable condition of politics,—worse than anything we have seen in the country for many years past. Neither party at this time was truly national or truly American. To their honor be it said, however, many of the New York Democrats refused to go with the extreme Jeffersonians, as regards the embargo and subsequent matters. Moreover, the Federalists, in their turn, with the exception of a minority led by Gouverneur Morris, refused to take any part in the secessionist movements of their party friends in New England, during the War of 1812. After this war the Federalists gradually disappeared; while their opponents split into a perfect tangle of factions, whose innumerable fights and squabbles it is nearly impossible and entirely unnecessary to relate in intelligible form. During all this period the political bitterness was intense, as the scurrility of the newspapers bore witness. One of its most curious manifestations was in connection with the chartering of banks. These were then chartered by special acts of the legislature; and it was almost absolutely impossible for a bank of which the officers and stockholders belonged to one party to get a charter from a legislature controlled by the other. Aaron Burr once accomplished the feat, before the Federalist overthrow in 1800, by taking advantage of the cry in New York for better water. He prepared a bill chartering a company to introduce water into the city, and tacked on an innocent-looking provision allowing them to organize “for other purposes” as well. The charter once granted, the company went into no other enterprise save banking, and let the water-supply take care of itself.   11
  At the beginning of the century, New York was a town of sixty thousand inhabitants. The social life was still aristocratic. The great families yet retained their prestige. Indeed, the Livingstons were at the zenith of their power in the State, and possessed enormous influence, socially and politically. They were very wealthy, and lived in much state, with crowds of liveried negro servants, free and slave. Their city houses were large and handsome, and their great country-seats dotted the beautiful banks of the Hudson.   12
  The divisions between the upper, middle, and lower classes were sharply marked. The old families formed a rather exclusive circle, and among them the large landowners still claimed the lead, though the rich merchants, who were of similar ancestry, much outnumbered them, and stood practically on the same plane. But the days of this social and political aristocracy were numbered. They lost their political power first, being swamped in the rising democratic tide; and their social primacy—mere emptiness when thus left unsupported—followed suit a generation or so later, when their descendants were gradually ousted even from this last barren rock of refuge by those whose fathers or grandfathers had, out of the humblest beginnings, made their own huge fortunes. The fall of this class, as a class, was not to be regretted; for its individual members did not share the general fate unless they themselves deserved to fall. The descendant of any old family who was worth his salt, still had as fair a chance as any one else to make his way in the world of politics, of business, or of literature; and according to our code and standard, the man who asks more is a craven.   13
  However, the presence of the great families undoubtedly gave a pleasant flavor to the gay social life of New York during the early years of the century. It had a certain half-provincial dignity of its own. The gentlemen still dressed, with formal and elaborate care, in the costume then worn by the European upper classes,—a costume certainly much more picturesque, if less comfortable, than that of the present day. The ladies were more apt to follow the fashions of Paris than of London. All well-to-do persons kept their own heavy carriages, and often used them for journeys no less than for pleasure drives. The social season was at its height in the winter, when there was an uninterrupted succession of dinners, balls, tea-parties, and card-parties. One of the great attractions was the Park Theater, capable of holding twelve hundred persons, and always thronged when there was a good play on the boards. Large sleighing-parties were among the favorite pastimes, dinner being taken at some one of the half-dozen noted taverns a few miles without the city, while the drive back was made by torchlight if there was no moon. Marriages were scenes of great festivity. In summer the fashionable promenade was the Battery Park, with its rows and clumps of shade-trees, and broad walk by the water; and on still nights there was music played in boats on the water. The “gardens”—such as Columbia Gardens, and Mt. Vernon Gardens 1 on Broadway—were also meeting-places in hot weather. They were enclosed pieces of open ground, covered with trees, from which colored lanterns hung in festoons. There were fountains in the middle, and little tables at which icecream was served. Round the edges were boxes and stalls, sometimes in tiers; and there was usually a fine orchestra. When the hot months approached, the custom was to go to some fashionable watering-place, such as Ballston Springs, where the gaiety went on unchecked.   14
  The houses of the well-to-do were generally of brick, and those of the poorer people of wood. There were thirty-odd churches; and the two principal streets or roads were Broadway and the Bowery. After nightfall the streets were lighted with oil lamps; each householder was obliged to keep the part of the thoroughfare in front of his own house clean swept. There were large markets for vegetables, fruits, and meat, brought in by the neighboring farmers, and for fish and game,—Long Island furnishing abundance of venison, and of prairie fowl, or, as they were then called, heath hens. Hickory wood was generally used for fuel; the big chimneys being cleaned by negro sweep boys. Milk was carried from house to house in great cans, by men with wooden yokes across their shoulders. The well-water was very bad; and pure spring-water from without the city was hawked about the streets in carts, and sold by the gallon.   15
  The sanitary condition of the city was very bad. A considerable foreign immigration had begun,—though a mere trickle compared to what has come in since,—and these immigrants, especially the Irish, lived in cellars and miserable hovels. Every few years the city was scourged by a pestilence of yellow fever. Then every citizen who could, left town; and among those who remained, the death rate ran up far into the hundreds.   16
  As the city grew, the class of poor who were unable, at least in times of stress, to support themselves, grew likewise; and organized charities were started in the effort to cope with the evil. Orphan asylums and hospitals were built. Societies for visiting the poor in their homes were started, and did active work,—and by their very existence showed how much New York already differed from the typical American country district or village, where there were few so poor as to need such relief, and hardly any who would not have resented it as an insult. As early as 1798 one society reported that it had supported through a hard winter succeeding a summer of unusual sickness, over three hundred widows and orphans who would otherwise have had to take refuge in the almshouse. It goes without saying, however, that this acute poverty was always local and temporary; there was then no opportunity for the pauperism and misery of overcrowded tenementhouse districts.   17
  The first savings-bank was established in 1816. The foundations of our free-school system were laid in 1805. The Dutch had supported schools at the public expense during their time of supremacy; but after their government was overturned, the schooling had been left to private effort. Every church had its own school, learning being still the speical property of the clergy; and there were plenty of private schools and charity free schools in addition. Public-spirited citizens, however, felt that in a popular government the first duty of the State was to see that the children of its citizens were trained as they should be. Accordingly, a number of prominent citizens organized themselves into a society to establish a free school, obtained a charter from the legislature, and opened their school in 1806. They expressly declared that their aim was only to provide for the education of such poor children as were not provided for by any religious society; for at that time the whole theory of education was that it should be religious, and almost all schools were sectarian. The free schools increased in number under the care of the society, and finally grew to be called public schools; and by growth and change the system was gradually transformed, until one of the cardinal points of public policy in New York, as elsewhere in the northern United States, became the establishment of free, non-sectarian public schools, supported and managed by the State, and attended by the great mass of the children who go to school at all. The sectarian schools, all-important before the rise of the public-school system, have now been thrust into an entirely secondary position. Perhaps the best work of the public school has been in the direction of Americanizing immigrants, or rather the children of immigrants; and it would be almost impossible to overestimate the good it has accomplished in this direction.   18
  Many scientific and literary societies were founded in New York early in the present century. The city began to have room for an occasional man of letters or science, in addition to the multitude of lawyers and clergymen,—the lawyer, in particular, occupying the front rank in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary days. A queer, versatile scholar and student of science, who also dabbled in politics and philanthropy, Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchell, was one of New York’s most prominent and most eccentric characters at this time. Charles Brockden Brown published one or two mystical novels which in their day had a certain vogue, even across the Atlantic, but are now only remembered as being the earliest American ventures of the kind; and in 1807 Washington Irving may be said to have first broken ground in the American field of true literature with his “Knickerbocker’s History of New York”   19
  This same year of 1807 was rendered noteworthy by the beginning of steam navigation. Robert Fulton, after many failures, at last invented a model that would work, and took his steamboat, the Clermont, on a trial trip from New York to Albany and back. Thus he began the era of travel by steam, to which, more than to any other one of the many marvelous discoveries and inventions of the age, we owe the mighty and farreaching economic and social changes which this century has witnessed. Fulton’s claim to the discovery was disputed by a score of men,—among them his fellow-citizens, John Fitch, Nicholas Roosevelt, and John Stevens, all of whom had built steamboats which had just not succeeded. But the fact remained that he was the first one to apply the principle successfully; and to him the credit belongs. Very soon there were a number of American steamboats in existence. In 1811 Nicholas Roosevelt introduced them on the Mississippi, while Stevens took his to the Delaware. During the War of 1812 Fulton planned and built at New York, under the direction of Congress, a great steam frigate, with cannon-proof sides and heavy guns; she worked well, but peace was declared just before she was ready, otherwise she would probably have anticipated the feats of the Merrimac by half a century.   20
  It was a calamity to the city that this steam frigate was not ready earlier; for New York was blockaded closely throughout this war, which was far from popular with her merchants. Yet they ought to have seen that the war was most necessary to their commercial well-being, no less than to their honor and national self-respect; for the frigates of Britain had for a dozen years of nominal peace kept the city under a more or less severe blockade, in the exercise of the odious right of search. They kept a strict watch over all outgoing and incoming ships, hovering off the coast like hawks, and cruising in the lower bay, firing on coasters and merchantmen to bring them to. Once they even killed one of the crew of a coaster in this manner, and the outrage went unavenged. When war at last came, many of the ardent young men of the city, who had chafed under the insults to which they had been exposed, went eagerly into the business of privateering, which combined both profit and revenge. New York sent scores of privateers to sea to prey on the enemy’s commerce; and formidable craft they were, especially toward the end of the war, when the typical privateer was a large brig or schooner of wonderful speed and beauty, well armed and heavily manned. The lucky cruiser, when many prizes were taken, brought wealth to owner, captain, and crew; and some of the most desperate sea-struggles of the kind on record took place between New York privateers of this class and boat expeditions, sent to cut them out by hostile frigates or squadrons,—the most famous instance being the really remarkable fight of the brig General Armstrong at Fayal.   21
  With the close of the war, the beginning of immigration from Europe on a vast scale, and the adoption of a more radically democratic State constitution, the history of old New York may be said to have come to an end, and that of the modern city, with its totally different conditions, to have begun. The town has never, before or since, had a population so nearly homogeneous as just after this second war with Great Britain; the English blood has never been so nearly dominant as at that time, nor the English speech so nearly the sole speech in common use. The Dutch language had died out, and the Dutch themselves had become completely assimilated. With the Huguenot French this was even more completely the case. 2 German was only spoken by an insignificant and dwindling remnant. Of the Irish immigrants, most had become absorbed in the population; the remainder was too small to be of any importance. The negroes no longer formed a noteworthy element in the population, and gradual emancipation, begun in 1799, became complete by 1827. For thirty-five years after the Revolution the great immigration was from New England, and the consequent influx of nearly pure English blood was enormous. The old New Yorkers regarded this “New England invasion,” as they called it, with jealous hostility; but this feeling was a mere sentiment, for the newcomers speedily became almost indistinguishable from the old residents. Even in religious matters the people were more in unison than ever before or since. The bitter jealousies and antagonisms between the different Protestant sects, so characteristic of colonial times, had greatly softened; and Roman Catholicism was not as yet of importance. There was still no widespread and grinding poverty, and there were no colossal fortunes. The conditions of civic or municipal life then were in no way akin to what they are now, and none of the tremendous problems with which we must now grapple had at that time arisen.   22

Note 1. This was at Leonard Street, then “a little out of town.” [ back ]

Note 2. However, one Huguenot church has always kept up its language, mainly for the use of foreigners. [ back ]


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