George Clinton, Fourth U. S. Vice President

George Clinton - New York Governor and Vice President
George Clinton - New York Governor and Vice President. Portrait by Ezra Ames. Public Domain

George Clinton (July 26, 1739 - April 20, 1812) served from 1805 to 1812 as the fourth vice president in the administrations of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. As Vice President, he set up the precedent of not bringing focus to himself and instead simply presiding over the Senate. 

Early Years 

George Clinton was born on July 26, 1739, in Little Britain, New York, a little more than seventy miles north of New York City. The son of farmer and local politician Charles Clinton and Elizabeth Denniston, not much is known of his early educational years although he was privately tutored until he joined his father to fight in the French and Indian War. 

Clinton rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant during the French and Indian War. After the War, he returned to New York to study law with a well-known attorney named William Smith. By 1764 he was a practicing attorney and the following year he was named the district attorney. 

In 1770, Clinton married Cornelia Tappan. She was a relative of the wealthy Livingston clan who were wealthy landowners in the Hudson Valley that were distinctly anti-British as the colonies moved closer to open rebellion. In 1770, Clinton cemented his leadership in this clan with his defense of a member of the Sons of Liberty who had been arrested by the royalists in charge of the New York assembly for "seditious libel." 

Revolutionary War Leader

Clinton was nominated to represent New York at the Second Continental Congress which was held in 1775. However, in his own words, he was not a fan of legislative service. He was not known as an individual who spoke up. He soon decided to leave the Congress and join the war effort as a Brigadier General in the New York Militia. He helped stop the British from gaining control of the Hudson River and was recognized as a hero. He was then named a Brigadier General in the Continental Army. 

Governor of New York 

In 1777, Clinton ran against his old wealthy ally Edward Livingston to be Governor of New York. His win showed that the power of the old wealthy families was dissolving with the ongoing revolutionary war. Even though he left his military post to become the state's governor, this did not stop him from returning to military service when the British tried to help reinforce the entrenched General John Burgoyne. His leadership meant that the British were unable to send help and Burgoyne eventually had to surrender at Saratoga. 

Clinton served as Governor from 1777-1795 and again from 1801-1805. While he was extremely important in helping with the war effort by coordinating New York forces and sending money to support the war effort, he still always kept a New York first attitude. In fact, when it was announced that a tariff was to be considered that would greatly impact New York's finances, Clinton realized that a strong national government was not in his state's best interests. Because of this new understanding, Clinton was strongly opposed to the new Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation. 

However, Clinton soon saw the 'writing on the wall' that the new Constitution would be approved. His hopes shifted from opposing ratification to becoming the new Vice President under George Washington in the hopes of adding amendments that would limit the reach of the national government. He was opposed by the Federalists who saw through this plan including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison who worked to have John Adams elected as Vice President instead. 

Vice Presidential Candidate From Day One 

Clinton did run in that first election, but was defeated for the vice presidency by John Adams. It is important to remember that at this time the vice presidency was determined by a separate vote from the President so running mates did not matter. 

In 1792, Clinton ran again, this time with the support of his former foes including Madison and Thomas Jefferson. They were unhappy with Adams' nationalist ways. However, Adams once again carried the vote. Nonetheless, Clinton received enough votes to be considered a future viable candidate. 

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson approached Clinton to be his vice-presidential candidate which he agreed to. However, Jefferson eventually went with Aaron Burr. Clinton never fully trusted Burr and this distrust was proven when Burr would not agree to allow Jefferson to be named President when their electoral votes were tied in the election. Jefferson was named president in the House of Representatives. To prevent Burr from re-entering New York politics, Clinton was once again elected Governor of New York in 1801. 

Ineffectual Vice President

In 1804, Jefferson replaced Burr with Clinton. After his election, Clinton soon found himself left out of any important decisions. He stayed away from the social atmosphere of Washington. In the end, his primary job was to preside over the Senate, which he was not very effective at either. 

In 1808, it became obvious that the Democratic-Republicans would choose James Madison as their candidate for the presidency. However, Clinton felt it was his right be chosen as the next presidential candidate for the party. However, the party felt different and instead named him to be Vice President under Madison instead. Despite this, he and his supporters continued to behave as if they were running for the presidency and made claims against Madison's fitness for office. In the end, the party stuck with Madison who won the presidency. He opposed Madison from that point on, including breaking the tie against the recharter of the National Bank in defiance of the president. 

Death While in Office

Clinton died while in office as Madison's Vice President on April 20, 1812. He was the first individual to lie in state in the US Capitol. He was then buried at the Congressional Cemetery. Members of Congress also wore black armbands for thirty days after this death. 


Clinton was a revolutionary war hero who was immensely popular and important in early New York politics. He served as the Vice President for two presidents. However, the fact that he was not consulted and did not truly affect any national politics while serving in this position helped set a precedent for an ineffectual Vice President. 

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Kelly, Martin. "George Clinton, Fourth U. S. Vice President." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 26). George Clinton, Fourth U. S. Vice President. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "George Clinton, Fourth U. S. Vice President." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).