Ambrose Spencer

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Biography

The Foote/Spencer Controversy

The election of delegates to the State Convention, called in pursuance of the act of the Legislature, came off m August, ISOl. Several gentlemen who subsequently took an active part in the politics of the State, Avere elected members of the Convention. John V. Henry was chosen from Albany county; Dewitt Clinton, from Kings ; Smith Thompson, from Dutchess ; Aaron Burr, from Orange county ; and William 1^. Yan Ness, and Daniel D. Tompkins, af- terwards Governor of the State, from the city of New- York. A large majority of the delegates were Re- publicans. The Convention met at Albany, on the 13th day of October, and organized by the unani- mous election of Col. Burr, as President. The business of the Convention was restricted by the act, to two subjects.* The reduction and limitation of the number of members of the two houses of the Legislature, was soon disposed of, by the adoption of amendments, pro- viding "that the number of members of Assembly, here- after to be elected, shall be one hundred, and shall never exceed one hundred and fifty ;" and that the Senate should consist of thirty-two members, to be appor- tioned by the Legislature among " the four great Districts of the State." The Legislature were also authorized, on the return of every census, to increase the number of members of Assembly, at the rate of two members for every year, until the whole number amounted to one hundred and fiftv. The remainins^ question, as to the construction of the provision of the Constitution in relation to the right of nomination to office, gave rise to a debate, in which Mr. Henry argued in favor of the exclusive right of the Govern- or to make nominations, and Dewitt Clinton took the opposite ground. The debate was ended, as might have been expected from the singular position which both parties had occupied on this subject, by the pas- sage of an amendment, declaring " that by the true construction of the twenty-third article of the Con- stitution of this State, the right to nominate all offi- cers, other than those who by the Constitution are directed to be otherwise apj)ointcd, is vested concur- rently in the person administering the government of this State for the time being, and in each of the members of the Council of Appointment." But four- teen members voted against the adoption of the last amendment, among whom was Daniel D. Tompkins,


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who subsequently, in the Convention of 1821, con- gratulated himself, that, at the early age of twenty- six, he had resisted this encroachment on the riffhts of the Executive. Dewitt Clinton also hved to re- gret, from his own experience, that he had sanctioned so violent a construction of the Constitution.

The old Council of iVppointment continued in of- fice after the expiration of Gov. Jay's term, in July, and were called together by Gov. Clinton, on the 8th of August, and on several subsequent occasions. The movements of this Council created no little disturb- ance in the public mind, and exercised a controlling influence over the politics of the State for a series of years. The Republican party in New- York may be said to have had, at the time of which we are speak- ing, three separate leaders. These were, the Clin- tons, the Livingtons, and Aaron Burr. The friends of Gov. Clinton were by far the most numerous ; the Livingstons possessed more influence, on account of their great wealth ; and Col. Burr was supported by a small number of zealous personal adherents, and devoted admirers of his unrivalled talents, as a politi- cal tactician and manager. The Clintons were rep- resented in the Councfl, by the nephew of the Gov- ernor ; and the Livingstons, by their relative, Mr. Spencer. Mr. Roseboom, the other Republican mem- ber of the Council, does not appear to have been a very shrewd politician, and was easily persuaded to follow the lead of Messrs. Clinton and Spencer, on all important questions. These two gentlemen were then in the meridian of life : both were active, tal- ented, and ambitious. Previous to the meeting of


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the Council in Augustj the conduct of Col. Burr dur- ing the late Presidential election, had been severely criticised, and, it would seem, that he had already lost the confidence of a large majority of the Republi- can party. Dewitt Clinton had also publicly avowed the opinion, that the principal Executive offices in the State, ought to be filled by the friends of the admin- istration, and the more unimportant offices propor- tionately distributed between the two parties. The result was, that all the important appointments were divided among the Clintons and Livingstons, and their personal friends and supporters.

At the first meeting of the Council, several gentle- men were apppointed to office, whom Gov. Jay had previously refused to nominate. Sylvanus Miller, then a resident of the county of Ulster, and through life the unwavering friend of Dewitt Clinton, was appointed Surrogate of New- York. Edv/ard Liv- ingston, then a representative in Congress, was cre- ated Mayor of the city. Doct. Thomas Tillotson, a connection of the Livingston family, by marriage, was appointed Secretary of State, in the place of Daniel Hale, removed. Elisha Jenkins, a merchant in the city of Hudson, was made Comptroller, in the place of John V. Henry, also removed. Mr. Henry refused, ever after, to accept any office, and devoted himself wholly to his profession. Various other re- movals from minor offices, were piade at this meeting of the Council, for which no reason was given, ex- cept that the political opinions of the incumbents differed from those of the majority. Gov. Clinton did not concur in the propriety of these removals, and


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caused his protest against the same to be entered on the journal. In other cases of a similar kind, he re- fused to sign the minutes of the Council.

A meeting of the Council was held on the 11th of August, at which Richard Riker was appointed Dis- trict Attorney, in tlie place of Cadwallader D. Colden ; Tennis Wortman, Clerk of the city of New- York, in the place of Robert Benson ; John B. Prevost, Re- corder, in the place of Richard Harrison ; and John McKisson, Clerk of the Circuit, in the place of Wil- liam Coleman, who afterwards established the Eve- ning Post, under the patronage of Gen. Hamilton, and was understood lo promulgate the sentiments of that gentleman through its columns.

At the subsequent meetings of the Coimcil, a great number of removals and appointments were made, in addition to those above enumerated Amongf others, Ebenezer Foote, a gentleman of very respectable standing, and a Federalist of considerable influence^ was removed from the office of Clerk of Delaware county, and Philip Gebhard appointed his successor. This removal was animadverted upon by the Federal press, and was defended by a writer in the Albany Rejiistcr, over the siofuature of " Friend of Justice." who charged Mr. Foote with official misconduct, in causing Mr. Gebhard's name to be stricken from the roll of Attornevs of the Delaware Common Pleas. This article led to a c(>rrespondenre between Mr. Foote and Mr. Spejicer ; the latter of whom was charged with being tlie author of the communication. In his reply to IMr. Foote, Mr. Spencer denied the au- thorship of the article, and, in speaking of Mr. Foote's


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removal, said : " It was an act of justice to the public, inasmuch as in removing you, the veriest hypocrite and the most malignant villain in the State, was de- prived of the power of perpetrating mischief. * * * If, as you insinuate, your interests have by your re- moval been materially atTected, then, sir, like many men more honest than yourself, earn your bread by the sweat of your brow." Mr. Foote replied to this severe, and scarcely merited rebuke, by attempting to give a sketch of Mr. Spencer's life, and charged him, among other things, with having deserted the Federal party, in consequence of Gov. Jay's refusal to nominate him to the office of Comptroller. This charge was not substantiated by any proof, although Mr. Spencer absolved the whole world "from the in- junctions of secrecy, and the restraints of delicacy, on the subject," and was doubtless made without any foundation whatsoever, except mere surmise.

The twenty-eighth article of the Constitution of 1777 required, that " new commissions should be is- sued to Judges of the County Courts, other than the First Judge, and to Justices of the Peace, once at the least in three years." Under this provision, the ma- jority of the existing Council of Appointment thought proper to issue new commissions to most of the coun- ties in the State, in which the Federal Judges and Justices were omitted, and the names of Republicans inserted in their stead. In this way was the machin- ery of the appointing power first set in motion, and it continued to strengthen itself, until every nook and corner of the State was made to feel its influence. The dispensation of the Executive patronage soon became, as it were, a political solar system of itself; every town and county possessing, in the persons of a few leading and active Republicans, the lesser lu- minaries, which borrowed the light, and reflected the radiance, of the great central sun at Albany. The sanctity of justice was invaded, in the prostitution of its ministrations to subserve the purposes of political as- pirants, and the ermine of the bench polluted by the contaminations which were inseparable from the par- tizan contests of the day.

  • Hammond, Jabez D. (Jabez Delano), 1778-1855; Root, Erastus, 1773-1846. The history of political parties in the state of New York, from the ratification of the federal constitution to December, 1840. Syracuse, 1852.