New York on the national stage: Part 1


More often than not, the Empire State has been a player — not a spectator — in American politics. The 2008 race has been no exception.

With so much still at stake in the presidential primaries, registered Democrats and Republicans in New York will have on Super Tuesday what they used to have more often: A chance to shape the country’s political future.

And until Wednesday, two of the leading contenders were New Yorkers themselves. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s exit from the race on Wednesday leaves Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the sole New Yorker seeking the nation’s highest office.

Both join the sometimes-illustrious, sometimes-surprising list of national office holders — and seekers — from the Empire State.

Historically, politicians from New York have been regulars on presidential tickets. A New Yorker received electoral ballots in the very first election in 1789. In fact, candidates from New York were on the ballot as either presidential or vice presidential candidates the first 10 times this nation elected a leader.

Amazing as it seems, from Washington’s first election until Truman defeated Dewey — then New York’s governor — there were only five campaigns in which a New York-based politician wasn’t in the running. Sure, sometimes it was just a minor-party candidate; the state was a magnet for Socialists at the turn of the last century. But usually, a name from New York could be found on the major-party ticket — often on both tickets.

A fair share of these candidates have made it to the Oval Office. Some are among the nation’s most successful leaders, such as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Some we remember without realizing they were from the Empire State, like Grover Cleveland and Chester Arthur. And some we may have a hard time even placing. Go ahead: Name one achievement of the administration of Millard Fillmore.

New York has also placed quite a few men in the vice president’s office. Though lesser known, 11 different New Yorkers have served as the nation’s second-in-command.
But early in our nation’s history, New York candidates were among the most illustrious names in the nation’s history. Most people have heard of John Jay and Aaron Burr — though their renown wasn’t enough to get them elected.

From the nation’s founding to the Civil War, here’s a look at New Yorkers who sought — including two who claimed — the nation’s highest office.

New Yorkers in the running (1789-1824)

1789

Technically, there was no running in the first presidential election. Gen. George Washington was unopposed. But ballots were nonetheless cast for others. Following Washington, who received 69 electoral votes, and John Adams of Massachusetts, who garnered 34, was New Yorker John Jay, who was awarded nine electoral ballots. Adams, having received the second-highest vote total, became vice president and was later elected the nation’s second president. Jay, who helped draft New York’s Constitution but was so opposed to breaking with Britain he declined to sign the Declaration of Independence, had to console himself with his appointment as first chief justice of the newly created Supreme Court. He was forced to retire in 1795 after being elected governor of New York (an office he had not run for). Years later, President Adams asked him to return to the bench, but Jay declined, citing advanced age and poor health.

1792

The first election that saw candidates affiliated with organized political parties (chief of which were the Federalists and — are you sitting down? — the Democratic-Republicans). The latter included two New Yorkers: George Clinton, who received 50 electoral votes (Washington, for reference, garnered 132), and Aaron Burr, who brought up the rear with one. Both Clinton and Burr would go on to serve as vice president (Burr under Thomas Jefferson, Clinton under Jefferson and James Madison). Clinton succeeded Jay as governor of New York in 1801. (Interestingly, he also preceded Jay — as the state’s first governor, from 1777 to 1795.) Burr, a New York senator throughout much of the 1790s before his stint as vice president, saw his political career destroyed after he took part in what was arguably the most famous duel in American history. He shot and killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in 1804.

1796

Burr and Clinton were again among the candidates receiving electoral votes. Victor John Adams received 71 electoral votes. Burr garnered 30 and Clinton, seven. It should be noted that during these early elections, each elector cast two votes for president. The top vote-getter became president; the man with the second-most votes became vice president.

1800

Burr nearly became New York’s first representative in the White House in one of the most noteworthy presidential elections in history. He and Jefferson received the same number of electoral votes — 73 — and the decision was thrown to the House of Representatives. Then, like now, any decision left up to the House could be dicey. It took 36 ballots and much back-room wheedling — including Hamilton’s influence on Jefferson’s behalf (see how these duels get started?) — before Jefferson emerged as the nation’s third president.

1804

The first election in which presidential and vice presidential candidates ran together on tickets — they weren’t about to go through that 1800 hootenanny again — saw two New Yorkers on the ballot, both as vice presidential candidates. Clinton, by now Jefferson’s No. 2, was returned to office in a landslide. He and Jefferson received 92 percent of the electoral votes over Charles Pickney and his running mate, New Yorker Rufus King, the once (1789-1796) and future (1813-1825) U.S. senator.

1808

Here’s a neat trick: Like one of those old Beatles singles, where both sides are “A” sides, Clinton and Madison teamed up on two presidential tickets for the Democratic-Republicans, one with Madison leading the ticket and one with Clinton. Voters overwhelmingly preferred Madison in the driver’s seat. King was again the vice presidential candidate for the Federalists.

1812

New York’s streak of having a candidate in every presidential race continues when New York City Mayor DeWitt Clinton leads the Federalist ticket. The former New York assemblyman and U.S. senator — and nephew of George Clinton — is later elected the state’s governor and, through his strong advocacy for a waterway to connect New York City’s harbors with the Great Lakes, would become known as the Father of the Erie Canal.

1816

Another election, two more New Yorkers on the ballot. Rufus King is back, this time as the presidential candidate for the Federalists. He is defeated by James Monroe and his running mate, Daniel Tompkins, who was forced to resign his position as governor of New York to assume the vice presidency.

1820

Monroe and Tompkins must have been doing something right. In fact, everything. They are returned to office with 98 percent of the vote.

1824

A former assemblyman, state senator and U.S. senator from out east on Long Island, Nathan Sanford, runs New York’s presence in presidential elections to 10 straight. He fills out the ticket of Kentucky presidential candidate Henry Clay. They finished third in a four-way race that saw John Quincy Adams and running mate John Calhoun sent to the White House. (Calhoun, in a deft bit of political maneuvering, also managed to get himself on the ticket of a second presidential candidate, Andrew Jackson.) Sanford stayed in politics until the early 1830s before retiring to practice law in downstate Flushing.

Empire State firsts (1828-1864)

1828

It had to happen. For the first time, no New Yorkers are among the top presidential or vice presidential candidates as Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and Calhoun defeat John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Rush of Pennsylvania.

1832

That didn’t take long. New York is back as Martin Van Buren serves as the running mate to Democrat Andrew Jackson in his successful re-election bid. There is additional success in the world of politics for Van Buren. In fact, in the next election.

1836

Van Buren becomes the first New Yorker elected president. He would serve one term. Another New Yorker on the ballot is Francis P. Granger, the running mate of Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Granger would go on to serve briefly as postmaster general under Harrison. He died in 1868 at age 75 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Canandaigua, where his former residence, the Granger Homestead, is open to the public and continues to attract about 15,000 visitors a year.

1840

Van Buren runs for re-election but is defeated by Harrison, a military general and Whig. At 68-plus years, Harrison would be the oldest man to enter office until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

1844

For only the second time in 15 presidential elections, no New Yorker is among the major or minor party candidates.

1848

New York is back. The vice presidential candidate for the successful Whig ticket is Millard Fillmore, who began his career practicing law in East Aurora (where the Fillmore House Museum still operates). Fillmore ascends to the Oval Office after President Zachary Taylor dies 16 months into his term. Van Buren was back on the ticket, by the way, as a third-party candidate. He was the presidential nominee of the Free Soil Party, a magnet for anti-slavery candidates and voters until the Republican Party was formed. He got about 10 percent of the vote.

1852

Here’s something you don’t see anymore: The Whigs told the incumbent president, Fillmore, thanks but no thanks; we’ve got a better candidate for this year’s election. (They didn’t; Winfield Scott lost to Franklin Pierce). Thus, no New Yorkers on the ballot.

1856

Fillmore, clearly in I’ll-show-them mode, heads the ticket of a third party, one with the singularly uninspiring name of the Know Nothings. They were sort of the Minute Men of their day, anti-immigrationists. Since we didn’t have southern border problems in those days (let alone much of a southern border), the target of their fears were the Irish Catholics. Still, showing immigration has always been a powerful issue, Fillmore captured more than 20 percent of the vote.

1860

No New Yorkers on the ballot, although one of the men Abraham Lincoln defeated at the Republican convention was William Seward of Auburn. Seward became Lincoln’s secretary of state. On the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln, Seward, too, was viciously attacked as part of the same conspiracy. (The plotter who was supposed to dispatch Vice President Andrew Johnson lost his nerve.) Seward, stabbed several times in the face and neck, survived.

1864
No New Yorkers on the ballot, though this brief fallow period is about to end.

Tomorrow: New York gave the country two notable presidents — the Roosevelts — then her candidates’ fortunes began to slip.