Columbians Ahead of Their Time
DeWitt Clinton “The fundamental error of Europe has been to confine the light of knowledge to the wealthy and great, while the humble and depressed have been as sedulously excluded from its participation as the wretched criminal, immured in a dungeon, is from the light of Heaven.”

DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828)
New York Builder
Columbia College 1786

In a series of elected and appointed positions, Clinton shaped the history of New York in the first decades of the nineteenth century.  Best known for his indefatigable efforts to build the Erie Canal—derided as “Clinton’s Ditch” by opponents—he championed the project as U.S. senator (1802–03), mayor of New York City (1803–15), member of the canal commission (1810–24) and governor of New York state (1817–23, 1825–28).  When it was completed in 1825, the canal transformed the nation by linking the eastern seaboard to the American heartland, spurring immigration to the region and leading to the creation of several cities along the canal’s path and to the confirmation of New York City as the nation’s largest urban center.

As mayor, Clinton established the New York public school system, and literally helped to shape the city by appointing the planning commission that plotted the grid of streets and avenues. He advocated social reform and promoted a number of cultural institutions, including the New-York Historical Society.  As mayor, he presided over the municipal court trial of the eight Columbia student and alumni fomenters of the so-called Riotous Commencement of 1811. The eight were accused of incitement to riot for protesting the treatment of a graduating senior who refused to alter his senior oration at the president’s and provost’s insistence.

Clinton received his degree from Columbia College in 1786, the first graduate of the reconstituted post-Revolutionary King’s College.  In 1926, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Manhattan Island’s settlement and the 100th anniversary of the canal that Clinton was so instrumental in building, Columbia honored this distinguished early graduate by establishing the DeWitt Clinton Chair in American history.  A century earlier, in 1828, Clinton’s family donated a different kind of chair to the College: the one in which he was sitting at the time of his death.

Read about DeWitt Clinton in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Clinton was only one of the distinguished Columbians who shaped the early Republic.

A Journalism School dean is Clinton’s most recent biographer.

The history of one of Clinton’s enduring legacies.

Write Columbia's History

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

C250 Celebrates | C250 Perspectives | C250 Forum | C250 Events | C250 To Go |
Contact C250 | Privacy Policy | About This Web Site | © Copyright 2004 Columbia University