Tom Shanahan: Daniel Tompkins, Not So Trival


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“Who was the Vice President under John Quincy Adams? — Daniel D. Tompkins. And I’ll bet your Mr. Sawyer doesn’t know that!”

It’s a line from that classic Christmas movie, “Miracle On Thirty Fourth Street.” In that scene the protagonist, Kris Kringle, tries to demonstrate that not only isn’t he delusional, but is so in touch with reality he can recall trivial facts most people couldn’t possibly remember.

Unfortunately, in typical Hollywood fashion, they actually got the trivia wrong. Tompkins was Vice president under Adams’ predecessor, James Monroe, which only serves to reinforce the point of how obscure Tompkins seems to us today. That’s a shame. Because not only did Tompkins serve as Vice President for two terms, but as Governor of New York during the War of 1812, he played a vital role in protecting a state that was at the epicenter of the conflict. His nearly ten years at the helm of state government, was the longest tenure of any Governor of the 19th century.

When a Federalist state legislature, opposed to the war, refused to appropriate sufficient funds to sustain the state militia, Tompkins personally guaranteed the loans that kept the state’s volunteer soldiers fed and armed. His personal wealth was committed to the tune $130,000 – certainly no small sum even today – but a fortune at the time. It was an act of dedication that literally took him from a Staten Island estate to the poor house, although his heirs later recouped much of the loss.

While the war cost him greatly, Tompkins also used it to propel his political career. When it became apparent that the opposition Federalists would most likely nominate Stephen Van Rensselaer to challenge him in the 1813 election, Tompkins devised an interesting strategy to counteract the challenge. As Governor he had the power to name the Commander of the state militia. He offered the post to Van Rensselaer, in the belief that if he refused the post, Van Rensselaer would look cowardly, and if he accepted it, his lack of military experience would lead him into some blunder that would not reflect well on his command abilities. At the battle of Queenston Heights, the latter circumstance came to pass, and Van Rensselaer’s reputation was damaged – resulting in a narrow victory for Tompkins the next year.

Grateful for his support at a time of both national and political crisis, Madison offered Tompkins the post of Secretary of State, but the small salary, combined with his deteriorating financial circumstances, would not allow it. He was, however, able to accept the nomination for Vice President. Still, late in his second term, his dispute ground on with the federal government over whether it owed him money from the War of 1812 or he owed it. At one point, his name was placed on a list of government debtors and his Vice Presidential salary was withheld, forcing him to sue to get paid. The court saw things his way, and ruled that not only was he due his salary – but the government was, in fact, in debt to him – to the tune of $136,799.99! Congress appropriated partial payments, but the compensation did him little good. He died three months after leaving office.

Tompkins was treated little better by posterity – as our little Hollywood vignette shows. But that may be changing. Governor Cuomo’s program to redo the Hall of Governors on the Capitol’s second floor, has for the first time, placed the portraits of the Governors in chronological order, along with information about each. It also has resulted in some portraits being hung there for the first time. Among those – Daniel D. Tompkins. Just in time to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

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Tom Shanahan

About Tom Shanahan

An accomplished writer and researcher, Tom Shanahan has authored articles on public policy and political history, which have been published in venues across New York. With special interest in the early federal era, he was an invited presenter at the Researching New York 2007 history conference, presenting a paper entitled "Lobbying: The Exercise of Power and Politics in New York," and as part of the New York State Library's Public Program lecture series. He is currently a lecturer in the New York Council for the Humanities’ speaker’s series, speaking on the topic – 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War.He is also Executive Producer of the Web documentary: "1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War".A former Congressional press secretary and campaign staffer, he holds a BA in Political Science from SUNY Geneseo.

2 thoughts on “Tom Shanahan: Daniel Tompkins, Not So Trival

  1. Chris Lenaghan

    Very interesting article good to see Governor Cuomo is realizing and recognizing the importance of people from this state and how they contributed to the growth of our great nation

    Reply
  2. Christina Kelly

    Do you know anything about the founding of the Schaghticoke Powder Mill- via political influence- in 1812? I am the Schaghticoke Town Historian

    Reply

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