The name of Daniel Tompkins deserves to be more kindly remembered than it has been. —New York Herald-Tribune editorial, June 21, 1932
Daniel D. Tompkins was by all accounts an exceptionally handsome individual. He had a "face of singular masculine beauty," one essayist noted, and a "gentle, polished and unpretentious" demeanor. Tompkins' biographer discovered that "almost every noted American artist" of the time painted the handsome New York Republican, and the images reproduced in Raymond Irwin's study of Tompkins' career depict an attractive and obviously self-confident young politician. John Trumbull's 1809 portrait, for example, shows Tompkins as he appeared during his first term as governor of New York: a carefully dressed, poised, and seemingly contented public man, his dark hair framing an even-featured and not-yet-careworn face.
But had Trumbull painted Tompkins in 1825, the year he retired from public life after two terms as vice president during James Monroe's administration, he would have captured a vastly different likeness. A decade of financial privation and heavy drinking, coupled with accusations that he had mishandled state and federal funds while serving as governor of New York during the War of 1812, had prematurely aged Tompkins. He was, at the age of fifty, an embittered and tortured old man, his once-promising career brought to an untimely end. "There was a time when no man in the state dared compete with him for any office in the gift of the people," a contemporary reflected after Tompkins' death on June 11, 1825, "and his habits of intemperance alone prevented him from becoming President of the United States."
Tompkins' Early Years
Daniel D. Tompkins was born in Westchester County, New York, on June 21, 1774, one of eleven children of Jonathan Griffin Tompkins and Sarah Ann Hyatt Tompkins. His parents were tenant farmers, who acquired middle-class status only shortly before his birth when they purchased a farm near Scarsdale. Jonathan Griffin Tompkins joined several local resistance committees during the Revolution, serving as an adjutant in the county militia. After the war, he served several years as a town supervisor and as a delegate to the state legislature. A self-educated man, the elder Tompkins was determined to provide young Daniel with a classical education.
The future vice president began his education at a New York City grammar school, later transferring to the Academy of North Salem and entering Columbia University in 1792. An exceptional scholar and a gifted essayist, Tompkins graduated first in his class in 1795, intent on pursuing a political career. In 1797, he was admitted to the New York bar and married Hannah Minthorne, the daughter of a well-connected Republican merchant. Tompkins' father-in-law was a prominent member of the Tammany Society, a militant, unabashedly democratic political organization that would one day challenge the Clinton dynasty for control of the New York Republican party. Also known as "Bucktails," after the distinctive plumes worn at official and ceremonial gatherings, the Tammanyites were a diverse lot. As Tompkins' biographer has noted, the society was comprised of "laborers . . . Revolutionary War veterans . . . who admired republican France and hated monarchical England; more than a sprinkling of immigrants . . . befriended by the Society . . . and, of course, hopeful politicians."
Tompkins began his political career in 1800, canvassing his father-in-law's precinct on behalf of candidates for the state legislature who would, if elected, choose Republican electors in the forthcoming presidential contest. He was a skilled and personable campaigner, never forgetting a name or a face; by the time the election was over, he knew nearly every voter in the Seventh Ward. Resourceful and energetic, he managed to circumvent New York's highly restrictive voter-qualification laws by pooling resources with other young men of modest means to purchase enough property to qualify for the franchise. The engaging and tactful Tompkins never allowed politics to interfere with personal friendships—an enormous asset for a New York politician, given the proliferation of factions in the Empire State during the early 1800s. Tompkins served as a New York City delegate to the 1801 state constitutional convention and was elected to the New York assembly in 1803. In 1804 he won a seat in the United States House of Representatives, but he resigned before Congress convened to accept an appointment as an associate justice of the New York Supreme Court.
Tompkins was a popular and fair-minded jurist, well respected by members of the several factions that were struggling for control of the state Republican party during the early 1800s. He was also a close associate of De Witt Clinton, who supported him in the 1807 gubernatorial race in an effort to unseat Morgan Lewis. Lewis was a "Livingston" Republican, supported by the landed aristocracy who sided with the Livingston clan, wealthy landlords whose extensive holdings had assured them of a prominent role in New York politics. In contrast, the Clintonians stressed their candidate's humble origins—Tompkins was the "the Farmer's Boy," with not a drop of "aristocratical or oligarchical blood" in his veins—and won a solid victory. During his first months in office, the new governor apparently took his marching orders from Clinton, sending him advance copies of his official addresses for review and comment. But he soon asserted his independence by supporting PresidentThomas Jefferson's foreign policy and backing Clinton's rival, James Madison, in the 1808 presidential election.
Reelected governor in 1810, Tompkins was a loyal supporter of the Madison administration. He advised Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin about patronage appointments in New York and, after the United States declared war on Great Britain in the summer of 1812, did his best to comply with War Department directives and requisitions. With Federalists in control of the state legislature and the Clintonians resolutely opposed to the war, Tompkins was hard pressed to comply with the constant stream of requests for men and materiel. He used his own funds to pay and arm the militia and personally endorsed a series of loans from local banks in a desperate effort to buttress the state's defenses. It was a risk Tompkins could ill afford to take; he had already made substantial contributions to the war effort and had borrowed heavily to finance several large purchases of land on Staten Island. When President Madison offered him a cabinet appointment in the fall of 1814, Tompkins protested that he would be more useful to the administration as governor of New York. But, he later confessed, "One of the reasons was the inadequacy of my circumstances to remove to Washington & support so large and expensive family as mine is, on the salary of that office."
The Election of 1816
Tompkins' able and energetic leadership during the war made him one of the best-loved men in his state. One of his aides, novelist Washington Irving, pronounced him "absolutely one of the worthiest men I ever knew . . . honest, candid, prompt, indefatigable," a sentiment that many shared. The editor of the Albany Argus suggested in January 1816 that "if private worth—if public service—if fervent patriotism and practical talents are to be regarded in selecting a President then Governor Tompkins stands forth to the nation with unrivalled pretensions." Republicans in the state legislature endorsed him as their presidential candidate on February 14, 1816, and a week later he was renominated as the party's gubernatorial candidate. Tompkins defeated Federalist Rufus King by a comfortable margin in the gubernatorial race after an intensely partisan campaign focusing on the candidates' wartime records. But the victory was marred by Federalist accusations that Governor Tompkins had misused public monies during the war, charges that would haunt him for the remainder of his life.
Encouraged by Tompkins' victory, his supporters redoubled their efforts to secure his presidential nomination. Outside of New York, however, few Americans had ever heard of Tompkins, and few Republicans believed him capable of winning the presidency. Not even all New York Republicans backed Tompkins; some, like Albany Postmaster Samuel Southwick, a Madison appointee and the editor of the Albany Register, declared for Republican "heir apparent" James Monroe, who received the Republican presidential nomination on March 16, 1816. In a concession to New York Republicans, who were crucial to the party's national strategy, Daniel Tompkins did receive the vice-presidential nomination. Tompkins, like many New Yorkers, believed that Virginians had monopolized the presidency long enough, but, he assured one supporter, he had "no objection to being vice President under Mr. Munro." He declared, however, that he could not accept a cabinet post in the Monroe administration because "the emoluments . . . would not save his private fortune from encroachment . . . the vice Presidency in that respect would be more eligible to him—as he could discharge the Duties of that office and suffer his family to remain at home & probably save something for the support of his family."
The end of the war, by then popularly acclaimed as an American triumph, brought a resurgence in popularity for the Republicans and marked the beginning of the end for the Federalists, who had become suspect because of their opposition to the war. In this euphoric atmosphere, Monroe and Tompkins won an easy victory over Federalist presidential candidate Rufus King and an array of vice-presidential candidates.
Absentee Vice President
Tompkins' first term began auspiciously. He returned to his Staten Island home soon after taking the oath of office on March 4, 1817. There he welcomed President Monroe, who began the term with a tour of the northern states in the summer of 1817. A gesture reminiscent of President Washington's 1789 New England tour, the trip was intended to quell the partisan resentments that had so bitterly divided the country during the Jefferson and Madison administrations. After the president's brief visit to Staten Island, Tompkins accompanied him to Manhattan, where they attended a military review and a reception at City Hall and toured New York's military installations. When Monroe was made an honorary member of the Society for Encouragement of American Manufactures on June 13, 1817, Tompkins, the society's president, chaired the proceedings.
But Tompkins paid only sporadic attention to his vice-presidential duties after Monroe left New York to continue his tour. The vice president was in poor health, the result of a fall from his horse during an inspection tour of Fort Greene in 1814. By the fall of 1817, Tompkins was complaining that his injuries had "increased upon me for several years until finally, for the last six weeks, they have confined me to my house and . . . sometimes to my bed. . . . My present prospect is that kind of affliction and confinement for the residue of my life." The problem was so severe that he expected to "resign the office of Vice President at the next session, if not sooner, as there is very little hope of my ever being able to perform its duties hereafter." Tompkins' health eventually improved enough to permit his return to public life, but his financial affairs were in such a chaotic state by 1817 that he found little time to attend the Senate. In his haste to raise and spend the huge sums required for New York's wartime defense, he had failed to document his transactions, commingling his own monies with state and federal funds. An 1816 audit by the New York comptroller had revealed a $120,000 shortfall in the state treasury. A state commission appointed to investigate the matter indicated that Tompkins had apparently used the funds to make interest payments on an 1814 loan incurred "on the pledge of the United States stock and Treasury notes, and on his personal responsibility, for defraying the expenses of carrying on the war." In 1819 the New York legislature awarded him a premium of $120,000, but currency values had plummeted since 1814. Tompkins maintained that the state now owed him $130,000, setting the stage for a long and bitter battle that continued through his first term as vice president.
Tompkins' efforts to settle accounts with the federal treasury proved equally frustrating. Perplexed by the intricacies of the government's rudimentary accounting system and lacking adequate documentation of his claims, he received no acknowledgement of the government's indebtedness to him until late 1822 and no actual compensation until 1824. In the meantime, Tompkins could neither make mortgage payments on his properties nor satisfy the judgments that several creditors, including his father-in-law and a former law tutor, obtained against him. Tompkins slid deeper into debt and began to drink heavily.
The vice president's financial troubles, and his continuing involvement in New York politics, kept him away from Washington for extended periods. He spent much of his first term in New York, trying to develop his Staten Island properties and negotiating with Comptroller Archibald McIntyre to settle his wartime accounts--a nearly impossible task, given the political climate in the state. De Witt Clinton had succeeded Tompkins as governor, and Comptroller McIntyre was Clinton's staunch ally. Governor Clinton's resentment of the "Virginia dynasty" knew no bounds, and with Tompkins now on record as a supporter of the Monroe administration, the long-simmering rivalry between the vice president and his former mentor finally came to a head. "[B]oth parties thought they could make political capital" out of Tompkins' financial embarrassments, one contemporary observed, "and each party thought it could make more than the other." In the spring of 1820, the New York Senate voted to award Tompkins $11,870.50 to settle his accounts, but Clinton's allies in the state assembly blocked a final settlement and affirmed the comptroller's contention that Tompkins was still in arrears.
Tompkins grew increasingly bitter with each new assault on his integrity, but many New Yorkers, having themselves suffered severe financial reverses during the panic of 1819, sympathized with his plight, and continued to hold him in high regard. In 1820, the Bucktails nominated Tompkins as their candidate to oppose Clinton in the gubernatorial race--a move that heightened public scrutiny of the charges against him while foreclosing any possibility of reaching a settlement before the election. Some questioned the wisdom of nominating Tompkins. Republican strategist Martin Van Buren tried, without success, to replace him with a less controversial candidate. But Tompkins, fearful that his withdrawal would only lend credence to the charges against him, refused to step aside. Although Clinton ultimately won reelection by a narrow margin, Tompkins achieved a personal victory when the state legislature finally approved a compromise settlement of his accounts in November 1820.
When Tompkins did find time to attend the Senate, he was an inept presiding officer. His shortcomings were painfully apparent during the debates over the admission of Missouri into the Union, a critically important contest that became, in the words of historian Glover Moore, "a struggle for political power between the North and South." New York Representative James Tallmadge, Jr.had sparked the debate when he offered an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill prohibiting "the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude" in the prospective state and requiring the emancipation, at the age of twenty-five, of all slave children born after Missouri's admission into the Union. The Senate took up the Missouri question in February 1819, with Senator Rufus King of New York leading the restrictionist charge and southern Republicans opposing the effort to restrict the spread of slavery. The debates continued through the spring of 1820, when Congress finally approved the Missouri Compromise.
In this contentious atmosphere, Tompkins found it difficult to maintain order. Mrs. William A. Seaton, who followed the debate with avid interest from the Senate gallery, recounted one particularly chaotic session that took place in January 1820:
. . . There have been not less than a hundred ladies on the floor of the Senate every day on which it was anticipated that Mr. Pinckney would speak . . . Governor Tompkins, a very gallant man, had invited a party of ladies who he met at Senator Brown's, to take seats on the floor of the Senate, having, as President of the Senate, unlimited power, and thinking proper to use it, contrary to all former precedent. I was one of the select, and gladly availed myself of the invitation, with my good friend Mrs. Lowndes, of South Carolina, and half a dozen others. The company in the gallery seeing a few ladies very comfortably seated on the sofas, with warm foot-stools and other luxuries, did as they had a right to do,—deserted the gallery; and every one, old and young, flocked into the Senate. 'Twas then that our Vice-President began to look alarmed, and did not attend strictly to the member addressing the chair. The Senators (some of them) frowned indignantly, and were heard to mutter audibly, 'Too many women here for business to be transacted properly!' Governor Tompkins found it necessary the next morning to affix a note to the door, excluding all ladies not introduced by one of the Senators.
Tompkins left for New York shortly after this embarrassing incident, turning his attention to the gubernatorial race while the Missouri debate dragged on. His abrupt departure angered antislavery senators, who were thus deprived of the vice president's tie-breaking vote in the event of a deadlock between the free states and the slave states. There is little evidence to suggest that Tompkins' absence had any effect on the ultimate outcome of the Missouri debate, since his vote was never needed to resolve an impasse, but restrictionists reviled him as a "miserable Sycophant who betrayed us to the lords of the South . . . that smallest of small men Daniel D. Tompkins." In one his last official acts as governor, Tompkins had petitioned the New York legislature to set a date certain for emancipation, and northern senators apparently expected some type of support from his quarter during the Missouri debate. They were bitterly disappointed. Rufus King, for one, lamented that Tompkins had "fled the field on the day of battle."
The vice president was, admittedly, distracted by the New York election and obsessed with clearing his name, but in "fleeing the field," he had also avoided taking a public stand that would certainly have alienated the president, an important consideration since Tompkins had every intention of remaining on the ticket as Monroe's running mate in 1820. Monroe never commented publicly on the Missouri controversy, although he privately informed some advisors that he would veto any statehood bill incorporating a restrictionist proviso. Because his overriding concern had been to resolve the crisis before the 1820 election, he had worked quietly behind the scenes to help fashion a compromise acceptable to northern and southern Republicans. Monroe's biographer has suggested that, given the controversy over his unsettled accounts, Tompkins knew that he had little chance of winning the New York gubernatorial election and "intended to protect his career by remaining on the national ticket as Vice-President."
Whatever his motives, the vice president was by 1820 a bitter and desperate man, his judgment and once-considerable abilities severely impaired both by the strain of his ordeal and by his heavy drinking. Still, even though some Republicans attempted to block his renomination, most remained faithful to "the Farmer's Boy." The 1820 presidential contest generated surprisingly little interest, given the problems then facing the nation. The country was suffering from a severe depression, and the American occupation of Spanish Florida had unleashed a torrent of anti-administration criticism from House SpeakerHenry Clay of Kentucky. Although the Missouri controversy had been resolved for the moment, the truce between North and South was still perilously fragile. Historian Lynn W. Turner has suggested that the reelection of Monroe and Tompkins in 1820 can perhaps be attributed to "the nineteenth-century time-lapse between the perception of political pain and the physical reaction to it." Monroe ran virtually unopposed, winning all but one of the electoral votes cast—a "unanimity of indifference, not of approbation," according to John Randolph of Roanoke.
Some of the electors who were willing to grant Monroe another term balked at casting their second votes for Tompkins. Among these was Federalist electorDaniel Webster of Massachusetts, who predicted that "[t]here will be a number of us . . . in this state, who will not vote for Mr. Tompkins, and we must therefore look up somebody to vote for." Federalist elector and former Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire felt "compelled to withhold my vote from . . . Tompkins . . . because he grossly neglected his duty." The vice president's only official function, Plumer maintained, was to preside over the Senate, "for which he receives annually a salary of five thousand dollars." But "during the last three years he was absent from the Senate nearly three fourths of the time, & thereby occasioned an extra expense to the nation of nearly twenty five hundred dollars. He has not that weight of character which his office requires—the fact is he is grossly intemperate." But Tompkins, like Monroe, ran virtually unopposed. He was easily reelected with 218 electoral votes.
Tompkins' second term was, in his biographer's words, a time of "intensifying personal trial, and even of crushing misfortune." In 1821, he attended the New York constitutional convention and was deeply honored when his fellow delegates chose him to chair the proceedings. But his detractors complained that "Mr. Tompkins"—now "a degraded sot"—owed his election only to "the madness of party."
Tompkins missed the opening session of the Seventeenth Congress on December 3, 1821, but he was back in the Senate by December 28. He attended regularly until January 25, 1822, when the Senate was forced to adjourn until the following day, "the Vice President being absent, from indisposition." Less than a week later, Senator King arrived with a letter from Tompkins informing the Senate that, his health having "suffered so much on my journey" and since his arrival in town, he intended, "as soon as the weather and the state of the roads permit, to return to my family."
Tompkins was clearly losing control. During his brief stay in Washington, he had managed to alienate Monroe, having severely criticized the president during a meeting with Postmaster General Return J. Meigs and others. Not long after his departure, one observer ventured that Tompkins had never been "perfectly sober during his stay here. He was several times so drunk in the chair," Dr. James Bronaugh informed Andrew Jackson, "that he could with difficulty put the question." Tompkins would spend the next several months trying to settle his accounts with the federal treasury. Before leaving Washington, he assigned what property he still owned, including his Staten Island home, to a group of trustees, and on his return to New York he moved into a run-down boardinghouse in Manhattan.
Tompkins' absence spared him the humiliation of presiding over the Senate as it considered a provision in the 1822 General Appropriation bill to withhold the salaries of government officials who owed money to, or had failed to settle their accounts with, the Treasury. The provision, part of a continuing effort to reform the government's auditing process and to insure greater accountability in public administration, prompted extensive debate. The April 19 session would have been particularly difficult for Tompkins, with New York Senator Martin Van Buren asking whether "gallant and heroic men, who had sustained the honor of their country in the hour of danger, should be kept out of their just dues"—an oblique reference, perhaps, to the vice president's plight—and South Carolina Senator William Smith exhibiting "voluminous lists of those who had been reported public debtors of more than three years' standing," lists that included the name of Daniel Tompkins.
The General Appropriation Act became law on April 30, 1822, depriving Tompkins of his last remaining source of funds. In a desperate attempt to settle his accounts, Tompkins petitioned the United States District Court for the District of New York to bring suit against him for the "supposed balance for which I have been reported among the defaulters." His trial began on June 3, 1822, with the U.S. district attorney seeking a judgment of over $11,000 and the defendant coordinating his own defense. For three days, the jurors heard accounts of Tompkins' wartime sacrifices: bankers who had lent him funds to pay and arm the militia testified in his behalf, and Senator Rufus King recounted that he had urged his friend to take out personal loans for the common defense. Another witness gave a detailed accounting of Tompkins' transactions. But the high point of the trial was Tompkins' highly emotional summation to the jury, a detailed chronicle of "long ten years' . . . accumulated and protracted wrongs." After deliberating for several hours, the jury finally decided in favor of Tompkins. Although the court could by law deliver only a general verdict, the jurors proclaimed that "there is moreover due from the United States of America to the Defendant Daniel D. Tompkins the sum of One hundred and thirty six thousand seven hundred and ninety nine dollars and ninety seven cents."
Tompkins returned to Washington by December 3, 1822, to resume his duties in the Senate. Finally exonerated after a decade-long struggle, Tompkins seemed a changed man. "[T]he verdict . . . had an evident effect on his spirits," Niles' Weekly Register reported. "His mind appeared to resume all its former strength, and, during the last session, in his attention to the duties of his office as president of the senate, it is the opinion of many of the older members, that no one ever conducted himself more satisfactorily, or with greater dignity filled the chair." He remained until February 18, 1823; two days later, the Senate approved a bill to "adjust and settle the accounts and claims of Daniel D. Tompkins" and to restore his salary.
Tompkins received no actual remuneration until much later, however. Government accountants ultimately recommended a settlement of just over $35,000, a finding that Monroe, convinced that "a larger sum ought to be allowed him," delayed transmitting to Congress. But Tompkins and his family were in dire straits, although rumors of his confinement to a New York debtors' prison ultimately proved false. On December 7, 1823, Monroe asked Congress for a $35,000 interim appropriation to provide the vice president with "an essential accommodation." Congress approved the request in late December.
On January 21, 1824, Tompkins returned to the Senate. He was "determined to take no part in the approaching election," he informed John Quincy Adams, "and wished for nothing thereafter but quiet and retirement." He still suffered from bouts of insomnia but was finally "relieved of all his embarrassments." He remained in Washington until the end of the session, taking his final leave from the Senate on May 20 with "a few brief remarks" expressing "his sense of the kind and courteous treatment he had experienced from the members, collectively and individually." On May 26, the Senate approved Monroe's request for an additional appropriation of just over $60,000 "for the payment of the claims of Daniel D. Tompkins."
The 1823 and 1824 appropriations came too late to be of much use to the impoverished vice president. He continued to drink heavily, and after years of indebtedness his business affairs were convoluted beyond resolution. Daniel Tompkins died intestate on June 11, 1825, and was interred in St. Mark's Church in New York City. After his death, his creditors squabbled over his once-magnificent Staten Island estate, until it was finally disposed of in a series of sheriff's sales. In 1847, Congress approved a payment of close to $50,000 to Tompkins's heirs. But even this amount, one scholar noted long after the fact, "was only part of what was due him as generally admitted."