George Clinton was born on July 26, 1739, in Ulster County, New York. George Clinton's parents, Charles and Elizabeth Denniston, were Presbyterian immigrants who left Longford County, Ireland, in 1729 to escape an intolerant Anglican regime that imposed severe disabilities on religious dissenters.
Charles Clinton was a farmer, surveyor, and land speculator, whose survey of the New York frontier so impressed the governor that he was offered a position as sheriff of New York City and the surrounding county in 1748. After the elder Clinton declined the honor, the governor designated young George as successor to the clerk of the Ulster County Court of Common Pleas, a position he would assume in 1759 and hold for the rest of his life.
George Clinton studied under a Scottish clergyman to prepare for his future responsibilities, interrupting his education at the age of eighteen in 1757 to serve in the French and Indian War. After the war, he read law in New York City under the renowned attorney William Smith. He began his legal practice in 1764 and became district attorney the following year. Clinton's aptitude for surveying and his penchant for land speculation eventually made him one of the wealthier residents of Ulster County, but, despite his considerable fortune, he was a man of frugal habits and congenial, unassuming manners. Even in later life, when chronic ill health made it difficult for him to perform his public duties, observers remarked on his "pleasing cheerfulness" and "flow of good humor." Large-boned and coarse-featured, he was, one scholar relates, "a man of powerful physique, whose mere presence commanded respect."
In 1768, the twenty-nine-year-old Clinton was elected to the New York assembly, where he supported the "Livingston" faction, an alliance that he cemented two years later with his marriage to Cornelia Tappan, a Livingston relative. The Livingstons and their allies, who represented the wealthy, predominantly Presbyterian landowners of the Hudson Valley, assumed a vehemently anti-British posture as relations between England and her North American colonies deteriorated during the early 1770s. Clinton emerged as their leader in 1770, when he defended a member of the Sons of Liberty imprisoned for "seditious libel" by the royalist majority that still controlled the New York assembly.
During the American Revolution, he served as brigadier general in the New York militia. He helped defend New York from the British and became friends with George Washington during the war years. In 1777, he was chosen governor of New York and served six consecutive terms. As governor, Clinton was considered an able administrator, and he amassed considerable political power in the state. He also opposed ratifying the Constitution of the United States because he believed it put too much power into the hands of the federal government. He resigned from the governorship in 1795 due to ill health and declining popularity. Clinton served again as governor of New York from 1801 to 1804.
Despite having run unsuccessfully for vice president in 1788 and 1792, Clinton ran for the position again in 1804. Democratic-Republicans found him attractive as a candidate because, being from New York, he helped geographically balance President Thomas Jefferson from Virginia. He also had significant political power in New York and was less controversial than his predecessor, Aaron Burr. As vice president, Clinton presided over the Senate but was considered ineffective. He was unable to keep order and seemed uninterested in the proceedings, complaining about lengthy speeches and having to sit for too long.
In the 1808 election, Clinton aspired to succeed Thomas Jefferson as President, but Jefferson gave his support to James Madison. Although the Democratic-Republicans again chose Clinton as vice president, he resented being passed over for President. As such, he did not attend Madison's inauguration and was unsupportive of the Madison administration. When the Senate had a tie vote over whether to recharter the Bank of the United States, Clinton voted against it even though Madison supported rechartering the Bank. After years of declining health, Clinton died in office in 1812.