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.
On April 30, 1807, Daniel Tompkins defeated the incumbent Governor Morgan Lewis of New York. Tompkins remained in office as Governor of New York until 1817. He was reelected in 1810, defeating Jonas Platt. In 1813 he defeated Stephen Van Rensselaer, and in 1816, he beat Rufus King.
During the War of 1812, Tompkins proved to be one of the most effective war governors. He played an important role in reorganizing the state militia and promoted the formation of a standing state military force based on select conscription. In 1815 Tompkins established a settlement along the eastern shore of Staten Island that came to be called Tompkinsville. He built a dock along the waterfront in the neighborhood in 1817 and began offering daily steam ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan.
While governor of New York, Tompkins personally borrowed money and used his own property as collateral when the New York state legislature would not approve the necessary funds for the War of 1812. After the war, neither the state nor the federal government reimbursed him so he could repay his loans. Years of litigation did not end until 1824, at which point the State of New York and the federal government owed Tompkins $90,000, a significant sum in those days.
Tompkins was elected Vice President on the ticket with James Monroe in 1816, and was reelected in 1820, serving from March 4, 1817, to March 4, 1825. His financial problems took a toll on his health, with Tompkins falling into alcoholism, and as vice president he at times presided over the Senate while drunk. He died in Tompkinsville three months after retiring as Vice President and was interred in the Minthorne vault in the west yard of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, New York City. Tompkins had the shortest post-vice presidency of any person who survived the office: 99 days.