VAN DER KEMP first knew De Witt Clinton as a promising young man visiting his uncle, George Clinton, governor of the state. George received the Van der Kemps in his home and tried to help them get settled. After Van der Kemp moved to Oneida Lake, he saw little if any of George Clinton. The careers of both uncle and nephew were followed and generally supported by Van der Kemp but not until 1812 did he make an effort to get better acquainted with the younger man.
Van der Kemp was impressed with De Witt’s rise in politics and wrote a letter reminding him of the former good relations with the Clintons. He included his Sketch of a Desirable Work, asked De Witt to read and criticize it and perhaps to complete it.
Could you who so boldly planned, to enrich New-York State with a Magnificent canal-navigation—whose execution done would immortalise a Weston [British engineer employed on the New York waterways]—Could you Sir! be induced to embody this skeleton …1
From this time on the friendship between the two men developed along three major lines, their interest in natural science, their approval of a canal and the project of translating the Dutch records at Albany. The interests in these three areas were never separated in a time sequence and other common interests of lesser import frequently supplemented the three. The best way to examine the friendly ties seems to be to look at the concurrent developments separately but with realization of the overlapping.
When Van der Kemp made his oration in celebration of Dutch independence in 1814, a copy was sent to Clinton. De Witt thanked the orator and said, “An event of so much importance to the cause of national independence, involving the destinies of a people so intimately connected with many of us by consanguinity and commemorated in such an able & eloquent manner must make the deepest impression upon every intelligent & elevated mind.”2
The next manuscript sent to Clinton was the Researches in the Theories of Buffon and Jefferson. Clinton was greatly impressed. Van der Kemp said he had done the work “on the entreaties” of his worthy friend, Chancellor Livingston, and had submitted it in embryo state to Jefferson. He had worked on it further with their approval and Charles Eliot had agreed to edit it, but died before he could do so. Now he also wanted Clinton to read and criticize it so that improvements could be made. Then he asked Clinton if he might borrow a copy of his recent speech, Introductory Discourse, Delivered before the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York.3 The request was timely and tactful. Clinton had been deposed as mayor of New York City and had retired from active politics. The letter came from a respectable scholar, a man with friends in high places, and a man who had supported Clinton for the presidency in 1812. The request was non-political at a time when Clinton was avoiding open politics.
There is a possibility that Clinton discussed Van der Kemp’s scientific interests with other people. He seemed to know more than was in the letter. He wrote back that he would read the treatise with “most respectful attention” when it came from Boston and that he was glad Van der Kemp had devoted himself “to the illustration of the Natural History” of central New York. Clinton agreed to send the requested Introductory Discourse.4 This spurred Van der Kemp to send his Tour to Clinton since it contained so many observations of natural wealth and wonders (largely omitted in the account in Chapter VIII) in central New York. In the accompanying letter Van der Kemp also discussed the canal, as Clinton had just been made head of the canal commission. The Introductory Discourse had pleased Van der Kemp immensely. He commented in a highly favorable way on the whole production and then commented on some details.
Your observation pag. 36 of Lakes dried up—can be placed in these Western parts beyond doubt—I write this moment [in Oldenbarneveld]—on the bottom of one—or large pond of water certainly—after the high lands were drained—if I can obtain leisure—I shall prepare the outlines of a short excursion last summer as an appendage to my tours to Oneyda Lake.
Van der Kemp asked Clinton if the president of the Philosophical Society should not have made an answer to the “slanders” in the Quarterly Review. Livingston would surely have done so when he was president of the Society for Promotion of the Useful Arts. Clinton was asked for copies of the Transactions.5
Clinton enjoyed reading the Tour and in time received the Researches from Boston. He raised questions about the fish Van der Kemp had seen and asked if he should not prepare an essay on the catching, preparing and curing of salmon in the Netherlands. Clinton said he would be glad to convey such an article to the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts. He asked about Frenchman’s Island in Oneida Lake and had spied an item in the Researches of great interest. If the petrified animal in Peter Smith’s petrified honey-comb could be distinctly recognized as the honeybee, it would go far toward settling the controversy in favor of its American nativity. He said also that he had proposed Van der Kemp for membership in the Literary and Philosophical Society and that his admission was certain. His closing words sealed the friendship.
I have only to add that it will always afford me pleasure to hear from you and that if my humble efforts to promote the cause of science and the prosperity of our Country shall receive the approbation of such men as you, I shall feel amply rewarded. Laudari a laudato viro is surely a laudable ambition.6
Van der Kemp explained at some length about the fish of the Oneida Lake area with additional comments on the eel flies. He had received from a friend in Holland all the details of catching and preparing salmon and if Clinton could make it known in America it would prove lucrative and a blessing to the country. He gave an interesting account of Des Wattines on Frenchman’s Island, how he had lived and of his return to France. Van der Kemp was pleased at membership in the society but wondered about the expense.7
Some pamphlets, perhaps political in nature, were sent to Van der Kemp by Clinton, one apparently signed Atticus and the other Williamson. Van der Kemp enjoyed them and said that the brother of Abraham Varick and Jonas Platt would bring from Albany any publications De Witt was willing to dispose of in his friend’s favor. He recalled a passage from Clinton’s Introductory Discourse predicting “that our country will be the chosen seat—and favorite abode of learning and science.” He mentioned a few lines from the English poet, George Herbert,
Religion stands on tiptoe in our
Land Ready to pass to the American strand—
and a quatrain from the Bishop of Cloyne,
Westward the Star of Empire takes its way
The first four acts already past
The fifth shall close the drama with the day
Time’s noblest offspring is the last …
Van der Kemp told Clinton that it was in his province to assist in the realization of the “pleasant dream.”8
In the November elections Governor Daniel Tompkins was elected vice president of the United States and the control of the legislature proved to be largely in the hands of Ambrose Spencer. Three of the four elected members of the new Council of Appointment were friendly to Spencer and also to Clinton. The legislature then provided for an election in April, 1817, to choose a successor to Tompkins. Before these things were evident to the public, Van der Kemp wrote to Clinton on December 27, 1816, about the latter’s return to Albany on business:
You go then to brave our cold climate at Albany! Art thou not apprehensive to feel some inconvenience from this change?—to meet unexpectedly—some chilling coldness? Why not rather armed yourself in time with a Spencer by which a northern blast might be blasted—and an eastern lukewarmness heightened to a blaze. I know fear is not your predominant weakness—but even some precautions may often be admissable to men armed cap-a-pie.
Further advice was given in regard to the canal with the thought that if all went well there would be a demand for Clinton to be governor.9
A month later Van der Kemp asked for Clinton’s speech to the Philosophical Society in 1811. He had recently seen a reference to it in a work by Elias Boudinot entitled, Star in the West, or an Attempt to Discover the Long-Lost Tribes of Isreal. Van der Kemp suggested that if Clinton knew Boudinot, he could inform him that Van der Kemp’s Researches would be of assistance in his thesis that the ten tribes plus other casuals peopled America, perhaps by way of Asia and Bering Strait. (It is interesting to note that the Mormons accepted the Lost Tribes into their tradition.) Van der Kemp’s treatment of the Arab invasions as promoters of migrations should be helpful.10 Clinton had read the Star in the West but had grave doubts about the thesis. He said Boudinot got his system and many facts from James Adair’s History of the Indians (published in 1775) and that Adair was adept at mangling, distorting, stretching and lopping traditions, customs and facts connected with the thesis. He intended to write more about the peopling of America in a few months and also would comment on Van der Kemp’s own writings. He was sending by Jonas Platt two volumes on canals, one of the transactions of the Literary and Philosophical Society, two volumes of the Collections of the New York Historical Society and one of Clinton’s published addresses.11
Van der Kemp’s somewhat favorable opinion of Boudinot was reduced. He said he awaited impatiently Clinton’s views and that he was welcome to use any of the material in the Researches. Apparently Van der Kemp had read all the books which Clinton sent because he commented at length on various parts, particularly on the canal and on fishing. Van der Kemp was something of a conservationist in wanting the catching and curing of salmon to be efficient. He also wanted restrictions to prevent the catching of salmon in the improper season.
Clinton’s satirical political article on Abimelech Coody puzzled Van der Kemp. Gulian C. Verplanck had written a series of articles attacking Clinton from an independent-Federalist position at a time when some of the Republicans were demanding Clinton’s removal from his office of mayor of New York City. Van der Kemp was a Clinton supporter but also had been an independent Federalist himself. If he read the Verplanck articles, he must have been disturbed. Now Clinton had characterized Abimelech Coody (Verplanck) as
the head of a political sect called the “Coodies”, of hybrid nature, composed of the combined spawn of Federalism and Jacobinism, and generated in the venomous passions of disappointment and revenge, without any definite character; neither fish nor flesh, nor bird nor beast, but a nondescript made up of “all monstrous, all prodigious things.”12
Van der Kemp asked, “How can a western woodsman decypher the mystic rights of N. York Politicians—without you condescend to give a clue?”13 Perhaps Van der Kemp was trying to find an intellectual justification for his support of the shaky and uncertain Clinton party.
Clinton was elected to the governorship in the fall of 1817 with a tremendous majority. Clinton had won support by his canal stand and by an appeal of “good feeling.” It looked to Van der Kemp like the decline of bitter factionalism and the improved operation of the republican system of government. He was delighted and commended Clinton with flattery—then opened up the subject of sunspots. This led into a consideration of the universe and the origin of the earth. He wondered if the Mosaic account was a re-creation of an earth that had existed in some form some time before. This would be orthodox, not subject to the charge of heresy. He also said his Achaian Republic could not be published in America because a general cry might be heard against the author, “Brekekex-coax-coax”—the derisive croaking of the frogs of Aristophanes.14
The re-creation idea was stimulated in part by the Protogoea of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz which Van der Kemp owned and now loaned to Clinton. This introduction to modern geology treated the earth’s evolution from the creation to the deluge, and included the idea of a re-creation. Before reading it, Clinton indicated his acceptance of the idea because “all the phenomona which we witness proclaim that this world is the wreck of a former one.” The Mosaic accounts certainly fitted all the evidence of geology.15
Both men were interested in local applications of science, for the sake of the local research and for economic development of central New York. Van der Kemp suggested a divisional study—“1) the alluvial part—2) the Highlands—considered before a passage was opened to [for] the western waters 3) from the Cohoes—to the Little Falls, 4) From these to Rome 5) from there to St. Laurent—& Lake Erie.” Van der Kemp had seen branches and leaves of trees taken from a considerable depth of Colonel Colbrath’s well at Rome. He knew also of the finding of a squared log, charcoal and ashes in a cut on Wood Creek. On the way to Rome from Oldenbarneveld he had seen an old river bed at the village of Floyd. With Clinton’s guidance, superintendence and encouragement, the nature of New York could be discovered and made known.16
Sometime during the winter of 1817–18, Van der Kemp wrote an essay and made extracts from a Dutch journal on the growth of papaver (poppy) and on a disease of the hooves of neat cattle which resembled a disease of sheep in Holland. These sketches were sent to Clinton.17 Van der Kemp also translated within the next year Nicolas Cornelis Lambrechtsen’s A History of New Netherland. Lambrechtsen had sent a Dutch copy to the New-York Historical Society and Hermann Bleeker sent it to Mappa to get Van der Kemp to translate it.18 The translation was not published until 1841.
A different interest recorded in the correspondence was a suggestion to the governor regarding the growing dairy industry in Oneida County. Van der Kemp wrote:
The quantity of butter in this district is immense—It is preferred at York Market—Col. Mappa shall communicate a correct statement—Would it be proper—it would contribute to improve and increase this branch—to appoint either here or in N. York—an inspector of butter.19
How many times Clinton visited in Oldenbarneveld would be impossible to determine. Van der Kemp invited him to stop at the village in 1819 and it is certain that he stopped in 1820 and 1822. Clinton wrote the Hibernicus Letters as of 1820. The letter about Van der Kemp is literary in style and therefore was not intended to be accurate in detail but only in the picture it presented. It shows Clinton’s appreciation and affection for the scholar in the wilderness.
The letter was dated September, 1820, from the “Western Region” and described Clinton on a hunt coming upon two successful anglers, Van der Kemp and Mappa. A conversation of great interest and good will began and ended with an invitation for Clinton to go home with them for a feast on the fine trout. They went to Mappa’s “elegant house” and “enjoyed a treat worthy to be compared to the Symposium of Plato.” A highly complimentary statement of Van der Kemp’s attainments was followed by the conclusion that in the secluded village of Oldenbarneveld was “the most learned man in America” cultivating “his beautiful and spacious garden,” and enjoying the study of literature and science. With the virtues of the “fireside and the altar” and the “esteem of the wise and good,” he was a great contributor to all who shared his conversation or his correspondence.20
The Hibernicus letter was published and Van der Kemp secured a copy for himself.
The correspondence continued and the two men saw each other in Albany a few times for business and pleasure. Comments and questions on natural history continued to pass between them and each continued to send materials to the other as gifts or loans. Political matters sometimes entered the discussions but chiefly as they affected the two big projects, the canal and the Dutch records.
In 1822 Clinton wrote, “I shall go to the West early in June to visit the whole line of the Canal—and if possible I will make a diverging visit on my return to the most learned man in America.”21 Van der Kemp replied, “I expect Your Exc.[ellency] does not intend to feed me with smoke—thus I shall expect him here on his return—as I presume—I am the man—designated by you.” He assured Clinton that he and his wife, if she came, would meet a cordial and respectful reception and that the scenery of Trenton Falls would compensate for his own humble cottage.22
Clinton made the visit, apparently a pleasant one, although without Mrs. Clinton. In his diary was recorded the following notes.
When I slept at Oldenbarneveld [I] heard mine host in fervent prayer—very loud—the custom of the country.
Van der Kemp is a man of pure morals & unaffected piety—His family agreeable but ugly—something fascinating in personal beauty—his house clean—his furniture convenient—his library well chosen and erudite—his position charming—his neighborhood agreeable. Col. Mappa & Dr. Guiteau gentlemen of education.23
The two men discussed the canal in particular because that was the guest’s greatest concern of the moment. Then they passed to the political and economic growth of the state, science, religion, and education. Within two months Van der Kemp invited another visit, this time with Mrs. Clinton. He suggested that the Clintons come by way of Amsterdam through Johnstown to Fairfield where Clinton could inspect the medical college. If he did so, Professor Westell Willoughby would be his guide and his host. From there he could come by the old Military Road to Oldenbarneveld and journey northward to Sackett’s Harbor, Kingston, Montreal and Ogdensburg.24 Van der Kemp was a good friend of Willoughby and probably wanted to do his friend and the young Fairfield college a good turn.
Clinton and Van der Kemp shared their griefs as well as their intellectual interests. In 1822 Van der Kemp told his friend how ill Sophia Mappa was. She had developed the tic douloureux, a facial neuralgia. The Mappas had “exhausted all the poisonous remedies” of the physicians of Oneida County, of Boston and New York City. Then they took her to Philadelphia where she became bedridden but at last started a recovery. She convalesced at the home of John Van der Kemp. Mrs. Busti was ill at the same time.25 Mrs. Busti died in April as did also John Lincklaen at Cazenovia. In 1824 another grief was disclosed to Clinton. John Van der Kemp’s wife, Julia, died. Clinton was asked to put the death notice in the Albany paper.26 In the summer Paul Busti died as did also Adam Mappa’s sister.
Clinton, too, had his woes, personal as well as political. Van der Kemp supported him in both. In the summer of 1824 Clinton wrote to his friend that he was greatly afflicted by the loss of his son. The young man was an officer in the Navy and died of yellow fever in Havana. Clinton said sorrowfully that the son “possessed a noble heart—intelligence courage—professional skill and the promise of a life of continued honor 8c usefulness but alas he has gone—”27 Clinton noted Van der Kemp’s sorrows and reminded him of his enjoyments—“Mens sana always and generally in sano corpore—a worthy affectionate family—excellent neighbors—the possession of universal respect—and the consciousness of an honorable well-spent life.” He added another loss of his own, the death of P. S. Van Rensselaer, former mayor of Albany.28
The two men seldom wrote to each other about religion but one example illustrates their differences of approach. Van der Kemp wanted to read Ecce Homo, an anti-Christian, semi-scientific work. Van der Kemp said such attacks could not penetrate the “shield of Religion.” He said further:
We may humbly inquire allways with due reverence to a first cause—a Being all wise and good—and I can not see—while it is as impossible to penetrate as to develop his wonderful creation—yet we may unravel a part—more so when it increases our ideal of his almighty power and wisdom …29
Ecce homo is a book highly blasphemous—The Trinitarians believe in the divinity of the person as well as of the Mission of Christ—The Unitarians only in the divinity of the Mission—both creeds ascribe the utmost purity to Jesus and consider him with the highest veneration—but Ecce Homo assails his moral character and treats him as an imposter. This book is not for sale and I cannot ask the author for a perusal—It would be indirect encouragement.30
Van der Kemp was the more open-minded, willing to read the anti-religious in order to assess the scientific parts. However, there were so many other topics more congenial to Clinton that no arguments arose between them on religion. The canal was a tremendously attractive topic for ten years and the Dutch records only a little less so. However, the friendship between De Witt Clinton and Francis Van der Kemp was well established on an intellectual and perhaps political basis some time before either canal or records became an absorbing common interest.