Skip to content

Appendix C

The Third David Clarkson (1726-82): Fortune and Nation Builder

David Clarkson understood that he had both a civic and a financial duty; he succeeded gloriously at both by building the family fortune, supporting civic institutions like Trinity Church and King’s College (later Columbia University) and championing the revolution against England. He was one of the many unsung heroes of the Revolutionary War.

Financial Empire

David Clarkson was a financier as well as a merchant. He traded in dry goods (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 194) and owned ships to carry them; in addition, he was a moneylender and underwriter. Underwriting was a form of insurance for shipping just beginning at this time (195). Moneylending had long been a vital part of the complicated economic ecosystem in which money was tied up in goods, shipping and sales for months, even years, at a time. The network of debt obligations demanded trust in personal relationships and the ability to know when and how to collect. David understood that the most trustworthy debtor was the government. He loaned the British government large sums and financed troop supplies during the French and Indian Wars (Matson,155), as well as lent to the Provincial Assembly (156) and later funded the Revolutionary War.

David was also lucky. In 1748, he and his American partner John Riddell won the lottery, each receiving over $25,000 in gold. This particular lottery, sanctioned by the British Parliament, was used to raise money to found the British Museum. David’s connection in London, Thomas Streatfeild, a family friend and member of the mercantile house Pomeroy and Streatfeild of London, bought the ticket (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 194). Because of this win, David named one of his sons Thomas Streatfeild, and the name was maintained for generations.

Civic Duty

David Clarkson was a founding trustee of King’s College in 1957. The college was renamed Columbia University after the Revolutionary War. During the founding, David and the other Episcopalian trustees battled acrimoniously against William Livingston, a Presbyterian, about the college’s location and religious affiliation (Anon., “Vol. 1”). The Livingstons were an important founding family in Manhattan. Balancing the relative importance of business, religious and familial affiliations must have been a common calculus. In the end, the college began in a single room on the Trinity Church campus with eight students. David also sat on the first board of governors of the New York Hospital, founded in 1771.

The Revolutionary War

As an active member of the New York Assembly, David was fundamentally involved in the decision to go to war. He was “by nature utterly opposed to war” (244). Politically, he was a Whig, a position strongly associated with the nonconformism of his ancestors. The Whigs supported revolution, while the Tories remained loyal to Britain. Support for revolution developed among wealthy Americans, mostly due to increasingly repressive taxation and loss of trade. The system of mercantilism deliberately exploited the colonies in the interests of the colonial power. David Clarkson and his father were vocal critics of the system. Letters he wrote at the time of the provocative Stamp Act indicate that he was pragmatic rather than political (205-216).

In 1775, he was elected as one of the 20 representatives of New York to the Provincial Congress (239). David was one of three private citizens who helped to finance the war (Reynolds, 1025), yet he lost much of his financial empire during the war as trade was curtailed; loans even to friends remained unpaid (Anon., “Vol.1,” 248) and his real estate was confiscated (254).

Personal Life

David married Elizabeth French in 1749. The Frenches were a prominent local family who owned all of Brunswick [sic] in New Jersey. Elizabeth was also related to the Philipses, the wealthiest family in Manhattan and one of the largest landowners, with an extensive manor along the Hudson River. Manors were a feudal system set up by the Dutch (Matson, 99).

David and Elizabeth built a house on Whitehall Street in Manhattan in 1752 that “may have been the ornament of the city.” The architect may have also designed St. Paul’s Chapel for the Trinity diocese (Anon., “Vol.1,” 190). The house adjoined that of Oliver DeLancey. The house was richly furnished with imported goods, family portraits and heirlooms (191). Tragically, all that history was lost when the house burned to the ground in 1776 in the conflagration that swept the city, taking Trinity Church and 500 other houses with it (253). Another loss was at the house in Flatbush. Hessian troops billeting in the house were alerted by Tory neighbors to the Clarkson wealth. The troops broke down the walls, found the wine collection and drank through it. They did not find the silver buried in the yard (251-2).

David and Elizabeth retreated to a home in Brunswick [sic], New Jersey (254). Once the war was over, David remained in retirement, preferring to go to Manhattan as little as possible. The war had created financial and personal stresses that led to his illness and death in 1782 (269).

The Children of David and Elizabeth French Clarkson: The Founders of Potsdam

David and Elizabeth had six living children, four of whom are connected to Potsdam. His daughter Ann Margaret married Gerrit Van Horne — the man William Constable first contacted about the Potsdam tract. Ann Margaret and Gerrit lived in a house adjacent to her brother, T. Streatfeild, on Broadway in Manhattan (Anon., “Vol.1,” 150). Another brother, Matthew, lived a few blocks south where he had rebuilt the family home on Whitehall and Pearl. The third brother, Levinus, lived further north on Harrison Street near Pier 25 (Anon). Matthew, T. Streatfeild and Levinus all joined the syndicate to purchase the town of Potsdam and had children or grandchildren who lived there.