|Founding Documents||Declaration of Independence|
United States Constitution
George Clymer (March 16, 1739 – January 23, 1813) was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from the state of Pennsylvania. Clymer was a member of the Continental Congress from 1776-1777 and again from 1780-1782. Clymer was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
He was born in Philadelphia in 1739, and a year later he was orphaned. George Clymer was then taken under the guardian care of William and Hannah Coleman, his maternal aunt and uncle, who treated him as a son and made him heir of most of their property. Himself a literary man, Mr. Coleman conferred upon his nephew a good education. He possessed a splendid library, and had the gratifying consolation of seeing it often and fully explored by George Clymer, who manifested an early taste for reading, and investigated critically every subject that came before him, never leaving it until he traced it through all its meanderings to its primeval source.
This trait in his character rendered him vastly useful in the momentous concerns that occupied his subsequent life. It is of the first importance to dig deep and lay firmly the foundations of an education, that the superstructure may rest upon a substantial basis.
From the seminary, Mr. Clymer went into the counting-house of his uncle, and made himself acquainted with the mercantile business, in which he subsequently embarked. The precariousness and uncertainty of this calling rendered it unpleasant to him. He was opposed to sudden gains or losses, because the one was calculated to elate the mind too much, and the other to depress it too low, thus destroying the equilibrium calculated to impart the most happiness to a man and render him most useful to himself, to his family, and to the community. He contended that a virtuous equality in life is more conducive to the comfort and prosperity of a nation, than to have a majority of the wealth wielded by a favored few. He was the friend of equal rights and free principles. He was a republican of the Roman school, a patriot of the highest order, a philanthropist of the noblest caste, and opposed to all monopolies.
His genius was of that original order, that, like some comets, illuminate our world only at long intervals. It seemed to traverse the circuit of human nature, of metaphysics, of philosophy, and of general science, without an apparent effort, drawing from each conclusions peculiarly its own. He was a virtuoso, an amateur, and at the same time a deep logician and mathematician. A love of liberty and equal rights was with him an innate quality. His mind was richly stored with the history of other times and nations; he was well versed in the principles of law and government, and understood well the chartered rights of his country, and felt most keenly the increasing infringements upon them by the very power that was bound by the laws of nature, of man, and of God, to protect them. His course at the commencement of the revolution can readily be imagined. True, his entire property was vested in commercial business; Reese Meredith, his father-in-law, was his partner in trade, and for him to oppose the interests of the crown, seemed certain destruction to his own, so far as pecuniary matters were concerned. But his mind moved in an orbit limited only by the confines of freedom.
He was among the first to resist the oppressors of his country and proclaim to his fellow citizens the principles of liberty. At the "tea meeting," held by the citizens of Philadelphia on the 16th of October, 1775, his reasoning, sincerity, zeal and enthusiastic patriotism, commanded great attention and admiration. Free from pedantry and naturally retiring his powers of mind were known only to his friends. From that time they were claimed as public property. He was compelled to surrender possession to the rightful owners, without certiorari or appeal, and was engaged in all the important measures of the day.
When the final crisis arrived for action; when forbearance had ceased to be a virtue; when the warcry resounded from the heights of Lexington, Mr. Clymer took command of a company under General Cadwalader and repaired to the tented field. He was at the same time a member of the council of safety, and had served on all or most of the preliminary committees of his native city appointed to prepare petitions, remonstrances and measures of defence. He was soon called from the field of epic glory, and appointed by Congress, on the 29th of July, 1775, in conjunction with Michael Hillegas, to take charge of the public treasury. He subscribed liberally to the loan raised for the public service, and poured all the species he could raise into the government chest and took in return paper, which was virtually ephemeral in its value.
His examples and his patriotic enthusiasm had a powerful influence upon his friends, many of whom came boldly to the rescue.
In July, 1776, he took his seat in the Continental Congress after the adoption of the declaration of rights, to which he most cheerfully subscribed. A part of the preceding delegation from Pennsylvania when they found their colleagues were in favour of cutting loose, left their station and retired, perhaps that they might avoid the wrath of the king on the one hand and the indignation of the patriots on the other, or believing the time had not yet arrived for so bold a step. The people promptly filled their places with men who dared to be free, by men who had already nobly resolved on liberty or death.
In September of that year, Messrs. Clymer and Stockton were sent by Congress to regulate the northern army and to confer with Washington in making arrangements for future action. In December of the same year Congress retired to Baltimore in consequence of the threatened approach of the British army, then spreading consternation, destruction and death through New Jersey. Mr. Clymer was one of the committee left in Philadelphia to superintend the public interests and brave the perils that were rolling onward like a tornado. He was faithful in the discharge of every duty, devoting his time and fortune to the advancement of the glorious cause he had espoused. He was returned to Congress the next year, and in April was again appointed upon a committee to repair to the army and confer with Washington upon all subjects that required their attention, which were neither few nor small. In the autumn of that year an additional momentum was given to the patriotism of Mr. Clymer. He had removed his family and goods to Chester county, and immediately after the defeat of the Americans at Brandywine, the tories led the British to his house; his family escaped, but his property, to a large amount, was totally destroyed. This sacrifice at the altar of freedom seemed to strengthen his political faith and impart fresh vigour to his exertions.
In December, 1779, he was one of a board of commissioners sent by Congress to Fort Pitt, to counteract, if possible, the hostility of the savages, who were committing murders upon the western frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania, and to effect, if practicable, a treaty with the several tribes, and if unsuccessful in the accomplishment of these designs, to make arrangements for offensive operations. The mission was boldly executed, principally by Mr. Clymer alone, who narrowly escaped the tomahawk during his absence. The commissioners returned in April and reported the necessity of carrying the war into the Indian country. During the next year Mr. Clymer was not in Congress, but devoted his time in raising loans and supplies for the army, then destitute of almost every necessary of life and of the munitions of war.
In 1780, he was again elected to the national legislature and served until November of the ensuing year, when he and John Nixon were appointed to organize the Bank of North America, which was instrumental in reviving the prostrate credit of the government. In May, 1782, he was associated with Mr. Rutledge on a mission through the southern states, for the purpose of for supplies. During the entire period of the revolution he devoted his whole time to the service of his country, and discharged every duty assigned him to the entire satisfaction of his constituents and colleagues. He stood high as an able and faithful co-worker in the vineyard of liberty, and retired from the field when the harvest was ended covered with the honours of enduring fame. At the close of the war he removed to Princeton, for the purpose of resting from his toils and educating his children. The ensuing year his services were requested in his native state, and he returned to Philadelphia. He was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, and contributed largely in divesting her old constitution and laws of the obnoxious branches of tyranny that were still attached to them. He introduced the amelioration of the penal code and was the originator and warm advocate of abolishing death in all cases, except murder in the first degree.
He was the father of the much admired penitentiary system of that state, which has but recently been organized fully upon the plan proposed by him—that of solitary confinement at hard labour. It may not be known to the young reader, that in former times, prisoners, after conviction, were compelled to labour in chains often in the most public places. The superiority of solitary confinement over all other modes of punishment has been fully demonstrated, and is in a course of adoption throughout the civilized world. The arguments of Mr. Clymer in favour of these philanthropic measures manifested a deep and thorough knowledge of human nature, and were based upon the firm pillars of equal justice, lucid reason and sound policy. He devised and prepared the humane report of the committee that remodelled the penal code of Pennsylvania, which has been fully and successfully tested, and stands an admired monument of judicial reformation, and an enduring praise to the name of its author.
The mind of Mr. Clymer was peculiarly prolific and happy in the conception of plans of usefulness and utility. To benefit his country and better the condition of mankind, afforded him the highest pleasure. To effect this, he saw the necessity of reducing every department of government to system and order. American independence was achieved; to preserve it by reducing to harmony the conflicting local interests, jealousies and inconsiderate clamours of the malevolent, was an herculean task yet to be performed.
The convention that formed the federal constitution was therefore hailed with joy by Mr. Clymer, who was one of its members. Other members of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Convention were Thomas Fitzsimons, Benjamin Franklin, Jared Ingersoll, Thomas Mifflin, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and James Wilson. The result of the labours of that body was fraught with deeper interest than the war struggle for victory over a foreign foe. It involved the fate of our infant republic, which was then veringon dissolution and fast retrograding towards the awful gulf of primeval chaos. The conflict was between members of the same family, and required the deepest sagacity, the profoundest wisdom, the most acute judgment, the most disinterested patriotism, the most exalted charity, and the purest spirit of conciliation, to bring it to a peaceful and satisfactory termination. Happily for our country this was done, and Mr. Clymer contributed his full share in the accomplishment of the glorious work.
He was elected a member of the first Congress convened under that saving instrument. He was a stern republican and opposed to tacking any titles to the name of any public man except that of his office. Excellency, honourable, etc., he conceived to be the mere shadows of a shadow, too vain and trifling for a freeman. He was opposed to the right of instruction from his constituents, because they must necessarily decide without hearing either evidence or argument. He was unwilling to be made a mere passive machine of puerile power, a mere automaton of party spirit.
In the organization of the general government through all its ramifications he took a deep interest and an active part. Every subject that was presented to Congress for consideration he analyzed with the skill of a sage, a statesman and a philosopher. In 1790, he closed his legislative career and declined again entering upon its arduous duties. Under the act of Congress of 1791, imposing a duty on domestic distilled spirits, Mr. Clymer was appointed to superintend its collection in his own state. The tax was then called, by way of opprobrium, the excise. This law gave great dissatisfaction in many places, and in Pennsylvania produced what was termed the whiskey rebellion, which required the military to restore order. Unpleasant as it was, Mr. Clymer proceeded to perform his duty by appointing the required collectors in each county, endeavouring to persuade the people to submit to the law whilst in force, and pursue the constitutional remedy for its repeal if they believed it wrong. During the height of the excitement he hazarded his life among the malecontents where but few other men would have been spared if clothed with the same office.
He finally resigned this station, and was soon after appointed a commissioner, with Colonels Pickens and Hawkins, to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokee and Creek Indians in Georgia, which was effected on the 29th of June, 1796, and closed his long, faithful and arduous public career. He had perilled his life, his fortune and his sacred honour for his country; he had been her unyielding and fearless advocate amidst the storms of revolution, civil discord and open rebellion; he now saw her peaceful, prosperous and happy, with the illustrious Washington presiding over her destinies. He could therefore retire to enjoy the fruits of his labours and his toils, without any to disturb or make him afraid.
But he remained an active man during his whole life. He felt an interest in every kind of improvement, and to many he extended a fostering care. As early as 1785, he aided in establishing the Philadelphia Agricultural Society, and when the Academy of Fine Arts was founded in that city he was one of its liberal patrons. He aided also in establishing the Philadelphia Bank. Of the former, he was vice president, and of the two latter, president when he died. He was a friend to all the laboring classes, and made himself acquainted with the principles of farming and the mechanic trades. His private papers exhibit a great variety of drafts and plans of bridges, canals, water-works, machinery and implements of husbandry, and numerous recipes relative to the arts. Like the philosophic Franklin, he extended his researches to almost every subject within the grasp of man, and treasured in his mind the essential oil of each.
He always sought for solid substance that could be applied to substantial use. His mind and his manners were opposed to pedantry and pomp. He was what, in common parlance, would now be called a plain, old fashioned, blunt man. His bluntness was not of an offensive kind; it consisted in laconic truth, dressed in republican simplicity, a garb that was much admired during the times of pure unsophisticated patriotism. Although he originated many important measures in the national and state legislature, he seldom spoke in the forum, and was often unknown to the public as such, when the author of the most salutary propositions. He was ambitious only to do good, and was not anxious that his name should be wafted on the breeze of popular applause or be emblazoned in the high places of the earth. To know that he had been instrumental in benefitting the human family was the ultimatum of his soul. When the importance of a subject induced him to rise in debate he was listened to with profound attention, and was an example worthy of imitation.
Without any pretensions to refined elocution, he expressed in strong language the sentiments he strongly felt. He came directly to the point, adhered closely to it in a strain of keen, cutting, pithy and laconic reasoning; was always brief, often casting into the shade, by his remarks of a few moments, the labored and gaudy speeches of his opponents that had cost them weeks to prepare and hours to deliver. He effected this, not by personal recrimination or irony, but by aiming his blows at the strong points, the syllabus of their superstructure, which he often demolished at one bold stroke with the damask blade of sound logic, drawn from the scabbard of plain common sense, and wielded by the vigorous arm of lucid reason. He was opposed to every shade of aristocracy and every thing anti-republican, both in theory and practice. His views were broad and liberal, his purposes were honest and patriotic. He was an attentive reader, and wrote numerous essays, which are forcible, logical, and extremely sarcastic.
In the private walks of life his character was a model of human excellence. All its relations he discharged with the most scrupulous fidelity and integrity. He was proverbial for punctuality in all things, if only to take a walk with a friend or present a promised toy to a child. In conversation he was agreeable and instructive, illuminating and enlivening the social circle with apothegms, aphorisms, and pungent anecdotes, imparting pleasure and intelligence to all around him. In all this he was modest, chaste and discreet, avoiding any appearance of superiority, carefully guarding against personal allusions, even to his most bitter enemies. He spoke ill of no individual, and checked slander in others whenever he discovered it. His morals were of the purest order, his philanthropy was of the loftiest kind. As a public servant, a private citizen, a kind husband, a faithful father, a warm friend, an honourable enemy and a noble patriot, the name of George Clymer stands pre-eminent.
He was of the middle size, well formed, fair complexion, with a countenance attractive, intelligent, expressive of a strong mind, pleasing and ingenuous. He closed his long and useful career on the 23d of January, 1813, at the residence of his son at Morrisville, Berks county, in his native state, most deeply mourned by those who knew him best.
- Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Biographical Dictionary
- A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence: And of Washington and Patrick Henry. With an Appendix, Containing the Constitution of the United States and Other Documents
- Women of the Constitution
- USS George Clymer (APA-27)